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Jonathon Young stars in the Stanley Industrial Alliance production of Tear the Curtain!

Brian Johnson/Brian Johnson

3 out of 4 stars

Tear the Curtain!

  • Written by Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr
  • Directed by Kim Collier
  • Starring Jonathon Young
  • At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver

One sweet evening years ago, I sat at the Arts Club's Backstage Lounge and listened to a folk singer perform covers of Britney Spears songs. At first, sure, it was funny. And then, as Hit Me Baby, One More Time poured out in a melancholic variation of the sickly sexy Spears original, it struck me: All the fashion, all the music videos, all the grossly overriding elements of pop culture, have human roots beneath their plastic veneers. It's the combination of truth and glitter that's addictive.

There's something very similar going on at the Arts Club's Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage this month. Two of Vancouver's top creative minds - Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr - have written a play about the clash between theatre and film that took place around 1930. Theatre stands for this moment, for presence; film stands for never, for escapism. The business war that ensued between those art forms stood in for a far more soulful clash.

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In Tear the Curtain! we get a world in which warring mob families (complete with Tommy guns and baggy suits) run competing entertainment industries (one monopolizes film houses, the other's got the theatres). The drama itself is presented as both a sumptuous film noir movie (yes, on a massive screen) and also a piece of live theatre. Often the movie and the play run simultaneously.

And Alex (played by Young at the top of his game) is the theatre critic who gets caught between the two worlds. The intellectual battlefield becomes the very space in which this drama has been staged: the Stanley Theatre. They really are pulling out every trick in the book to tear down not just the curtain, but the fourth wall. Alex spends much of the play digging himself down the rabbit hole, falling deeper and deeper into episodes of meta-theatrical fantasy wherein his sense of self eventually implodes in a dark and murderous fashion.

It sounds a little wonky, and it is. It's probably 30 minutes longer than it needs to be, too. Director Kim Collier guides us ably through a highly complex juggling act, though, even if she could have pared the thing down.

Of course, the manic confusion (to the audience's relief, even Alex at one points hollers "I don't know what's going on!") is really just the work's veneer. Beneath that, there's the illusive Empty Space Society, an avant-garde theatre group that's determined to throw back the inhibiting, suffocating blanket that covers and comforts society. Alex has fallen in love with their notion that only theatre can show us ourselves. There are several gorgeous scenes in which the room the audience sits in becomes reflected, or projected, onto the stage space, creating a disruption of our passive entertainment consumption.

Young and Kerr are not setting up a dichotomy, with thespians as good guys and filmmakers as villains. In fact, there's a deliberate dynamic between the two media. Both get to show you why they matter.

Theatre first: Alex stands on stage, all the theatre's lights turn up. We're a pack of humans in a room together. He seems to look us each in the eye. He says, "We. Are. Here."

Then, later, film gets its turn: Alex has gone through hell and back in his anguished search for "self," before he finally comes to terms with the impermanence of identity, the fact you have to let go once in a while. He sits in a movie theatre with his girl. We see him drift into la-la land. Peaceful release.

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In Tear the Curtain! the audience's twin desires - to be distracted and to be provoked - are addressed. A blending like this could have been deeply unsatisfying, since it refuses to commit to either film or theatre's strengths. But instead there's just this wondrous puzzlement. I think it was worth the headache.

Tear the Curtain! runs until Oct. 10.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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