Helen Lawrence at Canadian Stage

The much anticipated film-theatre hybrid Helen Lawrence has finally arrived in Toronto after appearances in Vancouver, Munich, and Edinburgh. Helen Lawrence is primarily the creation of West-Coast visual artist Stan Douglas. Known for his work in film, video installations, and photography, Douglas has broken into the world of theatre but definitely hasn't left his cameras behind. 

image courtesy www.canadianstage.com 

image courtesy www.canadianstage.com 

Set in post-World War Two Vancouver, Helen Lawrence is a film-noir style murder mystery featuring a large cast of characters and a number of loosely related plot lines. The story takes us from two alleged murderers on the run to the underbelly of gambling, prostitution, and corrupt police of post-war Vancouver. The story is very entertaining and keeps you guessing until the end, but some non-essential characters could have been done away with in favour of a more in-depth look into the main plot-line. I would also have liked to see a little bit more Canadian character in the setting. Vancouver is featured in all of the play's promotional blurbs, but, based on the events of the play, Helen Lawrence could have taken place in any post-war metropolis. 

What's had the artistic community buzzing in anticipation was the production's avant-garde use of live film and projection. The entire action of the show takes place with the actors behind a screen which covers the entire hight and width of the stage. The actors take turns filming each other play out the scenes on a bare stage and the live film is projected simultaneously in the foreground with the surrounding scenery edited in. With strategic lighting design by Robert Sondergaard, the audience can watch the actors onstage and onscreen at the same time and see the action from different angles and in varying degrees of intimacy.

Helen Lawrence is a blend of theatre and live film unlike anything else I've seen before, but despite it's uniqueness, I'm left wondering if the blend of film and theatre reached its full potential. Aside from the novelty-factor and originality, why not have simply made a film or a traditional theatrical production? I've seen other productions by directors like Kim Collier and Robert Lepage that did a better job of integrating mixed-media and incorporating new technologies. In those productions, the live theatre and projected film could not have existed without each other. In Helen Lawrence, the two mediums feel more separate and we are left with the feeling that this could easily have been done as a straight-forward traditional movie or theatre performance. 

Film-theatre hybrids are still a relatively new art-form and shows like Helen Lawrence challenge us to think more creatively about how we integrate diverse mediums and open up a whole new world of on-stage possibilities. For this reason alone, Helen Lawrence is worth a trip to the Bluma Appel theatre. Stellar acting performances from the entire cast and a gripping story make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and innovative artistic techniques will give you plenty to think about when it comes to the nature of live performance in the new millennium.

Helen Lawrence runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre until November 2.

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