Review: MANUAL CINEMA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL at Writers Theatre

This magical production runs through December 24th.

By: Nov. 26, 2023
Review: MANUAL CINEMA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL at Writers Theatre
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Charles Dickens’s classic holiday novella A Christmas Carol has been adapted so many times for stage, radio, television, and film that even those who have never read the original could recite it beat for beat without hesitation. Each winter, audiences revel in the entertaining redemption arc of Ebenezer Scrooge while also reflecting on how they themselves have lived in the year already past and how they might live in the new year to come. Many families have made it an annual tradition to attend one of the many theatrical productions of A Christmas Carol mounted across Chicago and its surrounding suburbs each year. But few dramatic adaptations manage to convey the magic, the emotional power, and—yes—the terror of Dickens’s original as effectively and impactfully as Manual Cinema’s version, now playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe through December 24th.

Based in Chicago but globally renown, Manual Cinema tells classic and original narratives through the use of shadow puppetry, vintage overhead projectors, digital cinematography, and live sound effects and music. Performers project a movie for the audience to see and enjoy but all the work that goes into creating that movie is reenacted live on stage. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the performance collective adapted their techniques for a virtual space, creating a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol that premiered over Zoom before getting a full stage treatment at Writers Theatre in 2022. The Chicago Tribune named this production one of its top shows of the year, a designation that it deserves yet again this year and hopefully for many years to come.

One of the features that makes MANUAL CINEMA’S CHRISTMAS CAROL so exciting is its framing device. In this version, the antisocial and miserly Aunt Trudy has been coerced into putting on the puppet show adaptation of Dickens’s tale that her husband Joe would perform for their extended family every year. Joe has recently died from COVID, though, and the pandemic has forced the family to interact with one another exclusively through Zoom. Worse yet, Trudy would much rather retreat into her work and grief than be reminded of the loss she has suffered, a fact she isn’t afraid to make known to her in-laws. As a snow storm descends and technical difficulties abound, the puppets take on a life of their own and whisk Trudy away on a journey through her past, present, and future very similar to Scrooge’s own.

The adaptation clocks in at a nicely paced 75 minutes, hitting many of the most familiar moments of the classic tale without dwelling longer than necessary on any of them, a welcome development from those of us who suffer from chronic Christmas Carol fatigue. Scrooge’s foray into his past is told through a gorgeously performed musical montage, with shadows and a hypnotic melody conveying heartbreak more forcefully than dialogue that sounds stilted to our modern ears. More impressively, Scrooge’s moral development is nicely balanced with Trudy’s own realizations and epiphanies, putting the two characters on an equal footing that makes the story feel as relevant to our own times as ever before.

Returning to the role of Aunt Trudy for another year, LaKecia Harris succeeds in translating Scrooge’s behavior for contemporary audiences, capturing his bitter anger and resentment while still exuding a warmth and gentleness that leaves us rooting for her reclamation. This is a tough balance to strike for even the most talented of actors, and Harris greatly benefits from creating a performance that is entirely her own rather than copying the long line of Ebenezers who have come before her. In the play’s final moments, when Trudy’s courtship and relationship with Joe is laid out by the spirits floating around the auditorium, Harris’s pain is so palpable in her body that only the most hardhearted of spectators could leave the theater with a dry eye.

Review: MANUAL CINEMA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL at Writers Theatre

But the true theatrical magic of the performance comes to life thanks in large part to the work of the puppeteers: Lizi Breit, Julia Miller, and Jeffrey Paschal, who also pulls double duty as an overworked food deliverer and a rather winsome Tiny Tim. These actors cycle through hundreds of puppets, cutouts, and projections—much of them beautifully designed by co-artistic director Drew Dir—with such speed and ease that watching their technical expertise is every bit as engaging as the video projected over their heads. Their performances of the various spirits pay homage to the source material while also adapting the roles for younger, perhaps more easily bored audiences. The Ghost of Christmas Past mocks Scrooge for being an out-of-touch Boomer, and Christmas Present sounds like a 2010 Travis Kelce Twitter thread come to life. Christmas Carol purists may not be amused by the changes, but such choices skillfully mix tradition with innovation in a way that should delight viewers of all ages.

The actors and puppeteers are accompanied by a three-piece onstage band performing an original score by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter. The tone is at once ethereal and folksy, with haunting lead vocals by Teiana Davis that transport audiences to a dream space where ghosts are real and lives are changed (Kauffman replaces Davis on lead vocals later in the run). Other technical elements deserve similar praise. Trey Brazeal’s lighting design so skillfully moves lights and shadows across the stage that it often actually appears as though props and puppets have materialized out of thin air.

While there are more than enough adaptations of A Christmas Carol to choose from this holiday season, Manual Cinema’s production perhaps best captures the sense of a ghost story being told before a roaring fire, creating a communal space where family, friends, and neighbors can come together in celebration of one another and the better world we can create together.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren



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