Larry Reed’s Shadow Light Productions at St. Cyprian’s October 20

21 Oct

Change in my neighborhood frequently penetrates my focus several months to a year after it  has happened.  In this instance, three established organizations came together over an condensation of a culture far West across the Pacific. SF Live Arts and St. Cyprian’s Church presented Shadow Light Productions with Larry Reed, shadow puppet master, and I Made Subandi, artist in residence at Gamelan Sekar Jaya with a small number of instrumentalists, October 20.

The sponsorship of St. Cyprian’s brought me inside a church I passed countless times during my working career, but knew virtually nothing about.

The venue, St. Cyprian’s Church, Turk and Lyon Streets, is home to African-Americans espousing the Episcopal faith and more recently Koreans.  The website’s history connects its beginning with West Indians moving to San Francisco following the completion of the Panama Canal;  an official parish formed  in 1922, receiving the name St. Cyprian’s in 1923.  After a lengthy “apprenticeship”, it became a stand alone organization in 1934, In 1935, its first edifice opened its doors at Scott and Lyon. Receiving parish status in 1953, St. Cyprian’s built the current sanctuary at Turk and Lyon in 1960.

St. Cyprian was a North African aristocrat who converted to Christianity, known for his moderation and generosity, became Bishop of Carthage, wrote still extant  opinions in Latin,  and was beheaded in the third century  C.E. on order of Emperor Valerian.

Like many Episcopal actions, St. Cyprian’s is no slouch in social action, evidenced by instituting needle exchange in 1990.  Currently it has partnered with the University of San Francisco in a weekly community garden, a community kitchen, and displays visual art outside its 250 seat auditorium. Arriving at its door, the aura of comfort and solidity wafted over me.

The same can be said to SF Live Arts which left its original home at Noe Ministry when that institution started remodeling, relocating its vigorous program at St. Cyprian’s.  The artistic organization’s history is impressive, hosting the first ever Bobby McFerrin concerts.  I remember in particular a Katherine Hagedorn lecture/concert on drumming from the African diaspora, not a musical experience easily available around 2001.  SF Live Arts has repeatedly presented Gamelan Sekar Jaya.

Then there is Larry Reed and Shadow Light Productions with its spectacular production credits for cross-cultural productions like In Xanadu and Good for Nothing Lover, exploring historical and literary Chinese themes.  In the late ‘Nineties Reed told me that virtually half the non-Western focused artists practicing in the Bay Area owed their initial exposure to the American
Society for Eastern Arts, founded by the late Samuel H. and Luise E. Scripps.

Sitting in a church pew with Carolyn Carvajal, who has sat through shadow puppet performances during her several visits to Bali, we were treated to a condensed parade of traditional Balinese puppet characters and ritual beginning of a puppet play.  The leather-made images were retrieved from their storage box, ritually blessed and displayed on the screen before the narrative begins. accompanied by lots of percussion. The screen is lit by a solitary
light bulb, once upon a time obviously an oil lamp .  The heroic characters were brought in from the audience left, the villains from the right, quite opposite to the puppet master, sitting yoga fashion behind, an assistant handing him the pole-attached images to his right hand. On either side of the screen rising from its own platform on the church altar were cypress-shaped leather images with elaborate frond like patterns, eclipsed only by a similar, more airily-carved instrument announcing changes in scene, characters, situations.

Heroic characters like Arjuna are slender, their headdresses elaborate, their noses aquiline and snooty.  The comic figures which provide the explanation are squat, their profiles a variation on W.C. Fields’ profile.  The malevolent ones usually a quite large and fashioned, barnacle-like, with detail.

With the audience perhaps a quarter of which were children, Reed interspersed the high-pitched, slightly nasal Balinese passages with English explanations, so that the audience understanding kept pace with the action.  He inserted comments like “trickle down riches” and “the one percent” where appropriate, giving the audience opportunity to chuckle at the apt analogy in the action. At the beginning, he invited the audience to move behind the screen and observe the progress of the play from behind.  Carolyn said this was typical in Bali, with the audience eating and chatting.  Exposed to Kabuki and Cantonese Opera, such casual regard apparently is typical Asian theater behavior.

Of course Arjuna withstood the temptation of the angels, fought Indra in disguise and dispatched the villain, name never clear to me, in the area where vulnerable, thanks to the wiles of  Chitragadaa, attached to Arjuna to help  eliminate the villain.

The thread Reed presented may differ from the traditional Hindu, but the Mahabharata, adapted to Indo-Malay taste after its introduction by Hindu traders, and the comic characters like Arjuna’s followers are part of the morphing into Indonesian conventions.

Following the hour-long program, Carolyn turned to me, and said, “This is the funniest Balinese puppet  theater I’ve ever sat through,” a rave clearly the result of Larry Reed’s theatrical acumen.

It’s obvious that SF Live Arts and St. Cyprian’s have a good thing going.

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