Tear the Curtain! one of this season's most ambitious projects

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      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.



      Jonathon Young

      Sep 19, 2010 at 7:24am

      You quote 'absolute authenticity' twice here, but nowhere is it said in the play. Do you mean ”˜ultimate presence”? If so, yes, Alex’s central objective to articulate a method to achieve this on stage. And it’s okay Colin, he barely can grasp what it means or how to do it either. However, the quest for “ultimate presence” while it’s an intentional bit of hyperbole, does sum up quite succinctly an aspect of the work of theatre theorists like Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook etc. Tear the Curtain doesn’t put forward "the notion that an artist has to go nuts in order to create". The fact that some artists have ”˜gone nuts’ is obvious but regardless, it's very clear in the play that Alex is a particular case, with a history of instability and self destructive tendencies. His central crisis is his sense of being an imitation of himself, with one side wishing to destroy the other and this theme of double identity is a reflection of the Stanley Theatre and embodied in the form of the play. And the “mad artist” is just one stereotype that the play fully admits to being slave to, just like the italian or irish mobster, the femme fatale, the bellowing but fatherly editor, the selfless girl-friday etc. You find these stock character types hyperbolic? Well, yeah, that’s the point. A gangster who produces theatre feels too inaccurate for you because, as you ask so penetratingly, “where’s the profits?”. I can’t believe you used up precious space for such a lame example. Must I waste precious space providing an example of a crooked businessman who made money off live theatre? Can’t you think of one yourself? Come on... try.

      Colin Thomas GS

      Sep 21, 2010 at 10:43am

      Thanks for writing, Jonathon.
      Yeah, how about that Garth Drabinsky? He’s not exactly a typical theatrical producer in my experience, and the mobster entrepreneur isn’t a cultural type I’m familiar with, but maybe there were more of them in the twenties, when your play is set.
      I apologize for my mistaken substitution of the phrase “absolute authenticity” for “ultimate presence.” In the second act, there’s a lovely embodiment of this idea; my approximation of the phrase didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the moment.
      I am aware that the script references Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook, but I don’t think that excuses what I experienced as the script’s excessively theoretical nature. Lily Tomlin speaks to the idea of presence simply and concretely in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” as does Daniel MacIvor in “You Are Here”, to name just a couple of examples. So it is possible.
      You argue that it’s “very clear in the play that Alex is a particular case, with a history of instability and self-destructive tendencies” while at the same time maintaining that, “the ”˜mad artist’ is just one stereotype that the play fully admits to being slave to.” It seems to me that the characters in Tear the Curtain! are far more broadly representative than uniquely human, so it makes sense to interpret Alex as the embodiment of the artistic process. And presenting that process as a flirtation with madness, which happens a lot, bugs me. I know that some artists have lost their marbles, but reinforcing the stereotype of the mad artist strikes me as dangerously romantic.

      Colin Thomas

      Lucia Frangione

      Sep 24, 2010 at 12:39pm

      This is a world premier of a spectacular experiment. It has not had the benefit of an off off Broadway run to work out the kinks. We do not have that kind of infrastructure here. The Arts Club and the Electric Company have once again bravely and boldly exposed their artistic alchemic process to the masses. It is the only way new plays get done in this country. And do not be mistaken: the first production is still very much part of the play creation process. There is only so much a creator can "know" until it is in front of the audience. Once in a while it all comes together by fluke: not by working harder or having more humility or talent. One day a fleck of mold flew into Fleming’s lab dish and voila, the discovery of penicillin. But it only happened because Fleming was experimenting on staphylococci in the first place. Was he a “romantic”, was his quest for a cure a “wank”? Was he being “self indulgent”? (all words you use often to describe new work) You sit back and gripe about being “bored” and can pick apart what doesn’t work yet because you have the luxury of seeing something being presented for the first time. Nobody is trying to convince you it all works right now. They are all figuring it out together as they bravely move forward with this experiment of story and of form.
      This project in particular has had to grapple with so many questions about intermedia and it’s relationship with the spectator: what engages, how the elements work together. You skim over that so quickly, oh it’s “seamless”. It’s ungrateful, in a way, to not give proper credt for the tremendous success of what works.
      When one is reviewing a world premier one must shift their paradigm and not view it in the same way as a tried and true chestnut that has benefitted from hundreds or hundreds of thousands of previous productions. I am not saying you must coddle new work and call everything brilliant. But like any new creation, like any child, you must encourage the positive, not chide it for not knowing what it has yet to learn.
      What encourages me is: despite your impatience with process, the audience is largely engaged, thrilled and delighted by experiment and so we continue on.


      Sep 25, 2010 at 12:08pm

      The play's 'theoretical nature' was, for me, intellectually exhilarating. I wasn't bored - I was with Mr. Young and Mr. Kerr all the way. Perhaps this is because I am a young artist, and the struggles of Mr. Braithewaite rang true - not his struggle with sanity so much as his struggle with his own identity. Perhaps it is because it spoke to ideas I had when I was first reading Artaud's work - ideas that still drive me artistically. Maybe that means I'm wanky too, or narcissistic, or 'romantic' but either way 'Tear the Curtain', in my eyes, was a highly successful foray into uncharted territory on the stage, supported by an engaging story and nuanced performances. The Electric Company seems to have no problem creating gorgeous images, but this is the first show of theirs where I've felt that the text is operating as effectively as the imagery in supporting the thematic content of the play. Yes, there are broad stereotypes, and yes, I would like to see a femme fatale character who is a little less disposable, but 'Tear the Curtain' is still a spectacular treat for lovers of the cinema and the stage. The Electric Company just keeps raising the bar higher.

      Cynthia Roman

      Sep 27, 2010 at 10:47am

      Walked out at intermission - would have left earlier had I not been wedged into the middle of an aisle. I noticed other theatre goers did likewise.
      My reaction during the first act ran from intrigue, to confusion, boredom, and finally to anger. This play is all style and no substance. The use of film and live stage play is unusual and highly entertaining however it feels too much like this is the point of the entire presentation -- "gee, isn't this cool?!"-- and the plot was thrown together hastily in some brain storming session about the history of the theatre (both of which are the Electric Company's habit, as indicated in the theatre program).
      My anger stemmed from feeling like the production was created by a bunch of "in", "artsy" theatre types for similarly "in" and "artsy" theatre types, while the rest of us rubes (season ticket holders - a.k.a the paying public) were left wondering if we just weren't quite smart enough to get it.
      Perhaps everything would have been satisfactorily revealed in the second act however I doubt that it would have been worth the agony of sitting through the first one.

      paying public

      Sep 27, 2010 at 8:52pm

      Re: Cynthia's comment: Perhaps you were the person sitting in front of me? I would be very careful with calling the Electric Company's process 'a hasty brainstorming session'. Whether or not you liked the play having left at intermission means you've forfeited the right to discuss the success of the plot. How it unfolded, maybe the structure, but not the story. You are entitled to feelings of anger and frustration if you feel like your dollars have been misspent... and of course you have the right to leave anytime, especially if a show is painful to watch. But although the first act may have been confusing (like I'm sure Picasso was confusing), and though I myself was doubtful that the play would come together in the second act, from where I sat 'Agony' it was not. Also, the play is a site-specific work created in, and about, the Stanley theatre, particularly it's dual identity as a cinema and play-house. So, yes, it is about artists, the audience, and all those other people in it for money or real-estate or whatever. But surely, as a theatre-goer, you can relate to some of the issues of media and and the way it is received by it's audience? Maybe you were smart enough to get it... or maybe you weren't... either way it doesn't follow that the work has no value (or substance, as you put it.) Finally, I agree that far too much theatre and film focuses too closely on the arts world and therefore becomes incestuous and wanky, but that does not mean that media, identity and representation aren't subjects worth exploring onstage.

      David Cooper

      Sep 29, 2010 at 6:27pm

      I love the blend of cinema and live theatre in this show. It's so rarely done this well and shot so beautifully .The fact that only part of the script was filmed I'm sure made it harder to make changes at a later date since the live part is flexible, but the filmed sequences are locked in. There are amazing transitions in this show that are incredibly magical. I still believe The Electric Company is leading us into new territory that is fresh and entertaining. They raise the level of theatre in this city.


      Oct 3, 2010 at 11:55am

      The play might require an editor but the Straight desparately needs a new critic. In the old days critics were your peers....think about that for a while!


      Oct 3, 2010 at 6:07pm

      In the old days critics ruined artists careers (ever hear of the Butcher of Broadway?).

      Agree with it or not, this review is thoughtful, articulate and well-argued.

      Nik Black

      Oct 3, 2010 at 11:58pm

      Well now, haven't the claques come out to vote for this one? Nearly 350 hundred votes cast on the opinions of the great Jonathan Young. Only 250 on the opinions of a mere member of the paying public. Truly, an uproar!!!!

      Couple things, minor mostly: Ms. F. it's world premiere, not world premier. You sound like you're talking about Premier Gordon Campell.

      What's with the playwright coming in full-bore on the critic? You protest too much, dear Jonathan. In the good old days of professional theatre, the artists sucked it up. If you don't like his writing, don't read it. But this kind of writing-to-the-critic-on-the-comments-pages simply shows two things: 1. you're too thin-skinned to be a professional. Take your lumps and hate the guy privately is how real professionals handle it. And 2. responding back and forth like this, using first names and skinny arguments between the Playwright and the Critic merely show small Vancouver Theatre really is. It's a pathetic little town where everyone knows everyone else and unless the Critic raves, he's in deep trouble with the Playwright. It's too incestuous and it makes me realize how much growing we still need to do. The Jessies are another example of Vancouver Theatre's pitiful little amateur status.

      Here's a great letter to a critic from an artist in the days when critics really had the power to make or break an artist's career, not like now where they don't have any power at all:

      "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. Soon, it will be behind me."