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theatre review

Crystal Balint and Allan Louis are seen filmed and transported into 3-D environments, their live stage acting then projected onto a screen in the proudction ofhanging in front of them.

Since I first met her in Vancouver at the Arts Club this spring, Helen Lawrence has been off summering in Germany and Scotland, presumably to clear her head after her engagement was broken off traumatically. (Her engagement in Montreal at the Festival TransAmériques, that is.)

Now she's back in Canada, in Toronto, and it's clear the overseas travel has done her a world of good. You really ought to see her: She's looking relaxed and better than ever.

Helen Lawrence, a Canadian Stage production created by the visual artist Stan Douglas with TV screenwriter Chris Haddock, has attracted plenty of attention because of its innovative technical trickery and a not-unrelated $1.4-million price tag – unusually high for a production of a new Canadian play.

For the show, Douglas and a team of 3-D animators and programmers have recreated two locations from postwar Vancouver that don't usually make it into the history books: The Old Hotel Vancouver, where a ragtag group of Second World War veterans battling addictions and PTSD are trying to get their lives back on track; and Hogan's Alley, a neighbourhood known for vice and gambling, but also for its large concentration of black Canadians.

Performing live on a stage that functions as a giant blue screen, Helen Lawrence's cast of 12 are filmed and transported into these 3-D environments, the combined elements virtual and real then projected on a transparent screen hanging in front of them.

It's like watching actors perform motion-capture for a film-noir video game – one where the goals are to bribe police officers, procure illegal abortions and plot revenge on old flames who left you holding a murder rap in L.A. (You can download the accompanying app – Circa 1948, produced with the National Film Board – and explore the set on an iPhone or iPad for yourself.)

With runs in several cities behind them, Helen Lawrence's actors and camera operators now have the delicate balancing act of hitting their precise marks without seeming stilted and down pat. Douglas and his associate director Sarah Stanley have also opened up the production significantly, allowing audiences to see how the magic is being made in real-time more easily – which is, of course, what makes theatre theatre and not film.

What really has lifted Helen Lawrence up since its Vancouver premiere, however, is that its dozen actors have developed into a real ensemble. Before, several were giving stagy performances, while others kept it small and filmic, but now they're all on the same wavelength and have found a way to make the noirish tropes of Da Vinci's Inquest creator Chris Haddock's script feel very fresh.

Nicholas Lea is now giving a stellar performance as an intense bookie named Percy, whose last name shifts as often as his eyes. In one astonishing scene, we get to see this charismatic villain's face onscreen up close for a full minute as his hands commit an unspeakable act in the murk behind. It's a one-act play starring Lea's peepers: All the emotions Percy is feeling flicker through them – anger, fear, even moments of compassion and sadness.

Lisa Ryder has also sunk deeper into the title character, a glamorous and unstable woman who has escaped a psych ward in Los Angeles and is on Percy's trail – seeking vengeance or love and possibly both. She takes this fast-talking character made for Bette Davis and makes you feel every beat of her broken heart.

Allan Louis, meanwhile, is as good as ever as Buddy, who lorded over Hogan's Alley during the war – but is now being double-crossed by his brother (Sterling Jarvis) and a mayor he boasts he got elected. The action overseas allowed Buddy to build up an empire despite being black, but now as the city is seeking to "clean up," he's just another undesirable element to be swept under the rug – or preferably out of town. (Hogan's Alley was eventually demolished in the 1970s, and Vancouver has not had a predominantly black neighbourhood since.)

Haddock's script gives us a diverse group of entertaining secondary characters, from a toupée-wearing hotel owner (a superbly sordid Hrothgar Mathews) to a tomboy bellboy (a very charming Haley McGee) to a prostitute with a heart of gold (an adorable Emily Piggford, new to the role). Only Ryan Hollyman, a replacement cast member, can't lift the corrupt chief of police above snarling cliché.

Haddock's plot can be complicated – and Douglas's virtual world takes time to wrap your brain around. They ask a lot on the part of an audience – but it's more than ever worth the effort to enter into the lucid dream of Helen Lawrence.

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