Tear the Curtain

Jonathon Young & Kevin Kerr
The Electric Company
Bluma Appel Theatre, Canadian Stages

Tear the Curtain

Tear the Curtain is more of a meditation on form than a traditional narrative (its nearest analogue might be the book Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, where as the main character learns about new philosophies, the author’s text shifts to accommodate the style and basis of that school of thought). Similarly, Tear the Curtain aims to involve and demonstrate the topics it dissects on their own terms, rather than objectively.

The central conflict/question in Tear the Curtain is one of authenticity, and it is framed by the opposing (but enmeshed) worlds of theatre and film in 1920s Vancouver. A single star, Mila Brooks (Laura Mennell), and the city’s most powerful theatre reviewer, Alex Braithwaite (Young), are the opposing poles in this synecdoche of performance cultures. While Brooks seems to glide between media forms, taking on a different guise each time she aligns herself with a new mode of performance, Braithwaite’s loyalties lie in the theatre—and in his own career.

If the characters and plot of the play examine the ways in which television and film are adversaries, the form of the production seeks to find ways for the strengths of each mode of visual communication to compliment the other. Close, intimate moments are played out on screen, while what would be thought of as “wide shots” in film are left to the magic of stage. A feature-film-length series of staged scenes mean that recasting and restaging the work would be a task of Herculean proportion.

How well does this tactic work? The mesh that’s created seems deft, if at times tedious. Braithwaite arrives to see Brooks on stage; close-up shots allow us to watch at close range as their eyes seem to meet across a crowded theatre. As the production climaxes, we reach a moment where the fourth wall is shattered—where Young assumes the staged position that Mennell had earlier filled on screen.

Suddenly we, the audience, are part of the illusion that’s been created. For those who remember the first screenings of The Matrix; the effect isn’t dissimilar to moments of crashing through code in the film’s title sequence. Tear the Curtain has indeed torn the space-time that separates us from our entertainment.

There are hints in how to enjoy this play in the homages and acknowledgements toward the Surrealists, particularly in the playing of a short film by Cocteau. Tear the Curtain should be viewed as an experience—a sort of Waking Life journey through ideas and states of being. Over and over again, Braithwaite is told he must tear himself down in order to build himself up, that he must become others in order to become himself.

The idea that Braithwaite may be having a breakdown is given explicit credence by the script, and the facts that contradict a supernatural explanation for some of the story’s events remind us that suspension of disbelief is required—and that, in Tear the Curtain, belief itself may not be required.

Technically, far more attention has been paid to creating the rich world of the filmic portion of the show than to the staged portions. That is, each medium subscribes to its own conventions and, in terms of scenery, stage comes out the less impressive. The costumes are stunning both on camera and in person, and here the proximity and clarity of live view works in their favour.

A rich investigation of theatrical form, Tear the Curtain succeeds in illuminating the tensions between two major art forms. It makes for compelling viewing during the performance, and compelling food for thought afterwards.

Rachel Lynn Brody also had the opportunity to interview Kevin Kerr about Tear the Curtain.

Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody