Review: Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol Sparks Holiday Magic and Joy

“These are but shadows of things that have been.”

Those familiar with A Christmas Carol may recognize this haunting line from the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost takes Ebenezer Scrooge back in time, offering a window into the many Christmases of lost opportunities. As he expresses horror and heartbreak at witnessing his past, the ghost simply states this fact. These are shadows of what occurred in the past, but if he learns his lesson, the present and past could still change for the better.

Being no stranger to the Dickens’ classic, I knew the line would come when it did. In fact, having seen so many adaptations of A Christmas Carol in my time, I did not think anything could surprise me. However, for this particular show, the Ghost’s warning hit a little differently—especially given the context in which Manual Cinema’s adaptation takes place. This innovative version of the holiday classic is on stage now at Writers Theatre.

In true Manuel Cinema fashion, the Christmas tale is told through shadow puppetry (storyboards and puppet design by Drew Dir), an aesthetic that heightens the darker, haunting undertones of the story, especially when in conversation with the lighting and original score and sound design. In collaboration with LaKecia Harris as Aunt Trudy, skilled puppeteers Lizi Breit, Julia Miller, and Jeffrey Paschal bring these puppets to life in a way that adds to the magical wonder of the piece.

We enter on Aunt Trudy (LaKecia Harris), a recent widow. Her late partner, Uncle Joe, had a tradition of performing a puppet show version of A Christmas Carol for family on Christmas Eve. However, in this story, it is the height of COVID. The family is anxiously waiting over Zoom to participate in their beloved family tradition—a tradition that Aunt Trudy does not find quite so pleasant. Not only does Aunt Trudy have to perform a story for which she holds little appreciation, but she also must contend with the pandemic’s loneliness in the midst of her grief. Just when she is ready to give up on performing the story altogether, she finds herself visited by her own Christmas ghosts. Aunt Trudy is forced to tell A Christmas Carol from beginning to end, discovering that she might also have some lessons to learn alongside Scrooge on his journey. Harris has spot-on comedic timing, bringing a much-appreciated sense of levity to the ghost story's grief and regrets.

Which brings me back to the Ghost of Christmas Past’s line:

“These are but shadows of things that have been.”

Devised by Manual Cinema, the artists find their clever way of creating within a story: an opportunity for Aunt Trudy to form the moral of A Christmas Carol as she moves forward past the death of Uncle Joe. That alone is a new take and offers a different point of view. However, it was certainly not lost on me that we are still in the midst of a pandemic. 2020 does not feel all that long ago. I am sure I was not the only audience member who remembered holding holiday traditions over Zoom during the pandemic, and I know they continue to happen to this day. Manual Cinema’s adaptation invites audience members to revisit their own shadows alongside Trudy. As we remember COVID challenges and potential heartbreaks, there is also an invitation to imagine the hope and possibilities of what is to come.

To put it simply, the famous tale becomes a bit more personal. With that, you just might find that the magic comes alive in a slightly elevated manner. The mastery of the shadow puppetry adds an extra layer of awe, and if you’re anything like me, you might find that you are sitting on the edge of your seat, curious to see how the company utilizes their tools to share the next element of the story. I do not want to give away all of the company’s tricks, but I will say that particularly when the Ghost of Christmas Future entered the story, I found it hard not to get lost in the almost frightening tone of the moment.

The standout design team features storyboards and puppet designer Drew Dir, original score and sound designers Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, lighting designer Trey Brazeal, associate lighting designer Hannah Wien, costume designer Julia Miller, properties designer Rae Watson, and stage manager Natalie Cohen.

Full of magic, dark humor, and stellar performances, Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol is not to be missed. A lot of holiday stories are starting to take the stage, each with their own spin. With the creativity of the storytelling and the deeply personal approach to the adaptation, I personally feel that Manual Cinema’s production stands out in a different way.

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are $45-$65 for Tuesday-Sunday performances. Running time is 70 minutes without intermission.   

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Lauren Katz