At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' new live stage show 4Trains (opening December 4), you never see the actors, the scenery isn't really there, and the most imposing visual effect may in fact be two inches tall. 4Trains is a shadow play—the actors, props, and set dressing are visible only as surreal silhouettes, usually layered over projected scenery and often distorted to alarming proportions. That's right: It's all shadows.
Why shadows? Partly serendipity: Shadows were what gave director Christine Marie the idea. "I was stopped at a railroad crossing in Emeryville and my headlights cast huge shadows onto the buildings. It looked so cool that I bought some model trains and experimented with making 20-foot train shadows on my walls." With the image of a shadow train indelibly imprinted on her brain, Marie developed the show.
4Trains tells the story of a rural couple in the late 19th century as they enjoy an idyllic romantic life together—until the coming of the railroads upends everything they took for granted. "Rail travel changed everything: our sense of time, our ideas about globalization and worldwide capitalism, our sense of connectedness as a country," says Marie. "I thought about what it would be like to be the last generation of people to remember life before the railroad, and I realized it was very much like my own experience as one of the last people who will remember a world before the PC and the cellular phone."
Marie's living shadows play out across three giant screens, accompanied by live music. It's reminiscent of ballet, mime, silent film, and, of course, shadow puppetry, but remains its own animal, and more than a little bit of a head trip. Being shadows, things are not always as they appear: the seemingly enormous trains rumbling by in silhouette are just some model trains Marie bought off Craigslist a few years ago, and the cast's figures can stretch to as tall as 30 feet when dramatic effect demands it.
Marie is no technophobe, but she does relish the analog nature of 4Trains' visuals, most of which are created just by stagehands shining lights on people and props at the right angle. "A projected image is millions of pixels of hot digital energy," she said. "A shadow feels more cool and inviting. They're mysterious but also familiar, since we all have shadows, and an environment of giant shadows feels ancient and dreamlike."
And get this: 4Trains features segments in genuine 3D, glasses provided when you take your seat. It's actually an old trick, a 19th century parlor gag called a "stereoscopic anaglyph," but knowing how it's done doesn't make the idea of giant 3D shadow people any less of a drastic freak out moment. "People duck," says Marie, proudly, "which is something I never see at big budget 3D movies anymore."
4Trains plays December 4, 5, and 6 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.