Stages

Review: In Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, Aunt Trudy and the Puppets Bring a Message of Hope for the Holidays

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present.

If you like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol performed by shadow puppets with special effects from an overhead projector, Manual Cinema has an adaptation of the holiday classic for you. Its 2020 virtual production of the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol is available for viewing this year and it’s still quirky and delightful, even though it retains its earlier pandemic theme. (Yes, we’re still in the damnable pandemic or endemic, so enjoy this view of it.)

The show is done with Manual Cinema’s talented puppeteers and musicians in their own pods and not visible to us, as they would be at a live show. But the magic still happens. The premise is that Aunt Trudy (a splendid N. LaQuis Harkins) is going to perform Uncle Joe’s Christmas puppet show this year for the whole family on Zoom—but without Uncle Joe, who died of Covid over the summer. Trudy, a marketing VP at a major tech company, lets us know that her “counterparts at Amazoon and Gaggle” would never spend their time like this, but she warms up to the task, as she warms up to her memories of Uncle Joe.

Aunt Trudy (N. LaQuis Harkins) begins the show. Screenshot from the recorded show.

Soon Aunt Trudy, with the help of puppeteers Lizi Breit and Sarah Fornace, starts the show on a shadow screen in her apartment. The intricately cut puppet figures of Scrooge, Christmases Past, Present and Future plus the Cratchett family, tell the familiar story, always with a Manual Cinema twist. Here the Cratchett family is portrayed as a Black family, thus adding an element of social justice to the MC ending. And Aunt Trudy steps in to be our own contemporary Mr. Scrooge, who warms up to Christmas dinner with the family at the end. The ending reprises the warm feeling you have after a traditional Christmas Carol performance—and has a message of hope for our future.

The script is written by the Manual Cinema artistic directors: Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter. Sound design and the original score are performed by Ben Kauffman on guitar, piano, lead vocals, and Kyle Vegter on cello, keys and vocals. Puppet designs are by Drew Dir and Julia Miller. Maddy Low handled costume design, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter, set design, and Andrew Morgan, lighting design. Mike Usrey is technical director and sound engineer. Shelby Sparkles is stage manager and the person who handles all the cues.

The Manual Cinema musicians and puppeteers. Photo by Maren Celest.

When the one-hour show ends, stay for the pre-recorded “Puppet Time” video where puppeteers and musicians show how they create the performance with two people each in their separate pods—separated for the pandemic. If it was a live show, you would be able to walk around and visit with the creators and performers on stage and inspect the amazing collection of visual and sound materials they use to create the performance. In this virtual post-show visit, you’ll learn how they create the beautiful rain, snow and fireplace scenes on an overhead projector, how puppet movement is articulated, and why they need hundreds of puppets.

Tickets, on sale now at manualcinema.com, are $15 for on-demand, at-home screenings through January 3, 2022. Ticket buyers can play the recorded version any time within 48 hours of purchase. Closed captioning is available to all viewers. Each stream concludes with the pre-recorded, post-show “Puppet Time” video featuring Manual Cinema’s artists revealing how the on-screen magic was made.

On Thursday, December 16, at 7:30pm, Manual Cinema will host a Facebook Live event to bring its artists and audiences together for a live discussion about the making of the original production in 2020, and how its story and themes still resonate one year later.

The world premiere of Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol took place on December 3, 2020, live from Manual Cinema’s studios in Chicago. The company went on to perform the show, all in a carefully controlled, socially distanced setting, and stream it live more than 20 times during its debut run.

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