Canadian Stage presents the Toronto premiere of Electric Company’s noir-style psychological thriller Tear the Curtain, blurring the boundaries between theatre and film.
Toronto audiences last got a taste of the unique, genre-melding style of Vancouver’s Electric Company in 2010 when Canadian Stage presented their Studies in Motion, a play incorporating intricate projections and choreography in its storytelling. Director Kim Collier also helmed the Mark Rothko bio-play RED for Canadian Stage last season.
For Tear the Curtain, the show’s creators, Collier and playwrights Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr, were inspired by the story of the Stanley Theatre in Vancouver. Constructed in 1930, the Stanley was originally conceived as a live Vaudeville theatre but, with the advent of sound in motion pictures and the emerging popularity of “talkies,” opened as a cinema instead.
Tear the Curtain takes place in a film noir-stylized version of Vancouver in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
We first meet Alex Braithwaite (Jonathon Young), a theatre critic on a quest to seek out the mysterious avant-garde theatre director Stanley Lee (James Fagan Tait). Alex finds himself caught in a mob turf war between Pat Dugan (Gerard Plunkett) who controls the city’s live performance venues and the rival Max Pamploni (Tom McBeath) who runs the cinemas. Of course, along the way Alex falls for a femme fatale, a screen actress named Mila (Laura Mennell)
Half of the show takes place in the form of a movie; 70 minutes of footage was filmed mostly on location at the Stanley Theatre in Vancouver. The story jumps back and forth between film and live-action in ways that are sleek and clever. At times the surfaces of the set are used as projection screens, the two worlds co-exist and characters sometimes appear both live and on-screen creating a cool “split screen” effect.
In fact, the first time the action transitioned from film to live action it took me several moments to even realize that the shift had occurred. The effect is superbly done and successfully avoids the trap of feeling like an amusement park attraction.
As an audience member you approach viewing a film expecting a different set of conventions and with different preconceived notions than you do when you view a piece of live theatre. Subsequently, I found the flipping back and forth between the film and live worlds disorienting but not necessarily in a bad way.
The show is a psychological thriller, duality is an underlying theme. The off-kilter show keeps you disoriented throughout; as Alex becomes increasingly mired in layers of plot he starts having delusional fantasies that blend with reality and you’re never sure which side of the curtain you’re on.
Collier, Young and Kerr take film-noir archetypes and present them in a highly-stylized setting. I’m a sucker for anything done in that gritty noir-style so I really enjoyed their approach and thought the script was just appropriately kitschy without taking it overboard.
The production design is superb. David Roberts’ two-tier set is wonderfully dynamic, walls fly in and out, rooms slide on and off the stage really adding to the cinematic quality of the show.
At two and a half hours the show runs very long and after a while the once awe-inspiring theatrical slights of hand start to wear thin and lose their wow-factor. I thought many scenes could be edited down and the show’s pacing could definitely be tightened.
Regardless, Tear the Curtain is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The production is dazzling and it’s a show that I’ll likely be thinking about for a while. It’s well worth experiencing. Go and be amazed.
- Tear the Curtain! is playing at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts’ Bluma Appel Theatre, (27 Front Street E.) till from October 20, 2012
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
- Tickets $24 – $99
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at canadianstage.com.
- Photo of Jonathon Young and Dawn Petten by David Cooper