Masked actors wearing elaborate, feathered costumes manipulated puppets behind a large 15-by-30-foot screen, creating dancing shadows and silhouettes that told an ancient story of love and war.
Hamid Rahmanian, the director, producer and creator of “Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic,” previewed his show in early 2016 in San Francisco, before touring at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at Harvard University. He based the show’s concept on the epic poem told in his illustrated 2013 book “Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings.”
Rahmanian said the epic, which at 60,000 verses is the longest poem written by a single poet, is a high-impact story that consists of four tragedies, four love stories and endless battles. The show, sponsored in part by UCLA Iranian Studies, will premiere in Los Angeles at the Freud Playhouse from Friday to Sunday.
When the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Academy of Music approached Rahmanian two years ago to put on a shadow theater performance on a large scale, he teamed up with his collaborator Larry Reed, a filmmaker and American dalang, or “shadow master.”
Reed’s own origin in what he calls “shadow play” began with his study of the Balinese wayang kulit style more than 25 years ago. At the time, Reed’s interests in languages, film and theater led him to live with a group of painters in Bali. One night, he followed the painters through a rice field, where the local people flickered their flashlights like fireflies in the night, leading Reed to a cotton screen where he witnessed traditional wayang for the first time.
“It was an amazing experience,” Reed said. “In Indonesian culture a dalang is more than just a puppeteer. A (dalang) is a priest, a teacher, a comedian – all of these things rolled into one. There’s a kind of sacred aspect to it, and (I want) to keep that going in modern shadow theater.”
Reed said he was most drawn to the sole visual aspect of shadow puppetry, as he believes most forms of modern theater are dependent on words. He studied traditional Balinese style of shadow theater for about 20 years before deciding to branch out and embrace that specific style of art in a way that could extend to any nonspecific culture.
“I realized that not everybody is interested in Balinese culture, but everyone is interested in their own culture, whatever that is,” Reed said. “I wanted to develop a kind of (shadow) style that … can serve as a bridge between people.”
Putting on a shadow puppet performance on such a huge scale as “Feathers of Fire” turned out to be a collaborative process that took years of planning and preparation. On top of 156 handmade puppets and 15 masks and costumes, Rahmanian said the performance utilizes 138 animated backgrounds to merge puppetry and visual animation in a way that feels cinematic and grand to modern Western audiences.
Reed also said using both puppets and actors to project large shadows and silhouettes to tell an immersive story involves an additional element of illusion.
“We’re using people wearing masks as well as the puppets, we’re taking three-dimensional and turning them into two-dimensional in a way that’s quite different from existing animation,” Reed said. “The world of shadow theater is closer to the dream world than anything else.”
Although Syd Fini, the lead storyboard artist for the project who worked closely with Rahmanian, found it challenging to merge graphics and silhouettes with animated backgrounds and live shadow performances, he said the use of these media helped inform the story’s rich mythology.
“I am a filmmaker and a graphic designer,” Rahmanian said, “and for me, these things meet in the shadows. I wanted to create something technically and visually unique, that is also purely Iranian.”
Rahmanian said he hopes people of all ages and backgrounds will be inspired by the epic of Shahnameh, which he believes is humanized and made accessible through the medium of shadow. He said that shadow theater, which has roots in the Near East as far back as the 11th century, uniquely highlights the strength of the Iranian culture with its rich visual vocabulary.
“This is the most elaborate shadow theater ever,” Rahmanian said. “In just a span of 70 minutes, all of these incredible elements get to work and I want it to bring people joy and inspiration through shadow and light.”