Sunday, June 24, 2018

KISS ME, KATE – REVIEW OF OPERA NORTH PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Before I review Opera North’s production of Kiss Me, Kate, a few words about culture may be appropriate. Now we all know that the Italians gave us opera and the Mafia: the Viennese served us operetta and strudel; the English provided Shakespeare and Imperialism; the Americans delivered Broadway musicals and Trump and the Greeks gave us civilization.

Speaking of imperialism, the Broadway musical has definitely adopted imperialist proclivities as regards the English, because it dominates the genre in the theaters of London. Which raises the question (really?) which are the best Broadway musicals? If forced to name a handful, I would include Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate which was just one reason for wanting to see it. Its production by Opera North (that refers to north England and not North Dakota or North Bay) suggests that it is not a run-of-the mill musical but indeed a masterpiece.
 
 Stephanie Corley as Kate with members of the cast. Ohoto: Tristram Kenton
Kiss Me, Kate is a backstage musical based on a production of The Taming of The Shrew in Baltimore. The courtship of Kate the shrew by Petruchio and some other incidents from the Shrew are mirrored in the backstage shenanigans of the actors. This makes the musical a British-American partnership, a kind of coalition of the willing rather than an American invasion. 

Opera North takes no short cuts in its production at the sumptuous London Coliseum. Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang plays the actor Fred Graham who plays Petruchio in the Shrew. De Lang is an opera singer as is soprano Stephanie Corley who plays his wife Lilli Vanessi and Kate the shrew. They make a fine pair who sing superbly and carry the comedy without a hitch. They have a number of songs including “Wunderbar,” the lilting waltz which was intended to satirize Viennese operetta (Porter did not like the genre) but people decided to love the song. They get wonderful solos such as Kates’s “I Hate Men” and Petruchio’s “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily.”

Kiss Me, Kate has a large number of wonderful songs (arias really), duets and ensemble pieces that are done beautifully, robustly and just plain entertainingly. Bianca (Zoe Rainey) gets to sing “Tom, Dick or Harry” with her suitors and the marvelous “Always True To You” to her gambling boyfriend

Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin brought the house down as the two would-be-literate enforcers (Italy is included, you see). They are listed as Gunmen come to collect on a gambling bet for their employer and sing and dance “Brush Up You Shakespeare” to hilarious effect.
Other performers of distinction are Alan Burkitt as Bill Calhoun / Lucentio, Stephane Anelli as Paul, Aiesha Pease as Hattie and Malcolm Ridley as Harrison Howell.
 
Opera North has a full chorus and a full orchestra conducted by James Holmes for the production. This is no ordinary musical with short cuts. Jo Davies directed the original production which premiered in Leeds in September 2015 and Ed Gogggin directs this revival. The choreography for the 2015 performances was done by Will Tuckett and David James Hulston is the revival choreographer. Opera North has eight dancers who perform with superb coordination, athleticism and talent.          

I trust I made no secret of my love of Kiss Me, Kate and my enjoyment of the production. Once again looking at the big picture of the cultural map, the United Kingdom from North to south must be happy. The Americans are obviously included. There are nods of gratitude and recognition to the Italians and the Viennese. And we are all happy because everything was started by the Greeks. Just go see this production, OK?
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Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter (music and lyrics) and  Samuel and Bella Spewack (book) opened on June 20 and will run until June 30, 2018  at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES, England. https://www.operanorth.co.uk/productions/kiss-me-kate

Saturday, June 23, 2018

MACBETH – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Director Rufus Norris sets the current production of Macbeth now showing on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage in a modern country in the midst of civil war. There is smoke and armed fighting in the dark opening scene. There is a large ramp on a background of a black, tattered, plastic curtain (they look like floor-to-ceiling garbage bags) and there is no doubt that this is a battlefield. In fact the entire action of the play takes place on or near the battlefield.  

 Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear. Photo: Tristram Kenton 
Macbeth’s castle is no more than a shed and the banquet scene takes place in what looks like a barracks make-shift cafeteria where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lay out the cutlery. The Olivier’s large revolving stage serves the production well making quick scene changes feasible.

The production has a strong cast led by Rory Kinnear as an ambitious but uncertain Macbeth and Anne-Marie Duff as a blonde, two-faced and manipulative Lady Macbeth. The idea of assassinating King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) springs in her mind with lightning speed when she hears of her husband’s promotion and the possibilities of greater achievement. After greeting Duncan with unctuous politeness on his arrival, she cuts off his head after he is murdered. Superb performances by Kinnear and Duff.

Boxer as Duncan is a gentleman in a red suit and stands apart from the others who wear mostly military attire. Macbeth wears the same red suit after he murders Duncan.

Kevin Harvey’s Banquo is decent and the rest of the cast work well in the shadow of Kinnear and Duff.

Norris adds a number of touches that make the production interesting. In the banquet scene Banquo’s ghost appears outside the window of the cafeteria while the other guests are sitting with their backs to it. That makes it realistic and less forced but also less imaginative.

The ghost of Banquo dominates Macbeth’s life after he is murdered. He appears several more times after the banquet scene including in the last scene of the play.  Banquo is murdered by a nameless Murderer played by a very recognizable Alana Ramsey. In the final scene, in a moment of poetic justice, the Murderer is killed. Effective staging and directing by Norris.

The modern costumes, the civil war and setting the play largely in a battlefield do give it a different feel. The main weapon made visible from the first scene is the machete which is immediately reminiscent of the civil war in Rwanda. There is no castle in which Macbeth welcomes the king in ceremonial fashion wearing impressive royal attire. If one accepts that Macbeth takes place in some vague modern country during a civil war and finds that as a sufficient focus then the production is fine. If you are looking for a more focused view of the play than a vague battlefield, you will demand more than you are getting.

Worth seeing even if it means you will have to decide on some of Norris’s choices.
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Macbeth by William Shakespeare continues at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. It will be broadcast live from the National Theatre on September 6, 2018. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Friday, June 22, 2018

AS YOU LIKE IT – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most pleasant romantic comedies with fine poetry, colourful characters and an ending that fills the stage with marriages. You wait for the next production to visit the Forest of Arden and meet the city folk that have escaped there and the country folk that live there as if you were seeing old friends.

Shakespeare’s Globe no doubt intended to do that for us but some of the choices made by Artistic Director Michelle Terry and Directors Federay Holmes and Elle While may dampen your enthusiasm and enjoyment of the visit.


They have a dozen actors who are assigned to play some two dozen roles. Judiciously distributed that type of casting need not cause too much concern. But that is not quite what happens in this production.

Two of the main characters in As You Like It are the cousins Rosalind and Celia. Celia’s father, Frederick, deposed his brother Duke Senior (who is also Rosalind’s father) from his position as Duke. The deposed Duke now lives in the Forest of Arden with some colourful companions.

The two cousins disguised as Ganymede and Aliena go to the forest to find them. Rosalind is a girl disguised a young man while Celia remains a girl. For reasons that escape me, the role of Rosalind is given to a man, Jack Laskey, and Celia is played by Nadia Nadarajah who happens to be a deaf mute. Part of the fun of the play is that Rosalind pretending to be man will pretend to be a woman and will be wooed by the handsome Orlando. Does the casting add anything to the production? Yes, it adds a large dose of annoyance, if not worse.

Speaking of worse, Celia has a lot of lines in the play but Nadia Nadarajah cannot speak any of them and must communicate with sign language. I have no idea why they would cast a person who tragically cannot speak in a role that requires speech.

Richard Katz is a mature actor and he is assigned three roles. The ones that concern us are those of Charles the Wrestler and Silvius the shepherd. Perhaps I have a weird image of wrestlers but a middle aged man with no display of muscles does not make the cut. With a gray beard, he is not a convincing wrestler but let’s not make a big deal out of it. But Silvius is a young, dumb and doting shepherd in love with Phoebe (Catrin Aaron). Katz, with his white beard is simply out of place in the role. Why in the world was he cast in it?
 
Orlando is the young man who falls in love with and woos Rosalind so fervently is, well, a young man. Bettrys Jones who plays Orlando is a woman who is considerably shorter than Jack Laskey. This is plain ridiculous.

Helen Schlesinger, Michelle Terry and Tanika Yearwood get three roles each, all of them of male characters with a question mark about Hymen who is a god. Is there a dire shortage of male actors at Shakespeare’s Globe? Is there a valid reason for casting so many men in women’s roles and vice versa? Is this gender-blindness and age-blindness gone haywire? Are they trying to move the world forward into thinking that gender and age differences are irrelevant or unimportant?

I am not sure at all but in this production of As You Like It, the attempt to convince us of that, if it did not kill the performance, it certainly bruised it and made for some unpleasant watching of a production that promised to be unalloyed joy.      
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As You Like It by William Shakespeare continues until August 26, 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com  The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Thursday, June 21, 2018

HAMLET – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, has exercised the prerogative of a boss and given herself the best and toughest role of the season. She plays Hamlet. The production is directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While and the result is eccentric and idiosyncratic which means you get the good, the bad and the awful.

Terry seems to be aggressively gender neutral and perhaps gender blind which is commendable to a point. Seeing Shakespeare’s plays done by all-women and all-men casts is a frequent occurrence and having some roles played by the opposite sex should not raise many eyebrows. Perhaps.
  
Terry’s Hamlet is a hyperkinetic prince who frequently uses his whole body it seems to make his points. He goes mad or pretends to be crackers quite early on and I felt that the directors did not tell Terry to follow Hamlet’s advice to the players. This Hamlet does not just use his hands when talking but flails his arms to near contortions. He puts on a clown’s suit from his first meeting with Polonius to almost the end of the play.

His histrionic delivery does not apply to all parts of his soliloquys which are delivered in almost matter-of-fact style. The Hecuba speech is a dramatic self-accusation of his failure to avenge his father’s death yet, as delivered by Terry, it does not rise to any meteoric level of emotion. For “To be or not to be” Terry kneels at the edge of the stage and speaks to a few of the yardlings in front of her.

She does a superb job in the bedroom scene where Hamlet attacks his mother for her betrayal and murder of his father. Here Terry shows strength and superb delivery of her lines.    

Ophelia is played by Shubham Saraf, a tall young man, dressed in a nice gown that brought to mind high school casting. On high school productions, you take what you have and not what you want. The directors’ and Terry’s choice was not that grim but in this case it was ridiculous. He did not fit the role in any way. He did a much better job as Osric.
Laertes is played by Bettys Jones, a spitfire of an actor who does a good job in the role. She would have made a fine Ophelia to Saraf’s Laertes if it were not for perverse gender swapping.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are marginal characters, good for few laughs, even though you may wonder about Hamlet having them as friends at university. Rosencrantz is played by Pearce Quigley who has a white beard and is clearly a man of a certain age and could be Polonius’s brother. Let’s assume that Wittenberg accepted senior students. Guildenstern is played by Nadia Nadarajah who is unfortunately a deaf-mute. The biographical note in the program states that she trained at the International Visual Theatre in Paris and has considerable acting experience. Guildenstern is a speaking role and sign language cannot replace what he/she has to say. Giving people with disabilities opportunities is laudable but it should be in roles that can be adapted to their abilities. In this case, it simply did not work to put it politely.

Colin Hurley does a fine job as the Ghost, the wonderful role of the Gravedigger and a Player. The Ghost, however, is not really a ghost. During the scene on the parapets of Elsinore, he touches his son. When the Ghost appears when young Hamlet is haranguing his mother, he puts his arm around his son’s shoulder in order to restrain him. Interesting conception of a ghost.

The directors find humour in a number of places. When Polonius (Richard Katz) delivers his lengthy advice to Laertes, for example, there are pauses and intonations that make it quite funny.             

The costumes for which Loraine Ebdon-Price is credited as Supervisor seemed to consist of whatever London’s equivalent of Malabar’s had on hand. The play takes place sometime in the past and costume need not play any significant part.

Eccentric? Idiosyncratic? I revise my opinion downwards when thinking of poor Ophelia and Guildenstern but I will leave it at that.
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Hamlet by William Shakespeare continues until August 26, 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

LOHENGRIN – REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

It has taken the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden more than forty years to roll out a new production of Lohengrin but the result is vocally outstanding with truly exceptional production values form David Alden.

Brilliant vocal artistry is provided by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as the heroic knight Lohengrin who demands anonymity. His vocal chords are a precision instrument that can rise to high notes with power and sing lyrical passages with tonal splendor.
 
Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Irish soprano Jennifer Davis stepped in to replace the indisposed Kristine Opolais with exceptional results. Poor Elsa has much to contend with as a woman accused of killing her brother. She is saved by the would-be nameless Lohengrin only to be maliciously misled into betraying him and herself. She needs strength of character, beauty of tone and has the Achilles heel of weakness to doubt her savior. An outstanding performance.

Baritone Thomas J. Mayer has sung the role of the nasty and ambitious Friedrich von Telramund all over Europe and is making his Royal Opera debut in the role this season. With his resonant voice and stage presence he has all the equipment for a superb performance which he provides. His character’s partner in sorcery and evil is Ortrud sung by dramatic soprano Christine Goerke in an equally well done performance.

Bass baritone Kostas Smoriginas with his commanding and booming voice served as the Herald.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus are conducted by Andris Nelsons and produce music of extraordinary power and beauty. When the full orchestra, chorus and soloists are mobilized, for example, after Lohengrin’s victory over Telramund, they produce a sound that is so thrilling that it transports you to another dimension.

David Alden brings some intriguing and in the end fascinating ideas to the opera. With Set Designer Paul Steinberg and Costume Designer Gideon Davey, he sets the opera in a devastated city after the war. The action takes place in a bombed building where only the outer walls have survived.

It becomes slowly clear that there is a power struggle among Telramund, King Heinrich (finely sung by Georg Zeppenfeld) and Elsa who represents her brother Gottfried, the rightful duke.

Alden saves us from having to watch a swan drag Lohengrin’s boat unto the scene. Judicious use of lighting suggests his arrival as the knight who will fight for Elsa and that is all we need.
 
Jennifer Davis and Klaus Florian Vogt in Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, London. 
Photo: Tristram Kenton
But the swan or swans are not entirely left out. Near the end, as Lohengrin is about to depart because he was betrayed into having to reveal his identity, large red and black banners with white swans emblazoned on them are dropped across the stage. They are frightfully similar to the large banners with swastikas that were used by the Nazis.

It is an unexpected and startling scene. As Lohengrin walks quickly off the stage and disappears. Elsa falls to her death, the banners come crashing down and the old order disappears. Gottfried, the rightful duke appears, and order is restored. I found the scene breathtaking and the production awesome.    
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Lohengrin  by Richard Wagner opened on June 7 and will be performed on different dates until July 1, 2018 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Two Noble Kinsmen is a creaky play by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. If Alex Trebek were to ask you “what is Shakespeare’s last play, press the button quickly and say “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” No, it is not The Tempest. That was Shakespeare’s last complete play. Shakespeare’s Globe gives it a largely worthy production that cannot erase the play’s weaknesses but we are happy to see it.
 
The company of The Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare's Globe
© Nobby Clark
The plot has ancient provenance. Like everything worthwhile in the world, it started as a Greek legend, wound itself through Roman culture and, unlike the Parthenon Marbles, landed honestly in England. (No, they are not the Elgin Marbles. Stolen items are not named after the thief).With Chaucer using the legend for The Knight’s Tale and other writers penning poetry and plays based on it, it’s curious that Shakespeare did not use the tale for one of his plays until near the end of his life and then only as a collaborator of John Fletcher.

Palamon (Paul Stocker) and Arcite (Bryan Dick) are knights who were captured by Theseus (Jude Akuwudike) in a war against Creon. (Don’t sweat the details.) While in jail as captives, the two knights tell us that they are cousins and the closest of friends and nothing will ever separate them. Then they see the gorgeous Princess Emilia, Theseus’ sister-in-law and fall madly in love with her. That puts an end to their friendship and they become mortal enemies without having exchanged a word with Emilia. Remember that courtly love in which the knights engage is a long distance affair and contact with the object of love and adoration is not required, in fact it is undesirable because it ruins everything.

We have a no-name Jailer (Andy Cryer) who has a no-name Jailer’s Daughter (Francesca Mills who falls in love with Arcite who is banished from Theseus’ Kingdom but returns for Emilia. In the meantime, the Jailer’s Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and the plot thickens.

The two cousins meet in combat to decide who will get Emilia (who does not say very much). The Jailer’s Daughter goes nuts because Palamon does not love her but a doctor (Jos Vantyler) finds a cure: get her no-name dolt of a Wooer to dress up like Palamon, agree to marry her and that will cure her of her madness.
 
The Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. Photo: Nobby Clark
The heroic tale is spiced with some humour, singing and dancing. The cousins are typical young men that can be seen on the street and there is nothing knightly about them. Theseus has a commanding presence and the statuesque and beautiful Moyo Akandé has an impressive presence as Hippolyta.

Mills is a midget and a ball of fire. She has comic skills galore and thanks to her size can be tossed around easily. She is the most memorable character of the play as the lower class daughter of a jailer who aspires to marry a knight. After a bout of madness, she finds a husband and happiness.

Cryer’s Jailer has a rich working-class accent and gives a fine portrayal.

Director Barrie Rutter handles the play with a light touch, with music, dancing and comic business. The choreography of Ewan Wardrop helps as does the music of Eliza Carthy. I suppose it is the best way to treat the play because otherwise it may well prove to be a heroic, romantic bore. You want to see The Two Noble Kinsmen a few times during your life honoris causa and to check what can be done with the play. You may adopt this production as one of them
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The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare continues until June 30, 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com  The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Monday, June 18, 2018

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

Miles Potter directs a highly commendable production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s long-winded family saga for the Stratford Festival. It plays in the small Studio Theatre which has the advantage of intimacy and the issue of limited space.

Long Day’s Journey tells the story of the Tyrone family. James Tyrone is a one-role matinee idol who sold his soul to Mammon and abandoned Melpomene (maybe). He rose from poverty and did amass some wealth but he could not shake off his years of hardship and remained a miser all his life. He was convinced of his great acting talent and recalled or perhaps imagined playing opposite the great Edwin Booth and alternating the roles of Othello and Iago with him.
 
 Seana McKenna as Mary and Charlie Gallant as Edmund. 
Photography by Emily Cooper.
It is a devastating portrait of O’Neill’s father and Scott Wentworth does a superb job in the role. He shows us James as a heavy drinker, an arrogant man, a selfish husband and a repulsive miser who keeps his whisky locked up and can tell if someone has had a drink from an open bottle. His sons are forced to pour water into the bottle to fool their father.

Wentworth does a superb job of presenting all those traits in Tyrone but I missed the matinee idol. This Tyrone is the one-role actor who thinks of himself as a star while regretting prostituting his talents for money but his star quality is never shown.

The long day’s journey into night is the story of James’s wife Mary brilliantly portrayed by Seana McKenna. Mary is a pathetic woman who was raised in a convent and fell in love with the image of Tyrone as an actor and had to live the reality of cheap hotels, addiction to morphine, the death of a son and the double life of hiding from reality until she goes into the inevitable night. McKenna gives a deeply-felt portrayal of the unfortunate Mary who goes from the pretense of health to the reality of madness. She shows us Mary’s torn interior as we see the wrecked exterior behind which the truth is supposed to be hidden.
 
Charlie Gallant (left) as Edmund and Gordon S. Miller as James. 
Photography by Emily Cooper.
James Tyrone Jr. (Gordon S. Miller) is a wastrel who spends his time drinking and whoring and has no other ambition in life.

Edmund (Charlie Gallant) is the youngest son and he is suffering from tuberculosis as did O’Neill. It is a self-portrait of the playwright as a sickly man, a would-be poet and a dreamer. Gallant with his sallow complexion, deep-set eyes and sickly appearance has to cope with the fear of tuberculosis and his father’s penny pinching. Mendacity, as Big Daddy put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a deeply rooted habit in the Tyrone family.

The cast has to express the hatreds, love and harrowing ghosts and emotions that tear the Tyrones apart and keep them together.

The maid Cathleen with her thick Irish brogue is very funny and provides a perfect contrast to the warring Tyrones and Amy Keating is a delight to watch in the role.

The play takes place in a summer home in Connecticut during a single day. The Tyrones wear light summer clothes and should be enjoying the holiday. The set by Peter Hartwell and costumes by Gillian Gallow are a pleasant image of a well-off family enjoying the summer. Again the image and the reality do not match.

O’Neill’s verbosity is inescapable but in Long Day’s Journey is becomes a tool for driving home the emotional morass and the toxic atmosphere in which the Tyrones live. Despite some complaints, in the end it all adds up to a great night at the theatre.  .            
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Long Day’s Journey Into Night  by Eugene O’Neill continues until October 13, 2018 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street East, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca