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Evocative elegancy: Live silent film comes to Sheldon

Six puppeteers, seven overhead projectors, two cameras, human silhouettes, three screens and four musicians will all play a role in telling the story “Mementos Mori” at the Sheldon Theatre on Oct. 7, 2017. Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema

The venerable Sheldon Theatre hasn't seen anything quite like Manual Cinema for generations.

The Chicago-based company, which will make its Minnesota debut here on Oct. 7, has created a unique theatrical style of visual storytelling.

Like actors in the silent films that were featured at the Sheldon decades ago, the characters who appear in Manual Cinema's "Mementos Mori" use action and gesture — complemented by appropriate music and sound effects — to tell a story without spoken words.

"Mementos Mori" is a story about love and hope, death and dying in a digital age. The Latin phrase translates into a reminder that life is fragile; death is inevitable.

The characters explore death and dying from the point of view of different characters, according to Julia Miller, a founder of Manual Cinema who also is a puppeteer, a puppet designer and the director of "Mementos Mori."

Death takes a form, she said, and the story explores different ways people can be in a relationship with Death in the age of the cell phone.

One character is a little girl encountering Death for the first time. One woman chases Death because she feels she has been taken prematurely, while another character is in love with Death, and yet another cheats Death, Miller said.

The troupe uses six puppeteers working hundreds of paper shadow puppets, seven overhead projectors, two cameras, human silhouettes and three screens to create a live "movie."

Four musicians — a cellist, a flutist, a guitarist/synthesizer player who sings and a sound effects person/vocalist — accompany the visuals.

"Music is a huge part of it," Miller said. It sets the place and tone of a scene, and "tells" the characters' emotions. Often people in the audience aren't really aware that there is no dialog.

Working together with the "actors," the musicians help create a sense of attending a movie but with live, theatrical immediacy.

The Sheldon's executive director, Bonnie Schock, described the production as a handmade love letter to stage and screen — "evocative and elegant."

Manual Cinema's Sarah Fornace, another of the troupe's artistic directors, described the process of creating "an experience that feels like being at an animated movie. However, you're seeing everything being constructed frame by frame and note by note in front of you."

While there is a willing suspension of disbelief as audiences get caught up in the story, Manual Cinema does not attempt to hide the process or imply that it's all a mystery.

Instead, all of the mechanisms used to create the screen images are revealed. "We ask the audience to engage with how it's being made," Miller said, for "a less passive experience."

The company was founded in 2010 by a group of Chicago friends with experience in theatrical arts and music. Manual Cinema, which is described as a performance collective, created four original feature-length live cinematic shows before "Mementos Mori," which premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Chicago International Puppetry Festival.

They have continued to develop their multi-media technique and create award-winning shows which tour widely. "We spent two months in Europe this summer," Miller said. The company remounted "Mementos Mori" this summer and will premiere the new version at the Sheldon.

Showtime on Oct. 7 is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20. For reservations or information, call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.

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