Theatre review: Agnes Christina takes a warm, personal journey in Reading Centhini

Agnes Christina performs in her show Reading Centhini, part of The Substation's Directors' Lab. -- PHOTO: DAVID WIRAWAN
Agnes Christina performs in her show Reading Centhini, part of The Substation's Directors' Lab. -- PHOTO: DAVID WIRAWAN

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 new theatre year with this delightful and unexpected journey. Raw and intimate, tender and heartfelt, Reading Centhini is as much about the deeper meanings 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 performs - is full of a guileless charm that makes you 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 practitioner Oliver Chong's award-winning 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, and 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 willingly complicitous, drawn to her quiet story-telling as she traces her ancestry, examines her past and ponders her future.

It is a tall order, and she packs a great deal into an 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: things appear in the space of that wonderful suspension of disbelief, 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 truly breath-taking 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 our own Singaporean ancestors, who travelled from other countries in search for 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

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

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READING CENTHINI

Where: The Substation Theatre

When: Jan 9 and Jan 10, 8pm

Admission: $15 to $20 from The Substation Box Office (call 6337-7800 or e-mail boxoffice@substation.org)

Info: www.substation.org/directorslab/