Between Light and Darkness you Find a Shadow

30 03 2022

Fearsome. Photo: Boštjan Lah

Author: Maša Radi Buh

The most obvious contrast to darkness is light, which makes the choice of the animation technique of light projection and shadow theatre, based on the play of these contrasts, all the more insightful in a performance about the fear of darkness. Facing the various anxieties that children face as they grow up and encountering diversity are certainly some of the most frequent stories on puppet and youth stages. This theme is also tackled in the performance Fearsome (Strahovito) by Ana Duša and Tin Grabnar, who also directed the work. The narrative, which is appropriate for the 5+ age group, does not deviate from the classical structure of the narrative arc, which takes the child on a journey from being scared to triumphing over his own fears. The strategy of the literalization of a real situation transforms the feeling of fear into an (instructive) parabola, which brings children closer to coping with the situation, but on the other hand allows them to establish a distance from the emotion, which in the end is just that – an emotion that can be deconstructed and thus more easily overcome. Time is captured in a single moment of the day, but because the performance is highly consistent in its staging of the boy's movement through the house, it insists on travelling through spaces and returning, and its temporality is not condensed, but almost precise and entirely real; thus it is an aspect of the performance that is not fabulated. However, the seemingly simple textual template, precisely in its loose and not overly detailed narrative, leaves gaps that can then be filled by the puppet direction, without the stage event becoming overloaded and overburdened with various layers of distraction.

By choosing to project the illustrated images onto three parallel square canvases, Grabnar focuses attention on only the one-dimensional action, where the aforementioned illustrations form images of the action space, while the shadow puppets are used to portray the protagonist Bine. In an otherwise completely dark space, the hanging projection screens, which are pushed almost up against the audience, create a perspective of the gaze that, due to its flatness and the high resolution of the projection, already borders on the form of a cartoon, both experientially and associatively. It is a fascinating visual image that moves on the border of the theatrical, but at the same time remains bound to it through the mechanisms that hide in the background. The constant interplay between the seen and the unseen, or more importantly, the process and its effect, is the main feature of the director's approach and poetics in Fearsome, as each element of stage magic is carefully balanced with an element that reminds us that the performance takes place in the here and now.

The staged setting is seen through a double perspective, where the spooky and dark basement and the boy Bine (animated and dubbed by Miha Bezeljak) are "life-sized" and transported into the reduced dimensions of the cartoon world. At the beginning and at the end, the central character is joined on stage by two other performers (Barbara Jamšek and Uroš Kaurin), who later take over the bulk of the performance actions, thus forming a link between the real and the later miniaturized world, further emphasizing that the staging is the result of complex human action. The contrast between the opening reality and the aesthetic image of the projected illustration, combined with the shadow puppet, builds a story within a story, a world within a world, which is by no means fairy-tale or fictional, but which becomes magical thanks to the staging technique that is reminiscent of stop-motion animation. The bright and childlike aesthetics of the illustrations, in soft pastel shades, balances the darkness and gloominess of the show, creating a visual world that is not only beautiful but also non-threatening, making it a safe environment for young children to explore a scary story. The ambience, which further balances the features of the terrifying, is created through the combination of music and sound synchronisation of Bine, which introduces the optimism, lightness and animation of a cartoonish soundtrack, encouraging exploration, adventure and courage as the antipode to feelings of fear. Another anchor that keeps the production real and at the same time reminds us of the theatricality of the situation is the revealed process of setting up the screens, which are instantly removed with just a few movements at the end, leaving the world of the story only within the projection.

For the youngest viewers, the narrative of overcoming fear is certainly at the forefront of the show, but Grabnar insightfully chooses a staging technique that gently invites their older companions, in addition to the target audience, to contemplate and be curious about how things happened on stage. In this way, he taps into that stage magic that also distinguishes puppetry, where hidden processes create magical effects on the stage. Equally thoughtfully, the director incorporates the sounds that accompany the changing of the individual frames, as well as the human element of the performance itself – all performed by all three actors, so that the feeling of the production does not become too fictional and surreal and sink into the idea of a TV or film cartoon. Herein also lies the main downside of Fearsome – its technological and performative complexity, which demands precision and perfection from the actors, while at the same time relying on the flawless functioning of the technology. The risk that the director takes in doing so is that however beautiful and superlative the production, a mistake could destroy the precisely constructed pace and narrative arc of the performance and thus ruin the whole experience. But by opting for non-automatic animation, the production retains what is unique to theatre compared to video art, while at the same time creating a more complex level that enriches the event for adults who encounter puppet theatre through children. More importantly, Grabnar does not underestimate his target audience in any way, but offers them a multilayered and reflective theatrical experience, which in its conceptual complexity, is fully comparable to contemporary scenic practices created for adults, thus proving once again that puppet theatre has equivalent performative potential.

Fearsome. Photo: Boštjan Lah