When the curtain rises this week at Vertigo Mystery Theatre it will mark more than just the beginning of the 2012-13 season — it will also be the start of a new chapter at the theatre company, with Craig Hall as the incoming artistic director.
Before assuming his new position, Hall served as artistic producer of Vancouver’s Rumble Productions — a company known for multidisciplinary, experimental and contemporary work.
But, any fears about a possible change in Vertigo’s mystery mandate should be allayed — Hall chose a “seminal work of noir,” Double Indemnity, to open the season.
Author James M. Cain penned Double Indemnity as a serial for Liberty Magazine in 1936. It was later published in book form and, in 1944, was made into a film by Billy Wilder starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.
Hall says he picked Double Indemnity because, while he wanted something from the classic world of mystery theatre, he also wanted a work that would be open to modern staging.
“It has a really filmic feel to it,” says Hall of David Pichette’s and R. Hamilton Wright’s 2011 adaptation, which he is also directing.
“Contemporary playwrights are as much inspired by film as by theatre.... There are no hard walls onstage, which is rare for Vertigo. It’s an open world that can transform through light and music,” he says.
Double Indemnity’s basic plot sees a housewife and her lover, who is also an insurance agent, plot to kill the woman’s husband for his life-insurance; the phrase “double indemnity” refers to a clause in some policies that allows for a double payout in the case of accidental death.
Vertigo Theatre regular Kevin Rothery plays both the intended victim, Herbert Nirlinger, and Keyes, an insurance claims investigator.
Rothery describes noir as generally not being a “whodunit” in the classic sense; rather, the audience often knows the “what” and the “who,” and the interest comes in watching the ignominious act unfold. He adds that all of the hallmarks of the genre are evident in Double Indemnity, including the archetypal characters of the “hard-boiled detective” and the “femme fatale.”
Nonetheless, he says it’s still important for an actor to flesh out the character he or she is portraying.
“I think you have to work within the framework of an archetype... but the colours you put inside the box are your own, otherwise you end up with cardboard cutouts,” he says.
As in the film, the story unfolds as a memory play that starts at the end and moves to the beginning from the central perspective of insurance agent Walter Huff (Curt McKinstry), who plots with Phyllis Nirlinger (Vanessa Holmes) to murder her husband.
“It’s a retelling of the story from his [Huff’s] point-of-view, and how he got to where he ended up,” Rothery explains. “In each of the scenes, he is walking through the memory of the circumstances. The scenes and the other characters seem to appear around him.... It’s like a morphing of time and space.”
Rather than being portrayed as a straightforward villain, though, Rothery says Huff is more of an “everyman” who is caught up in this weird circumstance.
“Part of the intrigue involves when ordinary people do questionable things. It’s much less interesting to have an evil, dark character. It’s much more interesting to have someone who seems quite ordinary caught in a circumstance they don’t have control over,” he says.
“It’s about watching the lead character go through the process of this unthinkable thing,” he adds, saying money, power and sex can all serve as powerful temptations, even for the saintly.
As for the taint on mystery theatre for not being a “serious” form, Hall says “just because it’s populist, doesn’t mean it can’t be good theatre.”
On that note, he recounts a conversation he had with Christopher Newton, former artistic director of Canada’s esteemed Shaw Festival.
“Chris said, ‘If you approach these plays with the same sort of rigour and intent as you would a Shakespeare or a Shaw, they will have just as much weight as the classics,’” recalls Hall.
Plus, says Rothery, “It’s a real romp.”