Shadow Theater's Cutting Edge

In the hands of puppeteers Donna and David Wisniewski, a 2,000-year-old art becomes modern theater for children

BEHIND the screen and curtains at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater, Donna Wisniewski propels herself across the floor on a small, low seat made mobile by silent wheels. In her hands is a shadow puppet named Pik, a Mayan boy about to be clobbered in a game with the huge rain god, Chac.

On the audience's side of the screen, things look bad for Pik. Thunder rolls. Lightning flashes.

Not five feet from Donna, David Wisniewski curls around an overhead projector, changing lights and illusions, and slowly moving a four-inch-high Chac across the projector. On the screen, the figure looks as big as King Kong.

In the Wisniewskis' hands, the 2,000-year-old art of shadow theater is an innovative hybrid. " `Rainplayer' is the most complex show we've done," says David, after the day's performance. (Pik wins the game, and therefore will not be turned into a frog and have to croak Chac's name forever.) So convincing is the two-dimensional illusion to some youngsters in the audience that a few have said, "Thanks for the movie."

"We use a soundtrack with music, plus this thing," says David, pointing to the overhead projector nearly buried in a specially built wooden structure with half a dozen knobs and rolls of plastic.

"The plastic is painted with scenes, much like a storyboard," David says, demonstrating by rolling the plastic sheeting over the projector in three directions. Add background colors, a touch of strobe lights, some polarized sequences that look like falling rain, elaborate headdresses stuck to the Wisniewskis' heads with Velcro (see photo), and this is the cutting edge of shadow theater.

Factor in the Wisniewskis' enthusiasm and energy, too.

"Backstage," says Donna, of their two-person show, "we are really moving. I can only go in one direction at a time, but David can go in three - or is it four?" They laugh a lot together, except during the performances.

They have been shadowing and puppeting their adapted folk tales since 1980 as the Clarion Shadow Theater based in Bowie, Md. The shows have been performed at the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, and in California and Florida. In 1984 they received their first Henson Foundation grant, an award established by Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. At the Smithsonian they performed "The Warrior and the Wise Man" in 1991, and "Elfwyn's Saga" in 1992.

In addition, David has written several extraordinary picture books using a cut-paper silhouetting technique, sometimes with as many as 12 paper layers to a picture, to tell the shadow tales in book form.

"We're pleased that the books have had great reviews and won awards," says David.

" `The Warrior and The Wise Man' has sold well in Britain and France, and `Rainplayer' is being sold in Japan and China," he adds. Another book is scheduled to be completed this summer.

"Each of the books and shows has a strong moral center," says David, who was once a clown for Ringling Brothers Circus. "The stories last longer that way, I hope."

Donna, with a background in graphic design, met David in 1975 when she hired him to be a puppeteer in a puppet show. They worked closely for several months, both thinking Donna was headed to California to be with her boyfriend.

"David and I had started to become close," says Donna. "One day on our way to a show I said I really didn't want to go to California. David said, `If you stayed here, I'd marry you in the twinkling of an eye.' " They pulled off to the side of the road, and kissed. Two weeks later, they were married.

"We weren't in a rush," David deadpans.

"We didn't have our first date until after we were married," says Donna. For 16 years they have shared the bumpy road as professional puppeteers, and have two children, 12 and 8.

"In this country, puppetry is for kids," says David. "One of our first shows was a 90-minute show in vignette style aimed at adults, but it just didn't find an audience. Trying to be an intelligent, adult-level puppeteer is a hard row to hoe in this country."

But they have no complaints.

"We offer good, solid children's theater that entertains families," says David. Through workshops, museums, and school presentations, he and his spouse continue to share a unique art.

The critics agree. After seeing a Wisniewski performance, the Washington Post called it "stunning, brilliant," and said David and Donna had become "the leading figures in shadow puppetry in the United States."

Another newspaper said the Clarion Shadow Theater had "taken puppetry into serious theater art."

One of things that the Wisniewskis have noticed over the years is the change in children's audiences.

"Kids have been exposed to more adult-level entertainment these days, in movies and TV," says Donna, "and most haven't had any theatergoing experiences at all. Attention spans are really short.

"They say, `What is this?' That's one of the reasons we keep the pace moving right along."

Before school classes come to see the plays, the Smithsonian provides teachers with an extensive learning guide about "Rainplayer" with activities and ideas to consider before and after the performance.

* `Rainplayer' will be performed at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre today and tomorrow. For information, call: (202) 357-1500.

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