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:

Toronto Fringe: Sharp-witted, informative & moving story of the fight for the lumpectomy in Radical

radical.web_-250x250So what if I told you that, up until the 70s, radical mastectomy was the go-to procedure for Stage One breast cancer (e.g., a pea-sized tumor)? You’d likely be a bit shocked, puzzled and possibly enraged. Right? I know I was.

Playwright/oncologist Charles Hayter’s play Radical – developed and presented as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in March, and currently running in the Toronto Fringe Festival – tells the true-life story of Dr. Vera Peters, a Princess Margaret Hospital oncologist who fought for an alternative procedure, the lumpectomy, where only the tumor is removed.

Directed by Edgar Chua, Radical has a fine cast: Jane Smythe gives a very strong performance as the sharp, wry-witted and kind workaholic Peters; and Susan Q. Wilson is a picture of efficiency and protective concern as Peters’ nurse colleague Helen. Sheila Russell is a force to be reckoned with as the feisty, good-humoured, no-bullshit feminist activist Professor Rose Levine – who is more than happy to lock horns with Jerrold Karch’s cantankerous, arrogant and narrow-minded Chief of Surgery Dr. Fowler. And Jeff Yung is endearing and gutsy as the put-upon, forward-thinking young surgeon Frank.

Peters is eventually forced to make some critical treatment decisions herself when she gets her own diagnosis. But throughout the course of this play, we see that her push to examine the efficacy of, and ultimately implement, the lumpectomy wasn’t just a struggle for women’s health/rights, but for all patients’ rights – striving to afford patients the compassion, respect and decision-making power they deserve within the health care system. Hayter’s play gets to the heart of the Hippocratic oath maxim “Do no harm;” it must extend to treatment procedures – providing a good outcome, while keeping the possible negative impact on the patient in mind.

On a personal note – as someone who’s had a hinky mammogram result, a negative biopsy and ongoing mammogram follow-up to keep an eye on the suspicious particles – I’m very glad and grateful that Peters’ work resulted in the possibility of keeping my breast, should the need for surgery come to pass.

Radical is a sharp-witted, informative and moving telling of Peters’ fight for the lumpectomy.

Running until July 13 at the Tarragon Main Space, you can find exact dates/times for Radical here.

Lost youth, family secrets, modern-day parable & silence speaking volumes in New Ideas Week Two program

NIF2014-banner-1024x725Back at Alumnae Theatre for the Week Two program of the New Ideas Festival last night – and this is a very strong program, featuring four excellent – and very different – plays.

The Living Library, by Linda McCready and directed by Stacy Halloran is a delightfully funny two-hander about a young woman who comes to the library to take advantage of the Living Library Program to borrow a “living book” for a career conversation. Ann Marie Krytiuk is a treat as the energetic and driven, but lost, Sylvia; and Scott Moulton is marvelous as her interview subject, senior policy analyst Tom.

Better Angels: A Parable, by Andrea Scott and directed by Pomme J-Corvellec, uses both multi-media and traditional storytelling to great effect to present a modern-day morality tale. Akosua Mans (Keriece Harris), a young woman from Ghana who dreams of a better life in Canada, takes a job as a housekeeper/nanny for Toronto yuppies Leila (Hilary Hart) and Greg Tate (Daniel De Pas), and becomes their domestic prisoner. Caught in their own web of malicious machinations and deceit, the Tates’ plans go terribly awry. Harris does a lovely job as Akosua, shifting from wide-eyed, dreamy naiveté to wisdom and taking power over her situation as an immigrant domestic worker in a bad situation. Hart does a great job with Hilary’s conflicting emotions – domineering, controlling and tightly wound, but sad and lonely, and longing for connection; and De Pas brings a nice balance to Greg’s seemingly easy-going nature, all the while burning with unresolved passion underneath. Excellent use of projection for the set; it was very cool to see the cursor draw it on the canvas curtain as the stage was set, and the close-ups of Akosua’s face really draw the audience to her as a person – not an ethnicity, a skin colour or a service worker, but a person.

The Shimmering Odessa Building or Whatever, by Judith Upjohn and directed by Zoë Erwin-Longstaff, takes us on an unusual road trip of aimlessness, anomie and literature with three intelligent, hip and tech-savvy young women – all set against the backdrop of a scorched earth ravaged by climate change. Outstanding work from the cast: Sharon Belle (Writer/Iris), the driver, both coolly detached and lyrical; Tiana Asperjan (Cali), the cynical wise-cracking, but sensitive, friend riding shotgun; and Janice Yang (Wiki-Wendy) as the teenage backseat tag-along with an encyclopedic mind, who breaks her long silences with salient information and data.

Brockfest, by Joan Burrows and directed by Eric Benson, is a delightful family comedy. Siblings are reunited at Kitty’s (Liz Best) celebration of “not being American” anymore, where secrets are revealed and that nun’s got her eyes on you. Excellent ensemble cast on this one. Best brings the funny as the stressed out and excited guest of honour, also hosting this gathering; and David Borwick is hilarious as her sweet, but somewhat clueless, husband Cal (not to mention very handsome in uniform). Justen Bennett is both deliciously impish and neurotic as Kitty’s brother Les, and John Marcucci is adorably charming as Les’s partner Paul. And Andrea Lyons is perfectly hysterical as Kitty’s and Les’s sister, Sister Leona, who’s taken a vow of silence. Best. Entrance. Ever.

Lost youth, family secrets, modern-day parable and silence speaking volumes – all in all, a seriously outstanding program of short plays. Week Two closes on March 23, so you only have a few more chances to catch it: twice today and tomorrow afternoon.

The Week Two reading is this afternoon: Charles Hayter’s Radical, directed by Darcy Stoop.

The New Ideas Festival continues next week (Mar 26-30) with its Week Three program and reading. Reservations are strongly recommended as this is a popular festival.

Call 416-364-4170 or visit the Tickets page on the Alumnae website.

Drama, pathos & hilarity – now with more lesbians @ Gay Play Day

Gay Play Day poster 2 2013The second annual Gay Play Day LGBTTQ Theatre Festival of short plays ran Friday through Saturday in the Alumnae Theatre studio space, featuring works with all the drama, pathos and hilarity I remember from its inaugural fest last year. Now with more lesbians.

A.D./playwright/director Darren Stewart-Jones, wearing several other hats as producer, box office/reservations contact and all round bottle washer, assembled two programs for this year’s fest: six short plays, which ran Friday and Saturday night, and four solo shows on the Saturday matinée (the solo shows are new to the fest this year). I had the pleasure of attending the opening on Friday, then the solo shows on Saturday.

The six short plays:

Sherlock & Watson: Behind Closed Doors – written and directed by Darren Stewart-Jones, with set and costumes by Henry Keeler. Holmes and Watson shippers will love this touching, tension-filled two-hander, where we get a look at the more vulnerable side of Holmes (Nathaniel Bacon). Watson (Nick May) has just married and arrives to visit Holmes, who’s been holed up in his Baker Street apartment, steeped in cocaine and attractive young men, invited over for “tea parties.” Watson is concerned for Sherlock’s health – and Sherlock wants Watson back. And not just as a work colleague. It’s a complex, cerebral and physical relationship, and both have choices to make. Lovely, truthful performances from Bacon and May.

Let’s Spend Our Lives Together, Maybe by Tina McCulloch and directed by PJ Hammond – is a sequel to McCulloch’s sweet romcom The Object of Her Attraction, which appeared at Gay Play Day last year. We find Laurie (Mary Joseph) and Suzanne (Julie Burris), and their respective subconscious manifestations (Naomi Priddle Hunter and McCulloch), have just moved in together. And they’ve scheduled a house-warming party a week after moving day, which adds to the tension of getting used this next stage of their relationship. Thankfully, their friend Kai (Pona Tran), who we first met as the barista at the coffee shop in the first play, is there to assist – with the party and some sage advice. Really nice to see the original cast assembled again for the evolution of this partnership.

Couples – written/directed by Bruce Harrott – begins with one man tied to a chair and another interrogating him on a recent infidelity. Jon (Jonathan Lourdes) and Mark (Mark Keller) try to work on their relationship issues while struggling as working artists (playwright and actor). By turns touching and funny, it’s a truthful look at the highs and lows of a relationship, a universal theme no matter what the pairing. Lourdes and Keller do a very nice job of balancing the flippant with the poignant.

Men In Kilts – by Niall O’Reilly and directed by Nicholas Banks – is just as fun as the title suggests. Set in the bar during a wedding party, attractive single gal lawyers Cynthia (Chrissy Carr) and Jasmina (Melissa Chetty) wonder about the sexual orientation of two handsome groomsmen Ron (Michael Sutherland) and Steve (Justin Roy), who are both dressed in kilts for the occasion. Of course, the ladies are also curious about what the men are wearing under the kilts. They pair up into couples – and the women soon learn that you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Or, in this case, a man by his kilt. Nice work by the entire ensemble – keeping it fun and also real.

Hush – by Megan Hutton and directed by Katie Messina – is a raw family drama. Sophie (Leigh Elliot), a young lesbian, struggles with her mother’s (Katie Messina) religion-driven homophobia, as well as coming out with family secrets and navigating her relationship with her older lover Pat (Jaime Polatynski), and an intervention meeting of sorts with a nun (Franny McCabe-Bennett) at her mother’s church. The mother/daughter dynamic is heartbreaking to behold, and Pat does her best with supporting her partner while grappling with her own feelings and frustration about the situation. Strong work by the cast with some difficult, sensitive topics.

The Rice Queen of Cabbagetown (excerpt) – written by Charles Hayter and directed by Lise Maher – is a clever gay twist on GB Shaw’s Pygmalion, with even more of a twist. Well-respected ESL school director Henry (Peter Nelson) learns from friend and colleague Pearse (Arthur Hamby) that his job is in jeopardy since his workplace nemesis has come up with a language program that gets even faster results than his own. The two men cook up a scheme to use Henry’s recent trick Lee (Ivan Regalado) as a guineapig student – and teach him perfect English even faster. But there may be a few things that Henry doesn’t know about his accomplices. Delightfully bitchy good fun, with a cast that attacks their parts with relish and style. Look forward to seeing where this one goes.

The four solo shows:

Hossam and Joel – written and performed by Lorenzo Pagnotta, and co-directed by Tony Babcock – takes us through the life and loves of an adorably sexy and smart single gay man as he ponders the pros and cons of playing the field vs. serious monogamy. Waking up next to someone you love is lovely, but so is an anonymous encounter at the baths. Which could end up becoming a serious relationship as well. Telling the story with humour, honesty and heart, Pagnotta manages to touch on what most singles feel as they’re out there looking for love and connection. I’d be interested to see this as a larger piece, with a full cast.

Obscuring Jude – by Dorianne Emmerton and performed by Katie Sly – is a sharply drawn, visceral, cerebral, not to mention both funny and disturbing, journey into a troubled young woman’s mind. Jude appears wearing a name tag and addresses us directly, making the audience part of her group therapy session as she unravels her history, her thoughts and meanderings. An emotional, connected and real performance from Sly.

Why I’m Not A Star – written/performed by Philip Cairns, with direction/dramaturgy by Andraya Smith – is a highly entertaining autobiographical piece of storytelling. An engaging and funny raconteur, Cairns takes us on a journey from his brief tween modelling career at the age of 11 to his experiences as a struggling actor over the years – dealing with negative perceptions of a feminine vibe, sleeping with directors – and his reactions to the loss of mentor Jackie Burroughs, and relationships with agents, casting and fellow actors. Really enjoyed seeing the evolution of this piece from an earlier excerpt I heard Cairns read at Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir in August.

Faery Tale Confidential – written, directed and performed by Marcy Rogers – is a hilariously funny, socially apt, take on the world of Fae. Rogers plays a faery with attitude, on the run from Queen Mab and dealing with a blackmailing human ex-lover. She is also a faery who was meant to be an elf. As she confesses her transfae feelings, she spills the beans on the Fae world as she formulates a plan of action to resolve her plight. A big fun twist on some favourite mythological and faery tale creatures – told with frankness, adult language and edge. This is another piece I’d seen Rogers perform an earlier incarnation of – at the monthly The Beautiful and the Damned poetry cabaret – great fun to see how it’s come along.

Both the Friday and Saturday night performances sold out this year, and Stewart-Jones plans on continuing the festival next year. As its popularity continues to grow, Gay Play Day has the potential to expand into an even larger multi-day/multi-program run.

More theatre in T.O. – on right now & upcoming

So much out there to see and still no clones on hand to help me make it out to everything. Here are some shows that are continuing and upcoming:

The Village Players’ production of Les Liasons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton, directed by Anne Harper – running now until October 5 at the Village Playhouse.

Next To Normal at Lower Ossington Theatre, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt – running now until September 29. Check out In the Green Room’s interview with director Heather Braaten.

The second annual Gay Play Day returns to the Alumnae Theatre studio space for a two-day run September 27 & 28. Here’s the line-up for this year:

September 27 & 28 @ 8 p.m.: Sherlock & Watson: Behind Closed Doors by Darren Stewart-Jones; Let’s Spend Our Lives Together, Maybe by Tina McCulloch; Couples by Bruce Harrott; Men In Kilts by Niall O’Reilly; Hush by Megan Hutton; The Rice Queen of Cabbagetown (excerpt) by Charles Hayter

New this year – a series of matinée solo shows on September 28 @ 3 p.m.: Hossam and Joel by Lorenzo Pagnotta; Obscuring Jude by Dorianne Emmerton; Why I’m Not A Star by Philip Cairns; Fairy Tale Confidential by Marcy Rogers
Enjoy!