TEAR THE CURTAIN! by Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr with Kim Collier, directed by Collier, with Young, Laura Mennell, Dawn Petten, James Fagan Tait, Tom McBeath and Gerard Plunkett. Presented by the Electric Company, Arts Club and Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Previews begin Sunday (October 7), opens Tuesday (October 9) and runs to October 20, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $24-$99. 416-368-3110. See listings.
Think you know everything about warring gangsters in gritty 1930s and 40s films?
You'll find the opposing forces surprising in Tear The Curtain!, a production by always inventive Vancouver troupe the Electric Company (No Exit, Studies In Motion).
Adding a dark dollop of film noir to the gangster mix, Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr - who wrote the piece with director Kim Collier - set their play in 30s Vancouver, when the Mob that controlled the established playhouses vied with another that was building a burgeoning cinema empire.
Given that mix, the creators wanted to give equal time to live and filmed action, so the story jumps back and forth between the two, a tricky thing to pull off.
"It began with a commission from the Arts Club Theatre, and we thought about bringing its mainstage house, the period Stanley Theatre, into the production," says Collier on a rehearsal break. "Built originally as a vaudeville house, it opened in 1930 as a cinema.
"We knew we wanted to do a hybrid of two forms, since we work a lot with new technology and layering of media styles. Here we go all the way, allowing film and live performance, both of which can be intimate forms, to be in full conversation; content and structure mirror each other throughout."
Tear The Curtain!'s central character, theatre critic Alex Braithewaite, finds himself caught between the warring Mobs when he gets involved with femme fatale Mila Brook, a stage actor who wants to be a film star in the new talkies. She's also secretly tied to an avant-garde theatre movement whose creator may or may not have died two decades earlier.
If that sounds convoluted, welcome to the world of film noir, where sorting out who's to be trusted and what's real is never easy, and some things stay unclear right to the final fade-out.
"Getting confused is part of the piece," admits Collier, a Siminovitch Award-winning director and resident artist at Canadian Stage. "We've allowed for uncertainties in how the audience views the characters, so you may never be sure about what the truth is.
"That extends to the layers of the script. While the two Mobs are entrenched in different media, they're alike in presenting their wares as entertainment commodities. In contrast, the avant-garde group, the Empty Stage, looks deeper, aiming for an art form that reveals truths about ourselves.
At one level, Collier continues, the play isn't about warring Mobs but about the clash between mainstream art that provides simple diversion and a new art that goes into less comfortable territory, in part by breaking theatre and film's fourth wall.
While the Electric Company has used film in the past, it's gone into a whole new zone with Tear The Curtain! After a three-week shoot, editing and inserting a score by Peter Allen, they then had to blend the 70-minute film with live action that had to be conceived and designed before shooting began so transitions would work smoothly.
This means a remount like the Canadian Stage production requires the original cast; it wouldn't be financially feasible for an indie company to shoot new footage with a different actor.
Collier admits there was a lot of confusion and hand-holding as this dialogue across media progressed.
It's also tricky for the actors to perform onstage, "because they viscerally have to imagine film sections they shot in 2010 and make a whole of those clips and their live work.
"But I love creative problems like these," says Collier. "When you have to solve them, that's when the real discovery and magic appears."