It feels so good to be back, writing a review again after so long in quarantine. That said, I am struggling to figure out exactly how to review City Theatre’s presentation of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein, at the Drive-In Festival. The experience is a hybrid drive-in movie and avant-garde jazz concert, with some prerecorded elements and some live. But on the night I attended, a storm led to the entire show shifting to a pre-recorded mode.
Manual Cinema, for the uninformed, is an experimental theatre company that performs “live silent movies” by utilizing a staggeringly original blend of live acting, film, puppetry, shadow puppets, projections and camera trickery. Everything you see, no matter how improbable, is being created live in real time… or, it would be if it weren’t for quarantine. Instead, we get a live avant-garde jazz band performing music and sound effects synchronized to an ACTUAL silent film of the Manual Cinema’s Scotland performance of Frankenstein.
In some ways, this feels like a loss. In other ways, it’s almost beneficial; being able to watch the show onscreen and listen to the eerie score, without being distracted by “okay, how are they doing this right now,” is a less Brechtian-distanced experience. The all-female cast of actors, puppeteers and manipulators dive into multiple roles, one after another, with Sarah Fornace holding down the center in the dual role of Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. Her Mary is wryly humorous yet wistful as her character moves towards first a tragic and then a decisive change in life; her Victor is a broader, more comic figure at times reminiscent of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gawky charisma in Hamilton.
As the show neared its climax, an actual storm blew in, providing atmosphere but wetting windshields that could not be wiped during the show. When the drive-in movie screen nearly blew down, the musicians were forced to stop playing and tear down early, so the film paused before resuming with pre-recorded sound. My immersion may have been mildly impacted, but the weird, wild world of Manual Cinema is too unique to keep me from zeroing in again just as soon as the film resumed. If you’re looking for something new to do this Halloween, something you’ve never seen before and likely will never see again, take my word for it: there is NOTHING else like this.