Thursday 20 March 2014

Breakthrough e-wizardry in Helen Lawrence

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message". Meaning that movies, for example, distort time and space and sequence and perspective in ways normal 3-dimensional human activity -- or a stage play -- cannot. Not, that is, until Vancouver visual artist Stan Douglas and local writer-producer Chris Haddock's collaboration to create Helen Lawrence now bending perceptions at the Stanley. HL is a multimedia visual and thematic dance oh-so-cleverly choreographed by its creators and by video programmer Peter Courtemanche along with a squad of talented 3D artists led by Jonny Ostrem.

Plot-&-set quicky : On its face the play is a film noir-style piece set in post-war Vancouver. The old Italian Renaissance-style Hotel Vancouver at Georgia and Granville had been boarded up to face the wrecking ball even though it was but 30 years old. (Its utility expired once the current Hotel Vancouver a block away opened in 1939.) But returning soldiers, desperate for civvy-street living quarters, squatted in the derelict old landmark. Shortly after the city sanctioned it to house some 1,000 veterans and their families before it was torn down in 1949 and paved over for a parking lot for 20 years until the Eaton Centre / Sears / Nordstrom parade of hopefuls that have succeeded it. 

As was the story in many post-war coastal cities, Vancouver was a rough-cut diamond in those days. Lots of natural beauty, sure, but also gambling joints and bookies, brothels and speakeasies that prospered thanks to police protection rackets that ran the show despite "tough on crime" but gullible politicians at city hall. Prime location of the action in Vancouver was the Strathcona district that housed a blend of multi-racial, multi-ethnic folk as well as being the home of Hogan's Alley where all these seedy but enticing social enterprises could be sampled by people from all walks of life around the city. 

From the decrepit dowager Old Hotel kitty-corner from The Bay and across from Birks in the heart of downtown to Hogan's Alley in DTES -- these "two solitudes" that nevertheless feed off each other set the stage for the action. 

Femme fatale Helen Lawrence has hopped a train from California to hunt down her ex-lover who was her millionaire husband's murderer who quickly disappeared N of 49 leaving her to take the rap for him. She's on the lam from an L.A. psychiatric "sanatorium" where she'd been held pending medical clearance to stand trial. She lodges at the once-gracious Old Hotel in centre de ville but ultimately tracks her prey down in Strathcona. 

Meanwhile the enterprising cats from the Alley are busy plotting and scheming with the police chief to preserve their underhanded businesses and perks. It's the duplicity and mendacity of all these gangsters and grifters and racketeers -- and not to forget the "hooker with heart" stereotype of noir films -- that provide the fundamental storyline of the show. Cop vs. cop, brother vs. brother, thief vs. thief, but all with a pinch of redeemable qualities, too.

Back to McLuhan : The plot of HL is pretty well incidental to this theatre event, however. Because the show is all about "functional blend" : the troupe's acting done mid-stage with minimal props blended with real-time videos of their actions being simultaneously projected onto a gossamer scrim across the proscenium in front of them. It is this visual legerdemain that is the hook and the treat and the conceit of the performance. 

Director Douglas calls it a "work of visual polyphony". For more reasons than one the audience can't help but watch both the actors and the projected images from the four cameras downstage that are tracking them. But the biggest trick had to be Mr. Courtemanche's creation of the computer software needed to pull all this off. His wizardry and Douglas's artistic vision allow 3D graphics derived from pictures of the old hotel and the Alley make the scrim videos appear as if the stage action was actually taking place in its rooms and on DTES's 1948 streetscape.

The result is a Stanley stage that visually dazzles and crackles with energy. You can watch the theatrical version, or much of it anyway, or you can watch the cinematic version. Take your pick. The on-the-set action behind the scrim or the Jumbotron black-&-white simulcast up-close-&-personal in front. Or both at the same time. Life as cinema, cinema as life, a perfect metaphor for today's ubiquitous Twitter'rs and Facebook'rs. As theatrical experiment HL is brilliant and breathtaking in its boldness. 

A wee but... Depending on one's seat, however, much of the centre stage-acting is often blocked by the camera dollies doing the filming right behind the scrim. Seven rows from the front and off to the side as we were, well, this occurred sufficiently often to force us to watch the video version, want to or not. A perhaps unintended plus, meanwhile, was the actors' blocking and expressions in the equivalent of floor-to-ceiling 70mm. celluloid being thrust right in your face. 

Genesis & theme : Fully five years in the making, HL's images as directed by Douglas accompany writer Haddock's script (Haddock the originator of Da Vinci's Inquest) and demonstrate how juxtaposed civility is with lawlessness at any given moment, then as now. Haddock says his work means "creating fiction out of history and bringing a veracity to the fiction".  I.e. no "one truth" can tell Vancouver's history -- there are many, and they overlap and infuse one another.

Douglas for his part points to the seeming chaos of the world's social structures in the post-war, pre-50's-boom time -- the start of the Cold War; critical housing shortages everywhere; wildly unstable economies. That zeitgeist pointed directly to the visual effect he intended : to mix live and virtual realities to demonstrate via "images (that) are fundamentally unstable and relationships ...constantly in flux". The result of this visual overdub and re-mix of the real with the virtual brings about "the potential (for everything) to fall apart any moment...much like the futures the characters are trying to forge for themselves."

What about the acting ?  The dozen actors who comprise the cast were all expertly cast. Highest kudos from this reviewer go to Allan Louis as faded jaded ex-boxer Buddy Black and Sterling Jarvis as his brother Henry. Nicholas Lea as Mrs. Lawrence's ex-lover Percy Walker had terrific facials as a brawny bullying bookie. The ex-carny hustler turn of Haley McGee as hotel receptionist / maid Julie ("But everybody calls me Joe...") was a delight to watch, except, late in the play, a strangely perfunctory embrace of her Old Hotel boss and buddy Harry Mitchell played tightly by Hrothgar Mathews. Local favourite Tom McBeath sleazed the role of Sergeant Leonard Perkins goofily and bibulously -- spot on. And as Helen Lawrence, Lisa Ryder brought immediately to mind the husky breathiness of Kathleen Turner in her Body Heat days -- equally vixen and viper. "Don't tread on me" indeed.  

Special mention needs to go to Nancy Bryant as costume designer. Every stitch worked wonderfully well, both in colour on the actors mid-stage and in the black-&-white video shots. Real classy consistent period stuff. The Buddy Black frayed ex-boxer robe was as classic as Helen Lawrence's white suit and sexy hats. For his part, composer and sound designer John Gzowski coupled moody saxes and basses with big band riffs that underscored the script and the times perfectly.

Who gonna like : This is a show for rabid live theatre fans who like to flirt with Netflix, too. Because its uniqueness and cleverness and force of creativity compensate completely for all those sight-line contortions one might be put through. (Probably a balcony seat in the centre would overcome much of the camera dolly distractions.) That said, the computerized scrim-work that marries the nearly-bare stage blocking into 3D's of the hotel and Alley scenery is nothing shy of marvel. 


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