Raw, tender reading

Agnes Christina draws the audience in with her quiet storytelling. -- PHOTO: DAVID WIRAWAN
Agnes Christina draws the audience in with her quiet storytelling. -- PHOTO: DAVID WIRAWAN

Agnes Christina melds her own history with a Javanese text to form a richly layered monologue

Review: Theatre

READING CENTHINI: SULUK TAMBANGRARAS (PATH OF THE BOAT OF SOUL)

Agnes Christina (Directors' Lab)

The Substation Theatre/Thursday

Agnes Christina steps from the dark wings of the Substation Theatre as if she were slipping out from in between the pages of a graphic novel.

She stands against a sprawling black- and-white painted backdrop of an idyllic Indonesian landscape, amid suspended plastic sheets covered with gorgeous colour portraits of characters from Serat Centhini, a 12-volume 19th-century Javanese epic. And then she bursts into a lively dangdut song.

How apt, to begin the theatre year with this delightful and unexpected journey. Raw and intimate, tender and heartfelt, Reading Centhini is as much about the deeper meaning of this Javanese text as it is about Agnes' own journey to understand it - a text which, as she describes it, "covers everything about life in Java island, (including its) history, politics, culture, spirituality, economy and social life". Her final presentation for The Substation's Directors' Lab (which she wrote, directed and performed) is full of a guileless charm that makes the audience want to root for her from start to finish.

The 27-year-old is a remarkably generous performer, channelling the spirit of Malaysian dance pioneer Marion D'cruz in her memoir-performance Gostan Forward and flashes of Singaporean Oliver Chong's acclaimed one-man show Roots. Agnes continues that tradition of the compelling monologue, of weaving fact and fiction into a tapestry so richly layered they cannot be told apart.

Her personal struggles in this lecture- performance mirror those of Serat Centhini's central characters, Amongraga and Cebolang, who are both displaced from their homes but eventually find their way back after many trials and some great suffering. Agnes speaks candidly about her own journey to discover who she is, her identity as a Chinese Indonesian from a Christian family who falls in love with a Muslim "bumiputra", bringing up her country's checkered past along the way. She talks about Singapore, where she has permanent residency and where she discovered theatre, and Indonesia, where her family lives. We are drawn to her quiet storytelling as she traces her ancestry, examines her past and ponders her future.

It is a tall order and she packs a great deal into the hour-long show, which sometimes nearly sinks under the weight of Serat Centhini's multitudes of characters and places as she attempts to tie several strands of stories together and compare their turning points. Some devices begin to feel repetitive as the piece reaches a slightly saggy two-third mark; the dangdut songs that punctuate the narrative eventually become predictable resting points, sometimes disrupting the flow of performance just as she begins to gain momentum, as do the "live" text messages she "receives" now and then.

But Agnes never flinches, even if her voice falters in a song or when she recalls a difficult moment in her life. She carries her personal history solidly on her back, purposeful and hopeful.

Reading Centhini is peppered with some marvellous lo-fi effects which are too fun to give away: props appear almost as if they had been summoned to life in that very moment. This is due in no small part to prominent Indonesian visual artist Popok Tri Wahyudi's breathtaking set design, and his larger- than-life portraits that surround and dwarf Agnes as she tells their stories, ripe with colour and life.

It is striking to see how the story of her family is so markedly similar to Singaporean ancestors, who travelled from other countries in search of a new life in South-east Asia. It is through productions like these that we are reminded: We, like her, are all still searching, still growing.

corriet@sph.com.sg