Friday, October 21, 2016


**** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

 Any opera company that dares to produce Tristan und Isolde had better be armed with heavy vocal, orchestral and artistic artillery to match operatically what the Prussian army could do militarily. Not to mention a bank account that may surpass the budget of some small countries. Companies like that can be numbered on one hand with New York’s Metropolitan Opera being at the front of the line.

The new production of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and directed by Mariusz Treliński, is bold, innovative and brilliant. The three critical components of the opera are delivered by the top tier talents in the industry. Sir Simon Rattle, the out-going conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Met orchestra gave a stellar performance of Wagner’s complex and lengthy score.  
 Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Soprano Nina Stemme is at the top of the rarified field of Wagnerian singers. As Isolde she displayed vocal power, immense stamina and variation of tone for the gamut of emotions that the captured Irish princess expresses as she is being transported by Tristan, the man who killed her betrothed and whose life she saved. Wagner piles up vocal and emotional demands that only the best singers can tackle and Stemme is clearly one of the best.

Tenor Stuart Skelton is relatively new to the role of Tristan but he has the full vocal prowess and control that it demands. His Tristan is a modern naval officer who falls in love with Isolde, the woman that he is bringing to marry King Marke, the man who has appointed him as his heir. The troubled Tristan has another side, at least in this production: he kills Isolde’s betrothed Morold with his pistol at point blank range while the victim is blind-folded and tied up. That qualifies as a war crime.  A great performance by Skelton.

Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova sings Brangäne, Isolde’s faithful and sympathetic servant. Gubanova holds her own and gives a first-rate performance in the role. Bass René Pape sings the role of the troubled and betrayed King Marke, the man who gave everything to Tristan but was betrayed by him. Pape has a resonant bass voice that emanates his decency pain and generosity as Marke.    

What gives the production perhaps an even greater “wow” review is the production values brought by Treliński with Set Designer Boris Kudlička, Lighting Designer Marc Heinz and Projection Designer Bartek Macias. 

Nina Stemme as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
What we see first is a radar screen and then a modern battleship navigating a raging ocean (and a perfect image of the raging emotional turmoil of the main characters). Images of the radar screen, the violent waves and the battleship will recur regularly throughout the five-hour performance. The dominant colour is gray.

The characters wear modern clothes. Tristan and Marke are in naval officers’ uniforms. The sailors with the black berets could pass for commandos. They engage in pretty egregious sexual harassment of Brangäne and it may be a directorial whim that we could have done without. Brangäne is dressed tastefully and attractively, whereas Isolde in black slacks and a coat looks like a suburban mother who threw something on so she can take the children to school on time. Both Tristan and Isolde smoke making them, I suppose, just ordinary mortals who will eventually shed their normality and mortality in love/death.    
The stage is divided into a number of sections for the scenes on board the ship. We see Isolde in her suite on the ship which alternates with the iron stairs leading to different decks as well as the helm.

The second act takes place in the hull of the ship where barrels full of explosives are stored. The final scene in Tristan’s castle looks like a hospital room where the hero recalls his past as he dreams or imagines Isolde arriving. In his coma, he sees much more that adds to the brilliant interpretation by Treliński.

The lovers beat death with death. All was caused by the love potion. In death there is reconciliation, redemption and apotheosis through the power of love and Wagner’s music.

Where did the five hours go?

Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner was transmitted Live in HD form the Metropolitan Opera on October 8, 2016 at the Cineplex VIP Cinema, Don Mills Shops, Toronto and other theatres across Canada.  It will be shown again in select theatres on November 12, 14 and 16, 2016. For more information:         

Friday, October 14, 2016


James Karas

Familiarity in opera breeds enthusiasm, strong opinions and a full house. That is the expected reaction to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s Norma as the centerpiece of this fall’s two productions.

Producing Norma without a star soprano versed in the bel canto repertoire will not bring the end of the world but it may have deleterious effects on the opera company and its artistic director. Alexander Neef, the COC’s General Director, need not worry about his job and Torontonians can hold their head high about the quality of opera in their congested city.
 (in foreground) Russell Thomas as Pollione and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma. 
Photo: Michael Cooper

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has the vocal range, tonal beauty and acting ability to deliver an extraordinary Norma and she does not disappoint. There are many ways of playing Norma, the Druid priestess who betrays everything by falling in love with a Roman proconsul, the enemy of occupied Gaul. As if that were not bad enough, she has two children by him and he has tired of her and fallen in love with a young novice priestess named Adalgisa. Try counting the emotional turmoil that Norma must express – the betrayed lover, the illicit mother who thinks of murdering her children, the deceived friend and the treacherous priestess who has betrayed her people.

There is wide latitude for a soprano to deliver a melodramatic, almost histrionic Norma or a deadly one of the singer lacks the vocal and acting prowess that the role demands. Radvanovsky maintains a mostly regal composure that is both noble and emotionally searing. From finding out that her friend Adalgisa is in love with Pollione to confessing to her followers that she has betrayed them and stepping into the pyre, this Norma does it all with poise and emotional grandeur.

Tenor Russell Thomas is terrifically fine foil for this Norma. He has a splendid voice and his Pollione grows from the deceiving lover into a noble man who joins Norma in love and death in the ultimate moments of the opera.

Mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard’s Adalgisa is a decent woman who has betrayed her faith and her friend but she finds nobility as well. Vocally Leonard does superbly and she is a pleasure to hear especially in her duets with Norma where the two voices provide both contrast and similarity in tone.

Baritone Dimitry Ivashchenko is a commanding Oroveso, the High Priest and father of Norma, with impressive resonance and presence.
 Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma. Photo: Michael Cooper
Director Kevin Newbury and Set Designer David Korins have a particular approach to the opera. The set consists of four massive pillars with heads of bulls on top of two of them. The forest of the Druids consists of bare trees and the mistletoe that Norma cuts is white. The dominant colour is almost entirely gray with flashes of red and blue at the back of the stage. The gates that close off the back of the stage when we are not in the forest make the place look like a large storage garage.

In the second act the head of a huge bull appears on the left side of the stage. It looks like a Trojan Horse or perhaps a Trojan Bull. It has only one horn that points menacingly downwards. I did not get the symbolism of the bull whose base in the end served as the pyre on which Norma and Pollione meet their fate. There was a cart with a raised platform as well and it served as a sort of pulpit for Norma and Oroveso. I am not sure that it was necessary or if it added anything to the production. Newbury seems to think that snowflakes are a good idea but, again, I am not convinced that they did anything.

The orchestra and chorus under the baton of Stephen Lord did a great deal with Bellini’s melodic and often lush music.

Radvanovsky gives a defining performance as Norma with superb singing from the rest of the cast. You may forget some of the sets but you will not soon forget Radvanovsky’s performance. 

Norma by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani opened on October 6 and will be performed eight times until November 5, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


James Karas

Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna was first produced more than forty years ago and has become a Canadian classic. In Canada that could mean it collects higher quality dust on the shelf but in Hosanna’s case the dust seems to be blown off fairly frequently. Soulpepper quite rightly reminds us of this masterpiece of Canadian theatre.

Hosanna is about the pursuit of a dream. Like most such pursuits, it is doomed to disappointment and crushing failure but the purser does not know that until after the fact. The current production captures the pursuit, the failure and the glimmer of hope in the lives of the two characters of the play.
 Damien Atkins & Jason Cadieux. Photo by Bronwen Sharp
Claude (Damien Atkins) comes from small town in Quebec and realizes at an early age that he is gay. His life becomes a nightmare and at age 16 he moves to Montreal, the big city. He becomes a hairdresser and a transvestite and takes up with Raymond (Jason Cadieux) a tattooed, macho biker. They occupy a run-down bachelor dump and live in the social underbelly of society.

Claude becomes Hosanna in that world watches Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and dreams of emulating her. He gets a chance to do that and make a big splash in the transvestite community when he and Raymond (who has become Cuirette) are invited to a costume Halloween party.

Atkins gives a remarkable performance as Hosanna. He sports a slight French accent (as does Cadieux) to indicate that he is French Canadian. He is sharp-tongued, aggrieved, and ambitious. Gay, transvestite, abused and abusive, he is a man trying to come to terms with himself. Atkins reveals the amazing inner world of Hosanna.

Cadieux as Cuirette emotionally is equally at sea. His machismo, leather jacket and bike do not hide the fact that he depends on Hosanna for his livelihood and age is catching up with him as much as it is with Hosanna. He is a pathetic being trying to pretend that he is a tough guy.
 Damien Atkins & Jason Cadieux.  Photo by Bronwen Sharp
Tremblay takes us through the conflicts between Hosanna and Cuirette as he paints a horrifying picture of the world of gays and transvestites in the lower depths of Montreal. By the end of the play, they reach a resolution or at least gain some insight into their lives.

Director Gregory Prest brought out the dramatic part of Hosanna well. But there is considerable humour in the play and the production missed just about all of it.        

The set by Yannik Larivée, with the flashing neon sign outside, the ugly convertible couch and cheap furnishings of the apartment struck the appropriate note for the atmosphere of the play.

Hosanna is a moving and powerful play that has lost none of its punch over the decades. That is a good definition of a classic and a good description of the Soulpepper production.

Hosanna by Michel Tremblay translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco continues until October 15, 2016 in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.  

Saturday, October 8, 2016


By James Karas

Annabel Soutar’s The Watershed is a full-fledged documentary about fresh water research in Canada and more particularly the research at a project called the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). It is based, according to the author, on “verbatim testimony from interviews conducted by the playwright, as well as speech transcripts, House of Commons debate transcripts, film transcripts, press releases, and media articles collected between 2013 and 2015.” 

The script that resulted from all of the above-noted sources is acted by eight actors who represent some fifty characters (I did not count them). This is a documentary that we usually see on television or at the movie theatre but not, as far as I known, in this format in the live theatre.
Bruce Dinsmore, Amelia Sargisson, Ngozi Paul, Tanja Jacobs. Photo by Guntar Kravis
Soutar (played with great vigour and passion by Kristen Thomson) sets out with her husband Alex (Alex Ivanovici) and their daughters Ella (Amelia Sargisson) and Beatrice (Ngozi Paul) and their friend Hazel (Tanja Jacobs) in a Winnebago on a mission: to find out why ELA is being defunded and more importantly to save Canada’s fresh water supply.

Like all good missionaries, Soutar is a driven woman. She wants to interview ministers, MPs, activists, scientists, professors, entertainers and others, and get support and publicity from radio and television programs. It is a Marathon that would exhaust a Kenyan let alone a woman with a husband and three children in a gas-guzzling Winnebago on a trip that goes from Montreal to the tar sands (oops, oil sands) of Alberta and that lasts over a month.

If this were done by the CBC, there would be film clips of the people interviewed with a narrator putting the story in perspective. It is difficult to have some fifty people represented by eight actors presented to us without our interest flagging.

Soutar is well aware of that and she has taken steps to reduce that possibility. Humour is one method that she uses. The children come up with some funny scenes. There are some film projections that would have looked even better if they were not shown on a brick wall but it does help.
 Eric Peterson, Alex Ivanovici, Ngozi Paul, Bruce Dinsmore, Amelia Sargisson, Tanja Jacobs. 
Photo by Guntar Kravis
The other tool used is noise. Loud music, children screaming, engines revving, an airplane taking off and sundry others are provided. I did not find any of that in the least bit diverting and could have done without all of it.

Without the diversionary tactics, we are left with a display of well-meaning, intelligent, dedicated people trying to do a worthwhile job. They run into roadblocks put up by venality, greed, stupidity and politicians who have all of the aforementioned traits. It is a depressing picture.

The eight actors have their work cut out for them as does director Chris Abraham who has to marshal the large number of characters and numerous scene changes. Some of the characters are presented as caricatures but most are treated with respect. In that respect, it is an amazing show. The talented troupe is made up of Laura Condlin, Bruce Dinsmore, Alex Ivanovici, Tanja Jacobs, Ngozi Paul, Eric Peterson, Amelia Sargisson and Kristen Thomson.

The play was commissioned for the arts festival of last year’s Pan Am Games as a co-production by Soutar’s Porte Parole Productions and Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre. Chris Abraham, Crow’s Artistic Director played a part in the negotiations and run-around with the powers-that-be leading to the granting of the commission. Abraham appears as a character in the play as does his daughter Hazel. Has a director ever directed someone to play him in a documentary?

Soutar and Abraham are grafting a complex documentary onto a live theatre production. The demands of live theatre are different from the type of story they are trying to expose and they are forced to use many means to keep the work theatrical. Some things work; some don’t.

Go see how you like the result.

The Watershed by Annabel Soutar continues until October 30, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


**** (out of 5)

There are many very good farces but few can be rated as great examples of the genre. Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off should make the top 10 in any listing of farces. It is a finely structured and intelligent play that starts funny and builds to absolute hilarity, if there is such an apogee of laughter.

That is all well between the covers of a book but it puts extraordinary and frequently unachievable demands on any theatre company that dares produce it. Soulpepper has not shied away from tackling the play which, according to a note in the programme, has never been produced by a professional Toronto company. The Stratford Festival did produce it in 2004 but that was a long time ago.
Brenda Robins, Matthew Edison, Raquel Duffy, Christopher Morris. Photo: Bronwen Sharp 
Noises Off is a multi-layered play that requires physical and mental agility at break-neck speed. The plot? Well, a second-rate theatre company is putting on a play called Nothing On in a provincial town in England. The play is about a tax-evading English couple, Philip and Flavia Brent who live in Spain but return surreptitiously to their country home in England and must not be detected by the taxman.

They have a classic maid called Mrs. Clackett. A real estate agent named Roger brings a nubile woman named Vicki to the house for a tryst. But the Brents, Mrs. Clackett and a Burglar soon join them to create pandemonium.

That is the plot of Nothing On, the play within the play which is directed by Lloyd Dallas with backstage help from Poppy and Tim.

In Nothing On, Mrs. Clackett is played by Dotty Otley and In Noises Off  Dotty (and Mrs. Clackett, of course) is played by Brenda Robins. The characters in Nothing On are played by actors of the company producing that play who in turn are played by actors in Noises Off. Got that?

The first act takes place on the set of Nothing On during the dress rehearsal. The actors are simply, hopelessly incompetent, drunk, missing, not-quite-there mentally and the result is laughter. The latter characteristics of the “actors” in Noises On are in reverse proportion to the talents of the actors of Soulpepper who play the actors who play the actors in the play and the play within-the-play, Confusing? Don’t worry about. It is quite clear in the theatre.
 Matthew Edison, Myrthyn Stagg. Photo by Bronwen Sharp
The second act takes place backstage during a performance of Nothing On and the problems of the actors’ incompetence is intensified by “real-life” jealousies and personal rivalries and differences. The laughter intensifies in direct proportion to the increased complications of the plot.

In the third act we are watching a performance of Nothing On some weeks later and everything goes to hell in a hand basket as the play moves to yet another level of confusion. The actors’ rivalries come out in the open as they sabotage each other’s lines, entrances are screwed up and if the words havoc and pandemonium have any meaning, it is illustrated on stage at fever pitch.

Ted Dykstra was quite brave to accept directorial responsibility for the production. Frayn makes sure that you will get lots of laughs; the Soulpepper cast will do at the very least a fine job for you. But will they be able to reach that theatrical pinnacle of ensemble acting that produces the magical connection between stage and audience to have us rolling in the aisles with laughter? Almost.

Brenda Robins as Dotty the awful actress who plays Mrs. Clackett the mouthy maid carries the roles with aplomb. Matthew Edison as the Roger who plays the real estate agent and would-be-seducer of the luscious blonde Brooke has a great deal of running to do and some serious pratfalls to perform and does a fine job at it.

Myrthin Stagg as Vicki as Brooke Ashton, the actor who plays Vicki is the classic sexy, dim babe of farce wearing only undergarments who in real life would have married Donald Trump.

Oliver Dennis plays the Burglar who does not have much to do in that part but as the drunk actor who plays the Burglar he muffs his lines and his entrances and goes AWOL at the most inopportune times and he is simply hilarious.

Raquel Duffy is exceptional as the actress Belinda who plays Mrs. Brent. She is noticeable for her superb acting as a fine actress and decent human being who holds or tries to hold the inept clowns of Nothing On together. A delight to watch.

There is only praise for the performances of David Storch as the Director whose nerves are not so much frayed as microwaved and gone over with a lawnmower or the almost equally put upon Tim of Anand Rajaram and Oyin Oladejo as Poppy. Christopher Morris plays Frederick Fellowes (who plays Philip Brent) a man who is near the end of his rope and who gets a bleeding nose when under pressure.

Total result: laughter.         
Noises off by Michael Frayn runs until October 22, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


By James Karas

*** (out of 5)

A couple of thoughts crossed my mind after watching Wajdi Mouawad’s Tideline now playing at Hart House Theatre. The first was T.S. Eliot’s famous dictum that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The second was the enthusiastic “hey, let’s put on a show” heard in the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals of the 1930s.  The “show” that the young actors under the direction of Ken Gass are putting on is a very serious play and not a pleasant musical. They try to express the inexpressible; they try to make us bear some reality through descriptions of startling images in a war-torn place.

The play opens with a young man named Wilfrid (Danny Ghantous) narrating how he found out that his father had died. The phone rang while he was having intercourse and he tautly repeats the conversation more than once as “Hello.” Come. “Your father is dead.”
Wilfrid sets out on a journey to find a place to bury his father. But this is not a narrative but a memory play where the young are making a film and go or want to go from village to village to tell their story. Wilfrid’s dead Father (Erik Mrakovcic) is a walking and talking corpse. Wilfrid is possessed by an Arthurian Knight of God played by an unknightly looking Angela Sun who also doubles as the Director of the film. I could not make sense of the casting decision but Wilfrid is free to imagine a Knight anyway he likes.

Tideline has a blind poet named Wazâân (Kwaku Okyere) who recites the opening lines of the Iliad where the goddess sings of the fatal anger of Achilles that sent the souls of many valiant warriors to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds. We will be reminded of that graphic image throughout the play.

The young people of the play remember unspeakable events in their lives and want to preserve the memory of acts too horrible to contemplate. Simone (Cassidy Sadler), Amé (Augusto Bitter) and Josephine (Madeleine Heaven) and Sabbé (Harrison Tanner) display enthusiasm (let’s put on a show) and stun us with events of obscene cruelty and bottomless inhumanity. All the young actors are given opportunities to spread their wings and showcase their talents. Madeleine Heaven even has what amounts to a mad scene.

The production is in association with Canadian Rep Theatre and ENSEMBLE: Canadian Youth Theatre/Théâtre Jeunesse Canadien. Most of the actors are university students or recent graduates. 

Tideline is an ambitious and poetic play. It reaches back to Homer for its images and distances us from the horrors and mutilations of war by having the young people remember events from the past and trying to recall and re-enact them for us. The walking and talking dead Father, the imaginary Knight, the making of a film are all devices used to make us bear the reality that Eliot said we cannot bear.

Ken Gass is reasonably successful in bringing out many of the qualities of the play with the young cast. All the characters wear every-day, ordinary clothes. The set, designed by Jung-Hye Kim consists of white painted chairs and benches with a ramp stage left.

Tideline  by Wajdi Mouawad in a translation by Shelley Tepperman  continues until October 1, 2016 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. Telephone (416) 978-8849

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

*** (out of 5)

If you want to produce a play by Ibsen, especially a weighty one, you should treat it like an attack on a well-fortified city. You better have the best generals, bring out your heavy artillery and siege machinery and aim carefully. John Gabriel Borkman, his 1896 play, demands nothing else but if you are successful, you will be richly rewarded.

Borkman is a grand play that deals with complex issues that are as numerous as they are difficult to unravel. Director Carey Perloff and her stellar cast illuminate most of the complexity of the play in a superb production at the Tom Patterson Theatre.
From left: Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna, Scott Wentworth. Photography by Don Dixon.
The play is aptly named after its central character. John Gabriel Borkman is a megalomaniac banker who committed moral and legal crimes on a grand scale. His greed had no bounds as he attempted to amass a great fortune while destroying the lives of people (it’s only money) including the lives of his friends and the woman who was in love with him. As with many such persons, he claimed to have a vision, a plan to do good for people. The vision was probably delusional or self-serving. The result was that he was convicted and incarcerated for five years. The play begins eight years after his release from prison.

Scott Wentworth as Borkman is completely egocentric and remorseless. He lives in the grand hall of his house alone and paces up and down most of the time. Vilhalm is his only friend (superbly played by Joseph Ziegler) and his daughter Frida (Natalie Francis) who visits and plays the violin for him. Borkman discards Vilhalm, a man of decency, forgiveness and understanding, who is unlike the delusional dreamer who hallucinates of making a comeback.

Lucy Peacock plays Borkman’s embittered wife who is full of hatred but just as delusional as her husband. She dreams of her son Erhart (Antoine Yared), in mythical heroic fashion, restoring her reputation. Her twin sister Ella (Seana McKenna) raised Erhart after the Borkmans lost everything (they are living in her house) but she too hates John Gabriel because he destroyed her ability to love. 

Peacock and McKenna have distinctive voices which can deliver tinges of bitterness, hatred and passion with individual intonation but at the same time sound like twin sisters which is what they are in the play. They fight for the soul of Erhart, the one because she needs a liberator and a restorer of her reputation, the other as the young man who will take her name and inherit her fortune. Peacock and McKenna are magnificent.
From left: Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman, Seana McKenna as Miss Ella Rentheim and Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Gunhild Borkman inJohn Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou. 

Erhart is a nice young man who is in love with Mrs Wilton (Sarah Afful) who happens to be seven years older than him and a widow. He asserts his independence by breaking away from his mother and aunt (really his stepmother) and their ambitions for him.

For the final act Ibsen takes the two sisters and Borkman out in the stormy weather where they must account for themselves in a heavily symbolic scene.

The theatre-in-the-round Tom Patterson restricts design to stage furniture and lighting. Designer Christina Poddubiuk decorates the stage with a few pieces of furniture and with judicious lighting design by Bonnie Beecher, we do get the claustrophobic and closed world of the play.

Director Perloff takes a heavy-handed approach to this dark play that demands that type of treatment. The last scene in the snow smacks of melodrama but this is a production that   Ibsen would have certainly approved of.

John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen in a translation by Paul Walsh continues in repertory until September 23, 2016 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.