Tuesday, December 11, 2018

THE RUNNER – REVIEW OF HUMAN CARGO THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Christopher Morris’s The Runner is a simple play where a rescue worker tells us what he does. Simple play in this case means a piece that delivers an unforgettable narrative of events that are full of humanity from a region where it seems to be all too frequently absent.

Jacob, the only character in the play, is an Orthodox Jew who works for Z.A.K.A., an organization of volunteers. Their gruesome task is to gather the body parts and blood of victims of terrorist attacks in Israel and around the world. The impetus for this seems to be the religious conviction that a Jew should be buried whole.

Jacob finds a dead Israeli man and near him a teenage Arab girl still alive but bleeding. He believes that there are no Palestinians – only Arabs and has no reason not to think that the young girl killed the Israeli man. But something extraordinary happens to Jacob. His humanity overwhelms his life’s mission as a rescuer of victims of Arab terrorists. The Arab terrorist becomes another human being and he tries to save her life. In his attempt to save her, some of her blood spurts in his mouth and he swallows it. 
It is an arresting event for Jacob and the audience.         

Jacob goes to a mass grave site in Ukraine where the remains of Jews massacred by the Nazis are found. All the victims have a bullet hole in their heads. He sees the corpses of a mother and her child. She is hugging and holding the child close to her but for what? To comfort it? To protect it? To make sure it does not witness the final moments of life?

A scene that takes your breath away.

The title describes literally what happens in the play. Gord Rand as Jacob literally runs or walks throughout the 80-minute performance without an intermission. The set by Gillian Gallow consists of a raised platform the width of a treadmill that could be a conveyor belt on which Rand walks or occasionally runs while he tells us stories of horror and humanity.

A spotlight is shone on Jacob as he runs/walks on the belt and there are times when he seems almost unable to continue. He tells about his domestic life with a mother who has dinner ready for him every night and of her desire for him to get married. He is criticized for helping the Arab girl, especially by his brother. But Jacob persists. His towering humanity overwhelms the hatreds that have made Jews and Palestinians implacable enemies with the latter wanting nothing less than the annihilation of the other.

Gord Rand gives a magnificent performance under the direction of Daniel Brooks in this hymn to humanity.   
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The Runner by Christopher Morris, in a production by Human Cargo Theatre supported by Theatre Passe Muraille, ran from November 10 to December 9, 2018 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.on.ca (416) 504-7529

Friday, November 30, 2018

THE MESSAGE – REVIEW OF SHERMAN’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

James Karas

First, the good news.

Jason Sherman’s new play, The Message, has a superior cast of actors and an experienced creative team. The result is a production with superb acting. R.H. Thomson, one of Canada’s finest actors, plays Marshall McLuhan, a highly demanding role.

The play is about McLuhan from the time he suffers a stroke to his death. For some of the time McLuhan cannot speak or has difficulty communicating. He has moments of lucidity and the brilliant scholar, philosopher and indeed prophet comes out. Thomson is seated much of the time and his portrayal of the lion in the last throes of life with glances at better times is a tour de force performance. 
Sarah Orenstein, Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson. 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Peter Hutt takes on three roles as the exuberant Gerald Feigen, Paul Klein and a student. He has lots of opportunities for high jinx and sober acting which he takes on with relish.

Patrick McManus plays the more reserved Howard Gossage and Father Frank. He is also Dr. Hildebrand who removes a tumor the size of a golf ball from McLuhan’s head. Yes, it is a real golf ball on stage and welcome to the elements of the theatre of the absurd. Sarah Orenstein plays McLuhan’s wife Corinne and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is the efficient assistant.

Now for the rest.

If The Message has a message I did not get it. Is the play intended for people who are thoroughly versed in McLuhan’s life and work? I plead relative ignorance on both counts and that may explain my not getting the message.
 
Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 
We get snippets of McLuhan’s humour, his love of puns, his admiration of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A great work of literature, no doubt, which I find, mea culpa, mea culpa, completely incomprehensible. McLuhan wants to hear it in an Irish brogue. Some of his complex ideas drive by me without my finding a parking space in my mind.

The set by Camellia Koo consists of a large chair on which we find McLuhan and a reversible bookshelf to indicate McLuhan’s home and office at the university. It is functional and superb.

Director Richard Rose does everything right with the production except for making the content of the play comprehensible. The ideas of a brilliant man shown in the context of his stroke, his inability to speak and his habit of being repetitive are hardly a good combination. The play is simply too dense, slow and in the end provides an untheatrical night at the theatre. 
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The Message by Jason Sherman opened on November 14 and continues until December 16, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

OI EROSYLIES - REVIEW OF SCANDALIS’S PLAY AT ALUMNAE THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

George Scandalis is back for a third production in Greek at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto. He has written, directed and stars in Oi Erosylies (Οι Ερωσυλίες), whose central theme is love and the many forms that it can take. There are many other tentacles in the plot but you can only get them or try to in any event if you see the play.

The inspiration for the play is the poetry of Erofili Gerasimidou and a central image is the Bourboulia, a masked ball with a difference that forms a part of the Patras Festival. The play takes place in the city of Patras.

A couple of explanations may be helpful. In the Bourboulia, women attend the ball with their faces fully covered and frequently engage in sex with unknown partners. It is an expression of feminist freedom for one night and the event dates back to 1872. It may not be exactly Dionysian revels but one could find something bacchanalian in it.

The title of the play is a word coined by Ms Gerasimidou. It comes from the word ierosylia (ιεροσυλία) which means sacrilege. Ms Gerasimidou’s first name is formed from the words “eros” and “filia” which can mean a lover of eros. Erosylia may mean the theft of love. You may get a better understanding if you see the play.

Eri (Stella Makrogiannakou) and Maria (Stavroula Karnouskou) are cousins or maybe sisters and they live with Yiota (Irene Bithas) whom they address as mother. There are many facts that you will have to figure out for yourself and I will not spoil the plot for you by revealing too much.

Maria has been engaged to Petros (George Scandalis) for some ten years but he is not marrying her because he cannot afford it. Maria is a very nice and lovable girl. Eri is the wild type who goes out at night and her mother is furious with her to the extent of calling her a slut. Yiota is a very devout Christian but there is more to her religious zeal than meets the eye.

The girls get an invitation to the Bourboulia and Eri meets Petros there. We know that they have sex there but who else knows that for certain? And when is Petros going to marry Maria?

These are the questions and complications that will keep us busy for about three hours. The performance contains extensive reading of Ms Gerasimidou’s poems which are arranged chronologically like a diary of love and separation. We hear a voice over reciting lines of her poetry. Dramatic scenes are highlighted by background music which at times takes over.

There are nine roles in addition to the four major parts that I mentioned. Some are well defined like the ditzy Natasha (Elaine Sarantakos) and her boyfriend Antonis (Dimitri Hatzikonstadinou) but others are not as recognizable. The lack of a cast list with the roles they play does not help.

The set is indicated by minimal pieces of furniture. Yiota’s house has a table and a wall full of icons, the outdoor scene is indicated by a bench and a couple of flower pots, a bed is pushed on stage when necessary and the rest of the time they perform on an empty stage.

The play, at three hours including intermission, could use some dramaturgical surgery. Yiota’s confession, for example, even when delivered by Irene Bithas, can use some trimming. The voice over announcing the number of days and providing some kind of chronology needs to be clearer.

Theatre in impeccable Greek in downtown Toronto, written, directed and starring a young Canadian of Greek descent? And supported by what looks like a large segment of the Greeks of Toronto? And attended by a significant number of young people? Yes, to all.
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Oi Erosylies (Οι Ερωσυλίες) by George Scandalis opened on November 22 and will be performed ten times until December 2, 2018 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.tentoneproductions.com

WHAT I CALL HER - REVIEW OF ELLIE MOON’S PLAY AT CROW’S THEATRE

James Karas

Ellie Moon’s What I Call Her delivers a solid punch, both physical and emotional, in its climactic scene. The play builds up to an even higher emotional apex after that with some outstanding acting by Ellie Ellwand and Charlie Gould. Unfortunately there are problems with the breadth of the play and the road to the final, enigmatic resolution.

Kyle (Michael Ayres) and Kate (Charlie Gould) are a young couple, living in a simple apartment in the Leslieville part of Toronto. They are affectionate and apparently well suited for each other. We quickly find out that Kyle comes from a very happy family whereas Kate was raised in a dysfunctional household and harbours deep-rooted hatred and revulsion against her mother and her sister.
Michael Ayres and Charlie Gould. Photo: Dahlia Katz
We will soon find out that there are some serious fissures in Kyle’s ideal family but that will be only a minor sideline.

Kate’s mother is in a hospice on death’s door and Kate has started writing her obituary. As the plot develops, the obituary takes and maintains the central focus for far too long. We slowly realize that Kate in her recollection and hatred of her family may be relating events that did not happen, myths that she has created or reliving her own psychoses.

When her sister Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) appears, unexpected and unwanted, Kate’s precarious emotional balance explodes in an expression of hatred and other complex feelings about her.

The sisters go through a roller coaster of emotions about their relationship and their relationship with their mother. The mother was sexually abused as a child and was a seriously damaged human being. Her children have inherited, perhaps, her damaged personality but are largely unaware of it and blame the mother for abusive conduct, which, as I said, may have little or no basis in reality.

Gould and Ellwand display some incredible emotional intensity in their acting. Ayres as Kyle is stuck between the two sisters deflecting shocks and being treated to some abuse himself.
Charlie Gould and Ellie Ellwand. Photo: Dahlia Katz
The problem is that there is not sufficient objective correlative to the emotional reactions. Kate is writing an obituary before her mother is dead that she does not intend to publish. Is she doing it for therapeutic reasons, for posthumous revenge, for expiation of her feelings towards her mother and her sister? Possibly. It is a thin plot device that does not sustain the play to the heights that Ellie Moon seems to have intended.

The author, the actors, director Sarah Kitz and the creative team are all young and with the exception of Ayres and composer Ali Berkok, they are all women who show a great deal of talent. The production company In Association, was founded in 2016 with the purpose of producing Ellie 

Moon’s first play Asking for It. What I Call Her is worth seeing for that reason alone and for the possibilities that it so clearly promises.  
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What I Call Her by Ellie Moon, in a production by In Association in partnership with Crow’s Theatre, opened on November 21 and will play until December 8, 2018 at the Scotiabank Community Studio, Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/

Saturday, November 24, 2018

KAPODISTRIAS – REVIEW OF READING OF KAZANTZAKIS’S PLAY

By James Karas

For those of us who complain about the paucity of Greek theatre in Toronto (starting with me), the local branch of the International Society of Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis (ISFNK), had a surprise for us last Sunday, November 18, 2018. They introduced us to Nikos Kazantzakis’s tragedy Kapodistrias at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre of the Greek Community of Toronto.

The number of people who have seen any of Kazantzakis’s thirteen plays, let alone Kapodistrias, cannot be many. In Toronto we have seen adaptations of his novels Zorba the Greek and The Greek Passion (under the title He Who Must Die) but I am not aware of any of his plays having been ever been staged.

Toronto’s Friends of Kazantzakis under the capable leadership of Voula Vetsis with the help of the Greek Community of Toronto and the Cretans’ Association of Toronto “Knossos” has given us a partial reading of Kapodistrias.

Director Maria Kordoni uses a narrator for introductory and connecting material (the inimitable Irene Stubos) and four actors to read some of the lines of seven characters of the play as well as a chorus of four women. The play has fifteen parts and a chorus that can vary in number, and is quite long. Irene Stubos made some judicial choices for what she offered the audience that packed Polymenakio Centre and was also responsible for the casting. [In my review in The Greek Press I erroneously credited the editing of the play to the director].
 
The murder of Kapodistrias by Charalambos Pachis.
The main character is of course Ioannis Kapodistrias and Andreas Batakis does an exceptional job in reading his lines. Kazantzakis’s Kapodistrias is an intellectual with political wisdom and a vision of a new Greece without fratricidal factions. He is a Christ-like figure who knows that his death is near but is ready to sacrifice himself for the people.

Batakis is tall and broad-faced, physical features appropriate for a sympathetic portrayal of Kapodistrias, as well as the vocal intonation to achieve a representation of the tragic figure. Dimitris Kobiliris reads the honest and fearless Makriyiannis. Yiannis Kassios reads Papagiorgis while Ioannis Dimitriou is the gruff Kolokotronis. The latter doubles as the assassin Konstantis Mavromichalis. Thanasis Adamos reads the parts of Giorgakis Mavromichalis and Gikas.

No one should underestimate the effort and success of the actors. Except, for the chorus, they all had to read Kazantzakis’s rather awkward thirteen-syllable verse which results in almost all speaking in a similar vein.

The chorus made up of Panagiota Vogdou, Maria Diolitsi, Ourania Korentos and Dr. Maria Lychnaki delivered some of the choral passages of the play very competently.    

The actors read their lines while seated and my only comment would be that they may have been better off if they read them standing at lecterns. This would have given them more freedom of movement including having the script on a lectern rather than their laps and would have been easier to indicate who would have been on stage in a full production.

Kazantzakis wrote Kapodistrias in 1944, near the end of the German occupation of Greece. It was produced by the National Theatre of Greece in 1946 when Greece was torn by fanatic factions and political hatreds. Despite Kapodistrias’s and Kazantzakis’s plea for moderation, all-out verbal war broke out in the newspapers between the left and right political extremes and the production was quickly closed.

The play was not produced again until 1976 and the same production was mounted in 1982. These three production, if my information is correct, are the sum total of stagings of Kapodistrias in Greece.

The local Friends of Kazantzakis who were organized in 1988, may have achieved a lot more than they are even aware of.
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Kapodistrias by Nikos Kazantzakis was performed once on November 18, 2018 at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre, Greek Community of Toronto, 30 Thornecliffe Park Drive, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

ESCAPED ALONE – REVIEW OF NECESSARY ANGEL AND SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Escaped Alone is an abstruse, absurdist play that Soulpepper endows with a fine production and superb performances.

Three old women are sitting in a fenced yard when a fourth woman sees a door in the fence and walks in. They all speak in short sentences, many of no more than three words. What are they talking about? Much of the time it is impossible to tell although there are a few facts that can be gleaned eventually.

Are they demented old women who talk in a stream of consciousness manner about whatever comes to their head or as they are prompted by a remark of one of the other women? Perhaps. We will find out that one of them murdered her husband and spent six years in prison. Another one is afraid of cats and there is talk of birds. Can we believe everything or anything they say or is author Caryl Churchill giving us an impressionist sketch of women who have gone gaga? Perhaps. They may remember or imagine shadows from their past and shadows are impossible to capture.
 
Kyra Harper, Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, and Maria Vacratsis. 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
The title of the play does give us a handle in trying to figure out what is going on. It refers to Job of the Old Testament where four servants appear before him each informing him of disastrous loss of property and of the death of all his children. Each servants ends his description of the catastrophe with the phrase “and I alone have escaped to tell thee.” The wealthy Job suffers and endures appalling and tragic losses that are almost unimaginable to us.

Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter), the woman who walks through the gate in the fence, gives an apocalyptic description of the earth shortly after joining the other women. She speaks of four hundred thousand tons of rock sliding from the hillside and aimed at children’s heads. Life moves underground where people survive by eating the dead and rats. In the end only a few insane people survive.

The women, Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) continue chatting in their non-sequential manner about shopping and Mrs. Jarrett delivers another apocalyptic description of the world. The basic order of nature is reversed as rivers change their course and flow towards their tributaries. Floods cause villages and cities to vanish.

Sally makes a long speech about cats and Vi tells us that she does not like the kitchen any longer. That’s where she killed her husband.
 
Clare Coulter. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
The play lasts one hour with some facts coming to life during the dialogue which can sound like gibberish and the longer descriptive speeches by the characters. While Mrs. Jarrett feels terrible rage, the ladies tell a joke about why the chicken did not cross the road. Mrs. Jarrett decides she likes it there, thanks the women for the tea and goes home.

The actors have the formidable task of learning their lines alone and director Jennifer Tarver has the job of coordinating the non sequitors, pacing the performance and coming up with a fine theatrical product.   

This production of Escaped Alone marks its Canadian premiere and is a coproduction by Soulpepper and Necessary Angel Theatre Company.
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Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill runs until November 25, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  416 866-8666.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

THE PENELOPIAD – REVIEW OF HART HOUSE THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

In her 2005 novel The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood took us on a romp of a retelling of the story of Penelope, the famous wife of the far more famous Odysseus. She gave it a feminist perspective and told the story from the point of view of Penelope and, according to Homer in the Odyssey the twelve servants who betrayed her and were hanged by Odysseus

The novel was turned into a play and was staged at Stratford-upon-Avon, among other places, by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Arts Centre of Canada. It is now playing at Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto.

The play opens with Penelope in Hades telling us her own story as the unattractive daughter of Icarus and a naiad who was won by Odysseus and packed off to marry him at age 15. She gives us background information not included in the Odyssey. 
Amanda Cordner as Penelope. Photo: Scott Gorman
We see her twelve maids who are also in Hades, accuse her of treachery for not speaking up in their defence. You will recall that the suitors who had invaded Odysseus’s palace during his 20 year absence were pressuring Penelope to marry one of them. Her ruse of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes was helped by the servants who were in cahoots with her.

The servants cavorted with the suitors and maintained the ruse (mostly) but when Odysseus returned he ordered them executed for treachery.

Amanda Cordner as Penelope tells her story in a dramatic and effective manner. She presents Penelope as intelligent, faithful, patient and wily (like her husband) but also smart enough to pretend that she did not recognize him on his return or did not know about his infidelities.

The twelve maids form a chorus and they sing, dance and speak the light, sometimes burlesque verses that Atwood wrote. Some of the singing is humorous, some of it lyrical and some atrocious. They speak in groups of four or all twelve in unison and I find that approach quite annoying. You prick up your ears to follow what they are saying and it amounts to a lot of trouble for very little. There are a number of times when they sounded as if they were cackling.
 The women of the ensemble, Amanda Cordner as Penelope. Photo: Scott Gorman, 
The cast of thirteen are all women and they play more than a couple of dozen characters. Ellie Posadas is allowed to overact as the beautiful Helen and presents her as a bimbo and a moron. A nice and funny take on the famous slut. Neta J. Rose play the faithful servant Euricleia as an old hag.  
The actors who play Odysseus (Arielle Zamora), Icarus (Shannon Dickens), and Antinous (Julia Hussey) come across as female impersonators which is in keeping with the burlesque take on Homer. They are mostly caricatures resembling something from Monty Python. 

Director Michelle Langille has to deal with the serious, feminist approach to the story as well as the lighter side of Atwood’s verse.

Penelope has been usually (but by no means always) viewed as the ideal wife, a paragon of virtue, patience, fidelity and intelligence. She was the product of the imagination of men in a strictly patriarchal society. The same society did produce men who created heroic women like Antigone and Lysistrata. So that the feminist point of view is not entirely missing.

This transfer from novel to stage is not always successful but the young actors and production team of Hart House Theatre who are almost all amateurs deserve kudos for the production.   

You will get an interesting romp through the world of the Odyssey from a different perspective.
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The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood continues until November 24, 2018 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849