Spoleto 2016 » Opera & Musical Theater

Ada/Ava draws on darkness to tell a story of loss

Shadows and Separation



While Manual Cinema's performance of Ada/Ava may take place in the shadows, director Drew Dir wants you to see it all.

Telling the story of two identical twin sisters who have spent their entire lives together, the Chicago performance collective utilizes five puppeteers, three musicians, and more than 300 shadow puppets to show what happens when someone loses the only other person in their life and the lengths they'll go to be reunited.

After the death of her sister, Ada grapples with living on her own for the first time. Unable to make a new life for herself, Ada begins to see her sister everywhere. These visions ultimately lead her to a traveling carnival where she stumbles into a maze of mirrors. There Ada believes she has found Ava and the two can return to their old lives together. But Ada soon realizes that the sister she thought she saved isn't what she appears.

While the tale of Ada's struggle is cast onto a large screen, the shadows don't tell the complete story. From their seats, the audience can also see the puppeteers act out each scene, while the musicians provide the eerie, yet striking score.

"We're really interested in giving the audience choice about where to look. When you're watching a typical movie, you're seeing what the camera wants you to see, what the director wants you to see. We want to offer the audience a chance to watch the images on the screen, but also have the chance to look down and watch the performers creating it," says Dir. "By exposing the way we do all of our tricks, we find that rather than ruining the illusion, it's more of an invitation to people to become more invested in the work and to understand how we're making this, while at the same time we're asking them to follow the story. There are more places for you to direct your gaze than at a typical play or movie, but we're really into the idea of offering the audience that choice."

Drawing inspiration from old silent films, German expressionism, and the mystery and horror genres, Ada/Ava remains a very personal story about a character's loss and how she works through her grief. According to Dir, the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo was a major influence on the production, but Ada/Ava is likely different from anything you've seen before.

"When you watch a Manual Cinema show, it's a little bit like watching something between theater and film. We're using shadow puppets and music to create what appears to be an animated movie in shadows on a big screen," says the show's director. "In that way it looks like a movie in that you are basically watching the screen, but unlike a movie, you can also see all of the puppeteers and actors creating the imagery below. You can also see the musicians performing along with us. We call it sort of a live animated movie or a live cinematic shadow puppet show."

Without any dialogue, much of the story of Ada/Ava is told through sound effects and music, which merge together to create a moving experience that surrounds the audience while drawing them into the performances of the puppeteers.

"It's told entirely without words, so the movement of the puppeteers, because they have so many objects and literal paper shadow puppets to manipulate and move around, becomes a little bit like a dance," says Dir. "The puppeteers describe it that way. It's sort of like choreography."

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