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Theatre Review: Luminous and Mysterious Manual Cinema’s Ada/Ava at Wexner Center

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Luminous and Mysterious Manual Cinema’s Ada/Ava at Wexner CenterManual Cinema's remarkable Ada/Ava on view at the Wexner Center. Photos by Yi Zhao.
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Contrivance is at the heart of any art worth remembering. Deliberate sleight of hand, obfuscation, lies, are tools required to get to the very heart of the human condition. Most artists work their entire lives to get good enough at hiding these instruments and making the final product seamless. There’s a special kind of chutzpah in artists who can lay all their techniques bare for us. There’s a unique magic when an artist can do that, say “Here are the wires, here are the mirrors, here is the smoke,” and leave an audience even more dazzled. Columbus is lucky enough to have such a show right now with Chicago troupe Manual Cinema’s remarkable Ada/Ava which opened at the Wexner Center last night.

Ada/Ava plays out on a projection screen, directed by Drew Dir, composed of four decidedly low-tech overhead projectors overlaying images on a backdrop. The cast referred to as Puppeteers, people the gorgeous, sepia-toned world designed by Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller (all co-founders of the company). This universe comes to life through a combination of pantomime and the manipulation of cut-out figures. Ava’s (Kara Davidson) sister Ada (Vanessa S. Valliere) passes away well into their old age leaving Ava heartbroken and alone. Ava stumbles into a gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead through a carnival featuring a deceptively intricate maze of mirrors that comes to their little town (all other characters performed by Sam Deutsch, Myra Su, and Charlotte Long).

Adding to the astonishment, Ada/Ava has no dialogue per se. A musical score composed by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman (also co-founders) performed by Maren Celest, Michael Hilger, and Vegter on guitar, piano, cello, electronics, and clarinet, accompanies these visuals. By necessity of the strictures of the format, the gestures are broad enough to be conveyed in silhouette. These movements convey the plot twists, recall (with the help of the design) most strongly Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock, and lovingly wink at a variety of sophisticated film modes – dream sequences and chases, washes and flashbacks. Just below the projection screen, the audience watches those techniques come to life with no editing beyond cameras switching back and forth, courtesy of this handful of performers and it’s more magical and more sophisticated for being done in this way.

In its hour running time, Ada/Ava lays bare the melancholy at the heart of human existence: no matter how much we love someone, we will all die, and some of us will be left alone; someone has to go first. Someone always ends up looking for an exit back into their life and a reason to go on, the lucky ones find it. Manual Cinema has empathy for its characters and warmth that bleeds through and lights the macabre, neo-Gothic scenes like a magic lantern. They conjure images that woke me out of a sound sleep, turning over in my head, still chewing, still unlocking.

If you’re interested in seeing how well fantastical elements can work on a stage, see this. If you’re interested in seeing how far the limits of theatre can be pushed and still feel like everything unique about theatre, see this. If you’re interested in having your jaw drop and staring into the light like you’re a child again while fully engaged with adult concerns and emotions, see this. Halloween chills with the flame of growing up behind its eyes like all the best fantasy work. I don’t think I could recommend anything higher. The Wexner Center has closed its 2016 theatre (latter half of 2015-16 and the first half of 16-17) with a subtle, gnawing bang.

Ada/Ava runs through Sunday, October 16 with performances at 8 pm Friday and Saturday and 2 pm Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org.

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