2023 Festival Archive: Manual Cinema

Manual Cinema: Frankenstein

January 27-29, 2023

Studebaker Theater

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: ArtsTour


Scholarship and Resources

Re-framing Frankenstein: Mary Shelley as Mother and Maker in Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein

An Essay by Skye Strauss

The thematic focus on bringing something to life, coupled with the inherent promise of shadow puppetry as a medium for a ghost story, makes Frankenstein excellent subject matter for Manual Cinema. Any new adaptation gives the audience a gift—rather than hanging on the plot, we are invited to attend to the differences between versions. Reenvisioning Frankenstein, the company engages in a complex doubling: The show is about both the images and the way they are made, Frankenstein’s story of and the biography of its creator. This piece of proto–science fiction about “making life” becomes a feminist meditation on what it means to be a mother and an artist, makers of different sorts. 

The meaning behind the company name becomes apparent in the dual spectacle of Manual Cinema’s performances. The audience sees two shows happening at the same time. Overhead, on a large projection screen, there are the composite images that tell the story. Every frame layers live actors in costume, detailed overheads, inky shadows, and three-dimensional puppets to form a single image. At stage level, a team of artists execute the complicated choreography that compiles each cinematic image. The team of five performers and four musicians, armed with their various accoutrement, easily filled the proscenium stage at the Studebaker Theater. On the right, a musician was ensconced behind a large xylophone topped with a cage of instruments and objects that generated both music and foley sound. On the left, a trio of musicians with classical instruments played the score. Mid-stage, a flurry of activity allowed puppets and live actors to coexist. A multi-use screen divided two upstage playing areas—capturing the shadows from overhead projectors on one side, while serving as a filming background for the actors constantly changing costume on the other side. A downstage platform provided a smaller-scale environment for a rod-puppet version of the creature. It is tempting, but probably impossible, to fully take in the magic and the magicians creating Frankenstein simultaneously, and it would be ample entertainment to watch either.

We are introduced to Mary Shelley in two different contexts that change how we receive the familiar story. One framing device presents us with the legendary contest between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley that prompted the creation of Frankenstein. While vacationing in Geneva, they agreed to write each other ghost stories. Manual Cinema makes sure that any implicit sense of competition between the authors becomes explicit in an exquisite bit of shadow play. In this section, we see detailed shadows thrown by live actors in costume rather than shadow puppets, and the way they act out the scene intensifies its gender politics. The challenge is initially set between Lord Byron (Sara Sawicki) and Percy Shelley (Leah Casey)—played with ample self-congratulatory wit and back-slapping bravado. The tone shifts when Mary Shelley (Sarah Fornace) inserts herself into the situation with a level gaze and a firm handshake, demanding to be included and taken seriously. The delicious reality is, of course, that it is Mary’s story that we all will read in high school, dissect in college, and constantly restage, while Lord Byron and Percy’s entries into this “friendly” competition are, as far as I know, lost to time.

The other section of the framing device shows us a pregnant Mary Shelley. Sarah Fornace playing Dr. Frankenstein within the central story becomes more than a gender-blind casting choice—Mary Shelley, like Dr. Frankenstein, is engaged in the dicey business of making life. The painful twist is that there is no guarantee that the “natural” method is less horrible. In a scene played out in two-dimensional shadows, as if holding trauma at an added distance¹, we see Mary’s ambivalence about the baby on its way juxtaposed with the struggle to give birth—a looming doctor, archaic medical tools, and her silent screams and beaded brow make her fear and pain present, even in shadow. Afterward, we see her pacing from crib to writing desk, passing Percy productively scribbling with his quill pen. When she finally reaches her own writing desk, there is nothing to do but fall asleep exhausted on its level surface. If Dr. Frankenstein’s primary sin is hubris, an enchantment with God-like power that manifests itself as monomania, how sad to see his creator as a divided soul—split between the life on and off the page, unable to be fully herself as an artist, while living up to social expectations of motherhood as her husband happily distances himself from fatherhood. 

Then there is silence, of a dreaded sort. The child dies in its crib, and Mary Shelley shrinks into herself. When she steps up to the ghost-story contest, we know that one “creation” is inadequately taking the place of another. The jump from sepia shadows to high-contrast, black-and-white film, with the actors in stark film-noir makeup, signals the transition into the plot of Frankenstein, interspersed with bursts of images that fly by like presentation slides or samples under a microscope. The story becomes an expressionist film. In her depressive state, Mary’s psyche is more real than the physical world. Throughout the performance, my awareness of how each scene was manufactured kept me thinking about how every artful collision of forms contributed to the production’s meaning. When I walked out of the theater, two moments that bookended the performance stood in meaningful contrast. At the beginning, a complex shadow of Mary Shelley holds a simple shadow of her baby—a changeling, not yet fully human nor meant to stay on this Earth. At the end, the complex shadow of Mary Shelley holds the creature puppet—three-dimensional and detailed. Its milky eyes are the eyes that hold her own. The monstrous child is the one who lives and is, in a different way, loved.

1 See “Candyman: The Impact of Black Horror” on the Manual Cinema Vimeo for a discussion about the utility of using shadows to stage traumatic events in order to tell the story while avoiding retraumatizing audience members: https://vimeo.com/591050273

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