Manual Cinema’s beautiful ‘Christmas Carol’ pays heed to the ghosts of crises present
The ravages of COVID-19 enter into the story, imaginatively told with cardboard, wire and string.
In the 177 years since it was published, “A Christmas Carol” has become a seasonal chestnut of many genres. In Chicago alone, it’s been told in rap, hip-hop and tap, as an hourlong musical aimed at children and as a lavishly produced drama aimed at all ages. What we have not had, until now, is a “Christmas Carol” that leans into tragedy and current events as thoroughly as Manual Cinema’s bewitching puppet version does.
When: Through Dec. 20
Where: Live stream from Manual Cinema
Tickets: $15 individual, $30 for two-three viewers, $50 for four or more viewers, $10 audio-described
Run time: 60 minutes
Rest assured the 60-minute live (streamed) production is still “A Christmas Carol,” right down to the comically oversized poultry that puts a jolly exclamation point on Ebenezer’s evolution from misanthropic penuriousness to benevolent largesse. But Manual Cinema’s take explicitly also brings the ravages of COVID-19 — emotional, financial and physical — into the story.
In the adaptation by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter, Covid enters the room before the first word is spoken, the camera following a line of Christmas cards festively propped up on a mantelpiece. As the camera pans, we see the Christmas cards are followed by “get well” cards, followed by condolence cards, followed with a framed picture of a man grinning at the camera.
The man is Uncle Joe, and he’s been killed by COVID-19. His widower, Aunt Trudy (N. LaQuis Harkins, who voices all the characters) has no time for holiday sentimentality in a good year. This year? She’s flat-out over it. But she’s found her Joe’s box of lovingly crafted puppets, which number in the hundreds. Alone in her empty house for Christmas, she begrudgingly tries to re-create “Uncle Joe’s Christmas Carol” for the surviving family members she can’t be with on Christmas. With that, we’re off to the intricate shadowlands Manual Cinema is so gifted at creating.
Manual Cinema’s ensemble of actors, puppeteers and designers (there’s no director credited; the group works as a collective) turns common materials — cardboard, wire, string — into fantastical worlds. “A Christmas Carol” toggles between Aunt Trudy’s own home and the Dickensian world of Ebenezer Scrooge. Sometimes, both worlds overlap, the camera pulling back to reveal the ingenious transformations of common objects into London streetscapes and luminous ghosts.
Intricate craftsmanship defines the production, from the burls on Scrooge’s overcoat to the the haunted emptiness (emphasized by lighting designer Andrew Morgan) of Aunt Trudy’s house. The collage of media creates rich, specific visuals and sound. (Sound designers Kauffman and Vegter also scored the show with original music; Dir did the puppet design and story boards, Mike Usrey is the technical director and sound engineer.) The cacophonous carol of bells unleashed just before the first ghost arrives is eerie atmosphere, perfected. A carousel slideshow of past holidays is a double-edged blade that evokes past joy and present loss.
Manual Cinema reminds of those losses with memorable imagery: Marley’s length of chain takes the form of a soup line stretching ever onward, slumped, shuffling silhouettes evoking the Depression-era photos of Dorothea Lange. The TV news in the background at Aunt Trudy’s (minimalist, effective set design by Miller and Vegter) grimly drones through the latest COVID-19 stats.
Harkins does all the character voices deftly, working with co-puppeteers Lizi Breit, Sarah Fornace and Julia Miller to help manipulate Scrooge et al. The characters aren’t the only puppets. In the toy theater Aunt Trudy unpacks, Breit, Fornace and Miller conjure lamps glimmering above snowy streets, desolate cemeteries, gleeful house parties and starlit nights.
The script isn’t subtle in its updates. “Relax Boomer,” the Ghost of Christmas Past tells Scrooge when the miser balks at leaving his house. Tax evasion by the rich comes up. Bob Cratchit invokes “industry wide standard” when asking for Christmas Day off.
The characters Harkins voices aren’t written with nuance. Tiny Tim is so saintly he gives his scrap of a Christmas drumstick to a homeless man. Granted this is a ghost story. We expect things to be fantastical. Even so, Scrooge’s about-face — well beyond what Dickens imagined — seems a bridge too far.
Those are relatively minor matters over all. This “Christmas Carol” is beautiful to behold and engaging throughout. It also contains a major plot twist that powerfully contextualizes the story for 2020.
Word of caution: Keep the hankies handy. When “A Christmas Carol” scrolls through the life of Uncle Joe, you’ll be sniffling like it’s the season finale of “This Is Us.”
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago freelance writer.