Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A PLACE CALLED HOME - REVIEW OF MARIA DOUZA’S FILM

Ilias Logothetis and Mirto Alikaki

By James Karas 

Near the end of Maria Douza’s first feature film A Place Called Home, Kyriakos walks up the stairs of his mansion for the last time. When he reaches the top we see a dimly visible poster of Constantine Cavafy, the quintessential poet of the Greek diaspora and the writer of Ithaca, the archetypal poem of the return of the native.

Douza’s marvelous film is very much about the uprooted Greek who finds himself in a foreign land, be it willingly or forcefully, and seeks his Ithaca.

Kyriakos (played superbly by Ilias Logothetis) owns a mansion and has been the mayor of his city for some twenty years. As a child he ended up in Serbia at the end of the Greek Civil War and spent his formative years there until he was repatriated in 1963.  

His daughter Eleni (Mirto Alikaki) studied in England and when the film begins she is appointed professor of cardiology at a university in London. Her elderly father asks her to go and see him and she arrives just before Easter with her young daughter Anna. Significantly, she has married an English banker who has been sent to Shanghai by his employer, a failed bank.

Eleni finds a Serbian woman named Nina (Mirjiana Karanovic) living in Kyriakos’s house and taking care of him. Nina’s sad eyes and expressive face encapsulate the fate of millions of people who were displaced by the political convulsions of the twentieth century. There is a moving story about Nina and her daughter and a satisfying conclusion. I am deliberately not giving many details about the plot. Douza has written a fine story that keeps our attention to the very end and I do not want to spoil it for people who have not seen the movie. 

The main plotline concerns Eleni. She has returned to her roots but she no longer belongs there. Her return becomes a journey to the past: her memory of her mother, her relations with her father, her association with her friend Markos (Nikos Orfanos) and all the spirits that she left behind when she went abroad.

The Greek title of the film is The Tree and the Swing, an apt image of the roots that bind us to the homeland and pleasant childhood memories of swinging on the swing that is tied to the tree. Not all the memories are pleasant and the tree will be felled by a chain saw, the swing will fall to the ground, the ties bind some people to Ithaca will be torn. As you will recall, Cavafy warned us that Ithaca may have nothing more to give us.   
  

Alikaki gives a splendid performance as the woman torn between obligations to husband, daughter, career, father and homeland. She returns to Greece with mixed emotions and matters become dramatically worse as she discovers what happened in the past and what her father wants her to do now.
Kyriakos is a successful politician at the end of his career. He wants to leave a legacy to his community and through him we get a glance at Greek politics. Logothetis broodingly characterizes him as patriarchal, somewhat domineering but in the end as a man who lived through Greece’s worst period and has retained his decency and even his patriotism.

Most of the film is shot in the rather dark interior of Kyriakos’s mansion but there are some marvelous exterior scenes by the sea. Douza dwells lovingly on the faces of her characters and lets their expressions tell their story. The mansion is a dwelling and a symbol but we never get a sustained view of the exterior of the house. I wish Douza had given us a more compelling image of the house the way she did of the faces of the characters.

A Place Called Home is a poignant, rather dour film that is meticulously plotted and judiciously directed. One of the last tableaux, carefully chosen no doubt, is of an Easter dinner, with all the symbols of reconciliation, redemption and resurrection. But Douza does not stoop to a soppy conclusion. Eleni does not stay in Ithaca; the Greek of the diaspora remains far away from the tree and the swing because they are no longer there. Unlike Kyriakos’s, Eleni’s journey has just begun and she will perhaps drop anchor in her homeland again when she is old, full of experiences and much wiser.
___


A Place Called Home was shown at the 10th European Union Film Festival held in Toronto between November 15 and 30, 2014.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

CINDERELLA: THE GAGS TO RICHES FAMILY MUSICAL: REVIEW OF ROSS PETTY RIOTOUS SHOW

Danielle Wade and Jeff Lillico. Photo Racheal McCaig Photography 

Reviewed by James Karas

Ross Petty’s Cinderella: The Gags to Riches Family Musical is a riot. It will play at the Elgin Theatre until January 4, 2015 and provides a theatrical experience where stage and audience are charged with energy and joy. It is something that performers dream of creating and audiences dream of seeing.

Petty’s forte is fracturing fairy tales, as he puts it, and this Cinderella is no different. Our heroine runs an organic vegetable booth at a Farmers Market in Toronto and she is just two weeks short of the age of majority. In those two weeks her evil stepmother wants to take way her business and turn it into a store selling Hypno Chips containing benzene!

Cinderella wants to participate in a reality show on CBC called EligiBall and meet Max Charming but her stepmother aptly named Revolta Bulldoza does all she can to prevent it. Her nasty Hypno Chips are effective but not as effective as the magic wand of Plumbum, the Fairy Godmother.

That is a bare outline of the fracturing of the fairy tale and Cinderella does go to a ball in a real horse-drawn carriage, meets Max, the evil stepsisters are put in their place, chips are vilified, healthy food is glorified and no doubt we all live happily ever after.

The fun is in between and the most important part of the glorious entertainment is the rambunctious audience, in this case made up of a lot of youngsters ranging from a few months to teens. When Ross Petty appears as Bulldoza, he goads the audience and the young people screech with laughter and express their disapproval with enthusiastic boos. These are no ordinary boos but heartfelt expressions of moral outrage that is simply hilarious. When the wholesome and pretty Cinderella (played beautifully by Danielle Wade) appears there is nothing but love emanating from the auditorium.

That is not all. When they sing on stage, the young sing along. I was accompanied by a bright-eyed and energetic six-year old who knew all the lyrics and expressed her approval and condemnation with the promptness and zeal of a most discerning and sensitive adult.

Cleopatra Williams,  Bryn McAuley and Ross Petty. Photo Racheal McCaig Photography 

There are contemporary references that most youngsters could not relate to. They did not concern them. Olivia Chow, Hazel McCallion, the Fords. Kathleen Wynne, John Tory and a host of others made their way into the show.        

Petty dominates the show with non-stop comic business and singing. The humour goes from high to low and the audience just loves to “hate” his Revolta Bulldoza.

Dan Chameroy is riotous as the Fairy Godmother falling down the stairs, bumping into things and having a magic wand that is out of juice. Jeff Lillico is a wholesome Max Charming, a pop star who wants to be loved for himself.

Petty has found a nifty if not terribly original way of financing the show – advertising. There are several commercials incorporated in the show that advertise the sponsors in the context of the fairy tale. The Toronto Star, CIBC, Hilton Hotel, PC Mobile are interspersed using characters from the show with humour and minimal interference.

The whole enterprise from gags , to dancing, to pratfalls, (not to mention horses on stage) is expertly directed by Tracey Flye.

I make no secret of the fact that I enjoyed the show immensely. On the stage, there is a riotous musical with great humour, marvelous dancing, kaleidoscopally colourful sets and sheer joy in telling a morality tale. In the audience, there was infectious enthusiasm, fists thrown up in the air in disproval and shrieks of appreciation. It was a symbiosis that may be taken as both a fine definition of theatre and a night at the theatre.         
 ________

CINDERELLA, The Gags to Riches Family Musical opened on November 27 and will play until January 4, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.rosspetty.com

Friday, November 28, 2014

OF MICE AND MEN – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION IN NEW YORK

James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lennie
Reviewed by James Karas

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, is a story about loneliness, abiding hope, enduring aspiration for security and above all friendship. The story of the friendship between the quick-witted George and the simpleton Lennie has a mythical quality to it that reaches back to Damon and Pythias, and Achilles and Patroclus. 
   
The defining words on friendship for the modern world perhaps belong to E. M. Forster: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Steinbeck’s dramatization of his book received an outstanding production from England’s National Theatre and a performance at New York’s Longacre Theatre was broadcast in movie theatres.

George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) are itinerant ranch workers in depression-era California. George is intelligent and a friend of the simple-minded Lennie. They are very different people but are joined in their dream for a piece of property where they can live off the fat of the land, as they say.

In the movie theatre, one has the advantage of looking into George’s intelligent, sharp eyes and tough demeanor. As for Lennie, his eyes express his simplicity, kindness and love of soft things. We also see his roughness as he pats mice and puppies to death. Eventually he will panic and break Curley’s Wife’s neck. Leighton Meester is excellent as the flirty, fragile, dreamy and lonely woman who wants to escape from the ranch.

The production’s success is based on the outstanding interplay between George and Lennie.  Lennie annoys and exasperates George but makes him laugh too. George knows that Lennie cannot survive without him but he dreams along with him of a better life.

There is only praise for the motley workers at the ranch.  Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones) is immensely moving as the black outcast who is left with nothing but still harbours a dream.

Leighton Meester is excellent as the flirty, fragile, dreamy and lonely wife of Curley. She is a pathetic woman who wants to escape.

Jim Norton is superb as the pathetic Candy. Old and crippled, he has a blind and stinking dog as his companion which is eventually killed. He too wants to join George and Lennie in their quest for a piece of land.

Anna D. Shapiro directs a masterly production from the happy daydreams of the opening act to the final tragedy. The close-ups in the movie theatre are a great advantage but there are drawbacks. The puppy that Lennie squeezes to death is obviously a puppet. In the theatre, we would not be able to notice it. But the details of the facial expressions, the dazed, dreamy look in Lennie’s eyes; the meanness in Curley’s look; the facial expressions in Curley’s Wife’s face are all extraordinary bonuses in an extraordinary production.

I have one compliant. In the final dramatic scene, when George is describing their dreamy future and asks Lennie to “see” their piece of land in front of him, he (George) steps back but stands on Lennie’s side. The scene would be more effective if he stood behind Lennie. I felt as if Lenie could see what George was about to do to him in his peripheral vision.

George and Lennie may well have been betrayed by their country and George may have betrayed his country’s  justice system but in the end he acted like a true friend.
________

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck was shown on November 24, 2014 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

NSFW - REVIEW OF KIRKWOOD’S PLAY AT THEATRE CENTRE


Patrick Galligan, Ian D. Clark & Jessica Greenberg
Reviewed by James Karas

NSFW is a fast-paced satire by Lucy Kirkwood that is receiving its Canadian premiere at The Theatre Centre. It takes on several issues and the result is a entertaining and intriguing night at the theatre. The acronym stands for Not Safe for Work which is internet lingo for what to avoid watching during office hours and that is:  soft porn.

Aidan (Patrick Galligan) is the ruthless editor of a trashy magazine called Doghouse. He bullies his staff into going to the Arctic or writing sleazy articles about themselves and acts like an arrogant jerk. The cover of the latest issue has the photograph of a topless girl which was submitted by one of the magazine’s readers. Unfortunately the girl is only 14 and Sam (Aaron Stern), an editorial assistant, obtained her consent by fraud.

All hell breaks loose when the girl’s father, Mr. Bradshaw (Ian D. Clark), arrives threatening to ruin the magazine and the editor.

Aidan has two other employees, a straight-faced assistant, Charlotte (Jessica Greenberg) and a skittish writer named Rupert (James Graham). Most of the first half of the 90-minute play is taken up with the ferocious argument between Aidan and Mr. Bradshaw about the morality of publishing the photograph, the attempts to bribe the father and threats and counterthrusts between the two men.      

 James Graham, Susan Coyle & Aaron Stern

The second half of the play presents the obverse of the first. We are in the office of Electra, a trashy magazine for women run by Miranda (Susan Coyne). The magazine is ostensibly concerned with women’s beauty, perhaps perfection, however that may be achieved.  Sam lost his job at Doghouse many months ago and she is interviewing him for a job. She seems to be nuts if not a psychopath as she belittles, humiliates and plays games with the hapless Sam.

She has already hired and done the same thing to Rupert by having him try beauty enhancing products like Botox.

Galligan has to speak at breakneck speeds as he tries to put down Bradshaw. The argument teeter totters with Bradshaw and Aidan getting the upper hand in one turn and being bulldozed in the next. Galligan has the toughest role in the play. He has to go through a gamut of stages as he tries to crush Clark’s character who takes a high moral tone until he is reduced to bargaining about the size of the bribe. Very good work by the two actors.

Coyne establishes dominance over Stern’s Sam and has him wiggling like a small fish on a large hook. She is very good as the domineering, superficially classy, bitchy, funny and, as I said, perhaps psychotic editor. Stern is very credible as the squirming, unemployed wimp who tries to save some of his dignity until he is crushed.  

The play is set in England and it opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Canadian actors have a perennial problem in achieving an English accent and the problem persisted in this production. They all tried but the result was uneven.

Director Joel Greenberg wasted no time in setting a high-speed production in motion. The speed is modulated especially in the second act and we get the laughs, the satire, and the dark side of publishing. If watching certain sites on the internet during work is not safe, having a boss like Aidan or Miranda is nothing short of disastrous.

Go see the play.
___


NSFW (Not Safe for Work) by Lucy Kirkwood opened on November 7 and will play until November 30, 2014 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org Tel: 416 538-0988 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

SEXTET – REVIEW OF PANYCH PLAY AT TARRAGON

Jordan Pettle, Matthew Edison, Damien Atkins, Laura Condlin, Rebecca Northan, Bruce Dow. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas
  
Sextet is one of the wittiest plays that I have seen in a some time and that is not its greatest virtue. Morris Panych’s play that just premiered at the Tarragon Theatre is funny, highly intelligent, thoroughly entertaining and has the marvelous backdrop of music by Arnold Schoenberg and poetry by Richard Dehmel.

The title refers to a string sextet (four men, two women) stuck in a cheap motel in some small town while on a concert tour. The set consists of six identical beds under the sign MOTEL where the musicians are staying. They run form one room to another or jump from one bed to the next as we find out about their lives, loves, lusts and sexual predilections.

They are a colourful group. Otto (Jordan Pettle) is a test-tube baby (his mother was artificially inseminated), he is on love with Mavis (Rebecca Northan) who, he thinks, is pregnant by him.

Mavis is married to Gerard (Bruce Dow) who has low sperm count and cannot be the father of Mavis’s baby. Mavis cannot be pregnant by Otto because they had “missionary style” sex and she can only become pregnant if she squats during sex.

We have horny Sylvia (Laura Condlin), gay Harry (Damien Atkins), perhaps bisexual Dirk (Matthew Edison) and the interaction among the six, the sexual and musical jokes, witticisms and wide range of references come at breakneck speed and are simply delightful.

Panych, who also directs, has structured the play not only around quick dialogue but also around interchanges that begin with a character saying something in one room and someone else replying in another part of the stage/motel. It gives the play and the production great fluidity and keeps the audience’s attention riveted to the performance. It also resembles the performance by the sextet where one instrument picks up the melody followed the other players, individually, in different groups or all together.

We get some marvelous performances. Dow’s Gerard keeps reminding us that he is not wearing a dress as he grabs Harry’s behind. He is quite funny. Atkins is simply hilarious as the gay musician who insists this is his last tour. He is attracted to the macho Dirk who has his own problems. He can only masturbate with his feet above his head!

Condlin brings in a fine performance as the neurotic and permanently aroused Sylvia. Northan’s Mavis is more down to earth as she tries to get semen from someone so she can fool her husband into believing that he actually fathered her child.

The play has Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and German writer Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same title as its backdrop. Schoenberg was only 24 when he composed the sextet in a few weeks in 1899 when his love affair with his future wife Mathilde Zemlinsky was blossoming.

Parts of Dehmel’s poem echo in the play. In the poem two lovers meet in a cold grove on a moonlit night. She confesses to her lover that she is carrying another man’s child. He consoles her by saying that love will transfigure the strange man’s child and it will become theirs.

Love provides absolution of sins and transfiguration in Schoenberg’s sextet and Dehmel’s poem as well as in Panych’s play.

Kudos to Panych for writing and brilliant directing. The timing and delivery of the lines require precise timing and concise delivery to give the full extent of the hunour and the background of the play and high praise is due to the entire production.

An amazing night at the theatre.
                                           ______


Sextet  by Morris Panych opened on November 12 and will run until  December 14, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ARCADIA – REVIEW OF TOM STOPPARD’S PLAY AT ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE

Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom, Gray Powell as Hodge, Sanjay Talwar as Captain Brice, RN, Andrew Bunker as Ezra Chater and Kate Besworth as Thomasina. Photo by David Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas

Where can you get a clear explanation of carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem in two simple sentences? You are probably ignorant of one of those functions but you have already learned that carnal embrace consists of throwing your arms around a side of beef so that your education is proceeding apace.

You find all that out and more in the first minute or so of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. This is a revival of last year’s production at the Shaw Festival and continues to be a play and a production to be savored.

Stay focused on carnal embraces or sexual congresses, if you will, because it is an entertaining part of the play amid some abstruse scientific, philosophical, mathematical, botanical, cosmological and other discussions. Not to mention that by the tenth line of the play you encountered references to Julius Caesar and Genesis that you quite likely missed.

The point to be made is that Arcadia is a brilliant play that has a vast array of references, some esoteric, some familiar, all adding up to dazzling dialogue, laughter and mental gymnastics.

With one small change, the cast is the same as in the Shae Festival production of 2013 directed brilliantly by Eda Holmes.

Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an aristocratic mansion in England, in 1809-1812 and during the present (the play was first produced in 1993). In the 19th century, Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) is tutoring Thomasina (Kate Besworth), a 13-year old genius who is arguing about sex, Fermat’s theorem, the Newtonian view of the universe, just to mention a few subjects that interest her. Hodge engages in those discussions as well as enjoying a vertical poke with Mrs. Chater, the wife of the poet Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker). There is also the mystery of Lord Byron’s visit to Sidley Park and killing Chater in a duel. And what about Hodge’s attraction to the lovely Lady Croom (Nicole Underhay)?

We have excellent performances from the cast. Besworth’s Thomasina is quick-witted, quick-talking and a brilliant arguer with the shrewd Hodge who has to tread a fine line between intellectual honesty and moral propriety while satisfying his hormonal needs.

Underhay as Lady Croom is sexy and haughty with just the right touch of the woman who has certain needs. Andrew Bunker is hilarious as the foolish poet who challenges people to duels in defense of his wife’s honour who is basically the local slut.   

The twentieth century cast is dominated by Patrick McManus as Bernard Nightingale, an ambitious academic researcher and Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis, a bestselling author whose last book Nightingale trashed. The two actors have a marvelous chemistry for antagonism and we are delighted to see Jarvis get the best of Nightingale, the loud-mouth braggart. Splendid performances.

Martin Happer is a treat as Valentine, a dour and eccentric twentieth century scientist.         
   
Arcadia is theatre at its best but it does require some effort to get the best out of it. You will laugh loudly, be intrigued by the mystery at the heart of the play and at times you will be confused and on occasion quite lost. This production brings out the play at its best even if the English accents are uneven. I saw the current revival twice. It is the sort of play that bears repeated viewing. You owe it to yourself to see it at least once.
_____

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard opened on November 9 and will run until December 14, 2014 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Saturday, November 8, 2014

THE TEMPEST – REVIEW OF HART HOUSE PRODUCTION


Peter Higginson as Prospero. Photo: Scott Gorman
Reviewed by James Karas

The Tempest is full of magic, music, enchantment and fairies set on a dream-like island ruled by a kindly (and at times tyrannical) Duke with supernatural powers. All productions of Shakespeare’s last complete play attempt to create that atmosphere but few are as successful as the current staging at Hart House Theatre.

Director Jeremy Hutton uses a number of techniques to create the magical world of The Tempest and maintain it from beginning to end.      

The production opens with a ship sailing in a calm sea with the sailors singing happily. There are spirits watching them and Prospero appears. He strikes his staff on the ground and then we hear the tempestuous thunder as the ship is battered and sunk by the storm.

The six spirits that Hutton has in this production resemble Ariel and they are present on stage throughout the play. They appear like statues hanging from parts of the set or come to life and dart around the stage. Their movements are carefully choreographed and they serve as a constant reminder that we are in a world of magic and enchantment. In the play, the spirits have a limited role singing a brief refrain in the first act and taking part in the masque.

In addition, Hutton makes use of Prospero’s magical powers by having him strike the ground with his staff frequently to excellent effect. When Prospero is telling his daughter Miranda about his usurping brother, he bangs his staff and we see Alonso as if projected on a screen at the back. This happens when the other people in the play are mentioned.

Hutton and Lighting Designer Joseph Patrick make judicious use of strobe lights and other uses of lighting to emphasize the other-worldliness of the island. The overall effect of these techniques is to create the marvelous world of the island that is so essential to any production. An amazing feat.

Peter Higginson makes a decent, kindly Prospero who seems to enjoy his supernatural powers. The exiled Duke of Milan has another, much less benign side in his treatment of the “natives” but Hutton prefers to deemphasize that part of Prospero’s character.

Amaka Umeh gives a nimble, well-articulated and superb performance as Ariel.

 William Foley as Caliban, Paolo Santalucia as Stephano, Peter Higginson s Prospero, Cameron Laurie as Trinculo. Photo: Scott Gorman

William Foley’s Caliban is not deformed at all but he is able to scream, roll on the stage and produce laughter. He also gives a sound indication of the possible injustice meted on him by the uninvited Duke. Caliban tries to violate Miranda and his punishment is enslavement following the conquest of his island by Prospero. On the comic side Foley, Paolo Santalucia as Stephnao and Cameron Laurie as Trinculo give hilarious performances.

Katherine Fogler is lovely and fetching as Miranda and Andrei Preda is an upstanding and handsome Ferdinand. They are just what lovers should be.

Of the lesser characters, Michael McLeister stands out as the decent if somewhat garrulous Gonzalo.

Some words were muffed, some lines were muffled but overall the delivery of the lines was very decent.

The single set was very effective. The white-washed boards of the ship in the opening scene became the door to Prospero’s cave and there was room for the spirits to dangle around the stage. The costumes were naval for most of the men.

Choreographer Ashleigh Powell deserves kudos for the movements that she created for the spirits and for the handing of the masque.  

Without taking anything away from the actors, the most impressive aspect of the production was the magical island that Hutton and his team were able to create. 
           ______


The Tempest by William Shakespeare opened on November 5 and will run until November 22, 2014 at the Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. M5S 3H3  www.harthousetheatre.ca