Group to Bring Giant Shadow Puppets to Life

The exhibition “Lights and Shadows,” opening at the Plantation Hotel on Wednesday, will feature around 40 sbek thom, or giant shadow puppets, made by members of the artist association Kok Thlok in Phnom Penh.

Made with leather that was treated with tree-bark resin to highlight its natural color, the puppets are 2 to 3 meters tall, said Kompheak Phoeung, the association’s managing director. Intricately designed, they are works of art in themselves, but come to life in performances.

Puppeteers from the Kok Thlok artist association perform with sbek thom. (Alicia Guthert)
Puppeteers from the Kok Thlok artist association perform with sbek thom. (Alicia Guthert)

“Those puppets have a soul,” Mr. Phoeung said. “When we manipulate them, they express a thought, ideas, feelings.”

Sbek thom theater is one of the country’s oldest performing arts, dating back to Angkor a millennium ago. It was proclaimed a Unesco Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, and four years later it was put on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Unlike small shadow puppets known as sbek touch, which can be used to stage traditional tales and light, comic sketches, the sbek thom are strictly used to present excerpts from the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Indian epic Ramayana. On Wednesday night,  the Kok Thlok artists will stage a 20-to-30-minute segment from that tale.

The Reamker is a serial drama filled with an array of twists and turns featuring heroes and villains, duels and battles, kidnappings and rescues.

“It’s a whole, melodramatic saga,” Mr. Phoeung said.

One of the group’s projects is to stage a condensed version of the story by the end of 2016. Presenting the whole story would take about 30 hours, Mr. Phoeung said. So the short version will be about 4 1/2 hours and feature about 250 shadow puppets, he said.

The Kok Thlok artists have so far made about half of them. Once the puppets are ready, the performance will require 40 puppeteers moving according to a carefully set choreography, Mr. Phoeung said.

The Kok Thlok association was created in the mid-2000s when a group of artists based at the Bassac Theater in Phnom Penh found themselves without a home or work after the partially burned-down national theater was demolished.

Over the years, the group’s projects have included staging yike musical theater in the provinces, creating and presenting modern dramas in Phnom Penh and, in 2011, giving a sbek thom performance at the world’s biggest puppet-theater festival in Charleville-Mezieres in France.

The exhibition at The Plantation opens on Wednesday at 6 p.m. and the theater performance begins at 7:30 p.m.

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