As many unsuccessful ticket-seekers can attest, LEO has become the hottest ticket of this year's Spoleto festival. Performances were almost completely sold out by the first week in May, and the demand continued to stay so high that the festival organizers decided to add two more performances. It's a lot of hype for such a relatively understated show: one multi-talented circus performer, a small room with a light bulb for a set, and some camera trickery that, though it produces amazing effects, is for the most part quite simple.
It turns out that's all you need for an hour of solidly entertaining, mind-expanding theater — at least when the performer is as charming and agile as Tobias Wegner, who both conceived the original idea for LEO and is its one and only character (whom we'll call Leo, though he's never explicitly named).
Upon entering the theater, audience members see a large projection screen on the left side of the stage, and on the right, a colorful room with its front wall cut away. As LEO opens, the lights fade and the stage goes completely black. Then, on click the lights and there's Wegner, dapper and charming in a vest and fedora, standing in the room, looking around as if he's waiting for something. That is, he's standing if you're looking on the left side of the stage, at the screen, which projects Wegner's live performance and rotates it by 90 degrees. What Wegner is actually doing is supporting himself with one arm in a horizontal extension, his feet flat on the wall, looking just as at ease as if he were actually standing upright. So begins a visually arresting series of what we can only call lantern slides: The lights blink off, then on again, each time illuminating Wegner in a new position. He's sitting on his suitcase, or slumping against a wall, all the while taking in his boxed-in environment. It's an effective introduction to LEO's premise, which is admittedly hard to wrap your head around at first. During this first sequence, the screen's familiar image of a world turned right-side-up beckons almost irresistibly even though there's much more interesting stuff happening on the other side of the stage. It takes a few minutes to get used to looking back and forth, but it begins feeling normal surprisingly quickly.
The lantern slides over, Leo sits on his suitcase and begins falling asleep. As he does, he notices his legs behaving oddly: they start moving towards the wall behind him, obeying a gravity turned on its side. From here, the loose but existent narrative flows through four fluid sequences. After discovering the change in gravity, Leo explores its limits, throwing his hat, fixing his tie, even crawling up the wall. These tricks make for a hilarious bit of physical comedy that had the audience laughing the kind of gleeful, unsullied laugh that is truly a rare gift. Leo's antics just made everyone nice and happy. From there, we see a kind of anti-gravity dance party as Leo discovers that his suitcase plays music. Watching Wegner pull off sweet dance moves while lying on his back or standing on his head is practically worth the price of admission. Then, dancing over, he finds a piece of chalk in his suitcase and draws himself a home. Animation is used to fascinating effect here, slowly taking the mood of the performance from eager and carefree, to a little dark, even despairing. Finally, Leo seems to realize his imprisonment, and tests its limits in quite a different way from his earlier exploration. We don't want to ruin anything, so we'll just tell you that the show's finale is moving and cathartic in a way you wouldn't necessarily expect.
A large part of this show's success stems from Wegner's endearing acting, for although the modus operandi of LEO is intriguing, it could easily deteriorate into a one-trick pony with a less likeable performer. When Leo is enjoying his newfound freedom from gravity, he invites the audience into the fun with engaging facial expressions and many a well-timed smile. Though the only spoken words in the show are a few interrogatory hellos, it's always easy to know what Leo is going through; the guy wears his heart on his sleeve, and it's impossible not to love him for it.
And herein lies the show's secret: It would seem that in a performance like this, the acrobatics and visual tricks are in the forefront. But Wegner and his director, Daniel Brière, have managed to move them back just enough to let the story of Leo really shine. It's a small story, but a meaningful one — there's this guy stuck in a box, hoping one day to find his way out. We can all relate to that.