Tear the Curtain is a thinkie, not a talkie
Over the course of his lifetime, Jean Cocteau explored the limits of representation, and the meaning of words and gesture through a variety of different mediums, stage and screen chief among them. While he may only feature briefly in the Electric Theatre Company's Tear the Curtain!, the production takes up his questioning of the nature of artistic expression on stage and on celluloid.
It's an ambitious and towering work by Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr that probes deep into both the creation and reception of artistic experience. While a juggernaut of philosophical questioning weighs heavily on the plot, there's a burning intellectual spirit here that's so rarely seen in the theatre. At times brilliant and at times overdone, this is a play heavily wound up in exciting ideas.
Alex Braithewaite (Young) is a theatre critic in a city with two warring factions: those who produce theatre, and those in the business of making pictures. After a sublime moment watching actress Mila Brook (Laura Mennell) on stage, Alex falls down the rabbit hole as it were, and produces a controversial manifesto about the Stanley Theatre and its attempts at true theatrical presence.
The plot takes a lot of energy to follow, with its allusions to Peter Brook's The Empty Space and Antonin Artaud's The Theatre of Cruelty, but it doesn't take a knowledge of theatre history to appreciate the play's questioning of the nature of representation. We're in the theatre after all; what better place to interrogate its potential.
Still, the first act falls into a rut halfway through, due to too many loose threads and no guiding hand. The show-stopping highlight, literally show-stopping, is a metatheatrical minute when the artifice dissolves and the play fortifies its connection to the assembled house. Like in Alex's manifesto, this is the white gap in the text—a step towards full presence.
Throughout, director Kim Collier and production designer David Roberts blend film with live performance. They comes as close as possible to a hybrid of forms. The "potent images" that are particularly striking are the ones where the moving and live images blend together. It's the image-driven design that we've come to associate with the Electric Theatre Company, and it's wholly fitting for this piece.
Young does a valiant job portraying such a complex and fragmented protagonist, and Dawn Petten as Alex's secretary Mavis is a firm anchor. We perceive the shifts in storyline through her trustful eyes.
The film noir setting lends itself to this type of mystery. Tear the Curtain!, like the talkies of the time, challenges audiences to perceive reality differently, but it's more of a thinkie than anything else.
Tear the Curtain!, written by Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr and directed by Kim Collier, runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre until October 20.