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Into the Light 

The appeal of shadow theater is the quiet seduction of a dream

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
Larry Reed is the only director in the city who puts on shadow-puppet shows. In fact, he's one of the only people in the country who does it. Shadow puppetry is common enough in Indonesia, especially Bali, where people grow up watching intricate, jointed cutouts of mythical figures come to life on a backlit leather screen. The stories derive from Hindu epics -- the Mahabharata and the Ramayana -- the way Greek tragedy derives from Homer, and the puppet master, or dalang, plays a shamanlike role in the life of his community. Plenty of Americans come home from Indonesia with painted puppets to hang on their walls, but as a rule it doesn't occur to a Westerner to master wayang kulit (literally "shadow skin") and make shadow puppetry a career. Larry Reed is the exception.

His company, ShadowLight, has produced shadow theater for 30 years. Instead of a thin sheet of buffalo leather its practitioners use a big, white movie screen, and instead of a coconut-oil lantern they use high-powered xenon lamps. The basic techniques still belong to wayang kulit, and the results are hypnotic. "I am always amazed at the power of shadows to move us into a kind of dream state," writes Reed in the notes to his latest production, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, and he's exactly right: The appeal of shadow theater is the quiet seduction of a dream.

Encarnación is a Day of the Dead celebration. It's narrated by a snide skeleton, Calaca Flaca, who introduces the audience to el mundo de sombres, the world of shadows. "Think of me as an encarnación," he says, "minus the carne. Heh, heh, heh." He tells the story of a young friar living at Mission Dolores under Junipero Serra. The friar, whose name is Encarnación, falls in love with an Indian girl named Carolina. She lures him away from the Mission, introduces him to the suffering of the natives (who have smallpox), and sparks his curiosity about his true identity. Since Father Serra found him orphaned as a baby in a wheat field, Encarnación has no idea who his parents are. He turns out to be a mulatto, and in Octavio Solis' fanciful script he's also the founder of a whole new raza.

The title is a puzzle, because even if Encarnación does see seven visions, only one or two seem to matter to the story. The first, important vision is of an old Indian woman mourning in the woods. Encarnación is mystified. He tells Carolina he needs to find out who the woman is. Any fan of Joseph Campbell will recognize the pattern of his quest -- hero finds a strange world outside the confines of home and goes on a voyage of self-discovery -- but I'm afraid Solis hasn't fleshed it out. His hero skips along from scene to scene without real suspense or drama, and the visions aren't compelling motivations or epiphanies for Encarnación so much as excuses for ShadowLight to show off. Some of the visions, though, are spectacular.

One motif is a floating loteria card, signifying Encarnación's fate. (Loteria is "kind of a Mesoamerican bingo," says Calaca, though the images are tarotlike.) The cards are twisted or bent, and they float around Calaca's head. I have no idea how Reed and his scene designer, Victor Cartagena, managed this effect, but it's pretty cool. The vision of the veiled, mourning woman (who turns out to be Encarnación's dead mother) is also brilliant, and so are the scenes of running through early-California woods, with pine and scrub flowing past the puppets in a trick of perspective that seems to be new in the ShadowLight repertoire.

Encarnación is a musical, with live Mexican folk songs by a trio called Cascada de Flores and a composer, Richard Marriott. Jorge Liceaga's guitar and Arwen Lawrence de Castellanos' pretty voice accent the story nicely, and one song in particular, "La Luna," is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Traditional wayang kulit always involves live music; in fact, the puppet master usually has to conduct a small orchestra of gamelan players while he manipulates the puppets. I doubt Reed "conducts" Cascada de Flores, but the band was a good choice for the score.

Since the show is essentially a cartoon, Solis' script can indulge in clichés about the Mission period: honest, noble Indios; a conflicted mulatto; and the evil, hard-ass padre (Father Serra). Real life was more complicated. I wish Solis had moved past such a conventional image of Mission Dolores, or at least avoided giving Carolina hectoring lines like, "There's enough room and mercy in the world for our people, Father!" or, "Your life is a lie, Encarnación! Remember what you are." This kind of lecturing amounts to an "After School Special" morality -- simplistic and soothing to modern sensibilities, but nothing like what a native woman in the early 1800s would have said to a monk. It's self-conscious, and it disturbs the whole beauty of shadow theater, which is that delicate sense of waking reverie.


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