Thursday, January 29, 2015

WAITING ROOM – REVIEW OF FLACKS’ PLAY AT TARRAGON


Jordan Pettle, Ari Cohen and Michelle Monteith in Waiting Room 

Reviewed by James Karas

Near the end of Waiting Room, Diana Flacks’s new play, there is an explosion of emotion that is simply staggering. A couple’s child has died after going through some horrendous medical procedures but nothing worked to save her life. The death of a child surely produces the most deeply-felt and keenest pain that a human being can endure. This play brings that pain to the stage in all its rawness.

The waiting room is in a children’s hospital. Andre (Ari Cohen) is a gifted neurosurgeon who is arrogant, gruff, egotistical and completely lacking in anything that may be called human. He has detected that he is suffering from early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that does not humanize him in the least.

The main plot involves the treatment of Jeremy’s (Jordan Pettle) and Chrissie’s (Michelle Monteith) daughter. Andre wants to try aggressive and untested treatments while his assistant and lover Melissa (Jenny Young), and Dr. Aayan (Warona Setshwaelo) try to keep him within ethical bounds. Andre wants to treat his own battle with Alzheimer’s the same way.

A seriously ill child, a distraught couple and a young doctor with a serious illness can provide heart-wrenching drama as well as compelling arguments about the ethics of experimental procedures and end-of-life decisions.

It works only partly. There is a great deal of medical terminology which no doubt makes sense but comes out as simple jargon. There are some attempts at describing the diseases in simple or metaphoric language but the jargon seems to dominate.

Melissa is a sympathetic character but she is stuck in an untenable situation. Chrissie and Jeremy argue but do not express as much emotion as the situation justifies until near the end of the play.

Ari Cohen, Jenny Young and Warona Setshwaelo in Waiting Room

By the final scene Flacks seems to have run out of material and provides a rather insipid denouement. It may be an attempt to tie up loose ends and give us Andre’s and Melissa’s fates but it is somewhat unconvincing.

The set by Kelly Wolf consisting of gray tones eschews the sterile white tones of a hospital. There are no white lab coats (except Dr. Aayan) and other indicia of a hospital except for an intravenous stand. Images of the human brain are projected on a screen at the back of the stage as well as enlarged images of cells.

Pettle’s Jeremy and Monteith’s Chrissie are somewhat immature characters who do not communicate the depth and intensity of their impending tragedy until the end. There is a danger about the play becoming maudlin and sentimental but in trying to avoid that Flacks has robbed us of what should have been an emotionally draining play throughout.

We never warm up to Andre and his final fate which should fill us with emotion at the terrible end of a young doctor, leaves us indifferent.

Flacks had a great idea for a play but the final result still needs some editing to bring that idea to its full potential.
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Waiting Room by Diane Flacks continues until February 15, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

THE MERRY WIDOW – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

Renée Fleming as Hanna, Kelli O'Hara as Valencienne, and Alek Shrader as Camille de Rosillon in                           
Lehár's  The Merry Widow. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has successfully married two very suitable candidates for nuptials: operetta and Broadway. The question is why did it take so long?

Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow almost defines the operetta genre and when done well it can provide a delightful night at the theatre. The Broadway musical is one of the largest components of the New York entertainment industry not to mention that it is a uniquely American contribution to culture. What it lacks in snob appeal it makes up for in energy, popularity and just plain fun. What operetta has in high cultural experience it often lacks in fun especially if done in a foreign language.

The Met has brought in Broadway Director and Choreographer Susan Stroman to create a Merry Widow that is full of energy, humour, high kicking dancing and a visual and aural pleasure.

The production is done in English avoiding the easiest way of killing this operetta which is to do it in German. The cast is uniformly superb with some excellent singers and dancers and just as importantly genuinely funny actors.

Soprano Renée Fleming has the role of Countess Hanna Glawari and surely she is everybody’s dream of a merry widow. Hanna is lively, beautiful and, thanks to her husband’s uncommon good sense in dying on their wedding night, loaded. Make that is in possession of twenty million whatevers, a sum sufficient to save the fatherland Pontevedria from bankruptcy. Fleming looks like a mature woman and that is a bonus on top of her silken voice.
 
Scene from The Merry Widow. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

With those looks and that bank account, Hanna has many suitors but the fatherland can only be saved if she married a Pontevedrian. That would be Count Danilo, an attaché at the Pontevedrian embassy in Paris, who prefers Chez Maxim’s to the office. Baritone Nathan Gunn is tall, dark and handsome, to coin a phrase, say, and with his powerful voice and swaggering manner fits the role. Gunn has made his reputation in the opera house but he is equally adept singing on Broadway, therefore, an ideal part for “this” match in every way.

Veteran baritone Thomas Allen is the foolish ambassador Baron Mirko Zeta. The vocal demands are not onerous and he gets the laughs as a gullible and cuckolded husband. His wife Valencienne is played by Broadway star Kelli O’Hara who is lively, funny and a delight to the ear and the eye.

Tenor Alek Shrader comes from the world of opera and he is handsome, sings well and looks like the perfect candidate for Hanna’s hand and fortune but as Camille de Rosillon he is unsuitable - he is French. Besides, the only reason he wants to marry Hanna is so he can have Valencienne i.e. make it respectable to be seen with another man’s wife.

Carson Elrod played the delightful nincompoop Njegus, an employee at the Pontevedria embassy, who always managed to put his foot in his mouth and produced laughter. 

Aside from the performers that I mentioned, the marriage of Broadway and operetta is effected by Stroman by giving the production a marvelous mixture of the two related forms. The outstanding Broadway dancers, the Met chorus, the humour, the energy and approachability of the operetta are all meticulously combined by Stroman to give us sheer entertainment. The Met Opera Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis added to the enjoyment.

The art-nouveau sets designed by Julian Crouch and the gorgeous costumes by William Ivey Long create an atmosphere of opulence, grace and beauty that exists only in our imagination and now on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
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The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on January 17, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, Toronto Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 28 and March 2, 2015. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Thursday, January 15, 2015

THE REAL THING – REVIEW OF ROUNDABOUT THEATRE PRODUCTION

Josh Hamilton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing.
Photo by Joan Marcus 


In the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) returns from a business trip to Switzerland. Her jealous husband Max (Josh Hamilton) asks some questions about the trip until he reveals the reason for his “curiosity” - she forgot her passport. She did not need it, of course, because she spent the weekend with her lover. We learn in the next scene that the couple is in a play and the incident is clearly not “the real thing”.

Let’s say the scene should be a marvelous opener to the play but it is not. Director Sam Gold is not happy with the play as written and he adds some musicians to the scene who disappear quietly as the dialogue begins. I have no idea what the musicians were supposed to add to the play and struck me as directorial interference.

Gold makes a habit of interfering with the play. We will see the musicians again and they will disappear when the action is about to begin again. It was simply annoying.

Back to the play. In the second scene we find Charlotte with her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) who is the playwright of the first scene. Max and his wife Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) come for a visit. Turns out that Annie is an activist on behalf of an oaf called Brodie (Alex Breaux) AND she and Henry are having an affair.

Follow the turns and twists of the plot and try to keep fact and fiction apart. You will run into many versions of the real and the fake as Stoppard keeps you running on the mental treadmill.

Adultery is at the centre of the play but the search for love is the key to it. The two couples try to raise adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style. That is self-delusion of course and the pain of betrayal is real.

The cast is quite superb. Ewan McGregor’s Henry is the intellectual snob, the brilliant and witty defender of elegant and expressive English. In the end he realizes that adultery is a moral vice and not a stylistic virtue. A fine-tuned performance.

Gyllenhaal as Annie is a romantic supporter of leftist causes personified by the imprisoned Brodie but she does not hesitate to use him as a cover so she can see Henry. Annie eventually sees the folly of her support for Brodie and throws him out with a bowl of dip in his face. A very well-done performance by Gyllenhaal.

Cynthia Nixon as Charlotte tells as that she is in fact a serial adulteress in “real life” as she was in the opening scene where she acted in a play as an adulteress.  

Breaux is excellent as the dumbbell Brodie and Madeleine Weinstein makes a sassy Debbie, Henry and Charlotte’s daughter.  

The sets by David Zinn as with some of Gold’s directorial antics are more mystifying than anything else. The right side of the stage features floor to ceiling bookshelves. The back of the stage has a single bookshelf half way up the ceiling. These people seem to live in a huge warehouse rather than in a pleasant London apartment.

That being said, Stoppard and his dazzling play are not defeated. The cast is too good to allow that to happen and The Real Thing remains as brilliant, funny, witty, cerebral and enjoyable a play as it was when it opened more than thirty years ago.
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The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company  and played until January 4, 2015 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

LUNGS - REVIEW OF MACMILLAN PLAY AT TARRAGON

Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall in LUNGS. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas 

Lungs is a short play by Duncan Macmillan that has some fine points but generally left me cold. It has two characters unimaginatively named W (Lesley Faulkner) and M (Brendan Gall). The initials no doubt stand for Woman and Man and we can generously ascribe to them representative status of Womankind and Mankind but that may be a stretcher.

A young man and a young woman start discussing having a baby. The subject comes up very suddenly in a store and the couple cannot handle it. They talk almost incessantly, the woman doing most of it, and they cannot find a single subject that they can discuss rationally.

She is a PhD student and shows signs of intelligence. He is a musician and a dunce. The subject of having a child goes off into many non-sequitur tangents. Macmillan moves time forward almost imperceptibly and we find ourselves moving from pregnancy to miscarriage to separation of the couple with lightning speed.

The set is a paneled room with no props at all. The couple stand  in one spot for a long time as if their shoes are nailed to the stage boards. They do move afterwards.

The emotional range and the dialogue struck me as having the depth of the magazines that one reads at the supermarket checkout stand. They engage each other superficially and do not engage the audience at all. There is a bit of humour but not enough to save the play.

Faulkner and Gall are on stage for the full seventy minutes of the play and they never stop talking. They deliver the script with ability and panache and deserve a great deal of credit for it. Unfortunately the play does not match their talents.

In the end there seems to be reconciliation but by that time we don’t really care because we never got to know this superficial couple.
_____

Lungs  by Duncan Macmillan opened on December 31, 2014 and will run until  January 25, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com


Thursday, January 8, 2015

A DELICATE BALANCE – REVIEW OF REVIVAL OF ALBEE PLAY ON BROADWAY

Martha Plimpton (Julia), Clare Higgins (Edna), Lindsay Duncan (Claire), 
 Glenn Close (Agnes), John Lithgow (Tobias),   Bob Balaban (Harry). Photography by Brigitte Lacombe

Reviewed by James Karas

A Delicate Balance opens with the question of sanity. Agnes (Glenn Close), a woman in her 50’s, in a sort of reverie expresses her belief that she might lose her mind one day.  She is talking with her husband Tobias (John Lithgow) and the dialogue continues in that vein until they are interrupted by Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire (Lindsay Duncan).  

A Delicate Balance is now playing on Broadway at the Golden Theatre in a deftly directed production by Pam McKinnon.

The play occupies an opaque space; a world where everything seems and should be normal but nothing is. The world of the play remains opaque manoeuvring between the incomprehensible and the mundane, striking a delicate balance between reality and unreality.

Agnes and Tobias are very well off and live in a beautiful suburban house. (Santo Loquasto’s set is gorgeous). They are a solid couple enjoying the fruits of success from the house to the well-stocked bar to the country club. Claire is a devout drinker who denies that she is an alcoholic and provides acerbic comments and considerable humour to the play. The two sisters hate each other.

Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Deirdre Madigan) arrive unexpectedly and move in with Tobias and Agnes. We are repeatedly told that they are best friends and both couples accept that but what are the visitors doing in Tobias’s house and why are they there in the first place? Are they terrified of something or are they terror itself? Are they plagued by something or are they the plague itself?

This is the central question of the play. The two couples are best friends and Tobias and Agnes accept the fact that they must stand by their friends. Nerves get frayed, unpleasantness emerges but the core relationship and the obligation to help is never really questioned. But the central question is never answered. Are we still in the opaque world between soundness of mind and losing one’s moorings? Are we in that opaque world and holding onto a delicate balance?

We are treated to some superb performances by the cast of six actors. Lithgow gives a nuanced performance as the decent man caught in an impossible situation. He has to put up with Agnes who is getting frustrated, his sister-in-law who is crazy and his daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton) who comes home after breaking up with her fourth husband. The interplay between Claire and Julia and Claire and Agnes results in some wonderful humour. There is laughter even in an incomprehensible world. Julia provides some of the tension as well and eventually brings things to a head by going berserk.

Balaban and Madigan give solid performances as the lost couple. A special tribute is due to Madigan who took over for Clare Higgins and gave a splendid performance as Edna.

The play ends where it began with Agnes musing on the fact that one day she will lose her mind. She will not know if it happens and maybe it has already happened. She invokes light and the sun and it reminded me of Osvald’s last words in Ibsen’s Ghosts as he slips into syphilitic madness: “The sun-the sun.” 
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A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee continues until February 22, 2015 at the John Golden Theatre 252 West 45th St. New York, NY. http://www.adelicatebalancebroadway.com/

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU – REVIEW OF ROUNDABOUT THEATRE PRODUCTION

You Can't Take It With You show photos by Joan Marcus. Photographer: © Broadway.com


The current revival of You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway promised to be an outstanding production of a classic American comedy. Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 play is a marvelous escapist piece set in the days of the ugly depression.

The Roundabout Theatre Company production has an all-star cast directed by the highly experienced Scott Ellis. He tries too hard to get cheap laughs where Kaufman and Hart provided funny lines or situations and he tries to turn a fine comedy into a farce. The good news is that the production works despite his uncalled for directorial sallies.

You Can’t Take It With You is about a highly eccentric and lovable family that lives in a large house around the corner from Columbia University. Mrs. Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen) writes plays because some years ago someone delivered a typewriter by mistake. Her husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker) and his friend Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr) make firecrackers in the basement. Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) takes ballet lessons from Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), an outrageous Russian. She has been doing it for eight years and stinks, according to her teacher.

We have a drunken actress (Julie Halston), a Russian Duchess (Elizabeth Ashley) and an assortment of other characters.

The pillar of the family is Grandpa, (played by the inimitable James Earl Jones), a man who stopped working 35 years ago and is just enjoying life.

His granddaughter Alice (Rose Byrne) works on Wall Street and has fallen in love with Tony (Fran Kranz), the boss’s son. His uppity parents played by Byron Jennings and Johanna Day visit the Sycamores on the wrong night and all comic hell breaks loose.

You can have the audience laugh just about every minute without resorting to overacting or farcical inanities. When the snobbish Kirbys arrive on the wrong night for dinner, the shocked Alice falls on her knees before Mrs. Kirby in a move that is exaggerated, uncalled for and unfunny. Alice has some class and Tony did not fall for some hick from Kansas. And this is a fine comedy, not a farce.

Kranz as her lover Tony has the bad habit in the early part of the play of turning his head towards the audience instead of talking to Alice.

Will Brill as Ed constantly and needlessly overacts to no good effect. James Earl Jones as Grandpa smiles a bit too much, even when he is praying. He can handle the role of Grandpa with his eyes closed, as they say, and I have no idea why Ellis has him smile so much of the time.

Reg Rogers as Kolnkhov should affect some kind of Russian accent but he seems unable to do much of anything. No one expects any verisimilitude but a strong accent with a Russian flavour would have been nice.

Halston as the drunken actress crawls up the stairs reciting a limerick. She brings the house down.

Elizabeth Ashley has the minor role of a Russian duchess who has fallen on bad times. She is a waitress in a restaurant in Times Square. Has the same fate befallen Ms Ashley - to play an almost walk-on role in a terrible accent and be almost a caricature of herself?

The revolving set by David Rockwell lets us see the outside of the Sycamore house as well as well as the interior where most of the action takes place. The interior is marvelously busy. The fireworks are quite spectacular.

The laughs were there but the play was simply downgraded several notches from the hilarious and witty comedy that it is.
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You Can’t Take It With You  by George Kaufman and Moss Hart continues until February 22, 2015 at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY.  http://youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com/

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG - REVIEW OF LIVE IN HD FROM MET PRODUCTION

A scene from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has a number of unique features: it is Richard Wagner’s only comic opera; it holds the Guinness World record as the longest opera; it is an opera that manages to be of epic proportions and comic at the same time.

The Metropolitan Opera has revived Otto Schenk’s 1993 production for the last time and sent it around the world in HD. Not everyone in the theatre had the stamina to stay for the full six hours but those who did were treated to a grand production, vocally, musically and theatrically.

German baritone Michael Volle dominated the performance in the role of Hans Sacks, the humane shoemaker and mastersinger in 16th century Nürnberg. Volle’s sonorous voice is perfect for evoking Sack’s humanity, humour and decency. He maintains his dignity and generosity including the self-awareness that he is too old for Eva, the heroine of the opera. A performance that is as attractive and enjoyable as the character that Volle is playing.

South African tenor Johan Botha plays Walther von Stolzing, the knight who comes to     Nürnberg and falls in love with Eva, the goldsmith’s daughter. Knights used to get the girl by defeating the competition in battle; in Nürnberg he has to best everyone in singing. If he does, he will marry Eva. Our knight has the voice but not the knowledge and he has a few hours to master rules and compose a Prize Song. Botha has a marvelous voice displaying both romantic fervour and power. But there is a problem that may be made worse by the close-ups of watching the opera in the movie theatre.

Stolzing is the dashing knight that Eva falls in love with at first sight. We are quite used to singers who are a poor match for the way we imagine a character and critics should avoid commenting on a singer’s appearance. But in the case of Botha suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. He is a big man, who moves awkwardly and the idea of him as a figure of romance is hard to fathom.

German soprano Annette Dasch made a wholesome and pretty Eva with a sweet voice and even sweeter manner. The daughter of the wealthy goldsmith Pogner (done well by Hans-Peter König), she is a worthy objective for a knight or any man. Dasch knows when to look alluring and sing beautifully to give us an exemplary Eva.

Tenor Paul Appleby comes in for special praise. He is a young artist who performed the role of the apprentice David with delightful verve, energy, agility and just plain joy.  His supple voice stood him in good stead for a very good performance.

German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle got the juicy role of the foolish and nasty Beckmesser. He wants to beat all the mastersingers and get Eva but he makes a laughingstock of himself, gets his comeuppance and does not get the girl. Kränzle gives a superb performance.

Otto Schenk’s production can be classified as traditional with the additional phrase of “they don’t make them like they used to” attached to it. The production will be retired at the end of the year and we will have to wait for the next view of the opera.

Schenk is Franco Zeffirelli with restraint and common sense. The set is by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The opening scene in the nave of the church is grand without being ostentatious. The street scene and the interior of Sacks’s workshop are realistic and attractive, displaying a well-ordered and well-off city. The final scene is supposed to be in a meadow on the banks of a river but looks more like a wide street with rising steps.

Die Meistersinger has a demanding score and surely few conductors and orchestras can equal James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in performing it. The length of the opera is bound to get to you – concentrate on the orchestra when it does!

The Live in HD Director was Matthew Diamond who decided on exactly what we would see on the screen with sense, intelligence and taste. That is no small achievement when he is compared to some of his colleagues who think opera on the screen is a video game
  ____


Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on December 13, 2014 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 7 and 23, 2015. For more information call (416)-752-4494 or visit www.cineplex.com/events.