Writer: Damon Chua
Director: Kaipo Schwab
Reviewer: Jamie Rosler
As far as cinematic genres go, film noir is one of the more theatrical. The dramatic use of light and dark, the distinctly drawn characters with clear—at least to themselves—motives, and the high stakes that keep getting higher, are all potential elements of a very successful piece of theatre. Other tropes of noir prove to be a more difficult hurdle to successfully staging a film noir play, such as the voiceovers and direct addresses to the audience (that most people know as a defining element of the style).
From the moment the play starts—a cigarette lit in the darkness, then a slow fade up from a red Chinese lantern held aloft toward the lip of the stage—the design elements of the production are exquisite. A deceptively simple set (Sheryl Liu) is the foundation on which the show rests, quite steadily. Lighting and costumes (Marie Yokoyama and Carol A. Pelletier) layer beautifully over Liu’s all-black set. Bright colors and beautiful designs adorn the actors, while lighting moves seamlessly from striking to unobtrusive and back again, always playing the largest part in smooth scene transitions.
The cast, almost as a whole, seemed to learn more, as actors, as the play progressed, and it bodes well for the growth of the production. However there is an intensity missing. There are squandered opportunities for passion and heightened excitement to fill the theatre, and pull audience members to the edge of their attention. A live actor is possibly the only thing that theatre offers, that film cannot contend with, and that immediacy must be exploited.
Director Kaipo Schwab slightly misses the mark in translating film noir successfully to the stage, after playwright Damon Chua slightly misses the mark translating film noir successfully to the page. According to Chua, the script is intentionally lean. In truth, it is lean where perhaps it should be more thorough, and then relies on minutes of extensive direct address narrative prose, where a well-crafted moment between actors, or one succinctly stated aside, could have been a far stronger choice.
Film Chinois wants to be more than just a superficial notion of noir put on stage. It wants to explore the struggle to be good, to do right by one’s own definitions of right—under the weights of love, history, nationalism, and family—and then to face whatever consequences arise. In Chua’s program note, he says, “The struggle can be ugly, but still very human.” This production, then, is ironically beautiful, and suffers from an unfortunate lack of humanity (and perhaps the wrong director).
Runs until 8th February 2014