The Chicago-based company Manual Cinema has virtually created a genre of its own: nearly wordless, puppetry mixed with projections, but also in part filmed and projected live, and currently scored by a spectacular musical ensemble. Watching this piece, which draws a section of its aesthetic from the early film era, feels almost more like peeking from the wings as a silent film is made than like going to a play. Frankenstein, centering as it does around a quasi-human monster and questions of what constitutes life, presents a beautiful playing field for the uncanniness of puppetry. (The puppets are designed by Drew Dir and Lizi Breit; Breit is also in the puppeteering ensemble.)
Mary Shelley’s original novel comprises three nested stories–the outer frame is epistolary: letters from a sea captain in the Arctic to his sister, telling her of his crew’s rescue of the nearly-dead Victor Frankenstein (performed/puppeteered by Sarah Fornace). Then we have the tale Frankenstein tells the sea captain about his pursuit of the monster he himself created, and the monster’s (Julia VanArsdale Miller) own horrific tale of becoming conscious, of discovering his own monstrosity and the violence that ensues. To these, Manual Cinema adds the story surrounding the creation of the novel: Mary Shelley (also Fornace), newly married to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Leah Casey) and having recently lost a child, enters a bet with her husband and his friend Lord Byron (Sara Sawicki) over who can tell the best ghost story.
The piece ties Shelley’s biography to her novel thematically: issues of loss and unfulfilled love, of feeling trapped by circumstance and one’s own decisions. Still, it can’t quite align the amount of material enough to balance the segments. They do wonderful things with the early part of Shelley’s story, using their trademark combination of silhouetted acting and shadow puppets to great emotional effect in dramatizing the loss of Shelley’s daughter and the nightmares that haunt her thereafter, but once Shelley begins writing, not much actually happens in her story, and it starts to run out of steam.
The most ingenious conceit is finding a different visual/technological approach to each of the four segments, each of which is simultaneously created live and projected on a large overhead screen that gives the full effect of the combined projections, film, and puppets. Three of them, in addition, have individual locations in the space, with the monster’s own tale becoming a spatial link among them. (The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall is perhaps not the ideal venue for this piece; it’s deep rather than wide, which places the musicians are between the audience and the performers for much of the show, and with a shallow rake to the seating. Both of these mean that portions of the audience can only watch onscreen, and it’s much more interesting to look at both the creators and the result simultaneously.) The ship captain’s frame story is told using what looks like a child’s puppet theater, with a hand-scrolled backdrop inside it, and projections of hand-inked drawings that seem to be viewed through a porthole, alongside handwritten title card. Set and projection designer Davonte Johnson does beautiful, intricate and evocative work throughout; the water-color backdrops on the scroll are particularly stunning.
Shelley’s story is performed in silhouette, with a combination of layered shadow-puppet projections (the layers are created simultaneously on multiple seventies-style overhead projectors focused on the same screen) and live actors performing via their shadows, cast by the light of the projectors as well. Watching the actors/puppeteers interact with the shadow puppets can feel like actual magic; the ensemble shifts between performance and puppetry, adjusting scale and perspective as nimbly as if they were intercutting camera angles. (And it’s these shifts of perspective throughout, these ways of giving a live event the visual flexibility of a filmed one, that make Manual Cinema’s work so interesting.)
Victor’s story comes the closest to an actual silent movie–performed, filmed, and projected simultaneously with a mix of live (silent) acting in front of backdrops and puppetry, intercut with silent-film-styled title cards. The monster is sometimes a silhouette-projection of an actor in a grotesque mask but a creepy, misshapen stuffed marionette that is filmed and manipulated in genuinely unsettling ways.
There’s a lot going on, in other words. Sometimes a little too much, perhaps–the shifts back and forth between performance locations and styles can feel a little frenetic.
The piece is virtually free of spoken language, other than a few chanted songs, but its soundscape, mixing music with live sound effects, is one of its strongest elements. The original music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman (who also share the sound design credit) is performed by a four-piece ensemble that includes cello, flute, clarinet, and an extensive array of traditional and creative percussion instruments that virtually fill the space. Looking at the setup, you expect a full orchestra to sit down; it took halfway through the piece to realize there were only four musicians shifting positions to cover all the elements.
While the epic scope of Frankenstein may have tipped one notch too far toward complexity, dividing focus in a way that loses some of the intimacy and crispness of their earlier shows, it’s still an experience like none other, rich in stage magic and the ingenious use of simple materials–and, as ever, a master class in the possibilities of shadow puppetry.