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Theatre in Review: Shadowland (Pilobolus/NYU Skirball Center)

Photo: Ian Douglas

You don't find many -- or any -- dance reviews in this column, but, for sheer mastery of a specific stage effect, Shadowland is hard to beat. 80-minute piece, created by Steven Banks, Robby Barnett, Renée Jaworski, Matt Kent, Itamar Kubovy, and Michael Tracy, is a fanciful, even bizarre tale about a young girl who has a dream of a down-the-rabbit-hole experience in a strange, ever-shifting environment. Among other things, a giant hand reaches down and transforms her into a being with the head of a dog.

These effects, and so many others are shadow displays staged behind a giant white cloth. The effect of these is trippy, to say the least. A tree made of human hands sprouts up and turns into a kind of Venus flytrap, devouring our young heroine, who is later expelled from the mouth of a large human head. Changed into the dog girl and outfitted with a bindle stick, she roams the shadowy countryside meeting up with all sorts of characters and objects, all of them rendered through the nimble use of bodies and shadow play. She travels in a truck with a cowboy, sees her reflection in water, visits a circus where a performer swallows a sword, then pulls it out of his anus. Underwater, she encounters shadow-made sea horses and jellyfish, landing back on dry land, she coughs up a crag.

And so it goes, all of its created with seeming ease by Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern, Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Krystal Butler, Benjamin Coalter, Heather Jeane Favretto, Jordan Kriston, Derion Loman, Sayer Mansfield, and Mike Tyus. Obviously, the main design feature here is the lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis, which works so well to create the shadow effects; in the non-shadow scenes, however, his use of big thick beams plus a variety of colors and floor-altering patterns create a distinctively theatrical atmosphere. (Mike Faba is the lighting supervisor.) Neil Patel's scenery and Liz Prince's costumes are also solid, as is David Poe's music, which is sometimes whimsical and sometimes haunting. Shane Mongar, the director of production, has pulled together all the elements into an appealing whole.

I gather that some dance reviewers were non-plussed by the dog girl conceit, suggesting that it shows an unnverving disregard for women. I disagree; while admittedly strange, it offers the pull of a classic fairy tale and adds a certain dramatic tension to her journey. Will she regain her original self? The answer is not suprising, but like everything else in Shadowland it is achieved with a sparkling professionlism and invention.

In any case, the audience at the performance I attended -- most of them seemingly long-term Pilobolus fans -- were delighted at what they say, especially a brief coda sequence after the company bows, which provided a humorous shadow-play tribute to various New York icons, ranging from the august (the Statue of Liberty, the lions outside the New York Public Library) to the dubious (the Naked Cowboy and the topless ladies currently invading Times Square.) All in all, a lighthearted holiday treat. -- David Barbour

(25 November 2015)

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