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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Even if it delivered nothing but acrobatics, Leo would be a striking piece of theatre. The show, which won the Best of Edinburgh Award at the Edinburgh Fringe and is now being presented at Theatre Row, exists to make our jaws drop, to make us question our own eyes.
The "tricks" are even more alluring because we see exactly how they're done. On the right side of the stage, we find Leo (played by German acrobat Tobias Wegner) standing in a colorful room with nothing but a suitcase. Lounging around, he lies on the floor and puts his feet on a bright red wall. Later, he balances on one leg and slowly bends down to touch the floor with one hand, letting his other arm and leg jut into the air. By the time the show's over, he's contorted himself into all sorts of exotic shapes.
But on the left side of the stage, we see a different world. All of Leo's movements are projected on a screen, but the camera has been tipped on its side, turning his image ninety degrees.
On screen, then, the "real world" floor looks like a wall and the red wall looks like the floor. This makes "Screen Leo" seem superhuman: When he balances on one foot, it looks like he's coming off the wall at a perpendicular angle.
It's all deliciously confusing. We see how Wegner's body is working in the space, yet the screen version of his performance is incredibly convincing: It's easy to believe that Screen Leo is defying gravity, that he's flying.
Wegner, who created the show with a German ensemble called Circle of Eleven, says the magic only works when his physical relationship to the screen world is as clear as his relationship to the real world.
In early workshops, for instance, he had a trampoline on the floor, but the bouncing was jarring on screen. "Pretty quickly, we figured out that it doesn't work if you lose the relationship to the 'red floor,' what appears to be the real floor in the video," he says. "It is essential for people that are looking at the screen to always have that understanding of how that space works and that it is solid. If you totally lose track of that, the effect is gone."
And once we accept the "reality" of the screen, it can surprise us. In the real world, Leo draws chalk figures on the walls: sideways animals and furniture that look right-side-up on screen. For a while, they're just drawings, but eventually, they come to life. An animated cat starts moving over the chalk cat. An animated bird flies out a chalk window. We can accept this magic because we accept that the screen world is a real place.
In fact, the animation gets so elaborate that the screen world overpowers the real one. "Real Leo" has to respond to what the animated world is doing, which creates comic catastrophe.
For Wegner, this is central to the show's metaphor: "He needs to create his own environment, but eventually that world becomes bigger than himself," he says. "He loses track and control." In other words, we might think we have mastered our lives, but sooner or later, something will make us twist and tumble in ways we never expected.
When he started developing the piece in 2008, Wegner had no idea it would make an existential statement. "It started off as a pure comedy act," he says. "It started off as small segments, two minutes or something. But through the creation process, we saw there were other levels we could explore."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor