Exciting descent into Three Stories Up

Marisa Smith directed Three Stories Up for Alley Theatre and Level-Headed Friends.

To keep the actors’ identities secret, director Marisa Smith and playwright Mack Gordon are appearing in the publicity photos.

After I stopped panicking, things got really, really good.

Three Stories Up unfolds entirely in the dark. Ushers lead blindfolded audience members into the performance space in small groups. When the lights go out, everybody takes their blindfolds off, but it’s pitchy black in there: floating-in-space darkness. I’m claustrophobic and my first thought was, “How the hell did I get myself into this? ”Sweat formed on my brow. Then I recognized one of the actor’s voices, which was reassuring. And I remembered that the company has made it clear that you can leave if you have to. So, you know, if you’re an anxiety-ridden feline like I am, attending Three Stories Up might be challenging at first. But don’t worry; you’ll be fine. And you should catch this show because it’s very, very rewarding.

Mack Gordon’s brand new script is a noir-style piece set in contemporary Vancouver. Beatrice is a transit cop. Austin, her undercover-detective husband, has been murdered, although the police are calling his death a suicide. As she tracks her husband’s killer, Beatrice enlists the help of Gunnar, an informant Austin used to work with. But Gunnar, who also works for gang kingpin David Lee, has demons of his own. As in the best detective fiction, Three Stories Up keeps us guessing about the characters’ shadow sides: their secrets and murky self-interests. What role might the not-so-kindly Catholic priest have played in Austin’s demise? And Jasmine, the bookie with the kewpie-doll voice—what is she after exactly?

In the finest noir tradition, the city itself becomes a character. Playwright Gordon repeatedly evokes Vancouver’s rainy darkness: Beatrice complains that she hasn’t been dry for days. And, because sound is so huge in this production, we hear all sorts of swishing car tires and drumming raindrops in Julie Casselman’s excellent sound design, which also includes driving jazz and moody live piano. Casselman acts as a foley artist, too, providing the click, click, click as Jasmine walks across the pavement in her stilettos.

Gordon is a playwright worth taking seriously. The plot of Three Stories Up is satisfyingly complex and, phrase by phrase, Gordon’s writing is often gorgeous. Entering the cathedral where the potentially compromised priest works, Gunnar says, “Big-barreled candles sob wax.” Searching for clues in the apartment where her husband was murdered, Beatrice tells us, “I drag the lake of my home.” And, in a line that Raymond Chandler would have been proud of writing, Gunnar admits: “I’ve been running from the truth so long I’ve almost got it lapped.” There are a couple of stylistic oddities: although Gordon mostly translates noir’s hardboiled sensibilities into today’s world, a newspaperman and a cop are both throwbacks to the forties. It’s hard to tell, though, whether these little glitches are functions of writing or performance.

All of the actors are responsive to the text—without overplaying it for the most part. Their characterizations are so distinct that, even in the dark, it’s easy to tell who’s speaking, especially among the women. And it’s interesting: because you can’t see anything, you develop an intimate relationship to those voices and you mine them like mad for nuance.

Some people might try to tell you that Three Stories Up is essentially a radio drama. If they do, they’re missing the point. Gordon originally wrote Three Stories Up as a straight play. It was director Marisa Emma Smith’s stroke of genius to present it in the dark. That required some rewriting and necessitated some tricky cuing, which stage manager Joel Grinke and the company pull off seamlessly. In its current state, Three Stories Up is a unique theatrical experience: sitting in the dark in a room full of strangers and experiencing sound in three dimensions is very different from listening to the radio. Viscerally compelling, Three Stories Up makes you pay attention—and it pays off.

THREE STORIES UP By Mack Gordon. Directed by Marisa Emma Smith. Produced by Alley Theatre and Level-Headed Friends. At 805 East Pender Street on Saturday, October 22. Continues until October 31.


Recommended. Get tickets at www.theatrewire.com.

Show up about half an hour early; seating blindfolded people takes a while.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!