If the description in the promotional materials for El Eco de la Sombra (Echo of the Shadow) by Barcelona theater company Teatro de los Sentidos seems vague, even cagey, that's because the production team wants you to keep an open mind.
"Please don't print the details," says Rob Long of Clear Story Creative, the Pittsburgh-based company that's managing the production for the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's three-week festival of U.S. premieres by international artists. El Eco is being staged in the Ellis School Armory, which two weeks before opening night was undergoing transformation into another universe.
Long showed me a map of the labyrinth the sold-out production is building in the armory, and explained the sensory journey audience members will experience as each moves through the labyrinth alone. It's a journey of 45 minutes or so in which visitors encounter about a dozen performers. "We want the audience to have a heightened expectation of what comes next, to experience the show wide open in all of its levels and layers," says Long.
The armory was recently bought by the Ellis School, a private girls' school, for use as a performance venue. During set construction, the building resembled an empty, cavernous garage -- except for 3,000 library books stacked against the wall, a couple dozen dead trees, an 8-foot-long boat and large red metal boxes with "Barcelona" stamped on them. The armory kitchen had become a makeshift lab to mix exotic scents in stoppered glass bottles.
Long, businesslike, opened one of the red boxes, revealing a well-worn leather suitcase with stickers from foreign countries. "Smell it," he says. The aroma was one of fragrant scented leather, pleasing and sensual. "All these props have a material authenticity to them," he continued. "Imagine how they have come and gone in the hands of all the actors and audiences of the shows, accumulating energies."
Enrique Vargas, founder of Teatro de los Sentidos, is all about sensory experiences. "We try not to be determined by the tyranny of the eye," says Vargas, by phone from Barcelona. "When we do scripts, we do a script for body sensation, we do a script for touch, a script for the smells. We train actors in the dramaturgic of seduction and pleasure." The long list of scents scripted for the performance includes a rare, expensive aphrodisiac.
Echo of the Shadow is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Shadow," a dark tale about a learned man who is afraid to follow his own shadow. "People become aware of their relationships with their shadows in the journey of the performance," says Vargas. "If you cannot be aware of your own shadow, then it will destroy you. Unless you get to be friendly with the part of yourself you are most ashamed of, and not hide it, then you [can]go through with the transformation."
Vargas considers himself a game-constructor: "Theater is a good game ... It seduces you as a game. We train actors not to think too much, because it becomes intellectual, but to think with their fingertips and work with the feelings and sensations of the body to tell stories and ask ... what are the poetics of darkness?"
Echo of the Shadow continues through Oct 25. Ellis School Armory, Penn Ave. at Putnam, Shadyside. The show is sold out.