The Chicago-based artistic collective known as Manual Cinema — a performance collective, design studio, and film and video production company founded in 2010 by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter — is one of those remarkable local treasures that has won acclaim far and wide, yet only recently has begun gaining major visibility right here at home.
MANUAL CINEMA’S ‘MAGIC CITY’
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre at The Station, 100 S. Racine
Run time: 75 minutes, with no intermission
Its work became a crucial storytelling element in the Lookingglass Theatre production of “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth” (which runs through Feb. 19), and was a featured element in a program for this past fall’s Ear Taxi Festival of New Music. It has been seen at an international puppet festival in Iran, at the Belgian Royal Opera, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in music videos for eighth blackbird, the Grammy Award-winning Chicago chamber ensemble. And just last month it garnered rave reviews for its shadow puppet show, “Lula del Ray,” produced as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival in New York.
Now, Manuel Cinema, which employs vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens, paper shadow puppets, live actors in silhouette, live feed cameras, multi-channel sound design, and a live music ensemble — and whose work is designed so that you can follow both the story itself, and all the mechanical and human elements being used to produce it — will stage its world premiere production of “The Magic City.”
The show, which had a brief warm-up as an entry in the recent Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival (which co-commissioned the piece), will serve as the inaugural production for the new home of the Chicago Children’s Theatre at The Station, a former West Loop area police station. And while rated “ideal for ages 6 and up,” be advised that Manuel Cinema’s shows are works of art that easily seduce the most sophisticated adult audiences.
“Magic City” is an updated take on the 1910 book of the same name by Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), the prolific English author, poet and political activist who specialized in children’s literature. Considered one of the first “modern fantasy novels,” it explores “the difficult adjustment required to rebuild your life when the unexpected throws everything into uncertainty.”
“None of us at Manual Cinema had ever heard of the book,” confessed Dir. “In fact, it was out of print. But we were looking for a children’s story that was in the public domain — one that we could adapt in our idiosyncratic way, without any interference. Once we found it we realized it would be ideal, because it’s all about a child who entertains herself by building a giant model city from things found around the house; it’s about collecting junk and using one’s imagination to turn that junk into something new and wonderful. The book also has a really strong emotional heart that charts how its main character adapts to rapid change.”
As it happens, Nesbit’s original story had an older sister going off on her honeymoon and leaving a younger brother behind with his new step sister. But Manual Cinema has flipped the roles, and it is now a girl, Philomena, who is involved in building a magic city in a story that homes in on how two kids learn to get along and work as a family. The story also has been moved from England to more modern times in the U.S., with a narrator added, and music as an important element.
Said Dir: “We’re using a new kind of miniature toy theater, and having fun with two-dimensional color [rather than just black-and-white] puppets that combine with actors in front of a camera. Before Philomena enters into the Magic City we work in full light, but once she’s inside it is in full shadow. And as we often do, after the performance we invite the audience to come up on stage for a closer look at the puppets and all our machinery.”
Jacqueline Russell, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Theatre, sees “Magic City” as the ideal tale with which to inaugurate her theater.
“It’s a story in which the idea of transformation is so powerful, and watching the artists of Manual Cinema work their crazy beautiful, amazingly complicated synchronized choreography is just amazing,” said Russell. “Plus, our new theater is all about transformation, too. We’ve taken an old police station, a place with jail cells, and turned it into something so different — a 149-seat performance space outfitted with cushioned, bench-like seats that allow for unusually comfortable seating for family audiences.”
“Plus, I believe that living in Chicago means that in many ways we live in a magical city of our own,” said Russell.