In an unnamed midwestern city sometime in the early 90s, an elderly white woman lives out her days entirely through her television, while a young black woman struggles to get by in a faltering economy. Their stories echo and intertwine in The End of TV, Manual Cinema's transfixing new multimedia show, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at the Chopin Theatre. It's a beautiful thing to look at and listen to, with enough real empathy for our country's living conditions to give it contemporary resonance.
Four agile performers run a continuous relay between a bank of overhead projectors and the two screens they illuminate. They interact with silhouettes of puppets and ever-changing backgrounds to present an overlapping narrative of youth and aging in a world increasingly dominated by screens and hucksters rather than nature and authentic human connection. The larger screen shows the internal and external lives of both women, while the smaller screen is devoted to an often nightmarish array of TV shows, dominated by the QVC shopping network, which the elderly woman watches religiously. The only speech in the piece is supplied by ghoulish TV talking heads and a song cycle performed by a talented seven-piece ensemble sitting stage left.
The old woman obsessively orders products after she sees them advertised on TV; her house fills up with boxes of things she doesn't need. Periodically, she's transported into a disturbing TV world in which the Jolly Green Giant steps away from hawking canned vegetables to talk directly to her. Whether these scenes are a manifestation of her advancing dementia or just an escape from the isolation of her day-to-day existence, this is clearly no way to live.
The young woman's life is shown through vignettes that jump in time between her girlhood and her working life as an adult. She grows up with a father who's an avid gardener; she finds him in the yard one day, fallen dead. She works at the auto plant just as he did but is laid off and forced to take a job delivering Meals on Wheels. The old woman is on her route, and she goes out of her way to help her because the older woman's confusion and helplessness is so evident. As she does so, her life gains new meaning.
The soullessness of factory work and television are contrasted repeatedly with the nurturing qualities of growing plants in the soil, the implication being that industrial society has alienated humanity from nature both literally and figuratively. The older woman has withdrawn entirely into the shadow play of her TV screen, while the younger one has gone about her life like an automaton since losing her father, from home to work and back.
In one of the most affecting sequences of the program, the young woman looks through the older woman's photographs and keepsakes, which appear to the audience as a montage on the screen. She sees her as a young Rosie the Riveter building tanks, sees her raising a daughter, and finally comes across a newspaper story about that daughter's premature death in an auto accident. The industry that has employed both women is also the source of much of their sorrow.
By sticking to these two particular lives, Manual Cinema is able to tell a universal story of contemporary alienation and loneliness. The only slightly false note in the production, strangely enough, is the song cycle that was its genesis. With titles such as "Love & Mortgages," the songs are often ploddingly on the nose when the rest of the show is airy and evocative. They spell out the critiques of capitalism that are much more poetically demonstrated by the puppets and performers. It's almost as if Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman, who wrote the show and perform in the band, didn't trust the audience to make sense of what's in front of them and insisted on handing out a bunch of Cliff's Notes, even though the action onstage is more than enough to get their message across. Thankfully, the words are often drowned out by the music and thus easy to ignore.
One of the great joys of any Manual Cinema production is to watch the madcap, kinetic activity of the performers as they make a movie come into being in front of our eyes. I found myself often looking away from the action to the tabletops cluttered with wigs, mannequin heads, and piles of puppets awaiting their turn. The genius of this company is the ability of its members to animate the most inert object. The lowliest paper cut is granted agency in the world they've created.
The end of TV, the show's basis, is unfortunately, as we all know too well, also the birth of the Internet. So while there's a moment of hope toward the end when the young woman cultivates the garden that has lain fallow since her father's death, that hope dims when a PC is delivered to her house and its ominous screen illuminates the room and eclipses the world outside. v