Sunday, September 24, 2017

THE ALIENS – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Annie Baker’s The Aliens is an absurd play that presents three “aliens” who have contradictory traits, are perhaps geniuses who speak in virtually illiterate sentences and have difficulty forming relationships with people. When you see the play you may come to these conclusions or form any number of other views as you listen to the meandering dialogues and try follow the plot. Plot? There is very little of it and it does not develop in logical sequence and you may consider it as a play in which nothing happens. That’s not true, of course.

What do you see? The play is set on the rundown patio behind a restaurant. There is picnic table, a couple of plastic chairs and garbage bins. KJ (William Greenblatt), a bearded young man and Jasper (Noah Reid), another young man, may well be trespassing on the patio which is not intended for the public.
Will Greenblatt, Maxwell Haynes, Noah Reid photo by Tim Leyes
There are lengthy pauses between the short sentences of their conversation as if they are searching for the right words to express themselves. But when the reply consists of a single word you realize that deep thinking is not the reason for the delay. They do not belong to “our” world.

There are clues about who these people are. KJ sings that he is a Martian masterpiece from another dimension and a three-dimensional superstar. Like Jasper and Evan (Maxwell Haynes), a seventeen-year old youngster who works in the restaurant, he does not seem to have developed a meaningful relationship with anyone.

Evan is pathetic and his favourite or most frequently used word is “cool.” He meets a girl at a camp and he may develop a relationship with her but that, like everything else in the play, is opaque.

Among the almost incessant pauses which take a good part of the play, there are some flashes of humour and dramatic moments of raised emotions but they are the exception. At times I felt I was watching Waiting for Godot in reverse. Instead of Vladimir and Estragon waiting for someone to arrive, it was the audience waiting for something to happen.
 
Will Greenblatt, Maxwell Haynes, Noah Reid photo by Tim Leyes
Many things do happen but they are in the nuances of the characters, the events that they relate, the subtext and in the very pauses and awkward utterances that make up the play.

Mitchell Cushman directs this subtle, slow play that demands rapt attention and is not always easy to follow. In the end it is intriguing and will leave you scratching your head trying to figure out the aliens of the title. Try to unravel the following questions: who, how, what and why referring to the people in the play and have a look in the mirror while doing it. 

Pause.
 ______

The Aliens by Annie Baker continues until October 8, 2017 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com


Thursday, September 21, 2017

THE VIRGIN TRIAL - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Do you want to see a play in which the actors speak, make that yell, at the top of their lungs in a small theatre for much of the performance? And you can’t really tell who three of the seven characters are until near the end of the play?

You do? Well, the Stratford Festival has just the ticket for you. It is The Virgin Trial by Kate Hennig, a new play that the Festival commissioned and is now playing in the Studio Theatre.

The virgin of the title in Bess better known as Queen Elizabeth I of England who earned the moniker denoting complete abstention from sexual intercourse largely because she never married. The Bess we see in the play is Princess Elizabeth at age fourteen shortly after her father, King Henry VIII died and who lived with Katherine Parr, his last wife. Her uncle Ted was appointed Lord Protector of the Realm and Ted’s brother got the job of Lord High Admiral and he married Katherine Parr.
 
Members of the company in The Virgin Trial. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The identity of Bess, Ted, Thom and Mary are quickly discerned. But there are three other characters who are listed in the program as Eleanor, Parry and Ashley with no other information. Why is Stratford showing such lack of consideration for its audience? How hard would it be to tell us that Ted is Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector or that Thom is Thomas Seymour, the Lord High Admiral? Yes, they are the brothers of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother.

Who are Eleanor, Parry and Ashley? We first see Eleanor as a fierce, nasty woman serving water to Bess on a tray. When the unctuous Ted appears, she becomes the note taker for the questioning of Bess. Later we see her as a gleeful torturer. Near the end of the play we discover that she is responsible for the security of the realm. The play has a modern setting and historical accuracy is not an issue but telling us who the repugnant woman is from the start may have been a good idea.

Ashley and Parry mill around Bess and we guess that they have some position wherever she is living. But what? We should not have to guess and even if we did we may be wrong.

Henry VIII was succeeded by his nine year old son thus creating a power vacuum and certain nobles started jockeying for control. The play deals with Thom’s relations with Bess and his ill-fated attempt to probably abduct King Edward, perhaps become Lord Protector in place of his brother, marry Bess and eventually become king.
 
From left: Sara Farb as Mary, André Morin as Parry, Bahia Watson as Bess and 
Laura Condlln as Ashley in The Virgin Trial. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 
The play features enough plots, counterplots, machinations, intrigues, lies and torture to make your head spin but that’s part and parcel of struggles for power be it in the sixteenth or twenty-first century.

The teenage Bess played by Bahia Watson is smart, stupid, naïve sophisticated, truthful, mendacious, sexually active and, in the end, virginal. Hennig loads her with all these characteristics and because Bess was precocious but nevertheless young, all of them may well apply. Watson gives quite a performance except for the volume level that she spoke in.

Yanna McIntosh is powerful, conniving and brutal as Eleanor and if we knew her job from the start we would have enjoyed her performance even more. Appearing with a tray in her first appearance did not help. Think of Eleanor as a KGB or CIA interrogator when torture was (is) permitted.

Even creepier was Ted played by Nigel Bennett. He raises hypocrisy to new levels as he pretends to be the benign protector of Bess, ever solicitous of her safety. Then we see him as the conniving, power-hungry brute that he is. You don’t want him against you or around you.

Brad Hodder as Thom is an ambitious manipulator who wants power but lacks the cunning to get it and ends up in the tower. Andre Morin as Parry and Laura Condlin as Ashley are pawns in the chess game of power politics and end up getting tortured and worse.

Sara Farb plays Princess Mary, the future Bloody Queen who is ambivalent about supporting her sister while fearing for her life.

Much of the action takes place on an empty stage save for a table and a couple of chairs. The torture scenes are played behind a cloudy plastic curtain for reasons that escape me. The design is by Yannik Larivée.

Director Alan Dilworth seems to think that speaking loudly, really loudly, makes a scene more dramatic. In a small theatre, it makes it unnecessary and annoying. Two actors speaking at the same time or interrupting each other may be effective in certain situations. In this play it was not. 
__________________

The Virgin Trial  by Kate Hennig continues in repertory until October 8, 2017 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Sunday, September 17, 2017

DANCING AT LUGHNASA – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival delivers a pitch-perfect production of Dancing at Lughnasa that captures the lyricism, poignancy, humour and beauty of Brian Friel’s memory play.

The play is about five sisters living on the outskirts of a village in County Donegal in Ireland in 1936. They are almost on the edge of civilization leading lives of poverty, hope, dreams and expectations all of it seen by us through the memory of Michael (Patrick Galligan), the son of one of the sisters. He looks back and narrates part of the story a couple of decades after the events. Like all memories, it is a mixture of nostalgia, ruefulness, sadness and lyrical cadences.
 
The cast of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by David Cooper.
The five sisters, played like a finely tuned musical quintet, are the schoolteacher Kate (Fiona Byrne), the housekeeper Maggie (Tara Rosling), the knitters Agnes (Claire Jullien) and Rose (Diana Donnelly), and Michael’s mother Christina (Sarena Parmar). They are different persons but, if I may continue the musical ensemble simile, combine to express the all-important atmosphere of the play. The essentially closed society that they inhabit provides a chance, however evanescent, to have some fun, to dance, to release some energy, to participate in something almost orgiastic and perhaps even Dionysian in the Lughnasa harvest festival.

Their only contact with the outside world while at home is a very unreliable radio but the sisters manage to start dancing, first haltingly and slowly joyfully, and then almost frenetically as they release all their inhibitions even for a few minutes.

Reality intrudes. Their brother Father Jack (Peter Millard), a missionary priest has returned from Africa not quite in a cloud of glory but under very suspicious circumstances. Michael’s father Gerry (Kristopher Bowman) makes an appearance. He is ne’er-do-well dance teacher, gramophone salesman and dreamer who claims to have seen a unicorn and is off to Spain to fight with the International Brigade. He is able to charm Christina into dancing with him and gives her some moments of bliss.
 (l to r): Sarena Parmar as Christina, Fiona Byrne as Kate, Diana Donnelly as Rose and 
Tara Rosling as Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by David Cooper.
Internal and external factors lead to the moving break-up of the world of the five sisters. The economy changes and Kate loses her teaching job, Rose and Agnes lose their home-knitting jobs because a factory has come in, Father Jack’s lunacy becomes more pronounced and in the end all that is left is Michael’s moving memory of events long past.

I write at length about the play because it captures the people and the atmosphere that I try to describe with such accuracy and emotional impact. The actors playing the five sisters, from the tough Kate to the simpleton Rose, to the drudging Maggie give expression to a vanishing world that the women try keep together but which unravels in front of their eyes.

Galligan as the adult Michael narrates the story wistfully and speaks his lines as a boy of seven.

Director Krista Jackson conducts the cast in a beautiful and sensitive rendition of Friel’s poetry.

Sue LePage’s set consists of a country village kitchen on the right, a prominently placed Marconi radio in the center with the rest of the stage being open space. With the lighting design of Louise Guinand, it is a perfect representation of what an adult may remember from his childhood and is thoroughly appropriate.

A night at the theatre not to be missed.   
_____

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel runs in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Komagata Maru Incident is a punch in the face to Canada’s white supremacist past. It is a well-timed and fully deserved punch and we should all bow our heads in shame that such a racist incident was allowed to happen. Fortunately, things have changed in the past century.

In 1914 a Japanese ship carrying 376 Punjabis of whom 346 were Sikhs arrived in Vancouver Harbour. The passengers were British subjects and some of them had in fact fought in the British army and all were legally entitled to come to Canada. They were kept in the harbor for weeks and finally the ship was chased way by a warship.

Sharon Pollock has written a dramatic version of the incident that contains much factual information about the incident without being a documentary. It is a piece of theatre relying mostly on the imagination of Pollock.
 
Members of the company in The Komagata Maru Incident. 
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
The play and the production deliver the punch of the ugly incident but there are issues with the play and Keira Loughran’s direction. The play is about Sikhs but there is not a single turban to be seen. There is a Sikh mother who is simply called Woman, (Kiran Ahluwlia) who speaks from the prow of the ship and sings some hauntingly beautiful and plaintive songs but never interacts with any of the other characters of the play. Some people may consider a play about Sikhs with only a token Sikh character a weakness and I would agree with them.

Much of the play takes place in a brothel run by Evy (Diana Tso) who has William Hopkinson (Omar Alex Khan), the immigration officer and chief villain of the play, as a regular client. Georg (Tyrone Savage) is a German friend, a tool of Hopkinson as well as a customer of the brothel, availing himself of the services of Sophie (Jasmine Chen).

There is a character called T.S., a man played by Quelemia Sparrow, who appears wearing a native costume which he, the character, takes off and puts on a top hat and a red coat and becomes a master of ceremonies of what could be a circus. We see him frequently and he comments on the action, expresses public opinion and addresses parliament.
Quelemia Sparrow as T.S. and Omar Alex Khan as William Hopkinson in The Komagata Maru Incident. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Sparrow is a marvelous actor who shows flair, energy and superb acting in the role. For some reason Loughran thinks that T.S. should never stand still. Sparrow dances almost all the time while speaking and the practice becomes unnecessary and annoying. A superb performance marred. The meaning in change from indigenous costume to circus master and back to indigenous at the end escaped me.

Loughran sees nothing wrong with two things happening at the same time on the stage. While Ahluwalia is singing, other characters carry on as if nothing is happening behind them. We want to hear both the song and the dialogue.

The Studio is a small theatre with the audience sitting on three sides of the auditorium. Loughran lets the actors stand right in front of the middle section of seats address them as if the other two sides don’t exist. They could just as easily stand near the back and be seen and heard by all sides of the audience.

Georg is a German who wants to be of service to Hopkinson and looks forward to business opportunities when World War I is declared. So much for giving Germans a bad a review but Savage could use a decent German accent. Khan is just as bad in that department. Interestingly, he is from a Yorkshire father who served in Pakistan and whose mother was brown and he ended up in Canada.    

Tso as Evy and Chen as Sophia are spunky, fearless, no-nonsense prostitutes and we are on their side.

Presenting the shameful Komagata Maru incident on stage does Stratford great credit and it is unfortunate that there are a few shortcomings in the play and in the production. But the necessary punch is delivered.
__________________
The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock continues in repertory until September 24, 2017 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, September 11, 2017

TARTUFFE - REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has scored the season’s grand slam with its production of Tartuffe at the Festival Theatre. Chris Abraham has directed a staging that crackles with energy, inventiveness, impeccable attention to detail and performances that are simply hilarious.

There is no doubt that the biggest credit for the success of production must go to Abraham. First he sets the pace and the tone. He sets a robust pace without making it frenetic as if it were a farce. He wants a lively tone and there is no character who delivers lines simply because they are in the text. Every line must and is delivered at full force, taking advantage of every nuance in the rhyming couplets.
 

 Members of the company in Tartuffe. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 

Rhyming couplets can drag the pace down sometimes and even sound artificial. There is no such dangers in this production. Ranjit Bolt’s translation is colloquial and highly spirited and the cast delivers its lines with vigour and aplomb. In the modern dress production Abraham does not hesitate to add some Trumpisms such as fake news and alternative facts. The play was no doubt chosen for production before Donald Trump was elected president but he proved a fine target for humour and ridicule.        
 Anusree Roy as Dorine in Tartuffe. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The cast was first rate but I will give high praise first to Anusree Roy who plays the maid Dorine. This petite lady becomes a spitfire in the role. She delivers her lines with category 5 force and vivacity but she also adds physical comedy that enhances everything she does. When Tartuffe suggests that she cover her breasts so they will not offend his delicate morality, she shakes them, contorts her body and produces hilarious comedy.

Graham Abbey plays the foolish Orgon, the dupe who falls for Tartuffe’s unctuous hypocrisy and gives him all his property and his daughter. We get a bravura performance by Abbey, again full of energy and marvelous touches of humour invented by Abraham.       
 
Maev Beaty as Elmire and Tom Rooney as Tartuffe in Tartuffe. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Maev Beaty as Orgon’s wife Elmire gets to display her considerable comic talents especially when Tartuffe tries to seduce her and she wants her husband to witness his friend’s depravity. Again Abraham does not allow any lines or physical action that can produce humour go to waste and neither does Beaty.

The lovers Mariane (Mercedes Morris) and Valere (Johnathan Sousa) have a spirited spat and she tries to stand up to her hopelessly deluded father, all with verve but no effect. Orgon’s son Damis (Emilio Vieira) does the same with same lack of success. Michael Blake is in an even tougher position as the reasonable Cleante. Fine performances by all.

Tom Rooney is a fine Tartuffe but I would have preferred him to be a little more sanctimonious. He was sporting some type of accent which he did badly and is unnecessary. Accents are not Rooney’s forte and he should skip them. Rod Beattie was wasted in the minor role of the bailiff.  

The set by Julie Fox consists of a modern living room with a bar and serves the production well. The opening scene is converted into a party out of which the censorious Mme Pernelle storms out. The scene is not particularly funny on paper but Abraham with Rosemary Dunsmore in the role makes it very amusing.

It is a production that is brilliantly directed, superbly acted and provides a great night at the theatre.
  ______
 Tartuffe by Moliere in a translation by Ranjit Bolt opened on August 17 and will continue in repertory until October 13, 2017 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Friday, September 8, 2017

DRACULA and WILDE TALES – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

Reviewed by James Karas

First, the good news.

Some years ago, the Shaw Festival introduced Lunchtime One Act productions and we have seen plays that are rarely produced and it was highly unlikey that we would ever get a chance to see them. It was and remains a great idea.

This year they have put on Wilde Tales, an adaptation by Kate Hennig of four fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. They have billed it as being for “Young and Old” and have gone a step further by organizing a one-hour pre-show workshop for children ages 6 to 12. They get to interact with actors and learn how the show is put together.
Marion Day as Catherine Wheel, Sanjay Talwar as Remarkable Rocket and Emily Lukasik as Squib in Wilde Tales. Photo by David Cooper
With or without the workshop, Wilde Tales is a delightful one-hour theatrical experience.  The dramatized tales are The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Selfish Giant. Hennig uses The Remarkable Rocket as a connecting link between the tales.

In The Remarkable Rocket, the characters are fireworks performing for the marriage celebrations of the Prince and the Princess. All the fireworks do well except for the supercilious Rocket (Sanjay Talwar) which expects to perform spectacularly but fizzes out every time. Very amusing.

In The Nightingale and the Rose, the singing bird (puppet handled by Emily Lukasik) gives a touching lesson in altruistic love and self-sacrifice in aid of a heart-broken Student (Jonathan Tan).   

The Happy Prince is about the friendship between a Swallow (Kelly Wong with puppet) and the statue of a bejeweled Prince (Marion Day).  The Swallow delays its migration to Egypt to help the poor by denuding the Prince of his rich jewels. When there is nothing left, it is too late for the bird to fly away and it dies. The Prince’s heart breaks and the statue is taken down. Lots of lessons there.

The Selfish Giant is about an ogre (Kelly Wong) who refuses to allow children to play in his beautiful garden. A Little Boy (Sanjay Talwar) melts his heart and all is well until the end when the giant finds the identity of the little boy is in reality. Marvelous.

The six actors take between three or five roles each, most of them requiring puppets, The lovely PJ Prudat, for example, plays Moon, Dragonfly and Belle. They all are charming, agile, amusing and poignant as the situation requires.

The best one-hour in the theatre.

Now for the … not so good news.

The Festival offers Dracula as one of the three productions in the Festival Theatre. It is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel by Liz Lochhead and my displeasure will be quite obvious. I should note my antipathy to adaptations of novels for the stage. No doubt, there are adaptations that make good literature into fine theatre but my proclivity against the practice remains.
 
Martin Happer as Dr. Seward, Marla McLean as Mina Westerman, Ben Sanders as Jonathan Harker and Steven Sutcliffe as Van Helsing in Dracula. Photo by Emily Coope
Dracula and Company is not just a novel or a character in fiction who likes a hefty supply of blood for sustenance, especially from pretty women. It is an industry that ranges from Count von Count on Sesame Street to Count Chocula to less serious manifestations in countless films and other formats.

Lochhead and director Eda Holmes take a heavy-handed attitude towards the novel-turned into play and the result is ponderous theatre with scant relief. When it is not ponderous, it is pretty difficult to take with a straight face. When Dracula (Allan Louis) visits the necks of Mina (Marla McLean) and Lucy (Cherisse Richards) for dinner, it seemed to throw the women into sexual ecstasy. Is that one reason for the difficulty of weaning them from him? These are straight-laced Victorian women for whom sex is a gender and nothing else but when Dracula goes for their necks….

Dracula’s neck bites have serious health consequences and only a super specialist like Dr. Van Helsing (Steven Sutcliffe) can diagnose and treat the illness. He brings all his artillery to England from Holland and he sets out to find and destroy the vampire.

I had some difficulty in keeping a straight face when part of his equipment consisted of a crucifix, some sanctified wafers and strings of dried garlic. We can assume that the Count is a good Christian under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church for the first two items to be effective or has an extremely sensitive nose for garlic to drive him away from his means of survival.

You can’t take away anything from Michael Gianfranco’s dark and eerie design. Very few pieces of furniture were required and hospital-type curtains were wheeled in and out efficiently for scene changes. Alan Brodie’s lighting supplements the effect of Gianfranco’s design.

Unfortunately, good production values were not enough to alleviate the tedious first half. The pace picked up during the second half but not enough to erase the effect of the first part.
______

Dracula by Bram Stoker, adapted by Liz Lochhead continues in repertory until October 14, 2017 at the Festival Theatre. Wilde Tales by Oscar Wilde adapted by Kate Hennig continues until October 7, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, September 4, 2017

MIDDLETOWN – REVIEW OF ENO’S PLAY AT SHAW FESTIVAL

Reviewed by James Karas

Middletown, the title of Will Eno’s play offered by the Shaw Festival, gives the image of a piece about small-town America. It is a place of charm, innocence, sentimentality, pathos and humour. Yes, it can take many guises but in our imagination that is the most desirable model.

Middletown opens with a Prologue in which a Public Speaker (Peter Millard), dressed casually, welcomes all of us charmingly and somewhat garrulously to the performance. Is this going to be an updated version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town? Or are we talking about distancing us from the action, i.e. reminding us that we are watching a performance and not a representation of real life?
 
Gray Powell as John Dodge and Moya O’Connell as Mrs. Swanson in Middletown. Photo by David Cooper.
In the first scene we see a man and a woman sitting by windows on opposite sides of the street going about their business. We will soon find out that they are Mrs. Swanson (Moya O’Connell) and John Dodge (Gray Powell). The Cop (Benedict Campbell) approaches the Mechanic (Jeff Meadows) and speaks to him aggressively for no particularly good reason and puts him in a choke hold with his stick. The Cop apologizes to us and welcomes us to Middletown. The Mechanic addresses us directly as well. Some of the speeches to the audience are quite long and sound disjointed.

There is something wrong here.  The conduct and speeches of most of the characters contain incongruities or are quite incomprehensible. The situations that we see have underlying layers that are removed from linear logic.

Mrs. Swanson wants to become pregnant with a husband that we never see and who seems to be forever on business trips. She tries to make some sort of contact with Dodge, a local handyman who is between two jobs but is not sure what his second job will be. Their awkward attempts at friendship may be as far as they are capable of going. In the end Mrs. Swanson does become pregnant but John takes his own life.

The town has a charming if loopy librarian (Tara Rosling) who explains that a lot of people don’t bother getting library cards because they expect to die. The town is named Middletown because it is between two places but no one knows what two places.
 
Jeff Meadows as Mechanic in Middletown. Photo by David Cooper.
The play has twenty-four scenes and some of them are brief and dissonant. In one scene the Mechanic lurks around Mrs. Swanson’s window making sounds from nature. He frightens her but we don’t see her in the scene again. Mechanic tells us that he has taken up drinking again and gives us a chance to come up with a reason for it.

There are over twenty characters played by a dozen actors. O’Connell, Powell, Campbell, Rosling and Meadows play one role each while the rest of the cast take on between two and three roles each.

Meg Roe directs the cast and it coheres as an ensemble unit. Camellia Koo’s design is sparse as is necessary in a theatre-in-the-round.

Despite the folksy appearance and the apparently easy-going acting, Middletown is not Our Town. It is a complex play that tries to encompass a great deal. As a result, it is not always easy to follow and may need more than one viewing in order to capture more of its intricacies.
_____
Middletown  by Will Eno runs in repertory until September 10, 2017 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.