courtesy Kathryn Blair

The femme fatales of Scarlet Woman

Film noir cliches are parodied in a fast-paced Calgary play

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Even if you’re unfamiliar with film noir you are most likely familiar with the trappings of the genre — the sharp lighting, the double-crosses, the hard-boiled detectives and the femme fatales. Scarlet Woman, a play written by Matthew Wells, takes all of these elements to the extreme to create a goofy send-up of film noir.

Playing at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre from March 4–23, Scarlet Woman will be directed by Mark Bellamy and will star Julie Orton and Myla Southward. It is meant as a tribute to film noir femme fatales, the dangerous women that are a staple of the genre. While noir is a style that is traditionally rooted in film, Bellamy had little trouble making the transition to the stage.

“A hallmark of film noir is moody, atmospheric lighting which is pretty easy to do in theatre,” says Bellamy. “There are also iconic things with film noir — the guns, the cigarettes, the whole look of it — that are pretty easy to transfer to a stage. We took all of this imagery you see in the films and put it in a live context.”

While there are 12 different characters in Scarlet Woman, there are only two actors, meaning that Orton and Southward will be switching costumes and personalities at the drop of a hat. Orton prepared for this demanding task by watching film noir and familiarizing herself with the character types that make up the genre.

“Leading up to the first day of rehearsal, I found it really helpful to watch a lot of old film noir movies from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s to look for those female archetypes that are in those movies: the fast-talking dames, the femme-fatales and the bookish secretary types,” says Orton. “Once I got those into my body and into my voice, switching back and forth became sort of fun, and a lot easier.” 

The stylistic choice of having two actors play many characters was an exciting prospect for both Orton and Southward, since it allowed the actors to inhabit a wide variety of personalities and archetypes.

“It was super fun. It is always a nice challenge as an actor to have to play more than one character in the same show,” says Southward. “We cross genders and ages, and I get to play both someone who is really innocent and someone who is an evil vixen.”

This wasn’t all fun and games, however, since the sheer number of transitions between characters required the actors to both physically and mentally change characters in seconds, a feat that is easier said than done.

“It is also a challenge, obviously,” says Southward. “I think the biggest challenge is trying to remember and get into character when you have like four seconds to change. Sometimes it is a costume challenge, if you are trying to get something on or off quickly, and sometimes the challenge lies in dropping one character and getting into another. It’s something that requires quite a bit of mental focus, but it’s super fun.” 

This was also a challenge from a directorial standpoint, as Bellamy needed to work with the actors to ensure costume changes were able to happen as smoothly as possible.

“There are a lot of very technical things that had to be solved,” says Bellamy. “A lot of the action is very quick and happens in split-seconds, creating a lot of strong choices with the actors as we figure out technically how they are going to get from one place to another or change costumes. It was really a team effort, coming up with that.” 

A part of the challenge in Scarlet Woman was making sure that each character was unique and identifiable, which would allow the audience to follow along with the many transitions and character changes.

“You switch back and forth really fast between dynamically different personalities, so it became an issue from the first day of rehearsal to make every character so fantastically different that the audience would be able to follow along and figure out who you were,” says Orton.

However, any confusion the audience may feel is most likely intentional, as this send-up of film noir parodies one of the genre’s most infamous hallmarks: the plot twist.

“This show has an incredibly excessive amount of plot twists, so many that it is intentionally almost impossible to follow it,” says Bellamy. “The characters make reference to that too, about how ridiculously complicated the plot actually is. It’s a part of the joke of the show.”