That's how I felt on seeing Manual Cinema's Ada/Ava last summer.
All shadow-puppet plays necessarily look at least a little bit alike, so it was familiar in that respect. And the subject matter—an exploration of what happens when inseparable old twins are finally parted by death—seemed redolent, picking up on ingrown-sibling lore that runs from the pixilated sisters in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town through the murderous ones in Arsenic and Old Lace to the weird ones in Macbeth (with a side trip to the hoarding Collyer brothers of books, plays, movies, and reality). What took me by surprise was the Dante-esque journey undertaken—part willingly, but part not—by the devastated surviving twin, Ada, as she tried to master her loss. A visit to a traveling carnival yielded twisted images and false exits worthy of the hall-of-mirrors shoot-out in The Lady From Shanghai.
Then there was the way Manual Cinema took that artful primitivism puppeteers are so fond of and married it to sophisticated technique. Human actors performed in silhouette at times, interacting with video and delicately rendered cut-outs to create quiet, uncanny images: a teabag steeping in a cup, a window sash being pulled aside to reveal the carnival in the distance. The sound design was full of nuance, and I was entranced. "Hunh," I said to myself. "This is new."
Which is why I'm suggesting you see Manual Cinema's Fjords, even though I haven't gotten a real look at it yet. Running at the Poetry Foundation tonight through Sunday, Fjords uses MC's evolved version of shadow puppetry—as well as a score written by company member Kyle Vegter and performed by Chicago Q Ensemble—to literally illuminate and embody a set of poems from the soon-to-be-published book called Fjords Vol. 1 by Oregon-based Zachary Schomburg.
Just so you won't be going into this completely blind, here's one of Schomburg's poems:
Because It Comes Right at You Does Not Mean It Comes to Save You
My father and i are lost in the Arctic Ocean when
we spot a boat tearing toward us through the crust.
i am on his shoulders, my feet black like cold tar.
When the boat gets closer, he sets me down on the
ice and we hold hands. Do you think it has come to
save us? i ask. Well, it is coming right at us my father
says. But as it gets closer, it does not slow down.
It is not slowing down i say. it is unbearably loud, an
angry comet in a bright white universe, a terrible
ice-splitting machine. When it gets too close, we
panic and let go of each other’s hands. We dive out
of the way in opposite directions. Chunks of ice are
thrown around our bodies. When the landscape
settles again, the boat is a silent grey eye on the
horizon. There is a new icy rivulet between my
father and me. My father is face down in the white
on the other side of the rivulet, a frozen obedience.
i want to yell I do not regret you but i am just a little
boy. Sons do not give birth to their fathers. There
is no regret without birth. And there is no spring—
all these years and no real spring and no real death.