It’s Alive! Well, the Puppeteers Are

It’s Alive! Well, the Puppeteers Are

CHICAGO — In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” creation is a work of breathless horror. In a rehearsal room here on a recent Saturday, creation was also breathless and very cold. (A fan had broken; the heating had quit.) Scarf-clad actors shivered as they raced around the stage, dodging extension cords, manipulating four overhead projectors. On a small table at the center, a monster slouched, waiting to be born.

This was a rehearsal for Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein,” a nearly wordless film-theater hybrid that begins performances at the University of Chicago’s Court Theater on Nov. 1. It is the latest piece by this high-ingenuity, low-tech puppetry company (“Ada/ Ava,” “Lula Del Ray,” “Mementos Mori”). This adaptation — or maybe, reanimation? — fuses Shelley’s novel with Shelley’s biography, emphasizing recurring themes of desire, birth and loss.

“It’s a story about the animation of dead matter,” Drew Dir, a co-artistic director, said. “And as puppeteers, that’s sort of what we do.”

The dead matter in question was maybe 18 inches long. Malformed, with one bulging eye, it was shaped like the kind of rag doll that only a very warped or very lonely child would enjoy.

Operated by the puppeteers and filmed with a small camera, it looked larger, ghastlier, something like the “hideous progeny” that Shelley described. (When she wrote the book, Shelley had recently lost a newborn and her own mother had died from postpartum complications, scenes the play stages, so progeny was not necessarily a happy or neutral idea.)

The technology in Shelley’s novel is so forward-looking that we still haven’t caught up to it. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know this is a good thing. The technology of this “Frankenstein” is deliberately backward looking. Yes, there’s a camera. Yes, there’s electricity independent of lightning. But puppetry, magic lanterns, the painted scene unspooling slowly between two poles — a device called a crankie — all these would have been familiar to Shelley.

Manual Cinema is a group that works collaboratively. If Dir conceived the piece, he went on to develop it with two of Manual Cinema’s other artistic directors, Sarah Fornace and Julia VanArsdale Miller. The two other artistic directors, Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, wrote the music.

Which is to say this is a company used to stitching together new works out of disparate parts and used to being surprised, pleasantly, by what it has made.

“A show grows so much,” Miller said. “It becomes more, at least for me, what I had ever imagined.”

That sounded a little dangerous. Had any of Manual Cinema creations ever made like the monster, turning on the company that gave them life?

“Luckily they can’t animate without us,” Fornace said with a laugh. “Those puppets can’t move without me.”

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