Manual Cinema’s “Mementos Mori” Review – Inaugural Show of 1st Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Imagine the Grim Reaper as a shapely film noir femme fatale wielding her mobile phone app that can pull up your death date and give her a convenient delete button if your due date has arrived…



This whimsical personification of Death is but one of the many observations of life changed in the digital age in this mega-layered adult puppet show with wall-to-wall sounds and an original score.  (Written by Manual Cinema Artistic Directors:  Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter, and Ben Kauffman; Kyle Vegter, music score and sound design with additional musical arrangement by Michael Hilger, Alex Ellsworth, and Deidre Huckabay).



Using overhead projectors that you might think are tech relics of the 80’s, Manual Cinema gives them new life as a first step in creating striking backscapes for shadow puppets (Drew Dir, puppet design with Lizi Breit, Associate puppet design.) who interact with the actor/dancers to tell the tale. 




Images from two screens are manipulated and combined digitally along with sounds and music—sometimes live and sometimes canned.    Joking references to historic films pepper the work, such as making visual touch points with Ingmar Bergman’s “The Dove” and having a remix of the Grim Reaper playing chess with his next target in “The Seventh Seal”.   You barely have time to smile at any of these little touches because action on the screen—or rather the three screens—is moving quickly on to the next set up with no lag time. 



From an engaging story line, to the enduring gee whiz impact of seeing what you can do with puppets, to all the jam-packed visual and audio effects, your attention gets tickled again and again by Manual Cinema’s overflowing creativity.  More than half the fun is watching how the sausage gets made as dancer/actors run from interacting with a shadow puppet or two and set on the screen to join other overhead projector workers in moving the script along. 



While other MCA-commissioned works developed in Museum of Contemporary Art residency programs might have seemed work-in-progress not quite ready for prime time material, that is certainly not true of this kick-off to the first ever Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.


This puppet festival runs from January 14 – 25 with more than 50 varied puppet performances by a dozen puppet theater acts from around the globe at more than a dozen top venues for cultural events in Chicago– see the Puppet Festival website   or visit #ChiPuppetFest. 






Photos: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.


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