Friday, January 20, 2017

NO MAN’S LAND – REVIEW OF BROADCAST OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is an intricate and intriguing play that has all the hallmarks of its creator’s work. There is the undercurrent of violence, the uncertainty about truth and fantasy, the pauses, the shifting quicksand where ambiguity is certainty.

We find two men in a large room that looks rather forbidding and has only two chairs and a well-stocked bar. They just met in a pub in Hampstead and the house belongs to Hirst (Patrick Stewart). He is smartly dressed and appears to be a man of means.

The guest Spooner (Ian McKellen) is an elderly man dressed in a frayed and cheap suit wearing an ill-becoming corduroy hat. The two men proceed to drink large quantities of scotch as we listen to them and try get to know them as much or as little as possible because we can never be sure of the veracity of what they are saying.


Damien Molony, Owen Teale, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen
Spooner is a garrulous, erudite and literate poet who collects the beer mugs from the table in a local pub. He is also obsequious towards Hirst, nervous and…well, he has a problem or many problems but we are not sure what they are. He keeps his coat on his arm and talks about leaving but never does.

Hirst is laconic, aristocratic and tolerant of Spooner. But he reacts violently at the mention of his wife and tosses a glass at Spooner. He then falls down on all fours and crawls out of the room.

We then meet Briggs (Owen Teale) and Foster (Damien Molony) a couple of thugs who refer to Hirst as their host and are not friendly towards Spooner. At one time Briggs produces a rope and appears ready to strangle Spooner.         

We pause at the end of the first act. We are watching masterful performances by outstanding actors. Stewart and McKellen can read the menu of a fast-food restaurant and arrest our attention with their resonant voices, their mellifluous intonation and their sheer handling of language.

Pinter’s poetic language and many of the flourishes that he gives the actors come out clearly, meticulously and captivatingly. 

By the end of the first act power seems to have shifted to the two servants, the thugs. When the lights go on for the second act, Spooner is alone and finds the door locked. He muses that he has known this before in a house of silence and strangers.

Now Spooner and Hirst seem to have known each other from their days at Oxford and they begin reminiscing about the good old days, about conquests and adulteries that may have happened or are total fantasies. They speak of dreams, of poetry (they are both poets), of successes.

No Man’s Land was first produced in 1975 with John Gielgud as Spooner and Ralph Richardson as Hirst, directed by Peter Hall. The current production, directed by Sean Mathias, showcases four superb actors, but especially Stewart and McKellen reading each other’s thoughts in unforgettable performances.

Seeing the play on the large screen with close-ups of the actors’ faces one can follow every eye and eyebrow movement and get a much better view of their reactions.

This is theatre at its best.
_______


No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
will be shown again at various Cineplex Cinemas on January 21, 2017. For more information visit http://www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

SEQUENCE – REVIEW OF LAKRA’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

James Karas

Sequence by Arun Lakra is a fascinating play that provides mental gymnastics, asks some head-scratching questions and has an interesting structure. You will be intrigued, entertained and made to think but you will not be moved very much.

We first meet Theo (Kevin Bundy) a lanky, self-assured man who considers himself the luckiest person in the world. He is extremely wealthy because he is lucky. He has even written a book about how to improve your luck. How lucky is he? Well, he has guessed the coin toss at Super Bowl games correctly some twenty times and made a tidy sum by betting on it. Most rational people would argue that you can guess a coin toss correctly about fifty per cent of the time. Well, Theo gets it right all the time. He is so lucky, he puts a gun to his head, Russian roulette style, and pulls the trigger. His luck holds. How is that possible?
 Nancy Palk, Ava Jane Markus, Kevin Bundy, Jesse LaVercombe in Sequence (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Mr. Adamson (Jesse LaVercombe) writes a multiple choice test administered by Dr. Guzman (Nancy Palk), a professor and stem cell researcher, and gets all 150 questions wrong. The chances of that happening are so remote as to be beyond rational explanation. Adamson is the antithesis of Theo – he has all the bad luck in the universe. What is the explanation?

Lakra is an ophthalmologist with literary talent. He wrote Sequence in 2013 and the play has been making the rounds since.

There are two plot strands that are developed sequentially on a single set. Theo is approached by Cynthia (Ava Jane Markus), a pregnant woman who has a serious hereditary illness and is afraid that her unborn child might inherit it. She tries to figure out if there is an explanation for Theo’s luck and his reckless conduct.
 Kevin Bundy, Ava Jane Markus in Sequence (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Dr. Guzman wonders if luck is part of our DNA makeup and wants to examine Adamson with a view to discovering the gene that can cause good or bad luck. Adamson prefers religion to scientific research. He believes that everything is God’s work and even if we do not understand why things happen, we must believe that God has his reasons for whatever He does.  

The two plot strands stop and go usually at critical junctures. Theo and Cynthia freeze and Dr. Guzman and Adamson take over and so on. This is interesting but it is also annoying when that plotline is suddenly stopped and we have to go back to the other storyline.

Lakra tries to inject emotion and humanity into the arguments. Cynthia has legitimate concerns and fears about the fate of her child. Dr. Guzman is going slowly blind and needs to find the gene that will stop the disease. Adamson believes in God and is reluctant to provide a blood sample for her research. Unfortunately, none of the four characters become fully sounded human beings. We enjoy the numerous examples of improbable and inexplicable occurrences. There is humour and drama in the play but most of the action is cerebral.

Director Andrea Donaldson keeps a very brisk pace and has the cast that can perform at such velocity. Bundy’s Theo is arrogant, self-possessed and brags about being the luckiest man in the world. Markus’s Cynthia is aggressive, self-assured and at the same time vulnerable. The same can be said of Palk’s and LaVercombe’s characters. 

The set by Jason Hand is a brightly lit room that looks like a pristine lab with an upright ladder to the side. You will also see an open umbrella indoors, hear of Macbeth and of the ancient Greek knucklebones known astragaloi. Good luck to you.

The two-story plotlines meet near the end of the play in an intriguing way and they underscore the arguments made throughout.

Fascinating.
                                        ______


Sequence by Arun Lakra opened on January 11, 2017 and will play until February 12, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Sunday, January 15, 2017

INFINITY – REVIEW OF HANNA MOSCOVITCH’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

A young scientist meets a young woman at a party. She is in the kitchen crying and they strike up a conversation. She is distraught because she broke up with her fiancé two days ago. In one of the fastest hops into bed, she promises him 15 minutes of sex and 45 minutes of crying and they go for it.

In Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre, there is a lot more than merely man-meets woman because the two people have concerns about time that go far beyond the chronological parameters of coitus and bawling.
 Amy Rutherford and Paul Braunstein. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Elliot (Paul Braunstein) is a theoretical physicist working on his doctorate on the question of time. Carmen (Amy Rutherford) is a composer/violinist and time plays a crucial role in her profession. The two marry and have a daughter, Sarah Jean (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) who is a brilliant mathematician but leads an emotionally troubled life.

The play has a fourth character, a violinist (Andrea Tyniec) who appears a number times on stage or behind a translucent  backdrop and plays music by Njo Kong Kie.    

Part of the play is a domestic drama. Carmen becomes pregnant, the couple argue, fight and separate. Sarah Jean in a series of monologues tells some funny and harrowing stories in very salty language about affairs with professors and other men. We see her as an eight-year old throwing a temper tantrum and arguing vociferously. Endicott-Douglas gives a superb performance in this fine role.

Elliot is consumed by his work and his theories about time and he neglects his wife. There are the inevitable arguments and separation. 


Andrea Tyniec. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 
That is only a part of the story. Moskovitch wants to examine a loftier theme and the question of time. Is time just an illusion? Does it exist at all? Is it something like a story from the Bible that we were taught and simply believe in it? Mr. Einstein?

Moscovitch does not take the issue lightly. She retained Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist (Yale, Penn State, Princeton and now The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterloo) as a consultant so we can be sure that what is said about time is mind-blowing if not entirely comprehensible to mere mortals.

Braunstein gives a nuanced performance as the brilliant scientist who is also very much human. Rutherford’s Carmen is more a dissatisfied wife than a brilliant musician. Is the violinist her alter ego on stage? The music no doubt keeps emphasizing the theme of time and structurally takes the play well beyond any idea that it is a domestic drama but I am not sure about its relationship to Carmen.


Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann 
The set by Teresa Przybylski consists of a white background with horizontal lines that covers the entire stage. Aside from that only a chair and a table are needed. It is very effective.

Ross Manson does a splendid job of directing this co-production of Volcano and Tarragon Theatre of a play that is both complex and approachable.

In the end we don’t learn if time is real or illusory. We are told the fine distinction between the scientific idea of infinity and the religious notion of the same that sees it as eternity. What catches up with Elliot is mortality and if some of us want to consider it illusory or real we can enjoy the real illusion that we have a choice between infinity and eternity.       
                                            ______

Infinity by Hannah Moscovitch continues until January 29, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

WESTERN, a play with music – REVIEW OF NEXT STAGE THEATRE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Theatre Festival presents plays that are innovative, push the boundaries of conventional drama and often are works in progress.

WESTERN, a play with music by Matthew Gorman (text) and Gordon Bolan (music) may have a portion of all those characteristics and faces all the pitfalls of such an  endeavor.

Jocelyn Adema on fiddle and Gordon Bolan on guitars and banjo play a number of songs from “Amazing Grace” to “Someday I will see you in heaven” and provide instrumental accompaniment to some of the action and some sound effects. That is the “with music” part of the title and it does provide a “Western” feel even if the play is set in that milieu only tangentially.


The cast of Western, a play with music.
The play is presented by four actors, two men (Sam Kalileh and Brendan Murray) and two women (Mairi Babb and Caroline Toal). The music, some of the accents, the sheriff with the Stetson and the set suggest that it is set in the West but as far as I could tell it was set in a fantasy world.

The plot and the dialogue are opaque and frequently confusing. There is a murder and a search. There is the story about the rabbit and the search for the murderer but all plot turns are uninteresting or completely forgettable. The fantasy world of the West that Gorman wants to create and portray simply does not come off.

The four characters involved seem to have names according to the programme, but I do not recall hearing them called by their name during the performance. That may be a sign of how much difficulty I had focusing on the action. According to the actors’ biographies part of the programme, Mairi Babb is “Nance”, Sam Kalileh is “Reach,” Brendan Murray is “Dirt” and Caroline Toal is “Jenet.” No doubt the names give clues to the characters but I missed them as I must have missed their names. The cast list in the programme does not indicate what parts the actors play which is annoying.    

WESTERN may well be a play in gestation. Gorman and Bolan no doubt have a vision of the world they want to create in their play and the dramatic effect of their creation. They need to do it more clearly and evocatively so that they share their vision with us.
    _____

 WESTERN, a play with music by Matthew Gorman (text) and Gordon Bolan (music), directed by Geoffrey Pounsett will run until January 15, 2017 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.fringetoronto.com/

Saturday, December 31, 2016

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE – REVIEW OF TORONTO OPERETTA THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre ends the old year and brings in 2017 with a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, The Pirates of Penzance. TOT, it bears repeating, works under severe limitations in terms of budget and space but it makes up for that in enthusiasm and simple staying power. This Pirates has energy and fun despite some uneven performances.

Operetta is to opera what farce is to serious drama – silly plot but thoroughly enjoyable. But never underestimate the brilliance of Gilbert’s lyrics or Sullivan’s music. Their work is in a class of its own. 
                                    
Vania Chan as Mabel and Colin Ainsworth as Frederic. Photo: Emily Ding
The pirates of the title operate from the coast of Cornwall and they are so soft-hearted that will never molest an orphan. And wouldn’t you know it, the entire British merchant navy is recruited from orphanages.

Among these tough pirates we have our hero Frederic, a Pirate Apprentice and, as the subtitle of the work tells us, The Slave of Duty. Tenor Colin Ainsworth has the looks, voice and innocent mien to satisfy the bill. He has seen only one woman so far but he cannot be discharged from his indenture to the pirates until his 21st birthday. But he was born on February 29 and his release will be decidedly delayed. Ainsworth does a fine job in the role but please tie his hair in a ponytail and get rid of the ridiculous pink headband.

Frederic falls in love with Mabel, (soprano Vania Lizbeth Chan), the daughter of Major-General Stanley. The sweetly-voiced Chan was energetic, coquettish, lovable and just delightful. Hers was one of the best performances of the night.

Baritone Janaka Welihinda attacked the role of the Pirate King with considerable panache. He is a young singer but he has the comic verve and vocal equipment to be around for some time to come. Elizabeth Beeler as Ruth, the Pirate Maid-of-all work, is a veteran performer who tells Frederic that she is fair as gold even if time has lined her face and grayed her hair. A real trooper.

The pirates meet Major-General Stanley (baritone Curtis Sullivan) with his daughters and wards and not surprisingly he turns out to be an orphan too. Sullivan gets the most memorable patter song of the operetta, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” It is a tough piece to do because it requires a good voice and a highly disciplined tongue. Sullivan was clearly not at his best during the performance that I saw and may well improve.
Some singers sang as if they were marking and you wanted to reach over and turn up their volume Notable in this respect was Adam Norrad as Samuel, Lieutenant to the Pirate King. He stood out because he was the first one we heard. Antony Rodrigues as the Sergeant of Police displayed the same tendency. Turn up the volume.

Conductor Derek Bate and the “orchestra” are squeezed between the stage and the front row, occupying a kind of no man’s land. Squeezed as they are, they manage to produce fine music under less than ideal conditions.

The reason we have operetta productions in Toronto is Guillermo Silva-Marin. He is the General Director of TOT and the stage director, lighting designer and set designer of this production. He adds some humour with references to CSIS and Trump but he is relatively restrained. The directing is vigorous. The set is minimalist with a few props and silhouettes of ship’s ropes, branches and leaves and the sea as required. He and TOT deserve more funding, a better theatre and more productions. Kudos to him for what he is doing.   

Despite some uneven patches, this is an overall fine and fun production well worth seeing.
____


The Pirates of Penzance by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan opened on December 27 and will be performed six times until January 8, 2017 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912. www.torontooperetta.com

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

RUN FOR YOUR WIFE – REVIEW OF HERONGATE BARN THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Dinner theaters attract relatively little media attention and it may well be the secret of their success. The Herongate Barn Theatre has been staging plays and offering dinner since 1975 and it has not lost its original shape – yes, it was a barn and still looks like a barn.

Its final production for 2016 is Ray Cooney’s classic farce Run For Your Wife. As with most good farces, even if you have not seen an actual performance you feel that you know the plot. In this case a London taxi driver has two wives and he operates with chronological and emotional precision (we assume) until the curtain rises. Then he is involved in a minor motor vehicle accident and his schedule goes haywire.
 Paul Francies, Grant Evans, Don Green, Lisha Van Nieuwenhove and Chris Cole
 The production of a farce places enormous demands on any theatrical company that dares to produce one. A number of doors have to be opened and shut with almost surgical precision; entrances and exits must be timed exactly, pratfalls must have accurate landings and most importantly the action must move at increasing speed and craziness so that by the end the audience is in stitches.

That is a tall order and if director Anne E. Ward does not fully succeed in the task she has nothing to apologize for in the circumstances. If she is not successful in the ultimate production of a farce, she has at least a good sitcom in her hands that kept the laughs coming and left a largely appreciative audience.

The main vehicle for carrying the comedy forward is Chris Cole as Stanley Gardener. He is a friend and neighbour of the bigamist John Smith and he receives and deflects all the issues created by the situation. Cole reacts, overreacts, overacts and is able to generate laughter at every turn of the incredible plot.

John Smith (played by Paul Francies) is the harried taxi driver who got a bump on the head in the collision and must run from one wife to the next, lie to the police and have to deal with a randy wife in the bedroom while the other one arrives in the same apartment. You get the picture. Francies’ John Smith came out as more pathetic than comic at times. I think he should have been a livelier and more convincing character who was able to persuade two women to marry him and has been able to keep them until the unforeseen accident that caused the play. In this production he could not convince us that he could get a date.

Marion Reid Clarke as Mary Smith and Rose Green as Barbara Smith do a fine job of dealing with the confusion and ensuing mayhem, Lisha Van Nieuwenhove as Sergeant Troughton and Don Green as Detective Sergeant Porterhouse played the two stock characters with ease and got the requisite laughs.

Grant Evans plays the gay neighbour Bobby Franklin with vigour and he provides the double entendre about sexual inclinations and confusion among the characters with fine effect.

For a very reasonable price, Herongate Barn Theatre provides a fine buffet dinner in a very congenial atmosphere. It does seem to be located in the boonies but that impression may have been formed by going there on one of the shortest days of the year with less than perfect visibility and there being nothing around to see.

Their next production is Sylvia by A. R. Gurney which will run from February 3 to March 18, 2017.
___


Run For Your Wife by Ray Cooney runs until December 31, 2016 at the Herongate Barn Theatre, 2885 Altona Rd. Locust Hill, Ontario, L0H 1J0 www.herorngate.com Tel: 905 472-3085 or 1-866 902-9884 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

WHO KILLED SPALDING GRAY? – REVIEW OF DANIEL MACIVOR PLAY AT BERKELEY STREET THEATRE

By James Karas

Who killed Spalding Gray?

Well, Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island Ferry in the East River and drowned on January 10, 2004. He had health problems including depression but as with any suicide it is not easy to explain why someone would take his life. Who Killed Spalding Gray may be considered a tribute to Gray or a search for an explanation or a portrait of the monologist and writer but it is a bad sign if you cannot tell what a play is about.
 
Daniel MacIvor . Photo: Guntar Kravis
Daniel MacIvor has written and performs in this 80-minute play and asks the question of the title, I guess, among other things. The set consists of a simple wooden table and chair, a microphone and a glass of water. This is very much what Gray used for some of his own monologues and the play intentionally resembles one of his performances.

When the lights go on, MacIvor invites a member of the audience on the stage and asks him “Who are you?’ the man introduces himself and turns out to be personable and humorous. He is asked “Who am I” and “Who was Spalding Gray.” In front of an appreciative audience, the opening scene goes well and so far so good.

The rest of the play is a disappointment. MacIvor weaves a number of stories in his narrative about himself, people called Howard, Don and Paul and of course Gray. Some may be true, some may be fictional and one is never sure.

MacIvor visits a “psychic surgeon” who can presumably remove an “intuitive” – a spirit or something that invades a person’s being. It takes several sessions to remove the intuitive and since I don’t understand anything about intuitive or psychic surgery, the story left me cold.

Howard considers a number of methods of committing suicide and of course there is none that is completely satisfactory. Jumping off the Staten Island Ferry into the cold waters of the East River can hardly be considered a wise choice but let’s just say that Howard is one of the recurring stories in the play that I could not quite get under my belt.

McIvor is a natural story teller and he speaks in his own voice and in the voice of Gray. He involves the audience at times and recalls the man that he interviewed at the beginning back and they even do a few dance steps.

The stories he tells unfortunately left me cold and his narrative ability and the directing of Daniel Brooks did nothing to raise the production above a mediocre night at the theatre.
    _____


Who Killed Spalding Gray by Daniel MacIvor played at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com