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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Theatre review: The Scarlet Queen of Mercy is an immersive experience

Anyone who has spent time on a film set will immediately relate to The Scarlet Queen of Mercy; for just like the real thing, this latest work from Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret is filled with long waits that suddenly bursts with a creative and engaging fervor.

With East Vancouver’s Russian Hall transformed into the set of Arthur Goudy’s latest Technicolor film, Scarlet Queen blurs the lines between what is happening on film and what is happening on set, as it tells its stories of love, jealousy and revenge.

Writer and director Kat Single-Dain goes a step further by casting the audience inside the story as extras where not only a chosen few get to play named characters in the film, but in a couple of scenes the entire audience participates. On opening night, the audience was more than willing to play along; the bar fight was particularly fun to watch as some of the ‘extras’ were clearly trying to impress the director.

Helping to immerse the audience even further, the action takes place on the proscenium stage and three purpose-built set pieces constructed around the periphery of the Russian Hall. We follow the action from our seats in the middle of the hall, as the director and crew set-up for the next shot, and real-life starts to collide and blur with the film. Problem is, that blurring between the real world and the film world is less-than-satisfying as we’re never truly invested in its real-life characters, and the set-up to those two worlds is fuzzy at best.

But boy is it fun to watch this ambitious, although overly long, original script with original music play out at times. And even as the audience might not be fully invested in its story, this cast sure is.

A great deal of the excitement in Scarlet Queen comes from what is not necessarily in the script, as the film crew moves around the room setting up the next scene. Seemingly never losing character, everyone from the lighting grip to make-up artist isn’t just doing their job, they bring a convincing realism to their characters. It was in those unscripted moments that this show came alive and solidified the otherwise confusing timelines between the 1950s film crew and a movie set in 1920s.

As Arthur Goudy and the show’s musical director, Jack Garton has an opportunity to show off his ample musical skills (he is lead singer of Vancouver folk-cabaret band Maria in the Shower) as he takes over one of the central roles in the film after firing the original actor. Nathan Barrett and Candice Roberts show off their acting chops, managing a wonderful contrast in scenes when the camera is rolling and when it is not.  Roberts is particularly funny as she chews the scenery in the film as Stella, and becomes the somewhat ditzy ingénue Marla Dean in real-life.

This is a massive undertaking as evidenced by the equally massive show program. There is a superb eleven piece band playing the show’s pre-recorded music, and the design team have created some realistic film sets, wonderful costumes and spot-on props.

An immersive and ambitious experience that could use a good editor (it clocks in at over 2 ½ hours with intermission), The Scarlet Queen of Mercy’s biggest disappointment though is not being able to see the dailies at the end of the evening.

The Scarlet Queen of Mercy written and directed by Kat Single-Dain. A Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret production. On stage at the Russian Hall (600 Campbell Ave, Vancouver) until May 24. Visit for tickets and information.

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