I am, as Aunt Trudy would say, “aggressively into Christmas.” Despite my Buddy the Elf tendencies, I also love a good ghost story. And, although time has ceased to have meaning since the pandemic interrupted our lives, Christmas still conjures up all those tidings, both good and bad, for us to enjoy. Yet every year there is a hollow moment in our holiday celebrations when we’re missing someone, or several someones, around the table. When the natural world around us has turned in for a long winter’s nap, so too are we wrapped up in this idea of beginnings and endings.
At that intersection is where we meet Aunt Trudy. She is set up with her departed partner Joe’s puppet theater in the basement of their home, surrounded by boxes labeled as “Joe’s Costumes” or bits of puppetry. Trudy is begrudgingly partaking in Joe’s annual puppet rendition of “A Christmas Carol” for a Zoom audience rather than a live one, thanks to the pandemic. She bemoans the spectacle online, as well as Joe’s family for making her go through the motions. She halfheartedly goes through the beginning of Scrooge’s story until she is visited by three spirits of her very own. Thus Trudy is taken upon her own Dickensian journey as she too must come to terms with what has been and what can be.
Manual Cinema’s amalgamation of puppetry, mixed between shadow and light, is the perfect homage to this beloved Victorian ghost story. Combined with the show’s original score by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, you have never seen “A Christmas Carol” like this before. Nor can I imagine that we will see its likes again without the talents behind Manual Cinema. One song in particular, which speaks hauntingly of time passing by, you’ll hear throughout the show. Its somber sound will clutch at your soul in a way that may not escape you before the performance is over.
Don’t let Manual Cinema’s puppetry medium fool you, this isn’t a family-oriented rendition of Dickens’ iconic story. In fact, young kids would probably be terrified on more than one occasion. But for the rest of us, the jump-scare-inducing Jacob Marley is part of what makes this story so much fun to enjoy, year after year. As for Trudy, her apparitions hope the same for her—to inspire a spirit of joy and light in her time of sorrow. All of which actor LaKecia Harris handles with grace, good humor and honesty. Harris gives us a glimpse of genuine throes of grief, particularly those around a first big day after a death. We never truly know how grief will hit us in those moments, especially if you have to perform a whole puppet show for the deceased’s family.
I don’t know if “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol” will become another Chicago holiday tradition. Their talents are so immense—if you haven’t seen their work in “Candyman,” I highly recommend it—they may not have the time. But my hope among hopes is that this show can live on in our collective wintertime experiences for years to come.
Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, writerstheatre.org, $45-$75 with some pay-what-you-can performances. Now through December 24.