Four new plays open the New Ideas Festival at the Alumnae in Toronto
The first week of the 30th annual New Ideas Festival—organized by the Alumnae Theatre Company on this its 100th year—offers four new plays. Each one disentangles different approaches to the concept of following what you feel is right, and how that can come back and haunt you.
F*ck L*ve, by Rosemary Doyle, underlines the trajectory of mutual infatuation between Amanda (Drea Burck) and the engaged John (George Worrall), a pair of lonely strangers who lock eyes in a coffee shop and find solace in the story of their imagined future.
Amanda and John shift perspectives back and forth through asides that are thick with the self-consciousness of desperation. These are emotionally unfulfilled souls, and it’s devastating to watch how they choose to enjoy building an unattainable fantasy that will end in disappointment rather than feel nothing at all.
Once you realize that their drive to be vulnerable for love is grand enough to need the exercise, even if it’s imaginary, their discomfort in their own skin, cheesy jokes, and over reliance on platitudes glow with charm. I would have liked to see this awkwardness teased out further as opposed to smoothed over in the direction of realism.
The Dancing Man of Macklin Street, by Andrew Lee, is a family drama about the tragic and enchanting influence of bookkeeper Ben (Mitchell Janiak) on the lives of Bianca (Gabriella Kosmidis), her son Jimmy (Daniel Staseff), and her daughter Frannie (Claire Renaud).
Renaud is consistently engaging on double duty as narrator and performer, orchestrating the action with confidence just shy of levitation. Staseff, meanwhile, rises to the need for comic relief with an intellectual rendition of the hardheadedness associated with little brothers.
Director Cassidy Sadler unfolds this intergenerational story of love, lies, and the awakening to one’s roots with seamless transitions and lazy, fluid movement packed with dreamy nostalgia. She treats the plot’s two timelines, decades apart, as realities on either side of a busy door.
While she builds the show on the exhilarating chemistry between Janiak and Kosmidis by heightening their roles as foils to one another—she is curt and proper, he verbose and visceral—the play deflates when it glosses over its tragic climax with a few lines of poetic description.
Governing Ourselves, by Stephen Near, is a thrilling investigation into the ethics and language of confronting someone about sexual abuse. It centres on veteran teacher Phil (J. Todd Colley) and new hire Sam (Karen Scobie) as they prepare for a scene-study in their drama class.
When Sam brings up their class field trip, the discussion begins to unravel. The play dances around the issue with writing that rocks you with abrupt pauses and shifts in tone every time someone comes close to plainly stating the accusation.
Both actors reminded me of the value of a single gesture with the torrents of tension they freed, simply from holding each other’s gaze. They demanded my focus as their ideological divide was complicated by power and friendship, which never allowed them to hide behind bleeding hearts.
It is also timely and essential for Alumnae Theatre Company, the longest running female-run theatre company in North America, to lend its light to a play like Near’s, one that facilitates the discussion around a subject the world is only just now waking up to.
Oracle Jane, by Vicki Zhang, follows activist Ying (Amy Wong) and her predictive analytics program, Oracle Jane, that’s able to discern the motivations behind the Chinese government’s actions. As she exposes them, her mother (Miroki Tong) tries to make her toe the party line.
The play addresses the dichotomy of a conservative upbringing under Communist rule vs. a Western liberal one without the possibility of reconciliation. The characters convey the bitterness of this separation with self-righteousness, ever on the edge of boiling into rash behavior.
Though there is arresting sadness in mother’s inability to accept daughter’s risks, and daughter’s rejection of mother’s comfort in the thoughtlessness of tradition, neither of their motivations was revealed early enough for me to fully invest in their lives.
At the end of the night, I discussed the plays with my guest, Phylissa. She thought F*ck L*ve would have felt more immediate if the characters directed their energy toward each other instead of the audience. She also praised The Dancing Man of Macklin Street’s tender relationships and trance-like choreography, but saw untapped potential to connect with Ben through the scant portrait of his history and line of work.
She called Governing Ourselves an insightful look at what the mind will justify to protect itself. In the case of Oracle Jane, she thought that the conservatism was uncanny but that the performances were lit by too small a flame.
These plays make for an undeniably promising start for the festival as it heads into its second week, and a reason to be hopeful once these works return revamped in the near future.
- The New Ideas Festival is playing at the Alumnae Theatre Company’s Studio Theatre until March 25.
- Performances run Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.
- Tickets are $15 general admission with pay-what-you-can-at-the-door performances on March 17 and 24.
- Tickets can be purchased online or over the phone at 416-364-4170.
Photo of Mitchell Janiak and Claire Renaud by Bruce Peters.