Review: The Trial of Ken Gass (Sterling Studio Theatre)

The Trial of Ken Gass is a fictional tale based on the non-fictional occurrence of Canadian theatre legend Ken Gass’ controversial dismissal. The play, written and directed by Bobby Del Rio, is done in an absurdist style. Del Rio drew inspiration from classic absurdists like Franz Kafka (hence the title) and Samuel Beckett. The mish-mash of Kafka’s bureaucratic frustration, Beckett’s oddness, and Del Rio’s sense of humour puts an entertaining spin on the Canadian theatre controversy.

Gass is beloved in the Canadian theatre world for supporting experimental work and founding Factory Theatre Lab. In June 2012, he was fired by the Board of Directors of the Factory Theatre over disagreements on the renovations needed for the theatre. This aspect is emphasized in The Trial of Ken Gass with constant interrogation about elevators. The decision shocked many in the theatre community. Many decided to protest and punish the directors’ decisions by boycotting the Factory Theatre.

Admitting to having known Gass, Bobby Del Rio had an opportunity to draw on the sympathetic side of the controversy. Del Rio could have written an entire play that glorified Gass and vilified the Board of Directors. He could have made Gass’ harsh blow of being dismissed from a theatre he helped create into a long and emotional tragedy that would tug at heartstrings.

Del Rio takes a different route, choosing to remain impartial to the situation between Gass and the executive Ms. Bright (Jess Salgueiro). At least, he seems to try. There is without a doubt more understanding for the artist than the businessman in a small venue like Sterling Studio Theatre. Del Rio attempted to concentrate not on who was wrong or right. It is not about pointing fingers at characters (and the real people they were inspired by). It is about the natural struggle between the two characters which causes the rigorous finger pointing.

I felt the play captured the archetypal struggle of artist versus institution, or what more rebellious types could refer to as “the man”. Both characters are not necessarily good or bad. Gass is portrayed as bitter and frustrated, which the audience can understand given his Kafkaesque situation. But Ms. Bright, although ridiculous and insanely ambitious, is still entertaining to watch. Salgueiro is admirable as Ms. Bright, being able to spring from the stiff unmoving executive to an unhinged worker desperate for results.

The battle of the artist against the institution is stressed by the production’s decision to have a different actor portray Ken Gass for each night. Del Rio admitted that this characteristic was a fluke caused by the hectic schedules of performers when given short-notice. The fluke was a stroke of luck, because the variety of performers adds to the concept of the artist struggling to be heard. There are so many artistic voices to be heard and that will be muted. The production gives the audience an opportunity to see an individual’s frustration, while knowing it is part of a larger crowd.

What makes the technique even better is the performers for Ken Gass do not get to rehearse for long hours with their co-star Salgueiro. Instead, they are supposed to go through a quick read-through and then break a leg. The Gass on opening night was played by actor Peter Keleghan, known from The Newsroom. Keleghan managed not to look too uncomfortable while reading from his script, but was not as quick to respond as Salgueiro. The lack of ease made Keleghan’s portrayal more realistic. I felt the confusion and frustration.

The Trial of Ken Gass is a multitude of meta-commentary. There is even a Q&A with the actors and director after the show, so that audience members can reveal their philosophical musings. Some could see this as another way of breaking the fourth wall. Or some could see this as a group of artists intent on connecting with the theatre community, because artists understand artists.


  • The Trial of Ken Gass is playing until August 3rd at Sterling Studio Theatre (163 Sterling Rd)
  • All performances will be at 8:00pm from Thursday – Sunday July 28th and Tuesday – Saturday August 3rd
  • All tickets are $10.00 and PWYC (Pay What You Can) on Sundays
  • Tickets can be purchased online or purchased at the door (cash only)