october 2016 | Volume 148
If I were to title this review I might call it “Film Noir Meets Theatre Noir.” Mack Gordon’s script and director Marissa Emma Smith’s production style draw directly on the film noir genre: an urban murder mystery with a convoluted plot, hard-boiled characters, a prospective femme fatale and more.
But the noir part is also literal. This production—80 minutes with no intermission—takes place in a pitch dark basement, and I mean pitch dark. Before the show begins, the audience is led to its seats blindfolded so we don’t have any idea of what the stage or set or actors look like before the lights come up at the end. The effect is something like listening to a radio play, except that you can hear the actors moving around the performance space in front of, alongside and behind you. You get a drink delivered to your seat, to be consumed in the dark, and if you want to go to the bathroom you have to call out for an usher.
It’s a pretty good noir tale. Beatrice, a Vancouver transit officer, has found her undercover cop husband beaten to death in their living room and is out to find the perp. The dead cop was being helped by a small-time criminal named Gunnar in return for information about Gunnar’s father, who had also been killed. Beatrice and Gunnar sort of team up, and both directly address the audience in the voiceover narrative style of film noir. Both also become involved with a bookie named Jasmine who does her business in a church, plus assorted gangsters, cops, a priest, an investigative reporter, and a tow truck driver in a three-piece suit. Whodunnit? You think I’m gonna tell you?!
The acting is terrific, with an unspecified number of performers (their names and numbers are not to be revealed – that’s part of the fun) giving us the voices and accents and attitudes of a range of gritty city dwellers. And a lot of credit has to go to sound designer and Foley artist Julie Casselman, who provides a great selection of jazz and rock to help create the mood, and a fantastic assortment of sound effects to flesh out the environment. The actors themselves create many of those sound effects in different areas of the stage. How they manage to do that and navigate their blocking in the absolute pitch dark are among the mysteries that make this show so enjoyable.
I found it fun for a change to have to use my ears to get all the available information, and create the visual scenarios in my mind’s eye. Alternatively, one might consider the lights-out production just a gimmick. I found myself with some of the same feelings I have when seeing dance theatre or a mime show: a performance that intentionally omits any one element that normally provides us with information, be it verbal or visual, eliminates some of the depth and complexity of the story it tells.
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