'Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol'

(Left to right) LaKecia Harris and Jeffrey Paschal in "Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol."

There is nothing quite like live theater. 

I was reminded of that anew while watching the premiere of “Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol” at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. 

In 2020, as theaters around the country were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Manual Cinema, the performance collective and video production company, originally created this show to be streamed over Zoom. Collective members Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter had been thinking about the project for years since its premiere, and the pandemic gave them ample time to bring it to fruition. 

Their vision merges key elements from Charles Dickens' classic Christmas ghost story with a new contemporary tale about a woman called Aunt Trudy, whose life partner has recently died. Grieving and embittered by her loss, she nonetheless feels duty bound to continue a tradition started by the late Uncle Joe, who loved everything Christmas and staged his puppet version of “A Christmas Carol” for friends and family every year. 

So, Aunt Trudy reluctantly invites the family and us into her home over Zoom and embarks on a performance that's pretty much a disaster because of her difficulties locating the puppets — there are hundreds — and operating them. She gets increasingly frustrated, skips over parts of Dickens and is further rattled by a thunderstorm that knocks out the power. But then the puppets sort of take over and the story tells itself.

I watched the Zoom presentation in 2020 and, frankly, was disappointed. Maybe I was expecting straightforward Dickens done with Manual Cinema's marvelous multifaceted puppetry. I couldn't see the reason for mucking that up with the angst of an unhappy older woman. Indeed, I almost skipped the live production.

That would have been a big mistake. Watching LaKecia Harris, who plays Aunt Trudy, on Writers' thrust stage surrounded by reminders of the pandemic and the cardboard boxes in which she's packed not only puppet paraphernalia but also other mementos of her life with Uncle Joe made her suffering palpable. And when she has the epiphany about the time she's wasted being miserable — just as Scrooge does — it is incredibly moving in a way that it wasn't on screen.

Harris also is very funny in the early scenes, both in her caustic commentary on the circumstances and her malaprop manipulation of the puppets. Her hilarious delivery of the narrative and dialogue from Dickens starts out flat and emotionless but becomes increasingly emotional as she gets caught up in what she's doing. The appearance of a trio of black-clad puppeteers — Lizi Breit, Jeffrey Paschal, Miller  — contributes to the melange, and the script (with added material by Nate Marshall) replaces some of Dickens' social criticism with riffs on the deficiencies of the current health care system and such.

If you're not familiar with Manual Cinema, the collective specializes in using two-dimensional puppets, live actors, overhead projectors and more to build cinematic scenes by hand and bring them to life on a large screen. Kauffman and Vegter are responsible for the sound design and original score, which they also perform with the addition of Emily Meyer on violin and vocals. The lighting, some of it delightfully spooky, is designed by Trey Brazeal, with a number of other artists helping with the execution.

While “Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol” is much better live than on Zoom, I do have a few quibbles. Some of the visual images from Aunt Trudy's life are hard to figure out, and if you don't know Dickens' “A Christmas Carol,” you may get lost at times. If you do know it, you may miss some of what's being left out, as I did, even though Harris' Aunt Trudy brought me to tears.

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