Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  


Poster courtesy of the New Ottawa Repertory Theatre.  Sparks, a new play for a brand new theatre space seems like a fitting choice as the New Ottawa Repertory Theatre opened its 2013-14 season with the work by Doug Phillips, Sparks. NORT performances are usually seen at the Ottawa Theatre School on Picton Avenue in Westboro Village but this time they are one flight up at 738 Bank Street which has been transformed into a modern space for theatre classes as well as an acting space for small theatre productions.

Clearly, the whole evening was in a discovery mode. Sparks takes place in a fireworks factory in Smith Falls, where six workers are re-packing fireworks to be sent around the world. Each worker, two women and four men, has his/her own obsessions, personal problems and they all pour out during that hour long show as they stand behind the packing table putting fireworks in the boxes. Moments with Jennifer Vallence as the provocative Cindy are excellent and the withdrawn Charlie Ebbs, who never eats lunch, creates a sense of pathos that might have gone even further. Tensions build, tempers fly as all the frustrations of this microcosm of the Canadian working class, are thrown back at the “ruling classes”, represented by the owner of the plant, Julie (Annette Cole). Director Paul Dervis fittingly placed her in an office on the upper level of the stage to represent the power that dominates them all and controls their lives.

At the height of an argument, Rick (Doug Phillips) explains that it isn’t the ethnic origin or race that determine class differences, which bury the workers in these terrible jobs; the force of evil is essentially money and those who dominate others and rise to the top are those who have money. Thus, they must all unite against the boss and throw her/him out. A good Marxist argument produces a minor revolution in the factory ….and then the play ends in a fishtail…which might require some rethinking.

Several problems with this production became quickly apparent.

Six actors squeezed into that narrow stage space prevented the characters from breathing, especially in a play that had much too much material for a one hour show. This has comic moments, this has serious moments, this sounds at times like a rowdy dialogue in a bar where they are all drunk then it becomes moments of serious Marxist economics. There are six characters and each one of those lives is set in the most unwieldy circumstances. Personal money problems of various sorts, questions of holding a second job which the boss discovers and which is not allowed, the boss’s daughter Annie, (a rather feisty Hannah Gibson-Fraser,) a university student, turns up on the packing line to earn the money her mom wont hand over to her and see what life is like on the other side of the factory. Her presence becomes a catalyst as she sulks, confronts her mother who runs the company and gets the long lanky Mike (Cameron Rufelds) who is finally driven to make a pass at Annie. The edgy situations accumulate, the mental states evolve in various directions and most of the performances, appeared to bubble over the top at that point because that claustrophobic acting space gave rise to confusion and noise. Nor did the conflicts have time to develop because the text flies through it all, passing from one situation to the next, from one character to the next at breakneck speed.

The play appears to be conceived as a one hour-long TV sketch, partly a comedy and partly a more serious form that could be exciting. However, it does not delve into any of these characters and even though the situations are not necessarily foreign to these young people, they don’t quite make the spectator feel anything, except for a few giggles that the spicy language elicits.

The acting poses another problem. These performers need some solid method actor training…they need to learn how to delve into the realm of personal memories and capture the inner workings of a character so that they really feel what is happening. This is essentially naturalistic theatre and if they don’t feel it, how are we expected to feel what they are experiencing?

Future productions at the new Avalon Studio Theatre space must take into account the special quality of that space. The plays could and should make highly creative use of the multi levelled stage areas….integrating performances with a chorus, integrating dreams, musicians, dancers, figures representing various levels of reality, poetic images or transcendent beings. The possibilities are limitless. On the other hand the space on the audience level is fairly small as we realized in Sparks. For the moment, the sound system is being installed which is a good thing because a proper functioning sound system is a must for this kind of multi-levelled space.

So, The Avalon Studio is on its way. Sparks is a show that reveals the theatrical possibilities of the space, and it leaves us waiting for the next show with much curiosity….

Sparks by Doug Phillips, directed by Paul Dervis plays from October 11 to 20 at 8pm.

Set by Joe Hodson

Lighting by David MacGladry


Jennifer Vallence Cindy

Hannah Gibson-Fraser Annie

Annette Cole Julie

Cameron Rufelds Mike

Charlie Ebbs Scott

Tim Oberholzer Jim

Doug Phillips Rick

Sparks   written by Doug  Phillips

Directed by Paul Dervis

Plays October 11-20 at the Avalon Studio, 738 Bank St.

8pm. Call 613-402-9270