At first glance, the stage set for Manual Cinema’s performance of Ada/Ava looks quaint. A small assortment of instruments sit to the right of four overhead projectors, the kind that you’d see in middle school. Then the performers take the stage to arrange their shadow puppets, the lights dim, and the sound of a storm swells. Establishing shots projected on a large screen at the center of the stage slowly dissolve into one another, taking you into the lives of two elderly twin sisters and the lighthouse that they call home. Borrowing from the language of filmmaking, a series of close-ups examine a wall of portraits that line their home, showing the sisters as children and transitioning into adulthood. Using layers upon layers of shadows, we see the routine of their daily lives that revolves around playing chess and keeping each other company.
The sound design is just as rich and layered as the images. The winds and thunder roar as the music eases in and out. The show is quick to draw you in, but the performances do not feel rushed. Ada/Ava takes its time to give the audience an inside look at the lives of the show’s two characters before pulling the rug out from under you.
The death of Ava sets in motion the main story of the show. Following her sister’s funeral, Ada is now alone in the world for the first time. Her everyday activities now seem impossible without the company of her sister. As the show takes us through the grief that comes along with the death of a loved one, we find ourselves following Ada through a series of nightmares. Where earlier in the day, she had attempted to clear away Ava’s possessions, Ada's dreams find her chased and terrorized by oversized version of her sister’s discarded belongings. Ada continues to spiral deeper and deeper into sadness until she decides to take a trip to a nearby carnival. From her lighthouse, she can hear the sounds of the music and children playing, and it reminds her of a time she spent with her sister at the fair.
Once she makes her way inside of the carnival, Ada is met with vision after vision of her dead sister. She gives chase and is eventually led to a mirror maze. At this point, it feels like we see our main character at her lowest. Trapped in a hall of mirrors in search of her identical twin sister, it’s a hectic scene to watch, but the performers manage to ramp up the pace of the show without leaving the audience behind.
Eventually, Ada finds her sister and pulls her through the mirror and back into her life. In the back of your mind, you know something is wrong, but the sight of the two sisters reunited is touching enough that you hope for the best. With Ada and Ava back together, the show shifts gears and goes in a direction that you couldn’t have predicted.
Approximately halfway through the performance, after the sisters return to their home together once again, a live rendition of the jazz standard “All of Me” kicks in. Maren Celest handles the vocals, which prove to be even more touching than they should be. Up until this point in the show, their had been no dialogue, no human voice at all. In the way that some directors will withhold from their audience — for example, shying away from any use of warm colors for an extended period of time before delivering a shot of the sun — Ada/Ava does this with voice.
As a part of the audience, you don’t realize how long it has been since someone spoke until the first strains of “All of Me” hits your ear. It’s a moment that perfectly communicates the loneliness that Ada has experienced and the joy that she feels with the return of her sister. This is also the moment where everything aligns in Ada/Ava and the show transcends being just a tale of loss. As the show stretches into its second half, it becomes less of an interesting technical achievement in regards to the puppetry involved and more of a full-on cinematic experience being created in real time. Ada’s slow realization that her reunion with Ava won’t last manages to hit on a few comedic beats without spoiling the heartache of learning that they’ll never be together again. In the end, she’s pushed to her emotional limits, but Ada manages to carve out a life of her own on her own. While Ada/Ava may be told in the shadows, its true charm shines through.