Neither the sophisticated plot line nor the wildly imaginative visual mechanics of “Magic City” — Manual Cinema’s world premiere work devised to inaugurate Chicago Children’s Theatre’s new home at The Station — are uncomplicated in any way, shape or form. Yet it would be difficult to find a more wholly enraptured audience (most of whom were well under two feet tall) than the one that gathered for this past Saturday afternoon’s performance of the show.
MANUAL CINEMA’S ‘MAGIC CITY’
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre at The Station, 100 S. Racine
Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission
Not only were there none of the usual bathroom runs and crying jags that can erupt in an audience of young theatergoers, but the completely focused attention of the overall audience, and the probing comments and questions kids posed to the parents seated around me, were impressive. And the sheer wonderment inspired by the show carried over to its followup, as a small army of very independent-minded tots happily marched to the stage (free of parents) in order to get a closer look at the actors and their many props. There could be no more positive review than that.
The adults in the audience (including this one), were equally captivated and enchanted by Manual Cinema’s signature blend of live actors, old-fashioned cinematic techniques and shadow puppets, and the seemingly effortless but mind-boggling, meticulous “choreography” required to realize its special effects of scale and motion by way of the precision-tooled placement and manipulation of actors, puppets, props and light. (The sheer number of technical cues involved in this production is difficult to contemplate.)
But it is not just eye candy here. With “a screenplay and storyboard design” by Drew Dir that draws very loosely on English writer Edith Nesbit’s 1910 children’s novel (it is now very much re-oriented to a contemporary urban American milieu), the story in “Magic City” captures the difficulties of knitting together a blended family. At the same time it looks at the power of the imagination to protect and soothe a child caught up in an emotional crisis, and also to open up that child to new possibilities.
It all begins when nine-year-old Philomena (the marvelously expressive Sarah Fornace, decked out in red-framed glasses and a zany knit hat, and fueled by her character’s passionate likes and dislikes), learns that her twentysomething sister, Helen (Julia Miller), who has long served as her substitute mother, now has a “boyfriend.” The utterance of that word, and the look of shock and incomprehension on Fornace’s face, is enough to trigger a storm of laughter in the audience. And when Helen moves into Brandon’s large house, and then heads off on a honeymoon with Brandon (Linsey Falls) — leaving Philomena with her new stepbrother, Lucas (Jeffrey Paschal as a wonderfully clueless but likable boy) — things initially go very, very badly.
At first, Philomena climbs into the attic of her new house and discovers tons of the sort of “junk”she has long used to build miniature cities. She immediately sets to work constructing a bigger city than ever — a world that comes to life in remarkable ways after she falls asleep. Silverware, teapots, wine bottle openers, bath brushes and liquid soap containers all take on a life of their own. Two toothbrushes kiss. And in one of the more truly magical sequences, Philomena takes a walk on the wild side and comes upon Langston Hughes typing his poems to a wonderfully jazzy beat. Of course along the way there are countless detours, dangers and complications, including missed ferry boats and encounters with Amelia Earhart. And not only do Philomena and Lucas eventually develop a friendship, but Philomena’s broken heart and sense of displacement are mended.
All of the actors — whose performances are magnified on screen, and often projected as silhouettes — double as puppeteers. And their larger-than-life images, in many different forms, certainly hold the audience’s attention.
“Magic City” is an airtight team effort that includes Dir and Lizi Breit as art directors; Andrea Everman as miniatures designer; Sam Deustch and Miller as the designer of a memorable cat puppet; Mieka van der Ploeg as the designer of whimsical costumes, and Clair Chrzan as the lighting designer behind a most complicated plan.
All in all, this is an ideal collaboration between two richly creative organizations — Chicago Children’s Theatre and Manual Cinema — and one the bodes well for future projects.