A redefinition of theatrical forms only happens once in a generation. David Leong, the chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's Theatre Department, is engineering what he hopes will be one of those paradigm-shifting occurrences with the production of “Shadowplay.”
Opening this weekend, this amalgamation of theater, dance and visual art also incorporates puppetry, animation and magic in ways that promise to push the boundaries of what's commonly considered theater.
“We have had to invent a whole new vocabulary in mounting this production,” says Leong, who's co-directing “Shadowplay” with two principle collaborators, Gary C. Hopper and Leland Faulkner. “Many of the physical and technical elements we're using are ones we have had to create. We're using them as the building blocks of a totally unique experience.”
For analogies, the director uses previous groundbreaking shows such as “Stomp,” Blue Man Group and Cirque de Soleil.
Leong describes the piece while technicians and cast members bustle around him during one long night in an intense three-week period of technical rehearsals. On a huge 12-by-16-foot screen behind him, the shadow of a large square can be seen. The shape is actually a Chinese tangram, a square made up of several interlocking pieces that can be reformed into an infinite number of evocative images.
On cue, vibrant percussive music begins and the square splits apart and comes together, apparently mimicking the actions of an actor on stage. Behind the screen, each of the individual pieces is connected to a pole operated by a different dancer who controls its movements in intensely precise choreography. The process is hypnotizing to watch and remarkable in that there are no damaging collisions amongst the seven-member squad.
This interlude is only one short segment of the mesmerizing 75-minute piece, which follows the process of an artist struggling to complete a big installation before opening night. His work is interrupted by shadows that come to life around him. The tangram represents his artistic block that he must break through to rediscover his muse. His journey is funny, fast-paced and occasionally bizarre.
Creating this adventure onstage is the most technically ambitious project in which Leong has ever been involved. “One of [Theatre VCU's] musicals will typically have 500 technical cues in the entire show,” he says. “There are more than 150 cues in the first eight minutes of this production.”
The multimedia show incorporates input from almost every department in the university's School of the Arts, a nice showcase for the program that includes graduate classes recently ranked first among public art schools by U.S. News and World Report.
With the complexity of the show, the assistance of two other directors has been essential. “With three people, there are more shoulders to carry the load,” says Faulkner, an internationally known “shadowographer” and magician. “The crew has taken to calling us Cerberus, after the three-headed dog that guarded Hell.”
But this arrangement — one that might normally prompt creative differences and clashing egos — has gone remarkably well, he says: “In all of the years we've been working on this, I can only think of three major conflicts.”
That's just three conflicts in more than four years. The initial ideas for “Shadowplay” started percolating for Leong in 2003. Quickly realizing that he would need the assistance of a lighting expert, he began collaborating with Faulkner in 2004. “Light becomes a psychological component of this show,” Faulkner says, “almost a character in itself.”
Leong later brought Hopper, the department's director of undergraduate studies, into the mix, and together they worked through six different workshops before feeling confident that the show was ready for a full-fledged staging.
Leong's work on “Shadowplay” has only been one component of an exceptionally demanding schedule. Beyond his duties as theater department chairman, he has remained a very-much-in-demand fight choreographer for high-profile professional productions. He is on-call to help with Broadway hit “Billy Elliot” as needed, just one of more than 75 New York productions he's worked on in the past 20 years.
But with his dream project nearing fruition, he has narrowed his focus. “I've turned down at least 10 shows in the last year,” Leong says, “and I'll continue to do that as long as we are working on ‘Shadowplay.’”
The director has high hopes for the project beyond its production at the university and is in talks with producers in Washington and New York. “This is the most important show we've done in my tenure here at VCU,” he says. “The stakes are high, the pressure is on us. It can't be just any show.” S
“Shadowplay” runs Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. through Nov. 23. Tickets are $20, with student discounts. Call 828-6026 for details.