The Death of TV at The Chopin Theater
Visiting the Polish Triangle (Milwaukee, Division, Ashland), and The Chopin Theater, is delightful. It’s about a ten-minute drive due West of Oak Street Beach, easily reached by car, bus, subway, bike or a brisk walk. Thanks to the generosity of Holy Trinity Church, free parking is a breeze. Reasonably priced restaurants abound. The theater, 100 years old in 2019, is funky fun, with a small, vintage lobby, opening into a big box room, which Manual Cinema configured auditorium style facing a flat performance area.
Manual Cinema’s Chicago roots
Manual Cinema’s roots are in Red Moon, a Chicago performance group, now defunct, that popularized puppet, especially shadow puppet, theater. Their small, exquisite performances of dramatic and funny tales always made us want to look behind the scenes to demystify the magic.
A new art form from Manual Cinema
Manual Cinema has completely disrobed the standard magic of puppet play. Instead of the puppeteers manipulating behind the screen, hidden from the audience, they are front and center, with the performance projected to a large overhead screen.
The transposition takes some adjustment – where’s the “suspension of disbelief”? Instead, a new theater art is developed in front of us as we watch the four puppeteers scramble silently between two projection stations. One imitates a television broadcast, so is in color, with characters, sound, and a “puppet” chyron beneath. The other, main projection station, features back projection, with live shadow performers and front projection of various objects used by the live performers.
Don’t be, when you see it all running like a fine watch, you realize the gestalt of puppet theater—what goes on in the creation process, the production process and the shadow play on the screen are the art, not just shadows on a screen.
Manual Cinema is an inspired ensemble
The plot??—no need to spoil the punch line of the performance! It’s set in the rust-belt, post-industrial 90’s. Characters represent two sides of the American Dream. They are brought together to illustrate suffering, death, love, and humanity.
Maybe this would not be so fascinating if we were dealing with traditional shadow puppet play, cut out figures manipulated via sticks. But this is complex, with live performers, cut-outs, a multitude of characters, all interacting on a small floor. The four puppeteers--Kara Davidson,
Aneisa Hicks, Jeffrey Paschal, and Vanessa Vallier--fly from performing to manipulating transparencies. One can only imagine what is going on in the production booth at the back of the theater. In this writer’s view, Manual Cinema is an inspired ensemble of creative genius.
Shadow puppet theater is the graveyard of the overhead projector. Remember how we prepared transparencies for presentations prior to Power Point and links to projectors? Transparencies are used throughout shadow puppet productions, with a simple cardboard flap that flips over the projection mirror to end the sequence from that projector. Remember this is “manual” cinema.
The Death of TV features original music and lyrics
“But wait, there’s more…”
The big more here is the music--seven talented musicians whose music supports and enhances the visuals, much like a silent movie. Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter wrote the music and lyrics. Like this writer, you too may yearn to understand each word as it was performed, á la musical theater. That rarely happened, so one must assume that the vocals were meant to be under the orchestration. The lyrics are reproduced in the program. The band also plays each Saturday evening following the performance.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE A YOUNGSTER INTERESTED IN THEATER AND FOR ANY ADULT WHO HAS A BIT OF THE CHILD IN THEIR PERSONALITY.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Puppeteers and Musicians:
Kara Davidson, (Flo/Puppeteer), Aneisa Hicks, (Louise/Puppeteer), Jeffrey Paschal, (Ensemble/Puppeteer), Vanessa Valliere, (Ensemble/Puppeteer) Shalynn Brown aka Red, (Drums), Maren Celest, (Vocals, Live Sound FX, Live Video Mixing), Deidre Huckabay, (Flute), Ben Kauffman, (Vocals, Guitar, Keyboard), Lia Kohl, (Cello, Vocals), Marques Toliver, (Vocals, Violin), Kyle Vegter, (Bass).
Storyboarded and directed by Julia Miller, adapted for the screen by Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter, original music by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, sound design by Kyle Vegter, puppet design by Lizi Breit, lighting design by Claire Chrzan, costume design by Mieka Van Der Ploeg, mask design by Julia Miller, stage manager, Shelby Glasgow.
Reviewer Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater. Involved in the audience since the early 80’s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of our theater scene, our exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. Ann handles public relations for authors and works on programs to help seniors with neurological movement disorders. Please visit her website for more information.
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