Manual Cinema presents intricate, empathetic ‘Frankenstein’

Photo of Frankenstein
Drew Dir/Courtesy

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More than 500 puppets, paper and acetate, flit across the backlit screen to the ominous rhythms of live music in a live production of Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein.” Actors spring into view from the silhouetted cutouts, and the effect is mesmerizing — two-dimensional to three-dimensional and back again. A sunset seamlessly bleeds through the screen as Victor Frankenstein’s creation walks through a forest; lightning strikes the clock tower — it’s hard to believe that the detailed performance is not digital animation. This fall, Cal Performances has brought the beautiful experience of cinematic shadow puppetry to screens at home.

“The name of our company is Manual Cinema, and it also describes the mission statement of the company, which is to create something that looks like cinema, that looks like a movie, by hand, in front of you, using handmade materials, said Drew Dir, co-artistic director of Manual Cinema, in a preperformance video call conversation with Jeremy Geffen, Cal Performances executive and artistic director, and UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. “We’ve created a technique called ‘cinematic shadow puppetry,’ which uses old-school overhead projectors, the same kind that you might have used in math class when you were a kid.” 

The performance is far more intricate than a casual encounter with puppetry, however. “It doesn’t look like a traditional children’s shadow puppet play, but creates something that resembles an animated film made live in front of you,” Dir said.

Without spoken dialogue, the texts on-screen appear white on black with flourished little borders, a cute caricature of silent film. The acting is exaggerated, earnest. The costume design is theatrical. Victor Frankenstein, played by Sarah Fornace (who also plays Mary Shelley) wears gothic, kohl-heavy stage makeup, and tendrils of the wig float in gravity-defying curls. The transitions between shadow and person are so practiced that they become negligible; the production is so elaborate that it seems necessary for viewers to take pause, to remind themselves that it is singular, one-take, made in real time. Voice and instrument grow in harmony off-screen, and the entire effect can be characterized as the love child of a diorama and a Fabergé egg.

Manual Cinema’s rendition of Mary Shelley’s timeless story begins actually with Shelley herself, giving focus to the context within which the story was born — her loss of a newborn daughter. And this performance’s characterization of Frankenstein is a deviation from the classic villainization of the monster. “We’ve always thought of the story as the story of two characters: Victor and the creature that he creates. It’s also, for us, a dual twin story about creation and about abandonment. We always wanted to be able to allow the audience to sympathize with Victor,” Dir said. “To us, it’s Greek tragedy. There aren’t good and evil characters, there are only characters who make errors based on choices they make up until that point.”

Mary Shelley is credited as the creator of the modern genre of science fiction for her conception of “Frankenstein” in 1818. As such, a primary textual artifact, the story is revered for its approach to the post-human condition. More than a century from its first read, her characters have escaped the confines of those original pages and even her original characterizations.

“One of the reasons we were attracted to Frankenstein in the first place was because there are so many iterations of it. It felt like such a rich text, a text that lived outside of Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, the character, has taken on a life of its own in the popular culture beyond what she created,” Dir said.

Frankenstein isn’t green or hulking in Manual Cinema’s production — he’s made of textile, with what looks to be a gently sewn hodgepodge of woolen socks and soft scraps. And in that way, it is easier to offer him more pity for his condition, more humanity for his losses. Manual Cinema’s vision of Frankenstein is forgiving, handmade and precious.

Contact Katherine Chen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @spaghettybaby.