Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

This EKI Dance Company x Artpreneur show is filled with spectacle and modern, catchy tunes.

By: Mar. 22, 2023
Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative
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KEN DEDES is an original musical by EKI DANCE COMPANY and CIPUTRA ARTPRENEUR, loosely based on a well-known legend surrounding the founding of the medieval kingdom Singosari. The script is written by industry veteran Titien Wattimena alongside EKI's script writing team and brought to life by director and choreographer Rusdy Rukmarata. An earlier version of KEN DEDES was performed at last year's Festival Musikal Indonesia.

The show opens with an animation telling the backstory of how Ken Dedes (Ara Ajisiwi), an unassuming girl from a small village, was forcibly wed to King Tunggul Ametung (Uli Herdi). The latter also discovered Ken Arok (Taufan Purbo), a notoriously tenacious bandit, and enlisted him into his army.

Years passed. Ken Arok is now a general in the army. He's having an affair with Ken Dedes, now queen, despite already being married to the graceful Ken Umang (Nala Amrytha). When Kebo Ijo (Nino Prabowo), a friend and confidant of Umang, reveals their romantic liaison, she eventually opts to report it to King Tunggul Ametung.

Though doubtful at first, Tunggul Ametung confronts Ken Dedes, who vehemently denies it. The argument turns into a scuffle that ends fatally as Tunggul accidentally wounds himself with his keris dagger. Ken Arok suggests Ken Dedes to frame Kebo Ijo. Upon his execution, Kebo Ijo curses Ken Arok's bloodline to always be rife with bloodshed and betrayal.

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

In the second act, both Ken Umang and Ken Dedes now have a son. Ken Umang's child is the battle-hardened Tohjaya (Gerardo Tanor), while Ken Dedes's progeny is the cunning Anusapati (Fatih Unru). Ken Arok, now reigning as King of Singosari, appoints Tohjaya as his heir, as he believes Anusapati is not his child; rather, he's the son of Dedes with Tunggul Ametung.

Suho (Moh. Iqbal Sulaiman), one of the royal servants, tells Ken Umang that Ken Dedes is hatching a plan to make Anusapati the crown prince, and that Umang should act now to guarantee Tohjaya's place as the heir to the kingdom. Blinded by fear and jealousy, Umang incites Tohjaya to kill Ken Arok.

Right after Tohjaya murders Ken Arok, Anusapati finds the two of them. Anusapati reassures Tohjaya that he will take care of it, including replacing Tohjaya's blood-stained keris with another keris.

But it's a part of his plan to usurp the throne. After a period of investigation, Anusapati declares in front of the court that he was the one who killed Ken Arok; as proof, he shows them that the keris found besides Ken Arok's body was his all along. He asserts that it's part of his revenge after Ken Arok killed Tunggul Ametung, Tohjaya's father. And, finally, he claims the throne.

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

Just as the people cheer for Anusapati's ascension, Tohjaya pierces him with a keris, killing him. The cycle of revenge continues and Ken Dedes mourns the death of his son.,

KEN DEDES is a colossal musical that plays to EKI DANCE COMPANY's many strengths. Just as their name suggests, EKI started as a dance group, and their expertise in crafting dazzling dance sequences really shined in KEN DEDES. Each musical number is a delight, a feast for the eyes, and a showcase of the EKI team's deep understanding of how to make a spectacle.

Rusdy Rukmarata's choreography is known for big, eye-catching movements and he brings them to the fullest here. The dancers execute them well, making for moments after moments of kinetic poetry: from vigorous cartwheels, human pyramids, graceful ballet; making use of fabrics, stage weapons, puppets, and fans. These musical numbers, by themselves, are already worth the price of admission.

But one moment in particular stood out: the final number, as Ken Dedes dances in rage and agony at the cycle of revenge that takes the life of her son. She takes off her robes to reveal a black, swimsuit-like attire. She steps into a pool of water on the stage and lets out her emotions explode through motion as she stomps, kicks, and swashes around. More water rains upon her, bathing the scene in red.

It was my first time seeing such an extensive usage of water elements on an Indonesian theatrical stage, and it serves as a great finale that's both mesmerizing and thematically appropriate.

The performers are also highly praise-worthy. Ara Ajisiwi plays the haughty, scheming Ken Dedes with impeccable finesse. The way she moves, speaks, and dances are instantly iconic. She's a force to behold, and her powerful vocals bring the house down, songs after songs.

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

Playing opposite her as Ken Umang is Nala Amrytha, Ara's sister. Nala's take on Umang really brings to mind the idiom "silk hiding steel". On the surface, Umang is meek, graceful, and gentle. But beneath that, she's every bit Ken Dedes's equal, and Nala can portray both sides well. Her sweet vocals complete this portrayal of Ken Umang.

Ken Arok is played by Taufan Purbo, who previously performed on the very same stage as Tom Collins in TEMAN's production of RENT. Contrasting with Collins, this show's version of Ken Arok is a ruthless man who would stop at nothing for his ambition. As expected, Taufan pulled this off masterfully.

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

Meanwhile, Tunggul Ametung is portrayed as a bumbling, drunkard king by Uli Herdi. Uli had great, precise physicality, making him an enjoyable watch. Although his character doesn't have much depth (a point that we'll return to later), Uli gave the role his best, making this caricature at least a very consistent and memorable one.

As Tohjaya, Gerardo Tanor (who co-starred alongside Taufan in RENT as Mark Cohen) played against type, showing his flexibility as an actor. Meanwhile, Fatih Unru's Anusapati is intriguing to watch. He always seems puerile, even as he unveils his plot. But the contrast between him and Tohjaya is greatly appreciated.

There's also a couple of characters who don't play into the plot but serve as narrative framing: the gossiping townspeople Bu Laras (Takako Leen) and Larto (Nanang Hape). Their acting is impeccable. Their banters are delightfully dramatic without being overdone, owing to their pitch-perfect line deliveries.

With all this being said, the show is not without its faults. The biggest and most glaring weak point is in its book. And, specifically, characters. Most of the characters are one-note, except for, ironically, Ken Umang (who's not the title character).

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

We never quite get to see why Ken Dedes holds so dearly to the throne. We are told about her past through the opening animation, but her inner psyche is never properly examined in the show. It's a big missed opportunity, as learning about her motivation and struggles might lend the show some more emotional weight, especially during the show's climax. Though her final dance is artistically powerful, it doesn't evoke deeper emotions, as we only get to know her as this strong-willed villain throughout the show.

This also holds true for the other major characters except for Ken Umang; Ken Arok is ambitious and ruthless; Tunggul Ametung is an irresponsible lush; Tohjaya is blood-thirsty and simple-minded; Anusapati is devious; and so on. This is not to say that the fault lied on the actors; they did what they could with the material. But it held down the show from becoming truly an all-time great.

There are also other incongruencies and contrivances in the story. Ken Arok arrives just in time with Kebo Ijo's keris to frame the latter for Tunggul's death; Kebo Ijo mentions that he and Ken Arok are best friends, but we never see this dynamic; two guards say that Anusapati is a caring and genial man, yet we never see it for ourselves; everyone believe Anusapati's assertion that his murder of Ken Arok is a justified act of revenge, without evidence; and so on.

Any of these would probably be negligible on their own, but as the story hinges on political intrigue, there's just one too many weak links. A political drama-thriller works best when it's tightly-spun and, while the script has a very intriguing and quite original take on this ages-old story, it needs a few more rounds of editing to sand off the rough edges.

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

Additionally, the humor is rather hit-or-miss. The character of Tunggul Ametung exemplifies this the best. He's almost always seen drunk, talking nonsense, and swaying back and forth comedically. While the physical mannerism is wonderful, the lines are mostly repetitive and aimless. As a side note, there was also a very weird line about domestic violence by Pak Larto that went nowhere and was more than a bit uncomfortable.

Yet, the show itself is strong enough that the story doesn't really detract from it too much. The musical numbers are very expertly crafted, with a good rhythm to them and exciting climactic moments. The show is never boring. However, some scenes do go on for too fast, with only a few bars of songs before transitioning seamlessly to the next one.

The music also plays a big part in making KEN DEDES as enjoyable romp as it is; KEN DEDES has an eclectic mix of various genres and musical styles, led by Oni Krisnerwinto as the music director. The songs sound modern and familiar, with clear inspiration from traditional Indonesian music.

Another big factor that elevated KEN DEDES as a show was its wonderfully smart production design (led by Iskadar Loedin as the artistic director).

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

The different artistic elements work together to highlight the themes of the show. Triangular shapes and sharp corners are everywhere to be found, from platforms, walls, to the throne featured so heavily on the poster (which bears a heavy resemblance to a certain part of the female anatomy).

Everything is designed and made meticulously. The costumes look slick and regal, yet still allow for the performers to dance unobstructed. Ken Umang's dress in Act 1, in particular, looks stunning with the different layers of fabric that sway elegantly as she leaps and turns. The set pieces, accessories, make up, and lighting are also similarly praise-worthy. KEN DEDES grand visual presentation is not only beautiful to hold but helps with immersing us in its world.

Furthermore, the show made good use of multimedia. In addition to the opening animation, there's a big LED screen separated into panels in the background that serves to build mood and accentuate certain moments in the show. This approach is particularly noteworthy because the show doesn't rely on digital effects, but instead it's used to further deepen the mood and setting alongside physical sets.

Review: KEN DEDES'S Spectacular Showmanship Outshines Its Revenge Narrative

While the script has a huge room of improvement to allow for a deeper emotional observation and understanding of its many characters, KEN DEDES is still one of the finest shows in recent memory.

The interesting twist on the legend, the solid performances, the spectacular and well-paced musical segments, and the stunning production design, all come together masterfully for an unforgettable evening. EKI DANCE COMPANY and CIPUTRA ARTPRENEUR once again proved why their reputation is well-deserved, just like Ken Arok and Ken Dedes themselves.



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