REVIEW: Puppetry, Loneliness, and Family in Manual Cinema’s ‘Christmas Carol’

Manuel Cinema, a studio known for its combination of shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music design, presents its adaptation of A Christmas Carol that artfully melds the iconic story of Ebenezer Scrooge with the contemporary situation of COVID-19. Dropping the English accents, this crisp-and-swift 60-minute adaptation succeeds in feeling both relevant and refreshing while staying faithful to the essence of the well-known story. To do this, the story introduces us to Aunt Trudy (N. LaQuis Harkin), a woman who has lost her husband to COVID-19 but decides to continue his storytelling holiday tradition of puppeting the story of A Christmas Carol.

After a charming display of technological ineptitude, Aunt Trudy is finally able to start the live retelling of A Christmas Carol for her family watching through Zoom — as well as the audience watching at home. Her narration is accompanied by well-crafted puppets (Drew Dir and Lizi Breit) of the characters we love to see, and stunning light work (Andrew Murphy) that evokes spookiness, distress, and dejection when necessary. While Aunt Trudy is narrating the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, we witness her journey alongside Scrooge’s, as there are several moments when she cuts from the story to tell us stories of her husband, Joe, and what their life was like. This threading between Dickens’ classic story and Aunt Trudy’s personal thoughts imbues the narrative with the sincerity and hope that mark the Christmas holiday spirit. Though Aunt Trudy struggles at first with the puppetry gear and the voiceover, she is so committed to carrying on the tradition of her husband that it inspired me to persevere in my own family’s traditions, even if it might not go as smoothly at first.

One of the most emotionally stirring and impassioned moments of the adaptation comes during the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Future. In an artful decision, the Ghost of Christmas Future is an ominous faceless body that, when Scrooge looks upon it, becomes a reflection of Scrooge’s face. Through an artistic choice that can only be made through the combination of puppetry and cinema that Manuel Cinema is famous for, we see that the visions the Ghost shows to Scrooge are really a product of Scrooge’s imagination. Here, Christmas Future is not a distinct character, but rather Scrooge’s intuition of what he knows the future will be as a result of who he is and the choices he has made. This device reminded me of my own personal power that I have in crafting the future I want.

Scrooge must confront all the choices he has made in both the past and present with honesty and sincerity. Scrooge’s epiphany is then amplified by Trudy’s narration, as she considers all the ways in which she didn’t spend as much time with her husband and family as she should have. Spending the holidays alone — having taken for granted what it means to gather with loved ones — inspires her to recommit to prioritizing her family. To have Scrooge and Aunt Trudy share this moment of epiphany and awe at the same time was a sight to see. In that moment, the story of Scrooge became the story of thousands of families in this country who will not and cannot gather for the holidays. These ideas, of regret and yearning to redress the past, become sensations that many of us feel — and I was so grateful to share that moment with the people in the live chat and Aunt Trudy herself. The music (Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter) that punctuates the Future scene evokes a contemplative melancholy that swells to a stirring moment of redemption. Throughout the story the music acts as a grounding accompaniment to the emotional throughlines than run throughout.

This adaptation was a joy to watch and felt like a truly unique take on a story that saturates the theatre world during the holiday season. It reminded me to enjoy this holiday with my family even if it is virtual, because being with family and choosing to cherish the present moment is what truly matters.

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol is available to stream through December 31st (extended).

Lizi Breit, puppeteer
Sarah Fornace, puppeteer
Ben Kauffman, guitar, piano, lead vocals
N. LaQuis Harkins, Aunt Trudy/puppeteer
Julia Miller, puppeteer
Kyle Vegter, cello, keys and vocals

Drew Dir, storyboards
Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, original music and sound design
Drew Dir, puppet design
Lizi Breit and Sarah Fornace, puppet build assistants
Drew Dir, additional puppetry
Maddy Low, costume design
Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter, set design
Andrew Morgan, Trudy lighting design
Mike Usrey, technical director and sound engineer
Shelby Sparkles, stage manager
Ben Kauffman, streaming and UX
Julia Miller, production manager

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