by Lynn on October 19, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto.

Written by Chris Haddock
Conceived by Stan Douglas
Story by Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas
Directed by Stan Douglas
Scenery by Kevin McAllister
Costumes by Nancy Bryant
Lighting by Robert Sondergaard
Composed and sound designed by John Gzowski
Starring: Crystal Balint
Greg Ellwand
Ryan Hollyman
Sterling Jarvis
Nicholas Lea
Allan Louis
Ava Jane Markus
Hrothgar Mathews
Haley McGee
Emily Piggford
Lisa Ryder
Adam Kenneth Wilson

A stylish film-noir-theatrical-computer-generated-images-evening in the theatre.

The Story
. It’s written by Chris Haddock (he created Da Vinci’s Inquest). It takes place in Vancouver in 1948. Everybody seems to be on the take. Buddy Black runs a nice shady string of clubs and prostitution. He pays the Chief of Police, Chief James Muldoon, who is in on the deal. The mayor is none too clean either. But the Chief wants to get rid of Buddy in favour of Buddy’s more accommodating brother, Henry.

The brothers are at odds. Henry fought in the war because he thought it was his duty. Buddy stayed behind and took advantage of the opportunities. He also took the plans Henry had to start his dream bar and so Henry was furious when he came back from the war. As Buddy says, Henry might have had a dream to start the bar, but he lost that dream and his place at the table when he went to fight.

And then there is a mysterious blonde bombshell who comes to Vancouver looking for another shady guy named Percy. She’s an old friend, she says. She wants to see him, urgently.

The whole thing takes place in and around a lowdown hotel, run by a lowdown toupee wearing sleazebag, named Harry. An androgynous person named Joe is the staff.

There’s lots going on what with twelve characters, and every one has a story. It sounds complicated and it is, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing when it goes with such a complex, intriguing melding of art forms to produce this fascinating production.

The Production. It’s directed by Stan Douglas, a celebrated visual artist and filmmaker. The show involves film, theatre, visual arts and computer generated images. How do they meld theatre with film and visual arts? Director Stan Douglas eases us into it masterfully.

“Los Angeles 1947” is projected onto a screen that is the size of the whole proscenium of the Bluma Appel theatre. The projection sets up the time and place and disappears off the screen.

Then behind the screen, on the stage, is a woman on a hospital gurney. She is covered with a sheet up to her shoulders. A nurse prepares the woman for a shock procedure—something is put in the woman’s mouth to prevent her from biting her tongue. An orderly helps the nurse and we are told some information about this woman. She might have killed her husband. Perhaps the trauma put her into a severe depression. The shock treatment is used to get her out of that funk. The electric current courses through the woman and suddenly we see a huge image of her face from above and behind her projected onto the screen—her eyes are shocked open. After that Stan Douglas melds both the filmed images on the screen of the actors in close-up along with the same scene acted on the stage. At the same time, those stage scenes are illuminated and done off to the side of the filmed images.

We also see the backs and sides of people in silhouette on the stage standing behind cameras filming what is going on on stage with the filmed results projected onto the screen.

I have written in the past of how I hate it when a scene in a theatre is going on downstage with distracting stuff happening up stage that has nothing to do with the original scene. That’s not what is happening in Helen Lawrence. Here we are watching the same scene at the same time, but in different forms and in different perspectives. We see the scene huge and in close-up on the screen. And illuminated behind the screen, on the stage, is the same scene acted by life-sized actors. Interestingly I don’t find it distracting. I like looking from the screen to the stage to see how creative the filming and the acting are.

The filmed versions show the exact locations; building on street corners; rooms with furniture and wall paper; props, textures of the wall paper, all of it created by means of computer generated graphics.

The actors on the other hand are acting on a bare stage that we can see through the screen. Later, when the whole cast come forward for their bow, we see that they are acting in a kind of blue box. The precision in the co-ordination in pulling this off is astonishing. Actors have to be placed just so in their stage scenes so as not to blunder into a prop or wall in the filmed scenes.

The cast is exemplary: Lisa Ryder is a sultry, stylish Helen Lawrence. She moves with the grace of a 1940s star. As Julia, but called Joe, Haley McGee is sassy and endearing; As Buddy, Allan Lewis is edgy and watchful. This is a man with a lot on his mind and Lewis beautifully conveys this. As his brother Henry, Sterling Jarvis is wounded disappointment. His is an ongoing regret and bitterness that he did the right thing to defend his country, while his brother stole his dream. As the shady Chief James Muldoon, Ryan Hollyman is dapper, slick, oily and dangerous. As Rose, a woman waiting for her husband lost in action, but feeling guilty because she’s in a relationship with Buddy, Emily Piggford has a quiet dignity; she’s a survivor because she has to be. One could go on and on. Suffice it to say, the cast is wonderful to a person.

The script by Chris Haddock is spunky, dark and hilarious in its punchy dialogue. At one point Joe (Julia the bell person at the hotel) tells someone that her mother died when she was very young ‘and nibbling furniture.’ I thought that was hilarious. And John Gzowski’s moody, sometimes even throbbing, driving score when the drama is heightened, is so good in accentuating the tone and the tension.

Comment. We’ve seen variations on the melding of film and theatre before. I remember Expo 67 and Laterna Magika, a multi-media company from Prague, in which an actor would walk through a door and then appear on a large screen in a film continuing the scene.

I’ve seen that improved with a theatrical-filmed production of Brief Encounter in London and then New York by Kneehigh Theatre (from England), in which a woman in the audience went up on the stage and walked through the screen to appear huge on the screen in the same scene.

A few years ago a production of KAMP at World Stage showed a day in the life of Auschwitz. On the stage were tiny stick figures manipulated by puppeteers and videoed at the same time. The images appeared large on a screen at the back.

The idea is the same, but with Helen Lawrence both Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock go further, improving, finessing and raising the stakes on the melding of these art forms. I was blown away by Helen Lawrence. I would recommend it to anyone who likes to be challenged; is up for a unique experience in the theatre; who loves punchy writing; and wonderful acting; and is ready for art in different guises.

Produced by Canadian Stage in association with the Arts Club Theatre and the Banff Centre.

Opened: Oct. 16, 2014
Closes: Nov. 2, 2014
Cast: 12; 7 men, 5 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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