Manual Cinema’s remarkable sleight-of-hand goes far beyond puppetry

SHARE Manual Cinema’s remarkable sleight-of-hand goes far beyond puppetry

A movie complete with inspired soundtrack and old-fashioned film spools. A play, with a quirky love story at its center, but no spoken words. A ballet, but one animated by the ordinary  peregrinations of people, birds and a wonderful dog, as well as a couple of brief Busby Berkeley-like fantasias. Encounters with The Grim Reaper and a mobile phone app, “reapr,” that suggests you had better seize the day. And, oh, not at all incidentally, shadow puppets and a tricky use of silhouettes that make it possible for paper forms and real people to coexist in the most poignant ways.

The sheer mind-boggling logistics involved in the seamless world premiere production of “Mementos Mori” — the masterful piece by Chicago-based Manual Cinema that opened to a packed house Thursday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre, where it is part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival — is enough to make your head spin. Direct yet mysterious, dark yet full of unexpected laughs, and despairing  yet not without hope, this is a haunting meditation on life, love and death. And part of its hypnotic effect comes from the fact that it reveals the mechanics of its many beautiful visual effects at the same time that it completely draws you into its multifaceted storytelling and distinctive characters.


‘MEMENTOS MORI’ HIGHLY RECOMMENDED When: Through Jan. 18 Where: Manual Cinema at Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre, 220 E. Chicago Tickets: $28 Info: (312) 280-2660; Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission


Written by Manual Cinema’s artistic directors (Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman), and directed by Miller, the show features remarkable work by actor-puppeteers Kasey Foster, Mitch Salm, Charlotte Long, Diane Mair, Nicole Richwalsky and Myra Su. They share the stage with a superb quartet of live musicians (Deirdre Huckaby, Michael Hilger, Alex Ellsworth and Maren Celest), who play and sing Vegter’s ingenious, eclectic score, as well as a group of laptop “engineers” who oversee Liviu Pasare’s video sequences and what might just be more cues than are involved in any Broadway spectacle.

It is that “reapr” app that is key to the story as each character’s projected life span comes up on the screen of a mobile phone.

Somewhere between the Hollywood sign and the Santa Monica Pier, an attractive blonde in a black dress and red scarf (the exceptionally watchable Foster), is looking for love, as is a rather depressed and nerdy projectionist (Salm) whose heart is not in the best condition.

In a more rural setting, a woman slams the door on her husband and heads off in a car with her young daughter, eventually checking into a boarding house run by an old woman who keeps a chess board on the table and religious paintings on the wall. The mother seeks work at a local laundromat. The daughter bonds with the old woman. The blond and the film projectionist eventually find romance, but it does not happen easily.

Meanwhile, sudden, fatal accidents occur, cigarettes are lit, paths are crossed, chicakens are slaughtered. Life unspools and rewinds. And even if you can’t always connect the dots, there is a truth to the serendipity and the purposefulness of it all that is enthralling, although a 10-minute trim would enhance the overall impact.

The dictionary defines “Mementos Mori” as “the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.”

Manual Cinema brings its own definition to the term: A work of art of such complexity and insight, such whimsy and profundity, that it gives a whole new meaning to the art of “puppet theater.”

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