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.

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