March 12, 2017

Delving into fantasy of childhood solitude

Adelaide Festival

The Magic City
Adapted from the novel by Edith Nesbit
Devised by Manual Cinema
Her Majesty’s Theatre
March 11. Tickets $25- $49
Until March 13.

This is an especially creative time for multi-media theatre. The exuberant mix of live feed video, animation, puppetry, back-projection and magnified miniatures has produced an intriguing variety of works which have tackled complex subjects once thought of as the domain only of conventional drama.

In recent Adelaide Festivals we have seen notable instances of these innovative hybrids. In 2013, the Netherlands company, Hotel Modern, presented Kamp, their compelling miniature reconstruction of the horrific Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. More recently, DJ Kid Koala bundled live-action puppets with a string quartet to stage his graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall. And last year, Golem, the joint venture between Theatre de Ville Paris and the Young Vic, written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, used film, actors and clay animation to present a disturbing phantasmagoria about humankind and its machines.

For 2017, the Chicago-based collective, Manual Cinema, is delighting audiences from age seven and upwards with The Magic City, an adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s 1910 novel about childhood loneliness and compensatory fantasy. In this version, the boy in Nesbit’s original is now nine year old Philomena (Sarah Fornance) who has lived securely with her adult half-sister Helen (Julia Miller) and is then faced with having to share life with Brandon (Linsey Falls) Helen’s fiancé and his anxious-to-please, accident-prone, seven year old son Lucas (Jeffrey Paschal).

The story of Philomena’s struggle to acknowledge that her closely bound life on the island of Phi-Helen-Ia, as she calls her safe haven with her sister, is presented on the main screen with live-feed video – homing in on the delightfully animated Fornance with her heavy spectacles, pigtails and woolly pompom hat. Then, a narrative cavalcade of overhead projections, paper shadow puppets and live action in silhouette, propels the exploration of a besieged little girl coming to terms with what she describes as her destructive Philomena-zilla fantasies, and her gradual recognition that Lucas is also a child coping with grief and abrupt life changes.

The creation, by designers Lizi Breit, Drew Dir and Julia Miller, of the Magic City, a topography made from cardboard cut-outs, miniature objects and beautifully expressive silhouette, is a triumph of theatrical flair posing as low-tech improvisation. The narration, computer-fed soundscape and vocals from Maren Celest, combine with onstage musicians, Michael Hilger on keyboards and co-composer Ben Kauffman on guitar, to envelope the visuals with an engagingly cinematic score.

This endearingly earnest production has a gentle charm and a staunch purpose, and the Manual Cinema ensemble, while busily revealing their techniques for all to see, modestly conceal their virtuosity to better serve their message.

Their second Festival presentation, Lula Del Ray, set in the American Southwest and featuring the music of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, opens on Tuesday March 14 until March 16.

“Delving into fantasy of childhood solitude”, The Australian, March 13, 2017, p.14.

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