Mary Shelley is said to have invented the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, a novel she wrote in response to a competition proposed by Lord Byron during a cold summer she and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley spent at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Her novel combines elements from the epistolary novel, the gothic romance, and the ghost story to extrapolate the impact of her protagonist Dr. Frankenstein’s quest to use his scientific knowledge to bring dead matter to life.
Chicago-based arts collective Manual Cinema has likewise invented its own genre of performance, blending handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and live actors and music to create complex and multilayered stories that take place simultaneously on stage and screen. When this company normally performs its work, a team of artists and musicians create a mixed-media experience live before an audience, using vintage overhead projectors, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, and a roving music ensemble (an event, I imagine, somewhat akin to the “live radio play” of Bricolage’s Midnight Radio series, but an order of magnitude or two above that in cognitive complexity). Alas, patrons at City Theatre’s Drive-In will need to imagine what that genre-bending experience is like from the less layered – but no less emotionally and aesthetically satisfying – pre-recorded version of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein on screen at Hazelwood Green until October 17.
If you have ever read Shelley’s novel – and if you haven’t, Reader, you should! – you know that one of its primary conflicts revolves around Frankenstein’s revulsion over, and subsequent abandonment of, his Creature, and also that a large segment of the novel sympathetically offers insight into the Creature’s anguish at having been left to fend for himself by his maker. There are obvious religious and existential motifs at work here, but what Manual Cinema’s adaptation leans into is the connection between the story and Mary Shelley’s own biological and artistic creations. The film begins with an extended prologue that shows the birth and death of Shelley’s infant daughter Clara, and it’s this loss that frames and haunts the story of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein, making her novel at once a working-out of the burden of responsibility she may have felt at losing her infant, and a substitute child itself for the grieving artist-mother. The fact that the same actor (Sarah Fornace) plays both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein underscores the bind this adaptation seeks to forge between these two creators who are tormented by what they have brought into the world.
While this biographical framing adds fresh depth and poignancy to the story of Frankenstein and his Creature, what makes it spellbinding is the magical means through which Manual Cinema tells the story. Haunting, dream-like scenes flow seamlessly back and forth between two-dimensional silhouette paper cutouts, live actors in shadow play, live actors on film, and three-dimensional puppets, all accompanied by perfectly timed live music performed on the stage next to the projection screen (the musicians are Peter Ferry, Jason Gresl, Deirdre Huckabay, and Erica Miller).
The visual storytelling is lyrical and poetic, condensing exquisitely rendered sequences of images into a powerful emotional punch. You might find yourself puzzling, as I did, over how some of the effects were achieved, particularly where the image blends live actors and shadow puppets. At the same time, I’ll confess that part of me was also relieved that I could focus on the gorgeous and eloquent filmed “product” without the lure of wanting to also watch the “process.” Let’s hope that in some Covid-19-free future the ‘burgh will have a chance to host this ingenious collective of artists so that we can witness their technical wizardry live; in the meantime, this film version of Frankenstein is an October treat that’s not to be missed.