20 March 2014

Helen Lawrence

Last Friday, I went to a preview of Helen Lawrence, the highly anticipated play created by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock.

This play has been in the works for years. Stan Douglas is a brilliant artist and I was very much looking forward to seeing his take on late 40s Vancouver, specifically Hogan's Alley. His co-creator is Chris Haddock, whose work I don't know very well. I've never seen Boardwalk Empire and I've only watched a handful of episodes of DaVinci's Inquest. He has a strong reputation. Both men do, but neither have worked in theatre before.

As stated earlier, I saw a preview (which, criminally, was full-price) and there were technical difficulties. This show is tech-heavy. Tech-dependant, really as it wouldn't even be a show without the tech. Because it was a preview, I forgave those problems.

It's visually stunning. The actors are live onstage, but behind a scrim. They are being shot live, and the images are projected on the scrim, but thanks to some spectacular blue-screen technology, it looks like they are in Hogan's Alley or the second Hotel Vancouver. It's gorgeous.


This is supposed to be theatre. I have not been able to figure out why they didn't just do a movie. There is no play or tension happening between the live action (which you can sometimes see thanks to the lighting) and what is projected. What does this staging choice say thematically? Disappointingly, nothing.

I have seen a lot of theatre, and much that plays with technology and pushes boundaries. It can be exciting, but if it doesn't do anything to support the story, it leaves me cold and impatient.

The main problem with Helen Lawrence is it's foundation: the script. It is weak. It's overloaded with dialogue that sounds good (perhaps authentic to the time, perhaps what we've been trained by the movies to think as authentic), but doesn't really say anything. There is one plot line (of four) that goes nowhere and really shouldn't be in the play at all. Take that one out and give the other plot lines space to breathe a bit, expand, and perhaps have the space to tell the story they want told.

Because I don't know what the story is they want told. The story touches on Vancouver police corruption, gambling, prostitution, the shutting down of Hogan's Alley, the closing of the second Hotel Vancouver, lack of support for GIs, a dead husband, a spurned lover, bother-issues, race-relations, and I'm sure there's even more. All this in 90 minutes, but the story? The heart of the piece? I don't think I could tell you.

(And, despite having four women in the cast, I don't think this would pass the Bechdel Test. Every conversation between the women were about men. I hope I'm misremembering, but I don't think I am. Shameful.)

The draw of Helen Lawrence is the visuals. And people will and should go for this, but it's not enough. Perhaps this should have remained an art installation, perhaps they should have invited a playwright to co-create? I don't know. But it was disappointing and feels like a missed opportunity. It really could have been phenomenal.

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