Friday, July 31, 2015

TOP GIRLS – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls gets an ambitious and interesting production directed by Vikki Anderson for the Shaw Festival.

Seven actors play sixteen characters in a play that starts as an imaginary dinner and ends up as a kitchen sink drama. All the characters are women and the play covers a lot of ground from the historical oppression of women to the feminist movement in the 1980s during the rise of Maggie Thatcher.
The cast of Top Girls. Photo by David Cooper.

Marlene (Fiona Byrne) has just been promoted to managing director of an employment agency and she goes out for dinner with her “friends”. She has quite a collection of them in her fantasy world if not in reality. There is Pope Joan (Claire Jullien) from the 9th century, Lady Nijo (Julia Course), a Japanese woman who was an Emperor’s courtesan and a Buddhist monk in the 13th century. Patient Griselda (Tara Rosling), immortalized by Chaucer in the 14th century as the exemplar of the obedient wife. We also have Dull Gret (Laurie Paton), a peasant who was painted by Brueghel leading a crowd of women through hell, and Isabella Bird (Catherine McGregor), a 19th century Scottish world traveler.

That is a colourful gathering and the women have amazing stories to tell as they get progressively drunk. The women have a tendency to talk over each other even when they are sober. Anderson is following the script directions faithfully even if some of the dialogue is buried in the cross chatter. This occurs numerous times throughout and it if at times it indicates the reality of dinner conversation or heightened emotions it is also annoying now and then.

The bizarre dinner party turns into office politics in the second act which takes place in the employment agency that Marlene heads. Interviews with job seekers, office adultery and power politics dominate the act.

From office politics we move to domestic drama in Joyce’s (Rosling) backyard and later in her kitchen. Joyce is Marlene’s sister and the mother of Angie (Course), perhaps the most annoying teenager imaginable. Full marks to Course for going from the rather distant Lady Nijo to the overactive and infuriating brat.

The connection between the celebration of a promotion with female grandees from the past one thousand or so years and the office and domestic conflicts of Marlene is rather tenuous. One can force all kinds of connections with the abuse of women and the rise of feminism as well as the negative consequences of the latter (does giving up your child count as a negative) but I found it dramatically unconvincing.

Top Girls is a superb vehicle for actors.  Byrne plays the efficient, ambitious and tough new woman who climbs the corporate ladder. When the wife of another candidate for the job comes to tell her how upset and indeed ill her husband is Marlene tells her to piss off.

From that role she smirches to being an aunt, a sister and a daughter and goes through some emotional crises. Splendid work by Byrne.

Rosling gets to play the forbearing, obedient and abused Griselda and the exasperated mother of Angie. A nice switch in roles and an opportunity to display talent.

Jullien has her work cut out as the exuberant Pope Joan as well Win, an office worker and the mendacious Shona. Paton is the piggish Dull Gret as well as Mrs. Kidd, the aggrieved wife of the man who did not get the job and the job-seeking Jeanine.

Anderson and Designer Sue Lepage have turned the stage of the Court House Theatre into a veritable dressing room. There are make-up tables and closets and the actors change wigs and clothes in front of the audience. That is a very interesting and appropriate approach to a play that deals with so many characters with no pretense of realism at least in the first act.  

It is a long way from the fascinating dinner of the first act, to office politics to domestic differences and I found the trip unconvincing even with the backdrop of feminism. But that is an issue with the play and not with this production. 
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Top Girls by Caryl Churchill runs in repertory from May 23 to September 12, 2015 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com

Monday, July 27, 2015

LIGHT UP THE SKY – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival offers a funny and finely acted production of Moss Hart’s Light Up The Sky for the latter part of its season. The 1948 comedy is a take-off on behind the scenes shenanigans of a pre-Broadway opening of a play in Boston. This is an uncomplicated, highly entertaining comedy in a beautiful setting with show people and all their eccentricities.
 Charlie Gallant as Peter Sloan, Claire Jullien as Irene Livingston and Thom Marriott as Sidney Black.
Photo by David Cooper.
Start with a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston several hours before the opening of a new play by an unknown author (played by Charlie Gallant). Bring on the eccentrics involved with the production: director, producers, star actor, playwright, family, friends and a Shriners Convention. It is a recipe for wit and laughter provided you have the right director and cast.

The Shaw Festival does starting with Director Blair Williams who sets a brisk pace and is attentive to movements and intonation from two-word lines to histrionic speeches.

The star of the play being staged in Boston is Irene Livingston, played by Claire Jullien, who acts the way you expect stars to act. She is the centre of the world, emotional, admired, coddled, temperamental and bitchy. Jullien does it all and who can ask for anything more, as the commercial says.

Hart and Williams manage to get laughs from most of the characters but Thom Marriott as the producer Sidney Black seemed to get a bigger chunk of them than the others. He is a businessman who has invested a huge sum of money. He tries to please everyone when all is going well and then goes nuts when he fears losing his investment. Marriott overdoes the character to great effect.

Steven Sutcliffe plays the director Carleton Fitzgerald and he is so emotional he cries at just about everything including even card tricks.    

Two funny and overdone characters are Frances Black (Kelli Fox), Sidney’s skater wife and investor in the play and Irene’s mother Stella Livingston (Laurie Paton) who play cards and off each other producing laughter.

Hart included himself in the play as a playwright called Owen Turner (Graeme Somerville). He is sarcastic, witty, rational and decent without any of the exaggerated eccentricities of most of the other characters. 
Kelli Fox as Frances Black, Shawn Wright as William H. Gallegher and Laurie Paton as Stella Livingston. 
Photo by David Cooper
The euphoria of the pre-opening gathering in Irene’s suite gives way to despair and recrimination after the performance. We see everyone in a different light as they start bitching about the perceived fiasco on their hands. Tempers flare and the scene rises to a crescendo of laughter and mayhem.

Hart did not believe in unhappy endings and in the final act the feared flop blossoms into a huge hit even if it needs some work. The noisy and intolerable Shriners who were heard and seen outside the suite provide a very funny character in William Gallegher played by Shawn Wright. Gallegher is a wealthy businessman who loves the theatre even if it is from a distant memory of playing Hamlet in High School. He loved the new play and wants to invest in future productions. Wright gives a terrifically funny performance and almost steals the show.

Light Up The Sky is an old style comedy that relies on wit and situation. It deals with the theatre and that is an added attraction for people who love the theatre. The actors get to play familiar characters and when necessary overact to their heart’s content. With those ingredients at hand, the result is a very good night at the theatre.
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Light Up the Sky by Moss Hart opened on July 25 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com

Friday, July 24, 2015

THE TWELVE–POUND LOOK – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival continues with its redoubtable tradition of offering a one-act play just before you settle down for lunch. This year’s offering is J. M. Barrie’s The Twelve-Pound Look, a 35-minute jewel that achieves humour, splendid character development and social commentary. When the lights went up to indicate the end of the performance, I had one of those moments when you say “oh, no, it can’t be over.”
             Patrick Galligan as Sir Harry Sims and Moya O’Connell as Kate in The Twelve-Pound Look. 
                                                                           Photo by David Cooper
The plot is simple. It is 1910 and the successful Harry Sims (Patrick Galligan) is about to become Sir Harry. He and his wife (Kate Besworth) are dressed for the upcoming occasion and are rehearsing his bow, kneeling and induction into the British upper orders.

Kate (Moya O’Connell) arrives to do some typing. Aside from being an independent woman in the new profession of a typist, she is Harry’s former wife who dumped him rather unceremoniously a few years ago. For whom did she dump him, wonders Harry.

The confrontation provides humour as the former spouses spar over their breakup. The characters develop as we delve into the personalities of the three people and  we get social commentary about the position of women in the traditional home and the new freedom.
Kate Besworth as Lady Sims and Moya O’Connell as Kate in The Twelve-Pound Look. Photo by David Cooper. 

Director Lezlie Wade fine tunes every line of the play with attention to intonation, body movement and reaction. O’Connell has the best role where she is judicious, strong and victorious over the successful Harry who cannot understand why she left him. Even more importantly, we get glimpses of how thick Harry is in his utter failure to understand his “happy” and pampered wife.

Galligan plays the self-satisfied, obtuse Harry superbly and Besworth is the lovely, well-dressed and bejeweled doll who wakes up to the fact that more pearls around her neck are not necessarily a good thing.

Wade has the servants (played by Neil Barclay and Harveen Sandhu) sing “If Eve Had Left The Apple On The Bough” at the beginning of the performance with Sandhu carrying heavy objects like a mistreated woman. It is not in the play and it is unnecessary. We all got the message from the play.

In any event, The Twelve-Pound Look is a terrific half hour of theatre.  
  _____ 
The Twelve-Pound Look by J. M. Barrie continues until September 12, 2015 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

PYGMALION – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Pygmalion, directed for the Shaw Festival by Peter Hinton, has gone through a number of transformations. For openers, it is set in 2014 and 2015 and there are changes in language, setting, and general behaviour that are quite different from the play that Bernard Shaw wrote and the way we have seen or imagined the play being done.

Who did it? I looked through the programme for someone being given credit as a dramaturg, adapter, meddler, improver and you-name-it and found none. Maybe I just missed it.

 Jeff Meadows as Colonel Pickering, Harveen Sandhu as Eliza Doolittle and Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Photo by David Cooper.

The opening scene does take place in front of St. Paul’s Church Covent Garden but that is where the departure from the play as written begins. Professor Higgins is wearing sneakers, blue jeans and sports a backpack. He arrives on a bicycle and the characters around are a grab bag of locals and perhaps tourists.

The idea that Higgins and Pickering will transform the flower seller Eliza into a lady by changing her accent goes by the board quickly because the accents of the characters are not that different so as to convince us that how you say the rain in Spain will tell us your social status.

Just in case we don’t grasp that, we are shown a part of a BBC documentary outlining that the old class differences have changed since the time of the play in pre-World War I London.

There are numerous changes, large, small and at times incomprehensible. The origin of some of the characters is changed. Doolittle will get married in St. Paul’s Knightsbridge instead of St. George’s Hanover; Mrs. Higgins has a showroom with pretty women and men modelling clothes; there is a camera crew following Alfred Doolittle around as if he were a big celebrity. He just got a pension of forty thousand pounds a year and was asked to lecture on moral philosophy.

Higgins has a tablet and monitors in his house and there are the usual paraphernalia of 21st century life in London.

 Peter Krantz, Mary Haney, Jeff Meadows and Patrick McManus. Photo by David Cooper.

As the whole world knows when asked if she will walk across the park Eliza answers “not bloody likely” and the world faints at the remark. In My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion, of course, the remark was downgraded to “move your blooming arse” addressed to a horse. There is not much wiggle room left and, you guessed it, Eliza says “not f…g likely” this time around.

Harveen Sandhu does make an effective and likeable Eliza. She is assertive and unapologetic from the start. She shows no deference to Higgins even at the beginning. She is a tough woman and I found the flower-girl-to-duchess transformation by way of a thorough change of accent simply did not register very effectively.

Patrick McManus’s Higgins is a hippie in clothing and manners but he is very intelligent and his rudeness comes or can only come from someone who belongs to the upper crust.

Jeff Meadows’s Pickering is likeable and gentlemanly. He arrives from Afghanistan and not from India and Higgins is able to deduce that by hearing him say a few words but that is in the play.

Peter Krantz plays the invariably hilarious dustman, Alfred Doolittle. Krantz overacts abominably but he gets the laughs.

Sometimes I feel that all I see are adaptations of classics, especially of plays not written in English. With the latter there is the inevitable need to translate them but is Shaw so far gone that we can’t appreciate him? “Not bloody likely” may not have the same impact today that it had a century ago but that is true of many situations. Social and linguistic changes are inevitable. When We Are Married was based on the joke of a couple not being married. No one would give a smidgeon of feces these days about the situation today. Does that mean J. B. Priestley’s play should not have been produced last year?

Not bloody likely.
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Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 24, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com

Monday, July 20, 2015

HAMLET – REVIEW OF COMÉDIE-FRANÇAISE PRODUCTION IN PARIS

Reviewed by James Karas

The renowned Comédie-Française has produced an unorthodox version of Hamlet that is of considerable interest with some very fine acing. The staging is directed by Dan Jemmett who has reworked the play almost beyond recognition.
   Elliot Jenicot, Denis Podalydes and Herve Pierre in Hamlet. Photo Mirco Magliocca

Denmark becomes a sleazy bar and all the action takes place there. The bar has some stools and there are washrooms on each side of the stage. A jukebox is prominently featured and played all too frequently blaring country and western hits.

The opening scene takes place in the bar where the Ghost of Hamlet appears. But this Ghost is quite physical. He grabs his son to make his point about how he died and he goes to the bar and has a drink. When he has emptied his glass he has a swig from the bottle.

Claudius is the owner of the bar. He wears a polyester suit, shaded glasses and a cheap wig. In the first court scene, he appears with Gertrude who wears a see-through dress, a cheap blonde wig and looks like a sleaze. The jukebox plays “Please release me, let me go” as the “king” and “queen” go the bar with Polonius and Laertes for a drink.

Hamlet has more than thirty characters but Jemmett has cut that number down to 25 and they are all played by 11 actors. Laurent Natrella plays seven roles and Benjamin Lavernhe handles six and Sébastien Pouderoux manages three.

Denis Polydalès plays a very effective Hamlet. There is no poetry in the translation by Yves Bonnefoy  but Polydalès is dramatic, intense and when he goes mad he is really lala.

Gilles David is a natural comedian and he plays Polonius like a comic ready to launch into the monologue of a standup comic.

Gertrude is slutty from beginning to end. Even during Ophelia’s funeral when she says that she hoped Ophelia would have become Hamlet’s wife and that she would have strewn flowers on her bride bed and not on her grave, Gertrude raises a glass and slings down a drink. She tosses a drink in Claudius’s face and she never develops beyond a low-life. A fine performance by Clotilde de Bayser  but a Gertrude that is more the product of Jemmett’s imagination than Shakespeare’s play.

Jennifer Decker is a lithe and very attractive Ophelia. She is a modern girl who likes country and western music (they all seem to like it by the number of times they turn on the jukebox) and she is very moving during her mad scene.

Elliot Jenicot plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius grabs a microphone and announces him as if he were the next act at the bar. Rosencrantz is in fact a ventriloquist with a puppet (Guildenstern?) on one hand that he manipulates. It is a clever move by Jemmett.

Natrella, Lavernhe and Pouderoux deserve considerable credit for the numerous roles that they have to play. Changes in costume, wigs and accents make them quite credible even in minor roles.

Alain Lenglet plays a straight Horatio and he is the only major character that holds his dignity. Hamlet and Ophelia go mad and the others are reduced to lowlifes a long way from Elsinore and Shakespeare. 

Hamlet has been found in all kinds of places and a cheap bar with a loud jukebox is one for the books but “interesting” is not a high compliment for a director’s flight of fancy that this time does not quite work.
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Hamlet by William Shakespeare plays from June 5 and July 25, 2015 at the Comédie-Française, Salle Richelieu, Place Colette, Paris, France. www.comedie-francaise.fr

Sunday, July 19, 2015

ADRIANA LECOUVREUR – REVIEW OF PARIS OPERA PRODUCTION AT BASTILLE

By James Karas

Adriana Lecouvreur has been called perhaps one of the most underrated of operas. Francesco Cilea’s dramatic piece was a big hit in 1902 when it opened with Enrico Caruso. It has not exactly disappeared from the boards since then but it is more often produced as a vehicle for a diva than for its inherent virtues. The current production by the Opéra national de Paris at the Opéra Bastille in Paris should remove any thoughts of it not deserving more frequent staging. And as for a vehicle for a diva, its reputation remains intact.

Marcelo Alvarez and Angela Gheorghiu.  Photo © Vincent Pontet

If Adriana is a great vehicle for a diva then it is tough to find too many singers who can surpass Angela Gheorghiu in vocal magnificence, stage presence and physical loveliness. In this opera it is as if diva Gheorghiu is playing herself as Comédie-Française star Adriana.

Adriana Lecouvreur tells a fictionalized story about the real actress Adriana (1692-1730). The plot is not easy to summarize in a few words but it is easy to follow on stage. Adriana is in love with Count Maurizio (Marcelo Alvarez). Stage manager Michonnet (Alessandro Corbelli) is in love with Adriana but he gets nowhere.

There is a Prince (Wojtek Smilek), a Princess (Luciana D’Intino) and an Abbé (Raúl Giménez). Pay attention to the Princess!

Tenor Alvarez sings with passion and conviction. His Maurizio is virile and Alvarez has the vocal chords to give us a splendid representation of Adriana’s lover.

Baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a master of comic roles but in this opera he is a down-to-earth stage manager, getting on in age and reaching for the stars by declaring his love for Adriana. His Michonnet is out of his league as a lover but Corbelli’s resonant voice gave us a well-sung and sympathetic character.
Scene from Adriana Lecouvreur.  Photo © Vincent Pontet

Mezzo soprano Luciana D’Intino gets the terrific role of the Princess who is in love with Maurizio and, since he rebuffs her, a very jealous woman. D’Intino has a commanding voice and a delivery that should make you watch your back. She sees her enemy and Adriana gets poisoned flowers from her.

Daniel Oren conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Paris national Opera.

Director David McVicar and Designer Charles Edwards take a pleasantly conservative approach to the opera. Adriana is a backstage drama with scenes in a posh villa and a sumptuous palace as well. The final scene is in Adriana’s house. The first scene backstage at the Comédie-Française starts with a great deal of hubbub with racks of costumes being moved around but we finally settle down in Adriana’s dressing room and the drama gets under way.

The second and third acts are more ostentatious as becomes the status of their owner. The problem I have is with the final act in Adriana’s house. It looks like an unfinished barn (it is the back of the stage of the Comédie-Française). If there was a reason for making her live in such drab surroundings, it escaped me.

Adriana dies in the end and she takes her time about it. But with a satin voice like Gheorghiu’s she is entitled to take as long as she wants.

It is worth noting that this is a coproduction with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona, the Vienna Staatsoper and the San Francisco Opera. That’s how many opera companies jump to attention when Angela Gheorghiu is available for a role. The Royal Opera House production was recorded in 2010 and is available on DVD with Jonas Kaufman as Maurizio.

A great night at the opera.   
          ____

Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea ran from June 23 to 15, 2015 at the Opera Bastille, Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris, France. www.operadeparis.fr/

Friday, July 17, 2015

ALCESTE – REVIEW OF PARIS OPERA PRODUCTION AT PALAIS GARNIER

Reviewed by James Karas

The current production of Gluck’s Alceste at the Palais Garnier by the National Opera of Paris has an unusual section in the credits page. It lists five cartoonists and erasers. 

The production is a reprise of Oliver Py’s 2013 staging and it is simply outstanding.

French soprano Véronique Gens gives a superb performance as Alceste, the woman who is prepared to die so that her husband Admetus may live. Gens has a flexible but strong voice and she sings and acts a powerful and sympathetic Alceste.
Staphane Degout and Veronique Gens. Photo copyright: Julien Benhamou

Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac plays a youthful-looking and rather straight-laced Admetus. He is a hard character to take. When the gods tell him his time on earth is up but he can stay alive if he can find a replacement for himself in Hades he goes for it. His wife steps into the breach. Admetus’s conduct is not de Barbeyrac’s fault and the singing is all his.

Baritone Stéphane Degoot made an awesome High Priest of Apollo and an (almost) comic and stentorian Hercules. The High Priest calls for an authoritative voice becoming his position and Hercules is a braggart who can easily be made into a buffoon. Degoot did splendidly in both roles. In high hat and dressed in black, Hercules was kept within decent bounds even if he does produce a dove out of his hat.

Bass Tomislav Lavoie handles the roles of Apollo a herald and the bass Coryphaeus or Leader of the People with Kevin Amiel singing the tenor Coryphaeus and Chiara Skerath the soprano Coryphaeus.

The Orchestre des musiciens du Louvre Grenoble was conducted by Marc Minkowski, one of the masters of the baroque repertoire with remarkable results.

The most interesting aspect of the production is Py’s approach. The production is aggressively black and white. Staircases are rolled on and off the stage. In the opening scenes, the about-to-die Admetus is shown in a hospital bed. Francois Lis who doubles as the voice of the Oracle and a god of the underworld wears a white hospital coat and gives a heart massage to Admetus as if he just suffered a heart failure.

Stanislas Barberyac as Admetus. Photo copyright: Julien Benhamou

The palace of Thessaly is a very busy place and that is without taking into account the home decorators. They are the five cartoonists that are kept busy almost throughout the performance sketching with chalk on huge black panels on the back and sides of the stage. They also have a penchant for writing brief messages such as “La mort n’existe pas” when Hercules is around and “désespoir politique” when Alceste is grieving for her husband and children.

The bulk of their sketching is of various subjects such as the Palais Garnier usually using long sticks to reach the higher points of the panels. As soon as something is drawn, the sponge mops come out and it is erased. There is a danger of watching the cartoonists instead of the singers. In other words it was interesting but perhaps over the top.

The idea must have originated with Set and Costume Designer Pierre-André Weitz. He is one of the drawers-erasers and in all fairness the other four should be mentioned: Mathieu Crescence, Pierre Lebon, Leo Muscat and Julien Massé.

Other than some doubts about the efficacy of the sets, I found it a thrilling night at the opera.
      ____

Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck opened on June 16 and ran until July 15, 2015 at the Opéra national de Paris, Palais Garnier, 8 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris, France. https://www.operadeparis.fr/