Fairfax, VA,  Saturday, August 1, 1998

This morning Gigi Sandberg and I left the George Mason University Campus to embark on a little adventure of our own. We took bus, subway, train and taxi to visit Rick Shelley in Baltimore, MD, and to see his Toy Theater, the Serenissima.

Rick met us at the door of a large corner townhouse and ushered us into the first floor parlor, which is the Serenissima. It was cool and dark, and there was a lot to look at. Most prominently displayed was the proscenium of the Serenissima itself, the glowing center of a wall of rich red brocade. Two handsome armchairs faced it. But there was much more.

The walls were hung with glittering mosaics; Adam and Eve, a labyrinth, the Lion of St. Mark. Along one wall a highly complex fountain sprayed into several mosaic-lined bowls, gurgled out of a miniature ruined cathedral, and spewed from the mouth of a renaissance Green Man into the foliage below. At the back of the theater: a grand piano and a pipe organ.

Rick, we soon discovered, is a mosaic artist when he's not working on a production for the Serenissima. He had just finished a large commission in a church in Baltimore. The creations on the wall were his.

Rick then proceeded to treat us to a performance of his current production, Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's Nightingale. This piece turned out to be skillful blending of Toy Theater and shadow puppetry. One dazzling image followed upon another, sometimes with puppets before a shadow screen, sometimes with shadow puppets, sometimes with an image on the screen. This procession of vignettes was accompanied by a recorded narration, with music composed by Rick and performed by him on synthesizer and guitar.

The esthetics of the production have an almost cinematic feel. A "long shot" of the Imperial Palace, its windows slowly being lit as dusk turns into night, or glimmering in heavy falling snow, may be followed by a "close up". The mechanical nightingale, for instance, fills the stage with its sharp-edged incandescence; or we see the entire backdrop filled with the shadow of the real nightingale, caged.

But everything, large or small, carries with it the feeling of having been given a privileged glimpse into some exotic casket of jewels. From the richness of the golden proscenium to the brilliance of the dragon-encrusted act curtain, to the softly muted sunsets and glowering forests, everything glitters, sparkles and lives with light.

I was reminded at the end of the performance, that Rick is a mosaic artist. Just as in a mosaic there is an overall effect, i.e., the representational "picture", this effect is dependent upon the artist's choice of thousands of individual elements, i.e., the tiles themselves.

As in a mosaic, refraction, iridescence, reflection - all tricks of light and perception - combine to give Rick's highly polished performance the quality of a living dream from which one awakens only grudgingly.

[Jon Bankert]
See also:  [ Jon Bankert's page ]