By Jane Recker
You wouldn’t think that shadow puppets could elicit tears from an audience, but that’s exactly what happens in The End of TV.
This show is like none other in the city; it’s not quite a play, it’s not quite a motion picture, it’s, well, Manual Cinema, which just so happens to be the name of the performance group executing the show.
The setup for The End of TV is simple in nature but complicated in execution. A seven-piece chamber ensemble sits stage left, a blue screen with a lo-fi webcam setup takes up stage right, and center-stage is occupied by a small performance area and blank screen backdrop with three old-school light projectors facing it. Hanging above all this is a movie screen where the motion picture created onstage comes together and is presented to the audience.
The band, of course, provides music and sound effects for the show, and the lo-fi setup churns out live impersonations of 90’s era TV classics like Fancy Feast, ER, and QVC to name a few. However, the majority of the action takes place through the projectors. Utilizing both cutouts on the light projectors and actors performing in front of the screen, a camera placed on the far side of the projector screen sends video to the movie screen hanging above, reducing the actors at hand to living shadow puppets surrounded by a kitschy laminate landscape.
The result is intriguing and at times breathtaking. The simplicity of the art form and lack of dialogue lets the depth of the show’s emotional framework to shine through without having to fight for attention with distracting dialogue or elaborate scenery.
And The End of TV doesn’t hold back on getting the waterworks going. Set in a Rust Belt city at the turn of the millennia, the performance tells the tale of two women–one heading toward the end of her life, the other starting anew–and how they’re affected by the decline of industrial work and the constant, preying presence of television and new media.
While the story of the young woman’s relationship with her father (he had a crippling stroke after she took him for granted) is certainly heart-wrenchingly sad, it’s got nothing on that of the older woman. Suffering from dementia and a self-destructive QVC addiction, we learn that much of the woman’s current pain stems from the death of her teenage daughter many years ago.
In one particularly trippy scene, the woman is briefly reunited with her daughter by the Jolly Green Giant after falling into her TV set. This sunny, bittersweet moment is interrupted by a disorienting assault of television static, putting the audience into the mind of someone suffering from severe dementia.
Of course, it would be easy for Manual Cinema to simply create the movie ahead of time like most other cinematographers. But then, where’s the fun in that?
By creating their movies live, Manual Cinema gets the best of both worlds: the magic and special effects only possible in the movies combined with the excitement and je ne sais quoi of watching live theater performers grapple with the pressure of only having one chance to get it right.
Manual Cinema presents “The End of TV” through August 5 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. More information and tickets may be found here.