By Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr. Created with and directed by Kim Collier. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre in association with Electric Company Theatre. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, September 16. Continues until October 10
The Arts Club Theatre has supported Electric Company Theatre in the development of one of the most ambitious projects we’ll see this season. As we move through the evening, the results are fantastic, dull, and interesting, in that order.
The script for Tear the Curtain!, which was written by Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr, tells the story of Alex Braithwaite, who—intriguingly, given that he’s a theatre critic—embodies the artistic process. Alex falls hard for an actress named Mila Brook, who works in theatre and publicly aspires to movie stardom. Mila also belongs to a secret revolutionary movement that hopes to destroy “bourgeois” forms of representation, including both plays and movies, and replace them with “absolute authenticity”.
As Alex is drawn into this search for authenticity, he starts to disintegrate psychologically. At the same time, Tear the Curtain! layers illusion upon illusion, moving seamlessly between live and cinematic action.
Visually, this is thrilling. Under Kim Collier’s visionary direction, we see writer Young, who plays Braithwaite, in the flesh: he’s inside a room, high up, stage left, unwrapping a package that may have been sent by a ghost. Projected onto the rest of the set, there’s an extreme close-up of Braithwaite’s hands untying the twine. It’s like Hitchcock in 3-D.
Every element of the physical mounting is perfect, including David Roberts’s knockout of a production design, director of photography Brian Johnson’s filmic images, Nancy Bryant’s late-’20s costumes, Peter Allen’s music, and Alan Brodie’s dreamlike lighting.
The script’s success is less consistent, however. The visuals are so gorgeous and the writers are throwing around such big ideas that, for a long time, I was more than willing to hang in there and try to solve the puzzle. There’s a fantastic horror-tinged climax, too, but that comes about halfway through the 90-minute first act. After that point, my interest waned until I was flat-out bored by intermission.
The play’s concerns are so abstract that they can become almost meaningless. Braithwaite’s goal is “absolute authenticity”, but what the hell does that mean? The notion that an artist has to go nuts in order to create feels wanky. And the play’s symbolic language can be hyperbolic and inaccurate. A character who represents commercial theatre is presented as a gangster. What? Where are the enormous profits? Crucially, the writers keep us in the dark for too long about the true nature of the revolutionary movement. Without this piece, the play’s metaphoric language is incomprehensible, and it stays that way for far too long.
In the second act, the revolutionaries’ goals are revealed, the story comes into focus and the show returns to being an excellent, though still highly abstract, ride.
Young’s performance as Braithwaite is stellar in both the live and filmed portions; this guy is one of the best performers you’ll ever see. As Mavis, Braithwaite’s loyal secretary, Dawn Petten plays the Girl Friday convention somewhat archly, but her work is still enjoyably heartfelt. Laura Mennell maintains a commanding presence as Brook.
In many ways, Tear the Curtain! is a trip. It also needs an editor.