Onto Court Theatre’s spacious, moodily lit stage, Manual Cinema shoehorns three makeshift video production studios—featuring live actors, shadow puppets, and hand-cranked scrolling images—as well as all manner of acoustic, automated, and DIY musical instruments in an elaborate attempt to create a live silent movie on a huge screen floating above everything. The film’s subject is Mary Shelley’s titular and, at least right now in Chicago, inescapable 1818 gothic novel (this is the third of four local stage adaptations this year), inflected with bits of the author’s pre-Frankenstein biography. The intricacy of the proceedings is dizzying; just about every ten-second film segment requires tightly coordinated work from three or four semi-frantic people wielding props or puppets or both. And how the four instrumentalists spread across a darkened stage stay in perfect synchrony through Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman’s demanding score is anyone’s guess.
As a two-hour display of technical prowess, it’s jaw-dropping. But as an evening of storytelling, it’s a cold affair that struggles to find an emotional connection to Shelley’s harrowing saga. The skilled troupe’s exhausting efforts to hew to an exacting style—alternately childlike, campy, and folklorish—keep everything at multiple levels of remove. Simple, vulnerable moments are difficult to find. And for a show that attempts to foreground Shelley’s personal investment in the book’s creation, it’s curious how much of this version isn’t her novel at all—including a climactic scene borrowed from the 1931 Boris Karloff film. v