It’s not the easiest or the most practical of storytelling forms, so why tell a story using shadow puppets? The reason, as Manual Cinema demonstrates, is actually fairly obvious: You tell a story using shadow puppets if it can’t be told any other way.
In Ada/Ava, the young Chicago-based performance collective justify their narrative mode again and again, with a show whose themes — darkness and light, illusion and revelation, and, ultimately, the beauty in ephemerality — are intrinsically reflective of the medium in which it is being presented.
Ada/Ava has been their work in progress since 2010, where it started in a first-floor apartment window in Chicago. Since then, it’s been performed everywhere from London to the Netherlands to Iran. The reason it’s got such legs is simple: Ada/Ava explores universal themes of loss, loneliness and redemption, and it does so in a wordless language of pictures and gestures that anyone can understand.
Theirs is a mesmerizing choreography, a seamless coordination of bodies and images and sounds. At first, one might be hypnotized by the dizzying complexity of it all — a fascination not unlike like that which one experiences watching the mechanisms inside of a clock tick and whir. For an hour, the five puppeteers — Kara Davidson, Sam Deutsch, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller — execute a series of scene changes, animations, and effects on translucent sheets placed on four old-school projectors that constitutes a meticulous choreography all its own. On occasion, Davidson and Miller jump into the projected scene themselves, donning grey wigs and a curious apparatus that gives them the aging profile of the titular characters before seamlessly returning to create a flash of lightning or make a kettle boil.
But the spectacle of stagecraft quickly gives way to investment in the story they’re telling, the tale of two elderly sisters Ada and Ava. Soon enough it becomes clear: the narrative they’ve crafted — a Gothic tale that Tim Burton or Edward Gorey would admire — is just as magical as their means of telling it. Indeed, Ava and Ada are anything but two-dimensional. They reflect on the past and they project thoughts in the future. They have dreams and nightmares. Their story is by turns scary and sad, joyful and melancholy.
On the screen, Manual Cinema produces fades in and out, jump cuts, montages, and pans, close-ups and wide scenes; it has all the intimacy of a cinematic experience with none of the inherent distance for the audience. The sometimes haunting, sometimes soaring score, provided by Michael Hilger and Kyle Vegter adds to the emotional investment. Maren Celest, who controls the live sound effects and plays clarinet, nearly steals the show when she sings her beautiful renditions of “All of Me” and “Solitude.”
While Ada/Ava may be different from any show you’ve seen recently or are likely to see in the future, there’s something fundamental and refreshing about what the members of Manual Cinema are doing here. Their techniques might be novel, but ultimately, unlike so many productions with flashy or unusual technological elements, they are primarily interested in the most ancient and elementary of theater’s tasks: telling stories in the dark and bringing characters to life. In short: making magic.