Haven't We Seen Helen Lawrence Before?
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Haven’t We Seen Helen Lawrence Before?

With its dual-medium production and liberal use of film noir stereotypes, Canadian Stage’s latest play looks a bit too familiar.

Hrothgar Mathews and Lisa Ryder star in Canadian Stage’s Helen Lawrence. Photo by David Cooper.

If we described a show as a high-tech hybrid of theatre and cinema, containing film noir elements and originating in Vancouver, would you think we were referring to: (a) Helen Lawrence, the much-hyped Stan Douglas project now playing at Canadian Stage, or (b) Tear the Curtain!, the seemingly forgotten production by Electric Company Theatre that played at Canadian Stage in 2012?

You’d likely guess we were talking about Helen Lawrence, given the hive’s-worth of buzz the play has generated—partly thanks to the international reputation of visual artist Douglas, who is making his splashy theatrical debut. His $1.4-million show, co-produced by Toronto’s Canadian Stage, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, and the Banff Centre, arrives here having already played dates at the Munich Kammerspiele and the Edinburgh International Festival. But for all the excitement over Douglas’s innovative use of 3D and blue-screen technology, no one seems to remember that what he attempts to do—that is, meld film and live performance—was done much better by the Electric Company production.

True, Tear the Curtain! had its problems, but its movie/play mash-up also had a purpose. A witty thriller set in Vancouver at the advent of talking pictures, it explored the conflict between that upstart medium and time-honoured live theatre. Helen Lawrence, in contrast, is simply a pastiche of a postwar film noir—and not a very compelling one. Its novelty lies in the way it’s presented: the actors perform live on a bare stage with blue walls, while being simultaneously captured on video. Their images are then projected in front of the stage on a transparent scrim the size of a movie-theatre screen. To these giant close-ups, Douglas adds computer-generated 3D backdrops resembling old Hollywood back-lot sets, creating the illusion that the actors are inside a black-and-white 1940s film. Basically, it’s the same trick used by your standard big-budget special-effects movie.

Still, it’s undeniably intriguing to watch for the first 10 minutes or so. Chances are you’ll be so caught up in the way the performers are inserted into the film, and how a couple of onstage cameras shoot them at different angles, that you’ll barely pay attention to the storyline. Not that you really need to, anyway. The script, by Da Vinci’s Inquest creator Chris Haddock, is set in 1948 Vancouver and uses shadowy aspects of the city in that era—police corruption, speakeasies, damaged Second World War veterans—to spin a second-rate melodrama.

The eponymous femme fatale, played by Lisa Ryder, is a blonde bombshell who arrives in Vancouver from California bent on finding her late husband’s murderer. She checks into a down-at-the-heels hotel, attracting the attentions of both the laughably sleazy manager (Hrothgar Mathews) and his wisecracking tomboy desk clerk (a show-stealing Haley McGee). Meanwhile, the city’s crooked police chief Muldoon (Ryan Hollyman) is scheming to double-cross his partner in crime, Buddy Black (Allan Louis), the kingpin of vice-ridden Hogan’s Alley. Muldoon wants to supplant Buddy with Buddy’s war-vet brother Henry (a sympathetic Sterling Jarvis), who in turn holds a grudge against his sibling for stealing his idea for a beer garden and making it a roaring success.

The two plots entwine and collide at the climax, while Haddock (who has covered similar territory as a writer for Boardwalk Empire) revels in film noir tropes and period slang. Yet, despite the best efforts of a top-notch cast, it all feels warmed-over and lacking in the real thrill of ugly human behaviour that electrifies classics like Double Indemnity or that masterpiece of the crooked-cop genre, Touch of Evil.

Douglas’s direction also disappoints. Having set up his play-turned-film apparatus, he’s content for the most part just to let it chug along, so that you’re left wondering what the point of it is. The exceptions are a few scenes during which he briefly shuts off the film and lets us watch the actors miming in their blue-screen limbo—a reminder, perhaps, of how theatre depends on our imagination to succeed, while movies do the imagining for us. But where Tear the Curtain! moved playfully between the two media, Helen Lawrence is ultimately a movie, albeit one that’s created as we watch.

And here you have to wonder if it would have been different had Kim Collier remained the show’s co-director. Collier, the visionary director of Tear the Curtain! and Electric Company’s other experimental multimedia and site-specific productions, was originally part of the Helen Lawrence project. She left over creative differences a year before its Vancouver premiere last March. Perhaps Collier saw that the play wasn’t justifying its use of technology. Or maybe she just realized she’d directed the same show before.

Don’t get us wrong: this is a slick production in every respect, from Nancy Bryant’s stylish period costumes to John Gzowski’s suitably florid movie score. But we left the opening night performance with another tune in our heads—that catchy number sung by the strippers in the musical Gypsy: “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Helen Lawrence certainly has one, but unfortunately that’s all it is.