Credit: Judy Sirota Rosenthal

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

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