Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

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A delightfully witty stab at the upper class in Alumnae’s charming, entertaining The Importance of Being Earnest

Sean Jacklin & Nicholas Koy Santillo. Set design by Marysia Bucholc. Costume design by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

The Alumnae Theatre Company goes Wilde with its charming, entertaining production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green—opening last night on Alumnae’s Mainstage. Set in 1895, this beloved Wilde classic adeptly and hilariously satirizes the British upper class; and is so full of well-known razor-sharp witticisms, it’s a veritable cornucopia of Wilde’s greatest hits.

Best friends Jack (Nicholas Koy Santillo) and Algernon (Sean Jacklin) are wealthy young bachelors about town—wicked enough to be modern, but not so much that they’re criminal. That’s about to change, as Jack is smitten with Algie’s cousin Gwendolyn (Kathryn Geertsema) and has his mind set on proposing. But, although Jack and Gwendolyn are mutually agreed upon the prospect, they must get permission from her imperious mother Lady Bracknell (Tricia Brioux); and they hit a major roadblock when Jack is questioned about his parents, of whom he knows nothing, as he was a foundling. Scandalized at the thought of her daughter marrying a man who was found in a handbag as an infant, Lady Bracknell orders Jack to find evidence of his ancestry—a condition of her giving her blessing to the match.

If that weren’t enough, Jack is living a double life: he is Jack in his country home, where he is the responsible guardian of his 18-year-old ward Cecily (Laura Meadows), but goes by the name of Earnest in town. So Gwendolyn believes his name is Earnest—and has romanticized the name to the point that she believes it to be a vital ingredient to marital bliss. And to make matters even more complicated, Jack has created a fictitious wicked younger brother named Earnest, a relation only mentioned by that name when he’s in the country.

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Left: Kathryn Geertsema & Nicholas Koy Santillo. Right: Laura Meadows & Sean Jacklin. Set design by Marysia Bucholc. Costume design by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The engagement on hold, Jack returns to his country home to try to sort out his birth, his name and kill off his fictitious brother. He enlists the aid of Rev. Chasuble (Rob Candy), the affable and learned local minister who enjoys taking his regular constitutional over to the house to visit Cecily’s prim, exacting governess Miss Prism (Tina McCulloch). They are surprised by an unexpected guest: Jack’s brother Earnest! Of course, it’s really Algernon, out for a bit of fun and longing to meet Cecily, who also happens to adore the name Earnest; and the two hit it off nicely and become engaged on the spot. And when Gwendolyn arrives, curious about the engraving she saw in Jack’s cigarette case (from Cecily), the two women face off over who is, in fact, engaged to Earnest. Chaos and confessions ensue; and with the arrival of Lady Bracknell, a revelation. All great fun and hilariously sending up the upper echelons of British society, with Algernon’s wry-witted, deadpan housekeeper Lane (Lisa Lenihan) and Jack’s understated, watchful Merriman (Barbara Salsberg) witnessing the tomfoolery of their supposed betters from the sidelines.

 

The cast does a great job with the crisp, rapid-fire dialogue—so full of quotable bon mots, it’s easy to get caught up in the rapier wit shenanigans. Koy Santillo and Jacklin are perfect foils as Jack and Algernon; an odd couple pair of best friends, with Jack (Koy Santillo) being the somewhat more responsible and respectable, and Algernon (Jacklin) being more slapdash and careless. And Geertsema’s sharp, independent-minded Gwendolyn and Meadows’ romantic, precocious Cecily are not only well-matched to their respective boy; they share a highly entertaining two-hander scene, their proper high society manners a thin veil to the steely, take-no-prisoners resolve to win Earnest—only to become BFFs when they learn about the boys’ hijinks with the name Earnest. And Brioux is an impressive, commanding presence as the fastidiously precise, domineering Lady Bracknell; her cutting pronouncements and withering glances as the formidable dowager earned a round of applause on her exit near the end of Act I.

 

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Tricia Brioux. Set design by Marysia Bucholc. Costume design by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde at his wittiest, satirical, make fun of the upper class best—and the Alumnae team does him proud. With shouts to the stunning period costumes designed by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas; Marysia Bucholc’s trim, ornate and highly efficient moveable set, illuminated by lighting designer Liam Stewart; and Rick Jones’ period-perfect sound design. All held together by the intrepid SM Margot Devlin.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until October 6. Get advance tickets online, by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 or at the door (cash only). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes Post-Show Talkbacks following the Sunday matinees on September 23 and 30; and a Pre-show Designer Panel on September 27 at 6:30 pm. (this one comes with snacks). Check out the fun trailer:

 

And check out this interview with actor Tricia Brioux in the Beach Metro Community News. Keep up with Alumnae Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

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Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

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Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

shirley barrie

 

Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.

Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission

Andrea Irwin, Thomas O’Neill, Evan Walsh & Gillian Reed. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Peter denied Jesus three times and yet became the Rock upon which the Catholic Church was built—its first Pope. Cardinal Matias Iglesias denies knowing three people from his past and he is a favourite to become the next Pope.

Alumnae Theatre Company explores sins of commission and omission in a time of civil and social conflict in Alice Abracen’s Omission, directed by Anne Harper.

It’s the eve of a papal conclave, and Canadian journalist Megan Gutierrez (Gillian Reed) visits the office of Latin American Cardinal Matias Iglesias (Thomas O’Neill), to interview him as part of a piece about the top candidates for the papacy. The jocular tone of their meeting turns adversarial when she asks him about three people: Angelo Flores, Laura Ballan-Kohn and Gabriel Mejia. While initially denying knowledge of any of them, when faced with accusations of complicity in the actions of a military junta, the Cardinal convinces Megan to stay and hear his side of the story. The ghosts from his past—General Angelo Flores (Lawrence Aronovitch), Professor Laura Ballan-Kohn (Andrea Irwin)  and Father Gabriel Mejia (Evan Walsh)—all materialize as he relates the events and relationships.

Keeping his head down and careful to not antagonize the ruling regime, Iglesias—a Bishop when these events began—is determined to protect his people from harm no matter what the cost. But civil conflict arrives on his doorstep when Ballan-Kohn, a long-time friend and confidante, begins to speak out against the witch hunt on certain political and philosophical books, and the students and teachers who own them are rounded up never to be seen again. And Mejia, who considers Iglesias a mentor, disobeys orders to avoid certain areas, where he’s been secretly administering to the hungry and dying—criminals and terrorists in the eyes of the regime. Afraid that his friends’ resistance is putting them in grave danger, Iglesias is unable to mollify Flores, a friend from childhood who now enforces the party line, describing the missing and murdered as having “left the country”—viewing all resistors as terrorists, and their absence a political boon.

Strong, committed performances from the entire cast in this story of confession, revelation and absolution. O’Neill, a former Archdiocese of Toronto altar boy, is an impressive presence as the ambitious Cardinal. As charming and affable as he is diplomatic and cunning, Iglesias knows how to play the political game—but when the game gets too close to home, will he still have the stomach to play it? Reed brings a great sense of mission and conflict to Megan; sharp-witted and relentless in her determination to discover the truth, Megan is also nervous, vulnerable and harbouring a secret of her own.

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Foreground: Andrea Irwin & Thomas O’Neill. Background: Gillian Reed, Lawrence Aronovitch & Evan Walsh. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Walsh gives young Father Gabriel a lovely aura of awkward, youthful drive. Naiveté and idealism mature with Gabriel’s earnest passion to do what is right, no matter how dangerous to his own well-being. Irwin is an unstoppable force as the mercurial, rambunctious and irreverent Professor Ballan-Kohn. Whip-smart, and possessing of a fiery spirit and courageous soul, Ballan-Kohn—whose parents are Holocaust survivors—knows what it means when good people do nothing. Aronovitch does a great job with the two lives of General Flores; doting new father, good-humoured friend and religiously observant, he is also a cool, detached military man who follows and gives deadly and life-altering orders without question. An extreme example, the General reminds us of the compartmentalized life that anyone can live.

Sin goes beyond the commission of bad deeds to include the omission of good deeds. But what about the role of environment and circumstance? For better or worse, we all do what we feel is right, and in our guts and power to do in the moment. At what point do confession and absolution constitute forgiveness? In the end, like Megan, we are left to our own judgement of these proceedings. And who among us is without sin.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this theatrical world, where souls from the past commune with those of the present to tell this story: Margaret Spence (costumes), Evelyn Clarke (props), Teodoro Dragonieri (set), Ali Berkok (sound) and Wes Babcock (lighting).

Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission.

Omission continues on the Alumnae mainstage until February 3; advance tickets available online or at the door (cash only). Tickets are $25, with half-price tickets on Wednesdays and PWYC Sunday matinees.

 

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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.