When you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.
Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.
Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.
HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.
Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.
What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.
With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.
The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.
In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:
HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.