Monday, October 20, 2014

Film Noir as Art Project: HELEN LAWRENCE at Canadian Stage

I saw HELEN LAWRENCE,  the collaboration between internationally renowned visual artist, Stan Douglas, and his long-time friend, acclaimed television writer Chris Haddock, on Saturday night.

The conceit of the piece is that it is simultaneously a play, and a film noir, taking place in real time, shot with multiple cameras onstage,operated by the actors.

The performers execute their scenes behind a backlit screen, while they appear blown-up, foregrounded, in blue and white, on the screen in Haddock's complex, and intense script.

It looks fabulous: a loving homage to film noir. However, it works like a movie. You don't connect with the actors on the stage (who are uniformly terrific), you connect with their performances, blown up on the screen, in front of the stage.  The score by John Gzowski really adds to the ambiance, and the cinematic feel.

Haddock is a great writer, and one of my favourite television writers in Canada.  The script is almost Dickensian in scope, with multiple plot lines, and rich, complex characters. The thing just churns out conflict and tension, providing many hair-raising, seat-grabbing moments, sharp dialogue, and an insightful and provocative view of post-war society in Vancouver.

Similarly, the look of the projections is gorgeous. 1940s post-war Vancouver comes to life.  Combined with the wonderful costumes by Nancy Bryant, the show nails a period look and feel.

Still, I walked out of there, wondering why they didn't just make a film.  The technology looked good, and worked well, but it did not help deliver a better play, as it does with Lepage.  It helped deliver actors in a live movie: technology for its own sake.

This script is a set of converging story lines:  all really interesting, and full of wonderfully drawn characters.  What it doesn't do well is tie things up:  it leaves many story lines open-ended, the way a good writer of serials does. I wanted to know more.  I left just slightly unsatisfied.  This is perfect when the writer's goal is to have his audience come back, and see the next episode, the following week. It's not the best way to end a play.

Great theatre is cathartic. This is a fine entertainment, but it is not a play, it's a 90 minute television pilot, wonderfully written, by a fine writer, performed by a terrific cast, and beautifully staged by a visual artist, who makes films and images. I hope they get green-lit for a cool-looking series.  I promise to watch.

This is absolutely worth seeing.  Take it on its own considerable merits, and enjoy it for what it is.

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