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:

 

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: