John Smythe - TheatreView
Back in 2000 there was a Stab show at Bats called AAARGH! –The Live Movies – involving the likes of Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement and Taika Cohen (better known now as Taika Waititi). One of their many tricks was to use a vertically mounted bed to create the illusion of levitation, using live video cameras. Someone stood against the bed then stepped forward and it looked as if he was levitating. Leo begins with the same idea …
Performer Tobias Wegner and director Daniel Brière, of Berlin-based Circle of Eleven – who brought us Soap – the show last year – probably never saw that show but their Leo may owe something to the famous Fred Astaire film sequence here where he dances up the wall and across the ceiling (in Royal Wedding – singing a love song: 'You're All The World to Me'). The camera is locked off with the floor at the bottom of frame and the room physically turns to change the centre of gravity. That is total illusion because we only see the end result and I think they probably snipped a few frames out at the transition points to enhance the illusion.
Leo, like AAARGH!, exposes the 'illusion' for all to see. As we sit in the theatre there is a boxed-in room to our right with a blue floor, a red side wall and a black back wall. And to our left there is a large white screen. Lights fade to black, there is music and when the lights come up there – on the screen – is a projection of what is in the room: a man with a briefcase, waiting. He's wearing a hat, shirt, tie, waist-coat trousers, shoes ... And on the screen he is standing on the red floor, leaning against the blue wall … waiting ...
On screen the room is turned 90 degrees. In the 'live action room, we see the man, Leo (Tobias Wegner) lying on the blue floor with his feet on the red wall to our right, and a bare light bulb jutting out horizontally on a wire from our left. On screen he looks as if he is standing on a red floor against a blue wall and the light is hanging downwards from above. And because that's the version that makes more sense to us, because that's the one that looks 'normal', that's the one we're drawn to.
So: a man in a room, waiting … And very gradually he becomes aware the blue wall is acting like a magnet. He untucks his tie, it's tip goes to the wall. He takes off his hat – it's sucked on to the wall. It's all very disorientating. And, quite literally, it drives him up the wall.
His briefcase is a sort of music box, by the way, which lights up and releases music when he opens it. Having climbed the walls, pulled himself up by the bootstraps, ballooned his cheeks to 'float', flapped his arms to 'fly' – and walked on his hands 'up the wall', which takes real acrobatic skill – he uses chalk to create a nice domestic scene for himself on the black back wall: chair, table, a goldfish in a bowl, a parrot on the window sill … Then a bottle of wine and a glass, a candle, a second chair and glass. And at last we're getting some emotional content – a sense of loneliness, here. His magic briefcase produces a saxophone on which he plays a poignant tune …
Apparently this Leo character has a low alcohol threshold because one glass of wine sends him off into an increasingly surreal hallucinatory experience where – thanks to additional video design (Heiko Kalmbach) and animations (Ingo Panke) – he finds himself swimming for his life and being attacked by his household objects. If we look at Tobias in the live action space, he's just flailing about on the floor but on the screen, Leo is coping with a life-threatening situation.
In the final phase he returns to the bare room and explores some walking and running illusions which are not entirely successful, first because we can tell he's running on the spot, and mainly because there is no narrative purpose or emotional driver behind the action. If the idea is he's getting nowhere fast, it doesn't really come off, because we are all too willing to suspend our disbelief and accept he is travelling, somewhere … Which in turn works against the idea of his being trapped in this room.
But there is the fascination of ghostly after-images – and sometimes images that foreshadow his next move – not to mention his own image becoming spookily translucent … All that is interesting in and of itself, for those who like to ponder whether the effects are is being created 'live' or are pre-recorded.
And so we progress towards his exit and here again I feel a stronger emotional driver, a desperate need to escape, would improve the story and distract us from the ingenious being used to technology used to achieve what is nevertheless a brilliant exit strategy involving his briefcase.
So yes, it's very clever, very ingenious, and – as with all good comedy – I feel it could be more entertaining if Leo's emotional states were explored in greater depth. That said, as a show that turns gravity on its side and challenges our perceptions of reality, it's a great contribution to the NZ International Arts Festival.