Saturday, May 28, 2016

THE HEIDI CHRONICLES – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF WASSERSTEIN PLAY

James Karas

The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Gregory Prest
Cast: Michelle Monteith,
Jordan Pettle, Sarah Wilson,
Damien Atkins, Laura Condlln,
Raquel Duffy, Sophia Walker, Paolo Santalucia

Continues in repertory at the Young centre for the Performing Arts
55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca

*** (out of five

The Heidi Chronicles was written more than a quarter century ago and it covers the era of the baby boomers from the 1960’s to the late 1980’s. Wasserstein’s baby boomers are mostly very smart, well-educated and highly successful New Yorkers who are liberals, campaign for Eugene McCarthy, and are deeply concerned with women’s lib.  

Damien Atkins, Michelle Monteith, Jordan Pettle and Laura Condlln. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
Twenty-five years after the play was written and many more years since the baby boomers were in their prime the language of discourse and generations have changed. Equality between the sexes has not been reached but things have improved. Liberal causes have become almost anathema after Tea Party ideology and worse have high jacked the Republican Party. In any event, all social problems tend to be like the Lernaean Hydra, the vicious nine-headed serpent of Greek mythology; you cut one off one head, two others grow back. And so it is with the social issues of the baby boomers. The issues they espoused may have evolved but they are still with us albeit in different forms.

We follow Wasserstein’s baby boomers from their teens in the 1960’s to successful but hardly fulfilled people in their forties. Heidi and Susan whom we meet as awkward teenagers grow up into successful women without finding the fulfillment they so eagerly seek. Heidi becomes a prominent historian of art at Columbia University. The other men and women in the play are all successful and most people would love to have their problems.

The play opens in a lecture hall in New York in 1989 and Heidi is giving a lecture about women painters. She mentions several and notes that a standard text on art history mentioned no women artists from the dawn of time to the present.
Sarah Wilson and Michelle Monteith. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The play consists of about a dozen scenes and there is considerable wit, humour, intelligent repartee and dramatic scenes as the characters of the women and two leading men are developed.

Unfortunately, very little of it resonated with me and I think most of the audience on opening night. Most of us in the theatre are baby boomers and one wonders if the language and causes of that era have left us indifferent?  The actors try to generate energy and humour and especially at the beginning most of their efforts fall flat.

Things do improve as the performance progresses but the feeling of disassociation never completely abandoned me.

Michelle Monteith as Heidi was sallow and passive as the brilliant art historian who is keenly aware of women’s position but falls in love with the philandering Scoop Rosenbaum, an editor and magazine publisher. Jordan Pettle is highly energetic and witty as the self-assured Scoop. Sarah Wilson plays the sensitive, idealistic Susan, Heidi’s best friend, who becomes a studio executive in the end.

The most attractive character is perhaps Damien Atkins as Peter Patrone, a gay pediatrician who combines wit, humanity and friendship and is a true mensch.    

Laura Condlln, Raquel Duffy, Sophia Walker and Paolo Santalucia take on several roles each and do fine work.       

Gregory Prest is making his directorial debut and kudos to Artistic Director Albert Schultz for promoting talent from within the company. One gets the feeling that Prest is trying a bit too hard. In the TV Studio scene he has the host April (Laura Condlln) overacting abominably for the sake of some laughs that simply do not materialize. Other scenes work quite well like Heidi’s speech to Miss Crain’s School Alumnae Association.

Wasserstein wrote ten other plays. Perhaps Soulpepper can produce a few more of them in the coming seasons?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Mrs Warren’s Profession by Bernard Shaw.
Directed by Eda Holmes
Mrs. Warren                           Nicole Underhay
Vivie Warren                           Jennifer Dzialoszynski           
Frank Gardner                        Wade Bogert-O’Brien              
Sir George Crofts                    Thom Marriott                        
Rev. Samuel Gardner              Shawn Wright
Praed                                     Gray Powell

Continues in repertory at the Royal George Theatre,
Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 23, 2016. www.shawfest.com   

*** (out of five)

Does Eda Holmes wish that Mrs Warren’s Profession was written by Thornton Wilder instead of Bernard Shaw?

Her production of Shaw’s third play bears some remarkable resemblances to Our Town which has a character called Stage Manager who tells us what is going on and participates in the action.
 Jennifer Dzialoszynski and Nicole Underhay. Photo: David Cooper
Holmes adds a Prologue to Mrs Warren’s Profession which she sets in 2016 in The New Lyric Gentlemen’s Club. Several members of the club tell us that there will be a reading of Shaw’s play and after a few introductory remarks the play as Shaw wrote it begins. The entire play is done in the club but the actors do explain to us what the set as described by Shaw is supposed to be.

The play is in fact set in a cottage and a rectory garden in Surrey as well as chambers in London and I am not sure what is added to our appreciation of it by placing it in a posh gentlemen’s club that most of us cannot possibly relate to.        

Mrs Warren’s Profession is about the disgraceful working conditions for women in 19th century England which forced many of them into prostitution. The word is never mentioned and although we are given some information about the conditions that forced Mrs. Warren to sell her body we see nothing in the least bit tawdry.

Mrs Warren may have started as a desperate pretty girl doing tricks but she rose up the ladder of the oldest profession into management and partnership on a multinational scale. With her partner Sir George Crofts she has become wealthy and raised a daughter who was sent to Oxford University, is living well and does not have a clue about what her mother is doing.

Nicole Underhay as Mrs. Warren is a self-assured, handsome, well-dressed woman who exudes success and self-satisfaction. She has raised her daughter Vivie with all the comforts that money can buy but kept her in the dark about everything, including the name of her father. Mrs. Warren’s world comes crashing around her when she is rejected by Vivie and Underhay gives a superb performance especially in the final scene when she tries to defend her actions.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski, dressed casually in slacks, is a free-spirited young woman who is courted by the feckless Frank Gardner. Life is good until she finds out the source of the funds for it. She rejects everything including her mother and goes to work. Dzialoszynski displays Vivie’s strength and resolve convincingly in a fine performance but the character she portrays is more a humourless, puritanical prig than an example that any woman would particularly wish to emulate.

Wade Bogert-Obrien’s Frank Gardner and Shawn Wright’s Reverend Samuel Gardner are portraits of useless men who are comical in their ineptness. But the Reverend, who buys his sermons, and is a pillar of the community, is also a prime example of its hypocrisy. Who is Vivie’s father?  

The most interesting man is Sir George Crofts played by Thom Marriott. The baronet is prepared to use and abuse women with the self-delusion that he is providing decent employment. The profits are good and neither he nor his partners are willing to give them up. The imposing Crofts of Marriott is all outward politeness, the epitome of hypocrisy, with a much darker side just below the skin. His defence is that everybody is corrupt so why should he not do the same.

The splendidly panelled interior of The New Lyric Club designed by Patrick Clark takes us away from the idyllic setting of the cottage garden and the rectory garden. The contrast between the English countryside and Mrs. Warren’s profession is more potent than the contrast between a men’s club putting on the reading of a play and the fate of women in the 19th century.

The acting is done well as described except for the accents. The cast sounded as if they are immigrants to England trying to speak with a respectable accent but falling short of success much of the time.


At the end of the play Holmes has the cast read out Shaw’s stage directions. Aside from adding the prologue and reading of stage directions, Holmes does a good job. The characters are well-defined, some of the humour comes through and the final scene is excellent and does not require a reading of Shaw’s stage directions.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

OUR TOWN – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Our Town  by Thornton Wilder.
Directed by Molly Smith
with Benedict Campbell (Stage Manager),
Patrick Galligan (Dr. Gibbs),
Catherine McGregor (Mrs.  Gibbs), Jenny L. Wright (Mrs. Webb),
Charlie Gallant (George Gibbs),
Kate Besworth (Emily Webb) Patrick McManus (Mr. Webb).
Continues in repertory at the Royal George Theatre,
Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 15, 2016. www.shawfest.com    

***** (out of five)

The Shaw Festival is in full swing with ten productions this season to take us well into October. Previews started on April 9 but the official openings are now on and time to start reviewing them.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a beguiling play about small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century. The main character is the Stage Manager (Benedict Campbell) who guides us through the play as a commentator and interacts with the other characters. The play takes place between 1903 and 1913 but the Stage Manager knows what happened much later.

Kate Besworth as Emily and Charlie Gallant George courting in Our Town. Photo: David Cooper
In his opening remarks the Stage Manager introduces the Director (Molly Smith) and the cast. We are constantly reminded that we are watching a play but that does not take anything away from the moving story of life in the town of Grover’s Corner which is so beautifully captured by this production.

After we get an overall picture of the town, we meet the Webb and Gibbs families. They are neighbours and Dr. Gibbs (Patrick Galligan) is the local physician while Mr. Webb (Patrick McManus) publishes the local paper. Their children are at school and George Gibbs (Charlie Gallant) and Emily Webb (Kate Besworth) are fated to fall in love and marry.

Wilder weaves into his plot the rhythm of life in the town - the milk delivery man, the cop on the beat, the birth of twins, going to school and other quotidian events.   

Director Smith and the fine cast capture the charm, humour, pathos and beauty of the play with unerring precision. Aside from Campbell as the superb Stage manager our attention is drawn to Gallant’s George and Besworth’s Emily who meet awkwardly as teenagers and proceed through courtship and marriage. We are in love with them and in the end shed tears for them.
 
Benedict Campbell as The Stage Manager at the wedding of Emily and George. Photo: David Cooper / Shaw Festival
Mrs. Gibbs (Catherine McGregor) and Mrs. Webb (Jenny L. Wright) are classic mothers as we want to imagine them in a different world. The town people form an integrated community but the “others” like the Poles, the Catholics and perhaps even those Canucks are “over there.”

The set designed by Ken MacDonald is minimal. A few white chars, a couple of tables, skeleton trellises and a couple of step ladders on wheels make up all the props. Some of the action such as opening doors, washing of hands and eating ice cream is simply mimed.

The last act of Our Town is the most moving. We have gone through Daily Life, Love and Marriage and in the end we must face Death. Wilder had the brilliant idea of having the town’s dead sitting in chairs in the cemetery and talking stiffly to each other during a heart-wrenching funeral. The scene is done impeccably.

The production manages to evoke the magical combination of reality and theatricality. It achieves a lyricism that eschews sentimentality and delivers a humorous and deeply moving night at the theatre.    
In the end it is a homage to the people of Grover’s Corner and an elegy for all of us. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF TÓIBÍN PLAY

James Karas

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Directed by Aaron Willis
Nancy Palk as Mary
Continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts,
55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario, until June 18, 2016, www.soulpepper.ca

**** (out of five)
  
The Testament of Mary is a one-actor play about the Virgin Mary played by Nancy Palk at the Young Centre.

What can one say about a woman who is revered and loved by millions of Christians as the Mother of God, Ever Virgin, All Holy and an approachable figure who can intercede with God and Jesus? No doubt there is controversy about her status in some churches but in the Eastern Orthodox Church there is only devotion and prayer to her.
 Nancy Palk as Mary. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Tóibín lets Mary relate her story. There are some light touches as in her views of the apostles as misfits and her comment about how she conceived Jesus. She knows well what happened she tells us and there is laughter.

But there is pathos when she tells us about seeing her Son on the cross. She in fact asks how long it takes for someone to die on the cross and is told it can take hours or days.

Mary is an elderly woman and she remembers certain things but not the way some of those “misfits” who have become Evangelists want her to remember. Her Son she is told will save people and grant them eternal life. “Save them from what?” she asks.

She is pestered by them for information that fits their conception of the Great Man and the difference He will make to the world.


                                         Nancy Palk as Mary. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Palk does a superb job in the role. She modulates her voice, shows anger and pain but above all she shows humanity. Tóibín avoids the most obvious pitfall in dealing with Mary and that is sentimentality.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini consists of some chairs and tables and candles. The door to her room bangs loudly on occasion as the intruding writers of the Gospels come to pester her for information. I am not sure we needed all that clanging. Mary reminds us that none of them attended the Crucifixion.

The Testament is based on Tóibín’s novella of the same name and we gain a great deal by hearing Palk’s marvelous voice and watching her  perform parts of the book. The emotional intensity of her performance does not require as much movement and noise as director Aaron Willis provides but it is nonetheless a stellar production

Monday, May 16, 2016

THE ODD COUPLE – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF SIMON CLASSIC

The Odd Couple by Neil Simon
Directed by Stuart Hughes with
Albert Schultz, Diego Matamoros, Derek Boyes,
Kevin Bundy, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, John Jarvis, Sarah Wilson
At Young Centre until June 11, 20126

*** (out of five)

By James Karas

The Odd Couple is a very funny play that receives a funny production by Soulpepper. This is a revival of Soulpepper’s 2011 production which in turn was a revival of its 2008 staging. The play was first produced in 1965 and it has held its own for more than half a century. That’s an understatement because The Odd Couple has become a whole industry with Felix the news writer and Oscar the sports reporter going through numerous transformations and incarnations.

 Kevin Bundy, Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros, Derek Boyes, Albert Schultz & John Jarvis. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
It is all about male friendship among people who range from incompatible to utterly different in temperament and approach to life. The odd couple is Oscar, a divorced slob, irresponsible, irrepressible and impossible, and Felix, a neurotic neat freak who has so many idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that they would try the patience of Job. But the six men who play poker every Friday are bonded by friendship despite all their differences.

Stuart Hughes does a god job in directing Soulpepper stalwarts and gets most of the laughs from the play. But the qualification of this being a funny production of a very funny play stands.

Albert Schultz has the role of Oscar under his belt and he produces sound laughter while Diego Matamoros as Felix drives him crazy. Simon has drawn the two characters with amazingly funny but also iconic differences making the play both an easy comedy to produce but a tough one to triumph with.
 
Albert Schultz, Raquel Duffy, Diego Matamoros & Sarah Wilson. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
There is not much issue to be taken with the other four men around the poker table but I felt that Oliver Dennis was miscast as Murray the cop. Dennis is a very nice guy and somehow I expect a New York cop to exude more authority than decency.

Raquel Duffy and Sarah Wilson were very good as the ditzy English sisters. They had decent accents but I don’t think it was necessary to have the men attempt New York accents. I would have been just as happy if the spoke in their Canadian accents whatever that may be.

In the end however what was missing was the chemistry of superior comedy. For much of the performance I felt the action was carried by the play rather than the director and the actors carrying the play as if it were the first time we were seeing it.

All griping aside, you will laugh and enjoy your outing. The real complaint is why not produce a play that we have not seen at Soulpepper before?

Monday, May 9, 2016

BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE AND SUNDAY IN SODOM – REVIEW OF DOUBLE BILL AT BERKELEY STREET THEATRE

By James Karas

Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom by Jordan Tannahill. Directed by Matjash Mrozewski (Botticelli) and Estelle Shook (Sunday) with Salvatore Antonio (Botticelli/ Chris), Valerie Buhagiar (Madre Maria/Edith), Nicola Correia-Damude (Clarice/Sarah), Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (Leonard/Isaac), Christopher Norris (Lorenzo/Derek), Alon Nashman (Savonarola/Lot).  At Berkeley Street Theatre until May 15, 2016. www.canadianstage.com    


What do Sandro Botticelli and Lot’s wife have in common? That depends on your imagination, I suppose, but we can be sure of one thing: both can be seen on stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre in a double bill by Jordan Tannahill.

The one-act plays are based on some historical facts and the active imagination of Tannahill. Costumes and speech are modern with liberal use of coarse language and raunchy scenes.
         Christopher Morris and Salvatore Antonio in Botticelli. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
Botticelli in the Fire deals with the painting of The Birth of Venus, Botticelli’s relations with Clarice, the model for Venus and the wife of his patron Lorenzo de Medici. For good measure we also have Leonardo, a young artist and sexual partner of Botticelli as well as Savonarola, the deeply moral friar who may have had a great influence on the artist.

The play displays some fine and witty prose which to my surprise did not generate any laughter the day I saw it. The salty language is quite delightful and the sexual content, well, very sexual.

We are made to understand in no uncertain terms that Botticelli was priapically gifted. His first conquest is the deliciously assembled Clarice who puts her social status and influence as Botticelli’s benefactor to pleasurable use.

But Botticelli is not a specialist and he displays his open-mindedness with the muscular Leonardo. The moral voice of Savonarola arrives and of course the painting of the The Birth of Venus not to mention Clarice’s husband finding out some unpleasant facts.  
  
Salvatore Antonio plays Botticelli and acts as commentator/chorus in the play. He starts with a microphone addressing the audience directly and steps out of character several times during the performance. This Botticelli is a free-spirited artist who takes chances but is also influenced by a devoted friar.  

You are drawn into the fascinating subject – human, artistic, religious, spiritual – and enjoy a well-performed and well directed performance.
Valerie Buhagiar and Nicola Correia-Damude in Sunday in Sodom. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
The second play is Sunday in Sodom about the nameless wife of Lot who was turned into a pillar of salt in the Old Testament because she disobeyed God and looked back after her escape from Sodom. As with Botticelli, Tannahill gives the play a moderns setting with racy language.

Mrs. Lot gets a name, Edith, and is superbly played by Valerie Buhagiar. Edith stands still on stage as if she were a pillar of salt and she narrates much of the play. We start with a terrified Isaac whose father Abraham took him to a mountain, tied him to a rock and was about kill him when he suddenly stopped. We know that a loving God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, but Isaac does not know that.      

Isaac is given shelter by Lot and he happens to be homosexual. The Lots have a couple of wounded soldiers visit them. Terrorists have blown up the market place and the soldiers, who speak only English and cannot be understood by the Lots seek assistance.

Edith has an outspoken and very independent daughter named Sarah (in a spirited performance by Correia-Damude) and we have scenes of modern domestic disputes with the Biblical story in the background.

Tannahill gives us original and interesting takes on Botticelli and the story of Lot and Sodom. The plays are done with a minimum of props and a maximum attention on acting and close directorial attention.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

THE PITCHFORK DISNEY – REVIEW OF PRECISELY PETER PRODUCTIONS’ STAGING

James Karas

The Pitchfork Disney by Philip Ridley. Directed by John Shooter with Justin Miller (Presley Stray), Nikki Duval (Haley Stray), Ayinde Blake (Cosmo Disney), Yehuda Fisher (Pitchfork Cavalier). Presented by Precisely Peter Productions at Double Double Land, 209, Augusta Ave (down the alley), Toronto. until May 22, 2016. www.brownpapertickets.com

You should see The Pitchfork Disney. It is a play by Philip Ridley now plying at Double Double Land. You have probably not heard of much about this but soldier on.

The Pitchfork is what is known as in-yer-face theatre and it premiered in London in 1991. It is staggeringly powerful. It may be described as the staging of a nightmare or life inside a psychosis.
 
Nikki Duval and Justin Miller in The Pitchfork Disney      
Meet Haley Stray, a young, overweight, woman, clutching a blanket and clearly unhinged. Her brother Presley has a pale and pasty complexion with bloodshot eyes and looks like he is steps away from death. They live in a room that is at best a low-scale slum. Presley peers though a hole in the window to the outside world and sees nothing but darkness. The outside or whatever is left of it, is frightful and menacing

There is no narrative line to the siblings’ psychotic behaviour as they fight, argue, eat chocolates and create an atmosphere of inexplicable fear, confusion, disgust and insanity. They have nightmares, take pills and live in terror but we can never be sure if they are not dreaming up the whole thing. Presley gives a graphic and disgusting description of cooking and eating a snake. There are a number of gastronomic descriptions and calling them revolting and repulsive hardly begins to give you a taste of them.

Enter Cosmo Disney, a control freak, a psychopath, an ordinary lunatic or just a part of Presley’s and Haley’s mental aberrations. Near the end of the play Pitchfork Cavalier enters. There are chains hanging from his body and he is dressed in black and his face is covered by a mask. There are lengthy descriptions of his activities including his murder of children.
 
Avinde Blake and Justin Miller
Duval’s acting is almost all on a frenetic and hysterical level that shows incredible stamina on her part. It is like having a tenor sing in high C for an entire evening. Presley’s performance is more modulated but again it reaches some staggering heights.

Blake, speaking in more “rational” terms reaches stunning heights of expression. Director John Shooter modulates the performance so that there are quiet moments in the  psychopathy which are interrupted by explosions of emotion that bring the audience back to the “reality” of the play.  

The “down the alley” theatre holds about 50 people in a space the size of some large living room. You are in fact in the slum that the characters occupy. But there is a problem.  The high in-your-face emotional intensity of the performance, even with its modulations, is more than most people can bear. In the end the play seems to lose steam or the audience loses its stamina to withstand such assaults on its senses. In other words, at two hours the play seemed too long.

Nightmares tend to be short and sharp and psychoses linger but are incomprehensible. Ridley wants us to visit both for longer than may be humanly bearable.