Don't be afraid of the dark: Three Stories Up finds innovative ways to entertain in a pitch-black theatre

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      By Mack Gordon. Directed by Marisa Smith. An Alley Theatre and Level-Headed Friends production. At 805 East Pender Street on Saturday, October 22. Continues until October 31

      Three Stories Up puts the noir in noir. Its unusual presentation adds novelty and excitement to a play that is primarily an exercise in style.

      Playwright Mack Gordon has crafted an elaborate murder mystery in which Beatrice, a transit cop, is searching for the person who killed her husband, a big-crime detective whose death has been labelled a suicide. After she seeks help from Gunnar, one of her husband’s informants, the plot thickens to include an assortment of shady characters.

      But the audience can’t see any of them. Before the show, we are blindfolded and escorted to our seats. When we’re finally allowed to take off our blindfolds, the room is pitch black and it stays that way for the show’s 80-minute duration. Cool, right?

      Under Marisa Smith’s direction, the actors move all over this immersive environment; we never know where they might turn up next. Both hearing and imagination become acute: I’ve never been so aware of the sound of actors breathing, for instance, and the colours mentioned in a narrated description were extremely vivid.

      Gordon revels in film-noir conventions: there are tough guys, a giggly bimbo, and some terrific hardboiled dialogue. “I’ve been running from the truth so long I’ve almost got it lapped,” Gunnar tells us. And the writing is beautifully detailed: at a fancy restaurant, “there are napkins for the napkins.”

      But the absence of visual information means that the characters have to fill us in verbally on just about everything; they narrate not only external events but long interior streams of consciousness. These are often poetic, but in combination with the dialogue exchanges—which are so relentlessly rapid-fire that there’s not enough time to take in crucial information about the convoluted murder plot—they can become exhausting. Sound designer and Foley artist Julie Casselman creates some arresting effects, but her talents have been under-utilized in favour of text.

      I’ve been asked to keep the actors’ identities secret; all I will say here is that they pull off a heroic feat in a uniquely challenging set of circumstances. I’m not sure if Three Stories Up would captivate in a conventional staging, but in the dark, it’s a trip worth taking.