Teater Koma’s Sampek Engtay: The Tragic Comedy of Cultures

I feel like reviewing Teater Koma’s Sampek Engtay is like reviewing Phantom of the Opera. It has so much media magnitude and general fame, people don’t feel like they need to read reviews anymore, they’ll watch it out of some kind of a pop cultural obligation, and/or curiosity. 

But I’ll review it anyway, because this 2015 production took my Teater Koma virginity (ehehe he ehe hhe). I’ve been longing to see this famed Indonesian theatre company and I missed some of their shows I COULD watch, notably 2o14’s Demonstran and 2015’s Opera Ular Putih. I heard news about this Sampek Engtay revival playing in a newly opened venue just 10 minutes from my house, and I secured my tickets. (Oh! And it comes with a wonderful deal. Because I’m watching this with 3 of my other friends I can get half the original price, because they’re having this buy 2 get 4 promo. Rp. 180.000 for a middle front row ticket!)

The story is adapted from a Chinese tragedy into a Chinese-Indonesian story set in West Java and Batavia. It tells about Engtay, a strong-willed young woman who wins her parents’ hearts, letting her disguise as a man and go to school in Batavia. During her journey, she met another scholar, the simpleminded Sampek, and felt a deep emotional connection with him, and they took a vow to be each others’ brothers. Things get complicated when Engtay falls for Sampek, and Sampek’s stupidity, the misogynist culture, and Engtay’s parents’ plans for a conflicting marriage arrangement prevents them from being together.

One of the first things I noticed (and liked) in this production is Teater Koma’s own signature quirk: breaking the fourth wall. Teater Koma’s been notorious for this kind of thing. Characters who talk to the audience, characters who know that they’re in a play, etc etc. Another thing about breaking barriers; even though this is a revival of an ’80s production set “50 years after Daendels” (which, I counted, is around the 1860s), the production incorporated lots of modern-day references. One of them is Sampek, who strolls around the city of Batavia, saying “Eh, ada MRT” (“Hey, there’s an MRT.”) Another one of them is the narrator mentioning Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and even Dubsmash at one point. Of course those are new ideas (even trending ones!) and this incorporation makes the production a little less dry, like Aladdin’s Genie.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this production is much like a Terry Gilliam film. First reason: it’s absurd. As most stage productions do, Teater Koma effectively uses humor, and the humor displayed here are not your conventional Indonesian humor. They rely less on deprecating and slapstick jokes and more on “laughing at the absurdity of the moment.” The theatrical language they’re using is a bit exaggerated from film acting (one of the reasons probably being the live set-up of the theatre and the small stage-actor size ratio encourages the actors to showcase a wider range of emotions) and they are using their exaggeration as a medium for humor. The rhythm, the choreography, the music, they are all mediums of laughter. For every accent in a character’s speech, body movements are involved to create an absurdly funny reaction. Then comes the musical effect. Nothing is wasted. (Indonesian TV comedy writers WHY DON’T YOU EVER LEARN.)

Second: I like this production because of the satire. It satirizes melodrama. A supposedly sad scene that’s supposed to evoke tons of emotion (like those scenes in soap operas) are often highly exaggerated or are slipped by witty banter to lighten the mood, to point out the contagious, deeply-rooted trend of melodrama in Indonesia, and to prove tons of film and TV producers in Indonesia that melodrama is not always an effective way to draw an audience.

Thirdly: It’s absurd and satirist. Two elements of fiction that might seem odd for each other but fits together well, like peanut butter and jelly. It takes guts and creativity to make a somber scene seem silly. Hell, it takes guts to make a Chinese tragedy seem darkly comic! Despite the bright decor and the lively performances, it is still a dark play. And, the ending, man. After being fed by realistic situations, comes a mystical underlying theme in the conclusion. It all seems so Twin Peaks-ey – it’s like that unnoticeable tweak in reality has burst out of its comfort zone.

Although, there are some things that could be an input for future productions:

  • Some scenes seem longer than needed, while some other scenes are cut short. I would like to see more of Sampek and Engtay’s developing chemistry during their school days.
  • Since this deals a lot with gender and sexuality, it’s better for the play to explore more about gender identities and the sexuality spectrum.
  • The venue doesn’t really support stage productions, it had bad acoustics 😦 it’s probably better to see a Teater Koma play in a venue equipped for theatre productions.

So, that’s it. If you like dark comedy and fresh new takes on old tales, you should see Sampek Engtay. If you don’t like those, please see it to broaden your general pop culture knowledge. Heh hehe.

Me personally? I LIKE IT. A WHOLE LOT. Walking out of the theatre, I said to my friend, “this production is SO me.” So, yeah, if you feel like we have a mutual love for these genres, go see it.

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