Where: Manual Cinema at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through Aug. 5
Tickets at: www.manualcinema.com/cal
By ANNE SPISELMAN
As the name suggests, Manual Cinema is dedicated to creating cinema by hand. Sort of.
What the company actually does is combine handmade shadow puppetry, live action, and cinematic techniques using vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens, various kinds of puppets, actors, live-feed cameras, multi-channel sound design, and a live music ensemble to tell socially relevant stories that both do and don’t emulate movies. One unique feature is that the entire process is out in the open, so you can watch exactly how a work is being created moment by moment at the same time as you see the results. It’s a stupendous feat of collaboration and coordination as well as a display of unusual artistry.
The current 75-minute show, “The End of TV” at the Chopin Theatre, premiered last June at The International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT, and differs from the previous half-dozen or so in that it started with a song cycle rather than a story and includes a larger-than-usual seven-person onstage band. For those who’ve never seen Manual Cinema before, it also provides a preview of the performance style likely to prevail in the group’s world premiere of “Frankenstein” at Court Theatre in November.
Set in a post-industrial Rust Belt city in the 1990s, “The End of TV” explores the promise and pitfalls of the American Dream in an age of rampant consumerism and advertising. Technicolor period ads (the Jolly Green Giant and his sun-drenched land of corn niblets loom large, as does QVC shopping network ) are interwoven with scenes of two women whose lives unexpectedly intersect.
Flo (Kara Davidson), once a supervisor at a thriving auto plant (think Rosie the Riveter), is now elderly and suffering from dementia. She spends her days riveted to the television, her memories mingling with commercials and the “buy now” QVC message that’s led her house to fill with boxes, even as she throws away eviction notices tacked to the door. While Flo is white, Louise (Aneisa Hicks) is a young black woman who gets laid off from the same plant when it closes. He recollections are of childhood and her father planting seeds that grew in their garden.
Louise takes a job with Meals on Wheels and meets Flo on her rounds. She helps the old lady who has an attack, and this changes both their lives in different ways.
Ensemble members Kyle Vegler and Ben Kauffman wrote the screenplay and music for “The End of TV,” which was adapted for the screen by them and Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller, who also directed and created the storyboards. Beside Davidson and Hicks, the actors are limited to Jeffrey Paschal and Vanessa Valliere—a surprise because they play so many characters, both live and puppet. The band includes Shalynn Brown aka RED (drums), Maren Celest (vocals, live sound FX, live video mixing), Deidre Huckabay (flutes, vocals), Ben Kauffman (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Lia Kohl (cello, vocals), Marques Toliver (vocals, violin) and Kyle Vegter (bass).
The original art pop songs are inspired by 1970s R & B, or so the press release says, but the lyrics—some apparently drawn from the ads—are totally unintelligible, or were on opening night, when other aspects of the sound also seemed out of whack. Like other Manual Cinema shows I’ve seen, “The End of TV” goes on for about 15 minutes too long, and it takes forever for the story lines to come together, so we can stop wondering what Flo and Louise have to do with each other. Some of the details also are unclear, for example, whether or not there’s a connection between Flo’s house and the one Louise lived in as a child. And several of the ads seemed to harken back to the 1950s rather than the ’90s.
On the other hand, some of the effects are very inventive, among them the way Flo’s dementia is portrayed. Despite the hopeful ending, the sadness of the tale has an emotional impact. There’s also no denying the imagination and teamwork necessary to put the show together, so don’t miss the chance to see it.