New production explores reincarnation through puppetry 

“Beyond the Light,” which after five years of workshopping, is premiering at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St. Part of FringeArts, it plays from Sept. 18 to 22 and fuses a scope of theatrical disciplines.

“Beyond the Light,” which after five years of workshopping is premiering at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street with FringeArts from Sept. 18 to 22, fuses a scope of theatrical disciplines. (Photos special to SPR/ Photo by William Haas)

Whether working with shadow puppets or aerial acrobatics, Leila Ghaznavi explores various vehicles of performance to convey a certain sensation. 

“Because I like breaking gravity, finding the visual imagery that’s going to emphasize that emotional moment – is really what I strive for in the work that I create,” said the New York-based artist.

In her latest production, “Beyond the Light,” which after five years of workshopping, is premiering at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St. As part of FringeArts, it runs from Sept. 18 to 22, and Ghaznavi is fusing a scope of theatrical disciplines she’s collected over the years. 

While Ghaznavi, who founded Pantea Productions while receiving her master’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts, cultivates a physical kind of theater through mediums like puppetry and dance, “Beyond the Light” tells stories past the tangible.

This “creation story of love” illustrates the contingencies of finding one’s soulmate – even if that means spanning across space, time and even reincarnated lives. 

“One soul gets split into two and then from there, the two halves go on various incarnations through different lives and then the journey is about coming back together again,” Ghaznavi said. 

A “hybridization of dance, puppetry, shadow work and lighting effects,” the show is the product of various residences over the last five years, including its original workshopping at the Performance Garage in Philadelphia as well as its recent development at the Puppetry at the Carriage House (PATCH) sponsored by Jane Henson, the wife of Jim Henson, who created “The Muppets.”

Using a palette of puppetry and lighting, the performers illustrate the joy and despair of fortuity.

Dancing light bulbs, for example, represent the intertwining roles of fate. The black backdrop suggests the darkness of the universe’s infancy, as Ghaznavi says the show is, perhaps, a spin-off to the Big Bang. 

In a nightmare sequence, an entire performance happens in this black light, as a solo dancer’s white dress is the only thing visible to audiences as she searches for her lost lover. 

“It sort of shows the beauty and the struggle…It’s about that struggle to find the one and also find peace with yourself,” said director and Pennsport resident Candace O’Neil Cihocki. “Deep down, we don’t need anyone to complete us. We complete ourselves in some ways.”

With so many mediums, directing the show could feel daunting, but the cast’s scope of theatrical backgrounds creates a kaleidoscope of interdisciplinary presentations. 

“It’s always hard, but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding to work with multiple styles in one piece,” Cihocki said. “You get this cross-genre of worlds.”

These genres even stretch into spoken word. 

The performances are set to the sounds of verses written by poets ranging from Walt Whitman to Rumi, a 13th-century Persian writer.

The poetry, which is recited individually throughout the pieces by cast members, aims to incarnate romance in yet another form. 

Though past Pantea Productions productions were more women-centric, Ghaznavi describes “Beyond the Light” as unilateral, encompassing the viewpoints of men in relationships, too, through poetry, in particular. 

“(The poetry) is really breakouts from the running arcs of these reincarnation cycles to have these moments of stillness and verbalize everything that’s happening as well,” Ghaznavi said. “So, again, it’s about all of the different textures, the different ways we think about love. The different ways we think about finding that person that we’re searching for.”

Since its inception, “Beyond the Light” has undergone many transformations, including its development at PATCH, Indy Convergence and the Eugene O’Neill Puppetry Conference. The piece was also a recent recipient of the Emerging Artist Commissioning Program from Streb Action Mechanics Laboratory.

But, the team says bringing the “Beyond the Light” home to Philadelphia feels appropriate, especially amidst the experimentation of the FringeArts Festival. 

“Philly audiences are geared up to see something new, to see something different and to explore, in a way, I don’t think you necessarily find audiences are in other cities,” Ghaznavi said.

From adults seeking romantic hope to children enjoying puppetry, “Beyond the Light” is intended for all audiences. 

“We’re bringing a play about love and life back home, and five years later after since its first time here in Philly,” Cihocki said. “I think it’s a nice break. It’s a nice love story. It feels light in a time when it feels maybe a little stressful for people in the world today.” 

For more information about the show, visit: 

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