Society for New Things

When we were kids, we were fascinated by shadows. We’d watch the end of Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies at the Boone School Booster Club thrusting our fingers into the light of the projector to create shadow rabbits and dogs and birds. There was the poem “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,” and the song “Me and My Shadow.” At story hour at the Nortown Library we’d hear about boys and girls being chased by their shadows. (My favorite was the Beverly Cleary story about Henry Huggins and impish little Ramona.) In a film strip we learned about Plato’s metaphor of the cave, of the people there who began to think that the shadows were real and they themselves illusions; then we traced our bodies onto sheets of paper so that we could carry our shadows around with us.

There is something of this sort of magic in Society for New Things’ shadow play Sennin. This production, adapted from a Chinese legend, uses the shadows of set pieces, puppets, and live actors to create the mystical world of the folktale. And if director David Gutfreund’s adaptation doesn’t entirely succeed in all it seeks to accomplish, Sennin shows more inventiveness and imagination in its half-hour running time than most shows do in two hours.

Entering the Society for New Things’ space, one is greeted by the overpowering aroma of incense, tinkling new-age music, a shadowed image of a figure in cape and hat, and the sound of mysterious laughter–provided by the show’s host and narrator, Travis. Travis takes us on a trip, once upon a time in the East. This is the tale of Gonsuke, a young man who wants to become a Sennin, an immortal mystic with the ability to fly.

Gonsuke journeys to an employment agency, which after much debate sets him up with a doctor and his wife; they promise to teach Gonsuke the secrets of the Sennin if he works for them for 20 years without questioning them. After 20 years the mischievous couple, knowing nothing of the secrets of the Sennin, tell Gonsuke to work for them for another 20 years, and also give him a number of impossible tasks to perform. Faithful servant Gonsuke does not question their orders and performs all the appointed tasks: he climbs a tree, lets go with one hand, then with the other, and finds that he is able to fly. Gonsuke’s determination and perseverance have allowed him to achieve his wish; he has become a Sennin.

There is not much more to the story than this. The folktale serves as an effective vehicle to showcase the clever shadow tricks. Through shadows, we see castles and trees and a large room made of bamboo. The images are like pages out of a picture book. Shadow play is a good means of telling this sort of story because it creates a magical alternative world in which one is more willing to suspend disbelief. And these performers are proficient at the techniques needed to create this shadowy land.

This is not to say that the New Things production is without problems. The narrator’s incessant chortling is a nuisance–it doesn’t so much recall the stories of one’s childhood as Geoffrey Holder advertising 7-Up. And the narrator’s repetition of the words “shadow play” in a goofy Sesame Street voice seems, at the very least, patronizing.

Furthermore the script has some problems. It seems to suggest that China and Japan are interchangeable. The narrator says to us, for instance, “We’re going to tell you a tale from China and from Japan,” and “Now we take you to China–Osaka.” The dime-store new-age philosophizing–“In the universe, the things that are difficult are done as if they are easy”–is a bit pat. And Gonsuke’s masters’ admonition that if he doesn’t perform his tasks for 20 years he will be struck down by “God Almighty” doesn’t exactly sound Eastern. Finally, I found the tale’s moral a bit troublesome. A press release suggested a connection between Sennin and The Little Engine That Could–if you try again and again and again, you will succeed. But Sennin also seems to suggest that those who obey blindly and refuse to question authority will reap spiritual rewards. Maybe so. But I always thought that was for the people who watched the shadows on the walls of the cave and didn’t stop to ask who or what was making them.