“This is the part where I kiss him, right?” the femme fatale character wonders aloud as she approaches the series’ jaded and cynical detective. Before you get bored though and say it’s been done a million times before, I’m going to say that despite all the tropes and cliches, you don’t know how this story ends. And that’s what Walterdale Playhouse’s season opener, And Then the Lights Went Out, is trying to tell us.
And Then the Lights Went Out, is an exercise in second guessing the stereotypes you have about the noir genre, or perhaps any genre. Noir is one of those things – like horror movies – that’s been made fun of a lot over the years. While And Then the Lights Went Out does its fair share of poking fun at the genre, it also allows the audience to discover something new about it.
And Then the Lights Went Out is the story of a writer who has shut himself in his apartment during an Edmonton heat wave to finish the seventh novel in his Jim O’Reiley detective series. The action of the play is set half in the world of the Jim O’Reiley novel and half in the real world, where the author, Thomas Levine (played by John Evans), is fighting villains of his own like a sub-par housing situation, a deceitful landlady, being attracted to the girl next door who happens to have a boyfriend, and dealing with intense self-doubt and negative self-speak. Never mind that his characters keep leaving the world of the novel to criticize his lack of originality and character development and express their doubt that he will be able to meet his publisher’s deadlines with a novel is that is interesting and engaging.
Andy Garland’s script is brilliant, taking the archetypal characters and tropes we know so well from noir detective books and movies and weaving them into a story that’s not just the same thing that’s been done before. In the audience’s reactions to the play, we immediately rediscover the purpose archetypal characters serve – the audience immediately connects to and engages with the story, shortening the exposition phase of a play where the audience is getting to know the characters and how they interact. Where Andy gets creative is in how the story is told. Half the time you are rolling your eyes because it’s so stereotypical and cliché. But the other half of the time, you’re stroking your chin and thinking about how a small tweak to the character or the generally accepted plot line can drastically alter the story and the perception of its worthiness of a piece of art.
I was really impressed by the cast’s caliber of acting and dedication to really knowing who their characters are. Every actor was able to successfully navigate a delicate balance between their character in the novel and in the real world. When the actors were in the world of the novel, they played their characters as over-the-top and more or less conforming to the archetypes and tropes we all know. When they shifted to the “real world” setting though, the actors weren’t so eye-rolling over-the-top, but they really knew how to express the core of the character and their defining traits. As the femme fatale, Erika Conway had the perfect mix of diva and toughness. Kyle Lahti as Detective Jim O’Reiley was cool and cynical, but also extremely passionate and self-aware. Hayley Moorehouse as junior detective Lucy DeBrie showed her smarts, sassiness and general unwillingness to be a disposable, sexualized female detective. Chance Heck was wonderful as “the muscle” Bruno Dawes who questioned his existence and also just wanted Thomas to use a coaster once in a while. Chance has this great way of doing humour that seems to be unintentional, but is riotous because of its perfect timing. And Curtis Knecht’s transformations as shipping tycoon (and villain) Duke Morrison were transfixing to watch as his character was being birthed, disassembled, and reassembled before our very eyes.
What I did really wonder about, and have to confess I’m still unsure about, is the story takes place in the real world of the play. While John Evans (as Thomas Levine), Erin Forwick-Whalley (his landlord) and Jennifer Peebles (the girl next door) do a great job of creating a world that’s very real and where the stakes actually matter, it was awfully cliché. Of course Thomas is attracted to the girl next door. Of course she has a boyfriend. Of course the landlord is the villain…. Which is fine, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s supposed to be cliché or not. At one point, the script points to the cliché’s (“You do the starving artist so well… I want to be the starving artist!”), but it left me wondering whether the characters are supposed to be aware of how cliche the situation is. Whether they are or aren’t, either way this could have been portrayed better on stage, either by fully committing to those clichés, or by using body language communicating the character’s awareness.
One thing I was excited about once I found out And Then the Lights Went Out was based on a noir novel was the production elements. And they didn’t disappoint. You can tell that designers really know what they’re doing with a genre fiction play, when they’re so spot on, but truly help create that second or third layer of meaning in the play through their elements. Brendan Boyd’s set was gorgeous – wonderful as a dingy apartment, but remarkable when it transformed to all the different locations the novel takes place in when put in the right lighting. I also loved the floor that bled off the live stage area- unfinished like the book that was the character’s main focus. Of course, the set’s flexibility couldn’t be acheived without the lighting design by Kat Evans, which made it possible to forget that Thomas’ apartment was in the background. I also loved the changes between the cool, blue-tinged lighting of the book and the warm light of the real world which helped the audience unconsciously move from one world to the other. And of course, the music underscoring the novel was spot on – it was stereotypical noir music – cool jazz, snapping fingers, saxaphones – but designer Aldon Brewer really knew the perfect moments to cut to silence to intensify the impact of the dialogue.