Two women stand on either side of a cardboard puppet set, manipuating small cardboard figures. The woman on the left is all in black, with part of her face obscured. The woman on the right wears a light orange turtleneck and a gray cardigan sweater. They are in shadow, with light coming through the center of the cardboard frame around the puppet stage.
Lizi Breit (left) and LaKecia Harris in Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol at Writers Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

Uncle Joe was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The cardboard boxes littered the floor, filled with Joe’s tools, Joe’s college textbooks, Joe’s albums and manuals, Joe’s CDs, Joe’s tax returns, Joe’s unfinished projects, and all manner of Joe’s mess and memorabilia, stacked in a circle radiating outwards from a table upon which was posed a glass of half-drunk wine. There is no doubt that Joe was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story that Aunt Trudy (LaKecia Harris) is going to relate. For beyond her wineglass glints a piece of cardboard that has transcended its purpose as a receptacle for detritus and collectibles to become, thanks to the judicious application of Sharpies and string lights, a space for the most fantastic magic—but more on that part later.

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol
Through 12/24: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM; also Tue 12/20 7:30 PM and Wed 12/21 and Fri 12/23 3 PM, Sat 12/24 3 PM only; open captions Thu 12/15; Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$90

It’s Christmas 2020, and Aunt Trudy is alone. She is alone because, as aforementioned, Uncle Joe is dead, and, as the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic required, most everyone is in quarantine. And yet, because of the marvel of modern technology, her house is full, not only with the stuff and memory of the departed but also with the specters of his numerous blood and legal relations—of which Trudy is, in fact, not one, as Joe and Trudy never crossed over from cohabitation to connubiality (“a mutual decision,” Trudy insists). That’s right—it’s a good old-fashioned Zoom Christmas, and for Joe’s aggressively festive fam, that means it’s time to gather (virtually) for Uncle Joe’s annual puppet presentation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as reanimated by his grieving widow (in spirit only)!

Aunt Trudy is not amused. Actually, Aunt Trudy seems a little stuck in the anger stage of grief, and, in the absence of her once-loved Joe, some cardboard figures and the muted countenances of his family are indeed a sad compensation for the real thing.

Scowling in front of a camera that beams her shoebox puppet show to an audience of distant and—for all practical purposes—imaginary kin, she whips open the cardboard curtain and begins a monotone rendition. The flatness of her voice is matched by the two-dimensionality of the paper doll puppets that first appear: dour Ebenezer Scrooge, hunched at his desk and his chipper nephew Fred inviting him to dinner, all beneath Trudy’s withering glare. This glare is magnified a dozen or more times by a screen above the stage that makes a puppet the size of a person—and thus manifests this disgust at a scale that extends to all of us who have gathered here in Glencoe for a Christmas puppet show. “Bah humbug!” sneers Ebenezer/Trudy with feeling. But before we have time to tire of Trudy’s testy telling, the miracle of modern technology proves its man-made provenance: Faces freeze! The connection is unstable! The lights go dark! And then, as Trudy is joined by three silent hooded figures (Lizi Breit, Julia Miller, and Jeffrey Paschal), the story can begin.

In Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, adapted from the Dickens with additional writing by Nate Marshall, storyboards and puppet designs by Drew Dir with additional puppets by Chicago Puppet Studio, and original score and sound design by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, their signature style of keeping the mechanisms of their image-making visible works double, not only by keeping viewers tuned into the practical magic of making cut paper tell tales, but also by shaping Aunt Trudy’s role as puppeteer, commentator, and player. The puppet show can be viewed on two scales and both are life-size: Trudy and a paper box on a stage, and Trudy and the story on a screen. The effect is as disorienting as the shifts in place and scale we’ve become accustomed to on Zoom, which brings us all to act in an imaginary place, and here renders live Trudy tiny as Joe’s puppets next to the projected story, sealing her place as a personage within it. (The company first presented the show online in 2020.)

As Scrooge undergoes the customary visitations, much of Dickens’s story unfolds in dreamlike images that succeed each other in cinematic blinks of the eye that take us immediately from time to time and place to place, blending tears and rain, skeletons with bare tree branches, in every way wondrous. Trudy’s backstory with Joe unfolds in parallel, as she remembers the party where they met, their early love, and then how their ways diverge as Trudy is seduced by capitalistic values and workaholism, while Joe remains generous and friendly but financially irresponsible and dependent on the woman he did not marry. As Ebenezer wrestles with his shriveled soul with the aid of the spirits who haunt him this one night, so does Trudy surrender to the silent ministrations of the ghostly puppeteers. When the third spirit arrives—gargantuan, cloaked, and looming horribly—it comes for the two of them.

The Christmas classic retains its charm in Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, which brings the old story to our recent present in this new telling, while also acknowledging feelings—anger, frustration, and disappointment—that are particular and familiar to loss, holidays, and our technological moment.