Tear the Curtain is simultaneously one of the most original-looking and confounding plays I’ve ever seen.
A co-production four years in the making by the Arts Club Theatre Company and Electric Company Theatre, the play offers a fictional film-noir history of the Stanley Theatre, complete with femme fatales, a boozy reporter and rivalries between the Irish and Italian mafia. There’s also a Girl Friday, some anarchists and a shadowy theatrical visionary named Stanley Lee.
If I’ve made the plot sound complicated, then I haven’t gone far enough. It’s downright labyrinthine. It defies any conventional explanation because I was never certain how much was actually happening, and how much was in the protagonist’s head. Stanley Lee is, I think, supposed to be a kind of Wet Coast version of Antonin Artaud. He is, appropriately, famous for his Theatre of Cruelty. Given this play’s length–it was nearly three hours on opening night–and its byzantine storyline–I think the comparison is apt.
And yet, like every Electric Company show I’ve see, the play is a technical masterpiece. About one-third of the play’s action has been filmed, and is projected on screens or the set. This filmed sequences are skillfully synchronized with the live actors, so that we may simultaneously see the action from two angles. The play begins, to the audience’s delight, with a filmed sequence of actors performing in a play on-stage at the Stanley. The action then shifts to the Stanley’s lobby–the one we’ve just vacated.
The result is mind-boggling, and director Kim Collier skillfully toys with our wrecked heads. At one point we see an actor unveil a model of the set he’s standing in front of. The filmed version–a close-up of his perspective looking into the model–is projected on that set.
I was especially impressed with how great the filmed sequences looked. I recently watched the premier of Lost Girl, a banal, derivative series that Showcase has been aggressively promoting. Tear the Curtain’s video looked far more professional.
After three hours, though, the company’s feats of theatrical magic lost some of their dazzle. I wondered, frankly, if the story really deserved this artful feat of synchronization. As my fellow theatre-goer pointed out after the show, “nobody wants to leave a play wondering ‘was it all a dream?'”
The plot just didn’t hold together for me. I worked hard to piece to parse what Collier and company wanted me to see. At the end of the day, though, either I wasn’t sharp enough, or they didn’t leave enough breadcrumbs.
I’d also like to see the Electric Company branch out in their creative work. The three shows I’ve seen are all historical dramas featuring a kind of misunderstood genius (the other two were about Nikola Tesla and Eadweard Muybridge) on the cusp of changing the world with radical ideas. By now, that vein feels a bit tapped out.
In Tear the Curtain, one character asks another, “is this what you’re attempting? Something truly original?” Even if it’s not wholly successful, I applaud the effort.
Here’s a trailer for the show. It runs at the Stanley Theatre until October 10. The photos in this post are by David Cooper and Brian Johnson.