by Mike Hoban
Ada/Ava– Created by Manual Theater; Directed by Drew Dir; Sound Design and Original Score by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman; Designed by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller. Presented by Manual Cinema and ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, 559 Washington Street, Boston through January14th.
One of the great pleasures of being a theater reviewer in Boston is getting to see productions that push the boundaries of traditional theater, and nobody serves up such a mind-blowing amalgamation of cool stuff as ArtsEmerson, which continues to amaze with its latest offering, Ava/Ada. You’re not likely to see an overhead projector used as anything but a prop in any theatrical production these days, but Chicago-based Manual Cinema employs four of them as the primary technology to create a kind animated silent film that is alternately touching and unsettling. The projectors are used in conjunction with hundreds of shadow puppets and live action silhouettes, and the “movie” is supported by a killer live band (with a quadraphonic sound system) that establishes the haunting tone for this provocative work.
Ava and Ada are older twin sisters, who also happen to be the caretakers of a lighthouse off an unspecified New England coast. We see the two play chess, drink tea, and change the massive lightbulb that guides the ships to safety. We also witness flashbacks of vignettes from the sisters’ childhood, including scenes at the carnival and the beach (where Ava saves Ada from drowning after the girls argue over a ownership of a found seashell). But Ava suddenly dies in the middle of a chess game, leaving her twin and sole companion alone in the lighthouse.
Ada grieves the loss of her sister, and fills the void by visiting the grave, spending time in front of the mirror (before despairingly covering it up with a shroud) and trying to get on with her tragically altered new life. At the precise point when the story threatens to slip into tedium, we are whisked to a kind of Twilight Zone experience via an elaborate dream sequence that takes us back to the carnival of her youth and into a maze of mirrors. This is where the multimedia medium gives the production a unique brand of creepiness, which fits in wonderfully with the narrative. Adding to the atmosphere is the cello and keyboard work of Kyle Vegter and Michael Hilger on synthesizer and guitar, while Maren Celest provides live sound effects and also sings and plays clarinet on a pair of jazz standards (“All of Me” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”) with a soulfulness that belies her relative youth.
While the action plays on a screen above, the actors and puppeteers are in plain sight below, working their craft. It’s not a distraction, instead it’s kind of a weirdly interesting enhancement to this clever show. But this is not a production that places style and craft above the narrative, and the story of loss and redemption is well-told. If you’re looking for an out of the ordinary theatrical experience, this will surely fill the bill, but hurry, the production closes Sunday. For more info, go to: https://artsemerson.org