Thursday, May 28, 2015

THE PHYSICISTS - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is a brilliant play that turns the world upside down with intelligence and humour. The Stratford Festival has given it a superb production directed by Miles Potter.

Three physicists are in a lunatic asylum. Herbert Georg Beutler (Graham Abbey) thinks he is Newton. He wears a wig and 17th century clothes. Ernst Heinrich, Ernesti (Mike Nadajewski) thinks he is Einstein. Johann Mobius (Geraint Wyn Davies) talks with King Solomon. They are nuts.

The staff of the asylum is just as looney. Head Nurse Marta (Karen Robinson) and psychiatrist von Zahnd (Seana McKenna) are fit to be tied.
 Members of the company in The Physicists. Photography by David Hou
Einstein has strangled a nurse and Inspector Voss (Randy Hughson) has come to investigate the “incident.” The perpetrator is insane and there can be no murder or murderer.

The plot gets complicated but in the meantime we are treated to some fine acting, plenty of laughter and sheer fascination created by Durrenmatt’s world view. Randy Hughson is hilarious as the inspector. He is a world-weary cop who wants to smoke, have a drink and go through the motions of investigating something that he knows he cannot investigate.

Abbey as Newton has adopted the refined manners and gestures of a seventeenth century gentleman but he confides in us that he knows he is not Newton. In fact he is Einstein but pretends to be Newton in order not to hurt Ernesti’s feelings.

Nadajewski with his messy hair standing and a violin in his hand is a looney-looking Einstein.   

Mobius his hair mussed up and claiming direct contact with King Solomon looks crazier than the rest and eventually we do find out the reason.

McKenna in a white hospital gown, a white wig and a hunched back is at her usual best as the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist.

Durrenmatt takes on  the serious subject of the responsibility of scientists at a time (1962) when the devastation caused by the atomic bomb was a recent memory and the development of nuclear weapons during the cold war presented a clear and present danger.

Seana McKenna as Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd and Mike Nadajewski as Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (alias Einstein) in The Physicists. Photography by David Hou.
As it turns out the physicists are not lunatics at all. Einstein and Newton are spies for great powers and pretending to be insane in order to get the manuscripts of the genius Mobius. All three have murdered nurses because the victims were getting close to discovering the truth about the mental state and the intentions of the scientists.

Durrenmatt calls for a posh lunatic asylum but that type of set is impossible in the Tom Patterson Theatre. Set Designer Peter Hartwell has the stage strewn with furniture after the murders and has a well laid out table for dinner to indicate a different class nuthouse.

The production is an adaptation by Michael Healy using colloquial language and it works quite well.

Director Miles Potter has put together a fine production of a humorous, intelligent and thought-provoking work by an author who is not produced very frequently at all.
    ______

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt, adapted by Michael Healy, opened on May 27 and will run in repertory until September 20, 2015 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE SOUND OF MUSIC - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has chosen The Sound of Music as its big offering for the current season. It is a grand production, successful and thoroughly enjoyable from every point of view.

You may now stop reading the rest of the review and go to Stratford to see the great musical.

I have to justify my press tickets and write a few more words of praise after a marvelous evening at the theatre.
 
Members of the company in The Sound of Music. Photography by David Hou.
Let’s start with the overall production values for which chief praise belongs to Donna Feore who directs and choreographs the staging. The large cast, the numerous scene changes (there are twenty listed in the script), the adroit dancing and the concomitant complexities would tax the stamina of a general. Feore seems to handle it with aplomb and the result is musical comedy at its best. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco deserves great credit for sets that can be changed quickly and go from an abbey to mountainside, the von Trapp mansion and a concert hall.

The performance is dominated by Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria, the postulant who is sent to the house of Captain von Trapp (Ben Carlson) to look after his seven children. Rothenberg sings gorgeously and is highly entertaining. Carlson starts as the humourless naval officer but develops into a loving father and husband as well as a singer. With seven wonderful children who sing, dance and create humour not a single heart string is left unplucked.

Anita Krause leads an abbeyful of similarly attired nuns (what did you expect?) but she shines as the Mother Abbess who belts out the soaring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

Robin Evan Willis is the wealthy and stunning Elsa who wants to marry the captain. She has all the attributes that men dream of with one minor defect – she is a Nazi. Auf Wiedersehen, Elsa.

Shane Carty gets all the laughs assigned to Max Detweiler, the cynical friend of the family and the invading Nazis who is instrumental in having the von Trapp singers perform in a concert and escape.

It would be churlish to complain about anything after being so thoroughly entertained by such a thrilling and extraordinary production. I have no complaints.
        _______


The Sound of Music, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, opened on May 26, 2015 and will run in repertory until October 18, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

HAMLET – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Members of the company in Hamlet. Photography by David Hou
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival launched its current season with the usual fanfare and a production of Hamlet. Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s Artistic Director, directs a production that has some virtues, some interesting interpretations and some infelicitous moments.

Cimolino gave the lead role to Jonathan Goad, an actor who has done a considerable number of Shakespearean roles at Stratford. At 43, he still looks athletic and fit for the role of the popular prince. There are several issues with his performance some of which fall on the lap of Cimolino others that are Goad’s own.  

The main problem is his sense of poetry and emotional depth. Goad has a limited feel for iambic pentameters and he does not allow the flow of Shakespeare’s language to carry through. He delivers some of his soliloquies as if he were addressing the public. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is a rumination on life death and the hereafter. Goad looks straight at the audience as if her were speaking to, say, a large lecture hall.

When he considers catching Claudius during a performance of The Mousetrap he recalls to have heard that people sitting at a play have been so affected by the scene that they have confessed their guilt. On “sitting at a play” Goad pointed to the audience and got a laugh. For that second Goad stepped out of character for a cheap laugh.

Hamlet has some of the greatest moments in theatrical literature and Goad falls short of the emotional depths demanded by the play. He gets a decent mark for his performance but not a great one.

Geraint Wyn Evans makes a very good Claudius. He usually wears a suit except in a couple of scenes where he wears monarchical regalia. The production seems to be set around one hundred years ago. Claudius is not openly dictatorial and in fact he makes some effort to be friendly with people by touching and hugging them a bit too much. Royalty is usually aloof but Claudius has a different approach probably because of his guilty conscience.

Seana McKenna with her distinctive and expressive voice makes a very effective Gertrude. She wears several fancy dresses and is effective in the bedroom scene. Goad  is different. Rather than aiming his devastating accusations right at her, Hamlet walks around the stage. He tells his mother to repent her past sins and avoid the disgusting Claudius. She does nothing of the kind. When Claudius arrives at the end of the scene, she embraces him. This is an interesting take on the scene and supported by the text.
 Adrienne Gould as Ophelia and Jonathan Goad as Hamlet in Hamlet. Photography by David Hou.
Adrienne Gould is a dramatic and affecting Ophelia during her sanity and madness. A fine performance.

Tom Rooney’s Polonius is, in the words of T. S. Eliot, politic, cautious, and meticulous and full of high sentence but he is neither obtuse nor almost ridiculous. He is a bit garrulous but Cimolino prefers to give us a straight Polonius even though he garners a few laughs.

In the opening scene, we see some soldiers march solemnly towards a hole on the stage. We see them at the end of the performance march on stage again. The hole is Hamlet’s grave. Effective.

The scene with the nervous guards at the beginning works very well and the Ghost shining a flashlight is done simply and effectively. The Ghost is played by Wyn Evans.

Tim Campbell plays a very sympathetic Horatio. With him as well as with Hamlet and Rosencrantz (Sanjay Talwar) and Guildenstern (Steve Ross) you wonder if they are not a bit too old to be attending university but that should only be a minor afterthought.

The production should generate discussion, praise and disagreement. A pretty good result.
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Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on May 25 and will run in repertory  until October 11, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, May 25, 2015

SWEET CHARITY – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION



Kyle Blair as Oscar Lindquist and Julie Martell as Charity Valentine in Sweet Charity. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

Sweet Charity is a 1966 Broadway musical that the Shaw Festival has revived as its flagship musical of the season. It is an old style musical which means it has songs with melodies that are integrated in the plot. The plot itself consists of interconnected episodes in the life of Charity Valentine, “a hooker with a heart of gold” as they say. The episodes and humour are 1960’s vintage and familiar to those of a certain age from television musical comedy shows and films.

The production and the performance deserve words of praise that are unfortunately peppered with reservations. The ultimate conclusion will be that is that this is a good, energetic production with some very good dance routines but not entirely successful. Julie Martell’s singing is good and but one wanted it to be better. That holds for the rest of the singers. They leap when you expect them to soar. 

Charity works in the Fandango dance hall as a dance hostess. Her co-worker puts it less charitably as the rent-a-body job. Charity does have a heart of gold, she dreams of a better life and, to put unkindly, is just plain stupid.

We meet Charity in Central Park imagining being engaged to a hunk of a man who simply pushes her in the lake and steals her purse. Neil Simon, who wrote the book, satirizes the New Yorkers for their aloofness as they watch the young woman drowning and run away. A Spaniard, a foreigner, saves her.  
 
Mark Uhre as Vittorio Vidal and Jacqueline Thair as Ursula inSweet Charity. Photo by Emily Cooper
In the next scene, Charity ends up on the arm of movie star Vittorio Vidal (Mark Uhre). He has an argument with his dizzy blonde girlfriend Ursula (Jacqueline Thair). Charity ends up in Vittorio’s apartment (“If my friends could only see me now” she sings) but the party is broken up when Ursula arrives. There is ample opportunity for farcical comedy and director Jackie Maxwell takes advantage of it as Charity tries to hide from the jealous and suspicious Ursula.

Charity tries to upgrade herself by going to classes at the YMCA. She is trapped in an elevator with Oscar (Kyle Blair), a decent, shy, claustrophobic, slightly damaged young man and they end up going to a hippie church and are subsequently stuck on a Ferris wheel. She is afraid of heights. There is comedy, touching emotional contact and singing as the two “losers” reach out and fall in love.     

Jay Turvey plays the dictatorial but amusing owner of the Fandango. Nickie (Kimberley Rampersad) and Helene (Melanie Philipson) are Charity’s friends at the Fandango who have their feet on the ground and their dreams of a better life in check.
Neil Simon, Cy Coleman (book) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) created a very good show combining comedy, dance and songs. Musical Director Paul Sportelli has decided to jazz up the original instrumentation with, in his words, “electric bass, electric guitar and an array of classic keyboard sounds.”  It made the orchestra louder without improving the sound of the music.

We approach the final scene of Sweet Charity hoping that the hooker’s dream will be fulfilled; she and Oscar will find happiness running a Mobil gas station and love will triumph. Alas.
______

Sweet Charity by Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) will run in repertory until October 31, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com

Sunday, May 24, 2015

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Daly as Prentiss, Kate Besworth as Molly, Charlie Gallant as Boy and Andrew Broderick as Ted in Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas

Peter and the Starcatcher can fairly and accurately be described in the hackneyed phrase as “a show for all ages.” It is rowdy, action-packed, fantastical, funny and very literate. The last accolade is very significant because your youngster should be very bright to enjoy the allusions, anachronistic references and malapropisms that fill the play.

The play, with some wonderful songs by Wayne Barker, is based on Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry’s and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 children’s novel. Rick Elice has extracted a play from the novel and the result is bountiful fun.

A stageful of young and not-so-young people in what looks like the hull of an old ship set off for separate voyages carrying two trunks. We are in the heyday of the British Empire, Queen Victoria is our sovereign and the Never Land and the Wasp set sail for mythical Rundoon.

The plot of many twists on board the Never Land and the Wasp revolves around the Boy (Charlie Gallant) and Molly (Kate Besworth), the contents of the trunks and the misadventures of everyone.  The Boy is an unhappy orphan who has been put on the Never Land to be gotten rid of. He will eventually acquire a first name and a surname and learn to fly. This is just the beginning for him and he will become very famous because his name is Peter Pan.

His friend and competitor is the feisty, competitive and intelligent Molly, the daughter of Lord Aster (Patrick Galligan). Besworth’s Molly is athletic, assertive, and simply delightful.

We have pirates especially Black Stache (Martin Happer) with his trademark black mustache and his torture of the English language. Stache has a hilarious sidekick in Smee (Jonathan Tan) who somehow ends up as a mermaid.

Jonathan Tan as Smee, Patrick Galligan as Lord Aster and Martin Happer as Black Stache, with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper.
Billy Lake gets to play four nasty people from the sadistic schoolteacher Grempkin, to Sanchez, the worst sailor ever and Fighting Prawn, the chief of the Mollusk Islanders. He will rhyme off enough Italian dishes to fill a large restaurant menu.

There is also Alf (Shawn Wright) a gruff sailor that you should assiduously avoid lest he lean over and, as Chaucer put it, “let fly a fart as loud as it had been a thunder-clap” which he does!

The play is simply hilarious. The day I saw it (May 21, 2015) there was a busload of children who added immensely to the pleasure of the play. Their reactions were so wonderful and refreshing that they became part of the performance. When Peter gives a tiny kiss to Molly, the reaction of the youngsters was a prolonged “woooo.” They also laughed uproariously and their elation was infectious.

Director Jackie Maxwell leaves no star unturned to achieve a major comic event and a play that has fantasy and wonder and indeed star-catching.

Combine fantasy, magic, fun and literate repartee and you have a splendid show. It is a rare combination and if you have a youngster within reach, grab her or him and rush them off to Niagara-on-the-Lake. You will be doing yourself a great favour.       
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Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice continues in repertory until November 1, 2015 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Friday, May 22, 2015

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL HD PRODUCTION ON THE BIG SCREEN

Geraint Wyn Davies (left) as Mark Antony and Ben Carlson as Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival plans to film all of Shakespeare’s plays over the next ten years. It has already released three productions, King Lear, King John and Antony and Cleopatra and one can express only gratitude for the plan and restrain from griping (almost) about some of the defects.

The 2014 production of Antony and Cleopatra was directed by Gary Griffin in the Tom Patterson Theatre with an outstanding cast. The filmed version looks great on the big screen and it would have looked even better if Barry Avrich, the director for film exercised restraint and better judgment.

Geraint Wyn Evans gives a powerful performance as Mark Antony, one of the three men who took over the fate of a significant part of the western world after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

We see Antony in the fall if not winter of his life, living in Egypt and besotted with Cleopatra. Wyn Davies shows us Antony’s passion, arrogance, decency and his lack of the killer instinct. Antony has an agreeable face and is ready to grin, even smile. He is also arrogant and unable to stay away from Cleopatra despite his political duties in Rome. A superbly nuanced performance by Wyn Davies.

He is well-matched by the passionate and histrionic performance of Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra. This is a Cleopatra to be reckoned with. She is irrational, cunning, imperious and ambitious. McIntosh gives an outstanding performance.

It is interesting to compare Mark Antony with Ben Carlson’s Octavius Caesar and Brian Tree’s Pompey. The latter is a straight-laced soldier – dour, unsmiling, and “regular army,” as they say. He too lacks the killer instinct to eliminate his opponents. Octavius has a kindly-looking face but he is ambitious, crafty and duplicitous. Not surprisingly he ends up as the emperor. Lepidus, the other member of the triumvirate, played well by Randy Hughson, is an ineffectual old man and a peacemaker. He is easily eliminated.

Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra and Geraint Wyn Davies as Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by David Hou.
The large cast performs very well with some distinguished performances by Tom McCamus as the Enobarbus, Antony’s friend who eventually betrays him; Sophia Walker as Charmian, Cleopatra’s faithful servant and Sean Arbuckle as Mecenas.

On the large screen we are able to see facial expressions and movements that are impossible to notice in the theatre. We can see every grimace and expression of Wyn Davis and McIntosh as well as every wrinkle in McCamus’s expressive face.

The cameras capture all angles of the thrust stage of the Tom Patterson. Depending on where you are seated, you are bound to lose some or much of the performers’ faces in the theatre.

But there is such a thing as too much detail and far too many camera angles and close-ups. Avrich keeps clicking on different angles when the actors and the scene are perfectly visible. Just let us listen to what is being said and what is happening in the scene. We do not need a different angle every few seconds. You get the feeling that Avrich has no idea what a performance looks like in the theatre and is treating us as if we are watching a television show.

It is a constant complaint of mine and perhaps we can get some theatre goer to direct the filmed versions of plays - someone who knows the benefit of concentrating on the play instead of on camera angles.
____________

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare was shown on May 21, 2015 at the   Cineplex Cinemas Queensway & VIP, 1025 The Queensway, Etobicoke, ON, M8Z 6C7 and other theatres. It will be shown again on June 7, 2015. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Thursday, May 21, 2015

YOU NEVER CAN TELL – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Julia Course as Gloria Clandon, Tara Rosling as Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, Peter Krantz as Finch M’Comas, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Philip Clandon and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Dolly Clandon. Photo by David Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

You Never Can Tell, one of Bernard Shaw’s early comedies, gets a spirited production at the Royal George Theatre. Director Jim Mezon throws in everything to generate energy and excitement in a play that is light by Shavian standards and by no means one of his best. But Shaw never lets you off without commentary about women’s rights, meritocracy and social issues.  

The play is set in a seaside resort in southern England where we meet the Clandons. They are not your typical family. Mrs. Clandon (Tara Rosling), abandoned her husband and England and has been living in Madeira for 18 years with her twins. This is her first trip back to England. She is smart, self-supporting and revolutionary in her views.

Her twins Philip (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and Dolly (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) are supercharged, giddy, sometimes annoying and frequently very funny.

She has a very serious daughter, Gloria (Julia Course), who is made to look very unattractive in the early scenes. She has a nose that is so sharp she can cut down trees with it.  Near the end of the play, she heaves her ugly glasses and appears very attractive. Course carries herself well as the self-possessed, self-assured new woman of the twentieth century who eventually falls in love.

The “opposite” of the Clandon children is the penniless dentist Valentine (Gray Powell). He has had only one patient, he is willing to do anything for a few shillings and is a lively young man. Powell handles the role with relish.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Tara Rosling, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Gray Powell. Photo by Emily Cooper.
The Clandon children have a peculiar problem: they do not know who their father is and demand that their mother tell them.

Patrick McManus plays the dour, irascible and morose Fergus, the father of the Clandon children. His red cheeks bespeak his drinking habits and his temper makes him funny despite himself. Peter Krantz has the delightful role of Finch M’Comus, a solicitor, who can’t get anywhere with anything. He is funny.

The play has a waiter who is stiff, proper, wise and amusing. Peter Millard plays William with ritualistic movements and comes to dominate the scenes that he is in.

The sets by Leslie Frankish from the dentist’s office to scenes in the hotel are bright, colourful and indeed help create a carnival atmosphere suitable to a play where anything is possible and you never can tell what will happen next.
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You Never Can Tell by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 25, 2015 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.