One of the more memorable offerings at the recent Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival was the world premiere of Mementos Mori by Manual Cinema, a local group that is moving into the national spotlight. The company’s medium is light and shadow, but to label them a shadow-puppet theatre feels misleading. They use low-tech cardboard cutouts, overhead projectors and high-tech video cameras and sound systems to perform silent animated films frame by frame in real time. A gaggle of actors, puppeteers, technicians, and musicians assembles the show on the spot, mixing a raft of elements and special effects in surprising ways. Chances are you have not seen anything quite like it before.
Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Mementos Mori is Manual Cinema’s most ambitious project to date. Amusing and macabre at once, it tells a story about the Angel of Death, presented as a femme fatale, and a little girl with a Game Boy who trade places in a way that threatens to throw off the order of the universe—or at least Los Angeles, where the action takes place. The piece is projected on three screens, two at stage level and one on a master composite screen above. Part of the fun is watching the dance of the performers as they navigate a maze of cables and tech tables, shifting from operating shadow puppets to being silhouetted as puppets themselves.
This is shaping up as a breakout year for Manual Cinema, which was started in 2010 by its five co-artistic directors: Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter. On the heels of the Mementos Mori premiere, they contributed 10 short videos to an exhibit at the Chicago History Museum on “The Secret Lives of Objects.” In March, they teamed up with the London group Erratica on a video opera based on the 1499 Spanish proto-novel La Celestina, which was presented as a site-specific installation in the Patio from the Castle of Vélez Blanco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Ada Ava, their 2011 piece about septuagenarian twin sisters moving between life and death, runs through July 5 at Manhattan’s 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center.
Manual Cinema’s unique and versatile aesthetic has already taken them in a lot of directions, including into music videos and movie trailers. Figuring out which direction matters to them most may be their next big challenge.