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Originally named Thompson Gymnasium, home court of the North Carolina State University basketball team until Reynolds Coliseum was built in 1949, it became known as Frank Thompson Hall in 2009 after extensive renovations. It now houses two exquisite theaters as well as an enormous state-of-the-art crafts center on the lower level. I was glad to make the belated “discovery” of this exquisite venue as I experienced Arts NC State and NCSU Center Stage’s presentation of Leo (The Anti-Gravity Show) in the lovely Titmus Theater. Billed as a one-man magic, surreal, physically demanding, and funny adventure, it is all of that and more as technical wizardry and artistic creativity combine for a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.
Despite the “can’t believe my eyes” brilliance and seemingly very modern high tech gadgetry that goes into Leo, this is an example of the old adage that “everything old is new again” — freely admitted by the principals of the show in a Q and A afterwards. In the 1951 film Royal Wedding, Fred Astaire appears to be dancing on the walls and the ceiling, much to the amazement of audiences, but it is actually a very simple manipulation of rotating sets and camera angles. Tobias Wegner, original performer and creator of Leo, took this concept many steps further to where “Astaire” would be seen simultaneously moving within the bounds of gravity and accepted properties of objects in motion, as well as a duplicate of that same person engaged in movement that defies those principles.
The curtain opened revealing what appeared to be two separate cubes, each no more than about eight feet across. The cube, audience right, had a floor, a back, and two side walls, each a different color. A lone, bare light bulb hung down from the back wall. A man, confused and anxious, stood there with a small suitcase, the only prop. A little barren and claustrophobic, but nothing too outrageous until I examined the cube on the left. There I saw an exact duplicate of the right cube, but with everything 90 degrees off. The “right” (which took just a bit to realize that that is what it is in both senses of the word) cube’s floor was the left cube’s left wall, and so on. Like a high-tech episode of The Twilight Zone, a man was not only trapped in a box that he couldn’t escape, but he was trapped in two boxes at the same time and in one of them the rules of gravity were not applicable.
Julian Schulz played that man, and his remarkable talents as a self-described acrobat/dancer are so prodigious that it actually took a few moments for my senses and intellect to coordinate what was going on between the two cubes and determine which was real. It is a very minor spoiler alert to reveal that the left cube was not a cube at all but a two-dimensional screen that, using cameras, lighting and special effects, gave the uncanny appearance of depth as it tipped the action in the “real” cube ninety degrees off. Well, that was all quite interesting, but it certainly had the potential to be a one-trick-pony that wears out its uniqueness rather fast. Nothing could have been further from the truth for Leo. There was a wealth of artistic creativity, humor and, of course, the amazing physical prowess of Schulz as he athletically and elegantly moved for 65 minutes in a very confined and awkward space.
Music also played an integral part in this production as the suitcase served as a sort of eclectic jukebox. One of the highlights was a topsy-turvy dance to the complete classic Sinatra recording of “I’ve Got the World on a String.” From African drumming to Ravi Shankar to snippets of The Nutcacker and the funeral march from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, there was something for everyone, and it all sounded fabulous on the Titmus Theater’s extraordinary sound system.
About halfway through came a long section where Schulz drew various household objects with chalk on the back wall. Eventually, the left cube filled with water (with superimposed images) and Schulz “swam” in the “real” cube. There was a sort of finale where Schulz engaged in a somewhat frenetic and difficult routine where I really got dazzled by the optical mind-bending. He finally found his unexpected means of escape from the box, which I will leave as a surprise.
There are numerous descriptors one can use to label Leo, but none would do it full justice. There was not a word spoken, but it was not mime; it was filled with extraordinary movement, but was more than dance or acrobatics; it was childlike, yet also evoked adult emotions. It was simply something you need to experience.
Leo (The Anti-Gravity Show) continues through Sunday, March 23. For more details on this production please view the sidebar.