Seated and blindfolded in the audience of Three Stories Up, my boyfriend and I clumsily cheers our drinks. Immediately, this show is a fun experience.
We’re at 805 East Pender Street, a location that was disclosed only days before the show opened. The performance space seems to be in the basement. We walked down a set of stairs, made two lefts and were then seated in our seats by an usher. We’ve been instructed to keep our blindfolds on, for now. The audience settles around us waiting for the show to begin. Two women behind us talk about a book one of them just started reading. A friend lent it to her to get another opinion on it, unsure what to think of its conclusion. The blindfold begets eavesdropping; the senses compensating for not being able to see.
Directed by Marisa Emma Smith, Three Stories Up is theatre in the dark. When the lights go off, everyone is told to take their blindfolds off. It’s entirely dark around us. A flash of light shows two figures at the front of the space. It’s dark again. The cast is unnamed—the director was even blindfolded while casting the play—and it is not clear how many actors are involved. Distinguishing the voices is part of the fun.
Playwright Mack Gordon’s new piece is noir-esque, set in contemporary Vancouver. Beatrice, a transit cop, finds the dead body of her husband, an undercover piece officer working in Vancouver’s criminal scene, in their third story apartment. Beatrice’s transit cop background doesn’t prepare her for the investigation she is about to take over from her husband—and the irony of this plot plays out with gentle humour.
Beatrice recruits the last known informant of her late husband, a drug runner named Gunnar. The two of them investigate the city’s characters for leads on what they believe is a murder but the police call a suicide. Inspired by the work the playwright has done with the Vancouver Police, the play puts to work one of noir’s classic questions: What’s in it for me? As the play hurdles forward, the interests of the two characters diverge. Beatrice is looking for revenge, Gunnar for a way out of his life of crime.
The nuance of the script works well in the dark space, allowing the audience to focus on the careful language and assorted live sounds that bring it to bear. Beatrice has Chekhov’s gun, determined to get to the bottom of her husband’s death. Gunnar falls in love with one of the suspects, a cooing bookie who fills the room with the sound of stilettos on the floor when she is on stage.
The most remarkable element of the performance for me is one typical to literature; everyone in the dark audience experiences the story with their own imagination. The characters and the setting—and in some ways, in the tradition of noir, the setting is a character—are intimate. I imagine the bookie is tall and talks close, eye-to-eye with Gunnar. The cadence of her voice makes me see her doing this. Someone else might imagine she is a small figure, loud heels compensating for her short height.
Gordon and Smith have brought the ever-adaptive noir genre to the stage, the region and this decade, with homages to the American noir of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and ‘40s detective films adding to the fun. Three Stories Up is a unique theatre experience that will keep audiences guessing all the way through.
Three Stories Up plays at 805 East Pender Street, October 20-31. Tickets and more information at theatrewire.com.