Photo courtesy of Judy Sirota Rosenthal / Manual Cinema

Joy and Despair of the American Rust Belt in ArtsEmerson's 'The End of TV'

Dancing shadows. Wavering lights. Revererating orchestra.

A tour de force of illusionist intrigue, “The End of TV” quietly but defiantly tells a story of love, loss, and despair in the American heartland. The Chicago-based troupe Manual Cinema presents a piece that simply cannot fit into to any single traditional genre. Directed by Julia Miller, with a brilliant screenplay by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman, the production utilizes live-action silhouettes, video feeds, overhead projection, and a five-piece band performing an original score to complete its narrative.

The majority of the plot is presented through a blend of silhouette acting and puppetry imposed upon a projected background. The cast consists of four actors, each playing a variety of characters ranging from QVC hosts to ER doctors with the help of a wide array of props. The small yet robust orchestra ensemble of musicians and vocalists play a rich, dynamic score. The tech utilized is deliberately and charismatically passé and simplistic—old-fashioned projectors, technicolor film, lo-fi video feeds. Bright colors. Big hair. There is a graceful flow to it, and the lack of spoken dialogue contributes to its meditative air.

With great energy and incredible attention to detail, the actors change costumes on stage and use a variety of props to produce a "scene" on the small screen in front of them, which is then projected onto the larger screens hanging from above. The audience's glance wanders between the actors and the screen. As it observes how the images are produced, the audience is offered the unique opportunity to witness the creative stagecraft that creates the dazzling spectacle. It is a busy, carefully orchestrated operation with the energy of a lively organism—an inviting and intimate experience. However, the large screen hovering above the stage undoubtedly dominates the audience’s attention, much like TVs used to in the American household.

Despite the seemingly complex method of presentation, the narrative itself is clear and pronounced. Set in a “post-industrial Rust Belt city’’ in the 1990s, “The End of TV’’ centers around a chance encounter between an elderly white woman, Flo (Kara Davidson), and a young black woman, Louise (Aneisa Hicks). Flo struggles with dementia and the shackles of old age. Louise has just been laid off at her job at an auto factory. TV and its persistent static play an instrumental role in both women’s daily lives.

Despite struggling financially, Flo spends her days shopping at the bequest of a never-ending QVC program, projected live on a smaller screen to the side. The QVC host’s shrill, solicitous voice dabbles on as the frail lady picks up the phone for what is doomed to be another hopeless attempt at assuaging a life of loneliness. The cold, unrelenting chatter of the TV seeps through the cracks and becomes intertwined with Flo’s fading memory; although it provides temporary relief, its presence is ultimately apathetic and even antagonistic.

In Louise’s case, however, the TV has a more amiable presence. After being laid off of work at the local auto plant, Louise finds refuge in programs that remind her of joyous childhood memories, showcased through a lively cinematic montage made possible by the multifaceted presentation method. The scene is vibrant and fuzzy, the warm hue invoking a visceral response usually associated with cherished memories. Louise’s early life is blissfully optimistic against the backdrop of a booming auto industry that allowed for the prosperity of the town and its people. Everything seemed hopeful.

As the women become acquainted, a shift in focus gradually delegates to TV a more subdued role in the narrative. More about the characters’ pasts are revealed. Among the details are Louise’s damaged relationships with her father and her guilt-induced inability to address it, as well as the tragic and traumatic loss of Flo’s teenage daughter. As the narrative becomes more emotionally charged, the emphasis re-centers on the people portrayed as well as the time and place they inhabit.

Traversing back and forth between points on the axis of time, Flo remembers the past with defiant nostalgia. She is proud of her work in the auto plant, where she excelled and belonged. She felt triumphant like her country, which had just emerged from the shambles of the old order. She was happy and in charge. This sense of bliss was eventually shattered, as the audience discovers. The car Flo bought her daughter, the prized gift that brought joy and laughter, ultimately brought the young girl to her grave. It is a cruel metaphor for the decline of the American rust belt; the car bears resemblance to the auto plant in which it was produced. The bloodline and crown jewel of the town has become the agent of and testament to its swift demise.

In one of the finest sequences of the production, Flo enters a trance-like hallucinatory state caused by her dementia; snippets of TV commercials over the years condense and morph into an alluring yet dangerous landscape and mystical creatures with unclear intentions. The unpredictability of life and the distress it causes is vividly and viscerally showcased. Flo drifts away in an idyllic fantasy to reminisce about the good old days against the buzz of meaningless commercial catchphrases.

The narrative and its characters are propelled forward by the irresistible current of change. Life’s blessings and beauty are marred by its unexpected maliciousness. The aging Flo passes, leaving the young Louise to make amends with her past. As Louise embarks on a literal and metaphorical journey to reconnect with the beauty in the world and her past, TV remains a constant in the background—a distant, apathetic presence intent on demanding something from its watchers.

At the end, Louise opens a gift Flo left behind for her. It is revealed to be an online version of the QVC channel disguised as a self-help software. The successor to TV—the internet—is thus thrust onto the center stage. TV, once the epicenter of American consumerism and anxiety, finds reincarnation in the internet, unlocking another Pandora’s box. What will Louise do with it, and what will it do to Louise and the millions of lonely souls lost in an increasingly materialistic world, seeking to love and belong?

Once the static subsides, the true soul of “The End of TV” gradually emerges. As much as it is about TVs, it is ultimately about the viewers watching them, about the extraordinary moments of fleeting joy in contrast with the poignant despair in their everyday lives.

See “The End of TV” presented by Manual Cinema at Emerson Paramount Center, Boston, Jan. 16-27.

Trying to capture the fleeting moments of sanity in a big, crazy world. Will probably end up on the streets.