— Tom McBeath and Mayko Nguyen. Photo by David Cooper.
Vancouver is suddenly hot and cool at the same time: home of the TED talks, George Lucas’ new Industrial Light & Magic special effects studio, and the Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition on Howe Street celebrating the city’s planning, architecture and design. Who knew we were so cutting edge? Lots of people, apparently.
All these developments feature the integration of art, technology and design. So there’s a fortuitous synchronicity with the opening of Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock’s eagerly awaited Helen Lawrence at the Stanley. Their new play is all about blurring the lines among various media and artistic disciplines, living human beings, built environments and the digital. A triumph of design and innovative artistic technology, the play also re-visualizes Vancouver’s past, echoing last week’s revelation of 18,000 historical photographs donated to the UBC Library by collector Uno Langmann.
The collaboration of these two born-and-bred Vancouverites, TV writer/producer Haddock (DaVinci’s Inquest, Intelligence, Boardwalk Empire) and photo-artist Douglas, whose work has been collected by the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Pompidou Centre, New York’s MOMA and Canada’s National Gallery, has brought international attention to this Arts Club co-production with Canadian Stage and the Banff Centre. Its Vancouver premiere is the first stop on a tour scheduled for Toronto, Montreal, Munich, and Edinburgh, with more venues likely to come.
Helen Lawrence scores high on style points, its technology dazzles, and the acting across the board is as good as anything seen here in years. But neither Douglas nor Haddock is a playwright. Maybe we shouldn’t call it a play at all. This is one of those hybrid artistic experiences you can’t help admiring, but in the end it’s likely to leave you a little cold.
Impressively directed by Douglas, Helen Lawrence’s actors perform behind a scrim. As we hear and see them playing their scenes live in full colour, we also see camera operators filming them, and we simultaneously see the characters in a black-and-white movie projected onto the scrim. While the live actors are playing on a bare stage, the magic of digital technology provides the projected scenes with fully detailed settings: furnished hotel rooms, city streets, all period-perfect.
The period is 1948, in the seedy underbelly of a postwar Vancouver rampant with gambling, vice, corrupt racist cops, and ultimately murder. Bookie Percy Walker (Nicholas Lea) operates out of an old hotel in cahoots with Buddy Black (Allan Louis), who runs the beer joints and whorehouses in Hogan’s Alley. They’ve been paying off police chief Muldoon (Gerard Plunkett) and vice squad sergeant Perkins (Tom McBeath), but Muldoon is planning a double-cross involving Buddy’s brother Henry (Sterling Jarvis).
Meanwhile, femme fatale Helen Lawrence (Lisa Ryder) shows up at the hotel looking for Percy, who left her holding the bag for the murder of Helen’s rich husband in Los Angeles. Helen gets involved with hotel manager Harry (Hrothgar Mathews) and his sexually ambiguous young ward and clerk, Julie (Haley McGee), who calls herself Joey.
In classic film noir tradition the plot is complex and sometimes confusing. We get subplots involving a gambling-addicted veteran (Adam Kenneth Wilson) and his German wife (Ava Markus), a Japanese-Canadian prostitute (Mayko Nguyen), and Buddy’s lover (Crystal Balint). All of them, along with Henry and Julie, are in one way or another victims of the war.
Haddock’s script reflects the hard-boiled crime-and-corruption TV shows he has written. His writing has snap. “I’m sorry about the husband,” Harry tells Helen after he hears her story. “Don’t be,” she answers. “I’m not.” To Helen’s comment about Harry, “There’s something about him I don’t like very much,” Julie responds: “Yeah, probably that long bit between his eyebrows and his socks.”
In the end, though, the stories don’t add up to much. A large part of the intermissionless 95 minutes is taken up with establishing the various plotlines and clarifying who’s who. Then suddenly the pace accelerates, there’s a resolution of sorts for every character, and “The End” is projected onto the screen to the audience’s surprise.
The most compelling stories belong to the black men and women of Hogan’s Alley. Balint, Jarvis and especially Louis deliver very strong performances, but their characters don’t get enough stage and screen time to fully flesh out the themes of love and war, economics and race.
All the acting in this show is exceptional, with particularly finely crafted work from Lea as Percy, McGee as Julie/Joey, and Ryder in the title role. And it’s a treat to get to see everyone in close-up on the screen: kudos to all the designers as well as the camera crew and 3D artists.
But technology ultimately trumps liveness. The actors’ real bodies are separated from us by a screen, even if it’s semi-transparent, and they perform far upstage so we only ever see them at a distance. Their images are foregrounded, much larger than their living bodies. The intimate visual connection with the actor’s body that live theatre affords us is broken, along with the strong emotional bond that connection provides.