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MIT joint venture produces Tempest with a twist

The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.

--Caliban, in The Tempest

No one knows exactly what "noises, sounds and sweet airs" William Shakespeare had in mind when he penned these lyrical lines describing the island setting of The Tempest. But for Kermit Dunkelberg, the perfect way to enhance the magic and drama of the play was through the shimmering, intricately patterned music of Indonesia: the sound of gamelan.

In an unusual first-time collaboration between two MIT ensembles that crosses cultures and blends traditions, the Shakespeare Ensemble and Gamelan Galak Tika have teamed up to present The Tempest, opening Thursday, March 14, in MIT's Sala de Puerto Rico.

Actually, Mr. Dunkelberg said, the decision to produce The Tempest was made after he heard Gamelan Galak Tika. "I became interested in doing something with the gamelan the first time I heard them, both because of the richness of the music and their 'ensemble' nature," he said. "I was very impressed with Galak Tika's musicianship and commitment, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that The Tempest was a perfect project in which to unite these two groups." Mr. Dunkelberg is a lecturer in music and theater arts and director of the production.

Gamelan Galak Tika, a community ensemble in residence at MIT, is based on the small orchestra of mostly metallic percussion instruments-gongs, xylophones, and hand drums-that is the primary source of all religious and concert music in Bali, Indonesia. Founded in 1993 by Associate Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn, Galak Tika (which means "intense togetherness") is led by dancer/choreographer I Nyoman Catra and composer/singer Desak Made Suarti Laksmi of Bali, now in their third and final year as artists-in-residence at MIT.

Professor Ziporyn admitted he was "skeptical" when Mr. Dunkelberg first approached him with the idea of a gamelan/Shakespeare collaboration. But soon, Professor Ziporyn discovered connections between the two and found that "the effect was magical.

Gamelan is theater music, and it's designed to be shaped to the contours of any show," Professor Ziporun explained. Moreover, "The Tempest is based on western misconceptions about 'exotic' tropics-the same kinds of things that Balinese music suggests to the western imagination. There are many lines in the play about noises and magical sounds that accord very well with the way we hear gamelan."

To create that sense of magic, Mr. Dunkelberg said the production draws on a rich palate of theatrical devices, all incorporated into Shakespeare's original text: gamelan music, Balinese-style movement, aspects of shadow theater and masked theater, and slide projections whose style is derived in part from Balinese shadow puppetry and the wooden carvings on Galak Tika's instruments.

Mr. Dunkelberg makes it clear, however, that the production is neither a "Balinese" Tempest nor set in Bali. Rather, he said, it makes use of this diversity of non-Western theatrical traditions to highlight several themes of Shakespeare's play, including magic and the senses of belonging and alienation.

Shakespeare's themes, of course, are universal, and for Professor Ziporyn, who has studied, performed and taught Balinese music for more than 15 years, the connections are strong. "The story resonates with the Balinese theatrical sensibility, which is all about the relationship between the supernatural and the natural, and themes of caste, displaced royalty, marriage, war, and so on," he noted.

To prepare themselves for the production, Mr. Dunkelberg and the Shakespeare Ensemble cast members have, over the past seven months, participated in workshops in shadow puppetry and Balinese mask and dance, learned about magical traditions and relevant history and attended concerts by Galak Tika. They've also put in hours of work at the Rinaldi set and costume shop under the guidance of technical instructors Leslie Cocuzzo Held, William Fregosi, Edward Darna and assistant Diane Brainerd, sewing lavish Italian Rennaissance-style court costumes and helping to create the Balinese-inspired carvings on the 20-foot-tall styrofoam frame that highlights the set.

For senior Monica Gomi, a theater arts major at MIT who plays the part of the graceful spirit Ariel, the process of preparing for her role was at times frustrating, but ultimately fulfilling. "At the first workshop, we slowly and painfully made our way through several short dances following our instructor, Catra," she said. "The music, for me, was very difficult to follow-I couldn't tell the beginning from the middle or the end!"

But Ms. Gomi was fascinated by the Balinese-style dancers, "the way they held their bodies, their hands, how they moved their heads, their eyes, the shapes their bodies made." Eventually, she said, after practicing the motions herself "and being corrected many many times," she used her imagination to synthesize the Balinese movement with the movement of her character and with Shakespeare's words. "I also did basic character research into Ariel-her personality, her magical abilities, what it felt like to be trapped in a tree for 12 years, that sort of thing," she said.

Ms. Gomi was particularly impressed with the talent of the gamelan musicians and the ability of both groups to adjust to the needs of the play as they evolved in rehearsal. "We accepted their 'intrusion' into our world, and they accepted our 'intrusion' into theirs," she said. "It's been a great collaborative experience."

The Tempest runs Thursday-Saturday, March 14-16 and March 21-23, at 8pm. Tickets are $7 or $5 for MIT/Wellesley students with ID ($1 off each ticket for groups of 10 or more). For more information, call x3-2903.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 13, 1996.

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