by Lynn on January 7, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Next Stage Theatre Festival

The Next Stage Theatre Festival opened its 12 day festival with a bang. Here are reviews of the three shows I saw on their opening Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016.

All play at the Factory Theatre.


Written by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Sarah Kitz
Set, costumes, projections by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey
Sound by Andy Trithardt
Starring: Samantha Brown
Susanna Fournier
Amy Keating
Ron Kennell
Zita Nyarady
Earl Pastko
Nigel Shawn Williams
Marcel Stewart
Brigit Wilson

In his updating of the Greek play, Agamemnon, playwright Nicolas Billon and director Sarah Kitz have realized the human sacrifice, bloody revenge and the numbing of humanity of the original and then some.

Background. Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon about 458 BC, way before Facebook and Twitter. It details the results of Agamemnon going to fight the Trojan War to defend the honour of his brother, Menelaus, whose wife Helen was spirited off by her lover Paris of Troy. The brothers and their respective armies are ready to sail to Troy but bad winds prevent them. To appease the gods and calm the winds Agamemnon is asked to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, which he does. (Interesting that he was not asked to sacrifice his son, Orestes—but never mind.) While Agamemnon is away fighting for 10 years (!) his wife Clytemnestra tries to keep home and hearth together while taking a lover, Aegisthus. The Trojans are beaten. Agamemnon returns home with a captive, Cassandra. Clytemnestra is a smart woman and puts two and two together regarding Cassandra and Agamemnon, and then it all ends badly for a lot of people. Revenge is hot in this play.

Updated Story. The gifted Nicolas Billon updates Agamemnon to today and vividly shows the effects of Agamemnon’s brutal decision regarding Iphigenia on his family. Billons’ dialogue is raw, brutal and glints with dazzling effect. Chrysothemis, one of the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra daughters, is an ill-tempered, cell-phone addicted young woman who has a chip on her shoulder that has morphed into an inoperable lump. She loathes everybody except when giving sexual pleasure to all comers. She learns by text that Troy has fallen and her father is coming home. She knows her mother is having an affair. Her sister Electra is addicted to video war games. Clytemnestra is a sexually-charged woman in command. She uses irony and sarcasm in equal measure. She is a power-dresser when her husband returns. Billon presents a perfectly dysfunctional family and you can appreciate why each of them is the way they are. It still ends badly for many of them.

The Production. Director Sarah Kitz adds her own hard-edged look at the proceedings to produce a provocative, gripping production. She adheres to the ancient Greek tradition of having all the gory bits take place off stage. All we need is to hear is a scream or two off-stage to know that something nasty happened to two people. And we get a pretty good idea of what happened when Clytemnestra enters wearing a plastic covering, holding an axe with blood dripping off her hands. As Clytemnestra, Brigit Wilson is willowy block of fiery-ice. She knows how to play the political game, toy with men, be wary and perhaps combative with women, and hold her ground. She is dangerous and always watchable.

While Iphigenia has been killed before the play begins, she is a huge presence in this production because Kitz has placed the silent character on stilts. It did take time to figure out who that was—she never speaks or is engaged with by any other character—but the realization is resounding.

Electra is dressed in a hoody and sweat pants, her back is to the room, glued to a TV screen playing video war-games to the exclusion of anyone else in the room for the whole of the production. When Agamemnon returns home he thinks that person is his son, Orestes. When he realizes it’s Electra, he ignores her. Both Billon and Kitz speak volumes about the treatment of women with that silent bit of business. As Electra, Amy Keating is totally focused on the video game. The fingers fly over the controls. When she acknowledges any other character the movement is small and riveting. Even a slurping of her drink reveals character.

An Old Man (Earl Pastko) is a character who is a kind of Chorus who comments on the past and present. He represents the old guard, loyal to Agamemnon. This new world worries and confounds him.

When Agamemnon (Nigel Shawn Williams) returns, he is fit, impressive in his uniform and perhaps a bit wary of being in his home after so much fighting. He certainly is a bit uneasy when introducing Cassandra to the family.

Kitz is certainly making a point when she has the presence of sex all over this production. There is hilarious business with a strap-on dildo that some how gets lost. The costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle are alluring, certainly in the case of Clytemnestra.

Comment. Because Nicolas Billon has set this ancient Greek play with its ancient references in modern times, he is making a clear comment on the ever-presence of war in our lives. He uses the word ‘chaos’ to vividly describe the results of such goings on. Chaos. A word that comes from the ancient Greek that so clearly describes our times as well.

Do you need to know the original Greek story for this updated version to be clear? For the most part no. You get the sense of that dysfunctional family from Billon’s text and Kitz’s production. But the references to Iphigenia’s absence might be a touch too subtle here (“She otherwise engaged” or words to that effect, says Clytemnestra). Only later in the play do we clearly hear that Agamemnon sacrificed her to appease the gods.

In any case, this is a bold play and production that speaks to our times about war and revenge.


Written and directed by Rob Kempson
Set and costumes by Bandon Kleiman
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Sound by Lyon Smith
Starring: Tess Degenstein
Beau Dixon
Margaret Evans
James Graham
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff
Esther Jun
Andrew Moodie
Rahnuma Panthaky
Andrew Pimento
Kaitlyn Riordan
Paula Wing

Rob Kempson’s challenging play is about teaching, relationships, authority, sexual dalliances, responsibility for one’s actions and the lessons taught in Harper Lee’s classic book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Every character has a story. Whether all those stories help the play is another matter.

The Story. Playwright Rob Kempson examines the comings and goings of several teachers, each with their own stories and issues about teaching, relationships, authority, pomposity, sexual dalliances and which is a better book to teach to modern students: The Kite Runner or the classic To Kill A Mockingbird?

One married teacher is having an affair with her teaching assistant. Her husband also works at the same school. Two teachers are gay with their own secret stories. The best friend of one of the gay teachers is hurt when she learns that he did not confide his secret in her. There is a prig of a teacher who is the teachers’ union rep who meddles. There is a principal who is trying to do the right thing by sounding out the fired teacher’s colleagues. One teacher defends her years of teaching the beauty and timelessness of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as apposed to the more “modern” book, The Kite Runner. She engages her students in discussion about how the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird are applicable to their lives.

All these separate stories converge when one of the teachers is charged with sexual misconduct with a younger former student and is fired. The lessons from To Kill a Mockingbird about responsibility, fairness, justice, honour, doing right, compassion and taking an unpopular stand, to name a few, come into play as the other teachers wrestle with what to do about their fired colleague

The Production. The production is unflinching in its telling of the various stories. The teachers’ room where the play takes place is fitted with bookcases full of file boxes and books. There is a table and chairs. Off to the right, in full view, are three rows of chairs on which the characters sit when they aren’t in a scene. They watch from the sidelines, still and focused.

Kempson stages his actors in an efficient and credible way as they interact, argue, discuss and challenge. The scenes between the two lovers, Khan (Rahnuma Panthaky) and Samuels (James Graham) are sexually charged and erotic. Common sense goes out the window when hormones are raging. The scenes between Foster (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and Lee (Kaitlyn Riordan) are poignant because Foster doesn’t tell Lee of his secret. The loss of trust and the sense of betrayal are heartfelt.

Kempson certainly makes his thoughts clear on what he feels is the more important book, The Kite Runner or To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s in the title of his play. The music he uses to underscore scenes is the beautiful theme music from the film To Kill A Mockingbird. To show how many of the characters are stuck in their situations Kempson has the music loop on itself as if stuck as well. He has set the play in Finch Park School, a reference to Atticus Finch, the hero of the book and film. When a character chastises Clark, a gifted teacher who has been teaching To Kill A Mockingbird for decades, saying it has no relevance to today’s students, Clark gives an impassioned speech of how she gets her grade 10 students to think about the book and how it has resonance and relevance in their lives. It’s a wonderfully, thoughtful speech, and typical of the sensitive writing of Mr. Kempson.

But I can’t help think that with three or four fewer characters more focus on his main point this would be a stronger play that could express the same things more clearly.

Comment. Playwright Rob Kempson is always exploring and challenging himself in his writing. He touches on so many worthy points for discussion from sexual inappropriateness between teacher and former student; trust between teacher and student; fidelity in relationships; true love. In Mockingbird he says in his program note that he wanted to write a play set in one place with a lot of characters, to see how they fill up the space and the time. Fair enough. It’s also an exploration of the educational system, something Kempson knows plenty about as he has taught and is devoted to that world.

But you tend to think that the play could do with another re-write, resulting in fewer characters that distract from the main point and more focus on the main story. I’m still glad I saw though.


Created nightly by Natasha Boomer and guests.
Rob Baker in my case, Jan. 6, 2016.
Directed by Paloma Nuñez
Musical Director, Scotty White.

The premise is simple. Natasha Boomer and her guest for the night, are stuck and she leaves it to her nightly audience to suggest where. My audience last night (Jan. 6), were up for the challenge and called out many and various places from a wardrobe to Ikea to Walmart. She and her guest then improvise a 30 minute skit on the place they decide in which to be stuck.

Ms Boomer and her guest Rob Baker are stuck in a wardrobe. They play a married couple. He tries to open the wardrobe door with no luck. She frets about their son and his new girlfriend. She wants them to have good sex. The husband reminds her that their son is twelve.

Boomer is a laidback, easygoing woman loaded with imagination. Baker is not afraid of looking at her and wondering incredulously when she says something off the wall, “What are you talking about?” Scott White plays accompanying piano that underscores the scene. He is attuned to the spontaneous nature of the humour as much as the two participants. When the thirty minutes are approaching, the lights dim and the two comedians know how to finish off the story.

It’s seat of the pants theatre. A wild ride with bumps along the way.

I have to confess that Improv is not one of my favourite kinds of theatre. The possibility of a “deer in headlights” can result if a performer is not up to snuff and loses the thread or the story gets out of control and the humour is lost. Not here. Boomer and Baker know how to riff and play off each other.

If improv is your thing, Stuck! is a show for you.

At the Factory Theatre

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1 AMT January 9, 2016 at 12:06 pm

I thought both ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Agamemnon’ were dreadful. ‘Agamemnon’ is so self-consciously trying to be relevant. It is painfully unfunny and annoying. Even the idea of modernizing classics is old. ‘Mockingbird’ was trying very hard to be an ‘issue’ play, but had no real people in it. Cliche after cliche.

Who is on the jury that picks these plays? I saw one last year about a family watching a hockey game and it was bad too. I can’t spend any more money or time at this festival.