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BWW Review: HELEN LAWRENCE at Canadian Stage

"Helen Lawrence," now playing at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre, is an entertaining, multi-media presentation of a 1940s film noir story hampered by a thin script by Chris Haddock (co-written with Stan Douglas.)

During the first five minutes, you tend to be overwhelmed by the show's blue compositing technique in which the live action onstage is enhanced by its larger-than-life, black-and-white close-up projection on a scrim in front of the actors. But the technical ingenuity shortly wears off, and you're left with a complex plot, heavy on exposition and light on action and tension.

The talented cast, co-directed by Stan Douglas (who also conceived the show), performs on a bare, azure blue stage bathed in Robert Sondergaard's glowing lighting. Their performances are matched on the screen. Sometimes the film image is a different POV from the action on stage, but most often it is the same angle, which tends to be redundant and boring.

The film, of course, depicts the sets whether they are a speeding train, the interior of a car, a grand hotel that has seen better days or the grim setting of Hogan's Alley in postwar (1948) Vancouver, Canada.

The problem with digital black and white is it fails to project nuance, the subtlety of gray, chiaroscuro light and shade that made original film noirs so effective in evoking the eerie atmospheres of the genre. Also, the projected ("radiated") black and white images tend to draw your eye away from the "reflected" image of the live action on stage. It's an effort to decide where you are going to look. So instead of complementing each other, the film and stage action often tend to be in conflict for your attention.

Described as "an intriguing, hard-boiled tale of loyalty and power," the story's characters include, true to the genre, a mysterious femme fatale, cigarette smoking corrupt cops, various back street gamblers and a hooker with a heart of gold, living and dealing in a world of greed, blackmail, deception, exploitation and protection rackets. Nancy Bryant's costumes set the mood with period outfits including three-piece, double breasted suits complete with snappy fedoras.

The accomplished cast of 12 features TV star Nicholas Lea, (who played Krycek on "The X Files), Sterling Jarvis (a Dora Award-Winner for Acting Up Stage Company's "Caroline, or Change") as Henry Williams, and Adam Kenneth Wilson (the title role in the film "Manson" as Edward Banks. Lisa Ryder stars as Helen Lawrence.

The complex script is mostly exposition and does not have the rising action necessary to create the tension setting up the play's murder. And the 90-minute play ends abruptly, without an adequate denouement. One question: Other than a woman on woman kiss, why isn't there any sex or a heavy romantic scene?

John Gzowski's tenor saxophone laden musical score excellently evokes film noir. It brings to mind the work of Bernard Hermann (many Hitchcock movies and "Taxi Driver') and John Barry's work for "Body Heat."

"Helen Lawrence" already is a success. With its international tour to Munich and the Edinbugh Festival in Scotland, the multi-media production has helped its producer Canadian Stage achieve its third consecutive surplus season. Also contributing to its success are record-breaking engagements of "Venus in Fur" and "Needles and Opium" along with the award-winning "London Road" and its popular summer season of Shakespeare in High Park.

The $110,101 surplus will be used to reduce Canadian Stage's accumulated deficit by another seven percent.

Subscriptions rose to 35 percent and earned revenue from ticket sales increased by 25 percent.

"Helen Lawrence" - a co-production between Canadian Stage Production is playing in Toronto now through Nov. 2. For tickets and more information, visit

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From This Author Dennis Kucherawy

A veteran entertainment executive, Dennis Kucherawy has worked in film exhibition and live theatre on Broadway, in London's West End and in Canada. An award-winning (read more...)