Manual Cinema uses light and shadow to project immersive visual stories for the 21st-century

By Bliss Bowen

Shadow puppets have been with us probably since Java Man was banging on rocks around the campfire. Most of us stumbled wondrously across that primal art form as children in the dark, if only to wiggle our fingers like rabbit ears by the glow of some nightlight or candle flame. Shadow puppetry became living art in pre-biblical Asian societies, and by the late 1600s and 1700s traders and missionaries were conveying it from China to Europe.

Since 2010, Manual Cinema has been reinterpreting shadow puppetry in cinematic form for the 21st century with an ingenious combination of live actors and live musicians. The Chicago troupe’s production of “Mementos Mori,” a self-described “immersive visual story” they’re bringing to The Broad Stage this weekend, conjures the effect of a “live film” with cleverly deployed light poles and other effects collapsing the perspective of distance between audience and performers. Think of it as a play that’s a movie, only you’re witnessing it in real time in a theatre like it’s a play. With paper puppets. And no spoken script — just visuals, music and sound effects.

Manual Cinema founders Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia VanArsdale Miller and Kyle Vegter premiered “Mementos Mori” as part of the Chicago International Puppetry Festival in 2015 (the same year the imaginative troupe received a project grant — and stamp of approval — from the Jim Henson Foundation). Six puppeteers are required to manipulate hundreds of intricately drawn and cut paper puppets against beautifully evoked backgrounds, as a four-piece ensemble of cello, flute, guitar, synthesizer and voice creates appropriately tense and spooky music and sound effects. Two cameras, three screens and seven overhead projectors (remember those from grade school?) are further required to tell a tale involving a busy ghost with an iPhone, a young girl, an elderly film projectionist and the Grim Reaper.

Not unlike modern productions of radio plays in which part of the joy for audiences is discovering how Foley artists achieve their effects, a key attraction of Manual Cinema’s cinematic shadow puppetry is witnessing the artists’ creative process. Temporal lines are blurred as actions traditionally executed behind the scenes are incorporated into onscreen movement. Dancing actors project shadows, animation techniques help enhance scenic depth of field, and the sleight of hand required to pull off certain illusions is almost scientifically timed.

Dramatized with music somewhere between Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi” score and Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock soundtracks as images both spectral and winsome move across the screen, “Mementos Mori” projects the surreal allure of a digital-age fable from the Brothers Grimm.

Manual Cinema presents “Mementos Mori” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (April 12 and 13) and 2 p.m. Sunday (April 14) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $35 to $55 at (310) 434-3200 or manualcinema.com.

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