Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pilobolus' Shadowland: a Creative Coup

by Susan Kepecs
I was primed to like Pilobolus’ Shadowland, at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall last Thursday night (Feb. 23), if only because it’s a dog story done in dance, and I’m a dancer dog person. But the production exceded my expectations by miles. I’d expected it to be slick and commercial – a bag of stunning technical tricks à la Momix, maybe. But Shadowland turned out to be much more than a steady flow of luxuriant images. Pilobolus has a wide-open concept of theater that lets everything hang out. In a word, as the company’s creative director, Mark Fucik, told me in a pre-show interview (, Pilobolus’ work is accessible. And that’s the truth from head to toe. Shadowland isn’t all done in shadow, but it’s staged so you can see, more or less, how its startlingly eloquent shadows are done. The process involves multiple screens, spots, flashlights, and tons of low-tech props (styrofoam lobsters!) that sit out onstage for the audience to see before and after the 80 minute show. And the story – dreamlike, simpatico, a feast of constant edge-of-your-seat action – leaves room for everyone to read in their own references.
In that story – which bears metaphorical resemblance to the perilous pre-adoption life history of my own beloved rescue pooch – a typical teenage girl (who we first see at home, lit from the front) is transformed (back-lit, behind the main screen) into a little prick-eared terrier. Dog Girl (Heather Jeane Favretto, whose grasp of dog behavior is phenomenal) runs away from home and experiences a string of dreamlike, mostly behind-the-screen, done-in-shadow adventures. She’s chased by crazed cooks wielding meat cleavers; she slays a fearsome dinosaur in a cave; she jumps off a cliff and finds herself deep undersea (a Spongebob Squarepants-like segment that reminds you the story was written by Steven Banks, that show’s lead writer); she falls in love with a centaur.
When Favretto’s behind the screen, she’s more dog than girl – sometimes dog from head to tail, others a girl with a terrier’s head. She’s touchingly, puppyishly curious. She snatches things, devilishly, from a pot-smoking cowboy who picks her up on the highway. Her ears flap happily in the wind as she rides shotgun in his pickup, window rolled down. Sometimes she travels alone; when she’s scared, she licks a paw and whines. When the screen rolls up and you see her without the snout and ears that shadowcasting let her make, she’s just a girl in a nightgown, but the dog’s still there; kidnapped by a front-lit sadistic circus with a whip-cracking dominatrix she jumps through hoops hesitantly, like a scared puppy, fists closed like paws.
Dog Girl’s dream is built on its shadow chase scenes, in which the dancers achieve spatial magic through sleights of movement and perspective created by manipulating light, props, and positioning behind the screen. The viewer perceives the field of action as being much larger than the proscenium arch stage on which it takes place.
Pilobolus’ dancers are people-shaped, not ballerina-shaped, which, like everything else about this production, renders it broadly accessible. But these are marvelously fluid and daring movers. Often, as if to underscore the idea that she’s floating in a transitional state of consciousness, other dancers carry Favretto, supine, through space, raising and lowering her as she arches and contracts like a wave-tossed jellyfish. In one front-of-screen passage she’s caught, repeatedly, mid-leap, by one of the men. Intercepting her trajectory creates a little rebound effect at the top of her arc that’s accentuated by her pedaling legs. It’s like she’s flying through space in slow motion.
The production’s lush, versatile score, by songwriter / film composer David Poe, changes moods to fit Shadowland’s shifting scenes, and sometimes has words that subtly push the plot. The end of the story finds Favretto safe at home, neither dog nor shadow. Delighted, she spins, arms out, head tossed back, to a haunting, minor-key melody with the allusive lyrics “if it gives you joy, it gives you joy, and you don’t have to explain it,” which I still can’t get out of my head.
That might have been enough, but then there was the coda. Pilobolus famously tailors Shadowland’s finale for every one of the hundreds of cities around the globe that the show’s played in since its 2009 debut. So I expected a nod – a shadow Capitol, maybe. But when the screen rolled down again Dog Girl was in Manhattan, a small silhouette among skyscrapers. She wolfed a street cart hot dog; she saw the Statue of Liberty, emblazoned with the words “refugees welcome” (the audience cheered). She rode the subway, danced in a nightclub. She jumped in another truck, with another guy, and cruised the Interstate (to lyrics that went “everywhere we go, we call it home”), finally landing in Wisconsin. And there was the shadow Capitol, beautifully done, Lady Rennebohm perched prominently on top. But that’s not all. Union Terrace chairs, Bucky Badger, and Bascom Hall’s east façade (yes, with Abe Lincoln in front) cast their shadows. So did a protest march; the cast carried signs that read “Protect Trans Students,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Thanks.” The marchers danced, and jumped for joy – and there was cheese. The audience roared.
There’s something enormously powerful, especially now, about seeing what you care about rendered in art. Shadowland caught it all and tossed it back at us, larger than life – humanity, dogdom, progressive values, our city. I’m not a crier, so I was surprised to find myself in tears as the house lights went up.

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