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.
In 2216, theatre historians will study David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross as one of the most important plays of the second half of the twentieth century. You can find its influence in everything from Reservoir Dogs to Seinfeld to Mad Men. It’s an exquisite tale of salesmen trying to sell each other. Or, to put it more crassly, it’s a bunch of guys demonstrating that you can, in fact, bullshit a bullshitter.
Here’s the plot summary, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The play shows parts of two days in the lives of four desperate Chicago real estate agents who are prepared to engage in any number of unethical, illegal actsÃ¢â‚¬â€from lies and flattery to bribery, threats, intimidation, and burglaryÃ¢â‚¬â€to sell undesirable real estate to unwilling prospective buyers.
That sounds kind of banal, but it’s Mamet’s gift to craft remarkable tension out of everyday circumstances. I just saw his newest play, Race, on Broadway. The entire play is more or less in real time, featuring two lawyers and a law student discussing whether or not to take a case. And yet–just like Glengarry Glen Ross–you’re enthralled after six lines of crackling dialogue. Mamet is also a master of power dynamics, and so is an actor’s playwright.
On Wednesday night, I was invited to attend the Arts Club’s production of this contemporary classic–an appropriate phrase, even if it has been exhausted of its meaning. It was a very strong show–the best I’ve seen at the Arts Club for some time. Director Michael Shamata (over from the Belfry) and the performers have strong material to work with, and they handle it well in front of naturalistic, functional sets by Kevin McAllister.
The sets were full of subtle details, like an air conditioner above a door or pipes in the ceiling. I loved how the round tables in the first act setting, a Chinese restaurant, are inexplicably hinged down at the front. I guess the line they create reflects the proscenium arch of the stage (and a faux arch of the restaurant), and they draw our eyes upwards. They don’t make any practical sense, yet the decision feels right. Both photos are by Emily Cooper, and, as always, click to enlarge:
Much of the buzz around this production is focused on Eric McCormack, he of Will & Grace fame. Bringing famous film and television actors to the stage can have mixed results, but McCormack apparently drew on his years spent as a young actor at Stratford.
McCormack plays Ricky Roma, the macho alpha dog in the office. Al Pacino played this role in the great 1992 movie of the same name, and McCormack seems to occasionally be channeling the elder actor’s physicality in the role (perhaps that’s inevitable, given Roma’s slick machismo). Still, there were a few minutes where I forgot that I was watching a famous TV actor, and that’s to his credit.
The whole cast was excellent, actually. The script is ridiculously pacey and dense, and the performers didn’t hit every single note in it. Mamet’s dialogue is very challenging (that’s why when he directs movies, he tends to use a lot of the same actors), and the cast will probably discover more of the script’s tiny details and cadences after a few shows.
There’s really very little not to like about this production–it makes for a funny, gripping night at the theatre.
Glengarry Glen Ross runs through August 22 at the Stanley Theatre. Go here to buy tickets.
A Few End Notes
A few vaguely related notes:
Unusually, the production’s second act is considerably longer than its first. Keep this in mind if you drink a lot at intermission.
I’ve recommended some of them before, but you pretty much can’t go wrong with any film Mamet writes and directs. My favourite is Spartan (pretty much, as it happens, Kristen Bell’s film debut), but I’d also recommend (in descending order) The Spanish Prisoner (Campbell Scott is, I think, one of Hollywood’s more under appreciated actors), Heist and Redbelt. Of course, there’s a bunch of great movies written by Mamet but directed by others, such as Wag the Dog and Ronin.
There’s a monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross that, to my mind, is the finest sales pitch of the last hundred years. I haven’t heard them all, but I don’t think I’ve heard better. Pacino performs it (rated PG for language) with exquisite attention to detail:
UPDATE: I contacted the show’s director, Michael Shamata, to ask him about the tables. He explained that there were two reasons:
1. every Chinese restaurant that i have ever been in has drop-leaf tables
2. it allowed us to bring the booths as far downstage as possible and still allow the front row to see the actors
Note to Loyal Readers: I’m aware that this is the fourth theatre review I’ve posted in the last three weeks. Never fear, that should be enough for a while.
Last week I was invited to the opening of “Paradise Garden”, the premier production by Arts Club Theatre Company of Lucia Frangione’s (yet another Canadian playwright who deserves a Wikipedia entry) new play.
Set “off the coast of the Gulf Islands” (an in-exact phrase if there ever was one), “Paradise Garden” tells a story of star-cross love between Day, played by Kevin McDonald, a slacker Islander who’s inherited the rambling family estate, and Layla, the daughter of Turkish parents who’s renting on Day’s property. Layla, played by Frangione, ministers to her dying mother and clashes with her stubborn, traditional father. On the other side of the hedge, Day struggles to find his way in the world among the wreckage of his parents’ divorce–she’s a fake-breasted cougar and he’s a curmudgeonly pot farmer. Both characters suffer from a delayed childhood–they’re still under their parents’ wings, despite being in their late 20s when the play opens.
Listening to Frangione’s text, I remember that I’d seen another of her plays, “Espresso”, a few years back at Pacific Theatre. Both plays are rich with lush imagery, as evocative as her name. She’s got a knack for rapidly leading us from the mundane to the visceral without forcing the transitions. “Paradise Garden” is wordy, but in a light, spoon-fed kind of way that’s totally forgivable.
I was less forgiving of a device in which the lead characters spoke of themselves in the third person. There didn’t seem to be a rationale for this trope–neither character was particularly alienated from their true selves–so it just felt forced. I could have also done without Adam and Eve metaphors (maybe that’s more in the staging than the script?), and some criticisms of Canadian culture felt tired.
Capillaries or Seaweed?
The cast was strong, though the female actors felt more fully realized, more comfortable in their skin. McDonald, in particular, took a long time to find his feet. He’s got a lot to balance in maintaining Day’s laissez-faire outlook while still seeming appealing enough to overachieving Layla’s. Frangione gives Day an unexpected educational upgrade in the second act, probably to satisfy this requirement.
Photo by Ross Den Otter
Morris Ertman and Ted Roberts seemed to struggle in realizing Frangione’s vision of the setting. She provides tons of on-stage business and textual indications about the setting, but Roberts’ set seemed to be more a compromise than a bold statement. I either wanted less set, and we rely on Frangione’s words, or a totally realistic set. In any case, the actual set featured a kind of over-sized blue capillary system above a pool and archway. We spend 120 minute wondering why it’s there, and the payoff doesn’t quite feel worth the effort.
I sound like I’m down on the production, but I’d recommend “Paradise Garden” to somebody looking for an inoffensive but pleasing night at the theatre. It runs through April 11 at the Stanley Theatre. There’s some nudity, mostly of the male variety.
On May 24, 1989 (I know the exact date thanks to this page), Rob Stover, Steve Lee and I cut out of Grade 10 afternoon classes. We drove (Steve had his license very early) all the way from our safe West Vancouver enclave over to the Stanley Theatre. We sat in the front row of the balcony and watched the first matinee show on the opening day of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
My friend Rob was a huge Indiana Jones fan, but it was a bit of a thrill for all of us. That was in the midst of my Premiere-reading period–I was a cinephile from early on.
The Stanley was a gorgeous cinema, and I miss seeing movies in that grand old space. It’s a lovely theatre, too, of course. It’s a pity the Arts Club doesn’t make consistently engaging shows to play inside it.