THE BLOG
03/28/2014 01:27 EDT | Updated 05/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Despite Amazing Visual Effects, 'Helen Lawrence' is Deadly Dull

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"Helen Lawrence" impresses for about five minutes, then turns into a slog. At 95 minutes without intermission, the Stanley Theatre seats are just not comfortable enough for an audience to tolerate a show that is so long and so boring. Better cushions or better theatre is required.

Meet Helen (Lisa Ryder). She is in L.A. having shock treatment (dramatized Hollywood-style), and a year later she's in Vancouver looking for some guy named Percy (Nicholas Lea) and it is 1948. Who is she? Who is he? It's never clear and so we don't care. That's a shame because Ryder and Lea, like the rest of this talented cast, work very hard to pull off a technological marvel.

Accompanied by computers and video cameras and artist Stan Douglas's background visuals, this company shows off some breathtaking special effects. The audience gets to watch live actors and a live video broadcast of those actors tell the same story simultaneously. The effect is a marvel. The story is not.

Video cameras located around the stage allow the live performance to be projected onto a movie screen. That projected performance, doctored with special effects, looks like a film-noir-type black and white movie. It's amazing. The special effect is mainly the insertion of background images into the video version of the live action.

So instead of seeing the blue wall before which the live actors perform, on screen we see images evocative of an old hotel interior and the outside of a cheap bar. The actors actually appear to be in these inserted settings. It's amazing.

The look of the video is a product of excellent period sets and costumes (Kevin McAllister and Nancy Bryant), artistic lighting (Robert Sondergaard), and unusual camera angles. Douglas provides the art direction, the overall look of this play/film. The popular local creator also conceived this production, co-wrote the story (not the script), and directed the whole show, which is impressive to a point.

The concept and execution are fine, but for what? Technology that does not serve the story is superfluous, and that is what we have here. Also, there is no story to serve.

It is difficult to understand why such a weak script has been supported by a virtual conglomerate of Canadian theatre organizations. These include, in addition to the Arts Club, Canadian Stage, The National Arts Centre, and the Banff Centre.

The script, by Chris Haddock("Da Vinci's Inquest," "Boardwalk Empire"), is based on a story by Haddock and Douglas. Haddock has an impressive writing credential ("Boardwalk"), but is not impressive here. Surprisingly, "Helen Lawrence" contains almost no real drama. A murder that occurs near the end of the play should have occurred at the beginning, and that's just the beginning of what's wrong with this script.

The characters are not interesting and have little at stake. Most of the story is just baffling and banal. The play's only successful dramatic moment occurs after an hour has already passed.

Helen turns to Julie (Haley McGee), the desk clerk, and screams the single word, "out," to order the desk clerk out of her hotel room. Finally an emotion, finally some excitement, but the moment has no follow-up, no dramatic consequence. Instead, the simple, dull subplots continue to plod.

The play's final moment, meant to give the story a surprising and satisfying ending, does neither. When Helen and Percy encounter each other on the train, it feels quite meaningless. When the word "End" suddenly appeared on the screen, the audience and I were uncertain what was going on and did not applaud. A long silence ensued until some in the crowd realized that which was not immediately apparent: something had concluded.

The actors, more than a dozen of them, are all good. They are asked to give simultaneous stage and video performances: not an easy task. They must be animated enough to interest an audience watching their stage work, but also please the close-up demands of the video camera. Their excellent performances capture the film noir, hard core, hard-boiled caricatures at which this production is aiming.

Sterling Jarvis is very good as Henry, the war veteran, as is Allan Louis as his brother, the bar owner Buddy Black. The brothers' story is the best part of the play. Buddy is the successful owner of an illegal "beer garden" in Hogan's Alley. He is assisted by the local police who receive part of his take. Henry, back from war, is furious that Buddy has stolen his business idea and left him out of the profits. The brothers resent each other and care for each other, making this the only interesting and evolving relationship in the play.

Crystal Balint is excellent as Buddy's girlfriend, Mary Jackson. She struggles to survive while consumed with despair because her lover, a soldier, disappeared overseas. As Rose, a young prostitute, Mayko Nguyen gives us a strong character who tries to ignore feelings of shame and maintain hope for a better life. Nguyen is captivating.

Gerard Plunkett is very good as the compromised chief of police, and Tom McBeath shows us an insecure middle-aged man with a mean streak as Sergeant Leonard Perkins.

As with other technology experiments in the theatre, this one will surely interest a theatre artist somewhere who will one day use the technique to serve a story. That production will be worth seeing.

"Helen Lawrence," conceived by Stan Douglas, written by Chris Haddock, directed by Stan Douglas, at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, Vancouver, until April 13. Tickets at artsclub.com.