All photos by Daniel Bedell

I have always wanted to see a magic lantern show. I remember coming across them in childhood books on magic, and learned about them in film school as an early example of pre-cinema innovation.

The original magic lantern was invented in the mid 1650’s and was one of humankind’s first formal attempts at project an image. The device is most closely related to a slide projector, consisting of a chamber which held both the glass slide containing the image, as well as a flame which provided the light source for the projection. As with all technologies, the magic lantern improved over time as new minds and new innovation emerged. Not long after its invention, clever minds figured out how to create moving pictures with the device—a method otherwise unknown at the time.

It has been in use since its creation as not only an amusement, but as a secret device by magicians as a tool to instill wonder, and charlatans and con-artists to instill fear. For magicians, the magic lantern was a new tool to create the seemingly impossible right before peoples eyes. In the hands of fake spirit mediums, the magic lantern was a powerful device to summon ghosts, spirits, and satan himself.  When the magic lanterns use within spiritualism was eventually staged as a theatrical performance, this use of the magic lantern event got its own name—the Phantasmagoria!

Today, the magic lantern has been replaced with LCD and DLP Projectors, and projected images mystify us in new and different ways. Its inventor would have been astonished by what we are able to accomplish today with CGI, mapped projections, and other rapidly expanding technologies. Yet in Nana Project’s hands, the principles of magic lantern once again hold the power to evoke a state of magic, wonder, and nostalgia for a time we never knew.

Nana Projects is well known throughout the Baltimore Area for their long list of creations throughout the city, including their Great Halloween Lantern Parade, a variety of shadow-puppetry shows and workshops throughout the year, as well as their stilt-walking classes, for which they hold the lofty goal of teaching 1,000 Baltimore residents to walk on stilts. Most recently, the premiered their new show, Eureka, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem.

The actual magic lanterns that “lanterneers” Molly Ross (Director and Principal Artist), Annie Howe (Principal Puppet Designer) and Julia M. Smith use to tell their amazing story of “madness, passion and intrigue” take the form of slightly modified overhead projectors—like the ones from grade school. The large rollers built into these custom tables assist in moving the often intricate backdrops that flow past the screen as the story unfolds. The performers sit in between the audience and their special tables, allowing an occasional glimpse at the process taking place.

When not working with Nana Projects, Annie Howe has her own business making and selling paper cuts. You may even remember her from the cover of the City Paper at the end of December as one of her large cuts marked the end of 2011. This is a passion which clearly suits both of her lines of work!

The story of Alonzo’s Lullaby is inspired by the Hagenback-Wallace Circus train wreck of 1918. This tragic accident, considered the worst circus train wreck ever to take place, took the lives of 86 circus folk, and injured another 127. The first circus can be dated back to the mid 18th century, and remained one of the most popular and most anticipated events of the year for any place it visited. This horrible tragedy was national news.

The entire show was scored and accompanied live by ellen cherry and Nicholas Sjorstrom, who together played a variety of instruments to compose the soundtrack. The score is sometimes melodic, and other times hauntingly dark. This project was built in true collaborative form, and the bond between all of the performers is clear, and unquestionable. A fact further backed by the re-uniting of Nana Project and ellen cherry for their new production, Eureka!

The Theatre Project serves as the ideal venue to view this amazing, slow and seductive work. Its large house with deeply raked seating allows for a big crowd, while feeling intimate for everyone in attendance. The audience was diverse, in both age and background, but we all embraced the opportunity to become one with the slow and subtle magic that unfolded before our eyes. “Lullaby” is the correct title for this piece, which in many ways feels like a bedtime story. When it is over, you are unsure whether or not you had just been dreaming.

After the show, there was a short talk back session where audience members were encouraged to ask questions about process and method. The questions were deep and it was clear that everyone in the room had been moved in some fashion. To close out the evening, we were invited to play and engage with the slides to gain a bit of insight as to how everything happened. For Nana Projects, the magic lantern is not a secret device, but rather a powerful tool for storytelling and play. In their eyes, if they can inspire interest in the things they hold to heart, the world will be a much better place.

Alonzo’s Lullaby also represents tonight’s kick-off of QuestFest—a biennial international visual theater festival taking place in the Baltimore Area for the next two weeks. The 15 professional plays, with over 50 performances, will take place at Theatre Project, The Creative Alliance, and Joe’s Movement Emporium. QuestFest also features free workshops throughout the festival, a community showcase, and a full-day FreeFest at Galludet University.

If you have the chance this weekend to catch this amazing show, I would highly recommend that you embrace the opportunity to do so!  There are two performances on Saturday, March 10th and one on Sunday March 9th, with a talk back following each performance.

Click here for more information on the show or to purchase tickets

Click here to visit Nana Projects Website

Click here for more information on QuestFest

  • Peter Davis

    I saw the show and loved it. The mix of cut-out, shadow puppet theater and an original live soundtrack was enchanting and very cool. Nice piece. And their food can hats!