Sunday, April 12, 2015

REVIEW OF ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE FROM OPERA ATELIER


Mireille Lebel (Orpheus), Peggy Kriha Dye (Eurydice) and Meghan Lindsay (Amour). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Reviewed James Karas

Opera Atelier delivers a largely successful and imaginative production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the gorgeous Elgin Theatre. Director Marshall Pynkoski has produced the Hector Berlioz version of the opera having already staged the earlier two versions of the work.

Orpheus is considered the first “reform” opera. It was premiered in Vienna in 1762 and contains the first hit song in opera, “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.”

Opera Atelier is in its element with this masterpiece and Pynkoski with Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Set Designer Gerard Gauci deliver an opera and a ballet with some splendid sets.

Most of the singing of the opera falls on the vocal chords of Orpheus who has a tough job indeed. The role has been sung by voices from castrato to tenor but for this production Pynkoski has chosen mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel. It is not an entirely happy choice. Lebel sings correctly and usually very prettily. But Orpheus goes through a gamut of emotions from deep grief at the death of his bride, to singing with such ravishing beauty that he convinces the Furies to let him go to the underworld, to elation and back to despair.

Lebel does not have a big voice and there were times when she came perilously close to not being heard. But the real issue is lack of coloration and emotional depth. We need to feel Orpheus’s anguish and elation. His appeal to the Furies must be like the Sirens’ song to Odysseus – unbearably alluring. Unfortunately Lebel’s emotional appeal on all those levels, though good, lacked the breadth that one hoped to find.
Mireille Lebel (Orpheus) with Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye sings an outstanding Eurydice. She has a full, lovely voice, expressive and impressive. When Orpheus and Eurydice sing together we hear the difference between the two singers quite dramatically.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay sings the relatively smaller role of Amour and she does a fine job.

Zingg does her usual best in providing ballet dancing throughout and an extended piece at the end. The opera can be static but Pynkoski and Zingg never allow it to become so.  Pynkoski adopts choreographic moves for the three characters and Zingg supplements those with the corps de ballet. The result is a colourful and splendidly paced production.

Gauci provides a colourful set with the scene in Hades being especially effective. Margaret Lamb’s costumes are colourful and delightful.

The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis do superior work.
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Orpheus and Eurydice by C. W. Gluck opened on April 9 and will run until April 18, 2015 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario, M5B 1M4. www.operaatelier.com

Saturday, April 11, 2015

NONGOGO – REVIEW OF MARKET THEATRE PRODUCTION OF FUGARD PLAY

Photo of Pakamisa Zwedala and Masasa Mbangeni by Ruphin Coudyzer
Reviewed by James Karas

Canadian Stage has taken the bold step of bringing six South African plays for a three week festival called Spotlight on South Africa.

The first production is Athol Fugard’s 1959 play Nongogo in a production by Market Theatre and directed  by James Ngcobo.

The play is set in a shebeen, an unlicensed bar, in a township outside of Johannesburg.in the 1950s. The shebeen is owned by Queeny (Masasa Mbangeni) a former prostitute and a woman of strength. Blackie (Desmomd Dube), a hunchback who walks and acts like an ape, lives in the shebeen. Patrick (Hamilton Dhlamini) an alcoholic is a regular customer of the place. Sam (Pakamisa Zwedala), Queeny’s former pimp visits regularly and sells illegal liquor to her.

What we have are four misfits. A stranger comes into the shebeen in the person of a well-dressed and well-mannered table cloth salesman named Johnny (Nat Ramabulana). The energetic and ambitious Johnny acts as a catalyst to the plot. He develops a relationship with Queeny, the two establish a successful business but Sam becomes jealous. In the meantime Johnny insists on finding out Queeny’s background.

The play has some excellent performances. Mbangeni shows strength, determination and courage as she dreams of a better life with Johnny. But she is a woman with a past who had the fortitude to do what was necessary to survive and the resilience to get out of that profession when she could.

Ramabulana’s Johnny is a man with a troubled past as well who dream of a better life. He is imaginative, persistent and on the verge of having his entrepreneurial dreams bear fruit.

Zwedala’s Sam is tough, businesslike, jealous and in the end nothing more than the pimp he used to be. Dube is a very effective Blackie, the psychotic, deformed man who would make a fine enforcer anywhere.

Dhlamini’s Patrick is a pathetic drunkard whose wife is giving birth to his sixth child and he is so ineffectual that the only thing he can do is worry about the name he will give to his new son.

The plot of the play is somewhat obvious and doing the two acts in one hour and forty minutes without an intermission does not serve it well.

Set and costume designer Nadya Cohen makes use of the entire two-story stage of the Berkeley  Street Theatre Downstairs. The theatre has a forbidding brick wall at the back and the only props used are some tables and chairs as well as a cooking area. There is no sense that this is a small, unlicensed establishment selling liquor.  

There is a significant change in the set between the unadorned Act I and Act II where yellow curtains, a table cloth and flowers are called for in the play’s stage directions.. In this production a yellow banner is hung from the ceiling adding nothing to the scene. There are no doors, there is no window and all is left to the imagination and the context of the play. This is unsatisfactory because it does not give any impression of the place where the action takes place.  Ngcobo has taken Fugard’s realistic play and changed it into something else. The actors are seated on the stage most of the time and the knocks on the door are indicated by banging on furniture. The production would have gained considerably if the director followed Fugard’s instructions.
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Nongogo by Athol Fugard opened on April 8 and will run until April 12, 2015 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ontario. 416 368-3110. www.canstage.com

Thursday, April 9, 2015

BULL – REVIEW OF BARTLETT PLAY AT COAL MINE

Diana Bentley as Isobel and Damon Runyan as Tony in Bull – Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

Bull is a new play by Mike Bartlett that provides the type of powerful examination of corporate morality with superb acting that one looks for in the theatre.

The play is produced by Coal Mine Theatre at The Coal Mine and if you have not heard of the company or the theatre it is because they are quite new. The theatre is in a basement on Danforth Avenue, in Toronto’s Greektown and this is the company’s second production.

As you enter the theatre, you see that the playing area is enclosed by a net. You expect to see a few bouts of the Ultimate Fighting Championship where brutality and bloodshed pass for a sport. Bull is the moral and office equivalent of a 55-minute UFC bout and the end is very similar to it.

The set is in fact an ordinary office where three employees are waiting for the boss to axe one of them. This is capitalism and to say it’s a dog-eat-dog world may be unduly offensive to canines. We have Tony (Damon Runyan), tall, handsome, arrogant, athletic, amoral and brutal. His partner in assassination is Isobel (Diana Bentley), tall, beautiful, confident, amoral and vicious.

These two UFC fighters have their victim in the arena and his demolition is inevitable. Tom who asks to be called Thomas (Ryan Rogerson) is short, chubby, ineffectual and a fighter who will eventually bang his hand on the boards to signal his utter surrender.   

Isobel and Tony take jabs at Tom, push him around, humiliate him and indeed have fun in the knowledge of their eventual triumph. Tom does try to resist but his fighting skills are pathetically limited and he is constantly thrown off his feet.

Carter, the boss, (Mark Caven) arrives to deliver the verdict on who will be eliminated and, of course, he chooses Tom after adding further humiliation. He cannot even remember Tom’s name.

Tom attempts to save some shreds of dignity by engaging or trying to engage Isobel in a physical fight. This is UFC come to the theatre. The fight ends in true UFC style with blood being shed. In keeping with the title of the play, the fight between Isobel and Tom is given the indicia of a bullfight. The atmosphere and violence of the play make bullfights look civilized and I prefer the UFC image. 

The cast gave some superlative acting. Caven as the superior boss, Runyan and Bentley as the astonishingly brutal fighters and Rogerson as the pathetic Tom make for fine theatre. David Ferry directs this marvelous production.

This is The Coal Mine’s second production. Their third production will be August Strindberg’s Creditors, adapted by David Grieg and directed by Rae Ellen Bodie. Creditors will run from April 17 to May 17, 2014 at the Coal Mine.
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Bull by Mike Bartlett ran from March 17 to April 5, 2015 at The Coal Mine, 798 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. (416) 880-7693.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE - REVIEW OF YOUNG VIC PRODUCTION LIVE FROM LONDON

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Reviewed by James Karas

The Young Vic production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge has reached Canada by way of a live transmission from England. It is a breathtaking production despite some sloppy camera work.

Director Ivo van Hove has pared the play to its bare essentials and produced a drama that is akin to Greek tragedy.

The play takes place in Brooklyn in the 1950s and is set on a street and the living room-dining room of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, originally from Italy. Miller gives directions for a single set that includes a desk for the lawyer Alfieri, a telephone booth, furniture, a ramp leading to the street and a stairway leading to the upstairs apartments.  

Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld have done away with all of that and reduced the playing area to a small square on the stage. There is a door at the back and there are no props except for a chair that is brought in as an essential item.

When the curtain goes up, we see two men taking a shower. They dry themselves off as the lawyer Alfieri (Michael Gould), (he is the chorus in the play), enters and gives us some background information about that part of Brooklyn. He will stay on stage throughout the performance (unless he disappears and we in the movie theatre simply do not see it).

In the small, brightly lit playing area we will see Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) greeted by his young niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) who jumps in his arms and wraps her lags around his waist. She is agile, pretty and curious about men. Eddie is clearly attracted to her but his attraction is more illicit passion than an uncle’s protective attitude.

Rodolfo (Luke Norris) and Marco (Emun Elliott), two cousins, arrive from Italy and stay illegally working as longshoremen to pay off their debt to the people who “fixed” everything for them.

Catherine falls in love with Rodolfo and Eddie is driven to distraction with subconscious jealousy and anger against Rodolfo. His furor leads him to betray Rodolfo and Marco to the immigration authorities so that they can be deported.

That is ultimate treachery and when Marco finds out he spits on Eddie. Eddie becomes not just a social pariah but is in fact dehumanized.  “I want my name back” he screams. The original context for the play was Senator Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Miller condemned those who appeared before the committee and betrayed their friends by naming names.

Strong gives a powerful performance as Eddie. He has piercing eyes that glow with seething passion, anger and hatred. In the end he is left with nothing as he tries to regain some self-respect.

Fox is a waif of a girl, innocent, curious, attractive and alluring. She falls in love easily with the handsome and just as innocent Rodolfo of Luke Norris.

Eddie’s wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) is caught in the middle between Eddie who ignores her sexually but demands obedience and “respect” and the realization of her husband’s attraction to Catherine. Walker gives a sympathetic portrayal of the distraught woman.

The play moves towards the inescapable conclusion with the inevitability of Greek tragedy which it consciously emulates. Van Hove eschews the violence of the final scene by choreographing the bloody encounter of the characters. All of them end up bunched together as blood starts dripping on them. This is a return to the tableau of the opening scene. The characters slowly fall to the ground and we see Beatrice grasping Eddie’s dead body.

Van Hove has reimagined Miller’s play and done away with the Mediterranean emotionalism and has given a strikingly fresh approach that is a triumph of directing.  

Now for the bad news. There are always issues when transmitting a theatre production to a movie house. Camera angles and shots have to be considered, close-ups and long shots must be chosen judiciously and more. The transmission of A View was simply sloppy. We could be stuck watching someone’s back; looking at the person spoken to instead of the speaker and some basic errors that should not be made. Let’s just say that there is room for improvement.
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A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller was transmitted from Wyndham;s Theatre, London, England in production by the Young Vic on March 26, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. It will be shown again on May 2, 2015 at select theatres.. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE – REVIEW OF DURANG PLAY AT PANASONIC




By James Karas

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a hilarious play by Christopher Durang done exceptional well at the Panasonic Theatre.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha of the title are, of course, characters in Anton Chekhov’s plays. Durang has borrowed them along with Nina, added Cassandra as a nod to Greek tragedy and Spike, a hunk and failed actor, as a gesture to modern trashy entertainment. The result is a funny play with interesting allusions to Chekhov.

Vanya (Steve Sutcliffe) and Sonia (Fiona Reid) live in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania and they tell us that they have no lives. The looked after their parents through old age and Alzheimer’s (only his parents really because Sonia was adopted) and now are miserable, broke, bickering and in danger of being thrown out on the street if the house is sold.          

The house is owned by sister Masha, the successful actress, who pays all the bills. She arrives with Spike (Luke Humphrey), a toy boy with a sculpted body, the morals of an alley cat and the brains of a moron. He wants to be an actor and so far his success amounts to almost getting a role once.

There is also Cassandra (Audrey Dwyer) who cleans the house but mostly practices what her name and status in Greek mythology dictates: foretelling the dire future without anyone listening to her.   

The fine cast delivers superb performances. Fiona Reid, by any standard one of the finest comic actors, excels in the delivery of every line, every gesture and every movement. Her Sonia is touchy, comically bitter, easily riled and just plain funny. She does an amazing imitation of Maggie Smith and you want her on stage for her intonation, the perfect phrasing and her superb timing.

Steven Sutcliffe as the old Vanya has a mellifluous voice that serves him well as the repressed gay and ever-suffering brother of Sonia. At times he cannot do anything right as he tries to go through his miserable life. But he, Sutcliffe that is, can produce laughter with ease and gives a marvelous performance.
 
Jenifer Dale’s Masha is a successful actress but she is well beyond her best-before date. She reminds one of Norma Desmond, the faded star of Sunset Boulevard who tries desperately to hold on to her past glories. Dale does an excellent job in portraying the shallow, self-centered, egotistical former star whose idiosyncrasies are quite entertaining. This is the Masha from The Three Sisters who wants to go to Moscow.

Audrey Dwyer is given free range as Cassandra. She can scream her prophecies, yell when she feels like it and do all the comic business that an officious servant can perform.

Humphrey as Spike and Ellen Denny as the young and pretty Nina have more limited opportunities for comic shenanigans but no one can complain about their performances.

Much of the comedy of Vanya and Sonia depends on timing, gesture, intonation and motion. Those are largely dependent on the director and Dean Paul Gibson deserves full credit for orchestrating all moves with intelligence and finesse.

The set by Sue LePage consists of the living room of a farmhouse and it is appropriate and becoming.

The Panasonic is a small theatre but for some reason the actors were miked.     

If you want a funny, literate and intelligent comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is your ticket.
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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang opened on March 17 and will run until April 5, 2015 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Monday, March 23, 2015

LA DONNA DEL LAGO – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION


John Osborn as Rodrigo, Joyce DiDonato as Elena, and Juan Diego Flórez as Giacomo V in Rossini's "La Donna del Lago." Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

Rossini’s La Donna del Lago premiered in 1819. It was first produced at the Metropolitan Opera this year - a mere four years short of two centuries later.

There may be good reasons for giving the opera a wide berth but after the Met’s production the artistic reasons should be reduced even if the financial demands may discourage productions in the less well-heeled houses.

The Met production capitalizes on all the virtues of the opera – its outstanding music and superb solo and ensemble vocal pieces and minimizes the static nature of the opera which can make it appear like a set piece which can, in the long run, be deadly.

Let’s start with cast. The cast is as good as you can get. Joyce DiDonato delivers such vocal finesse, prowess and beauty that her interpretation of Elena becomes a defining performance. With her red hair she looks like a Scottish lass whose conflict between love and duty is preformed superbly.

Juan Diego Flores does not sing; he soars and his King James V is virile, romantic and sung to perfection. If Flores deserves to be called King of the High C’s, John Osborn as Rodrigo is right up there with him. Combined with a fine voice he has an expressive face and a nice tendency to raise his eyebrows when making a point.

La Donna is a ménage a quatre instead of the frequently met soprano being pursued by a tenor and a baritone and the latter going home empty handed if not dead. Here we have two tenors vying for the hand of Elena and the winner is a mezzo-soprano. The winner is Malcolm sung by mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. She has a beautiful and expressive voice and she made a good Malcolm.

Rossini makes serious demands on the choruses and the Met has the wherewithal to fulfill the needs of the opera. The end of the first act requires three choruses and the scene is as thrilling and magisterial as you are likely to get in opera.

Splendid as the individual pieces can be La Donna can become static. Director Paul Curry has managed to reduce that danger dramatically. He makes the singers interact and no scene is permitted to linger with singers sitting on different parts of the stage as if their feet were nailed to the boards. He creates drama through interaction and brings the opera to life the way Rossini may or may not have imagined.

Michele Mariotti conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at a brisk pace without hurrying through the arias that require a slower pace.

The set by Kevin Knight gives the lie to the title. Elena may be called the lady of the lake but she is more the lady of the mountains. There is some indication of a body of water in the background but Gary Halverson, the director for the cinema, does not really want us to see it.

Knight’s design shows us barren mountains and there is no attempt to prettify them. If you don’t care about the title of the opera and Rossini’s directions, you will not mind. But Rossini had a specific vision of the set with a densely wooded mountains rising above a valley where there is a lake and a bridge. Elena is in a boat and she is watching the morning light and commiserating about her love. Forget the boat and the rest of Rossini’s ideas for the set and enjoy the production.
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La Donna del Lago by Gioachino Rossini was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera in New York on March 14, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on May 9 and May 11, 2015 at select theatres.. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events


Saturday, March 21, 2015

TIME STANDS STILL – REVIEW OF MARGULIES PLAY AT PASSE MURAILLE

Kirstin Hinton and Carleigh Beverly in Time Stands Still

Reviewed by James Karas

“I live off the suffering of others” is how a photographer who records the horrific lives and death of victims of the wars in the Middle East sums up her profession.

On another occasion she defends her photography as a necessary record of suffering, as a tool for making the world aware of the tragedy and effecting change.

These are the two polarities in David Margulies’s play Time Stands Still now playing at Theater Passe Muraille.

Sarah (Kirstin Rae Hinton) was blown up and seriously injured by a road bomb while working as a photographer in the Middle East. James (Jason Jazrawy), her partner of some eight years and a journalist in the same area, returns to the U.S. after having a mental breakdown. When the play opens she is returning to Brooklyn on a crutch with serious injuries to her leg and arm.

The obverse side of Sarah and James is Richard (Sam Rosenthal), a photo editor for a magazine and his new love Mandy (Carleigh Beverly) who is young, pretty and a bimbo. Richard and Mandy face the horrors of war vicariously. They marry, have a child and will settle for middle class life.

James and Sarah also get married but she cannot accept life away from the scenes of death and mutilation. Is she photographing reality or is she rebelling against her rich father and his trust fund?

The issues that Margulies tackles are current, interesting and compelling and he intertwines them with the personal lives of his characters. The play has a sputtering beginning with pedestrian dialogue that does not go into high gear very quickly. Director Jordan Merkur seems content to let the plot drag for a while.

When the plot does get in gear we do get some impressive performances. Sarah is torn by feelings of guilt about the suffering that she witnesses and simply photographs. Some of the people that she uses for her job do not want to be photographed whatever her noble motives, real or imagined.

Jazrawy’s James is a man with a bad conscience about leaving Sarah behind and some jealousy at discovering that she had an affair and indeed fell in love with her interpreter.

Rosenthal as Richard is a true friend and supporter of Sarah and James and Mandy develops into a loving mother.

The play and the production have some compelling scenes but there were some occasions when the action flags for short periods. What was missing most on the night that I saw it was the magic link between stage and audience. It is something indescribable when it happens and unfortunate when there seems to be little reaction from the people watching.
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Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies opened on March 12 and will run until March 29, 2015 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.on.ca (416) 504-7529