Thursday, March 30, 2017

BUTCHER – REVIEW OF BILLON’S PLAY AT PANASONIC THEATRE

By James Karas

Butcher is a play by Nicolas Billon now playing at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto. In good conscience, almost nothing should be disclosed about the plot so that people going to see the production will get the full benefit of its intricacies, and appreciate the total shock of the play.

I will deal with my conscience at another time but I will tell you as much as is permissible without spoiling your enjoyment and the surprises of the plot. I will give hints.

Hint 1: Read Agamemnon by Aeschylus.

Butcher was first performed in Calgary in 2014. The action takes place in a police station near the Toronto East General Hospital. It is early morning on December 25 and Detective Lamb is manning the station for the night. An old man wearing a Santa Claus hat and an army officer’s uniform with a meat hook around his neck and a lawyer’s business card attached on it is taken to the police station. 
 Andrew Musselman, Tony Nappo and John Koensgen in BUTCHER ©2017, Freddie Lau
The lawyer, Hamilton Barnes, has no idea how his card got on the meat hook but he is sympathetic and tries to help. An interpreter has been called in to help because the old man does not speak any English. The interpreter arrives and there is an explosion in the development of the plot that will keep you glued to you seat as your blood pressure rises to vein-bursting levels.

Hint 2: Read The Libation-Bearers by Aeschylus.

Detective Lamb has two daughters and Iris, the younger one, does not want to go to sleep because she is waiting for Santa Claus. He has Hamilton, the lawyer, talk to Iris as if he were Santa Claus and convince her that he will bring her presents only after she goes to sleep.

Elena the interpreter, it turns out, is also a nurse. She tends to the old man who is Josef Dzibrilovo. He speaks a South Slavic language called Lavinian which is comprehensible only to the characters of the play.

Hint 3: Read The Eumenides by Aeschylus.
 
Andrew Musselman, Tony Nappo and Miranda Calderon in BUTCHER ©2017, Freddie Lau
The twists and turns of the plot, the naked violence, the horrors we see on the stage and the even worse ones that are described make for a tsunami-force impact that will shake you to the core. You will realize one more time that “civilization” may be just a precarious veneer and that in certain situations there is not even a scintilla of humanity. Revenge becomes a mild word.

Hint 4: Read Deuteronomy 32:35
Hint 5: Become acquainted with the role of the Furies in Greek myth and tragedy.

The actors must reach very high levels of emotional intensity and maintain it for almost Marathonian lengths. Tony Nappo as Detective Lamb, the family man waiting to finish his shift and go home to his family, goes through a gamut of emotions and keeps a big surprise for us. Miranda Calderon as Elena the interpreter does the same with great effectiveness.

Andrew Musselman as the compassionate lawyer Hamilton has a number of surprises for us as does John Koensgen as the mysterious Josef Dzibrilovo.  You will also find out the meaning of the appearance of Kasey Nugent as a Young Girl.

The set by Yannik Larivee is that of a workman-like police station with filing cabinets and desks as a perfect, non-descript background for some extraordinary and at the same time perhaps very commonplace events.

All of it is directed by Weyni Mengesha in a fine example of riveting theatre.

If the Bible, Aeschylus and Greek mythology have not helped, you may ignore Hints 1 to 5 and jump the last one.

Hint 6: Go see Butcher at the Panasonic Theatre.
____


Butcher by Nicolas Billon in a production by The Why Not Theatre, opened on March 28 and will play until April 9, 2017 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto
Ontario, M4Y 1Z9. Tel: (416) 872-1212.
www.mirvish.com

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

LA TRAVIATA IN INSPIRED AND OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION LIVE FROM THE MET OPERA

By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has sent Willy Decker’s inspired production of La Traviata around the world live from the Met once again. Decker directed the opera for the Salzburg Festival in 2005 and it was shown in movie houses Live from the Met 2012. It is a production that rates the word masterpiece.

Decker almost reinvents the opera as he focuses on the characters in the tragedy which is performed on an almost bare stage with the most prominent feature being a huge clock. It is the perfect symbol for Violetta, the courtesan pursued by many but loved by none, who is under sentence of death to her illness and the clock is ticking towards her final demise.
 
Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
When the curtain opens, we see an empty stage and during the overture Violetta (Sonya Yoncheva) stumbles towards a forbidding old man with gray hair wearing a black coat. He will appear a number of times throughout the performance. In the final scene we will see him as Dr. Grenvil (bass-baritone James Courtney), the sympathetic physician who attends on Violetta, but that is not his real role in this production.

He struck me as being Charon, not just the ferryman who took souls across the Styx in Greek mythology, but the being who takes the souls of people from their deathbed. The mysterious figure in Decker’s interpretation of the opera may be the personification of death but I prefer to see him as Charon who waits for Violetta’s time on earth to run out so he can take her soul.

There are many splendid touches by Decker that illuminate the opera. The guests at the party in the opening scene are all men. Even her friend Flora (mezzo soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb) is turned into a pants role. Violetta has no friends, only clients.

For the second act scene in the country, the five couches that are all the props on stage are covered with brightly colored fabric and Violetta and Alfredo wear housecoats that match the couch covers. This is domestic bliss. They are happy, playful and in love. Charon is nowhere to be seen and the clock that is ticking towards Violetta’s death is covered.

When Giorgio Germont appears and wrecks the couple’s happiness, the couch covers are removed and the clock is uncovered to continue its relentless pace.
 Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva in La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
Yoncheva makes an astounding Violetta. She presents a tough exterior and knows that being a courtesan will not allow her the luxury of a conventional love relationship and she is equally aware that her death is imminent. But all of that goes by the board when Alfredo declares his love and proves his devotion to her. Yoncheva has a plush voice that evoked her character with splendor. The final scene where she knows she is about to die and Charon is right there to take her soul is extraordinarily moving. The clock disappears, Charon pulls back because he probably has her soul and she finds peace and almost apotheosis as we ache with sorrow at her fate.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo makes a perfect match for her. He is tender, fragile, shy and the perhaps the type that would fall madly in love with a beautiful courtesan. This Alfredo is believable because a strong personality would more likely use Violetta as a paying satisfier of his ego and lust rather than desiring her as a wife. A clue to his character is given by an incident when he is with his father. When Alfredo resists his father’s imploring, the latter hits him across the face so hard that he knocks him to the floor.

Baritone Thomas Hampson has sung the role so many time(s) that he can do it on automatic pilot. He does not. He is effective both in his vocal output and as the conniving father who is prepared to use emotional blackmail and violence, and as a sympathetic father and eventually friend to both Alfredo and Violetta.

Matthew Diamond directs the performance for live cinema with in measured camera shots that allow us to see the performance. He does not think La Traviata is a video game and it is a pleasure to watch a sensibly directed broadcast.    

Nicola Luisotti conducts The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in this defining production of the perennial favorite.
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La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on March 11 and there will be encore broadcasts on April 15, 17 and 19, 2017 at various Cineplex Cinemas. For more information visit www.cineplex.com/events

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

SAINT JOAN – REVIEW OF DONMAR PRODUCTION LIVE FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan opens famously with Captain Robert de Baudricourt screaming at his steward “No eggs! No eggs!! …what do you mean by no eggs?” The steward replies that “it is an act of God.”

That is not how the play opens in the Donmar Warehouse production seen in movie theatres in the National Theatre Live broad cast. We see three large screens and watch the business report that tells us there is a serious shortage of eggs in France and the price has gone through the roof.


Then we meet Robert and his steward and follow Shaw’s text. But will have a number of news stories as the action of the play develops.
 Gemma Arterton as Saint Joan 
Director Josie Rourke has brought Saint Joan into the 21st century in a stunning production that makes the play seem as if it were written yesterday and makes for extraordinary theatre.

Aside from the TV screens, the dominant feature of the play is a large boardroom table set on a revolving stage. The confrontation between Joan on one side and the combined power of Church and the political authorities on the other is as relevant today as it was in 1429.

The focal point of any production must be the character of Saint Joan. Rourke directs Gemma Arterton into a believable and powerful character. She avoids making Saint Joan sanctimonious which can be almost fatal to a modern production. Arterton’s Saint Joan is strong without being haughty and humble without being servile. She must choose between her inner voices and the massive authority of the Church. She states with conviction but without arrogance that she is a child of the Church but refuses to abandon the commands of God. This is a magnificent performance by Arterton and a brilliant approach to the play by Rourke.

Shaw’s verbosity is never far off in most of his plays and we do get somewhat bogged down in the lengthy discussion among Warwick, Bishop Cauchon and the Chaplain. But that is a minor issue.

The rest of the performance is riveting and the dramatic effect struck me as if this were the first time I was seeing the play.

Some of the outstanding performances:  Jo Stone-Fewings plays the wily, unscrupulous and powerful Earl of Warwick who wants to capture and execute Joan. Niall Buggy plays the Archbishop of Rheims, a bulldog of a man, a cleric in name only, who, like the other clerics, wants to protect his power and by extension the total authority of the Church. Less obnoxious but equally authoritarian is Elliot Levy as Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais  
 
Fisayo Akinade and Gemma Arterton in Saint Joan 
Fisayo Akinade plays the Dauphin, a pathetic weakling who objects even to wearing the coronation robes because they were too heavy. 

The Inquisitor (Rory Keenan), the English Chaplain, John de Stogumber (Richard Cant) and the rest join forces and accuse Joan of being a witch, a heretic, a potential destroyer of the power of the nobility and most importantly a disobedient servant of the Church. They are protecting nothing more than their supremacy and authority over people and God and religion are the tools that they use godlessly and brutally.

Some may argue that Saint Joan in the 15th century, Shaw in the 20th century (the play premiered in 1923) and Josie Rourke’s production in the 21st century constitute a statement about women’s rights. I think not. The play is about totalitarian control of people.


This is a brilliant interpretation of the play with superb performances.
   _____
Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw was shown at various Cineplex Cinemas on March 12, 2017. For more information visit:  http://www.cineplex.com/

Sunday, March 12, 2017

THE MILLENNIAL MALCONTENT – REVIEW OF ERIN SHIELDS’ PLAY AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

It is possible to watch a play and get very little out of it. The characters, the plot and just about everything about it conspire to drive your attention away from the happenings on stage and you end up scratching your head about the whole thing afterwards.

That is what happened to me while watching the premiere of Erin Shields’ The Millennial Malcontent at the Tarragon Theatre. I saw shallow, pretentious, tiresome characters romping around the stage, dressing up in ridiculous costumes for a party and evoking almost nothing. There was some humour that the opening night enthusiastic audience reacted to but I found nothing of substance to enjoy.  
Rong Fu, Natasha Mumba, Frank Cox-O'Connell, Reza Sholeh, James Daly, Amelia Sargisson, 
Alicia Richardson, Liz Peterson. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
Shields tells us in a Note in the program that her inspiration for The Millennial came from Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife which he may have written while he was a prisoner in the Bastille and was first acted in 1697. The play is about the unhappy marriage of Sir John Brute and Lady Brute in a world where divorce was not available but adultery was. The characters go off to town in search of love, excitement and revenge, much of it not related to the unhappy marriage that is supposed to be the main plot.

Shields’ play contains echoes of Vanbrugh’s play but it is about today’s superficial, self-centered, Facebook society. No doubt it is intended to be a satire perhaps even a mockery of our youth but it simply misfires.

Johnny (Reza Sholeh) is married to Moxy (Liz Peterson) and they are not happy. Faith (Rong Fu) is in love with Johnny. Frank Cox-O’Connell plays the extravagantly obnoxious Charm who makes videos but spends most of his time tiresomely showing off and frequently at unacceptable decibel levels.
 
Liz Peterson, Rong Fu, Natasha Mumba, Frank Cox-O'Connell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Mimi (Amelia Sargisson) is his nice sidekick. We also have Teasel (Natasha Mumba), Heartfelt (James Daly) and Raz (Alicia Richardson. Most of them show up in outlandish costumes the most bizarre being that of a blow-up penis. There are some crude scenes involving genitals and masturbation and some salty language.

Interestingly, The Provoked Wife was roundly denounced for its immorality and in a production in 1701 the actors were indicted for speaking the play’s profane language.

Today’s youth may well be as shallow, pretentious and tiresome, and fully deserve to be satirized as Erin Shields apparently intended but I missed the satire and after a couple of hours I left the theatre trying to figure out what director Peter Hinton and Shields had in mind that simply did not come out.
                                          ______

The Millennial Malcontent by Erin Shields opened on March 9 and will continue until April 9, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, March 6, 2017

7 STORIES – REVIEW OF REMARKABLE PRODUCTION OF PANYCH’S PLAY AT HART HOUSE THEATRE James Karas

James Karas

Hart House Theatre treats us to a remarkable production of Morris Panych’s 1989 surreal play 7 Stories. It is done by a group of young actors and a production team which display amazing talent.  

As you enter the theatre you see a man holding an umbrella standing on a ledge of a high-rise building. He is clearly contemplating suicide. He stands mostly still until the lights go down in the auditorium and the performance begins.

There are half a dozen windows behind the unnamed Man (Brian Haight) and he will interact with about a dozen people that will pop up from some of the windows. If we assume that the Man is on the edge both physically and metaphorically or, to put it crudely, nuts, it is nothing compared to the people that he meets. 
   Brian Haight as The Man, Rakhee Morzaria as Charlotte, Scott Kuipers as Rodney
The Man at the beginning is mostly a sounding board for some of the lunatics that pop out of the windows but eventually he is allowed to speak about himself and gives a reason for being on the ledge. Haight plays the Man as a reserved and at times stone-faced being who appears far more rational than the other loonies of the play.

The first intruders into the Man’s encounter with his chosen fate are Rodney (Scott Kuipers) and Charlotte (Rakhee Morzaria). They are having an affair. Rodney is a lawyer, Charlotte is a poet and he is trying to kill her. They argue violently and Morzaria gets some great lines and gives a superbly histrionic performance. Kuipers does well as almost her straight man. Morzaria has another juicy role as the one-hundred-year old Lillian. She changed the life of a Frenchman with the only French that she knew which turned out to be “the grapefruit is on the table.”

Kuipers gets more scope for his talents as Michael, the obsessive artist who distinguishes between a shade and a tint. Good work by Kuipers in portraying the punctilious and sensitive appreciator of colour who, like everyone in the play, has loose hinges.

Nicole Hrgetic plays Michael’s partner Joan and the sadistic Nurse Wilson who loves people but can’t stand individuals and has no feelings but is humanitarian. Good work by Hrgetic.

 Brian Haight as The Man, Kevin Forster as Marshall

Kevin Kashani plays the psychiatrist Leonard, one of the more bizarre characters in the play.  Leonard works in a loony bin (his words) and he is completely crackers. Kashami gives a splendid portrayal of the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist fast. Kashami also play Percy, a guest at a party on the floor, who is as batty as the psychiatrist.
Kevin Forster plays Marshall and Al, two characters that are almost caricatures and require some showy acting. Marshall seems to have an identity crisis. He is a homosexual about to marry an heiress who almost ran him over, an actor who could not act and a fine character for an actor like Forster. The latter also plays Al, a man who knows how to put an end to a bad party – start a fire.

Margarita Valderrama plays the religiously fanatic Rachel (she poisoned her mother but it was an act of God) and Jennifer, the garrulous dummy who thinks it would be a thrill to jump off the ledge.

Panych has peopled the play with some fascinating and fantastic characters for actors and full credit goes to the cast and even more so to director Rebecca Ballarin for putting everything together and pulling off a successful production.

The play displays, wit, marvellous non-sequiturs and comments about the play itself. One character leaves the stage (closes her window) because there are too many pauses in the conversation. Take that, Pinter. Any number of labels can be attached to the type of play this is but your best bet is to forget branding it and just go and enjoy it.
________


7 Stories by Morris Panych opened on March 3 and continues until March 11, 2017 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849

Friday, February 24, 2017

THE WHITE DEVIL – REVIEW SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION OF JOHN WEBSTER’S PLAY

James Karas

John Webster had his hand in a number of plays but he is best known for his two revenge tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. The Duchess is produced regularly but The White Devil seems to be almost completely ignored. Scholars refer to the two plays as masterpieces of the revenge tragedy genre but theatre produces don’t seem to agree about the box office value at least of The White Devil.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has been producing some pretty arcane plays in the small, indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and this year it gave us the chance to see the play which premiered in 1612 and was a flop.

Director Annie Ryan and dramaturg Michael West performed serious surgery on the text and tried to give thee play a comprehensible narrative and a dramatic structure to keep the audience in the loop.
 
One of the major decisions seems to have been to perform the play in semi-darkness. The lighting is provided mostly by candelabras and we rarely get to see well-lit faces. That is one way of emphasizing the murderous evil of just about all the characters but it does have a downside.

If you don’t have a sharp memory or an explanatory character list in front of you, you will be scrambling to figure out who wiped out whom. Staring from the top, we have the Dukes of Florence (Paul Bazely) and Bracciano (Jamie Ballard). Marcello (Jamael Westman) works for the Duke Florence and his brother Flamineo (Joseph Timms) works for the Duke Bracciano. The brothers are poor and their sister Vittoria (Kate Stanley-Brennan) is married to Camillo (Fergal McElherron) who is rich but old.

So far so good. But

The Duke of Bracciano (who is married) is in love with Vittoria and her brother Flamineo sees an opportunity. Why not get rid of Camillo and the Duchess, he suggests to the Duke, and Vittoria will be yours. Rest in peace Duchess and arrivederci Camillo.

But the dead duchess is the sister of the Duke of Florence and Camillo is the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso (Garry Cooper) who will soon get the big promotion to Pope. The brothers are arrested but beat the charges and Vittoria is sent to a House for Fallen Women. The Duke of Florence and the Pope swear revenge.

Bracciano is not about to give up the gorgeous Vittoria so he rescues her from The House and makes her a duchess in a palace and gives good jobs to her brothers and her mother. The Duke of Florence and a couple of friendly enforcers visit the palace in disguise and give a final sendoff to Bracciano, Flamineo murders his brother Marcello, And Vittoria and Flamineo and Zanche (Shanaya Rafaat), the lady-in-waiting are dispatched permanently. We are getting near the end. A new Duke, Giovanni (Mollie Lambert) takes over and he orders the murderers murdered.
 Who is Giovanni? He is Bracciano’s son and Florence’s nephew.

I give this summary because that is almost what I got from the performance and not without the aid of a summary.

The actors generate some energy and the play has some historical interest as an example of a popular genre in the early seventeenth century. But there is no moral centre, there is not even a decent character. Who is the white devil?

If you are a theatre lover, when you take your grandchildren to see The Duchess of Malfi, you will be able to tell them that you have in fact seen the other play by John Webster but you can’t remember anything about it except that it involved a lot of murders and it was acted in semi-darkness.        
__________

The White Devil by John Webster opened on February 1 and will play until April 16, 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com

Thursday, February 23, 2017

FIVE FACES FOR EVELYN FROST – REVIEW OF THÉÂTRE FRANÇAIS DE TORONTO PRODUCTION

James Karas

As you enter the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre for the performance of Five Faces for Evelyn Frost you see the stage covered with clothes. Three young women and two men walk on stage and greet the audience politely. They tell us things about themselves. When they were born, their taste in clothes, their motto and mundane bits like that.

They pick up the pace of their speaking until they speak so quickly you can barely understand what they are saying. They slow down and launch into a long segment of telling us what “I like,” what “I’ve seen,” what “I’ve read.” Everything about these people is me, me, me and they address the audience directly almost all the time. Their tastes and the breadth of their musical and literary knowledge is breathtaking and I admit that most of the names they dropped are unknown to me.

Most of them go to a bar and the same type of dialogue continues but the emphasis changes on social media postings. All of them describe what they did, the pictures they took and, it seems, the pictures they posted. This is today’s youth living on Facebook and Twitter?

Playwright Guillaume Corbeil skilfully constructs the narrative from the selfish and perhaps silly narrative of the young people telling us about the great time they are having and leads us into darker developments. What appear as minor chinks develop into serious issues as their lives begin to unravel or perhaps simply encounter reality? The mother who has Alzheimer’s disease, the sex, the drugs, the crimes, the degradation, all come to them. They lead to the ultimate tragedy for youth. I will not tell you what it is for fear of spoiling it for you.

Most of the dialogue consists of short sentences and as the play gains momentum the “I” and “me” style achieves poetic substance. By the end I felt that the play is a requiem for youth.

Evelyn Frost of the title only appears as the photograph of a young, beautiful black woman whom the characters see in the club that they go to. She seems to have everything until we are told she suffers from leukemia. There may be more to her and about her but in the speed at which the play moves I may well have missed it.

The five actors are Laurence Dauphinais, Steffi Didomenicantonio, Tara Nicodemo, Nico Racicot and Alex Weiner and they deserve special praise as does director Claude Poissant. The cast is on stage for the full seventy-five minutes’ duration and they must go through a large number of lines and a variety of emotions. Outstanding work. Kudos to Poissant for bringing out the best in a play that must look pretty bland on the page.

The set by Max-Otto Fauteux consists of the stage covered with clothes and a screen where photos of the characters in various poses as if on Facebook are projected.

This is a Canadian Stage and Théâtre Français de Toronto production which is being done in English and French by the same cast.

The whole thing is an amazing feat.    
______
Five Faces for Evelyn Frost by Guillaume Corbeil opened on February 16 and will run in English until March 5 2017. It will be performed in French (Cing Visages pour Evelyne Frost) from March 21 to 25, 2017 with English surtitles at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ont. www.canstage.com, http://theatrefrancais.com/