Monday, August 25, 2014

HAY FEVER - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

                    
Members of the company in Hay Fever. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 

Reviewed by James Karas

The shenanigans of the Bliss family and their guests in a house in the country over a weekend may be impossible to capture or even do them some justice. The Blisses of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever are unconventional, self-consciously rude, colourful and occasionally ridiculous with overdeveloped tendencies towards striking poses and overacting to the point of being caricatures of themselves.

Their four guests are at best victims of the family and are driven to distraction and eventual escape from the outrageous conduct of the Bliss parents and children. That means that any production needs to balance all the above characteristics so that the play remains funny.  

The Stratford Festival has mounted a reasonably successful production of the play. There are some strong performances and Director Alisa Palmer does generate quite a good deal of laughter but this is not the production of Hay Fever that you will tell your grandchildren about.

Lucy Peacock plays Judith, an actress of a certain age who is self-conscious about her appearance and desperate for recognition. She invites a boxer named Sandy Tyrrell (Gareth Potter) for a weekend in the country. Peacock has a distinctive voice that she uses to good effect. She can pose, act, overact and flaunt herself around the stage like a prima donna and her Judith is a credible representation of what Coward probably intended.

Her husband David is a somewhat eccentric writer and Kevin Bundy portrays him as a rumpled novelist who fits in the bizarre family.
  

Much of the preposterous conduct emanates from the children, Sorel (Ruby Joy) and Simon (Tyrone Savage), who try to outdo each other in juvenile pranks and treatment of the guests. They can over overdo it and Joy and Savage do not always strike the right note.

Cynthia Dale plays the over-the-top socialite Myra Arundel with suitable aplomb. Jackie Coryton is supposed to be a “flapper” or a woman who uses sex as a shrimping net. Ijeoma Emesowum appears more like a nice dunce with almost no sexual magnetism.

Sanjay Talwar is stiff and upright as the diplomat Richard Greatham who loses his reserve and kisses Judith on the neck.

The individual performances do not manage to create the chemistry to give us a great production. Some of the lines produced the desired effect, others misfired but the production in its totality failed to produce the mayhem that is inherent in the script.

The set by Designer Douglas Paraschuk is quite splendid. Lots of paintings on the walls, comfortable furniture and a large staircase on the right give the impression of unconventional living with money to support it. Palmer has decided that one of the steps on the stairs is defective and most of the characters manage to stumble over it several times. It is a nifty trick but it gets tiresome after a while.
  ______
Hay Fever by Noel Coward continues in repertory until October 11, 2014 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TARTUFFE – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION

Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis & Raquel Duffy. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Soulpepper’s Tartuffe is a finely acted production with several directorial gimmicks that seem to lead nowhere.

Moliere’s play about the ultimate hypocrite takes place in Orgon’s house in Paris. In the current production, directed by László Marton, the play opens backstage and we see a couple of clothes racks. The cast rushes onstage, puts on 17th century (I assume) costumes, takes them off and the performance begins with the actors wearing modern clothes.

The clothes racks will disappear, a few painted panels will appear and the backstage will become an ordinary stage, say the type you would expect in an amateur theatre. There are a few covered pieces of furniture and it looks like a Little Theatre rehearsal with due care for the props. I am sure that Marton and Set Designer Lorenzo Savoini have something in mind in using this approach but I have no idea what it was.

If you ignore those gimmicks and listen to Richard Wilbur’s marvelous rhyming couplets you will enjoy the show.

Tartuffe is a man of God, a humbug and a conman sans pareille. Diego Matamoros in the role looks pious, lovable, almost cuddly on the surface and is quite a monster underneath. One can see why a gullible man like Orgon is duped by him. Oliver Dennis is perfect for the role. This Orgon is decent, generous, well-meaning and, unfortunately, pretty stupid.  

Orgon’s wife Elmire is quite a different creature. She is smart, cunning, strong and very beautiful. Raquel Duffy is so sexually appealing in the role that even a less despicable person than Tartuffe would compromise his morals for her.    

Gregory Prest, Colin Palangio, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Katherine Gauthier, Oyin Oladejo & Gordon Hecht.  Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Katherine Gauthier and Gordon Hecht are the young lovers, Mariane and Valère, and they make an attractive pair. Gregory Prest does a fine job as Orgon’s brother-in-law Cléante as does Brenda Robins as Mme Parnelle, Orgon’s elderly mother.

The success of any production of Tartuffe depends to a significant extent on the delivery of rhyming couplets. The cast did an excellent job. They spoke clearly without falling into monotony and there was sufficient modulation for a thorough enjoyment of the text. William Webster as the bailiff does superb work in this regard.

Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Elmire while Orgon is hiding under a table was done brilliantly. Tartuffe drinks and sprays Elmire with wine; Orgon rolls out from under the table when Tartuffe looks under it; Elmire takes off and throws her panties under the table to get her idiot husband’s attention; she drives the suspicious Tartuffe bonkers with her sexual magnetism; Tartuffe pulls his pants down and at that moment Orgon comes out from under the table. Full marks to Marton for doing an outstanding job on this scene.   

The disaster for the Orgon family is staved off by the appearance of a rex ex machina. In this case, it is a representative of Louis XIV who arrests Tartuffe and returns to Orgon the property that the conman had appropriated. A red carpet is rolled out and a miniature gold carriage is magically wheeled on stage. A letter from the King is on top of it and it will bring a happy end to the play. Cute.

We could have done without the clothes racks and such gimmicks. Take whatever period or style you want and stick to it. A fine cast and Moliere will do not need tricks. 
     _________

Tartuffe by Moliere in the verse translation by Richard Wilbur opened on August 12  and will run in repertory until September 20, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  416 866-8666

Saturday, August 16, 2014

THE SEA AND THE MOUNTAINTOP – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

Reviewed by James Karas

Edward Bond called his 1973 play The Sea “a comedy” and it has some scenes that could be quite funny. The initial premise is the drowning of a young man and the subsequent investigation. No sooner do we absorb the death of a young man than Hatch (Patrick Galligan), the town draper and lunatic, enters. He thinks the earth is being invaded by extraterrestrials.

Mrs. Rafi (Fiona Reid) and some town ladies are putting on a play and they sing some hymns very badly. There is room for comedy there as well but the serious core of the play remains.

The problem with the Shaw Festival’s production is that relatively little works. Director Eda Holmes has a fine cast that should move us to laughter and drama but most of the performances left me cold.

Fiona Reid can evoke laughter at will in most performances but in this production she induced relatively little as the town snoot.  Patrick Galligan was relatively effective as the frenetic Hatch but failed to raise the production by much more than getting us through the text.

Peter Millard plays the eccentric Evens, Neil Barclay is the portentous Vicar but all of them out together failed to bring the play to life.


Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is about the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It combines imaginary events in Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 with factual events from the life of the great civil rights leader. The only other character in the play is a fictitious but very intriguing hotel maid.

There is an inherent interest in seeing the private side of the preacher and civil rights leader. Some of the events in the play are mundane; smelly feet and shoes; trying to get cigarettes; talking to his wife. Some are more important as when he expresses his dreams and we get a hint of the cadences and thoughts of the great orator who has left such a mark on American history.

Kevin Hanchard has the thankless job of playing a well-known character whose speeches are still ringing in the ears of many people. He does a good job but people who may not have heard King will enjoy his performance more. The private King as imagined by Hall comes out better.  At one point Hanchard delivered part of an inspiring speech of King’s and the audience automatically replied “amen.” You cannot engage an audience more than that.

Alana Hibbert as the hotel maid has an easier job and she does it very well. The maid is smart, sassy with a particular edge to her character that is more apparent in retrospect.

There is plot twist in the play that should not be disclosed to people who have not seen the production. It changes the tenor of the play and is an amazing coup de théâatre.

The set by Judith Bowden is a motel room and we can assume it is more or less a replica of Room 306. Director Philip Akin has done an excellent job in presenting a play that is part history, part invention and all engaging theatre.
  ______


The Sea  by Edward Bond will run until October 10, 2014 at the Court House Theatre; The Mountaintop by Katori Hall will run until September 7, 2014 at the Studio Theatre as part of the Shaw Festival in  Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com 1 800-511-SHAW

Thursday, August 14, 2014

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS – REVIEW OF GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Scene from Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Reviewed by James Karas

If you see two goats, a rooster and bales of hay in front of a barn door on stage, you may well conclude that you are in Kansas. The map of New York State superimposed on the barn door will dissipate that illusion and you will recall that you are on the shores of Otsego Lake. So be it but what are those farm animals doing in Ariadne Auf Naxos?

In fact you are watching Francesca Zambello’s re-imagination of the Strauss/Hofmannsthal opera for the Glimmerglass Festival. The production is successful on most fronts. It is done mostly in English and the comic parts of the opera, especially the spoken sections, gain a great deal by being immediately understood by nn-German speakers. The sections involving Ariadne’s life on Naxos are sung in German and they are very effective.

Ariadne auf Naxos is set in the house of the richest man in Vienna where an opera and a comedy are to be put on to entertain guests after dinner. Scheduling problems force the host to order both to be performed simultaneously.

Zambello moves the opera from Vienna to a mansion in upstate New York and it works. We do not get a sense of the mansion because the “performances” seem to take place on a make-shift stage in the barn. Unless, the rich host keeps hay in his private theatre, that is, but the setting is effective.

The main characters appear as “themselves” and as people in the comedy or the opera that are performed in the second act. American Soprano Christine Goerke is the Prima Donna, a sort of caricature of the haughty singer, in the first act and Ariadne, the grieving princess abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, in the second act.

She has a big voice, a magisterial presence and some impressive low notes that make her a convincing Ariadne. She is interrupted by the comedians who are trying to comfort her but in the end her plush voice dominates the performance.

 L to R: Christine Goerke as Prima Donna, Corey Bix as Tenor and Thomas Richards as Wig Maker. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Her comic opposite is Zerbinetta, the star of the comedy that is to be put on. She is smart, resourceful, agile, funny and a delight to watch and hear. All of which applies to soprano Rachele Gilmore. She has a purer voice than Goerke’s and the contrast between the two performers was a delight to behold.

The opera company has a tenor who plays the part of Bacchus in the “opera.” Corey Bix was not the best choice for the role. He has a small voice and his impressive physical presence could not make up for it. There were times when he was almost drowned by the orchestra and he suffered by being outsung by Goerke in their duets.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin sang the pants role of the passionate and temperamental Composer. She displayed high dudgeon and tenderness as she got some instruction in reality. Martin does a very good job in the role.

Glimmerglass has an outstanding Young Artists Program and makes extensive use of the budding talents that it tries to shape. The comedians, the dryads and the other minor roles are almost all assigned to the young artists. The young artists and Glimmerglass deserve a huge bow for this.

The Glimmerglass Festival Opera was conducted by Kathleen Kelly and sounded simply marvelous. Yes, a woman conducted the orchestra and when, oh when, will we be able not to notice or comment on the gender of the conductor. Right now, women conductors are a rarity by any standard.

Zambello has found a refreshing and outstanding approach to Ariadne. We get the full benefit of the comic parts which can be drowned in a production that uses the original German. The tragic part is done superbly in its original language. Combined with the lush playing of the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, this ends up being an exceptional and memorable Ariadne auf Naxos.
 __

Ariadne auf Naxos  by Richard Strauss (music) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto) opened on July 19 and will be performed in repertory eight times until August 23, 2014 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

MADAME BUTTERFLY – REVIEW OF GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Reviewed by James Karas

WOW!

That is my review of Francesca Zambello’s production of Madame Butterfly for the Glimmerglass Festival. I will use a few more words to describe the production for understandable reasons.

The production has an outstanding cast starting with soprano Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San. The 15-year Japanese girl who marries Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (tenor Dinyar Vania) can be seen as fragile, weak and the victim of her family and the American officer. Not in this production. Lee portrays Cio-Cio San as a strong woman who is genuinely in love. She has a beautiful and strong voice that carries magnificently and this Madame Butterfly dies in the end because she is strong. A brilliant and memorable performance that garnered a well-deserved standing ovation.

Vania’s Pinkerton was excellent if more the text-book variety. With his fine singing and handsome bearing, Vania gave us a well-done, haughty Pinkerton who repents his errors in the end. You can’t ask for much more and I mean of Vania, not of Pinkerton’s morality.

The role of Sharpless, the American Consul, usually does not get much attention. In this production Ukrainian baritone Aleksey Bogdanov made Sharpless into an exceptionally humane person. With his fine voice and outstanding acting, Bogdanov gave us a decent and sympathetic Consul that stood out from the rest of the people.

American mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi was a superb Suzuki and the rest of the relatively minor characters made a strong cast in this WOW production. 

 Kristen Choi as Suzuki, Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The highest praise belongs to Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. The conception and execution of the production belong to her. The music is delivered gorgeously by the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra conducted by Joseph Colaneri.

Madame Butterfly is set in a Japanese house on a hill overlooking the harbour and the city of Nagasaki. Zambello and Set Designer Michael Yeargan have moved most of the action to the American Consulate in Nagasaki. There are a couple of scenes in the house on the hill but the consular offices decorated with a few desks and other such furniture are the focal point.  

There are some odd things but the conception works marvellously giving the production an American slant and feel. In the opening scene Goro the marriage broker (Ian McEuen) is showing off the house on the hill. We are in the consulate in this production and Zambello solves the problem by having Goro show a model of the house. When Sharpless complains about the hard climb, we just ignore it.

When the Bonze (Thomas Richards) appears to renounce and denounce Cio-Cio San appears the lighting changes, the furniture fades away and we are transported to the top of the hill. A few simple, translucent panels are sufficient to indicate Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s brief love nest.

The overall effect is startling, electric, astounding. Madame Butterfly, a strong woman, in the busy American consular offices gives a very different feel from her as a poor girl on the top of a hill. She sings her moving aria “Un bel di vedremo” in the consulate rather than on the hill and it is full of passion, faith and longing.

In the final scene, she stabs herself and a blood-red curtain is lowered on the stage. Pinkerton rushes on stage, tears down the curtain and embraces Butterfly. Their little boy (the very cute Louis McKinny) rushes in and jumps on his father’s back. There is not a dry eye in the house.

WOW!   
____

Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini John opened on July 11 and will be performed a total of thirteen times until August 23, 2014 as part of the Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, August 11, 2014

CAROUSEL – REVIEW OF GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Ryan McKinny as Billy Bigelow and the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival, under its Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, is continuing with its established programming of one chestnut (Madame Butterfly), one less well-known work (Ariadne auf Naxos), one modern opera (An American Tragedy) and a Broadway musical (Carousel). Running from July 11 to August 24, 2014 in a picture-perfect setting on Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York, the Festival is the ideal companion piece for baseball enthusiasts. (No, companion piece does not mean antidote!)      

This year’s Broadway offering is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in a production directed by Charles Newell. It is an intelligent work that, in addition to its great melodies, comedy and drama, touches on the question of good and evil and travels to the afterlife and back.

Billy Bigelow (Ryan McKinny) is a carousel barker with many unpleasant traits including ill temper, violence, and attempted robbery to his discredit. Julie Jordan (Andrea Carroll) sees his good side and marries him despite being struck by him. The robbery is botched and Billy stabs himself. He is not permitted to enter heaven because he has not done enough good and he returns here 15 years later to see his daughter and the rest of his circle.

Sharin Apostolou as Carrie, Andrea Carroll as Julie and Ryan McKinny as Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Bass-baritone McKinny gives a fine accounting of the role of Billy. We don’t like Billy but, like Julie, we want to like him. McKinny soars when he sings and we find sympathy for his character and his desire to help his daughter.

Carroll’s Julie is the soul of forbearance, forgiveness and love in a fine performance. She is matched by soprano Sharin Apostolou as Carrie, the woman who marries Enoch (tenor Joe Shadday) for practical reasons. She ends up with wealth, status and many children.

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel gives a superb performance as Nettie Fowler as does Rebecca Finnegan as Mrs. Mullin. Shadday fell a bit short of the vocal requirements for Enoch but overall the singing and acting were very good.

Carolina M. Villaraos as Louise and Tyler Whitaker as Enoch Snow Jr. danced the beautiful ballet sequence in the second act. Kudos to choreographer Daniel Pelzig.

John Culbert’s sets are Spartan but effective. There is the suggestion of a fishing village with very little ornamentation and the scene in heaven is done with changes in lighting and little else. You can provide elaborate sets but you don’t need them for a fine production. Mark McCullough deserves special kudos for his imaginative and highly effective use of lighting.  

Doug Peck conducts The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a fine rendition of Rodgers’s score.

Charles Newell directs with economy of ornamentation but with musical and emotional effectiveness.  
       _____

Carousel by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) opened on July 12 and will be performed twelve times in repertory until August 22, 2014 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Tennessee Williams’ one-act play, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, was first produced in 1979, near the end of his career. It is a moving play and the Shaw Festival earns kudos for staging it as a lunchtime treat at the Court House Theatre.

Creve Coeur covers familiar Williams ground. Dorothea, described by the author as “a marginally youthful but attractive woman” is a high school civics teacher who is in love with the principal. She lives in a rundown apartment in St. Louis with Bodey, a hard-of-hearing spinster who wants Dorothea to marry her uncouth brother.

The two women have a German neighbour named Miss Gluck who is mourning the death of her mother and is pretty much out of it. They are visited by Helena, a haughty English teacher at the same high school as Dorothea, who wants the latter to share an upscale apartment with her. Dorothea wants to do the same in order to impress the principal, even though she cannot afford it.

Deborah Hay gives a moving performance as the Blanche Dubois-type character, a woman seeking love and romance and living with the delusion that the principal who seduced her in the back seat of a car loves her and will call any minute. She rejects Bodey’s oafish brother (we never see him) and waits for the phone to ring. It does not because the principal is about to marry someone else and the announcement is in the newspaper. Hay captures the hope, despair and humanity of Dorothea in a superb performance.

Kate Hennig does fine work as the pathetic Bodey; plump, unattractive and in search of a wife for her twin brother. Bodey is still protective of her appearance as she puts an ugly flower behind her ear to hide her hearing aid.

Julain Molnar plays the even more pathetic Miss Gluck who visits the two women for coffee and becomes so distraught that she has an outbreak of diarrhea. Miss Gluck is a recent German immigrant and a pitiable woman like Dorothea and Bodey.

Kaylee Harwood as Helena presents us with perhaps a young version of Dorothea or a Blanche in the making. She is beautiful, fashionably dressed, and haughty with hints that much of what we see is superficial. She wants to live in a fashionable apartment but lacks the means to pay rent. Her concern with her clothes and appearance bespeaks ambition without substance.  

Blair Williams directs the play with sensitivity and with Designer Cameron Porteous evokes the pitiful lives and aspirations of the four women in the stifling world of 1930’s Middle America.

Williams reworked A Lovely Sunday several times and he did not solve all the problems with it. The four women are set in a crowded apartment and he needs to move some of them off the stage for the inevitable confrontations. Refusing to come out of the bedroom, going to get dressed and a bout of diarrhea are some of the ways that Williams resorts to for separating the characters but they are not always convincing. 

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is the best lunchtime treat of the year.
Speaking of lunchtime treats, how often have you craved to see three plays in one day? Very often, no doubt, but life sucks and there is a gap between craving and fulfilment. Two plays in one day is a cinch, especially in London where you can see a matinee and an evening performance in the summer every day of the week. With judicious planning you can manage three plays in one day in London but that’s in England. Well, the Shaw Festival makes that available in Canada. Like solar eclipses, three-playas-in-one-day does not occur very often. (Soulpepper did it recently – three plays in a day, not an eclipse).

The message: Go for it.at the Shaw Festival.  
______


A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur  by Tennessee Williams continues in repertory  until October 11, 2014 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.