What to make of Stan Douglas’s Helen Lawrence – currently on at Toronto’s CanStage – from the perspective of a theater-goer unfamiliar with the artist’s work? The play has a cyclical, tortuous plot, is formally experimental, and is set in 1940s Vancouver, a fetish-era for the artist, from the earlier Journey into Fear (2001) to the more recent photo series Midcentury Studio (2011). And what to make of Helen Lawrence as a non-Canadian? (The play premiered in Vancouver, though has since been performed in Munich and Edinburgh.) Douglas treats the 1940s with one of its main aesthetics, film noir, and only a Canadian could appreciate the proximities and isolations of this as applied to Vancouver, as we’re accustomed to seeing Hollywood films set just-over-there, rarely here. What, indeed, to make of theater at all in 2014? It’s a dying art, probably, with expensive seats and frequently conservative programming, yet, in its decadence, potentially permissive, with no guiding style and expectations so radically uncertain.
Of Helen Lawrence’s Edinburgh Festival mounting, The Guardian’s Mark Fisher wrote dismissively that it was “neither one thing nor the other” – neither cinema nor film. To explain: Douglas’s play takes place behind a large scrim that fills the proscenium, with actors acting behind it, in front of cameras, which project them onto that scrim. The back of the stage is a blue-screen, allowing Douglas to show us, through projection, his characters in backlot-like settings. It’s a clever trick, visually breathtaking, and Fisher is right: it’s neither one thing nor the other. And that’s precisely the point.
The alienation generated by Douglas’s skeletal, bifurcated mise-en-scène inevitably recalls Brecht. I’d rather discuss Old Hollywood, contemporaneous with Brecht and arguably a populist iteration of many of his dramaturgical theories. (Brecht once co-wrote a story for a 1943 Fritz Lang film noir for United Artists, Hangmen Also Die!) In an era of great American machines, Old Hollywood was of course among the greatest, its assembly-line quality widely acknowledged and discussed. As Thomas Schatz argues in his brilliant study The Genius of the System, there was something about it that produced a resplendent rather than a flat art. It was because the templates were so keenly cut that a definitively modernist brand of creativity emerged, one in tune with mass spectatorship but also with the long shadows cast by such a thing.
Helen Lawrence stays true to this ever-mystical and -mystifying template. Using its basic principles, even its crassness, it suggests the profound inclusions and exclusions of twentieth-century imagery. Those familiar with Old Hollywood production techniques will notice that the digital cameras onstage, which are operated by actors who are not in whatever scene is currently playing, are positioned using the classic “180-degree system.” Here, two or three cameras surround (typically) two people interacting, never crossing the “axis of action” or 180-degree line just behind them. Prolific Old Hollywood directors such as Howard Hawks and John Ford were masters of this simple method, which lent itself to fast editing. Yet, to quote Serbian film director Slobodan Sijan, here speaking of Hawks, the “continuity of the space is remarkable, and generally holds you ‘inside’ it. There is no possible way of escape, unless the film provides you with one.”
This is also the essence of Douglas. He presents contained systems, which, in their containment, allude to hatches, down which a curious viewer might slip, never to return. In Midcentury , a companion piece to Helen Lawrence, Douglas presents a fake portfolio taken by a “jobber” photographer in Vancouver during the late 1940s. Many of these images, which read first as commercial and procedural, depict hands entering the frame and gesturing at something inside it, a reference to the divine hand in the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes by Giotto, one of Douglas’s favorite artworks. The hand points inward with confidence but also disrupts. Its dismemberment prompts us to consider the photograph’s form. Rather than demystifying, it generates multiple, likely unanswerable, questions.
In Helen Lawrence we are presented with settings, actors, and a plot we know well, yet don’t, their functions precise in one sense, awkward and inadequate in another. Douglas draws our attention to frames: that of the proscenium, and that of cinema, which, in its Old Hollywood “academy” aspect ratio of 1.33:1, not only resembles said proscenium but also the portrait format of standard French canvases of the 19th century, and contemporary digital cameras. We can peer into Helen Lawrence, but more often we peer at it.
In this way the plot of the play, based on a story by Douglas and Chris Haddock, and written by Haddock (who wrote for Da Vinci’s Inquest and Boardwalk Empire), is adequately engaging but, like those of all films noir, often confusing, perhaps exceptionally so. What you need to know: the eponymous heroine rolls into town from Los Angeles with a vested vendetta, her presence and actions teasing out tensions previously hidden among the play’s various characters. The best approach, as with most noir, is to let the plot wash over you, for its broader implications are startling. Helen Lawrence’s goings-on – corrupt cops, grisly murders, prohibition pay-offs, etc. – reveal a Vancouver under immense racial and class pressures.
Douglas and Haddock rightly suggest that the plot of noir can handle and contain violence, because the genre makes an exquisite butchery of the storytelling process. The sociological elements it can’t (or won’t) contain thus seem like subterfuge, notably the complexities of Hogan’s Alley, a place of ambiguous legality in early-twentieth-century Vancouver, with speakeasies, gambling establishments, and brothels. At the dilapidated Hotel Vancouver, the play’s other setting, we confront other realities, meeting, for instance, a cash-desperate shell-shocked veteran (Adam Kenneth Wilson), and the play’s scene-stealer, Julie “Joe” Winters (Haley McGee), a plucky orphan tomboy who’s part Dan Duryea, part Natalie-Wood-as-Daisy-Clover. That’s a stock character, but here she is not neutered, expressing outright lust for Helen Lawrence, the hotel’s new femme-fatale guest. It’s not subtle, but it’s not expected, either.
Film-studies students might see all of this an aesthetic version of apparatus theory, in which the conditions and materials of production dictate how the viewer looks, feels, and behaves. But if Douglas understands the theater in this apparently filmic way, it’s not as if Brecht or his forbear, Shakespeare, didn’t. After seeing the play I thought of the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, trade-workers who perform a play within the play, and who never succeed with emotional commitment, but often achieve unintended humor. Douglas gets his talented actors to betray their working processes, both as camera people and as sculptural figures who do an impressive job of hitting their marks so they appear perfectly in frame. This is only an aspect of Helen Lawrence’s structuralist emphasis on the labor of art-making. Douglas theatricalizes the process of art.
My praise for Helen Lawrence is, naturally, also condemnation. It’s unabashedly brainy; its experimentation is markedly clinical. It wants not to seduce but to reorient, to pull its viewers in and out and around, again and again. The plight of the character Mary Jackson, for instance, who waits for word of her soldier husband and finally discovers his death has been withheld for years, is not wrenching, despite Crystal Balint‘s convincing performance. Instead, what’s evoked is a kind of haunting, in which the making and unmaking of the work, rather than its themes or characterization, becomes the site of darkest intrigue. Helen Lawrence may not be much of a play, but it’s one hell of an art object.