Blame it on Billon


Iceland, by Nicolas Billon, at the Rachel Browne Theatre, through November 15, 2015

Reviewed by Michelle Palansky

Man is Nicolas Billon hot in Winnipeg right now. Along with Iceland, the season opener for Theatre Projects Manitoba (TPM), the Governor General’s Award winner’s work will also be seen at Cercle Molière and Prairie Theatre Exchange. Both are producing his play, The Butcher. Everything is coming up Billon this season, and that seemed to sit very well with the capacity audience for the opening night of Iceland.

So, a fundamentalist Christian, a sex worker from Estonia, and a real estate agent come together, unexpectedly, at a condo that has been recently flipped. It sounds like the start of a terrible joke, but it is also the heart of this one act play that seeks to exemplify, in dramatic form, the credit crisis of 2008. They are all terrible people making terrible choices, and they exist in a world where everyone takes and everyone loses.

The actors in their places

The actors in their places

Presented as three separate but interconnected monologues, the characters sit apart from each other and do not interact. Instead, they speak directly to the audience. This is weird. It is clearly the playwright’s intention and sometimes it really works and often it feels alienating. When the real estate agent Halim, played with slimy intensity by Omar Alex Khan, cajoles and bullies the audience into laughing at his moldy, insensitive jokes, he makes a real connection and earns his laughs. But when the characters talk at THE AUDIENCE and not TO individual audience members the connection is not made and the monologue is set adrift out into the darkness.

My argument is with the structure of the show, and that is really an argument with the playwright. An all monologue show is just too much monologue for me. As my faithful theatre companion put it so aptly – it makes for all tell and no show. The characters tell us many things about their desires, about their failings, but they don’t get to show us anything. And that’s too bad because Billon assembles some intriguing scenarios that I would love to see play out.

Ardith Boxall, director and artistic director of TPM, did some truly magnificent monologue work with her actors but her decision to essentially chain her actors to their respective chairs baffles me. The real estate agent was given some degree of freedom to roam and use his space while the other two characters remained almost strait jacketed in their chairs. In particular, Laura Olafson, as Kassandra the sex worker, barely moves at all in her opening monologue. If this is intended as the physical manifestation of how bound she is by the choices she has made, it is not worth it to my mind. Better to give her more latitude to move and express her story.

By far, I was most taken by Heather Russell’s performance as Anna the fundamentalist. Anna is, in many ways, the worst of the lot, but Russell’s performance is forceful, emphatic. Making a virtue of her restraints, unable to interact with other characters, fixed to a chair, she insists that you look beyond the fundamentalist caricature and feel with her the horrifying journey that she takes.

Most striking about Laura Olafson’s work was her accent. Don’t get me wrong – I have no idea what a native Estonian speaking English sounds like, but I do know what an English as an Additional Language speaker sounds like when they have been taught by a British teacher so that their vowels sound British but some of their mother tongue consonants get mixed in as well. And that is exactly what Olafson sounded like. Amazing.

In theory this is an excellent play selection for TPM’s season. Iceland is topical, the playwright is a hot commodity in Canada, and the play has minimal requirements – three actors and practically no set. In practice, the play felt a little draggy at 70 minutes, and that is really saying something. And to my mind there is something objectionable about using a sex worker and a religious fundamentalist as straw men in a modern day morality tale gone awry. A hooker and a nun go into a bar? Billon would probably tell me to blame it on Iceland… I blame it on Billon.

Iceland, presented by Theatre Projects Manitoba, runs November 5 to November 15 at the Rachel Browne Theatre, 211 Bannatyne Avenue, Winnipeg MB. Tickets range from $15-$25 and are available by calling the box office at 204-989-2400 or by visiting the TPM web site here.


  1. Jeremy Hull
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I saw the TPM production of “Iceland” last night and found it very impressive on more than one level. The acting was very good by all three actors, creating strong and intriguing characters. The structure of the play, with the three monologues that eventually reveal the connections among the characters, captured my interest. It had a little bit of the “whodunnit” in that the image of a body is introduced early, and we have to wait to the end to find out what happened. The writing is very strong and certainly drew me in to the extent of trying to figure out these less than lovable, rather extreme characters.
    But all of that is just the surface of the play which in my view is an allegory answering the question, what is it that created the economic meltdown? Or more fundamentally, why is our society so messed up? According to Billon our present predicament arised from a combination of unbridaled capitalism that ruthlessly exploits us, forcefully articulated and represented by Halim, our willingness to prostitute ourselves economically, that Kassandra expresses poignantly, and the repressive approach-avoidance fears of our conservative establishment, embodied by Anna. In short, the play suggests that the our economic disfunction is embedded in deep-seated social structures or weaknesses. I think it is brilliantly conceived and was brilliantly played!

  2. Maurice Mierau
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the comment. As editor, I should have caught that spelling error.

  3. D. Rintoul
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I do not write to take exception to this review. One person’s meat is another’s poison, after all. I do take exception to an entire review in which not once does the playwright’s name get spelled correctly. It is Billon – not “Billion”.

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Stage and Craft

Michelle Palansky

Michelle Palansky, an alumna of the University of Manitoba's Black Hole Theatre, is a Winnipeg Fringe veteran with a decade of experience writing and performing with her theatre collective, the Conspiracy Network. A former Manitoba Theatre for Young People instructor, she is the marketing manager for Turnstone Press.