Lula del Ray isn’t precisely a play, but it is one of the most innovative shows I’ve seen lately. The name of the Chicago-based troupe, Manual Cinema, accurately describes what they do: present a “silent movie” (with live music) on a screen by means of an overhead projector, cardboard puppets and props, and live actors in silhouette. The technique feels both old and new. Slide projectors bring me back to my 1970s school days. But inventive uses of older, cruder technology in the service of storytelling feels oddly modern, even a little steampunk-y.
Was the character Lula del Ray named in honor of science fiction writer Lester del Rey? It would be appropriate, given where we find ourselves at the start. Our teenage heroine lives in a pod-shaped trailer with her mother, who works alone monitoring signals from a radio telescope outside. There’s no hint of a father or friends for Lula, or school for that matter; her only contacts with the outside world of humanity seem to be the mailbox and her transistor radio. But she’s a dreamer, gazing night after night at the moon and stars and devouring the latest issue of Space Magazine. The artists of Manual Cinema have designed this fictional publication, along with a variety of billboards that appear later on, to beautifully evoke the graphical marketing modes of the story’s 1950s or early ’60s milieu.
Lula becomes captivated by a musical act, the Baden Brothers, whose sound, as filtered through the show’s live ensemble (cello, guitar, percussion, ghostly vocals), is a smeary, surrealistic amalgam of country and western, pop, and early rock and roll. In a struggle with her mother over the precious overplayed record that Lula saved her pennies to buy, the disc falls and shatters. Crestfallen, Lula hops a bus and runs away to the big city, where, after some struggles and an amusing gumshoe session tracking down every phone book listing with the name of her idols, she sneaks into a sold-out concert and discovers an awful truth about them.
It’s a compelling story. But what’s remarkable about the show is the way it captures cinematic motions and angles. “Shot” transitions fade from closeup to distance; Lula walks from one room to another or through a revolving door; she looks up and sees an airplane moving slowly among the skyscrapers; she sits on the edge of a radio telescope dish and looks down at her dangling feet. The show also makes occasional use of the limitations of the overhead projector medium, getting laughs by flipping a paper puppet around to indicate a character or object reversing direction, and thus betraying its two-dimensionality.
The whole technique itself is worth seeing, and combined with the compelling if slow-moving story, the show carries both a sparkling kind of suspense and a glowing emotional weight leavened by flecks of humor. Lula has no facial expressions – even the version played by a live actor (the admirably precise Sarah Fornace) has a mask – but we feel her every feeling, and even, sometimes, read her thoughts. Towards the end, the pacing warps, making you anticipate a conclusion a few times before it actually comes. But that was the only thing I didn’t love about this immersive, inventive, almost incredible experience.
Lula del Ray has two more performances next week as part of the NYC Fringe Festival.