Saturday, April 25, 2020

SHAKESPEARE FIGHTS COVID-19 TWELFTH NIGHT FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

The National Theatre is doing its bit to help us survive the covid-19 pandemic by enlisting Shakespeare and broadcasting some of its productions on YouTube. On Shakespeare’s birthday, we were treated to its 2017 production of Twelfth Night directed by Simon Godwin.

As with most productions of Shakespeare, the question in what does (or can) the director and the designer bring to a play that is familiar and is available in the theatre, on film or DVD to be seen numerous times.

Godwin and Designer Soutra Gilmour put their own imprimatur on the production and, not surprisingly, push the boundaries with the intent to surprise, fascinate and entertain. In the usual course of subjective reactions, I give some credit and raise some eyebrows at the result.

It is done in modern dress with a generous portion of modern music. The set consists of two staircases that meet at the apex. They are set on a revolving stage and are used frequently.

Gender switches are almost de rigueur and Godwin partakes of the trend generously. Malvolio becomes Malvolia (Tamsin Greig), Fabian is Fabia (Imogen Doel) and Feste is played by Doon Mackichan.  No issue with any of those changes and they are all done well.

Godwin is faithful to the text with the insignificant changes of pronouns where necessary but he wants modern intonations and the creation of energy. Phoebe Fox as Olivia is aggressive to the point of appearing to be overacting. When Cesario drops by she does a lot more than try to persuade him that she has fallen in love with him. She strips to a bathing suit and enters a hot tub. She pulls Cesario in the water as she makes it perfectly clear that, to put it indelicately, she has the hots for him.

Malvolia is in love with Olivia and he aspires to have her. Does Malvolia harbour same-sex feelings for her? Of course she does and if there is any doubt the answer lies in the final scene when Malvolia threatens to get even with the pack of her abusers and takes off her wig revealing or confirming that she is a lesbian. Greig gives a superb performance as she shows her ambition to rise above Olivia’s servants and her brother Sir Toby.

Sea Captain Antonio (Adam Best), may harbour homosexual feelings towards his friend Sebastian but he is a minor character and the relationship is only hinted at.
The gulling of Malvolia is never pleasant to watch but Godwin has her blindfolded and tied up and her treatment is especially cruel. There is no way of making that scene acceptable.

We have the hilarious scene where Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), mistaken by Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) and Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby) for the cowardly Cesario, attack him. He gives far more than he gets and Olivia comes out screaming at the attackers. But the scene in Shakespeare’s text takes place in front of Olivia’s house. In this production the incident takes place in the Elephant pub. What are Toby and Andrew doing there and how is Olivia able to jump in and stop the fight? A stretcher too far.

Tamara Lawrence is an excellent Viola/Cesario as is Oliver Chris as Orsino. I enjoyed Phoebe’s spunk as Olivia and Mackichan is a highly enjoyable Feste. The acting of all is to the National Theatre standard which is indeed high.

The sets place the action basically nowhere. Going up a staircase does not locate the action anywhere. The attention to the text is admirable. Godwin makes sure that all lines are delivered carefully and clearly. A pleasure to the ear.
     
Twelfth Night like all plays is set in a world that had a different ethos. The closet homosexuality, the gender swaps and characterization details are in the hands and imagination of the director. But imposing current morality and standards on characters that are rooted in another world I find incongruous and unsettling. What they do in the play belongs to the era when they presumably existed and having Orsino drive up to Olivia’s door does not add anything to a great play.

In addition to Shakespeare, the national Theatre has enlisted other allies in its fight of covid-19 and you can get the details here: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Thursday, March 12, 2020

THE EVENTS - REVIEW OF NECESSARY ANGEL THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Alan Dilworth, the director of The Events, describes the play as “one of the most simple and yet complex” he has ever encountered. As a two-hander with a choir, it looks simple. After that following the plotline and making much out of it becomes a pretty tough task.

The production uses a different community choir for each performance and the City Choir was present on opening night. They sang several times and participated a bit in the play but I did not quite get why they were present.

After the singing by the choir we meet a priest called Claire (Raven Dauda) and a young man whose has an Aboriginal name that I did not catch and is also referred to as Gary. He gives a startling image of an aboriginal boy standing on the rocks above the Illwarta River in Australia when sail ships arrive from England for the first time. They carry convicts, religion, disease and “instruments of objectification.” If he were there, this aborigine warrior would have told the boy to kill them all. OK, but “instruments of objectification”? 
Raven Dauda and Kevin Walker. Photo: Dahlia Katz
From then on, Claire and the young man assume a number of different identities that are difficult to follow and even more difficult to understand.

Claire tells us that she and her lesbian partner lived happily at first and then Claire became a priest for the poor and vulnerable. Something terrible happened to her. We are never quite sure what is was but it involved a man with a gun who confronted her and another woman and shot the latter.

The incident was so terrible that she feels she is entitled to a visit from God.

The young man imagines being a Viking warrior, going berserk and slaughtering people. In his view the best thing for the world is a huge conflagration that burns everything out of existence. He wants to make his mark on the world now using violence. After all Jesus had established a religion by his age, Bob Geldof has saved Africa and Gavrilo Princip had started World War I.

Members of the choir throw questions at him as if he were a pop star, asking about his favourite song, favourite movie, if he drinks, is he a virgin, what is his diet. He tells us that the aboriginal warrior follows the Paleolithic diet as described in the Sunday Times Lifestyle Supplement. All of this is said with a straight face and barely raises a giggle from the audience. This play has no humour at all.

The dialogue gets more confusing as we get an infusion of more jargon. We look for a snippet of clarity and find is more confusion. Claire relates the story about the birth of a boy in a hospital where she is a nurse. She takes the newborn and suffocates him. That seems clear.

There is a supposed ceremony to bring back people’s souls. A choir member (apparently with no acting experience) tells the young man that what he asking he to do is depressing.

Claire gets a job at Peterhead Prison. The two start fighting, Claire wins and spits on him. She describes the incident with the gunman who kicks the door open where she and another woman are. She has sex with him and his soul returns. More torture and violence.

The play reaches the end after about eighty minutes and we go back to the beginning where the young man shyly enters the room with choir and is received by the priest Clare.

The set by Ken MacKenzie has several rows of chairs to accommodate the choir, a piano and open space. Jacqueline Teh is listed as Music Director and I assume she was the woman playing the piano.
Dauda and Walker speak matter of factly about the horrible things that they describe and some of the jargon that they express. It is the perfect way to express what the play offers.

“One of the most complex …plays” that Dilworth has ever encountered went pretty much over my head, In the program note he states that “I hope to present the possibility – an invitation for a shift in one’s narrative of themselves, their situation or the world around them.” How I wish he had.
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The Events by Davis Greig in a production by Necessary Angel Theatre Company opened on March 4 and will run until March 15, 2020 at Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. www.necessaryangel.com.  http://crowstheatre.com/

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

OIL – REVIEW OF ARC PRODUCTION OF ELLA HICKSON’S PLAY

Reviewed by James Karas

OIL is an extremely ambitious play by British playwright Ella Hickson. It premiered in London in 2016 and ARC is producing it for the first time in Canada. The play is done in Geary Lane in Toronto. It is an empty factory that holds fewer than 100 people (I did not count them) and it has severe limitations for a satisfactory production.

There is some excellent acting and dramatic scenes but the play itself is tough to produce and its shortcomings become more glaring in the circumstances.

Hickson tackles the rise and fall of the imperialist West as seen through its dependence on oil from 1889 to 2051. It starts in 1889 on a farm in Cornwall, England where everyone speaks with a southern Ontario accent. It is not the best way to do it but it is much better than having Canadian actors attempt an English accent. Most of them cannot do it. 
Bahareh Yaghari and Samantha Brown. Photo: Nicholas Porteous
The Singer family is barely scraping by during a freezing winter and we are met by a melodramatic scene with a loving and strong-willed wife facing a tyrannical mother-in-law while her husband is fighting with his brother. The wife is May (an outstanding Bahareh Yaraghi) who is married to the iron-fisted Joss (Cyrus Lane) and the mother-in-law is Ma Singer (Deborah Drakeford).

The future has arrived in the form of kerosene which will change the world. The pregnant May walks out of the family and into the future.

The future is the desert near Tehran in 1908 where oil has become big business. May is a servant in a club and has bratty and obnoxious daughter, Amy (a superb Samantha Brown). May is working with Thomas (Ryan Hollyman), a dishrag of a server and meets a despicable naval officer (played by Courtenay Stevens) who tries to seduce her. She walks out into the future again.

The future is in Hampstead in 1970 and May is a tough oil executive facing disaster as Colonel Gadhafi is taking over and nationalizing the Libyan oil fields. In this segment, Thomas is a mealy-mouthed corporate man while Mr. Farouk (Nabil Traboulsi) as the Libyan agent is making it clear that the days of cheap oil taken by the foreign oil companies are about to end.

In 2025 May and her daughter are in Kurdistan. Amy has become more obnoxious, if possible, and May is defending raging imperialism and capitalism while trying to communicate with her daughter.

It is 2051, we are back in Cornwall and the future is here as is the end of Western civilization as we knew it. May and Amy are freezing because there is no more oil and the world has been taken over by China. It uses nuclear fuel from the moon (if I understood correctly) which will last forever. We go back to the beginning (illusion, delusion?) and the play is finished as we are.        

Nabil Traboulsi and Bahareh Yaraghi. Photo: Nicholas Porteous
That is a lot of ground to cover. Hickson covers or wants to cover the evils of imperialism, capitalism, use of fossil fuels and human and corporate greed quite mercilessly. She combines that with family and personal issues as the intrepid May moves from a backward farm to the world of a single parent amid world issues. As if that were not enough, Hickson catapults into the future. 

Directors Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton have an amazingly talented cast to work with and put them through roles that cover almost two centuries. They do outstanding work. I have named several of them and will add Cyrus Lane as Joss, Shadi Shahkhalili in the three versions of Anne and Lily Gao as Fanny.

Set Designer Jackie Chau has very limited space in which to work but she does her best to take us from the farm to the back room of posh club and back to the farm with a couple of pit stops in between.

Hickson tries to cover far too much within the limitations of two and a half hours where there is no room for detail or nuance 
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OIL by Ella Hickson, in a production by ARC continues until March 21, 2020 at the 360 Geary Lane Toronto Ont. www.arcstage.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Monday, March 9, 2020

HISTORY OF GREEK SONG – REVIEW OF ChiJazz PERFORMANCE AT GREEK COMMUNITY

Reviewed by James Karas

If you think a program titled The History of Greek Song – Part II is some boring lecture for students of culture, you could not be more wrong. It was in fact a highly entertaining (and informative, if you will) concert at the Greek Community’s Polymenakio Centre on March 1, 2020.

The performers are part of ChiJazz, a band of eight talented musicians and singers all of who are “amateurs” if only because they have other professions. I go to the original meaning of the word amateur which denotes love for what one does accompanied by great ability.  

I hazard to state that the soul of the group is Athina Malli who plays percussion and baglama but above all sings. She has a strong, mellifluous voice that when she lets go overwhelms the musicians and captivates the listeners. She is a total performer who throws her arms up in the air, gestures triumphantly and establishes direct contact with the audience and has them sing along or wave their bodies in unison. They are in the palm of her hand.

Yiorgos Sountoulidis sings solo or accompanies her on a guitar. He has a fine, light tenor voice and gives a superb performance. I will mention the other musicians who make up the band. Yorgos Vasileiou plays bass guitar, Fotis Mihalarias plays drums, Rania Babassi plays flute and percussion, Dimitris Petsalakis is on bouzouki, lyre and guitar. Petros Pehlivanoglou plays bouzouki with Sophia Smyrnioudi on keyboard as well as singing. They are all capable not only of playing well but energizing the audience. Major achievement.

Yiannis Dimitriou, Katerina Tsekarea and Irene Stubos were the well-rehearsed MCs who provided context to the story of Greek song. Irene Stubos and Rania Babassi are the artistic directors and driving force behind the event. Sine qua non.        

The wide ranging program started with art and popular (laika) songs by the likes of Stavros Xarhakos (Mana mou Ellas), Yiannis Markopoulos (Auton ton kosmo ton kalo) and Manos Loizos (O Dromos). It continues with “heavy” popular songs by Akis Panou (Gia koita me sta matia) and the iconic singer Stelios Kazantzidis. This was followed by songs classified as “light popular (elafrlolaika) by Mimis Plessas (An a’arnitho agape mou).

Greek songs of the 1960s came under the influence of rock and the French New Wave and groups like the Olympians and Charms sprang up singing Greek songs influenced by pop rock. Representatives of the era are composers like .Yiannis Spanos (Aspra karavia), Arleta (Mia for a thymamai m’agapouses) and Yiannis Argyris (Ela mazi mou).
They continued with songs from the 1970’s and 1980’s from composers such as Kostas Chatzis (Aeroplano), Loukianos Kalaidonis (Mikros Iroas) and Dionysis Savopoulos (Zebekiko). This is only a partial list of the songs that they performed, some in the entirety and parts of others.

The Greek community at times feels like a cultural desert. If so, then there are numerous oases springing up across the sand. The crisis in Greece of the past decade drove some of its best children away. The Hellenic diaspora is the beneficiary of that exodus as it was in the 1960s when the military junta had the same effect. Most of the members of ChiJazz are highly educated, newcomers to Canada.

The Polymenakio Centre was full to capacity. It felt like the “old” immigrants were welcoming the “newcomers” and enjoying a major component of Greek culture.
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The History of Greek Song – Pert II organized by Pronia of The Greek Community of Toronto was presented on March 1, 2020 at The Greek Community of Toronto.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

H.M.S. PINAFORE – REVIEW OF 2020 TORONTO OPERETTA THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Can you go wrong by producing H.M.S. Pinafore?

Neither can Toronto Operetta Theatre in its staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s’ delightful operetta for its early spring season. It is a spirited production with the gorgeous melodies and humour that should please Savoyards. 

You know the story, no? Able Ralph is madly in love with the delightful Josephine who happens to be the Captain’s daughter. Oops! An able seamen lowly born cannot reach for the daughter of a Captain. Solution, please.

The Captain who is punctilious and never, ever (well, hardly ever) sick at sea wants his daughter to marry Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. Josephine tells him that she has given her heart to a lowly sailor (and thus justifies the subtitle of the operetta The Lass That Loved A Sailor).
 Holly Chaplin as Josephine, and Ryan Downey as Ralph. 
Photographer: Gary Beechey (BDS Studio)
Sir Joseph is one of the delights of the operetta from his entrance when he explains that he got to be “the monarch of the sea, / The ruler of the Queen’s navee.” He is a pompous fool and a great comic character.

And there is Little Buttercup, the lowborn, bumboat woman (keep it clean – she sells goodies to sailors on board ship) who has matrimonial designs on the exalted Captain. Solution, please.

The production is generally well sung and generates considerable energy. Ryan Downey as the lover Ralph has a sweet tenor voice that he puts to good use to express his ardor for Josephine. He sings that “The Nightingale Sighed” and how as a suitor lowly born he loves “A Maiden Fair to See” with fine intonation.

Lovely-voiced soprano Holly Chaplin is Josephine whose love is alive but hope is dead she moves us in her ballad “Sorry her lot who loves too well.”  Stick around and Ms Chaplin will sing of rapture unforeseen.

Baritone Bradley Christensen as Captain Corcoran has an imposing physique and an impressive voice. His Captain has class issues, parental control problems and his own love difficulties. With Christensen’s vocal authority and stage presence, he solves all of the Captain’s difficulties.    
Mezzo soprano Rosalind McArthur as Buttercup tells us that she has no idea why she is called poor, sweet, little Buttercup. She sells all kinds of goodies to the sailors she also has the key to solving all the serious issues in the operetta. Ms McArthur has good comic talent and carries her role very well vocally. 
Bradley Christensen as Captain Corcoran, and Rosalind McArthur as Buttercup
Photographer: Gary Beechey (BDS Studio)
Gregory Finney is a fine comic talent with good vocal chords and he gets the juicy role of Sir Joseph. There are no complaints about his singing but director Guillermo Silva-Marin has misdirected him as the pompous, nincompoop First Lord of the Admiralty. There is no snobbery, pomposity or ridiculous aristocratic behaviour. Sir Joseph is just a funny guy on the ship. He needs to stand out.

Part of the issue may be the costumes. Almost all of the characters looked like they just left a wedding. Tuxedos for the men, gowns for the women. Very little indication of status and rigid class structure that play an important part in the operetta. Naval uniforms work better. The costumes are supplied by Malabar Ltd. and the choices must be extremely limited. There is almost no indication that we are on a ship but all of that can be ascribed to paucity of funds. But in the case of Sir Joseph, an admiral’s outfit would have made a difference.

The chorus was splendid and the orchestra conducted by Derek Bate did a terrific job.

For those who want to be critical about TOT’s productions, do they know that it is the only company in Canada devoted to the production of operettas?
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H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan opened on March 4 and will be performed until March 8, 2020 at the Jane Mallett, Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 366-7723. www.torontooperetta.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor- Culture of The Greek Press 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

BOX 4901- REVIEW OF BRIAN FRANCIS’ PLAY AT BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES

James Karas

Box 4901 is a new play by Brian Francis that is based on a simple and unprepossessing premise yet manages to deliver a wonderful night at the theatre.

Francis is 49, gay and a writer. He has written three critically acclaimed novels (Fruit, Natural Order and Break In Case Of Emergency) and many humorous pieces but Box 4901 is his first work for the theatre and, he tells us, it is autobiographical.    

Twenty eight years ago when he was 21 he put an ad in the classified section of a newspaper searching for love. He got a number of letters that he replied to but he did not answer 13 of them. He decided to answer those letters now. The letters are read by 13 actors and Francis himself (who is not an actor) reads his replies.

How do you get a 75-minute theatrical performance out of that? 
Brian Francis and company. Photo: James Heaslip 
The letters are at least interesting and frequently entertaining, revealing of the writers’ characters and a picture of the life of gay men in the early 1990s. Francis’ replies are the clincher to the success of the play. They are variously perceptive, literate, sarcastic, dismissive, kind and always worth hearing. Francis obviously rejected the invitations of the men (except one) in 1991 and his replies today with his current view or as he wishes he had replied in his youth. His skillful writing is touching, humorous and impeccable.

All 13 letters are interesting especially when we hear Francis’ reply. One young man writes about himself and includes his love of exotic foods as one of his appealing traits. Francis’ reply is curt: “Where do you find exotic foods in southern Ontario?”

The 35-year old waiter is dismissed as too old.

The athletic homosexual who brags about his muscular build gets short shrift. The teacher who cannot spell the word “gorgeous” is also ignored.

The play also gives a glimpse of what life was like for a gay teenager and young man a mere 28 years ago. Francis never had lunch in the school cafeteria until he was in grade 13. He did not have any male friends and he did not want to sit with girls. He and his gay friends went to a “big” city, Hamilton, to check things out. Being gay in a small town is even more difficult than in a large city. When one of the men who replies to the ad gives his address, Francis is quite shocked. The news of his homosexuality could easily get out. 
The company/ Photo:James Heaslip
The World Health Organization delisted homosexuality as a mental illness in 1992. Read the name of the organization and the date and put your jaw back up.

Francis reads his replies from a lectern. The 13 men are in a square area of the stage and they are occupied in various ways throughout the performance. They do some miming, some almost dance sequences, move around the playing area and rearrange three white benches.  Kudos to director Bob Kempson for thinking of ways to occupy the actors who otherwise have nothing to do after reading their letter. Kempson is also credited as a co-creator of the play.

The actors, who are not identified in the program as to what characters they play, are Colin Asuncion, Hume Baugh, Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, Keith Cole, Daniel Jelani Ellis, Jeff Ho, Michael Hughes, Indrit Kasapi, Daniel Krolik, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain and Geoffrey Whynot.  Splendidly done.

Box 4901 is touching, humorous, intelligent, literate and simply marvelous theatre.
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Box 4901 by Brian Francis, co-created and directed by Rob Kempson, in a production by timeshare performances with support from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, opened on February 27 and will run until March 8, 2020  at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto, Ontario.  www.buddiesinbadtimes.com.  www.box4901.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

US/THEM - REVIEW OF CARLY WIJS PLAY AT CAA THEATRE

By James Karas

Us/Them is an incredible play that goes beyond the usual limitation of theatre and leaves one astounded by its accomplishment. And, as they say, it is a must-see.

It is a two-hander and the characters are referred to as a Girl and a Boy. They are hostages in a school together with some 1200 people in total, 777 of whom are children. The terrorists were Chechens who took over a school in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004, the first day of classes.     

Belgium playwright Carly Wijs is taking a look at the three-day siege through the eyes of two youngsters and it is nothing like one would expect. The play contains many facts (and some fictions) about the city of Beslan and the view of Chechnya that the Russian pupils have been taught. The Boy and the Girl tell us that the children of Chechnya go to school until they are eight and then they work in brothels for pedophiles. The fathers are drug addicts and the mothers have moustaches.

It is the first day of school and the pupils are singing as thirty-five fully armed terrorists take over the school. The Boy and the Girl describe the take-over and attempts at escape but the key depiction is of what happens when people are seriously dehydrated. They go from headaches to nausea, to blue nails, decreased consciousness and finally hallucination. 
Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven. Photo by FKPH 
The two children continue telling their story but we never know if they are hallucinating or describing actual events. All are forced to raise their hands up in the air and stay that way. They are not allowed to use the toilet so bodily functions are done where they are. All the descriptions of the siege are told in a matter of fact way through the eyes of the two youngsters without any attempt at dramatic effect. This is not a story on CNN. The opaqueness, the unvarnished description becomes all the more terrifying as we absorb what in fact is happening. It is beyond description.

Strings are drawn across the stage resembling a spider’s web and the Boy and the Girl navigate through them. They see or imagine the gym where they are all imprisoned blowing up or the terrorists leaving or something happening. Some of it clearly did not happen, many things did. Again, this an intentionally opaque view of the tragedy and by no means an attempt at docudrama.

The two actors, Gytha Parmentier and Roma van Houtven, are superb. They are Belgians and speak slightly accented English but they are wonderful. They faint, they compete for who will say what, they are playful, they dance, all through an event that is beyond horror which results in the deaths of hundreds of people.

The back of the stage is used to draw diagrams of the school and there is a diagram on the floor as well which I could not see. Designer Stef Stessel makes the set with its strings and drawings look like a simple school project. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wijs directs this intricate and highly original work that she wrote for BRONKS, a children’s’ theatre company and it premiered in Dutch in Brussels in 2014. It was subsequently produced in English at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This is theatre at its most intriguing, original and fascinating
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Us/Them  by Carly Wijs in a production by BRONKS and Richard Jordan Productions continues until March 15, 2020 at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press