(Photo: Mabelle Carvajal and Graham Percy in The Big Sleep. Photo courtesy Tim Nguyen, Citrus Photography)

Vertigo Theatre presents The Big Sleep

through October 16


Three and a half stars

Watching a staged adaptation of film noir in 2016, like The Big Sleep, is a little bit like watching a circus of bad habits.

Cigarettes? Natch. Whiskey? Every single scene, someone pulls out a bottle or a flask, and the women swill it with as much gusto as the gumshoes.

In The Big Sleep, there’s a whole subplot concerning smoking opium – the fentanyl cris of the 1940’s. Gender roles are straight out of a cartoon, as well. It’s all so casually sexist in the world of Raymond Chandler and his hero, Phillip Marlowe (Graham Percy), that you almost feel as if you went to sleep and woke up inside  Donald Trump’s head.

But the truth is, none of this is stuff we haven’t been watching in pop culture ever since there’s been pop culture – the only place people actually still seem to smoke is in plays and movies recreating the good old days!

It also doesn’t hurt that – in addition to all those bad habits, and archaic worldviews – in the hands of a talented cast of Calgary actors, who are well-directed by Craig Hall in a gorgeous multi-media production, The Big Sleep is as much fun to listen to as it is to   watch.

This is the second adaptation of Chandler’s work by Vancouver playwright Aaron Bushkowsky, after 2014’s Farewell My Lovely, and it’s a good fit – Bushkowsky has a knack for pouring through the noir poetry of Chandler and pulling out enough plot points to propel The Big Sleep through the sleaze of 1940’s Los Angeles, which is not a pretty sight to behold.

jesse-lynn-anderson-graham-percy(Jesse Lynne Anderson and Graham Percy in The Big Sleep. Photo courtesy Tim Nguyen, Citrus Photography)

The central plot of The Big Sleep revolves around the two beautiful daughters of the  wealthy, well-respected General (Stephen Hair),  little sis Carmen (Jesse Lynn Anderson) and big sis Vivian (Mabel Carvajal),  one of whom has developed an affinity for smoking opium, which leads to her being blackmailed one night by a couple hard up hustlers, Joe Brody (Curt McKinstry)and Mona (Katherine Fadum).

That sets in motion a ransom demand that Marlowe is enlisted to step in and resolve, because the General is far more interested in preserving his daughter’s dignity than he is in saving a few  bucks.

Around Marlowe, there’s a roving band of lowlifes, including Eddie Mars (Joel Cochrane), a gangster and nightclub owner with an agenda,  wandering wife Mona, Brody, and even big sister Vivian, whose husband Rusty has gone AWOL – possibly with yet another redhead, his weakness – leaving her looking for a nice guy like Marlowe to keep her company.

Hair, doubling up as LAPD Detective Nulty, is back again after originating the role in Farewell, and Hair slides into Nulty’s loafers as comfortably as Brady to Gronk.

Fadum’s Mona is a ditz, but Fadum gives Mona something else too that elevates Mona to another level of screwball – she’s wonderful.

Carvajal, playing the erratic Vivian, a spoiled, beautiful wealthy woman who gets her kicks breaking mens’ hearts, does an excellent job of leading Marlowe into some dark, complicated corners he keeps insisting he’d rather not wander into – but he doesn’t sound too convinced himself.

Cochrane only shows up for a couple scenes, and steals every one he’s in as Eddie Mars – Cochrane gives Eddie a jittery, menacing physicality that recalls Joe Pesci in Casino a few years back.

Anderson’s Carmen is alternately playful, bitter, vengeful, and resentful, a junkie troublemaker who looks intent on dragging whoever she can get her hands on down into the gutter alongside her.

In The Big Sleep that means Marlowe, who has a moral compass that sputters from time to time.

Percy’s Marlowe is more of a wisecracker than a tough guy – he’s lost quite a bit of weight since Farewell My Lovely, and now, neither his overcoat or his suit fits properly. He looks dishevelled – like a 12 year old boy trying to fit into big bro’s graduation suit – which – to be fair – sort of works for the character. I had a problem with his haircut, though. It’s not a private dicks’ haircut – and it stops you, in a way, from buying in to the world of the story. Percy managed to reinvent Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely as a joker, but he’s thwarted in The Big Sleep by his barber – and his personal trainer.

Director Craig Hall and projection designer Jamie Nesbitt do a brilliant job of evoking the genre and era through a series of shadows-and-fog projections that beautifully capture the tone Chandler was aiming for in his novels.

The only thing keeping this Big Sleep from completely winning you over is a haircut.