To tell a tale of social dislocation facilitated by mass media, Manual Cinema set its latest multimedia performance in the recent past.
The protagonist of “The End of TV” is isolated from real-life contact and mesmerized by technology, circa the early 1990s. It’s the lure of the television shopping network QVC that ensnares her. That obsession may almost seem quaint today, when most of us carry around a little computer that can function as an all-purpose tool of consumerism.
But the threat of loneliness — and the promise of connection — depicted in the show come in the context of the ever-relevant gap between the version of America that people see described on their screens by advertisers and politicians versus the one they actually live in.
“The show was about this fake promise that we’re sold of what the American Dream is, and how that doesn’t exist,” says director Julia VanArsdale Miller.
A two-week run, beginning Jan. 16, marks the second time ArtsEmerson has brought the troupe to the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage. Like “Ada/Ava,” which the Chicago-based company performed at the theater last year, “The End of TV” blurs the line between live performance and film.
Manual Cinema employs shadow puppetry, live actors, a green screen (typically used for film and television productions), and an old-fashioned overhead projector to simulate a motion picture in real time.
Audiences at Manual Cinema shows divide their attention between a projected image of the final product and the cast and crew making it happen. This one also features a live band performing seven songs that punctuate the action.
The company keeps several overhead projectors on hand, many sourced from eBay as the devices are fragile and prone to overheating. “At this point I understand them more intimately than I ever thought I’d understand a piece of metal,” Miller quips.
For “The End of TV,” the troupe simulates period commercials from the 1990s, which serve as scene transitions and also dramatize the confusion between what’s real and what exists on our screens.
The setting is an unnamed Rust Belt city that’s in decline, where a retiree named Flo (Kara Davidson) lives alone, accumulating piles of boxes from QVC even as she disregards unpaid bills and hurtles toward eviction. Louise (Sharaina L. Turnage), a younger woman working at a failing factory, comes to intersect with Flo’s life in unexpected ways as the audience learns more about the medical issues contributing to Flo’s predicament.
Kyle Vegter, who wrote the screenplay, music, and lyrics with Ben Kauffman — like director Miller, they’re also cofounders and co-artistic directors of Manual Cinema — says he researched the story by watching lots of ’90s television.
“Oh my God, hours of QVC. It messes with you. It truly does create a little world that you’re sort of the center of, which is exactly what it does for Flo in the show,” Vegter says. “I also did some research into the fan groups that are built up around QVC . . . just a little tiny slice of a subculture of a subculture that I had no idea existed, and it was super interesting to dive into that.”
“The End of TV” includes sequences from old QVC broadcasts set to the actual period audio. The show’s creators also devised a fictional character, whose manner is inspired by that of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (voiced by Vegter), who peddles a self-help product on QVC that is comical in the comprehensiveness of its promised benefits.
In a twist late in the show, that product proves to be a link between the television shopping culture of the 1990s and the 21st century’s Internet-facilitated promise of being able to purchase any thing at any time.
“What was happening in ’90s culture was really pivotal in terms of getting us to where we are [now], in terms of culture and advertising,” Vegter says.
The show balances an intimate look at the two women’s lives with the surrounding cultural context, including the decline of American manufacturing. Miller says it reflects an increased desire among Manual Cinema’s leaders to comment on social issues.
“I feel like as we get older we’re more conscious about the messages that we think are important and that we want to share,” she says. “It’s also us just reacting to the world that we live in.”
For the record, QVC is still going strong, but you no longer need cable TV to access it — it also streams for free online.
The End of TV
Created by Manual Cinema. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Paramount Center Robert J. Orchard Stage, Jan. 16-27. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.