Let’s talk about puppets for a minute. Never been a real fan. Largely due to the fact that I was raised by a woman who hated them with a passion. Growing up on The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, my mother, who I can’t remember being afraid of anything, was genuinely spooked by puppets. So my sister and I never had puppets as toys. And we certainly never went to a puppet show. We got to watch Sesame Street and that was enough for her (and me, apparently, as I became and still am a tremendous fan of The Muppets).
But in my quest to find as many different versions of A Christmas Carol this season, I came upon Manual Cinema’s shadow puppet-version of the Dickens’ classic and knew I had to check it out.
As with all the other shows I’ve watched or will be watching this month, I didn’t do any background research on the show or even the theater group. Went in completely blind. Which in this case was probably a good thing. Here we have another take on Dickens that tries to pull it into the present time while keeping the Victorian air about it – and this time it works tremendously.
Along with the puppets there is one live actor, the talented and genuinely charming N. LaQuis Harkins as Aunt Trudy. A recently widowed woman who reluctantly decides to put on her late husband’s annual Christmas Carol puppet show for her family via a Zoom-like program (due to the pandemic, the family is social distancing and can’t be together for Christmas).
Even with that intro I thought I’d just be watching a woman putting on a puppet show of A Christmas Carol. Instead, along with the classic, we got a look into someone mourning their losses and reflecting on the things she could have done differently in the time she had with her now-deceased husband.
We got to witness Trudy looking through her husband’s beloved puppets and finding old Christmas cards he gave her and having emotions bubble up while she insisted on continuing to put on a show that in years past she really had no interest in. Harkins gave a truly heart-breaking performance while also giving us a traditional (yet not) telling of Ebenezer Scrooge.
One of the more original presentations of this show I’ve yet to see (not just including this year). I know at times A Christmas Carol might not resonate with some due to how dated it is and Manual Cinema finds a way to keep to the classic while providing us with real-life, current examples of how we can become a Scrooge. They also somehow worked COVID-19 into the story without it feeling forced or hokey. I don’t look forward to all the pandemic-themed art that will be coming in the months and years ahead (I’ve no desire to relive what we’re going through right now) but this group pulled off bringing up the pandemic without making light of it nor being heavy-handed about it. Not an easy task.
I was giving this a shot even though the idea of shadow puppets didn’t thrill me and I’m so happy I did. This is one I really enjoyed.