In this opening show at this year’s Under the Radar festival, a Chicago-based theater company with the completely apt name of Manual Cinema allows the audience at the Public Theater to watch a silent film about a lonely, star-gazing girl in the American Southwest of the 1950’s, and simultaneously to watch the making of that film.
The busy cast and crew of Manual Cinema employ the kind of overhead projectors familiar to anyone who has attended public school for a shadow puppet show that uses cardboard cutouts, paper patterns, and two live actresses, to tell the story of Lula Del Ray. A teenager living alone with her mother in a trailer on a vast field of satellite dishes in the middle of the desert, Lula develops two obsessions – the possibility of space travel, and a country music duo she hears on her scratchy radio, the Baden Brothers.
After a fight with her mother, she runs away from home to the big city to find the Baden Brothers. There, she finds a telephone book in a phone booth (clear signs this is a fairy tale of olden times), and visits the address of every “Baden” in it, with no success. Finally, she sees a sign that they are performing at a concert venue. But the concert is sold out. So she goes to the roof, and enters the theater’s duct system, crawling through the tunnel until she spies her idols in their dressing room – discovering they are no more real than…the cardboard cutouts used to depict them. Despite the disappointment, “Lula Del Ray” ends happily, Lula’s other obsession paying off in the long run.
The story is in places lovely and funny and touching, but it is not the reason “Lula Del Ray” has traveled the festival circuit for five years. I’m not sure the story of “Lula Del Ray” would work as a regular film, surely not as a regular silent film, despite the delightful accompaniment by an array of sound effects, and an original score for guitar, cello, and percussion.
The essential charm of the show rests in the marvel of ingenuity on display, the rushing around of the actors and puppeteers and… overhead projector operators, to reproduce manually, on a simple screen placed on stage, the catalogue of modern film techniques – long shots of beautiful sunsets, extreme close-ups of Lula’s expressive face, panning, fade-outs, Dutch angles, tracking shots….Somebody at Manual Cinema clearly went to film school.
Under the Radar at the Public Theater
Conceived by Julia Miller
Based on original text by Brendan Hill
Designed and Directed by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller
Original Sound Design by Kyle Vegter with Ben Kauffman
Original Score by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman with Maren Celest, Michael Hilger, and Jacob Winchester
Puppeteers Lizi Breit, Sam Deutsch, Sarah Fornace (Lula del Ray), and Julia Miller (Lula’s Mother)
Music Performed by Maren Celest (Sounds, Vocals), Michael Hilger (Guitar, Percussion, Vocals), Kyle Vegter (Cello, Vocals), and Jacob Winchester (Guitar, Bass)
Running time: 75 minutes
Lula Del Ray runs through Saturday, January 14