PERHAPS you're a fan of the theatre. What you like is the moment-by-moment thrill of seeing actors perform and a story unfolding in your imagination. Or maybe you're more of a movie buff. You prefer to be immersed in a cinematic dream. Either way, you'll be frustrated by Helen Lawrence, a multimedia hybrid from Canadian Stage that is expensive, hollow and neither one thing nor the other.
The technique, developed by director Stan Douglas, is impressive. His actors inhabit a featureless blue landscape where they are picked out in the golden warmth of Robert Sondergaard's lighting. We see them through a gauze screen that, simultaneously, shows them projected in closeup. With the help of blue-screen compositing, Douglas matches these larger-than-life images to the backdrops of the story.
Now the actors we can see on the empty stage appear on screen seeming to lean over the check-in desk in a hotel lobby, to take a trip in the back of car, to venture to an illegal abortionist in a down-at-heel alley or to sleep off a cocktail of booze and pills in a seedy bedroom. It's a trick pulled off with considerable precision.
So, although we take note of the actors on stage, our eyes are repeatedly drawn to the black-and-white images on the big screen. These allude to the film noir of the 1940s – all fedoras, cigarettes and three-piece suits – although only rarely do they capture the high-contrast richness of the genre's shadowy atmosphere.
Likewise, the story, scripted by Chris Haddock, spins a postwar, B-movie yarn involving corrupt cops, backstreet gamblers and the eponymous femme fatale in a semi-lawless Vancouver. It's a world of hat-pin murders, protection rackets and blackmail.
The purpose of the tale, however, is not to reflect on any thematic concerns, but merely to showcase the production's technical ingenuity. Although it takes in greed, deception and exploitation, it has nothing to say about those subjects. Its primary purpose – to emulate a period movie – is of novelty value alone. Despite spirited performances from Haley McGee as a sexually ambivalent bell boy, Lisa Ryder as the glamorous visitor from out of town and the rest of the large company, Helen Lawrence is too flimsy to satisfy as either theatre or film.