New Ideas: Alternate perceptions, unexplained events & magical connections in the haunting, hilarious, heartfelt Week 2 program

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works last week; the three-week festival presents a different program of plays each week, plus staged readings on Saturdays at noon. I caught the Week Two program up in the Studio last night.

Sweet Mama and the Salty Muffins by Ciarán Myers, directed by Kendra Jones. Haunted by a catchy Appalachian folk song that sends her back to the moment her three-year-old daughter disappeared at an outdoor concert, a mother (Lisa Lenihan) tries to make us see the sense of her account of the inexplicable aftermath of the event. Do we believe her? Is it all in her mind?

Lenihan is quirky and heartbreakingly lonely as the mother in this 15-minute solo piece. Desperate for someone to believe her and neurotically self-conscious of sounding mentally ill, the mother is confident in what she saw. And she realizes it sounds beyond strange and impossible, but she believes it with all her heart. Maybe because she has to.

If Socrates were in My Shoes by Donna Langevin, directed by Carl Jackson. Set in 1930, Jean (Nicholas Koy Santillo), who’s gained fame as a daredevil, meets down on his luck writer George (Andreas Batakis), who’s working as a cook to pay the bills. George is despondent over not being able to find a publisher for his book and Jean suggests a death-defying stunt to get publicity: going over Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. How far is George willing to go to self-publish his book?

Nice work from the actors in this metaphysical dramedy. Santillo brings an affable charm and cockiness, with a touch of con artist, to Jean; a man with a wife and six kids to feed at home, Jean does what he needs to do to make ends meet. Batakis gives George an interesting combination of melancholy and driven, earnest and fanciful, pensive and desperate. There’s an air of dark, edgy mystery around George. What is the true nature of his intense relationship with the teachings of Socrates?

Stars by D.J. Sylvis, directed by Gillian Armstrong. Two lives revolve around each other thousands of miles apart in this lovely, cosmically magical two-hander. Akia (Alexa Higgins) and Ren (Katherine Cappellacci) have never met, but they’re falling in love in a long-distance relationship as they gaze at the stars during a cellphone conversation.

Playing out this beautifully tender, funny and heartbreaking romance—all in 15 minutes—Higgins and Cappellacci have great chemistry, complementing each other perfectly with this pair of opposites. Higgins is a starry-eyed romantic as the astronomy nerd Akia; and Cappellacci is earthy and cynical as the sci-fi dork Ren.

Moving On by Elmar Maripuu, directed by Helly Chester. Kyle (Michael Ricci) has a brilliant software idea and Shelley (Lena Maripuu) is helping him find an investor. Trouble is the investor she’s putting forward is under suspicion of absconding with Kyle’s small home town pension fund. This problem of conscience is comically compounded by the appearance of Jodie (Rachelle Mazzilli), Kyle’s high school sweetheart.

Equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching, this three-hander cast does a great job. Ricci’s Kyle is a visionary, and also loyal, good-humoured and sweet. He longs to bring his plans to fruition, but is torn about aligning himself with the man who may have swindled his friends and family back home. Maripuu is a big bundle of madcap fun as Shelley; possessing boundless energy and talking a mile a minute, there’s more than meets the eye as we get a glimpse into Shelley’s past and secret desires. Mazzilli is adorably irreverent and cocky as Jodie; playfully seductive, Jodie isn’t quite sure what’s up with this visit with Kyle. Are old fires lighting up again or are they just riding a wave of memory?

The Week Two program also includes a staged reading on Saturday, March 17 at noon, followed by a talkback. Mirage: The Arabian Adventures of Gertrude Bell by Laurie Fyffe; featuring actors Fallon Bowman, Rosey Tyler, Saphire Demitro, May Tartoussy, Arun Varma, Ethan Saulnier, Sean Dwyer, Matthew Olivier and Erin Humphry.

The NIF Week Two program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 18. 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 matinees on Saturday (with a post-show talkback) and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Check out the Week Three program, running March 21 – 25.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Two trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

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.

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