Which Way Is Up

Review of LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The show LEO, developed by director Daniel Brière and performer William Bonnet from the idea and original performance by Tobias Wegner, shows us twin rooms on stage. One is an actual space inhabited by Bonnet, in a stylish pants, vest and shirt ensemble; the other is a projection of Bonnet in the space. The actual Bonnet spends his time on his back with his feet against a wall painted to look like a floor, so that he appears to be leaning against a wall. The “ceiling” is an actual wall of the space while the open space above the performer seems to create an imaginary third wall where the back wall and the fake floor meet. The “fourth wall,” of course, is the empty space through which we look into the room.

To our left of this space is a screen showing Bonnet in the room, but turned so that the actual floor, upon which Bonnet lies, now appears to be an actual vertical wall, with the supposed floor of the other room now at the bottom, as a floor would be.

The cleverness of this illusion is that, no matter how long one watches, it’s hard to convince oneself that Bonnet is lying on the floor in either space, though he is, in both. We see him, on the screen, seem to levitate at times, so much so that you might be convinced, by visual evidence, that some kind of magnet or hoist is holding him aloft. Meanwhile, on the performer’s side, Bonnet’s unflagging ability to lean upon his arms with his legs lifted against the apparent floor that is an actual wall makes it seem that he is standing on a vertical upright when he is in fact standing or leaning on his hands.

The speed with which he moves about in the space is truly remarkable. There is never a missed beat. The transitions are fluid to the point of defying any sense of strain or wobble that would indicate the real direction of gravity. We feel at times we are truly watching weightless stunts because movement—often to music that emanates from a suitcase, the only actual prop on the set—appears to be governed by the dynamics of animation rather than actual physics.

But for the music, all is quiet. Bonnet is a silent clown, a figure much like a cartoon who seems to be trying to understand the space he finds himself in. He uses his hat and tie as bellwethers for gravitation, but it doesn’t work. He pours water into his mouth as if to convince us that he can’t possibly be lying on his back. There are many fun “tests” to convince us that what we know to be true isn’t.

And just when you think you’ve seen all the tricks, LEO moves in a new direction, whether via a very mood-changing soundtrack—including African drums, Beethoven, jaunty Italian music, and a swanky Sinatra tune—or via Bonnet’s chalk drawings on the back wall so as to create a chair and table and seemingly interactive radio. At a certain point, the animations on the screen start to overwhelm the projected space in sequences that distract from the point-by-point replication between room and screen. The animated objects and animals—and water—are “real” on the screen but invisible to the actual Bonnet in the playing space. It creates a further disjunction between right and left, as though one were no longer getting the same information from the eyes and ears on either side of one’s head.

The ending is charming and mysterious, and it’s very much to the show’s credit that it rarely lets any sequence of stunts or tricks go on too long. And, while it would be hard to say there is a compelling forward movement, we are aware that our growing impatience or unease is mirrored in Bonnet’s exploration of possibility, and vice versa. Neither he nor we want to be stuck in that room forever. So, eventually, we have to wonder: how will this end? Can he escape?

The Arts & Ideas Festival generally has at least one show a season that involves acrobatics, clowning, and surprising uses of props that seem to defy physics. LEO continues that tradition with the most poetic and concentrated program yet. It both fulfills a wish to defy gravity and at the same time makes us happy to return to the norms we’re used to observing.


LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show

Director: Daniel Brière; Perfomer: William Bonnet; Creative Producer: Gregg Parks; Original Performer/Idea: Tobias Wegner; Set and Lighting Designer: Flavia Hevia; Video Designer: Heiko Kalmbach; Animator: Ingo Panke

University Theatre
June 23, 8 p.m.; June 24, 12 p.m. & 3 p.m.