Laura, the complete story

I’ve started writing some entertainment stories for the Regina Leader Post on a freelance basis. My first one ran today, but unfortunately was curtailed rather drastically, so that it ended extremely abruptly.

So here’s the complete story, as it read in a perfect world where newspapers have unlimited space and brilliant copy is never edited:


Who is Laura?

If you’ve never asked yourself that question, you’ve probably never seen Otto Preminger’s classic 1944 film starring Gene Tierney, in which a detective investigates the murder of a beautiful young woman, falls in love with her in the process–and then discovers nothing is as it seemed.

Next week, Regina’s Curtain Razors theatre company reformulates and contemporizes the question as it, in association with the Dunlop Art Gallery, MacKenzie Art Gallery, New Dance Horizons, the University of Regina and Calgary’s Stride Gallery, it presents Laura, a theatre piece that takes place within the confines of an installation by Vancouver artist Eric Metcalfe.

The movie has long intrigued Metcalfe, winner of the 2006 Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts. Laura and films by Fritz Lang released at about the same time are psychologically fascinating, he said. “Lang’s films were concerned with desire and often in store windows–‘framed desire,’ Metcalfe said. “Laura is another example, where it’s a portrait of a woman over the mantelpiece.”

Metcalfe’s fascination gave birth to the art installation Laura, a miniature representation of the movie apartment, complete with mantelpiece, grandfather clock, vases, side tables and a wing-back chair, all elements crucial to the plot. At first glance it looks like an ordinary living room–but red drapes and movie lights also make it look like a “hot” movie set.

As with most Metcalfe projects, Laura was a collaborative effort. Nancy Shaw wrote an impressive catalogue, which took the form of letters to Laura, and also provided voice-over narration for the soundscape (now the score for the Curtain Razors’ performance) which also features renowned jazz pianist Paul Plimley and work by sound artist Peter Courtemarche.

Ceramicist Gillian McMillan and sculptor Rick Ross helped design the set pieces. The goal was not to recreate the movie set, but to capture its essential elements–and then contemporize them. The vases, for example, are the same shape as those in the film, but painted by Metcalfe in his own unique style.

Laura was first installed in a storefront at Artspeak, a Vancouver gallery. A second installation in Vancouver’s Open Space gallery took the form of a movie set, then earlier this year at the Stride gallery in Calgary Laura was again installed in a store front, “the idea of framed desire again,” Metcalfe explained.

Metcalfe knew Michele Sereda, artistic director of Regina’s Curtain Razors, and while in Regina in the fall of 2005 mentioned to her he had installation that might make an interesting performance set. “I never thought any more of that,” he said, but a couple of months later, Sereda called and said she’d like to put something together.

Metcalfe, who is coming to Regina to see the piece and to take part in public discussions at the University of Regina and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, couldn’t be happier. “I’ve always been interested in theatre and dance and music,” he said. “I still do static art, as I call it, but my major concerns in my practice have been more performance art.” After all, he said, at his age (he’s in his 60s), “I’ve done everything else.”

Sereda said Laura captured her interest because she’d been wondering for a little while, “How do you take the idea of film and put it into the practice of theatre, in terms of performance styles, genres, language? When I watched the DVD and saw that Laura was kind of a modern-day Pygmalion story, I could see the link.”

Sereda flew out to Vancouver and met Metcalfe and his collaborators, then plunged into the various interpretations of Laura, including the original 1943 novel by Vera Caspary, the 1944 movie, and the 1947 play by Caspary (who was “livid” at Preminger for the liberties he took with her novel, Sereda said) and George Sklar.

Looked at all those sources, Sereda said, “I knew I wanted the piece to be about Laura. Everybody speaks for Laura. Who is Laura? What is Laura? I became quite intrigued by that.”

As part of her effort to combine and explore the visual, theatre and film arts in the piece, Sereda knew she wanted to work with a film actress. That’s how Regina actress Wendy Anderson came on board.

She and Sereda, in collaboration with Metcalfe (who altered the installation to suit the location and their performance needs) structured the piece by combining the necessary elements of live performance with the standard elements of film noir, which include dramatic lighting (provided by William Hales, currently on sabbatical from the University of Regina and studying film noir lighting), voice over (already part of the installation soundscape) flashbacks, and–most importantly from Anderson’s point of view–multiple points of view.

“There are always several different points of view, always continuously changing,” she said. “The audience is left trying to map out who is telling the truth. There are portions of it where it’s me in an exploration of this mystery, there’s portions of it where I’m McPherson (the detective), where I’m Waldo (another man obsessed with Laura), where I’m Laura. But there’s always me inside those characters exploring what they’re feeling, doing, where they’re going.”

And the audience will also be part of that exploration. “We do break through the wall in conversation with them,” Anderson said.

“In Preminger’s piece and somewhat in the novel, Laura never has a voice,” she said. “It would have been really easy for us to do strictly a feminist thing and say ‘let’s explore this concept of woman as possession and the male gaze.’ Of more interest to me and Michele was the idea of the modern woman.”

“Who is modern woman? I think even today we can’t answer that question.” Laura lingers in the public consciousness, Anderson said, because “the question still lingers. We don’t have an answer for it.”

Exploring the question, though, should make for an interesting night of theatre…and art.

March 2, 3, 7, 9 & 10, 7:30 p.m., March 4, 2 p.m.
NDH House of Dance, 2207 Harvey Street
Tickets: $15 adults/$12 students

Art installation open for public viewing
March 4, 6 & 8, 1-4 p.m.
NDH House of Dance, 2207 Harvey Street
No charge

A Conversation with Eric Metcalfe
7:30 p.m., March 6
Shu-Box, Riddell Centre, University of Regina
Free admission

Object as Performance (panel discussion)
March 8, 7:30 p.m.
MacKenzie Art Gallery
Free admission

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