YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia -- On the second Saturday evening of the month, hundreds of people gather here, as they have for centuries across Java, to watch an all-night shadow-puppet show.
The puppeteer -- or "dalang" -- takes his seat at 9 o'clock on a stage inside the walls of the Sultan's Palace and chooses the opening characters from among some 800 intricately chiseled, brightly painted leather puppets.
By lamplight, he spins the figures in his hands and casts shadows across a canvas screen while speaking the various parts in Javanese. Over the next nine hours, without interruption, he weaves an epic tale of noble kings and queens, vengeful demons and talking monkeys.
The shadow play, known as "wayang kulit," combines the drama of Greek mythology and the physical comedy of Warner Brothers cartoons with song, dance and Indonesia's ethereal "gamelan" music, which an orchestra taps out on gongs, drums and xylophones.
"I don't think it has any kind of parallel in the West," says Julia Redei, a German writer who is traveling through Indonesia and attended the puppet show here the other day.
The audience, mostly male between the ages of 20 and 40, makes itself at home in the humid auditorium.
Some doze on mats next to the stage, waiting for the crowd-pleasing clown scene -- a Shakespearean device for comic relief that always comes after midnight.
Others lounge in the back on metal chairs, drinking bottled water, smoking sweet-smelling clove cigarettes, munching peanuts and tossing the shells on the floor.
The puppet show provides many Indonesians a chance to see characters they grew up with acting out familiar plots that pit good against evil and emphasize Javanese cultural values such as refinement, subtlety and self-discipline.
"It can be just entertainment, and sometimes we get a message we can apply to our lives," says Mujiono, a 45-year-old rice farmer who walks around outside during the performance to keep from falling asleep.
The wayang is an integral part of the culture of Java -- the most populous and politically powerful of Indonesia's more than 17,000 islands.
Sukarno, the nation's founding father, occasionally tried his hand as a dalang. Suharto, the current president and longest-serving leader in Asia, is sometimes referred to as the master puppeteer of Indonesian politics because of his ability to pit potential rivals against one another and maintain power.
And as Indonesia -- the world's fourth-most-populous country -- faces its worst crisis in decades, Suharto has found a political use for wayang kulit.
Government corruption and a weak banking system have sparked an economic meltdown that has sent the value of the nation's currency, the rupiah, plummeting and the prices of commodities soaring.
Indonesians have responded with food riots and mass demonstrations on university campuses.
Under tremendous pressure to solve the problem, Suharto called for dalangs across the country to stage a shadow play last month to help inspire the nation's leaders to overcome the crisis.
The dalangs performed an episode from the Ramayana epic in which King Rama, his wife and brother are banished to a forest -- a trying experience that draws them closer together. The episode is said to have inspired Suharto in the mid-1960s when he took control of the country after an abortive coup and began to form a new system of government.
"He's doing this to lift up people's spirits and, I assume, for some more mystical purposes," says William Liddle, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.
The wayang is not inherently political, and Indonesia's strict authoritarian system would not permit it if it were. On occasion, though, dalangs offer gentle, oblique criticism of the nation's leaders in accordance with Javanese custom.
One of Indonesia's leading dalangs staged a scene a few years (( ago that says a lot about the underlying causes of the current crisis. In the play, a demon king tests the battle-readiness of his soldiers by clubbing them on the head one by one.
After he has struck two soldiers, a third steps up for his beating and hands the king an envelope filled with money. The king takes the cash, spares him the clubbing and sends the soldier off to battle.
"The president wasn't there on that occasion," recalls Tim Byard-Jones, who has studied shadow puppetry for the past decade and performs a wayang version of Shakespeare's "Henry V."
"But it got a huge round of applause."
The dalang is a multi-talented performer: singer, actor and improvisational comedian. Although the shows follow similar plots, the puppeteer invents much of the dialogue, altering the tone and even vocabulary of each character to reflect its personality and station in life.
Symbolism is everywhere. The lamp can be seen as a source of energy and the screen as the backdrop of life. The dalang holds good puppets in his right hand and bad ones in his left, although most share a mixture of traits.
The color of the puppets reveals their inner character, so it's easy to figure out whom to root for in fight scenes even if you don't speak Javanese.
In one battle staged the other night, a demon guard with a red face -- signifying anger -- grappled with Rama's monkey ambassador, whose gold skin represents refinement.
Under the dalang's masterful guidance, the monkey floored the guard with a left uppercut. The dalang provided the sound effects by striking an iron plate with a small hammer he holds between his toes. A little boy in the second row giggled with delight.
The wayang is both steeped in tradition and a constantly evolving, popular performing art. Some dalangs have traded the old-fashioned trappings of battle scenes -- swords and horses -- for motorcycle and tank puppets. Fifty years ago, all dalangs used oil lamps. Now most work with electric lights; a few even use strobes for fight scenes.
In a change that recalls MTV's influence on music, the most popular dalangs now are the best puppeteers, because wayang is broadcast on national television. When wayang was available only on radio in the 1960s and 1970s, the top dalangs were the ones with the best voices.
Despite the wayang's evolution, it is losing popular appeal. A puppet show based on an ancient language that many people don't understand cannot compete in the age of "Titanic," which has been playing to packed houses here for the past couple of weeks.
Sapto Nugroho, 30, who works at a local university, says attendance at the Sultan's Palace has declined sharply since he first started coming to see puppet shows there as a teen-ager. Back then, you couldn't find a seat on Saturday nights.
"When I first came here, the place was so crowded, people were in the windows," Sapto recalls. "Maybe wayang, especially for younger people, isn't interesting anymore."
Pub Date: 3/29/98