Memorable Shadows

Ada/Ava, the new production of Manual Cinema and The Tank at the 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center is hard to pigeonhole, let alone describe. The story it tells is fascinating, but the multimedia whatsis is unlike anything you may ever have seen—in a good way. It’s undertaken by eight talented performers, musicians and technicians, who use five overhead projectors—antique technology—and transparencies with cut-outs to cast shadows against a screen. Also casting shadows are two actresses dressed up as old women. They play the twin septuagenarians of the title, but although we see the actresses, it’s the shadows they cast that are telling the story.

Manual Cinema’s title is in no way a misnomer. This is hands-on “cinema,” prehistoric by Jurassic World standards, as transparencies are slapped by hand onto the projectors, and the actresses’ shadows conform to the background: if chair shadows are shown, the actresses crouch just enough so that the shadows seem to be sitting. Although the actresses are about the same height, they obviously look different, so they wear apparatuses to make their shadow profiles identical.

The twins live next to a lighthouse that they tend. They are responsible for replacing the lights, and during a violent thunderstorm they ascend the spiral of steps to do that. But in short order Ada dies, and Ava tries to carry on alone. There are flashbacks to their childhood, visits to a carnival and a vivid nightmare sequence. Themes of love, loneliness and loss play out with tenderness and anguish, just as if the viewer were watching the Gish sisters in a silent movie.

The production is heavy with technology, but it rarely intrudes, although the “backstage” elements—the “puppeteers” and overhead projectors—actually occupy the foreground between the viewer and the screen, and they provide a strangely compelling frame. The projections are colorful and detailed (the sisters’ history is delineated in a variety of framed silhouettes that hang on the “walls”), and they include montages (extraordinarily “staged” with multiple layers of overlays). To the sides are live musicians to play the eerie score by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman; the pair also designed the sound. The performance is directed by Drew Dir, who also, with Sarah Fornace and Julia Miller, designed the rest of the production. Even the performers, when not in a scene, help out with the labor-intensive projections.

One of the questions that may arise is whether this is theater or cinema. If there are no 3-D characters performing and no text, can it be theater? Balinese shadow puppetry is considered a branch of theater, but Manual Cinema’s own name refers to itself as a film medium. The company also calls its cutouts “puppets,” although they are 2-D. Those are questions to chew on after the show—and the performers gladly invite the audience to step down to chat and take a closer look at the elements of this intriguing production.

Ada/Ava plays at the 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich St. between Rector and Edgar Sts.) in Manhattan through July 12. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. June 24–27 and July 8; and at both 7 and 9 p.m. on June 30–July 3,  and July 9 and 10; also at 7 p.m. on July 11 and 12. There is also an evening performance on July 5 at 7 p.m. Matinees are at 3 p.m. June 28, July 45, and 1112. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit

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