It takes only a few seconds of flickering light to find oneself anticipating the delicate magic of the early film animation of Lotte Reiniger. And then musician Tom Teasley intervenes, launching into his surging, pulsating percussive overture, making this synthesized work of silent-film-cum-live-music come crashing dynamically into the twenty-first century. For a full ninety minutes, Teasley faces the screen and plays his one-man “world orchestra” continuously across time and space with Reiniger’s imaginative cinematic world, and it’s like watching two pros engage in a fast game of racketball. These two artists prove a perfect match, and the evening is both a fascinating curiosity and enchanting entertainment.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed debuted in 1926, and although it has been argued so, let’s be clear, Reiniger’s film was not the first animated film but rather the first extant full-length silhouette animation. Nothing to detract from this visionary, Reiniger invented her special technique inspired in part by shadow puppetry such as wajang kulit from the Indonesian islands but also silhouette work from many other cultures. It was said she spent over 10,000 hours hand cutting silhouettes of exquisite complexity and delicacy. With her husband by her side, she produced fairy tale entertainment in her films that was surely in part an antidote to the dark swirling world of German politics and social policies of the period. But The Adventures of Prince Achmed remains her masterpiece.
Wolfgang Zeller composed the original score that accompanied the film in presentation. The DVD which not only faithfully archives the work also has footage of the team, including Zeller, working on the film. The music definitely had the feel of German post-Wagnerian bombast, certainly well-conceived and played, but limited in how it could be synced with the action without the availability of click track and other technological audio-visual advancements.
Teasley is not the first contemporary musician to put his services to collaborating with Reiniger’s vision. (The Silk Road Ensemble accompanied the film improvisationally in at least two public performances in the northeast.) The film’s epic movement through various cultures, including a Middle Eastern caliphate, a south sea island, and scenes from imperial China not only gave lots of opportunity for Reinger’s imaginative playfulness, but created a field day for a soundscape palette of many textures for musicians of world music.
Teasley’s approach as a composer and a performer is joyous and enthusiastically childlike. He had gathered his instruments around him including glockenspiel, melodica, Asian flute, and various electronic instruments that not only give qualities of Indian tabla but has allowed him to prepare some pre-recorded tracks then loop them and play along. (Sadly or perhaps fortuitously, the sim card aborted somewhere early on in the show Thursday night. Teasley not only adjusted and kept up his improvisational playing, but gamely shared with the audience afterwards this mishap, and made it all part of the adventure.)
THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED
Friday, August 14, 2015, 8:00 PM
Saturday, August 15, 2015, 3:00 PM
Saturday, August 15, 2015, 8:00 PM
1835 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $45
Details and Tickets
Teasley is endlessly inventive and moves between a big percussion sound worthy of Mission Impossible action scores for fight scenes and some very sweet, spare melodic lines that bring out the nuance and textures of Reiniger’s world. He also employs his own voice in vocalizes that remind me of Indian ragas. Because the accompaniment was live, he was able to not only synchronize key sound effects throughout, but created elastic transitions, slowing down and pulling up a pattern at the end of sections which delineated the cinematic “acts” beautifully.
To Teasley’s credit, his work always remains in service to Reiniger’s film, and at times even though the musician is right there center stage and in the light, one can’t help getting lost in the flickering world of two-dimensional cut outs. Like many great fairy tales, the storyline boasts a Prince, a witch, a magician, in this case two princesses and the familiar character of Aladdin.
The real magic, however, comes in some of the incidental scenes. This is where you catch glimpses of the endless problem-solving perfectionism and inventiveness of the genius Reiniger. In an early scene, the Caliph’s coach comes to stop in a square. Three acrobats begin to caper, turn cartwheels, and as a finale jump on top of each other in a three man tower, in an impossible flourish balancing together on the tips of their hats.
Possibly the most beautiful scene is when three fantastic phoenix or garuda birds come to land near a pond where Prince Achmed is hiding using a fern to enclose himself in the brush. The birds’ “flight suits” suddenly are peeled off and there emerge three beautiful naked women who go for a swim. Reiniger’s rendition of the forest pool depicting reflections and ripples, and the enchanting birds create such an idyll and then they transform into graceful long-limbed women. All this is brought back to formal stylization, as when Prince Achmed is seen seated wrapped within a circle of the fern. The rendition of the figures in this scene remind me nothing so much as the delicate, wasp-waisted black painted figures on Cretan pottery.
Reiniger’s painstaking detail is exquisitely wrought. The gnarly arthritic claws of the magician, the double stiletto shoes of the princess and the soft movement and rich cut out “tapestry” of the royal cloaks.
I am convinced that “shamanic transformation” is what Reiniger discovered exploring in her medium. Reiniger apparently spent hours watching animals at zoos, crawling on all fours herself to determine the biomechanics of movement of different creatures, and she uses this deep knowledge to turn the rules of physics on its head. The climactic scene of animation for me is the great shape-shifting battle between the witch and the magician who turn to snake and scorpion, then battling mythological birds, then creatures from the deep as they chase each other round and round in a great yin-yang dance.
This was a wonderful special event offered up by Constellation Theatre Company. Only three more performances! But the collaborations of this company with world percussionist Tom Teasley now wrack up to the mid-teens, and there will be another production mounted this season in spring of 2016 when the company produces another piece of epic theatre in Journey to the West.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a silent animated film by Lotte Reiniger with music composed, improvised and performed live by Tom Teasley . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.