Although citizens of the IT age may think slide projectors a 20th century relic (if they have even heard of them or seen one up close), slide projection is the earliest form of cinematic storytelling since the magic lantern became a household object in the 17th century. Its charms would eventually be dethroned by the grand illusions of the silver screen, but as the appropriately named Manual Cinema knows, today more than ever this lost art form retains a seductively retro appeal, and they are making slide projectors look mighty cool in the process. The technique consists mostly of slipping slides over each other in front of a light source (in this case, not one but three slide projectors) to create the effects of a panning camera, to which this young Chicago-based troupe adds shadow puppetry created with real actors and its own cut-out graphics. If you didn’t catch Manual Cinema in its first visit to NYC in 2014, with the bewitching Ada/Ava at 3LD, or see their fascinating animated film, The Forger, co-produced with The New York Times, your chance has arrived with Lula del Ray, which kicks off The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.
But in this newest offering, a cautionary coming of age tale that exploits two uniquely evocative moments of the 1950s – space exploration and early rock and roll – technique outpaces narrative. There is much to fall in love with here, from the sometimes gorgeous aesthetic that draws on the big skies and open spaces of the American southwest (with hints of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array in New Mexico, as well as Utah’s Canyonlands), the atmospheric score on cello and guitar by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman, and the whole troupe’s creative vision and energy as they manipulate thick piles of transparencies, miniature, articulated paper puppets, and their own silhouetted bodies, enhanced by wigs and specially designed masks that throw precisely outlined shadows. Sarah Fornace (Lula) and Julia Miller (Lula’s mother) are admirable in making every gesture concrete, even when interacting with a set that only exists as a projection of shadows.
Still, the story of Lula’s crush on fictional crooners The Baden Brothers doesn’t take us on much of a journey, other than to the oft-cited dangers of The Big City and back to the safety of home and mom. Hindered by some narrative lacunae and a lack of development of the central relationship (unavoidable, perhaps, due to the mimed action), her self-discovery feels more like a consolation prize. Though she blasts off finally for space, Lula del Ray’s star-gazing left me earthbound, yet bedazzled all the same by Manual Cinema’s artful poetry.