Written by Nicolas Billon
Written by Sarah Kitz
Starring Brigit Wilson, Nigel Shawn Williams
Next Stage Theatre Festival
All Our Yesterdays
Written and directed by Chloé Hung
Starring Chiamaka Umeh, Amanda Weise
Next Stage Theatre Festival
A long time ago in a country perhaps not all that far away, Aeschylus wrote the world's first famous trilogy about a family at war with itself. The Oresteia begins with a play called Agamemnon – in which the titular king of Argos returns triumphant from the Trojan War only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra.
At the Next Stage Theatre Festival, a winter spinoff of the Toronto Fringe Festival, playwright Nicolas Billon is trying his hand at updating this foundational Greek tragedy. He seems like the right man for the job – the Oresteia being one of the inspirations for his disturbing thriller, Butcher, being seen on stages across the country this season.
But Billon misses the mark by trying too hard to leave his mark too forcefully on the ancient material. Setting Agamemnon in modern-day Canada and also transposing it into an environment from a trashy reality-television show, the myth's enduring themes are undercut by too-clever flourishes like tweets from Troy and generals wrapped up in purple Snuggies.
A few years ago, in a much more straightforward manner, Billon adapted Iphigenia at Aulis – a kind of prequel by Euripides that showed Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to the Gods at the start of the war.
At the start of this play, now 10 or perhaps 3,000 years later, Clytemnestra (Stratford Festival's Brigit Wilson) is, understandably, still upset about her husband's murder of her daughter – though she has a couple less solid reasons for planning mariticide, too.
She's having an affair with Agamemnon's cousin (Ron Kennell, running around squealing with a pink strap-on) and she's irritated that her husband has returned home with a young female captive named Cassandra (Samantha Brown, speaking, I gather, Esperanto).
Instead of taking place outside of Agamemnon's house, Billon's version takes place inside the living room – a setting for a sitcom, rather than a tragedy. Indeed, the tone of director Sarah Kitz's production sometimes like an uncensored version of Married...with Children – Clytemnestra running in and out of her bedroom with her housecoat flapping open.
Nigel Shawn Williams impresses the most as Agamemnon – flummoxed by the little indignities of home, the way the audience in general is left scratching their head at the flourishes of Kitz's ambitious, but undercooked, production (featuring a dead Iphigenia on stilts seemingly taking down the Christmas decorations).
The way Williams is shocked by and then studies a dildo he finds in the creases of his couch is very funny and a tiny bit heartbreaking.
Of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's children, Orestes remains away with family friends as in Aeschylus's version – but, unlike the original play, the two daughters are on stage as witnesses or accomplices.
Electra sits playing a first-person shooter video game in a corner – and, thanks to Amy Keating's intense silence, she dominates
Chrysothemis, a sister Aeschylus never had any interest in, is here, too – louder than Electra and less interesting. Played by Susanna Fournier, she's a promiscuous young clubber saddled with the play's crassest dialogue. "Did you welcome-rape those bitches into civilization?" she inquires a soldier (Marcel Stewart) returning from Troy.
It's a line that, to me, encapsulates the ostentatious edginess of Billon's writing – an attempt to grab attention that ends up making the whole enterprise seem superficial. Mocking of its characters, this Agamemnon is less accessible than many more direct translations (like Anne Carson's recent, wry one). It wears its themes on its sleeve – the inanity of trying to buy peace with war, the connection between violence abroad and violence at home – but doesn't dramatize them with any impact whatsoever.
All Our Yesterdays is much more hard-hitting – and, rather than being about an idea of war, it pulls us right into the middle of a modern-day one.
Two young Nigerian women, Ladi (Amanda Weise) and her younger sister Hasana (Chiamaka Umeh), are being held captive by Boko Haram. Ladi is about to be married off to one of them they refer to as "ugly goat." As they try to figure out how to evade this awful fate, they flashback to happier days of sibling rivalry.
Chloé Hung, the playwright, is a Torontonian currently at work on her MFA in dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. While All Our Yesterdays is set in the most desperate of circumstances, it has a compelling plot – and is as much about how difficult it is to have a sibling with special needs as its more urgent subject. It also has a twist at the end that some will see coming a mile away, but I was tricked by it. Hung is a writer to watch.
Also on at Next Stage: A Man Walks Into A Bar, like All Our Yesterdays, was named a Patron's Pick at the Fringe Festival this summer. A woman (Rachel Blair) tells a joke with the help of – and frequent interruptions by – a man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin).
What seems like a funny and timely riff on the phenomenon dubbed "mansplaining" gets progressively darker as we get deeper into an everyday story about a man flirting with a waitress. Bigwood-Mallin is excellent as a "nice guy" who is anything but.
The Next Stage Theatre Festival continues to Jan. 17 (fringetoronto.com).