Theatre Calgary’s Iceland funny, accessible yet profoundly challenging with a powerful jolt of insight

In conversation with an erudite friend the other day, she pointed out that she is new to the world of live theatre, and finds that she doesn’t get lost in it in the same way she can with film or television. That set me to thinking for hours about the unique value of live theatre, and the reasons why I keep going back. Handily, I found myself that very same night at Theatre Calgary’s production of Iceland by Nicolas Billon, which illustrates what I love about theatre. 

The play is a series of three monologues by three radically different characters who find themselves in Toronto’s Liberty Village soon after the world financial crisis in 2008.

Kassandra (Arielle Rombough) is an Estonian history student who becomes a sex worker to pay off her twin brother’s gambling debts. She talks about her mother, a history professor, who named her for the mythic Greek character cursed to know the future but never be believed. “But I can’t tell the future,” she complains to her mother. “It’s not so hard,” she recalls her mother saying, “just look at the past.” 

Halim (Praneet Akilla) delivers a soliloquy  on the virtues of what he considers the only thing in the world that is perfect — money. “Capitalism rocks,” he pronounces as he outlines the simplicity of his relationship with a hooker — an uncomplicated matter of a buyer and a seller. He will soon discover that his interactions with the two women in the play are anything but uncomplicated. 

Anna (Lara Schmitz) has recently been evicted from her rental apartment when her landlord was forced to sell due to the financial crisis. As she searches for a new home, she reflects on her rural upbringing in a devoutly Christian family. She finds it hard to connect with the young people around her (“The ambition of individuality has become very fashionable lately” she says), and most of her friends are online. 

As the connections between the characters become clear, a series of metaphors begin to emerge that serve to further draw them together. It is Halim who describes the importance of Iceland, where the country’s three largest banks collapsed when they over-leveraged themselves, leading to the worst per capita financial crisis in economic history. Unknowingly echoing Kassandra’s mother, he quotes a financial mentor in saying that “Icelanders must have slept through history class” because they would otherwise have predicted the crisis in time to take action. 

The structure of direct address to the audience makes it impossible to turn away from the mirror that the play holds up to us. Halim in particular is a challenge. In an expletive-laden diatribe, he takes aim at the very group that likely makes up a good portion of the audience — what he calls left-wing progressives. “They are incapable of taking a good hard look at the world they’re living in,” he says. He goads us with increasingly explicit descriptions. “I can tell that some of your delicate sensibilities have been ruffled,” he observes, and that is very clearly the point. Praneet Akilla is perfectly odious in the role, and it is easy to assume that Halim will either reform or be justly punished for his crimes. And if this were a simpler play, that would be the case. 

I became an instant Nicolas Billon fan after Alberta Theatre Projects staged the premiere of his play Butcher in 2014, and this is another example of a text that is funny and accessible on one level, but profoundly challenging at the same time. It requires us to make assumptions about what motivates these characters, and then blows them apart as the characters reveal themselves in richly detailed stories. 

Director Jenna Turk could be described as an emerging artist when it comes to directing, but she did have the opportunity to work as assistant director with Billon and director Ravi Jain on the play’s premiere at Summerworks in Toronto in 2012. She puts her own mark on this staging, with a larger and more colourful canvas on which the action occurs. There is driving music between scenes, during which the characters execute stylized choreography that echoes key elements of the blocking. The most striking addition is a design that places members of the audience on stage, peering through windows in the set at the action below. It looks like a a slightly off-kilter episode of Hollywood Squares, and its purpose is oblique.

About 73 minutes into the 75-minute production, a different image is suggested, but it’s a long puzzling time waiting for the payoff.  When the actors are left to explore their characters with less technical distraction, however, the play delivers a powerful jolt of insight that will stay with me for a long time. 

(Photo, from left to right, Lara Schmitz, Praneet Akilla and Arielle Rombough in Iceland, courtesy Trudie Lee.)

Theatre Calgary’s Iceland plays at the Max Bell Theatre until Nov. 2.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.