Friday, November 28, 2014

OF MICE AND MEN – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION IN NEW YORK

James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lennie
Reviewed by James Karas

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, is a story about loneliness, abiding hope, enduring aspiration for security and above all friendship. The story of the friendship between the quick-witted George and the simpleton Lennie has a mythical quality to it that reaches back to Damon and Pythias, and Achilles and Patroclus. 
   
The defining words on friendship for the modern world perhaps belong to E. M. Forster: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Steinbeck’s dramatization of his book received an outstanding production from England’s National Theatre and a performance at New York’s Longacre Theatre was broadcast in movie theatres.

George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) are itinerant ranch workers in depression-era California. George is intelligent and a friend of the simple-minded Lennie. They are very different people but are joined in their dream for a piece of property where they can live off the fat of the land, as they say.

In the movie theatre, one has the advantage of looking into George’s intelligent, sharp eyes and tough demeanor. As for Lennie, his eyes express his simplicity, kindness and love of soft things. We also see his roughness as he pats mice and puppies to death. Eventually he will panic and break Curley’s Wife’s neck. Leighton Meester is excellent as the flirty, fragile, dreamy and lonely woman who wants to escape from the ranch.

The production’s success is based on the outstanding interplay between George and Lennie.  Lennie annoys and exasperates George but makes him laugh too. George knows that Lennie cannot survive without him but he dreams along with him of a better life.

There is only praise for the motley workers at the ranch.  Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones) is immensely moving as the black outcast who is left with nothing but still harbours a dream.

Leighton Meester is excellent as the flirty, fragile, dreamy and lonely wife of Curley. She is a pathetic woman who wants to escape.

Jim Norton is superb as the pathetic Candy. Old and crippled, he has a blind and stinking dog as his companion which is eventually killed. He too wants to join George and Lennie in their quest for a piece of land.

Anna D. Shapiro directs a masterly production from the happy daydreams of the opening act to the final tragedy. The close-ups in the movie theatre are a great advantage but there are drawbacks. The puppy that Lennie squeezes to death is obviously a puppet. In the theatre, we would not be able to notice it. But the details of the facial expressions, the dazed, dreamy look in Lennie’s eyes; the meanness in Curley’s look; the facial expressions in Curley’s Wife’s face are all extraordinary bonuses in an extraordinary production.

I have one compliant. In the final dramatic scene, when George is describing their dreamy future and asks Lennie to “see” their piece of land in front of him, he (George) steps back but stands on Lennie’s side. The scene would be more effective if he stood behind Lennie. I felt as if Lenie could see what George was about to do to him in his peripheral vision.

George and Lennie may well have been betrayed by their country and George may have betrayed his country’s  justice system but in the end he acted like a true friend.
________

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck was shown on November 24, 2014 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

NSFW - REVIEW OF KIRKWOOD’S PLAY AT THEATRE CENTRE


Patrick Galligan, Ian D. Clark & Jessica Greenberg
Reviewed by James Karas

NSFW is a fast-paced satire by Lucy Kirkwood that is receiving its Canadian premiere at The Theatre Centre. It takes on several issues and the result is a entertaining and intriguing night at the theatre. The acronym stands for Not Safe for Work which is internet lingo for what to avoid watching during office hours and that is:  soft porn.

Aidan (Patrick Galligan) is the ruthless editor of a trashy magazine called Doghouse. He bullies his staff into going to the Arctic or writing sleazy articles about themselves and acts like an arrogant jerk. The cover of the latest issue has the photograph of a topless girl which was submitted by one of the magazine’s readers. Unfortunately the girl is only 14 and Sam (Aaron Stern), an editorial assistant, obtained her consent by fraud.

All hell breaks loose when the girl’s father, Mr. Bradshaw (Ian D. Clark), arrives threatening to ruin the magazine and the editor.

Aidan has two other employees, a straight-faced assistant, Charlotte (Jessica Greenberg) and a skittish writer named Rupert (James Graham). Most of the first half of the 90-minute play is taken up with the ferocious argument between Aidan and Mr. Bradshaw about the morality of publishing the photograph, the attempts to bribe the father and threats and counterthrusts between the two men.      

 James Graham, Susan Coyle & Aaron Stern

The second half of the play presents the obverse of the first. We are in the office of Electra, a trashy magazine for women run by Miranda (Susan Coyne). The magazine is ostensibly concerned with women’s beauty, perhaps perfection, however that may be achieved.  Sam lost his job at Doghouse many months ago and she is interviewing him for a job. She seems to be nuts if not a psychopath as she belittles, humiliates and plays games with the hapless Sam.

She has already hired and done the same thing to Rupert by having him try beauty enhancing products like Botox.

Galligan has to speak at breakneck speeds as he tries to put down Bradshaw. The argument teeter totters with Bradshaw and Aidan getting the upper hand in one turn and being bulldozed in the next. Galligan has the toughest role in the play. He has to go through a gamut of stages as he tries to crush Clark’s character who takes a high moral tone until he is reduced to bargaining about the size of the bribe. Very good work by the two actors.

Coyne establishes dominance over Stern’s Sam and has him wiggling like a small fish on a large hook. She is very good as the domineering, superficially classy, bitchy, funny and, as I said, perhaps psychotic editor. Stern is very credible as the squirming, unemployed wimp who tries to save some of his dignity until he is crushed.  

The play is set in England and it opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Canadian actors have a perennial problem in achieving an English accent and the problem persisted in this production. They all tried but the result was uneven.

Director Joel Greenberg wasted no time in setting a high-speed production in motion. The speed is modulated especially in the second act and we get the laughs, the satire, and the dark side of publishing. If watching certain sites on the internet during work is not safe, having a boss like Aidan or Miranda is nothing short of disastrous.

Go see the play.
___


NSFW (Not Safe for Work) by Lucy Kirkwood opened on November 7 and will play until November 30, 2014 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org Tel: 416 538-0988 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

SEXTET – REVIEW OF PANYCH PLAY AT TARRAGON

Jordan Pettle, Matthew Edison, Damien Atkins, Laura Condlin, Rebecca Northan, Bruce Dow. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas
  
Sextet is one of the wittiest plays that I have seen in a some time and that is not its greatest virtue. Morris Panych’s play that just premiered at the Tarragon Theatre is funny, highly intelligent, thoroughly entertaining and has the marvelous backdrop of music by Arnold Schoenberg and poetry by Richard Dehmel.

The title refers to a string sextet (four men, two women) stuck in a cheap motel in some small town while on a concert tour. The set consists of six identical beds under the sign MOTEL where the musicians are staying. They run form one room to another or jump from one bed to the next as we find out about their lives, loves, lusts and sexual predilections.

They are a colourful group. Otto (Jordan Pettle) is a test-tube baby (his mother was artificially inseminated), he is on love with Mavis (Rebecca Northan) who, he thinks, is pregnant by him.

Mavis is married to Gerard (Bruce Dow) who has low sperm count and cannot be the father of Mavis’s baby. Mavis cannot be pregnant by Otto because they had “missionary style” sex and she can only become pregnant if she squats during sex.

We have horny Sylvia (Laura Condlin), gay Harry (Damien Atkins), perhaps bisexual Dirk (Matthew Edison) and the interaction among the six, the sexual and musical jokes, witticisms and wide range of references come at breakneck speed and are simply delightful.

Panych, who also directs, has structured the play not only around quick dialogue but also around interchanges that begin with a character saying something in one room and someone else replying in another part of the stage/motel. It gives the play and the production great fluidity and keeps the audience’s attention riveted to the performance. It also resembles the performance by the sextet where one instrument picks up the melody followed the other players, individually, in different groups or all together.

We get some marvelous performances. Dow’s Gerard keeps reminding us that he is not wearing a dress as he grabs Harry’s behind. He is quite funny. Atkins is simply hilarious as the gay musician who insists this is his last tour. He is attracted to the macho Dirk who has his own problems. He can only masturbate with his feet above his head!

Condlin brings in a fine performance as the neurotic and permanently aroused Sylvia. Northan’s Mavis is more down to earth as she tries to get semen from someone so she can fool her husband into believing that he actually fathered her child.

The play has Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and German writer Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same title as its backdrop. Schoenberg was only 24 when he composed the sextet in a few weeks in 1899 when his love affair with his future wife Mathilde Zemlinsky was blossoming.

Parts of Dehmel’s poem echo in the play. In the poem two lovers meet in a cold grove on a moonlit night. She confesses to her lover that she is carrying another man’s child. He consoles her by saying that love will transfigure the strange man’s child and it will become theirs.

Love provides absolution of sins and transfiguration in Schoenberg’s sextet and Dehmel’s poem as well as in Panych’s play.

Kudos to Panych for writing and brilliant directing. The timing and delivery of the lines require precise timing and concise delivery to give the full extent of the hunour and the background of the play and high praise is due to the entire production.

An amazing night at the theatre.
                                           ______


Sextet  by Morris Panych opened on November 12 and will run until  December 14, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ARCADIA – REVIEW OF TOM STOPPARD’S PLAY AT ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE

Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom, Gray Powell as Hodge, Sanjay Talwar as Captain Brice, RN, Andrew Bunker as Ezra Chater and Kate Besworth as Thomasina. Photo by David Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas

Where can you get a clear explanation of carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem in two simple sentences? You are probably ignorant of one of those functions but you have already learned that carnal embrace consists of throwing your arms around a side of beef so that your education is proceeding apace.

You find all that out and more in the first minute or so of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. This is a revival of last year’s production at the Shaw Festival and continues to be a play and a production to be savored.

Stay focused on carnal embraces or sexual congresses, if you will, because it is an entertaining part of the play amid some abstruse scientific, philosophical, mathematical, botanical, cosmological and other discussions. Not to mention that by the tenth line of the play you encountered references to Julius Caesar and Genesis that you quite likely missed.

The point to be made is that Arcadia is a brilliant play that has a vast array of references, some esoteric, some familiar, all adding up to dazzling dialogue, laughter and mental gymnastics.

With one small change, the cast is the same as in the Shae Festival production of 2013 directed brilliantly by Eda Holmes.

Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an aristocratic mansion in England, in 1809-1812 and during the present (the play was first produced in 1993). In the 19th century, Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) is tutoring Thomasina (Kate Besworth), a 13-year old genius who is arguing about sex, Fermat’s theorem, the Newtonian view of the universe, just to mention a few subjects that interest her. Hodge engages in those discussions as well as enjoying a vertical poke with Mrs. Chater, the wife of the poet Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker). There is also the mystery of Lord Byron’s visit to Sidley Park and killing Chater in a duel. And what about Hodge’s attraction to the lovely Lady Croom (Nicole Underhay)?

We have excellent performances from the cast. Besworth’s Thomasina is quick-witted, quick-talking and a brilliant arguer with the shrewd Hodge who has to tread a fine line between intellectual honesty and moral propriety while satisfying his hormonal needs.

Underhay as Lady Croom is sexy and haughty with just the right touch of the woman who has certain needs. Andrew Bunker is hilarious as the foolish poet who challenges people to duels in defense of his wife’s honour who is basically the local slut.   

The twentieth century cast is dominated by Patrick McManus as Bernard Nightingale, an ambitious academic researcher and Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis, a bestselling author whose last book Nightingale trashed. The two actors have a marvelous chemistry for antagonism and we are delighted to see Jarvis get the best of Nightingale, the loud-mouth braggart. Splendid performances.

Martin Happer is a treat as Valentine, a dour and eccentric twentieth century scientist.         
   
Arcadia is theatre at its best but it does require some effort to get the best out of it. You will laugh loudly, be intrigued by the mystery at the heart of the play and at times you will be confused and on occasion quite lost. This production brings out the play at its best even if the English accents are uneven. I saw the current revival twice. It is the sort of play that bears repeated viewing. You owe it to yourself to see it at least once.
_____

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard opened on November 9 and will run until December 14, 2014 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Saturday, November 8, 2014

THE TEMPEST – REVIEW OF HART HOUSE PRODUCTION


Peter Higginson as Prospero. Photo: Scott Gorman
Reviewed by James Karas

The Tempest is full of magic, music, enchantment and fairies set on a dream-like island ruled by a kindly (and at times tyrannical) Duke with supernatural powers. All productions of Shakespeare’s last complete play attempt to create that atmosphere but few are as successful as the current staging at Hart House Theatre.

Director Jeremy Hutton uses a number of techniques to create the magical world of The Tempest and maintain it from beginning to end.      

The production opens with a ship sailing in a calm sea with the sailors singing happily. There are spirits watching them and Prospero appears. He strikes his staff on the ground and then we hear the tempestuous thunder as the ship is battered and sunk by the storm.

The six spirits that Hutton has in this production resemble Ariel and they are present on stage throughout the play. They appear like statues hanging from parts of the set or come to life and dart around the stage. Their movements are carefully choreographed and they serve as a constant reminder that we are in a world of magic and enchantment. In the play, the spirits have a limited role singing a brief refrain in the first act and taking part in the masque.

In addition, Hutton makes use of Prospero’s magical powers by having him strike the ground with his staff frequently to excellent effect. When Prospero is telling his daughter Miranda about his usurping brother, he bangs his staff and we see Alonso as if projected on a screen at the back. This happens when the other people in the play are mentioned.

Hutton and Lighting Designer Joseph Patrick make judicious use of strobe lights and other uses of lighting to emphasize the other-worldliness of the island. The overall effect of these techniques is to create the marvelous world of the island that is so essential to any production. An amazing feat.

Peter Higginson makes a decent, kindly Prospero who seems to enjoy his supernatural powers. The exiled Duke of Milan has another, much less benign side in his treatment of the “natives” but Hutton prefers to deemphasize that part of Prospero’s character.

Amaka Umeh gives a nimble, well-articulated and superb performance as Ariel.

 William Foley as Caliban, Paolo Santalucia as Stephano, Peter Higginson s Prospero, Cameron Laurie as Trinculo. Photo: Scott Gorman

William Foley’s Caliban is not deformed at all but he is able to scream, roll on the stage and produce laughter. He also gives a sound indication of the possible injustice meted on him by the uninvited Duke. Caliban tries to violate Miranda and his punishment is enslavement following the conquest of his island by Prospero. On the comic side Foley, Paolo Santalucia as Stephnao and Cameron Laurie as Trinculo give hilarious performances.

Katherine Fogler is lovely and fetching as Miranda and Andrei Preda is an upstanding and handsome Ferdinand. They are just what lovers should be.

Of the lesser characters, Michael McLeister stands out as the decent if somewhat garrulous Gonzalo.

Some words were muffed, some lines were muffled but overall the delivery of the lines was very decent.

The single set was very effective. The white-washed boards of the ship in the opening scene became the door to Prospero’s cave and there was room for the spirits to dangle around the stage. The costumes were naval for most of the men.

Choreographer Ashleigh Powell deserves kudos for the movements that she created for the spirits and for the handing of the masque.  

Without taking anything away from the actors, the most impressive aspect of the production was the magical island that Hutton and his team were able to create. 
           ______


The Tempest by William Shakespeare opened on November 5 and will run until November 22, 2014 at the Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. M5S 3H3  www.harthousetheatre.ca

Sunday, October 26, 2014

ALCINA – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Mireille Asselin as Morgana, Wallis Giunta as Bradamante and Krešimir Špicer as Oronte. Photo: Bruce Zinger 

Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier’s production of Alcina is full of magic, illusion, enchantment, transformation and love. There is an underlying layer of danger, destruction and evil that all are combined in George Frideric Handel’s 1735 opera.

When the curtain opens, we see an expanse of sand dunes. As we listen to the overture, we notice a shifting of the sand and some of the dunes are transformed into a human body. It is as if the body had been fossilized or become sand and was struggling to escape from its imprisonment like an unfinished sculpture embedded in a slab of marble. It is a startling image created by a projected video and a fine metaphor for the opera. 

Alcina is a sorceress and she rules an island where she turns discarded lovers and other people into animals and vegetables. Think of Circe of Greek mythology who did pretty much the same thing but her specialty was turning men into swine.

Alcina has six characters and a plot that goes something like this: Alcina has the knight Ruggiero in her thrall on the island. Bradamante is in love with Ruggiero and she arrives on the island with Melisso, Ruggiero’s former tutor. Their mission: free Ruggiero and Alcina’s other captives. The means: a magic ring. Bradamante is disguised as her brother Ricciardo and Alcina’s sister Morgana falls in love with him/her. We are now thirty seconds into the opera.
Backdrop to Alcina. Photo Bruce Zinger.

Morgana dumps her lover Oronte who becomes very jealous and violent; Ruggiero is unaware of what is going on remains in his world; more jealousy as the da capo arias come pouring in. Are you still with me? Probably not, in which case, listen to the arias and forget the plot twists.
        
Director Marshall Pynkoski does a number of things to alleviate the creaky plot. He adds some humour and a number of beautiful ballet sequences choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg as well as some extraordinary video projections as mentioned at the beginning of this review. Film Director Ben Shirinian’s video and Gerard Gauci’s sets provide an extraordinary illustration of the text of the opera. Alcina’s palace, a view of people who have become embedded in the landscape, the transformation and liberation of imprisoned men, make up a stunning display of imaginative recreation of an opera.

All of that was not quite enough to free the opera from its complex and unsatisfactory plot but the music and arias in the hands of an excellent cast more than made up for it.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay as Alcina showed good voice even if her fury was not always convincing. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings Bradamante who is in love with Ruggiero but appears as her own brother Ricciardo. Giunta does a splendid job as a woman playing a man who lets her hair down to show us that she is beautiful and worthy of Ruggiero.
    
Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy handled beautifully the pants role of the hero Ruggiero who eventually comes out of his thrall and saves the day. Alcina’s sister Morgana was sung by soprano Mireille Asselin in a prime performance.     

Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre has the straight-man role of Melisso, Bradamante’s guardian. He is imposing vocally and physically.
  
Tenor Krešimir Špicer plays the somewhat buffoonish and jealous Oronte, the commander of Alcina’s troops.   

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was conducted by David Fallis to its usual high standards.

This Alcina has enormous production values combined with superior singing but suffers from its unsatisfactory plot. But you can’t blame Opera Atelier for that.
_____________

Alcina by George Frideric Handel opened on October 23 and will run until November 1, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com

Friday, October 24, 2014

THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER – REVIEW OF FACTORY THEATRE PRODUCTION

Adam Lazarus in The Art of Building a Bunker at Factory Theatre. 

By James Karas

The Art of Building a Bunker, now playing at the Factory Theatre, has a promising beginning, a muddled middle and an editorializing end that add up to an interesting night at the theatre with a play that needs a dramaturge. Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia are listed as “creators” of the piece and I am not sure how that differs from writers. Lazarus is the sole performer and Verdecchia directs. 

The programme tells us that this is “a play about sensitivity training that is ANYTHING BUT SENSITIVE.” Lazarus appears as a number of characters including someone called Cam who has been ordered by his boss to run a sensitivity training class for a week and someone called Elvis who has been ordered to take one. Lazarus starts with the obnoxious jargon of such sessions including words like inclusivism, sensitivity etc. He interpolates what he really thinks of such drivel and is very amusing.

There are a number of people from very different backgrounds in the group and Lazarus imitates their accents and continues with the unctuous language of sensitivity training with trenchant asides. In addition to the characters, Lazarus manages several accents and delivers a performance that is difficult and superb. The problem is not the acting; it is the play.  

The play quickly runs out of material and it goes off into various tangents but concentrates mainly on Elvis. My mind started wandering and I had some difficulty concentrating and following what was going on. We have Elvis, probably a sociopath, who is building a bunker. He editorializes about most of the headlines in the current newspapers from Ebola in Texas to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to genetically modified foods to ISIS and you-name-it. But there is no real explanation about Elvis’s character or his actions. What is he and what is the bunker meant to protect him from?   

There is a sort of unifying metaphor of leaving the shore and paddling up a river in a canoe on a voyage of discovery. There is a canoe on top of the pipes that surround the stage but even the metaphor gets lost in the muddle. We need to know what Elvis has done and what problem he and we are trying to solve or resolve in out voyage of discovery.

Creator/Performer Lazarus works very hard to entertain us. He does some acrobatics, some physical comedy, manages a number of accents and creates different characters. But the script is so muddled that only he and Creator/Director Verdecchia could follow all its twists and turns that lead to ninety minutes of discovering that the play needs some editing, tightening up and more meat to make a good night at the theatre.
      
     ____


The Art of Building a Bunker by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia opened on October 21and will run until November 2,  2014 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca