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Manual Cinema's Hand-Crafted Storytelling Tackles Monster Halloween Show

By adding a dash of electricity to various body parts strung together, Victor Frankenstein hopes to bring his creation to life.EXPAND
By adding a dash of electricity to various body parts strung together, Victor Frankenstein hopes to bring his creation to life.
Photo by Michael Brosilow

The spooky story of Mary Shelley's most famed book will get the avant garde treatment with the internationally-renowned multimedia company Manual Cinema’s as it reenacts Frankenstein on October 30 at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, presented by Society for the Performing Arts.

Love, loss and creation merge in unexpected ways in this thrilling classic gothic tale retold through Manual Cinema’s creative storytelling techniques. In its extraordinary trademark style, Manual Cinema uses overhead projectors, more than 500 shadow puppets, actors in silhouette and live music to bring this enthralling production to life as a piece of live cinema.

Even more interesting, the production goes light on dialogue.

"Because we didn't have words to use, we did it visually. Every story is told through different puppetry. Victor Frankenstein's story is told by objects that make it look like a silent film. The Monster is a 3D puppet. There's a whole other frame of the story told through shadow puppets to tell Mary Shelley's story about how she wrote the novel. It all creates a single production," said Drew Dir, Manual Cinema's co-artistic director and Frankenstein's lead director.

In terms of the music, the show embraces heavily percussive sounds. Musicians play both traditional percussion and nontraditional found objects. A series of tiny, automated mallets strike bits of metal in tempo with the musicians; Items such as hanging flower pots and bits of scrap metal are employed to add interesting audio elements.

In the original novel, the story is told in a series of narrative frames with each frame narrated by a different character. In this ingenious adaptation, each frame of the story is told through a different cinematic genre. Similar to the Creature in the story, the production is a pastiche of different visual idioms scavenged from a century of cinema.

"Frankenstein is our most ambitions project today. We reread the novel and rediscovered a feature of the novel is that it's told through a series of frames and with a different character, like Russian nesting dolls. The novel is kind of like a patchwork on points of view of the story. We wanted to find a way to put that in our production," he said.

While staying true to the novel's framing of the storytelling, Manual Cinema wasn't afraid to indulge with some artistic liberties when assembling the final production. The company took a deeper look at Shelley's life and reflected it in its current show.

"From the very beginning, we were interested in including Mary Shelley in the story. As we did more research on her, we discovered shortly before she wrote Frankenstein, she had a child who died shortly after birth. She had a nightmare a couple nights later in which she came upon her dead baby, started rubbing it and brought it back to life. The story of the nightmare and her lost child sparked our imagination and made us look at Frankenstein in a whole new way," Dir added.

"We started thinking about motherhood and childbirth. Frankenstein is, in some ways, about a parent and child. It caused us to do a few things with the production. We tell the story of the loss of Mary's child and the nightmare through shadow puppetry. It opens and closes the production. We cast the same actor as Mary to also play Victor Frankenstein, so their stories bleed together. The creature is sort of like this overgrown baby who terrorizes the countryside," he continued.

The cast uses all types of props, lighting and projection to simulate the story of Frankenstein.EXPAND
The cast uses all types of props, lighting and projection to simulate the story of Frankenstein.
Photo by Michael Brosilow

Continuing with the non-traditional format of presenting classic works, Manual Cinema doesn't shroud its techniques backstage or in an orchestra pit. Instead, the company deliberately shows the audience the technical maneuvers and unorthodox instruments used to create the full effect.

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"We make incredible imagery, but we never hide how we're making it for the audience. That's been a core value of the company. We put it on display for the audience to see. You think of the puppeteers hiding behind a screen, and we've done the opposite. We show how we're creating all the scenes. You have the choice to watch the big screen, or look below the big screen and see nine to 10 human beings making all this incredible work," Dir said.

So far, this format for the staged production has graced highly-respected venues and been well received. In November 2018, Court Theatre presented the World Premiere of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein in Chicago. It had its New York premiere at The Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival in January 2019. Most recently, the show made its international debut in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2019 where it received raving 5-star reviews.

Dir concluded, "We hope this is unlike anything people have ever seen. We hope after this, people will see theatre and cinema in a way they've never seen it before."

Manual Cinema's Frankenstein plays at 8 p.m., October 30 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $29 to $59.

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