A masked-dance theater, wayang topeng features a troupe of grand
kings, ministers, and clowns depicting semihistorical, semilegendary stories.
Excerpts of this wayang form can be seen at most tourist performances.
Each regency of Bali features a different style of costuming, dancing,
and topeng, which also means "mask."
As part of a large number of religious activities-processions, offerings, and prayers-topeng theater is most often staged during elaborate temple anniversary celebrations called odalan. Although the melodic accompaniment of the gamelan is essential, in topeng the emphasis is on the unfolding of the plot.
Though it's now rare on Java, wayang topeng stems from the ancient Javanese practice of masked dancers performing at primitive death rites. Its introduction on Bali dates from the 16th century. Today's masked plays are usually derived from the historical romances, chivalrous military adventures, court intrigues, and passionate love stories of local Balinese kings and heroes. Topeng has even derived elements from the ancient pre-Hindu gambuh dance. The lines that separate fact, legend, and magic are fuzzy: mythic struggles and religious epics unravel side by side with common tales and topical problems.
You see the whole gamut-stoic, cowardly, and simple-minded characters alongside effeminate, sweet, and cruel ones. There are even parts for bulbous or long-nosed tourists, whom everybody guffaws at, and in historical dramas the conquering Dutch colonialists are portrayed as bumbling fools. During the Japanese occupation, the clowns acting in the periphery of the epic passed on covert Resistance information to the audience.
Female roles are always played by men. Although usually a mix, a topeng play almost always starts out with a petulant prime minister (patih) who can either be a refined or gruff character. Another popular character is the prime minister who has retired but is called back into active service by his king. These high-born characters do not condescend to speak their parts. Other stories recount the exploits of a humble frog who turns into a noble prince when he is very old.
The masks of the demons and the animals both share the same characteristics-flaring nostrils, bulging eyes, extended, elaborate fangs-reflective of all the base, animalistic traits which all of us have at least in part. On the other side are the heroes who are actually incarnations of gods and goddesses. With their beautiful, refined countenances, they represent spiritual perfection.
Invariably, there is always the dottering orang tua, a pale-faced old man. Back bent and moustache drooping, the orang tua continually nods off to sleep, examines his white hair for lice, and stumbles weakly, almost falling into the audience from time to time. It's an extremely poignant performance.
Stock characters also include nobility like kings who stride and dance in the refined court style with jeweled kris at their backs. Since the others cannot speak through their finely crafted masks, but only pantomime, the clowns provide a running narration, interpreting royalty's gestures in Low Balinese so that the audience can follow the story.
Clumsy male clowns, Penasar and Kartala, are usually cast in the role of absurd body-servants to dignified masters. Often there are two clowns who take on opposing roles, copying their master, making jokes to the side, encouraging him in a servile manner. One, Penasar, is pompous and struts around the stage lording it over his half-witted younger brother, Kartala, who gets back at Penasar by sarcastically imitating his self-importance. The audience rolls as the two exchange barbed witticisms and bawdy jokes.
One particularly adored clown routinely rushes into the audience at the end of a performance and abducts one of the children to the other side of the curtain, where he's given cakes and sweetmeats to share with his friends. The comic character, Jero Dalam Pegek (literally, "end of the ceremony"), is an amalgam of madman, god, king-an embodiment of the sacred and the potentially subversive. His presence is associated with a myth that reminds the audience not to be deceived by appearances.
The clowns, equally at home in both the absurd and the sublime episodes, are known by the type of mask they wear. Whereas the masks of gods and kings are full and cover the entire face, the clowns wear only partial masks with their mouths and chins exposed, enabling them to sing and speak in three languages. Or they may wear no mask at all but just a painted face.
The Actors and Their Masks
In most topeng plays, three or four actors, normally men, take on the roles of all the characters, each with a sharply defined personality. Refined, noble characters wear full masks; clowns and servants wear half-masks allowing them to speak, narrate or expound morality.
A full set of 30-40 topeng masks might belong to a solitary star who could perform four or five successive dances with different masks in the topeng pajegan. Giving life to a grotesque, immobile face of wood requires great subtlety and skill. It is truly an inspiring spectacle to watch these actors make their masks cry, breathe, sweat, bellow, moan, bleat.
A powerful bond-taksu-exists between a sensitive actor and his masks. When the actor dons his mask, he is linked to the spiritual realm, blessed by the gods. His task is to transform himself, to change his voice to his character's, to infuse his performance with its spirit. Sometimes you hear the comment "It was a technically superb performance, but there was no taksu."
Just before each play the performer pauses for a moment unseen and attempts to enter into the archetypal character represented by each mask During this private moment he sprinkles holy water over himself and recites sacred mantras. This is the actor's last conscious act, as the moment he comes on stage he is oblivious to all but the personality and energy of his character.
On stage, the shiny beautiful masks with big mysterious eyes seem as if suspended in air. Some kingly masks radiate such authority and power that villagers have been known to fall into a trance when seeing them for the first time, and it's believed that certain masks can even induce trances from which actors never recover. Rare and prized masks are paid awesome reverence, and offerings of incense and flowers are regularly dedicated to them.
You will never be able to try on one of these sacred topeng, as it would offend its spirit to be taken up by a stranger. When not in use, masks are covered neatly with a white cloth, stored in a specially made basket, and kept high up in the temple where they must "sleep together" and not be separated. After a famous actor dies, his masks are never moved from the spot where they were at his death. The oldest surviving set of masks are kept in a temple in the village of Blahbatu.