Thursday, October 23, 2014

Theatre: Helen Lawrence

Every once in a while, I watch a theatre production that is so innovative, unique and entertaining that it resonates with me long after the viewing.  The multi-media, film noir inspired play, Helen Lawrence, provided such an experience. 

Subtitled "Vancouver Confidential", in reference to the classic James Ellroy noir novel "L.A.Confidential", the plot revolves around a blond femme fatale (the titular Helen Lawrence), who arrives in post-WWII Vancouver falsely accused of murdering her husband and out for revenge against her ex-lover.  Sub-plots include corrupt police officers on the take, two brothers feuding over ownership of a speakeasy, a hooker trying to escape her lot, and a down-on-his-luck war veteran trying to hang on to his marriage and recoup his gambling debts.

But the plot and even the strong acting takes a back seat to the technological marvel which made this show so fascinating and memorable.  The actors perform in front of a blue screen, interacting with a sparse set that includes a few chairs and some props that represent a bed, a table and a hotel lobby counter.  Cast members not in a scene take over the roles of cameramen who film the action in both long shots and closeups using three cameras positioned at the front of the stage.  Through special effects magic, the live action is superimposed real-time on top of pre-filmed images of elaborate sets representing seedy parts of 1948 Vancouver including the lobby, office and guest room within a hotel, a shanty town, a high speed moving train and more.  The result is a fully integrated black and white film-noir "movie" which is projected onto a transparent giant screen that is lowered at the edge of the stage, in front of the camera operators and the actors.

The experience was mind-boggling as the audience watched a performance that was part theatre and part cinema at the same time.  The integration of the background scenery with the actors in the foreground was simply amazing and happened right before your eyes.  Looking through the screen, you could faintly see the actors standing or sitting in chairs on an otherwise empty stage.  But when you looked back at the front screen, you would see beautifully designed backgrounds that blend in perfectly with the the plot, the era and the noir atmosphere of the play.  It was also interesting to watch the camera operators as they moved around or crouched to get the perfect angle for their shots. 

It was difficult to decide whether to concentrate on the "movie screen" or on the live actors.  I found it most illuminating when I switched between the two, watching what the actors were really doing and what props they were actually interacting with, then quickly switching to the screen to see the end results.  This was like witnessing the magic behind a special effects movie being filmed, and watching the finished product at the same time.

I had two previous theatre experiences that can be compared to what Helen Lawrence accomplished.  The first was Puppet Up!, the live puppet performance where the puppeteers and their puppets were clearly seen on stage, but a filmed version only showed the puppets.   The second was the filming of a live musical performance of the recent London production of From Here to Eternity, which was then shown at the cineplex movie theatres as a movie. This process merged the spontaneity of a live theatre experience with the camera angles and close ups of a movie.  Helen Lawrence used concepts from both these shows and then took it to the next level.

Following this enthralling performance, a post-show talk with some of the Helen Lawrence actors gave us some insight into the process of rehearsing for these roles.  None of the actors were professional camera operators and it took over a month working with the director of photography to learn about angles, field of vision, zooming and other tricks of the trade.  It was challenging yet thrilling for the actors who had to mix theatre techniques of broad gestures and projecting to the audience, with film techniques including the subtlety of facial reactions during closeup shots.  "It stretched every muscle of an actor" was a common refrain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Nuit Blanche 2014

This year, Nuit Blanche shifted west into Chinatown, away from the Financial District. There were also more exhibits further south, around the Roundhouse Park and Fort York areas.  It made for a nice change of pace to be able to explore different neighbourhoods and have new backdrops for the annual all-night art exhibitions.  The following were some of the highlights from my night out:

My favourite exhibit was Garden of Renova, which used brightly coloured Renova toilet paper to create beautiful designer dresses.  I look forward to the Renova display at each Nuit Blanche since they always have something fun and creative to show.

In the heart of Chinatown on Spadina Avenue, a couple installations could be viewed at the same time.  First there was Made in China, a sculptural tower of clothing, three stories high, made up of garments donated by the local  community.  Then, emanating into the sky from behind the buildings were 7 rays of laser lights that created the Global Rainbow.  The light show resulted in a rainbow that spanned between Chinatown and the CN Tower.

In Roundhouse Park, Holoscenes provided the most fascinating performance art installation of the night.  A man was enclosed in an aquarium-like glass case that repeatedly filled and then emptied of (seemingly warm?) water.  With him in the glass case was a blanket and pillow which he manipulated, wrestled with and floated around with when the water level is high.  As the water started to subside, he swam to the top to get a breathe of air, and then tried to get into a sitting or sleeping position.  The water seemed to rise and fall minute by minute.  Just watching him was exhausting and I wondered how long he had to perform before his turn was up.

Some of the exhibits which were the most fun were the ones that we were able to participate in or interact with.  Many of these were hard to access since they were also usually the more popular events, resulting in long lineups and wait times.

We did "get tested for viral contagion" as part of the HalfLife performance, which involved allowing agents, wearing hazmat suits and an orange glowing contraption on their heads representing viruses, to dab us with UV reactive ink markers.  Then they passed out little UV flashlights, which were to be shone on the "tested" area, revealing bright florescent yellow spots.  All the "infected" people were supposed to reconvene at Nathan Phillips Square at midnight to be "quarantined", but by then, we were too tired to do this.

At OCAD University, the participants formed the art itself, as our shadows were projected onto a wall in multiple colours.  People were having fun waving and making shadow puppets in the air. With Shy Lights, you ran around trying to chase spot lights shone from a tall building above, but the lights danced away just as you get close to them.  Whoever was manipulating the lights must have been having fun frustrating the people below.

In many instances, the long lineups scared us away from some fascinating-looking exhibits.  Rather than waiting, we just walked by and took a photo from afar.  This was the case for Walk Among the Worlds, where you could walk through archways made up of 7000 beach balls with maps of the earth printed on them. AMAZE was a labyrinth filled with light and sound, and the Screaming Booth, allowed you to go in and vent your frustrations with the world.

Instead we opted for sculptural or video installations out in the open, where there were no lineups and you could just walk up and take a quick look.  Wild Air Vision Electro featured an artist spray-painting a Subaru Legacy vehicle, turning it into a psychedelic work of art.  In the spirit of P.T.Barnum circus freak shows,  8th Wonder consisted of an octopus-like creature with an video-driven evil eye while musicians play eerie music at its base.  Gap Ecology tried to bring the Amazon Forest to downtown Toronto by using cherry-picker lifts to hoist large palm trees overhead.

Black Sun featured a really cool video of a wrecking ball that appeared to swing in space, ready to destroy the building in front of it, while By Means of a Sigh showed a looping video of two people blowing bubblegum bubbles so large that they touched before bursting.

Although there were still the usual cheesy exhibits that made you scratch your head and think either "huh?!?" or "meh...", I thought this year had more interesting projects than the previous few years.  As always, some of the best displays were not officially part of Nuit Blanche, but just vendors or artists who decided to do their own thing to take advantage of the hoards of people walking by.  The Malabar Costume Shop did the best job of this, providing a fun-filled costumed exhibition while generating great advertising for the upcoming Halloween season.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Theatre: A Tender Thing

The play "A Tender Thing" by Ben Power re-imagines the lives of Romeo and Juliet, had they not died as star-crossed lovers in their youth.  Instead, they got married, had a child together, and now are dealing with aging and illness in their twilight years.  What makes the play unique is that despite the new parameters and dynamics of the relationship of these legendary lovers, the dialogue is still mostly sourced from the original Shakespeare play, with a few lines from some of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Power has taken lines from different acts and scenes throughout the play, often spoken by different characters, and re-purposed them to form a new flow of text that is amazingly fitting to the new narrative.

In this revised plot-line, Romeo and Juliet are still deeply in love, but Juliet is seriously ill and Romeo has been acting as her caregiver.  Many of the lines from the famous balcony scene are spoken in an altered order, mixed in with Juliet's speech while awaiting her wedding night with Romeo, as an illustration of the couple's enduring love.  Romeo's fear losing his wife to illness results in bad dreams of her death, which he describes using the re-purposed text of the Nurse describing Tybalt's death ("a bloody piteous corpse; Pale, pale as ashes..") to which Juliet replies with nonsensical ramblings about dreams, using Mercutio's Queen Mab speech.

As Juliet becomes sicker, her mind wanders as she recalls their dead child Susan, taking over the Nurse's lines about her own child from the original play.  It gets to the point where Juliet asks Romeo to help end her suffering, putting into use lines about dying, drinking poison and finding an apothecary from the scenes where Juliet fakes her own death, and when Romeo goes to kill himself when he believes that Juliet is really dead.  The original lark and nightingale discussion from when Juliet is trying to prolong her time with Romeo before he is banished, takes on a whole new meaning in A Tender Thing, when Romeo tries to prolong his time with ailing Juliet before ending her life.

Comparing the text from A Tender Thing (which I found in the Toronto Reference Library) to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet accentuated what a masterpiece Ben Power has created.  In one sequence of dialogue from Scene 2 of A Tender Thing, Power took lines spoken by Friar Laurence, the Nurse, Montague, Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio, Mercutio and Capulet, coming from acts and scenes all throughout the source play.

The title for the play comes from a phrase originally used by Mercutio and Romeo when discussing Rosaline, and now spoken by Juliet and Romeo, when debating whether love is "a tender thing" or "too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn".

The two actors of this Soulpepper production were perfectly cast as the older versions of Romeo and Juliet.  Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler are a real life couple who met in their 20s in theatre school and "fell in love while doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet".  Their pairing exudes a genuine level of comfort and love that comes from being married for the last 35 years and frequently acting together. This attractive couple has aged well and perfectly fit my image of what the romantic leads for the aging versions of Romeo and Juliet would look like.  Palk's Juliet is frail, lithe and ethereal while Ziegler's Romeo is virile and dashing. 

The lighting and music worked well to set the mood of the play.  I was not as fond of the set design, which consisted of a bed (around which most of the action took place), an arm chair and a tall pile of books (that distracted me but never came into play).  The exit from the bedroom looked like a closet to me, so I spent some time in the beginning wondering why Romeo went to hide in the closet.

Overall, this was an impressive play that I would have appreciated even more, had I been more familiar with the source Romeo and Juliet text prior to watching it.  Now that I've done my research, perhaps I need to watch A Tender Thing again.