Every once in a while you get to see a work of theater that seems as if it could reinvent the form. Manual Cinema is a Chicago-based company that has earned international visibility for its unique, quirky, retro tech productions. You can see its latest, titled The End of TV, at the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park, but only through August 5.
It’s hard to describe what actually happens in The End of TV. Creators Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter have composed a rich and dramatic art-pop song cycle, performed by seven musicians, which accompanies the story played out by actors and shadow puppets on multiple screens. The production is storyboarded and directed by Julia Miller.
The End of TV is set in pre-internet America in an unidentified midwestern post-industrial city. There is a moving story thread about an older woman with a QVC habit and symptoms of dementia, and a younger woman who loses her factory job and takes on a Meals on Wheels delivery job. Flo (Kara Davidson) and Louise (Aneisa Hicks) become friends as the older woman reaches the end of her life and the younger one invents a new one for herself. This story, along with vintage TV commercials and QVC “call-now” invitations, tangle with Flo’s memories of her earlier life, working in the same auto plant where Louise has worked. This all plays out on a large central screen, where the actors’ shadow figures interact with shadow puppets. The live actors move back and forth in front of a lower screen and the operators of the vintage overhead projectors magically move backgrounds, shadow puppets and more to display on the upper screen.
Meanwhile, on another screen set up to our left, QVC host Vanessa Valliere sells Snoopy caps, clothing and other merchandise. A TV news host, Jeffrey Paschal, also performs as a TV spiritualist offering emotional support to troubled viewers. The four actors are also puppeteers and projector operators. Simple costume changes involve wigs, caps and quick-change jackets, plus silhouette masks that actors wear to enhance their profiles on the projection screen.
An excellent band of seven musicians—singers and instrumentalists—performs the original music and lyrics by Kauffman and Vegter. From a song titled “Real Grace”: “It’s a smiling face / this economy / It’s a bitter taste / this economy / It’s a hard-hearted game / this economy…. It’s a real place / this community / Made of real grace / this community.”
Vegter is also sound designer and Mike Usrey is technical director and sound engineer. Puppets are designed by Lizi Breit. Claire Chrzan is lighting designer.
The End of TV is a magical hour in the theater. I enjoy seeing revitalized productions of work by my favorite playwrights like O’Neill, Shepard, Williams, Brecht, Stoppard and Shakespeare. Sometimes they enable you to hear those old words in a new way. But it’s even more exciting to see theater created in a new and revolutionary shape. Manual Cinema was formed in 2010, and is now touring in Europe with another production. The next Manual Cinema production we can look forward to is its world premiere production of Frankenstein at Court Theatre, November 1 thru December 2.
The End of TV by Manual Cinema runs 75 minutes and continues at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, through Sunday, August 5. Performances are 7pm Thursday-Saturday and 3pm Sunday. Buy tickets for $30 or $20 for students and seniors (plus fees).