Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Helen Lawrence at the Stanley

Richard and I weren't planning to go to the Arts Club production of Helen Lawrence, on at the Stanley through mid-April. However, a pair of free tickets came our way and so we made a night of it. The experience confirmed my initial misgivings.

Conceived and created by Vancouver-based conceptual artist Stan Douglas, in collaboration with television writer Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest), the work combines live theatrical performance with real-time video projection and pre-recorded 3D imaging. Whereas the earlier Arts Club co-production at the Stanley, the Electric Company's Tear the Curtain!, had mostly cut between its live and mediated mise-en-scènes, Helen Lawrence attempts to superimpose them. On a mostly bare stage, behind a floor-to-ceiling scrim stretching across the proscenium, the actors perform a series of live action scenes. These are captured by three cameras we see being operated downstage, with the images simultaneously projected on the scrim, which via those pre-recorded 3D sequences fills in the details of the missing set. It's a neat trick, to be sure, but what's on the scrim so commands our attention--because so often in close-up--I don't know why Douglas and Haddock didn't just make a film. Indeed, liveness and the theatre seem completely ancillary to the whole ethos of the project. There isn't even a debate about the complementarity or the competition between the two media (as in Tear the Curtain!): not least because we are so insistently drawn to both the images on the scrim and the apparatus of their projection behind it, film completely dominates theatre in this equation.

To the point where the piece's film noir conceit seems completely foreign to the stage. Haddock squeezes virtually every cliché of the genre into his script and the hard-boiled dialogue, while handled deftly by the entire company, often sounds tinny and recycled. More problematic are the larger structural problems with the story. The ostensible main plot, about the eponymous wronged femme fatale (Lisa Ryder) traveling from LA to Vancouver to track down her no-good lover, Percy Wallace/Walker (The X-Files' Nicholas Lea), feels (thematically and politically) secondary to the sub-plot about brothers Buddy Black (Allan Louis) and Henry Williams (Sterling Jarvis) battling each other and the corrupt Vancouver constabulary in Hogan's Alley. Neither story is satisfactorily resolved, to say nothing of the confusing narrative MacGuffin we are thrown in the form of small-time grifter Edward Banks (Adam Kenneth Wilson), who holds up with apparent impunity Chief of Police James Muldoon (Gerard Plunkett) near the end of the play; meanwhile Banks' long-suffering German wife Eva (Ava Markus) may or may not be on her way to Hogan's Alley to have an abortion.

A noticeable hiccup in Helen Lawrence's development was the departure of original director Kim Collier (ex of The Electric Company). In press leading up to the premiere last week, she cited concerns with the story as one of the reasons for her parting ways with Haddock and Douglas, who assumed directing duties (assisted by the National Arts Centre's Sarah Stanley). I now understand what she means.

However, an even more serious concern for me is the aesthetic ideology behind the piece. The performance theorist Patrice Pavis has written that intermedial interdisciplinarity doesn't just mean taking the technologies of one medium and plunking them down in another (e.g. screens in the theatre); rather, it means remediating those technologies within an aesthetic idiom specific to the mode of presentation of the work (e.g. finding a way to represent montage on stage through blackouts, or within the body of a performer). I think, in this regard, of how "cinematic" Crystal Pite's choreography often seems to me; now, she is not one to stint on additional technological effects (including projections). But in a work like Grace Engine, for example, she also gives one the kinesthetic "feel" of film noir with nary a camera in sight.

There is a lot of creative and financial muscle behind this production of Helen Lawrence, and it is on its way to some pretty prestigious presentation venues. It remains to be seen what kind of critical reception it will receive from national and international theatre audiences. For now, I remain convinced that the project would have been much more successful--and easier to make--as a narrative film. Given Stan Douglas' career to date (Suspiria, Journey into Fear, etc.), one would have thought that to be the logical next step (though, to be fair, in works like Monodramas, he has also shown previous interest in the theatre--particularly the work of Samuel Beckett). One wonders if the likely comparisons to Steve McQueen are an impediment.


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