As presented in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”—or at least in the seemingly infinite variations through which most of us have absorbed its essence—Christmas is not so much a religious ritual as It’s a mood. Infant Jesus may exist somewhere on the fringes, but the holiday that so annoys miser Ebenezer Scrooge is a celebration of generosity, community, and togetherness.
That last element may have gone out of reach in the winter of 2020, when multimedia conglomerate Manuel Cinema developed its own adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” for streaming screens. With the COVID pandemic still largely discouraging nine months in, manual cinema’s “Carol” has taken the form of – what else? Zoom call.
The Writers’ Theatre, which served as the presenting “venue” for the 2020 virtual production, now hosts the show’s first in-person staging. The setting sticks with the isolated Christmas of 2020, as recently widowed Auntie Trudy (LaCecia Harris) leads a puppet-show rendition of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”.
‘The Christmas Carol of Manual Cinema’
The puppet theater, we learn, was a project of her late partner, Joe, the lavish and eccentric yin to Trudy’s practical yang. Joe naturally loved Christmas, whereas Trudy never cared much for it; This Christmas, especially, she’ll be left alone with her grief, a bottle of wine and contactless delivery.
But Joe’s large extended family, all Christmas enthusiasts, has Trudy upset to carry on the tradition only this time. “Thanks, Cousin Linda,” Trudy says curtly. “Your encouragement was relentless.”
With a few more caveats—she hasn’t had time to rehearse it, she’s not going to memorize all the lines, and she won’t attempt an English accent—the Trudy show begins with a pint-sized puppet working behind the proscenium. Is . A digital camera is tightly trained on a miniature scale; We watch its output on a large screen suspended above the action.
Before the first ghost can even appear, however, a winter snowstorm drains Trudy’s power. Joe’s puppet theater, however, soon comes back to life, and it becomes clear that Scrooge will not be visited by the Christmas spirits tonight.
Manual cinema’s trademark hybrid of stage and screen, live actors and shadow puppetry was only natural to adapt to streaming when the moment required it. But the group’s real magic lies in the layers of its live performances—seeing both the “film” product on screen and the masterful choreography of its creation.
The conceit of the Zoom performance allows that we can often see Aunt Trudy working behind the scenes; Eventually, as the show seems to take on a life of its own, Scrooge’s face (delicately portrayed by puppet designer Drew Dirr) inevitably doubles with Trudy’s, both of whom register wonder and awe at the scene. .
But just as being able to see Trudy behind the scenes deepens the experience of the show within the show, witnessing the machinations of the entire Manual Cinema team only heightens the wonders of the interplay.
It features puppeteers Lizzie Breit, Julia Miller and Jeffrey Paschal, clad in head-to-toe black, providing Trudy’s tiny onstage assistance and an array of old-school overhead projectors, where They manipulate silhouette puppets and reams of pictorial backgrounds to create them. The illusion of on-the-fly animation. On stage a trio of musicians – composers and sound designers Ben Kaufman and Kyle Vägert, along with violinist Emily Meyer – provide a live score.
Harris, it must be said, is indispensable as Aunt Trudy, deftly modifying her performance to play in the room and on the larger-than-life-size screen. She makes an extremely charming and recognizable substitute Scrooge in a “Carol” that’s about accepting loss and appreciating what we have.
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