Artfully crafted, beautifully acted, Manual Cinema's adaptation of Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' a must-see

“Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol” - ★ ★ ★ ★

“Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol” is a version of Charles Dickens' tale unlike any you've experienced.

Artfully crafted with distinctive visual effects, it has an ethereal, original score by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter that is alternately melancholy, joyful and brooding. Sometimes it is nearly imperceptible, the ideal counterpoint to a ghost story.

LaKecia Harris, right, plays Aunt Trudy, who keeps up her late husband's Christmas holiday puppet show tradition in "Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol," featuring puppeteer Lizi Breit, left. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Performed by two actors, four puppeteers and a musical trio, this eloquently simple piece of theater is so truthful, so resonant, I had to remove my mask to wipe away tears.


Manual Cinema, a multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble whose highly theatrical works are rooted in cinematic techniques, uses overhead projectors, shadow puppets, original music and actor/puppeteers to tell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, as narrated by the recently widowed Aunt Trudy (LaKecia Harris).

Actor/puppeteer Jeffrey Paschal, right, plays the young boy who purchases a turkey for Scrooge in "Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol," which also features puppeteer Julia Miller, left, and actor/puppeteer LaKecia Harris, center. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

An earlier version of the show streamed online in 2020. Writers Theatre's production marks the in-person premiere.

Co-creators and directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Kauffman, Julia Miller and Vegter (along with Nate Marshall, who supplied additional material) have contemporized Dickens' redemption/reconciliation tale. They added a frame involving the aforementioned Aunt Trudy that places the story squarely in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The result is a profoundly moving examination of isolation, loss and grief with a performance by Harris that will break your heart.

Actor/puppeteer Jeffrey Paschal is part of the terrific ensemble responsible for the heartwarming, inventively told "Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The time is December 2020. The place is Trudy's home, where dozens of packing boxes suggest a move is imminent. Trudy's late husband Joe (a gregarious man who “never met a GoFundMe he didn't like”) for years delighted family members with his “Christmas Carol” puppet show. The Christmas-averse Trudy prefers the tradition die with him, but when his relatives ask her to perform the show, she agrees.

However, with a COVID-19 variant sparking a surge in infections and families eschewing holiday gatherings as a result, she's forced to perform the show on Zoom.

“Let's get this over with,” she snaps, agreeing to one last performance before she retires the tradition.

Shadow puppets are among the tools the multidisciplinary ensemble Manual Cinema incorporates in its revised version of "A Christmas Carol," running through Dec. 24 at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

As the puppet show unfolds, parallels become apparent between Trudy's story and Scrooge's. Like him, the loss of a loved one has made her bitter. Like him, she withdraws, fearful perhaps of another broken heart. And like him, she's given an opportunity to redeem herself (with assistance from a delivery man played by actor/puppeteer Jeffrey Paschal)

Harris is magnificent. Smart, funny and wonderfully expressive, her Trudy endears herself to the audience from the moment she steps onto the stage. So much so that when a power outage plunges Trudy's home into darkness causing her to trip and fall, audience members gasped and a child cried out.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation and grief that resulted inspired Manual Cinema's inventive, heartfelt adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

“Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol” is not a lavish production. But I found Dir's puppets and storyboards charming, except for the Ghost of Christmas Future, which is appropriately menacing. But it is Harris' performance that propels this show.

My favorite moments are the close-ups in which Trudy stares into the Zoom camera. Her expression evidences vulnerability, pain, loneliness and fear so genuine it's difficult to watch and impossible to look away. Kudos to the directors who recognize a compelling image when they see one and leave the camera on Harris, which is exactly where it should be.

Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 24

Tickets: $35-$90

Running time: About 70 minutes, no intermission

Parking: Street parking available

Rating: For most audiences (kids younger than 6 not admitted), includes brief profanity and depiction of grief

COVID-19 precautions: Masking required

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