Thursday 9 April 2015

Farewell, My Lovely aims for laughs

Background to the script : The word noir is ever bandied about when the works of Depression-era US crime writer Raymond Chandler are raised. A fancy French word that means "melodrama" more or less. Black-&-white characters, black-&-white plotlines, black-&-white motivations. Not unlike the t.v. series Mad Men whose final season's seven episodes I just binged out on the past two nites thanks to Netflix.

Farewell, My Lovely is a script that is a patchwork quilt of three earlier, smaller Chandler pieces he stitched together in 1940 to produce a novel featuring a mostly out-of-work private eye named Philip Marlowe. From probably a handful of characters in each story, Chandler wound up with a dizzying sum of 30 or so in FML. They all chase about to cover off the novel's half-dozen plots Chandler was also trying to serge into single cloth. Not always easily. Often not very successfully. 

In real life, Chandler had plenty of noir himself. He died four years after the love of his life wife Cissy -- 17 years his senior -- succumbed in 1955 to lung disease. With her death Chandler augered into a pit of booze and self-destruct. He tried suicide four times before being committed to psychiatric care. In the end he died going gentle into that good night from congestive heart failure. The L.A. Times later reported : "Seventeen people attended his funeral service at Mount Hope Cemetery." The once-wealthy and highly regarded Chandler would no doubt have appreciated the ironies at play here.

Chandler was about style, not precision. As quoted in the Frank McShane 1976 biography of him, he admitted it : "My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style." 

And style Chandler clearly has, somewhere between Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard. He starts FML thus : "It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian's." Now how can you miss with that ? It just reeks of 1941 Los Angeles, somewhere on the fringe near Watts. A seedy gambling joint. Lit by a rectangle of neon. Where one can "dine", sure, no doubt.

After that scene's opening shenanigans inside Florian's, Marlowe  tells us in his same laconic voice : "I ate lunch at a drugstore, bought a pint of bourbon, and drove eastward to Central Avenue and north on Central again. The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk." Gotta say : from the six months I spent in L.A. in the Spring and Summer of 1965 trying to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, I can see and smell and taste all this like it was yesterday. 

The Bushkowsky challenge : Vancouver poet / novelist Aaron Bushkowsky wasn't certain he was up to adapting Chandler's FML into a stage play for a variety of reasons. Condensing all the above-noted material into a cohesive whole was just one. For starters, he sliced and diced the novel's 2 1/2 dozen characters down to just 10 players performed by seven actors.

The story finds Marlowe (Graham Percy) being hired by a goon named, wait for it, Moose Malloy (Beau Dixon). Moose still has the hots for his ex-gal Velma who was a singer at Florian's but disappeared after Moose was sent to jail some seven years back for his part in robbing Block's jewelry store of a wodge of diamonds. In trying to track down Velma, Marlowe bounces ideas off an old flatfoot detective buddy Sam Nulty (Stephen Hair). Along the way Marlowe gets hired by Lindsay Marriott (Anthony F. Ingram) ostensibly to retrieve a stolen jade necklace. 

As part of all these goings-on he gets kidnapped briefly by a wacko psychic named Amthor (Ingram, redux). He's rescued from certain death a few times by one Annie Riordan (Emma Slipp) who's the daughter of a suicided ex-cop buddy of his from back in the day. Annie falls for him kerplop! There's also the dead Florian's widow Jessie (Lucia Frangione), now a hopeless drunk, who drools over him too. Then last but not least of all is the siren Helen Grayle (Jamie Konchak), a mysterious femme fatale who is an absolute clone for Kathleen Turner's sultry Matty Walker in the Lawrence Kasdan classic film Body Heat.

Mixed genres tend to clash : Chandler, as noted, was a noir writer. Humour in his work was mostly incidental and accidental. Not unlike some Peter Falk moments in the late-great Columbo t.v. show. But mostly Chandler was about himself as portrayed by his character Marlowe : "scarred by the Depression" the same Times article noted. Albeit horny and grabby to the core, Marlowe was "a simple alcoholic vulgarian who never sleeps with his clients while on duty", Chandler said, adding "Marlowe is a failure and knows it." Then, speaking perhaps more for himself than about his romantic "hero", Chandler added : "Marlowe and I do not despise the upper class because they take baths and have money. We despise them because they are phony."

Knowing a bit of Chandler's characters and their jaded but gentle faults and peccadilloes, we come to FML with the expectation of a straightforward detective story. The sub-title of the play is, after all, "The Hard-Boiled Detective Tale". Soft-boiled, alas, is more like it in this interpretation. Mr. Bushkowsky works overtime to make his Marlowe and the FML tale a comedy rather than just the cop mellerdrama it was written as. Trying to contemporize Chandler with lines such as "the Moose is loose" and "looking for love in all the wrong places" and "even dicks have a limp night once in awhile" and [a la Bogart in Casablanca] "you're gonna end up in a cheap gin joint" tended to detract from the rough-cut cop-drama the Chandler piece is intended to be. I understand the attempts to update Depression vernacular, certainly, but the overall effect didn't work for me quite.

Thus, regrettably, the catch of Chandler's original characters winds up a bit lost in the process. They don't intend to be parodies of themselves, but they wind up that way. Their ability to entice and intrigue and seduce us is sacrificed on the altar of laugh-grabs i.m.o. 

Production values conquer nevertheless : The above critique notwithstanding, overall the production of FML provides Vancouver audiences with perhaps the cleverest local staging ever witnessed by this viewer, easily a neck-&-neck tie with last year's triumphant Helen Lawrence produced by ACT as well. 

Scott Reid's set and lighting were outrageous. Angled fluted pillars in grey-green provided tracks for bamboo-like zen screens that the performers in chiaroscuro lighting slid to-&-fro to shape various rooms and settings. And upon those screens projection designer Jamie Nesbitt threw up ever-so-choice black-&-white film clips of southern California from those times -- its bustling roads, grotty pretentious nightclubs and blue collar housing that are contrasted compellingly with LA's nearby seaside dunes and wealth-drenched view properties. 

Costume designer Deitra Kalyn captured the zeitgeist perfectly well with each pair of suspenders, the vests, the suit jackets and their stains, the velvet bosomy dresses, not to forget the hats so prominent and symbolic of men's need to be kings in the city of angels. 

Who gonna like : This is a show for hard-core live theatre fans to see for its scenic wizardry alone. What the script by Mr. Bushkowsky may fail to achieve 100% in verbal or dramatic magnetism is offset admirably by the lights and sliding screens and filmclips and smoke bombs and scene shuttles and costumes and simple set furniture that capture much of the magic Raymond Chandler intended in his gruff and moody views of those times.

Particulars : Produced in association with Vertigo Theatre, Calgary. Until May 2nd at the Granville Island main-stage. Run time two hours 10 minutes with intermission. For schedules and tickets phone 604.687.1644 -or- on-line via

Production crew : Director Craig Hall (Artistic Director of Vertigo Theatre).  Set and Lighting Designer Scott Reid.  Costume Designer Deitra Kalyn.  Sound Designer Dewi Wood.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager Breanne Jackson.

Performers :  Beau Dixon.  Lucia Frangione.  Stephen Hair.  Anthony F. Ingram.  Jamie Konchak.  Graham Percy.  Emma Slipp.

Addendum : FML is a Silver Commission production, which is a program ACT developed in 2006 to give local playwrights an opportunity to develop their craft with direct financial support. In the words of ACT Executive Director Peter Cathie White, the Commission "helps keep artists like Aaron [Bushkowsky] living and breathing members of this community -- telling our stories and contributing to our Canadian culture". Over its 51 years, Mr. White notes in the show program, ACT has developed and premiered some 90 new Canadian plays -- nearly two per season. Clearly a Bravo! achievement, no question.

In a similar and parallel vein, writer David Berry in the April 7 National Post provided a compelling critique of the how-&-what-&-why professional theatre in Canada needs to develop and promote and sustain itself in its continuing sojourn down theatre's yellow brick road into the future. Mr. Berry's article is a must-read for people to whom live professional theatre (and community theatre, too) are vital components of the cultural lifeblood of Canada.  [See also ACT Artistic Director Bill Millerd's comments "New Ways of Working" about his recent attendance at a conference on Volunteerism and the Arts in the FML program notes.]


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