Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association
Manual Cinema, Chicago’s interdisciplinary theatre collective specializing in original adaptations performed live using paper puppets, music, etc., is without a doubt among the most inventive troupes in town. With their 2020 streaming production of A Christmas Carol, they may well have moved into “must-see” territory. This is a town that is annually more or less inundated with Carol productions (even during this COVID year), but you will never see a more creative one than this one.
The adaptation centers on a character named “Aunt Trudy” (memorably portrayed in live performance by N. LaQuis Harkins). Trudy is our Zoom stand-in for Scrooge as she begrudgingly tackles her recently deceased husband’s beloved annual Carol puppet show online for her nieces and nephews, and Harkins is masterful as her Christmas skeptic character discovers, through a lockdown immersion in her late husband’s gorgeous imagery, the actual magic of the holiday season. This is one Christmas Carol that doesn’t even need “God bless us, every one” to tug at our heartstrings.
Watching Manual Cinema live is a feast for the mind as the audience members themselves decide whether to focus on one of the puppetry areas, the musicians, the large screen overhead on which the live-edited full play is shown, or whatever we want. In the Zoom format, this is (of course) more limited as the medium forces the company to make those decisions for us, but none of the vitality feels sacrificed, partly because of the (brilliant) decision to keep cutting away from the compiled puppet show so we can glimpse “backstage” in Trudy’s homey living room.
With beautiful and, at times, haunting (no pun intended) melodies by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegtor, brilliant backgrounds (by Vegtor and Julia Miller), and wonderful puppetry by Harkins, Miller, Drew Dir, Liz Breit, and Sarah Fornace, this Carol feels every bit as magical and powerful as the most elaborate large-scale productions. You won’t want to miss it. Manual Cinema’s A Christmas Carol is now available for streaming online through December 20, with tickets and specific times available from Manual Cinema. The show runs approximately 60 minutes with no intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.