Saturday, December 16, 2017

THE ILLUSIONISTS-LIVE FROM BROADWAY – REVIEW OF GRAND MAGIC SHOW AT THE PRINCESS OF WALES

Reviewed by James Karas

What do you get when you put seven illusionists on stage?

One hell of a good show.

It was so much fun, I can start with complaints. To call them illusionists may be literally accurate but it does a disservice to the show. They are damn good magicians. Illusionists gives the impression of a temporary departure from strict logic when we almost believe the unbelievable. A magician has superhuman powers and he does marvellous feats that are far more than an illusion – they are magical. And why tell us they are Live from Broadway in the title. They are magicians from around the world and I believe everything that they do is magic.

Their nicknames are simply delightful. These people are not mere creators of illusions, they are specialists. You get The Deductionist – Scotland (Colin Cloud) which I take to indicate national origin as well as superior mental agility and ability that could outwit the CIA, the FBI and the KGB (or whatever they are called now) without waterboarding.

The Unusualist (Raymond Crowe) can do many things but he can also provide a few minutes of delightful hand shadow theatre with What a Wonderful World as background.

The Eccentric (Charlie Frye) is a juggler par excellence with comic flair. Rings, balls, a stick, his hat, his vest, he handles all of them with panache, speed and comic skill. He bills himself as Charlie Frye & Company in recognition of his wife Sherry who is on stage with him and participates in the comedy. 

The Daredevil (Jonathan Goodwin) can put everyone in the Princess of Wales Theatre on the edge of their seats as he shoots arrows from a powerful crossbow while blindfolded. His target: a balloon on the head of an assistant. And he emulates Houdini in getting out of a straitjacket while hanging upside down with his clothes on fire. He must get out of the straitjacket and douse the flames before he is roasted. He can support his body on a single nail and have a cement block split in two on his stomach. Holy Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
 
Jonathan Goodwin, The Daredevil. Photo by Claudia James
The Trickster (Jeff Hobson) is to some extent the host of the evening. He is a natural comedian who can interact with the audience and evoke laughter at will. He chose an interesting audience member on opening night – a man called Mark Saunders who happens to be Toronto’s chief of police. Hobson demonstrated his ability with cards and nicked the chief’s watch. He returned the watch later but he proved his astonishing ability as a non-illusionist pickpocket.  Hobson is akin to Liberace is his outrageousness and reassures audience members that he touches that he is not a senator and there will be no Kevin Spacey stuff. An amazing performer.
 
Jeff Hobson, The Trickster - Photo by Joan Marcus
The Manipulator (An Ha Lim) can, well, manipulate cards in huge numbers with speed, dexterity, appearance and disappearance that defies belief. Where do the cards come from, where do they go, how can anything be done that quickly? After thinking about it, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it is simply magic.
  
The Grand Illusionist (Darcy Oake) is a Canadian who dispels the notion that only foreigners can do incredible non-illusory magic. He can produce white doves to fill a barn. He lights a match and a dove appears. He takes out a handkerchief and out pops a dove. And he does a disappearing act that is simply astounding.
Darcy Oakes, The Grand Illusionist - Photo by Danielle Baguley
In addition to the individual acts, the show has glitz, music, lighting and rapport with the audience that makes for an integrated theatrical evening. There is extensive use of large screens for the audience to be able to see all of the details of each performance and roving cameras to capture the interaction with the audience. A number of people from the audience are brought on stage to add credibility to the illusions created by the magicians and to add humour.

If I have given the illusion that I enjoyed The Illusionists, it is because the magicians forced me to do it by entering my mind and showing me how they can make me disappear unless I told the truth about their show.
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The Illusionists – Live from Broadway by Simon Painter (Creative Producer), Neil Diamond (Director/Choreographer) and Jim Milan (Creative Director) runs until January 7, 2018 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Friday, December 15, 2017

TO ONOMA MOY EINAI EVA - REVIEW OF TEN TONE PRODUCTIONS PRESENTATION

Reviewed by James Karas

The promotion photo for To Onoma Mou Einai Eva (Το Όνομα μου Είναι Εύα) shows a beautiful woman, wearing a fur around her shoulders but with smeared red lipstick and mascara. And she is in handcuffs. There are numerous clues to the plot of the new play by George Scandalis that is now playing at the Alumnae Theatre. 

There are some notable facts about the production. It is performed in impeccable Greek by local amateur actors with varying degrees of acting experience. Scandalis also directs this thriller that is wrapped in a recital or perhaps a recital of Greek songs from the 1970’s that form the backbone of the thriller.
 
The cast and director of To Onoma Moy Einai Eva 
The play opens with a gunshot in the dark. We then meet Eva (Michalitsa Catsiliras), a beautiful woman with a fine voice who sings in a bar. She is forcefully taken from the bar to a psychiatric clinic and the story of her tragic descent into hell is told in flashbacks as she is interviewed by Martha, a straight-laced psychiatrist, played by Christina Houtris.

Eva has two friends. Panos (George Kefalas), a decent but ineffectual man who stands by her and Stella (Georgia Nazou), a sultry, cynical and sarcastic worker at the bar. Eva’s retort to most of Stella’s comments is “skase” (shat up).

Eva falls in love with Niko (Andreas Batakis), a civil engineer and the brother of the owner of the bar Kosta (John Koukouvlis), Niko is a lean, sharp-nosed and self-centered scoundrel who shows no redeeming traits but Eva falls in love with him and becomes his mistress. She claims that she is drawn by his eyes but there are precious few moments when she actually looks into them. Love is blind and we accept her feelings for hm.
 
    Michalitsa Catsiliras as Eva 
The cast of ten is rounded off with Anastasia Botos, Stavroula Karnouskou, Nancy-Athan Mylonas (in a dramatic small role) and Irene Pavlakis and giving any details about their roles runs the risk of being a plot spoiler.

The action takes place mostly in the bar where Eva sings, her dressing room and the psychiatrist’s office. A revolving set provides for easy and frequent scene changes in a play that has fully seventeen scenes for its 1 hour and 45 minute duration.

Scandalis gives us clues about the path of the plot but as it becomes a thriller and sends us off to misleading byways. Panos asks “where is the child” from the beginning and we hear the cries of a child frequently. We are given background information, we witness some violence, and we see heavy drinking and narcotics, as the flashbacks come closer and closer to the present.
The gun of the opening scene comes into play again and the play comes to its surprising and unexpected end as a thriller should.

To Onoma Moy Einai Eva is a true community theatre production. In the GTA Greek community, that is not a particularly frequent occurrence and a production at the Alumnae Theatre is an extreme exception. Ten Tone Productions has managed to harness local talent, community financial support and a full house of young and enthusiastic people for opening night.

There is good precedent for well-off citizens providing financial support for the theatre. In Ancient Athens, productions were financed by choregoi and no Greek needs a translation of that word. A good number of them stepped up to support Ten Tone Productions and they deserve a special olive wreath for their generosity.

I note that Ten Tone assiduously refused to call the play by anything but its Greek title of Το Όνομα μου Είναι Εύα although in the programme and on the company’s website most information is in English.   

In any event, Greek theatre is alive and well in Toronto even if it is for only six performances.

Εύγε.    
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Το Όνομα Μου Είναι Εύα by George Scandalis opened on December 13 and will be performed six times until December 17, 2017 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.tentoneproductions.com

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

HEISENBERG – REVIEW OF CANADIAN STAGE PRODUCTION

James Karas

British playwright Simon Stephens has woven a touching, humorous and fascinating play based on a simple idea. Two people meet in a London railway station as a result of a woman kissing a man. They seem to have nothing in common but we will find out a great deal and want to know a lot more over the eighty or so minutes of the play.

But we need to deal with the title first – Heisenberg. The play has something to do with the Uncertainty Principle which was formulated by Herr Heisenberg in 1926. If we saw Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and are devotees of the Big Bang Theory we are practically theoretical physicists. We (I am either pregnant or preparing for my next job as a king) then metaphorically reach for Wikipedia where Werner Heisenberg makes the Uncertainty Principle perfectly clear:
 David Schurmann and Carly Street. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
 It can be expressed in its simplest form as follows: One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.

Sadly, therefore, we can never figure out exactly the location of a particle (whatever that is) driving on the Don Valley Parkway, its speed or direction. If you are stopped for speeding on the DVP just remind the officer of Hesienberg’s Uncertainty Principle and demand that he shove the ticket up Highway 404.

Having a vague idea about the Uncertainty Principle is of some interest and it does force you to think about the play but it is not essential. Heisenberg is about two people.  Georgie (Carly Street) is a forty-two year old woman from New Jersey who finds herself in London. Alex (David Schurmann) is a seventy-five year old butcher in London and they are, not surprisingly very different people.

Georgie is attractive, impulsive, lively and  talkative as she reveals herself and draws Alex out. He is a reserved English gentleman, upstanding, sophisticated and a lover of music. The idea that he may be an uncultured chopper of meat disappears quickly.

In many ways this is a play about a May-December courtship but Stephens weaves the story delicately with some exquisite needlework. He avoids the obvious humour that can be used to buttress a slender plot and maintains our attention. We are interested in Georgie and Alex.

Carly Street gives a fine performance as George. She is sexually attractive but also intelligent, a bit mysterious in her approach of kissing a stranger on the back of his neck and off the wall. She is the catalyst of the relationship.

Schurmann’s performance gives us the subtle, elusive Alex who is taken aback and attracted to this strange woman. A fine-tuned performance.

The play is done on a square wooden platform with a rotating circle in the centre designed by Teresa Przybylski. The moving circle provides a fine metaphor for the world and the uncertainty, if you will, of where Georgie and Alex are at any given moment as they perform their dance of search, discovery and romance.

The whole thing is choreographed by director Matthew Jocelyn in his last season as Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage. His tenure has been ambitious with the inevitable ups and downs but his vision of moving us into new theatrical grounds has been unflinching. Only kudos for his production of Heisenberg.  As to his future whereabouts, just apply the Uncertainty Principle.
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Heisenberg by Simon Stephens in a production by Canadian Stage runs from November 28 to December 17 2017 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ont. www.canstage.com,

Monday, December 11, 2017

INSTANT – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Erin Shields’ play Instant, now playing in The Studio of Young People’s Theatre, is billed as a timely play for teens. That is true and laudable. The play is well done, entertaining and connects with the spectrum of teens across the GTA.

The structure of the play and the production are simple and spartan. Meredith, Rosie and Jay are three teenagers who go to the same school. Meredith (Michelle Rambharose), like most youngsters, complains about being forced to take piano lessons. One day, however, she hears a fugue being played and she connects to the tune. She decides that she wants to use the tune as the basis for a song that she wants to compose.
 
Leah Fong and Michelle Rambharose in Instant. Photo Andree Lanthier
Jay (Dakota Jamal Wellman) connects to hockey and decides that he wants to be a hockey player. His dreams and his ambition, desire and hard work, combine to make him achieve his dream.

  
Meredith and Jay are not white but that is just a minor difference in skin colour. That is important and stated only subliminally.

Their friend Rosie’s (Leah Fong) father has MS and she needs to raise a great deal of money for his medical needs. She goes on social media and is enormously successful in attracting a large following.

The three are savvy and connected to social media, they have disagreements but Shields focuses on their dreams and ambitions and wants to entertain us, no doubt, but also convey lessons to the teens in the audience.

These are not the white kids of most movies and TV shows with all the angst and their middle class fights. They are not like everyone else; they are every teenager and that is one of the points of the play.

The three actors are all in their twenties but they make credible teenagers and give fine performances. Fong’s Rosie starts as a shy and awkward kid but she grows and matures, as they all do. Rambharose as Meredith is lively, enthusiastic and the type of teenager who gives early notice about her intention to succeed.  
 
Dakota Wellman in Instant. Photo: Andree Lanthier
Wellman’s Jake is just as dedicated to becoming a major league hockey player but he (Erin Shields) adds a necessary caution about violence in hockey. He is against it. The shy Rosie outstrips them both in her success on social media.

The play is done virtually on an empty stage with judicious use of some boxes and lighting. It lasts for about 45 minutes and time flies. You can do a lot with very little.

The day I saw the play The Studio was full with grade nine and ten students taking theatre at Middlefield Collegiate Institute in Markham, Ontario. It looked like every ethnic group from Southeast Asia was represented with only a few whites.

The choice of play, the quality of the production by Geordie Productions of Montreal and the superb directing by Dean Patrick Fleming were all first rate. Equally praiseworthy is YPT’s bringing in teenagers representing so many ethnic groups to see a play. If we want Stratford, Shaw and theatre in general to thrive, now is the time to groom the audience of the future.  
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Instant by Erin Shields opened on November 28 and will continues until December 15, 2017 at various times at The Studio, Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Friday, December 8, 2017

MY SON THE WAITER, A JEWISH TRAGEDY! – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy! is an enjoyable one-man show written by and starring Brad Zimmerman. He has a fine selection of one-liners, Jewish jokes, touching and humorous stories that make for an integrated ninety minutes of entertainment.

Zimmerman builds the show around autobiographical material (some of it no doubt imaginary), his relationship with his parents, growing up in New Jersey and becoming a stand-up comic.   

He tells us that in high school he was voted the one most likely to work for his father. This in a community where life begins after one gets a medical degree. He applies to three colleges and chooses the only one that accepted hm. He indeed does become a waiter for some 29 years. That provides fodder for observing the silly foibles of the way people order, taste wine and generally behave in a restaurant. When a customer asks him what he does when “you are not here” he replies that “I have other tables.” Like many of his jokes, the laugh comes from the unexpected reply to a simple question.
 The Jewish jokes, some fresh, some classic, are always hilarious. His mother (she is a mainstay of his routines) tells him that he will be well-taken care of when she goes, he asks her to give him a time frame. He brings three girls home for his mother to choose which one he should marry. She chooses the red-haired one and he asks her why she chose that one. The mother chose her because it is the one she does not like and knows that that is the one her son will marry.

After he became a stand-up comic, Zimmerman got jobs as the warm-up comedian for stars like Gabe Kaplan, Joan Rivers and George Carlin. He got recognition as the best comedian for the money. In 2005 he started working on My Son the Waiter and opened Off Broadway in 2004. He got good reviews and the show stayed for 15 months. He is now taking it on tour and Toronto, with a vibrant theatrical and Jewish community seems like an excellent pit stop.

The title is no doubt meant to be ironic but there is some truth in it. Once a Jewish son, always a Jewish son and the mother is usually a great source of material. When Zimmerman told his mother that, she asked him what will he do when she dies. But his failure to make it as a big star does give some justification for his self-assessment of his life as Jewish tragedy. When it comes to being Jewish, Zimmerman confesses to not being a conscientious practitioner of his faith he considers himself just a notch above a Muslim.
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My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy!  by Brad Zimmerman in a production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company continues until December 10, 2017 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Thursday, November 30, 2017

OLEANNA – REVIEW OF THEATRE PENUMBRA PRODUCTION OF MAMET’S PLAY

James Karas

Donald Trump, Howard Weinstein, Roy Moore, John Conyers, Bill Cosby Al Franken, numerous armed forces and RCMP officers and countless others who dominate the daily news have one thing in common: they are powerful men who have molested women. The practice is hardly new but a large number of cases have come to light and with a slime ball as president the issue is hotly debated.

Flashback to 1991. President George Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court based on two significant qualifications: he is conservative and he is black. Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual harassment against her by Thomas surfaces and the Senate confirms him anyway. Thomas invents or at least uses the currently favourite defence: deny, deny, deny. There are times when evidence meets denial and facts collide with convictions, lies trump the truth. 

In 1992. David Mamet wrote Oleanna, an extraordinary play about sexual warfare that has not lost its power 25 years later. Theatre Penumbra gives us a powerful, indeed spellbinding, production with five-star performances by Grace Gordon as Carol and James McGowan as John.
 
James McGowan in Oleanna. Photo by Neil Silcox
The play is full of twists and traps that lead to unexpected developments as John the professor meets and then is confronted by his student Carol. The poster for the play shows half the face of each actor forming a single person separated by slit. In other words, John and Carol may seem to be completely at odds but are they almost the same? Perhaps.

John is a highly stressed man, almost at the end of his rope. He is buying a house and everything is going wrong in consummating the transaction. He is driven up the wall by his wife and the real estate agent. He has been approved for tenure, a highly sought-after promotion, but the tenure committee has not yet signed the paperwork for his promotion. He is on tenterhooks.         

Carol is in his office seeking help to pass an essential course and he seems to go out of his way to help her. She feels that she is stupid and simply does not understand his book or his views. She comes from a different socio-economic group than John.
  
He appears to make heroic attempts to help her including an offer to teach the entire course to her all over.
 
The poster for Oleanna
Carol turns everything that he said to her on its head and reports him to the tenure committee for behaviour that she characterizes as vile, manipulative and pornographic. He is not a dedicated teacher who has human problems and is trying to help a student. He is a monster. But Carols is not alone in her attack on him. She represents a group and they were represented by a lawyer at the hearing. The tenure committee believed her evidence and the allegations have become facts.

McGowan as John goes from the assured, brilliant teacher trying desperately to communicate his ideas to a student to a man at bay who slowly realizes his defeat and consequence destruction. McGowan gives us the vocal and physical changes in a man who goes from the triumph of promotion to catastrophe.

Gordon has a similar emotional and physical voyage from the pleading student to an avenging fury. It is a terrifying transformation.

Fulton pays attention to every movement and nuance in the play. Mamet’s play glories in chopped up dialogue where the speakers interrupt each other in mid-word and mid-sentence. It takes discipline and talent to achieve the speed and accuracy demanded by Mamet. Fulton has imposed discipline on delivery of dialogue and certainty in the emotional development that, I repeat, result in spellbinding performances. You leave the theatre emotionally drained and enthralled by the events it described

This is not a play about a sleazebag harassing and molesting an innocent woman. There is no evidence at all that John shows any sexual interest in Carol. Is he simply set up or is his apparently decent conduct and fervent desire to help this troubled student meant to be interpreted as the exercise of male power? I have my own opinion. You go and decide for yourself.
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Oleanna by David Mamet, in a production by Theatre Penumbra, continues until December 3, 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. East), Toronto, Ontario. http://redsandcastletheatre.com/

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MY NAME IS ASHER LEV – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Asher Lev is a young man living in Brooklyn who repeatedly reminds us that his name is Asher Lev and that he is a faithful Jew. He feels the need to remind us and himself of that because Asher Lev has an extraordinary gift that some people, especially his parents, consider unJewish. He is a painter.

As a child, Lev paints scenes of the Crucifixion to his mother’s shock. He can paint birds or flowers, she tells him, and reminds him what the Jews have suffered at the hands of the followers of Christ in the last two thousand years.

Thus the battle lines are drawn in this brilliant, moving and highly dramatic play about the need for an artist to express his personal vision of the world and Jewish traditions including piety and respect for one’s parents (honour thy father).
 
Jonas Chernick, Ron Lea, Sarah Orenstein. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz
My Name Is Asher Lev is an adaptation by Aaron Posner of Chaim Potok’s novel. Jonas Chernick plays Lev as an almost meek child and young man. His head is usually slightly tilted and he looks downward. He wants to be a good Jew and show respect for his parents but he has a gift, which may be divine or demonic, for painting. The two poles are inimical and he tries desperately to explain his gift and not alienate his parents.

There are a number of other characters in the play with Roan Lea playing all the men and Sarah Orenstein playing all the women. Lea gives superb performances as Asher’s father, uncle, the artist Kahn and the Rabbi. All of these people are intelligent, perceptive and hold defensible positions. The father is highly educated and spends much time in Europe establishing yeshivas. He no tyrannical father of fiction. It is difficult to bridge the gap between educating the young to be good Jews and having a son painting the Crucifixion.

Asher’s uncle is open-minded and admires the youngster’s work. Kahn is a free-spirited Jew who admires genius and mentors Asher. The Rabbi shows deep understanding of Asher’s conflict.

Sarah Orenstein is the eternal mother who loves, cares and is in the middle of a father-son conflict. We see Orenstein as a savvy gallery owner who has nothing in common with the mother. Wonderful acting.        

The brilliant discussion of the play about art and faith are utterly absorbing because they involve a community of traditions and faith on one hand and the individual who cannot comply with those demands completely. The supreme moment of the play I think comes when Asher sees Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is an expression in marble of indescribable pain and serenity as the Virgin Mary hold her son’s body after he is taken down from the cross. Asher is overwhelmed because he does not see any doctrine or religion but only supreme art. It is a compelling moment for Asher the artist and for the audience watching the play.

Director Joel Greenberg handles the play with a sure and delicate touch. There is considerable wit in the play as well but for some reason the audience underreacted to it on the night that I saw it.

The set by Brandon Kleiman consists of an ordinary room in 1950’s Brooklyn that serves as the house of the Levs, an art gallery and Kahn’s studio with minor touches.

This is ninety minutes of riveting theatre.
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My Name Is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner in a coproduction by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Studio 180 Theatre continues until November 26, 2017 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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