From cradle to grave, we are awash in television images, spending countless hours suffused in their glow — especially now, when the triumph of screen culture over print culture is more absolute than it has ever been.
So it might seem an audacious thing indeed to title a show “The End of TV,’’ as the Chicago-based performance troupe known as Manual Cinema has done. But of course the title is not meant to taken at face value. Nothing in this ingenious and spellbinding multimedia production is so linear as that.
Yes, the quietly poignant story within “The End of TV’’ has to do with endings, but also with beginnings, and with the struggle in between those two poles of existence, and with the simple human connections that can make it bearable along the way.
“The End of TV’’ also wants us to think about the emptiness of consumerism, the betrayal of workers by bottom-line-focused corporate America, the distance between real life and the promises made in television commercials, and the folly of believing that life’s meaning can somehow be commodified. But those messages are not new, and they are not the strength of this remarkable show.
Among the small miracles of “The End of TV’’ — directed by Julia VanArsdale Miller and now at the Paramount Center under the auspices of ArtsEmerson — is the intimacy it achieves and sustains throughout despite its screen-centric structure. Often, when stage productions put technology at the center of their storytelling, as in Ivo van Hove’s current Broadway staging of “Network,’’ a certain coldness and remoteness can result. Not so with “The End of TV,’’ although it matters greatly that the tech deployed here is deliberately old-fashioned: overhead projectors of the sort you may recall from high school AV club, low-fi video feeds, shadow puppetry, live-action silhouettes.
Those humble tools are deployed with consummate artistry by the Manual Cinema team of actors and puppeteers, who generate images on a small screen far upstage that are then beamed onto a larger screen looming above. For the audience, it represents a rare opportunity to see both the creative process and tricky elements of stagecraft unfolding right in front of us. So our eyes dart up and down and back up again, tracking the transformation of human activity into projected images. (Manual Cinema employed a similar approach with “Ada/Ava,’’ which ArtsEmerson presented last year at the Paramount.)
Set in a “post-industrial Rust Belt city’’ in the 1990s, “The End of TV’’ chronicles the relationship between an elderly white woman named Flo (Kara Davidson) and a young black woman named Louise (Sharaina L. Turnage). Vanessa S. Valliere and Jeffrey Paschal play a variety of other roles, lip-synching dialogue by everyone from a QVC host to a “mindfulness’’ guru. Also onstage throughout are five musicians and vocalists (Maren Celest, Nora Barton, Marques Toliver, Kamaria Woods, Ryan Zerna) who perform an original score by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter (who also collaborated on the screenplay), creating an evocative soundscape that is vital to the haunting impact of “The End of TV.’’
Flo once worked as a supervisor in the local automobile assembly plant but is now sliding into dementia, her days devoted to watching big-haired hosts hawking their kitschy wares on the QVC shopping channel — all bright, come-hither falsity and inanity — punctuated by a numbing cascade of commercials. Louise, who was recently laid off from her job at that same auto plant, now works as a Meals on Wheels driver, which brings her into contact with the older woman. Images of a hand turning a wrench on a bolt communicates the pride both women once took in their jobs at the plant; a foreclosure notice suggests the toll that unemployment takes.
Commercial images flood constantly across the screen throughout “The End of TV’’: Chia Pets, Fruit Loops, Coca-Cola, a cookie jar in the shape of Snoopy’s head, a snippet of footage from NBC’s “Today’’ show, a Chrysler car, a stainless steel electric mixer, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. For Flo, that torrent of images blends with memories of her past — a past irrevocably darkened by a tragic loss. Materializing in the old woman’s reveries as a kind of spirit guide is, believe it or not, the Jolly Green Giant. (It works better than you’d think.)
The interactions between Flo and Louise are wordless but moving. Even in silhouette, what comes through are Flo’s loneliness, Louise’s compassion, and the kind of person-to-person bond that is unmediated by any screen. For all of its visual virtuosity, that is what I will remember longest about “The End of TV.’’
THE END OF TV
Screenplay, music, and lyrics by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman. Direction and storyboards by Julia VanArsdale Miller. Production by Manual Cinema. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston, through Jan. 27. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin