The recently widowed Aunt Trudy (LaKecia Harris) manipulates a puppet in “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol” at Writers Theatre.
As presented in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — or at least in the seemingly infinite adaptations through which most of us have absorbed its essence — Christmas isn’t so much a religious observance as it is a mood. The baby Jesus might be present somewhere in the margins, but the holiday that so irritates the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is a celebration of generosity, community, and togetherness.
That last element perhaps felt most out of reach in the winter of 2020, when the multimedia troupe Manual Cinema developed its own adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” for the streaming screen. With gatherings still largely discouraged nine months into the COVID pandemic, Manual Cinema’s “Carol” took the form of — what else? — a Zoom call.
Writers Theatre, which served as the presenting “venue” for 2020’s virtual production, now plays host to the show’s first in-person staging. The setting sticks with the isolated Christmas of 2020, as the recently widowed Aunt Trudy (LaKecia Harris) begrudgingly puts on a puppet-show rendition of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”
When: Through Dec. 24
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe.
Run time: 1 hour 10 minutes, with no intermission
The puppet theater, we learn, was a project of her late partner, Joe, the gregarious and whimsical yin to Trudy’s practical yang. Joe loved Christmas, naturally, whereas Trudy never much cared for it; this Christmas, especially, she’d much rather be left alone with her grief, a bottle of wine, and contactless delivery.
But Joe’s large extended family, Christmas enthusiasts all, have hassled Trudy into carrying on the tradition just this once. “Thank you, Cousin Linda,” Trudy says drily. “Your encouragement was relentless.”
With a few more caveats — she has not had time to rehearse this, she’s not going to remember all of the lines, and she will not be attempting an English accent — Trudy gets on with the show, working behind a pint-sized puppet proscenium. A digital camera is tightly trained on the miniature stage; we see its output on a large screen suspended above the action.
Before the first ghost has even appeared, though, a winter snowstorm knocks out Trudy’s power. Joe’s puppet theater, though, soon returns to life, and it become clear that Scrooge won’t be the only one visited by the spirits of Christmas tonight.
Manual Cinema’s trademark hybrid of stage and screen, live actors and shadow puppetry was a natural to adapt for streaming when the moment required it. But the group’s true magic is in the layers of its live performance — seeing both the “film” product onscreen and the masterful choreography of its creation.
The conceit of the Zoom performance allows that we can frequently see Aunt Trudy at work behind the scenes; eventually, as the show seems to take on a life of its own, Scrooge’s face (expressively illustrated by puppet designer Drew Dir) essentially doubles with Trudy’s, both registering wonder and fear at the visions visited upon them.
But just as being able to see Trudy behind the curtain deepens the experience of the show within the show, watching the machinations of the full Manual Cinema team only enhances the marvel of the interplay.
That includes puppeteers Lizi Breit, Julia Miller and Jeffrey Paschal, shrouded in black from head to toe, providing assistance at Trudy’s tiny stage and manning an array of old-school overhead projectors, where they manipulate silhouette puppets and reams of illustrated backgrounds to create the illusion of on-the-fly animation. A trio of onstage musicians — composers and sound designers Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, along with violinist Emily Meyer — provide a live score.
Harris, it should be said, is indispensable as Aunt Trudy, cleverly modulating her performance to play both in the room and at larger-than-life-size on screen. She makes for a hugely appealing and identifiable substitute Scrooge in a “Carol” that’s about accepting loss and appreciating what we have.