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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Theatre review: Helen Lawrence is a visual masterpiece

The Arts Club Theatre Company, Canadian Stage and The Banff Centre co-production of Helen Lawrence is a visual and technical masterpiece.

Visually exciting and with a near perfect technical execution, Helen Lawrence is a hybrid of film and stage, the second such treatment at the Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre.  Much like 2010’s Tear the Curtain though, Helen Lawrence suffers a somewhat similar fate: while visually stunning and a show that can be admired for its technical aspects, it fails to fully draw us into its story.

Set in 1948 Vancouver, Helen Lawrence tells the fictionalised story of Hogan’s Alley, an area of Strathcona that boasted a substantial black population at the time.  In Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas’s story, the area is a hotbed of gambling, prostitution and speakeasies.  On the take, the corrupt police force and equally corrupt Mayor are putting the squeeze on local residents to not only line their own pockets, but in an attempt appease a citizenry outside the area who have grown tired of the crime that has seeped outside its boundaries.  As the takedown of a neighbourhood gets underway, the mysterious femme fatale, Helen Lawrence, arrives on the scene bent on revenge for the murder of her husband.

While Helen Lawrence doesn’t buckle under a complex story which was the primary downfall of Tear The Curtain, the way in which it is presented does.  To achieve the stunning visuals for the show, the action plays out on a blue screen stage and filmed by multiple cameras that are visible to the audience and operated by the actors.  Using the chroma key technique that replaces the blue with computer background images, the composited image is projected on the large scrim that covers the entire proscenium arch of the Stanley.  While the chroma key technique is usually done in the film world during post-production, here it is happening in real-time.  Taking it one step further, the images are translated, again in real-time, into black and white to fit the story’s stylized film noir feel.

While technically dazzling, the process does becomes distracting as our attention is drawn back and forth between the live action on stage, the film on the giant screen, and even the actors who are operating the cameras.  This is especially true early-on as we get accustomed to what we are seeing, preventing us from fully becoming immersed in the story that is unfolding.  While it adds a certain tension to the proceedings, the two genres are sometimes at odds with each other.

Despite its distractions, there are some fine performances.  Given the complexity of the undertaking, the entire ensemble has to be applauded in providing that near seamless transition from stage to screen and that they also step in as camera operators is amazing.  Highlights include Lisa Ryder who gives a marvelous performance as the titular Helen Lawrence, bringing a Lauren Bacall sophistication to the role and Gerard Plunkett who brings a suitable malevolence to the role of the corrupt Police Chief.  The dynamic between Haley McGee as the young Julie (Joe) and Nicolas Lee as her boss is electric.

The 3D projections that the characters interact with in the film are simply superb and it is testament to skill of the entire design team that it appears so effortless.  Some of the most exciting visuals come in scenes where actors seemingly walk through a door or sit on a bed in the film, but which do not actually exist on stage. Anyone who appreciated the Vancouver-shot science fiction television series Sanctuary, which was also primarily shot using chroma-key, will appreciate the added complexities of Helen Lawrence by doing it live.

Pushing the boundaries of what we think of as theatre, Helen Lawrence is a visual feast.  I only wish there was as much to consume from its story.

Conceived by Stan Douglas.  Story by Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas.  Written by Chris Haddock. Directed by Stan Douglas.  An Arts Club Theatre Company co-production with Canadian Stage and The Banff Centre.  On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre through April 13, 2014.  Visit for tickets and information.

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