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Inspired by an essay by playwright Sarah Ruhl, in which she wonders why the “arc” is the standard shape historically given to theatrical stories, Rob Kempson has set out to write a play that more resembles a triangle.
That play is on now at Factory Theatre’s studio space, appropriately called Trigonometry. That’s to say, if there are any arts fans or practitioners who are triggered by the mere mention of high school calculus, this is not a play about math itself.
It’s actually Kempson’s third and final episode in his Graduation Play series, combining his work as a theatre artist and public school educator, all somehow reacting to the recent controversy over the sex-ed curriculum in Ontario public schools.
The first, 2015’s Shannon 10:40, was a double-hander between a lesbian student and a gay phys-ed teacher. The next, Mockingbird, was a large ensemble piece taking place in a high school teacher’s lounge.
Trigonometry is a trio of characters — student Jackson (Daniel Ellis), substitute teacher Susan (Alison Deon), and math teacher Gabriella (Rose Napoli). The Graduation Plays use Kempson’s insider knowledge of the modern educational atmosphere to explore the contradictions within it — for example, students have unprecedented autonomy from their teachers through their cellphones and technological prowess, but at the same time, there’s increased pressure administratively for teachers to treat students with decreasing punitive consequences, academically or otherwise.
Trigonometry looks at how this dynamic in particular is directly correlated. As Jackson lays out in his opening monologue, trigonometry is all about relationships, even if those relationships are expressed in a language that’s indecipherable to some.
Kempson articulates the action through three scenes that play out in the Factory Theatre Studio, covered in mathematical equations and triangle diagrams as if Will Hunting just joined the Factory Theatre staff as custodian.
The actors swap partners each time — in the first scene, we learn that Susan and Gabriella are longtime friends, Susan is pregnant via sperm donor, and Gabriella is recently separated, a mother of a 12-year-old girl, and enjoying singledom on Tinder.
Gabriella is also a staunch advocate against the new sex-ed curriculum and homophobic against a gay male teacher, and Susan, filling in for the day as a guidance counsellor, fancies herself more open-minded, and is at school to investigate a student’s involvement in a volleyball team hazing ritual that got several student athletes expelled.
The second pits Gabriella against her trigonometry student Jackson, who’s failing her class and needs to pass to get his basketball scholarship — and has an untoward plan to get it. Then a confrontation between Susan and Jackson reveals another (simultaneously predictable yet completely from left field) twist to the drama.
Kempson’s experiment in channelling a play into a mathematical formula is interesting to dissect from afar, and turns each scene into a kind of mini-play in and of itself. It loses its impact, though, when taken in all together.
Kempson’s direction has created a slick and attractive small-scale production, but it’s unclear what exactly he is trying to say with Trigonometry, about parental/child relations, about hypocrisy, about manipulation, and about human sexuality — each of these things opens so much to discuss, that all of them together feel overwhelming. It’s emphasized by a rushed ending, and parts in Kempson’s dialogue that feel less like triangles and more like circles.
Always interesting, though, is Rose Napoli as the brash Gabriella, taking on a brassy and abrasive tone of voice that is terrifying to imagine instructing a class for a full hour.
Very much unlike the characters Napoli usually gets to play, Gabriella is older, conservative and close-minded, yet is enjoying her new-found freedom as an attractive, sexual woman. As much as you can dislike her political views, seeing that pride eventually deflated is heartbreaking.
Unlike math, there’s no right way to go about writing a play, and no definitive correct or incorrect result. Trigonometry is an interesting experiment in form, but might need a bit more time in the lab before it’s perfected.