Were Bertolt Brecht alive today, he would likely appreciate Teater Koma’s “Opera Ikan Asin,” for it did not only adapt “The Three-Penny Opera” to performance material, but it also conveys his principles of epic theater.
Performed as a preview show at Ciputra Artpreneur Theater in Lotte Shopping Avenue in Kuningan, South Jakarta, on Wednesday (01/03), “Opera Ikan Asin” under Nano Riantiarno’s writing and direction stays with the original plot dealing with poverty, sex and manipulation of the law.
Speaking at a press conference a week before the show, Nano said he did not primarily derive his technique from the German playwright, but Indonesian traditional dramas.
“Brecht’s alienation effect isn’t important actually. My basics are ketoprak [Javanese traditional drama], ludruk [Javanese all-male drama], and masres [traditional drama from Cirebon, West Java]. That’s all,” Nano told reporters in Jakarta on Feb. 23.
His influences and Brecht’s happened to intersect.
“In 1983, when I first staged the play, there was a German man who came and said ‘Nano, if Brecht were alive right now, he would think exactly like you,'” he said.
Set in 20th century Batavia, “Opera Ikan Asin” centers on bandit king Mekhit, or Mat Piso (Rangga Riantiarno), who marries Poli Picum (Sekar Dewantari) without the blessing of her parents. Poli is the only daughter of Natasasmita Picum (Budi Ros), lord of all beggars in the city. With Natasasmita’s connections and devious plans by his wife, Amalia (Netta Kusumah Dewi), Mekhit is finally arrested.
Having the assistant police commissioner, Kartamarma (Joind Bayuwinanda), as a close friend helps Mekhit gain his freedom. However, Mekhit’s womanizing habit lets him down and he is recaptured. On the day of his public execution, a decree from the governor general declares Mekhit free. He is even awarded an honorable position in the Volksraad (People’s Assembly of the Dutch Indies).
A villain’s sudden and inexplicable triumph becomes a successful conclusion for all, filled with dancing and singing, yet this victory stimulates no catharsis among the audience, not even close to it.
“Opera Ikan Asin” is the epitome of Brecht’s epic theater, alienating the audience from the excess of emotions and immersion into the fictional world. The characters are objects to be analyzed, not subjects to relate to or be empathized.
Empathizing with any of the characters proved to be difficult though it is clear that they are all victims of poverty. Everybody is a villain in their own unique ways. There is no room for any humanist justification of their actions.
Mekhit’s dandy appearance and gloved hands cannot hide the truth of his nature as a felon and womanizer. Natasasmita uses his band of beggars to scare the police with chaos, and his protectiveness towards Poli is based on ego instead of parental love. Meanwhile, the police just follow the money.
Then again, as much as Brecht valued intellect when it comes to enjoying his work, he placed emphasis on “spass,” which can be literally translated as “fun.” Serious matters are often turned into jokes and comical actions, which not only aim to estrange the audience, but also arouse critical thinking.
Spectators may laugh when Natasasmita describes the pity-inducing fashion styles of beggars, yet it makes them stop and think about the real beggars around the corner.
Other techniques derived from Brecht are Natasasmita’s “breaking the fourth wall” and turning the house lights on, both to make the audience realize what is real and what is not.
Nano wrote in the show’s booklet that though the plots are identical, he turned the treatment of issues in Brecht’s original play into something more believable for Indonesians.
“I tried to get the issues closer, embrace them to seem more intimate, so that the audience doesn’t go deep into the dark when delving into the core of the story. I also moved the setting to Batavia circa 1925,” he wrote.
Poverty, dysfunction of the law and bandits becoming heroes may be a true reflection of Indonesia now. But those issues are as common as they were in 1983 and 1999, when the play was first staged.
Nano still used the same script for the present rendition, yet he could have trodden on other, more recent issues.
The role of women, for instance, could have been improved to show more empowerment. In “Opera Ikan Asin,” the female figures at first seem to be in control of the men, but they do not hesitate to succumb to men’s power when forced by circumstances.
Amalia, who plays a huge role in Mekhit’s downfall, absurdly celebrates his freedom in the end. The love-struck Poli regains her power as a bank president director and even refuses to be called Mrs. Mekhit, yet her clinginess to Mekhit returns near the end of the story. Yeyen the prostitute and glass-washer wants to avenge Mekhit by helping to get him arrested, yet she is overwhelmed by remorse afterwards, even if Mekhit does not give her much attention.
Amalia also sings how women can manipulate men with sex, which is true in the case of Mekhit, where sex leads him just an inch closer to his defeat. However, the ending turns things around, raising the question of how far women can surge to power before it all crumbles down just because of a man.
Should “Opera Ikan Asin” have another edition in the future, it would be interesting to see how Teater Koma takes women’s increasing levels of empowerment into account.
“Opera Ikan Asin” runs until Sunday. Further information on ticketing and the schedule can be found on its official website.