Tuesday, October 16, 2018

THE NETHER – REVIEW OF STUDIO 180/COAL MINE THEATRE CO-PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Playwright Jennifer Haley helpfully tells us that the Nether realm is a world for mythical creatures, a demon world or a dimension of Evil or Imagination. At one time Nether was called the Internet and porn was its most popular content.

Haley’s play The Nether, now playing at the Coal Mine Theatre, is about an ugly world of child pornography that has become a new dimension of existence. It is sexual contact with children in the Nether world where you can do the most repugnant things with children without any consequences.
 
Hannah Levinson and David Storch. Photo: Tim Leyes
A businessman named Sims has created the Hideaway, a place of beauty in the Nether, where men visit and meet a pretty nine-year old named Iris and have fun. According to Sims, the Hideaway is nothing but a world of images and having sex with a child or an elf is nothing but images and there are no consequences for doing that or worse.

Detective Morris (Katherine Cullen), who lives in the real world, has set out to find information about Sims and the Hideaway and shut it down. But the Hideaway is in the world of high tech and information is hard to come by and finding where the physical server is located is almost impossible.

The play is structured around Morris interrogating three men – Sims (David Storch), Doyle (Robert Persichini) and Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) who is a special case. The interrogations take place in a dark, forbidding room with Morris playing the tough cop.

The interrogations alternate with scenes in the Hideaway, a pleasant room, a fireplace, views of trees at the back – simply idyllic surroundings. Sims is called Papa, a loveable, well-dressed man who is somewhat severe but he is loved by all. You hear of a spanking room, of favourites and you know that this is a place for paedophilia but it is virtual paedophilia. The problem is the eternal one of image versus reality. Virtual paedophilia encroaches on real child abuse and reality begins to lose its moorings.
Hannah Levinson and Mark McGrinder. Photo: Tim Leyes
That is the issue that Haley raises in this outstanding and fascinating play.

Hannah Levinson exudes all the innocence and beauty of a nine-year old that would attract a paedophile in real life or as a high tech virtual creation. Storch and Persichini are paedophiles who know they are paedophiles and the real world may not know what to do with them or be able to even catch them.

Peter Pasyk does exceptional work in directing the fine cast in a play that pushes the boundaries between virtual and actual reality leaving you astonished. This is truly outstanding theatre. 
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The Nether by Jennifer Haley, in a production by Coal Mine Theatre and Studio 180 Theatre, opened on October 11 and will continues until October 8, 2017 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Sunday, October 14, 2018

AIDA – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET BROADCAST


Reviewed by James Karas

The Triumphal March from Aida is probably the defining image of opera for many people. There are productions that give the impression that the local zoo was raided for large animals to march across the stage as the heroic Radames returns from the war with the captured Ethiopians and their king in tow. Verdi’s thrilling music, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, the large number of extras and the imposing set provide an electrifying scene that is simply overwhelming. And yes there are horses for good measure but no other animals such as elephants and giraffes.

Sonja Frisell’s production with Gianni Quaranta’s monumental sets premiered in 1988 and   has held its place in the Met’s repertoire ever since with numerous cast changes. The attention this time was directed on Anna Netrebko who is singing her first Aida. She has the magical combination of vocal and star power to rivet attention on herself and she does not fail.     
A scene from Act 2 of Verdi’s "Aida" Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera
Listen to her first act great aria, “Ritorna vincitor!” for a bravura performance. She wants Radames, her lover and commander of the Egyptian forces, to defeat the Ethiopians and her father King Amonasro. It is a passionate and wrenching aria that requires vocal heights and emotional breadth and Netrebko delivers on all accounts.

“O patria mia” is another demanding aria in which fear, nostalgia, longing pain for the loss of her home and a desire for death as the only escape are mixed as Aida considers her future. She is a captive Ethiopian princess who must choose between love of country and love of a man, an Egyptian hero no less, with her father the King of Ethiopia thrown in for good measure. Netrebko captures all of the emotional turmoil passion and vocal splendour.

Aida’s competition for the love of Radames is the Egyptian princess Amneris, the daughter of the King. In this production Georgian mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili provides a balance if not competition for Netrebko.  She has a splendid mezzo voice that can produce a wonderful dark notes and emotional range as a woman torn with love, jealousy, anger and in the end rejection.

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is an outstanding singer who does a much better job as a military leader than as an emotional lover. With Netrebko and Rachvelishvili as his opposites, he tends to get buried but he deserves full credit for his performance in the Act II duet.

Quinn Kelsey sings the role of King Amonasro who is captured by the Egyptians and has the tough job of convincing his daughter to convince her lover Radames to betray his gods and his country. Kelsey pulls on all the motional heartstrings and succeeds in a fine performance.    
Anna Netrebko as Aida and Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris in Verdi's "Aida."
Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
On the huge Lincoln Centre Stage, the massive Egyptian sculptures, the lifts that can move sets around and the army of people created by the chorus and the extras give the impression that this is not a live performance in a theatre but a scene from, say, Cecil, B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. You almost expect the Red Sea to part.

Nicola Luisotti conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet in spectacular performances becoming the production.

Aida is the first opera to be broadcast from Lincoln Centre for the 13th season of Live in HD from the Met. For people who are unlikely to go to New York or have no opera available within reachable distance or cannot afford the price of a ticket anywhere, Live from the Met provides a great solution. You get to see ten operas every year at a sensible price from one of the world’s great opera companies.

Aida by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD at select Cineplex theatres across Canada on October 6, 2018 and can be seen again on November 3, 5, 7 and 11, 2018. For more information go to: www.cineplex.com/events

Thursday, October 11, 2018

WHAT IF ROMEO AND JULIET… – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

What if Romeo and Juliet… is a retelling of the story of the star-crossed lovers including the rhetorical questions asked in the title. The play is put on by Montreal’s Thêâtre DynamO at the Young People’s Theatre.

There are four actors who play multiple roles form Shakespeare’s play and we also hear Shakespeare’s voice played by Christopher Gaze. The story is told through acrobatics, dancing and spoken words but there is very little actual dialogue.
 
The cast of What if Romeo and Juliet... Photo: Guy Carl Dube
The play starts at the end of Romeo and Juliet when Romeo and Juliet and the other victims of the play are dead. They all revive to go to the ball at the beginning of the play where the lovers meet. They go through the balcony scene, fights and murder of Tybalt, Romeo’s banishment and the letter that never reaches him resulting in the death of both lovers.

The four actors who play the parts are highly athletic (three of them are in fact gymnasts) and the audience is treated to some very fancy acrobatics. Some of the scenes are in effect balletic and we get a very different rendition of the story. Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt and Benvolio are the main characters but the actors do represent some other entities.

The four actors/acrobats/dancers are Rosalie Dell’Aniello, Jéréie Earp, Agathe Foucault and Rémy Savard and they displayed talent and ability in the physical movements of the production. Creator Jackie Gosselin is very economical in the use of spoken words and most of them are directed towards the audience and there is very little interaction among the characters.

The set by Pierre-Étienne Locas consists of two ladders on wheels on a revolving stage. They provide for fluidity and motion. The colour red is emphasized but the lighting by designer Martin Sirois emphasizes dark tones almost throughout. The stage is almost never fully lit and watching the play for an hour in semi-darkness becomes ineffective. 
                                     The cast of What if Romeo and Juliet... Photo: Guy Carl Dube
The What if part of the title is never activated. I think we have the right to see Romeo and Juliet making different decisions or choices and even giving the story a different ending. All we have is a voice at the end asking what would have happened if the lovers had made different choices. Well, why don’t you give us your opinion?

I find audience reaction to YPT production interesting and at times highly enjoyable. For the 10:30 a.m. opening the centre section of the theatre was full of students and I felt that the reaction was muted and the applause at the end more polite than enthusiastic. I think they are the best judges of productions that are aimed at stimulating and entertaining them and the verdict on What if Romeo and Juliet… despite some fine features and display of talent must be less than enthusiastic.
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What if Romeo and Juliet… created by Jackie Gosselin based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opened on October 10 and continues until October 19, 2018 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Friday, October 5, 2018

THE CHILDREN – REVIEW OF CANADIAN STAGE PRODUCTION OF KIRKWOOD’S PLAY

James Karas

The Children may well be described as a domestic drama dealing with the eternal triangle. Robin (George Johnson) and Hazel (Laurie Paton) are a middle-aged couple living in a cottage by the sea in a remote area. They are visited by their old friend Rose (Fiona Reid) and share memories including a romantic relationship between Robin and Rose. There is still some sexual electricity between them but the wires are seriously frayed.

A domestic drama? Playwright Lucy Kirkwood slowly and meticulously reveals the main subject of the play as she interweaves facts about the outside world amid the memories of the past of the three characters. The subject could not be more terrible. 
 Laurie Paton and Fiona Reid. Photo: Dahlia Katz
When Rose arrives at the cottage, she has a nose-bleed. The cottage is situated just outside the exclusion zone and there is a nearby nuclear power plant. There is limited electrical power and there is radioactive contamination all around them Rose and Robin keep a dairy farm inside the exclusion zone but he goes there every day to “milk” the cows for some reason. I won’t tell you why.

There is much talk about children in The Children but there are no children.

Oh, yes, the three people in the cottage are physicists who had a hand in the design of the nearby nuclear power plant that imploded causing a massive earthquake and a tsunami. There are young scientists trying to repair the plant and stop the radioactive poison that is still seeping out causing unimaginable diseases.

Rose has not arrived at the cottage to reawaken a romance with Robin. She wants to disturb life in “the happy cottage” by inviting the couple to join her at the power plant.  I will not reveal more lest I spoil some dramatic moments.

Kirkwood’s interweaving the personal lives of the three people with the unimaginable catastrophe just outside the cottage is simply masterly. The old and current relationships of the couple and Rose keeps our attention as the real story unfolds before us of a world at its end.
 Fiona Reid, Laurie Paton and Geordie Johnson. Photo Dahlia Katz
Johnson, Paton and Reid, under the expert direction of Eda Holmes, give superb performances. They hide as much as they reveal and at the same time subtly disclose much more than we suspect. But all is done gradually and judiciously and, at times, almost imperceptibly.

Hazel describes her first impression of the oncoming disaster: eggs shaking and a rising tide, but nothing to worry about. That is how the play and this marvelous production struck me. But then she realized that the eggs shaking was the result of an earthquake and the rising tide was destructive tsunami. We also realize that this is no domestic drama.

The set by Eo Sharp represents the kitchen and sitting room of a simple cottage somewhere on the English coast. As with everything about the play, it is the undercurrents that count.

A superb production of an outstanding play.   
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 The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in a Canadian Stage and Centaur Theatre co-production continues until October 21, 2018 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com  416 368 3110

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

THE DYBBUK - REVIEW OF GESHER THEATRE PRODUCTION OF NEW VERSION

Reviewed by James Karas

How about a play performed in Hebrew with English and Russian surtitles put on by an Israeli theatre company that was founded by actors from Russia? Welcome to a new version of The Dybbuk in its North American premiere produced by Gesher Theatre at the elegant Elgin Theatre. If you did not make it to the Elgin Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, you are out of luck.

S. Ansky wrote The Dybbuk in 1914 in Russian and subsequently translated it into Yiddish and the play was later translated into Hebrew. It has gained iconic status in the theatrical pantheon which means it is manna for translators and adapters. The current version is written Roy Chen, “inspired by S. Ansky, according to program, a playwright and translator who is credited with translating some 40 plays into Hebrew.
 
                                Israel Demidov as Khanan on top of the synagogue roof. Photo: Daniel Kaminski
The Dybbuk has a fascinating plot about small Jewish community in the nineteenth century where a young woman is possessed by an evil spirit, a dybbuk.    

The play opens Fiddler-on-the-Roof style with a young man called Khanan sitting on the roof of the synagogue telling God that he is in love with Leah. Khanan is passionate and determined but he is described as a gimp. Whatever the precise meaning of that word, it is derogatory and in the opinion of Leah’s father Sender, he may be described as a loser. Sender wants Leah to marry the more sociably acceptable Menashe. Khanan joins the dead.

We observe Jewish rituals and traditions surrounding a wedding but before the marriage ceremony can be concluded, Leah is possessed by Khanan’s spirit. The Dybbuk is subtitled Between Two Worlds and indeed we go to the Underworld where Khanan joins the ghost of Hanna, Leah’s mother and other people from village.

Leah’s grandmother Frieda tries to exorcise the spirit that possesses her granddaughter and Menashe insists on marrying her.   
Marriage of Leah (Efrant Ben-Tzur) to Khanan's ghost. Photo: Daniel Kaminski 
Director Yevgeny Arye with Set Designer Simon Pastukh and Lighting Designer Igor Kapustin stage the play in a dark, foreboding, smoke-filled and ghostly atmosphere. Much of the action takes place in a small glass cubicle while other scenes are in the gloomy and bone-chilling cemetery. There is some humour in the play especially as Frieda attempts to find some formula or recipe to expel the dybbuk but aside from that this is the murky world of the twilight zone.

Efrat Ben-Tzur plays the unfortunate Leah and she dominates the play. Leah is the product of a patriarchal society where she must obey her father and she is a woman in love who becomes possessed by her lover’s spirit. The latter is almost a mad scene reminiscent of Renaissance drama. These scenes place high demands on the actor and Ben-Tzur fulfills them with exemplary talent.

Israel (Sasha) Demidov as Khanan goes from the hapless gimp to a ghostly spirit in the underworld, all passion and determination against insurmountable odds. A dramatic performance.

Doron Tavori as Sender is the classic patriarch, controlling, demanding, unbending. In that tradition and in that world he cannot be anything else and Tavori is thoroughly convincing.

Fira Kanter turns in a fine performance as the sympathetic grandmother who tries what she can to free Leah from her demon.

There is a fiddler and there is a roof in The Dybbuk but there is no Tevye to sing “If I were a rich man” or “Do you love me?” But there is an absorbing and highly dramatic play featuring superb performances and fine-tuned directing and providing a fascinating afternoon at the theatre.
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The Dybbuk by Roy Chen, inspired by S. Ansky was performed on September 29 and 30, 2018 in a production by Gesher Theatre at the Elgin Theatre 189 Queen Street, Toronto, Ont. www.ShowOneProductions.ca

Friday, September 21, 2018

A NUMBER – REVIEW OF CARYL CHURCHILL PLAY AT WYCHWOOD

James Karas

In 1996, Dolly became world-famous on the day of her birth. For those with a short memory. Dolly was a Scottish sheep that was cloned, well, from what else but another Scottish sheep. The cloning raised all kinds of questions but playwright Caryl Churchill took her own approach in her 2002 play A Number.

The two-hander takes place somewhere in England, sometime in the future. Salter is an awkward, uncommunicative, and emotionally almost paralyzed man, around sixty years old. When we first see him, he is wearing ordinary rumpled clothes but has a tie on. He has difficulty uttering a word. The other man on the stage is genetically the son of Salter.
 
Nora McLellan and M. John Kennedy. Photo by Dahlia Katz Photography.
Salter’s wife was killed in a car accident when his son Bernard was two. Bernard died when he was four and a grieving father had his son cloned and the young man talking with Salter is a copy, he is Bernard (B2). He is not the only copy of the dead child but one of “a number” of clones that were produced by the scientists.

Salter, whose emotional incompetence is severe enough to qualify him as a robot, is upset about the large number of copies made of his “original” son whom he thought dead but who is now confronting him about the fact that he is not the only son. Salter’s reaction is to threaten to sue for millions for the excessive number copies made of his son.

The original Bernard, (B1), appears and he wants to kill the other Bernards. The two Bernards and Michael Black may be clones but they are very different people. Not surprisingly, the father does not have the emotional depth or strength to make a connection with his three children, let alone the “number” of others who are out there.

The question of “who am I” is unanswerable on many levels and Churchill does not try to answer it or delve into the philosophical issues raised by cloning. That would have been the short route to producing a bore. But the four characters she has created do make an intriguing and mysterious quartet in a futuristic world.

Salter is played by Nora McLellan in man’s clothing and she gives a superb performance as the lost sheep of a father. The clones are played by M. John Kennedy who transforms himself into the three characters seamlessly and very ably.

The set by Cat Haywood represents a kitchen and sitting area of a modest house or apartment and is perfectly apt. Director Dahlia Katz has a perfect take on the play by emphasizing the characters of the father and the sons and she gets splendid performances from the two actors.

Dolly was cloned more than twenty years ago and cloning has been off the front pages for a long time. This futuristic play however is still worth seeing for Churchill’s imaginative reception of what might happen if someone like Salter is faced with three of his sons in the future especially if it is on stage.
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A Number by Caryl Churchill in a production by Solar Stage and Lunar Stage Projects plays until September 22, 2018 at the Wychwood Theatre, 601 Christie Street, Toronto, Ont. www.Solarstage.on.com

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

I CALL MYSELF PRINCESS – REVIEW OF NEW PLAY BY JANI LAUZON

James Karas

I Call myself Princess is an ambitious new play by Jani Lauzon that tackles “half a thousand years” of the history of the indigenous people of North America and their white conquerors. The springboard for the play is the opera Shanewis (The Robin Woman) by composer Charles Wakefield Cadman and librettist Nelle Eberhart based partly on the life of Creek/Cherokee mezzo soprano Tsianina Redfeather.

Shanewis was produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1918 and was seen again in Hollywood in 1926. It disappeared almost completely from the repertoire after that but it serves Lauzon as an excellent metaphor for the fate of indigenous culture in North America.
The cast of I Call myself Princes. Photo: Dahlia Katz 
Tsianina was American but Lauzon adds a Canadian framework to bring the themes of the play to the present.

William Morin (Aaron Wells), a Metis from Winnipeg is granted a scholarship to study music in Toronto. He comes across Shanewis and the story of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman). We are taken back to the beginning of the twentieth century and meet Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and librettist Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). William has a black friend called Alex (Howard Davis who also plays the baritone Clyde in the play).

Whether we are in the early twentieth or in the 21st century, Tsianina is almost always present until she and William start interacting across time in the past/present. Cadman and Eberhart are interested in “Indianist” music and they borrow native songs indiscriminately. Tsianina owes her success to a white benefactress and sings “You Must Thank my Benefactress” from Shanewis. She is an American to the extent that she served as a volunteer with the U.S. forces in Europe during World War I. But she is very much an indigenous woman ahead of her time who wants to preserve indigenous culture and change the Americans’ view of Indians (that’s what they were called then and for a long time after that).     

William is a modern firebrand who looks back at half a thousand years of defeat, marginalization and destruction of indigenous culture and people. He does not go as far as pointing out that the American treatment of Indians was nothing less than a genocide and that the Canadian experience appeared more benign until the history of the residential schools was finally exposed in all its cruelty and genocidal intent.

The benign but realistic approach of Tsianina contrasts with the anger of William and in the end we can glean perhaps a wise resolution.

I Call myself Princess is described as a play with opera and we hear about a dozen pieces from Shanewis sung by the cast especially by Marion Newman. She describes herself as Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish and, like Tsianina, is an ardent supporter of indigenous culture. 
 Ch’ng Lancaster as Nelle Eberhart, Marion Newman as Tsianina Redfeather. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Wells comes from Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tsmpsian Nations of British Columbia and he sings a number of pieces. 

The set by Christine Urquhart is minimalist consisting of a piano which accompanies the singers and a few pieces of furniture as necessary.

Director Marjorie Chan has to direct a play on grand themes as well as an opera to some extent. She has her hands full and does a good job.

Lauzon tackles the story of the indigenous people of North America with acuity and sensitivity. It is a story that has been at best mostly ignored and at worst grotesquely misrepresented. There are vocal limitations and the play gets occasionally preachy and even creaky but that does not detract from its value as a history that needs to be examined and told many times in the long process of changing the wrongful images into reality and giving us a complete and fair image of indigenous people.

I Call myself Princess is produced by Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre Productions in association with Native Earth Performing Arts.
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I Call myself Princess  by Jani Lauzon opened on September 13, 2018 and continues at Aki Studio, Native Earth Performing Arts, 585 Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ont.