"Ada/Ava" occupies the Shadowlands — in more ways than one. A signature work of Chicago-based Manual Cinema, the short, bleak theater piece, a sort of handmade silent movie, is built on shadow puppetry. It is also set at death’s door: a portal through which septuagenarian twin sisters, one living, one dead, tenderly endeavor to pull one another.
This mesmerizing hour of theater, a collision of fired-up imagination and deftly deployed low technology, debuted in 2013 and has since toured widely. As presented by ArtsEmerson on the Robert J. Orchard Stage of the Paramount Center (through Jan. 14), it’s a detailed meditation on loneliness and connection that makes its magic while at the same time proving that a spell can be cast without an iota of illusory flimflam.
Well, the frequently deployed, seemingly Edward Gorey-inspired lightning might be considered flimflam. But then, “Ada/Ava” is a tale as ghoulish as it is exquisitely spare. The two sisters of the title live what would be a solitary life, were there not two of them, in a cottage at the foot of a lighthouse. Their job is to ascend a shell-like spiral of stair and tend the light — often amid rumbling thunder and slanting streaks of rain. One day, as the women are enjoying cups of tea and a game of chess, Ava slumps over the chessboard dead. Ada’s new job is to cope with the loss of her doppelgänger since the womb. It’s a tricky business highlighted by mirror imagery, tightly held emotion and Gothic imaginings.
But in the nimble hands of Manual Cinema, the story is as precise as it is poetic — and utterly open in its execution. Beneath a large screen on which the “movie” will unfold and before a smaller one that will be used to cast shadows, the cadre of perpetrators are milling on stage as the audience enter the theater. These include the puppeteers (Julia Miller and Lizi Breit) who will stand in for the interchangeable title characters, with their black dresses and gray chignons; three other puppeteers (Sam Deutsch, Sarah Fornace and director Drew Dir) who will simulate the action by use of old-fashioned projectors and tiny paper cutouts affixed to cellophane handles; the sound woman (Maren Celest), who will also supply clarinet riffs and moody jazz vocals; and the instrumentalists (Ben Kauffman and Alexander Ellsworth) who will provide the mournful, metronomic, increasingly spooky soundscape. The hat is inside out, the rabbit on full view. Let the haunting begin.
Manual Cinema actually has a repertoire of two-dozen such theater pieces. But if you are unfamiliar with the troupe’s work, "Ada/Ava" is like nothing you have seen before — unless you go back to childhood, casting shadows on the wall with your hands, fingers and perhaps a flashlight, and then up the ante a thousand fold. Indeed, "Ada/Ava" is like a children’s book bristling with scary bits and profound implications.
The world of the piece exists primarily in silhouette, beginning with the countless daguerreotypes of the sisters, at various ages from infancy to dotage, dotting the patterned wallpaper of their cottage. Some sleight of (skeletal) hand will be played with these — as with a visiting carnival’s Maze of Mirrors, which serves as a sort of crucible for the grieving Ada. This poor survivor, after a macabre attempt to bring her sister back from the grave, must move from a life lived in duplicate to one of singularity. Whereas before, everything in her world — umbrellas, toothbrushes, beach towels, even the seats on a bicycle — had been paired, these everyday items have become emblems of aloneness.
As they sing in “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s a tale as old as time. But it’s told here in such an unusual, ingenious way that you marvel at it nonetheless. Recurrent images of the twins, as chiseled as Georgia O’Keeffe and as empty-eyed as Orphan Annie, their fingers or noses touching as they appear in hunched or inquisitive profile, ascending stairs, tumbling through mazes, tending to one another even as the flesh falls away, add up to something almost unbearably startling and sweet.
But at the same time, if you let your eyes wander from the big screen, you get to see all the bells being struck and whistles being blown by the black-clad onstage conjurers of image and sound. These folks, who man the paper dolls and projectors, provide the heightening musical accompaniment and exacting sound effects, are both artists and technicians. Yet well before sound-effects maven Celest swivels her chair away from the computer to apply her fine tonsils to the thematically apt, Duke Ellington-penned “(In My) Solitude,” it has become clear that artistry trumps tech in this very open marriage.
"Ada/Ava" is at the Emerson Paramount Center through Sunday, Jan. 14.