Crazy LOL love & the power of the perfect joke in the quirky, poignant, hilarious The Clean House

Annemieke Wade, Neil Silcox, Andrea Irwin, Lilia Leon & Marina Moreira in The Clean House—photo by Bruce Peters

 

Love isn’t clean… It’s dirty. Like a good joke.

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 2016-17 season with Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, directed by Ali Joy Richardson, assisted by Nevada Banks; currently running on the Mainstage.

Still in mourning over her parents’ unusual and unexpected death, Matilde (Marina Moreira) moves from Brazil to Connecticut, where she becomes a live-in maid to doctors Lane (Andrea Irwin) and Charles (Neil Silcox). Thing is, she hates cleaning; it makes her sad. An aspiring comedian, and the child of two very funny people, she’s striving for the perfect joke. Things lighten up for Matilde when Lane’s older sister Virginia (Annemieke Wade) makes an odd request: she wants to clean her sister’s house. Virginia loves to clean and needs something to do, and Matilde hates cleaning and needs more time to make up jokes—so they make a secret arrangement.

When Virginia and Matilde discover women’s underwear in the laundry that can’t possibly be Lane’s, they suspect that Charles is having an affair. Their suspicions are soon validated when it comes out that Charles has fallen in love with Ana (Lilia Leon), who was one of his surgical patients. From there, Charles’ two worlds collide in unexpected—often moving and hilarious—ways.

There’s a great theatricality to The Clean House, with cultures and lives meeting in delightfully wacky and quirky ways. All of Matilde’s jokes are told in Portuguese; and all the characters break the fourth wall at various points to speak to the audience directly. Scenes happening elsewhere play out in and around the pristine, white living room. There’s a space for projected surtitles at the top of the bookshelf, which don’t provide translation of Portuguese, but subtext for the proceedings. On the raised platform playing area down left, we see flashbacks and imagined scenes play out (with Silcox and Leon also playing Matilde’s parents), as well as scenes on Ana’s apartment balcony (shouts to Orly Zebak’s set design).

_DSC1235
Marina Moreira in The Clean House—photo by Bruce Peters

Fantastic work from the ensemble on this journey. Moreira is a treat as Matilde, the maid who longs to be a comedian, and who bears witness to the topsy-turvy events unfolding in her employers’ household. Feisty and determined, and despite her sadness over her parents’ death, Matilde’s mind is laser-focused on concocting the perfect joke—but, knowing the power of such a thing, she fears the impact it may have.

Irwin is hysterically imperious as the uptight Lane; a well-respected doctor in a hospital, her tightly wound fastidiousness isn’t without its own quirks—while she feels entitled to have someone cleaning her house, she’s uncomfortable giving orders about it. Wade is a riot as Lane’s sister Virginia; neurotic and compulsively fixated on cleanliness, housekeeping is her happy place. Though Virginia is sick and tired of Lane’s attitude, she’s nevertheless a loving and supportive sister. It’s family, so you deal.

_DSC1444
Neil Silcox & Lilia Leon in The Clean House—photo by Bruce Peters

Silcox is adorably goofy as Charles; a surgeon with the heart of a poet and a dreamer, he found he couldn’t help but fall in love—Ana is his soulmate, so it’s out of his control. Sweet and loyal in his way, he struggles to make this transition as amicable as possible for everyone involved. Leon has a lovely, almost ethereal quality as Ana; strong-willed and outspoken, Ana has never liked doctors, but couldn’t help herself with Charles. And she’s bound and determined that the path her life takes be of her own choosing.

Crazy LOL love and the power of the perfect joke in the quirky, poignant, hilarious The Clean House.

The Clean House continues in the Alumnae Mainspace until April 22; advance tix available online or available at the box office one hour before show time (cash only). This production features some free pre- and post-show events, including:

Pre-show workshop Thurs, April 20: Laughter and Forgiveness with Lynn Himmelman. Lynn will lead participants through a few fun, simple exercises and share the healing role that laughter has played in her own life. This complimentary pre-show workshop offers audiences the opportunity to further explore The Clean House’s themes of healing and the power of comedy.

Check out the trailer for The Clean House courtesy of Neil Silcox & Ali Joy Richardson:

Coming up for Alumnae Theatre: Look out for Alumnae’s 2017-18 season, when the company will be celebrating its 100th birthday; the oldest women-run theatre in North America and the oldest theatre company in Toronto.

 

 

 

Preview: Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof

Photo by Bruce Peters: Dan Willmott, Karen Slater & Chris Peterson

New kid on the block Theatre UnBlocked is off to a great start, mounting its inaugural production, David Auburn’s Proof, directed by Carl Jackson, to a packed preview house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

The elegant beauty of math and the minds behind it comes to life in this intimate production. Catherine (Karen Slater), who has been living at the family home outside Chicago, sits on the back porch and chats with her father Robert (Dan Willmott). Thing is, Robert’s dead—and his funeral is tomorrow.

Robert was a brilliant mathematician and professor; he was also living with mental illness, a condition that irreparably damaged his ability to work and thrive. Despite the urging of her well-meaning older sister Claire (Andrea Brown), Catherine had eschewed institutionalization for their father, and left her own studies in math behind, leaving the work she loved for a dearly beloved father. Numb and exhausted, Catherine’s interest in connecting with people is renewed when Hal (Chris Peterson), a mathematician and former student of Robert’s comes to the house to sort through Robert’s papers and notebooks.

Drawn by Hal’s drive, and their shared love and appreciation for her father, Catherine gradually opens up and shares another notebook with Hal; one that’s been locked away in her father’s desk. It looks like Robert’s handwriting, but she says it’s hers. And what it contains is a 40-page proof that mathematicians have been trying to work out for a very long time. Concerned that Catherine inherited their father’s unstable mind, Claire has her doubts; she’s also been trying to coax Catherine to come live with her in Manhattan, as she intends to sell the house. Hal has doubts too; and offers to show the proof to some colleagues to check its veracity and authenticate its authorship. Is Catherine crazy? Or is she a genius? And does Hal genuinely care for her—or is he using her for a treasure hunt?

Simply staged in an intimate space, with the sounds of crickets and birds setting us firmly in the easy lull of a home outside the urban buzz of the city’s core, this production of Proof combines the poetry of nature with the beauty of science and mathematics.

The cast does a remarkable job with this story of math, family, mental illness and gifted minds. Slater gives a lovely, layered performance as the troubled and brilliant Catherine. An exceptional but neglected mind, Catherine puts up walls to separate herself from others, and humour and sarcasm are her weapons of choice; all in defense of the deeply hurt, tired and lost girl beneath. She knows what she knows—but fears that, like her father, she may be going crazy. Willmott brings a gentle, good-humoured cheekiness to Robert; a mathematician with the heart of a poet, and a brilliant but unstable mind—a driven man immersed in his work. The two-hander scenes between Catherine and Robert are both tender and sharply funny; revealing a genuine love, understanding and appreciation—a pairing of kindred spirits.

4-Catherine-HungoverClaire
Karen Slater & Andrea Irwin in Proof – photo by Bruce Peters

Irwin does a fabulous job mining the many facets of Claire, shifting between gentle caregiver and ‘big sister knows best,’ not to mention one hell of a funny hangover performance. Claire genuinely cares about Catherine’s welfare, but with a mind on the practical issues at hand, wants to sell the family home and keep Catherine close. Like Catherine, she’s concerned that her sister may be on the same path as their father; and while she also inherited some serious math skills and works as a currency analyst, there’s a tinge of painful sibling rivalry in that she didn’t have as close a relationship with Robert—or her sister’s brilliant mind. Peterson brings an adorkable charm and boyish drive to Hal, the mathematician who plays drums in a geek rock band. Like Catherine, Hal was close to Robert, who was a mentor and perhaps even a father figure to him. Reluctant to believe in Catherine’s abilities, he finds it hard to fathom that she authored this newly discovered proof—a reminder that, even 17 years after Proof was first produced, male-dominated STEM careers still present the challenge of gender-based assumptions. And you know what they say about ‘assume.’

Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof.

Proof officially opens tonight and continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 19. Advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate space and the size of last night’s preview audience. Go check out what the kids at Theatre UnBlocked are doing with this timely and thoughtful production.

You can also keep up with Theatre UnBlocked on Twitter.

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

a-better-place
Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.

Love & loss, assumptions & perspectives in sharp, touching, painfully funny This

this-1-marrelljane-icecream-lowres
Audra Yulanda Gray & Amanda Jane Smith in This – photos by Bruce Peters

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2016-17 season with Melissa James Gibson’s This, directed by Rebecca Ballarin, on the Mainstage on Friday night. I caught the matinée yesterday afternoon.

Four college friends, now in their late 30s, share life, love and loss in this poignant, sometimes wacky tale of relationships, and navigating life’s changes and chaos. New parents Marrell (Audra Yulanda Gray) and Tom (Andrew Batten) struggle with sleepless, sexless nights while their friend Jane (Amanda Jane Smith) deals with being a widow and single mom. Meanwhile, their single gay friend Alan (Michael Harvey), whose exceptional memory has earned him a career as a mnemonist, is itching for a new job. Marrell’s attempt to set Jane up with French doctor Jean Pierre (Christian Martel) at a dinner party has an unexpected outcome and, coupled with various assumptions and perceptions, all hell breaks loose – forcing the tight-knit gang to examine their relationships; unable to revise history as Alan corrects their memories of pivotal conversations and moments.

this-4-marrell-alan-lowres
Audra Yulanda Gray & Michael Harvey in This

Really nice work from the cast with this sharp, mercurial script as the characters riff on modern life’s foibles – from Brita filters to Baby Bjorns – giving a contemporary Noel Coward vibe to the banter. Smith is adorably neurotic and poignantly adrift as Jane, coming up on the first anniversary of her husband’s death; his ashes still in an urn on top of her fridge. Scattered and trying her best to be a trouper, she’s a mess under the relatively together exterior she presents to her friends. Gray brings a great combination of fastidiousness and frustration to Marrell; in command of her household, Marrell is annoyed and perhaps a bit fearful about her non-existent sex life with Tom. Batten gives Tom a lovely beleaguered lost boy quality; desperate, like Marrell, for a decent night’s sleep, Tom struggles with issues of desire, as well as self-esteem.

this-7-janetomjp-lowres
Christian Martel, Amanda Jane Smith & Andrew Batten in This

Harvey is a laugh-out-loud delight as Alan; sharp-witted and self-involved, he’s a lovable pain in the ass who keeps the group’s memories of conversations on point. Martel brings a great sense of amusement and observation to Jean Pierre, a physician with Doctors Without Borders; a cultural and social outsider looking in on the group, like Alan he offers perspective on their problems – but his patience only goes so far.

Life is what it is – and sometimes what it is is messy. Love and loss, assumptions and perspectives in sharp, touching, painfully funny This.

This runs on the Alumnae mainstage until Oct 1; you can purchase tickets in advance online or reserve by phone at 416-364-4170, ext. 1.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

_DSC5303
Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

_DSC5191
Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

_DSC5102
Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):

 

FireWorks: Lumpectomy champion Dr. Vera Peters puts ‘Do No Harm’ to the test in Radical

Helly Chester as Dr. Vera Peters in Radical - photo by Bruce Peters
Helly Chester as Dr. Vera Peters in Radical – photo by Bruce Peters

The final production of Alumnae Theatre’s annual FireWorks program opened last night: Charles Hayter’s Radical, directed by Neil Affleck, with associate director Ingryd Pleitez.

I saw an earlier version of Radical at the 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival – and loved it – so I was very excited to see it again in its current iteration. Hayter and Affleck describe the process that led to the FireWorks production in an interview on the Alumnae Theatre blog.

Based on the true story of Canadian oncologist Dr. Vera Peters’ (Helly Chester) fight for a less aggressive procedure than radical mastectomy to treat stage one breast cancer tumors, Radical takes us along with Peters as she navigates the old boys’ club that is medicine – represented by the character Dr. Bernie Fowler (Rob Candy) – and an 80-year-old ‘gold standard’ treatment that has never been questioned. That is, until she meets Professor Rose Levine (Kelly-Marie Murtha), who has a two-centimeter tumor – and wants to know why they just can’t remove the tumor and leave the rest of her breast alone. With the help of new young, forward-thinking surgeon Frank (Feerass Ellid), and despite the grave misgivings of her nurse Helen (Anne Shepherd), Peters launches a retrospective case study, diving into thousands of hospital patient records in an effort to prove that the lumpectomy is just as effective as the radical at treating cancer – and certainly less fraught with negative, life-changing side effects.

The expanded script (from a 50-minute running time in Fringe to about 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission, in the current production) makes for a more thoughtful pace and a more gradual arc as Peters goes from being an unquestioning supporter of the status quo to a tireless fighter for change. Chester does a nice job with Peters’ journey from accepting to questioning to searching to fighting. An attentive physician who is sympathetic to patient concerns about the radical’s degree of invasiveness, her kind bedside manner tends towards sugar-coating the possible negative outcomes. But, gradually, her intensifying anger against a procedure that puts tradition and expediency – and even financial gain – over the wishes and best interests of the patient spurs her to action. A reluctant – and ultimately courageous – hero, medical choices become personal when she’s faced with her own breast cancer diagnosis. Murtha’s Rose is the perfect catalyst for Peters’ change of heart. An outspoken feminist, irreverently funny and always asking how things could be better, she refuses to take her post-operation side effects lying down and inspires Peters to be the fighter that breast cancer patients need.

Anne Shepherd, Helly Chester & Kelly-Marie Murtha in Radical - photo by Bruce Peters
Anne Shepherd, Helly Chester & Kelly-Marie Murtha in Radical – photo by Bruce Peters

Candy’s Dr. Fowler is a great foil for Peters, a long-time colleague and friend turned frenemy on the other side of this battle. A chauvinistic, arrogant surgeon who’s happy to have Peters working oncology and schlepping through statistics for a case study he wants to co-author with her, he’ll brook no suggestion as to how the surgery could be improved. And this despite the fact that he has direct knowledge of the emotional and physical aftermath of the radical after assisting with the procedure on his wife. Shepherd is bang-on as the tough, clockwork proficient, old-school nurse Helen; fiercely protective and supportive of Peters in most things, she takes the fatalist view – believing that change isn’t possible, so why even try. Enter Ellid’s wide-eyed, idealistic and driven young Frank, who has an eye on distinguishing himself as a surgeon and on the future of his profession. Refusing to be indoctrinated into old boys’ medicine, he questions and seeks a better way – and, like Peters, is willing to risk his job to get the lumpectomy recognized as a viable alternative to the radical.

In the end, Radical is as much about the guiding principle Primum Non Nocere (First, Do No Harm) as it is about the pioneering of the lumpectomy as a standard alternative to radical mastectomy. It brings forward important questions of patient consultation and the impact of surgery on quality of life. It asks what good is there in saving a patient’s life when they are left physically and mentally broken – with no guarantees that the cancer won’t come back anyway.

Lumpectomy champion Dr. Vera Peters puts ‘Do No Harm’ to the test in the eye-opening, dramatic and sharply funny Radical.

Radical continues at Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks until November 22; you can purchase tickets online or an hour before show time at the box office (cash only).

You can follow the goings on at Alumnae Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, take a look at trailer for Radical:

 

 

FireWorks: Divine Wrecks a heartbreaking & powerful tale of forbidden love – erotic, wickedly funny & engaging

Fleur Jacobs & Hugh Ritchie in Divine Wrecks - photo by Bruce Peters
Fleur Jacobs & Hugh Ritchie in Divine Wrecks – photo by Bruce Peters

A high school hockey god falls in love with the wrong girl: his teacher, who falls right back at him. And there’s nothing more heartbreaking than a wrong love that feels so right.

Alumnae Theatre opened its third annual FireWorks series to a packed house in the Studio last night, the three-show program launching with Chloë Whitehorn’s Divine Wrecks, directed by Pamela Redfern, assisted by Melissa Chetty.

Divine Wrecks is a contemporary take on a classic story of forbidden love. Eddy (Hugh Ritchie) is the new kid at school, his arrival deliciously anticipated by his classmates (who also serve as the play’s Chorus: Annelise Hawrylak, Megan O’Kelly, Michael Pearson and Luis Guillermo Villar), who view him as a mysterious stranger with a tragic past (he was involved in a car accident and the other driver, who was the one at fault, was killed). Enter their English teacher Cass (Fleur Jacobs) and Eddy, a star athlete with a reputation for being a player, is undone. And despite his gruff, macho exterior and challenges with expressing his feelings – and perhaps because of it – Eddy and Cass find a deep emotional connection that blossoms into a secret affair. And, of course, it’s all going to end in tears.

Ritchie and Jacobs have remarkable chemistry as the secret lovers. Ritchie’s Eddy is a bit of a Renaissance man, wise beyond his years – perhaps largely due to his recent personal tragedy – a popular student and skilled hockey player, well-read and articulate, and apparently an adept lover. Eddy is an old romantic soul despite his jockish, pretty boy bravado – and Ritchie does a nice job with revealing the layers of struggle, frustration, longing and despair. Jacobs is lovely as Cass, smart, good-natured and funny – an engaging teacher who is both genuine with and protective of her students, which makes her emerging feelings for Eddy all the more agonizing for her. Cass really wants to do the right thing, keep her job and maintain her integrity, but finds herself unable to resist the draw to Eddy – and Jacobs does an excellent job with Cass’s inner conflict as the undeniable attraction between Cass and Eddy breaks through any sense of decorum, morality or rules to the tender, fragile place that lies beneath.

The Chorus: Megan O'Kelly, Luis Guillermo Villar, Annelise Hawrylak & Michael Pearson in Divine Wrecks - photo by Bruce Peters
The Chorus: Megan O’Kelly, Luis Guillermo Villar, Annelise Hawrylak & Michael Pearson in Divine Wrecks – photo by Bruce Peters

The Chorus is marvelous. Far from being bit players, these four (they are numbered rather than named) are contemporary archetypes and the modern-day embodiment of the classical Chorus, ever watchful and always commenting. One, the Jock (Pearson): tall, muscular, jersey-wearing, wise-cracking hockey player. Two, the Cheerleader (Hawrylak): bubbly and extroverted, entitled, superficial and a bit dim. Three, the Rebel (O’Kelly): punk-styled, free-spirited loner with a fuck-you attitude who’s smarter than you think, mostly because she plays it close to the chest. Four, the Nerd (Villar): socially awkward, nervous, flood-panted and bespectacled, whip smart and asthmatic. They add some much needed comic relief to this unfolding tragedy, and pose important questions and thoughts. They could see it coming – and someone should do something. But what could they do? Shifting between titillating gossip and moments of moral and ethical commentary, they are us. They say what the audience is thinking – and they even sometimes speak directly to us.

The 1950s-inspired staging (the doo-wop soundtrack and a cappella Chorus bits) and design (shouts to Peter DeFreitas for the fabulous 50s-inspired costumes) add an extra layer of romance, even innocence, and vintage style to the production.

Divine Wrecks is a heartbreaking and powerful tale of forbidden love – erotic, wickedly funny and engaging.

The first of three shows featured in the 2015 FireWorks program, Divine Wrecks runs until Nov 8 in the Alumnae Theatre Studio; you can purchase tix in advance online or one hour before performance time at the box office (cash only). The Studio is an intimate space, so advance booking is strongly recommended for all FireWorks shows.

The FireWorks program also features a series of ‘Behind the Curtain’ post-show talk-backs after every performance – except for opening nights, when the audience is invited to join the cast and crew for a reception in the Alumnae Theatre lobby. Coming up next in the FireWorks program: Cottage Radio, by Taylor Marie Graham (Nov 11-15) and Radical, by Charles Hayter (Nov 18-22).

You can keep up with the goings on at Alumnae via Facebook and Twitter.

In the meantime, you can check out the Alumnae blog interviews with playwright Whitehorn and director Redfern – and the Divine Wrecks trailer: