Wednesday, February 25, 2015

BLITHE SPIRIT – REVIEW OF PRODUCTION AT PRINCESS OF WALES

Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Bradman, Charles Edwards as Charles Condomine, Susan Louise O’Connor as Edith, Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, Charlotte Parry as Ruth Condomine and Simon Jones as Dr. Bradman in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
By James Karas

They don’t make them like they used to – if I may coin a phrase.

I mean plays like Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. When he wrote it in 1941 he called it an “improbable farce” but that does not do it justice. It is a well-crafted play with wit, humour, style and a theatrical delight.

The current production playing at The Princess Wales has been brought over from London and it does the play full justice. Michael Blakemore has the expertise to direct a splendid production from all points of view and he does so.

The “improbable” part of Blithe Spirit is the invitation of Madam Arcati, a medium, to a séance. The medium is invited by novelist Charles Condomine under false pretenses. He wants to learn something about mediums for his next novel but the consequences are totally unexpected.  Charles’ first wife returns from the “other side” and he is the only one that can see and hear her. You get the idea of the farcical possibilities of the plot.

Madame Arcati is not the most important character in the play but she is certainly the most colourful and the instigator of much of the farce. It is a great role for older actors who have the panache and comic talent to attempt it. In the case of Angela Lansbury the term “older” is an understatement. The woman is 89 and she tackles the role with relish. The audience loved her and she joins the other theatrical legends who have done the role from Margaret Rutherford down.

Charles Edwards as Charles Condomine, Jemima Rooper as Elvira and Charlotte Parry as Ruth Condomine in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Madame Arcati provides the broad humour but the wit is delivered by Charles (Charles Edwards), his second wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry) and his ghostly first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper).

Edwards and Parry can deliver the type of crisp, glass-cut dialogue that can make the dullest prose sound like poetic. There is no dull prose in the play but a good deal of repartee, polished dialogue and humour.

Rooper as Elvira is appropriately and delightfully ethereal and silly. Coward never failed to invest humour even in the minor characters like the maid. Susan Louise O’Connor is hilarious as Edith.  Blakemore has her reach over the back of a chair to pick up a tray. The chair is tall and the maid ends up dangling on top of the chair as she tries to reach the tray. The chair climb is done slowly and milked for all the laughter.

The audience loved the whole thing and gave the performance a standing ovation. 
___

Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward continues until March 15, 2015 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

IOLANTA AND BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTIONS

Piotr Beczala as Vaudémont and Anna Netrebko as the title character in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

It is not easy finding a partner for Bluebeard. As a Duke he has been through four wives, at least, with unpleasant results for all. Poor man, finding a good wife is not easy. As an opera, it is just as difficult finding a suitable companion for Bluebeard’s Castle. The good ones are married or in a relationship and the rest are unsuitable for many reasons including the fact that they may suffer the same fate as the women who share his castle ever so briefly.

The Met has found the perfect match for both the Duke and the opera without even going to an internet dating site. The choice fell on Tchaikovsky’s never-before-seen-at-the-Met Iolanta. The 1892 one-acter has some lush music, a few good arias and many opportunities for colourful staging.

Director Mariusz Trelinlki and Set Designer Boris Kudlička give us a captivating production in modern dress that keeps the fairy tale elements of the opera.

The fairy tale is set in 15th century southern France where we meet Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), a blind princess who is unaware of her sightlessness. She is betrothed to Robert (Alexey Markov) who is supposed to be a duke but in his bowtie, quilted jacket and skis, he looks very undukish. Robert and the knight Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala) lose their way in the forest and alight on Iolanta’s “cottage.” Robert does not know who she is (it was a childhood betrothal) and he is spoken to another in any event), Vaudémont falls in love with her and the rest is fairy tale opera.

The strength of this staging, aside from its production values, lies in the singing of Netrebko and Beczala. The soprano and the lyric tenor shine in their roles from blind princess groping around and wondering what she is missing, to the tenor falling in love with her to luscious music. There is a touching recognition scene where Iolanta realizes that she is blind thus opening the way for her to regain her sight.

Baritone Alexey Markov as Robert gives an expressive and impassioned aria in praise of Mathilde, his real love. Bass Ilya Bannik is a commanding King René, Iolanta’s father.

Iolanta lives in a cage, (well, she is a princess with servants so maybe it is a fancy cottage), in the forest which occupies a small part of the stage. Live I HD Director Gary Halvorson is content to focus on the cage and give us infrequent and unsatisfactory glimpses at what lies around it. There are some trees and the background may even change but don’t expect Halvorson to show it to you.

In spite of him, this is a very enjoyable production of this rarely produced opera.

Mikhail Petrenko and Nadja Michael - Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard in Trelinlki’s production opens at the edge of a dark and gloomy forest. A well-dressed man stands beside a mound of earth surrounding a hole, and a shovel. We see car lights and a beautiful blonde woman wearing a stunning gown approaches. She is Judith (Nadja Michael), the Duke’s new wife and a woman in love.

That is just the beginning of this brilliantly directed and designed production. The same team produced Iolanta with strikingly similar and successful points of similarity.

Bluebeard ((Mikhail Petrenko) is handsome and almost business-like. He gives Judith the choice of leaving him but she insists that she will stay because she loves him. His singing is controlled, resonant and seething with evil. He is a total psychopath.

Nadja Michael has a deep almost sultry voice that gives a convincing portrayal of a strong woman with driving curiosity and inexplicable love. She is a marvelous Judith.

As with Iolanta, Bluebeard’s Castle has outstanding production values. Every door that the hapless Judith opens is a drama in itself. From the torture chamber to the armoury, to the garden and finally the room where the former wives are stored, we a see a brilliantly imagined castle.

The last scene of this production is the most dramatic. Bluebeard’s former wives come to life in an eerie and frightful fashion. They are the walking dead. We are back where we started by the shovel, the mound of earth and the hole. It is in fact a grave and this time there is a half-buried woman in it. It is Judith wearing the same gown that we saw at the beginning. Bluebeard gives her a passionate kiss and promises to love her forever.

When you get such outstanding singing, brilliant orchestral playing conducted by Valery Gergiev  combined with brilliant directing and design, you have opera at its best.

Let’s hope that Iolanta and Vaudémont get along just fine and she does not leave him for Duke Bluebeard.          ____


Iolanta by Peter Tchaikovsky and Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok were transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on February 15, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on April 11 and 13, 2015. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? – REVIEW OF CANADIAN REP PRODUCTION

Matthew Edison and Irene Poole. Photos by John Lauener

Reviewed by James Karas

How Do I Love Thee? is a dramatic and moving play about the lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in a well-acted production by Canadian Rep Theatre. It is now playing at the Berkeley Upstairs Theatre.

Elizabeth’s sonnet How Do I Love Thee? is one of the finest expressions of Eros in English and the lives of the two poets, passionate, forbidden, idealized love, has become legendary.

Florence Gibson MacDonald takes a realistic view of the marriage and if Elizabeth loved Robert as the sonnet says “to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach” everyday life was considerably less happy and transcendent.

The play has four characters, Elizabeth (Irene Poole), Robert (Matthew Edison), the servant Wilson (Nora McLellan) and John (David Schurmann). The play takes place in England where the two poets meet through correspondence and in Florence where they escape after Elizabeth’s father disowns and disinherits his daughter as a mark of his disapproval of her marriage.

MacDonald’s Elizabeth is a strong and passionate woman with robust sexual desires. You can put aside any notions of Elizabeth being a sickly recluse. She is devoted to writing but she does have a problem. She is addicted to various drugs such as opium.

Robert is presented as a passionate young man who has a serious writer’s cramp as a result of his unhappy domestic life.

And they do have their problems. Drugs are expensive and all their money is spent on the pharmacy. She spends much of her time in bed; he can’t write. Domestic squabbles follow with increasing ferocity. This is a long way from “I love thee to the level of everyday’s/ Most quiet need, by sun by candlelight.”

Matthew Edison makes a superb Robert. He descends from the heights of love (mostly through letters, before they meet) to squabbling over money and domestic arrangements to trying to wean her from her addictions. Edison can’t quite produce an English accent but he rises to the emotional heights of the play and you quickly forget his pronunciation.

Poole’s Elizabeth is attractive, strong, devoted to her writing and in need of addictive drugs perhaps as a crutch or a necessary ingredient for her inspiration. She writes because she loves writing whereas Robert wants to publish her poems so they can pay their bills. Poole’s performance is excellent and she lets us see the great writer and the pathetic human being in a marriage for which she sacrificed all and got very little.

Nora McLellan as the faithful servant Wilson is stone-faced, intelligent and humane. Her life is devoted to serving Elizabeth and she stands her ground and defends her mistress with finesse and bravery. A fine performance by McLellan.

John is a cousin of Elizabeth and the person who introduces the two poets. Schurmann is dressed like a stuffy Victorian but his John is observant, intelligent, decent and a fine go-between.

The set by designer Shawn Kerwin consists of a desk and an ottoman where the poets write and sleep. There are three columns of raw marble in the background. The characters are on stage throughout, simply sitting at the back of the stage when they are not participating in the action.

The play is highly literate, dramatic and moving as we see “real” life and compare it with the sentiments of the title.

A round of applause goes to Ken Gass for his outstanding directing of the play. Another ovation is for his establishment of the Canadian Rep Theatre last year but that is another story.
______


How Do I Love Thee? by Florence Gibson MacDonald opened on January 31 and will run until February 22, 2015 at the Berkeley Upstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ontario. 416 368-3110. www.canadianrep.ca

THE DINING ROOM – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF GURNEY’S PLAY

Sarah Wilson, Brenda Robins, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros & Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas

It is the end of civilization as they knew it!

That is what A.R. Gurney, Jr. captures in his wonderful play The Dining Room that is now playing at the Young Centre in a production by Soulpepper.

“They” are those well-off, well-mannered, self-satisfied, sometimes stiff, occasionally humorous WASPs of the north-eastern United States whose way of life, symbolized by the high-minded etiquette around the dining room table has all but disappeared. Gurney sets his play in a dining room where six actors portray 58 characters over a number of decades. They give us an almost anthropological glimpse into the life and mores of a segment of Americana.

Soulpepper’s production is expertly directed by Joseph Ziegler. The six actors who take on all the roles are Brenda Robins, Sarah Wilson, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Diego Matamoros, Derek Boyes and Jeff Lillico.

The play is a godsend for actors. Each of them gets nine or ten roles ranging from children, to young people, to very old men and women. The opportunities for displaying one’s talents are terrific and all of them do so and sometimes in very quick succession.

The play consists of eighteen scenes covering a large number of dinners or encounters in the same dining room. The people range from a real estate agent showing the property to a potential customer, to a children’s birthday party, to an adulterous encounter broken up by the appearance of a son, to a daughter pleading with her father to let her return to her home with her three children. She has a little more than a broken marriage – she is a lesbian but the word is never mentioned.

And there is the bachelor and the suggestion at his club that he may be gay. His brother rises to the occasion and is prepared to defend the gay man’s honour at any cost.

The scenes frequently overlap but the change is made smoothly and almost imperceptibly. There may be eighteen scenes involving different families but the action is continuous and always delightful.

The scenes or sketches provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the upper crust with their servants, their selfishness, their decency and their humanity. Ziegler manages to coordinate and coach the six actors in performing the individual parts but also in being able to switch from one role to the next sometimes in almost no time at all.

The dining room table as a symbol of civilized society no longer holds and, as one character put it, the thought of sitting down with a number of intelligent people to enjoy good food does not occur to people any more.

It may not be the end of civilization but it is certainly a loss to society.

See this wonderful production and judge for yourself, whether or not you are a WASP.             
      _________


The Dining Room by A.R. Gurney opened on February 12 and will run until March 7, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  

Monday, February 16, 2015

ABYSS – REVIEW OF MILISAVLJEVIC PLAY AT TARRAGON

Cara Pifko, Sarah Sherman and Gord Rand in Abyss               

Reviewed by James Karas

Three people holding hands stand on stage for about eighty minutes in Maria Milisavljevic’s play Abyss now playing at the Tarragon Extra Space. They are identified by personal pronouns: I (Cara Pifko), HE (Gord Rand) and SHE (Sarah Sherman). 

The three have a story to tell and the personal pronouns are used to identify them because they play several roles in the play. I is the narrator and HE and SHE represent several characters in the story. I and Sophia are sisters and Vlado lives with I and her friend Clara. Clara goes out on a rainy night and she never returns. The bulk of the narrative with many twists and turns is concerned with the search for Clara.

Rand also plays Yan, a troubled man with a Croatian father and a Serbian mother during the Yugoslavian bloodshed of the 1990’s.

The central story of the search for the missing woman can be told quickly and in a straight forward way but Milisavljevic has chosen to jump from one incident to the next and the characters jump in and out of the narrative.  

Sophia screeches a number of steps and directions about killing. It turns out that she is talking about slaughtering and eating a rabbit. There are images of bloodshed and violence that are no doubt related to the savagery of the Yugoslavian wars.

There are sudden emotional outbursts, indeed screams that abate as quickly as they come.

Nis Randers, a poem by Otto Ernst, is printed in the program and quoted in the play. It is about a violent storm at sea. Nis jumps in a boat to save a man who can’t get free from a mast. His bravery results in the saving of his missing brother. The turmoil and the loss at sea may be seen as metaphors for the tumult through which the people in the play go until they find some peace. 

Unfortunately, the play does not work. The actors are constrained by the narrative structure of the play where I does most of the talking as well as the physical restraint of holding hands throughout.

The non-linear narrative is not always easy to follow and in the end it seems to be much ado about relatively little.

The play probably reads much better than it works on stage. The information relayed by the actors, the references and the numerous characters represented by the three move too quickly to be grasped. A careful reading of the play may produce better results than an impulse to look at your watch. 

This is the English language premiere of Abyss and it comes from Germany with an impressive pedigree. According to Milisavljevic’s biography, Abyss received the 2013 Kleist Promotional Award for Young Dramatists and was named one of the five best new plays of 2013 by Spiegel Magazine.

What may have worked in Germany has not travelled well to Canada.     
                                           ______


Abyss by Maria Milisavljevic opened on February 11 and will play until March 15, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Friday, February 13, 2015

ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST - REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION

Rick Roberts, Ins Choi, Kawa Ada, Raquel Duffy & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a wild farce, a brilliant political satire and a searing commentary on abuse of power and public apathy.

Fo wrote the play in 1970 and based it on the fate of Giuseppe Pinelli, a Milanese railroad worker, who was arrested in December 1969 on suspicion of being involved in a bomb explosion in a bank. After three days of brutal interrogation Pinelli, who belonged to an anarchist group, is supposed to have jumped out of a fourth floor window to his death. A corrupt investigation followed and Pinelli’s death was ruled a suicide.

The play is a farce but the police characters in the play and the reporter are apparently thinly disguised representations of the people involved in the suicide and investigation of the death of Pinelli.

Soulpepper has wisely produced a Canadianized version of the play. References to places, events, people and politics in 1970 Milan would make little sense to us. Ravi Jain (who also directs the play) and dramaturge Paula Wing have changed all of that and the play takes place in Toronto. A large picture of Prime Minister Stephen Harper hangs on a wall and recent police and political misconduct is dealt with mercilessly.

The central character of the play is a Madman. He is an impersonator and an impostor who has passed himself off as a psychiatrist, a bishop, a professor, a surgeon and so on. He is a chameleon who thinks, moves and talks at breakneck speed. It is a big and difficult role and Kawa Ada does it with relentless energy and outstanding ability. Without his prodigious talent and bravura performance, the production would not get off the ground. He reminded me of Roberto Benigni.

The rest of the cast are satellites of Ada’s Madman. Oliver Dennis plays the  incompetent Inspector Bertezo. Ins Choi plays also an inspector who is dumb, over-exited and frequently hilarious. Rick Roberts has the major role of the Chief of Police. He is a classic buffoon in a farce but with a sharp edge.   


Oliver Dennis, Kawa Ada & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Raquel Duffy plays the inquisitive journalist who asks intelligent questions about Pinelli’s suicidal jump but as with all the characters, her questions are turned on their head by the Madman. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Williams play stupid cops and get the laughs.

Director Jain goes after every farcical move that he can develop with a sharp eye and dedication. He devises numerous tricks, uses slapstick liberally and milks every laugh until it squeals. It works most of the time but Jain does not know when to stop. When you get a big laugh, you should just go on to the next one. Jain cannot stop repeating the same punch, kick or pratfall until you feel like screaming “enough already.” There is such a thing as overdoing it.

Jain and Wing take on Harper and especially the Toronto police over gross misconduct especially the shooting of Sammy Yatim in the streetcar and their disgusting behaviour during the G20 meeting. Quite right.

But they do not stop there. They wrote a long diatribe against Harper in the play and had Ada step off the stage and out of character to deliver a lengthy editorial against the Conservative government. No one in the audience disagreed with the content but it was not an integral part of the play. It stopped the farce and the comedy to deliver a political message. Good message; bad place.

Except for the excesses, the production is a fine example of what an outstanding actor and a fine cast can do with an utterly wild play that uses farce to attack corruption.
     _________

Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo opened on February 5 and will run until February 21, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

DIE WALKÜRE – REVIEW OF COC PRODUCTION DIRECTED BY ATOM EGOYAN

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper

James Karas

Infidelity, incest, immorality, divine transgression and divine retribution, lust for flesh and power, and the bodies of a few heroes strewn around the stage is all in a day’s work for Wagner. Or 4 hours and 45 minutes, to be more precise, which is how long the current production of Die Walkűre by the Canadian Opera Company takes to give us all those events.

Atom Egoyan’s production has some brilliant touches and some takes that leave you scratching your head.

The set by Michael Levine consists of a mass of steel girders and lights at the top and on the sides of the stage that look like a scene under a bridge. A corner of a stucco building is visible at the back but I could not make out what it was supposed to represent. Is it Valhalla as viewed from under the bridge that was constructed for the gods to enter their grand abode in Das Rheingold? In any event, with some variations, the set serves for the whole opera from Hunding’s hut to the top of the rock where Wotan puts Brűnhilde to sleep and surrounds her by fire. The set is the head scratcher. Asie from that, Egoyan's production is simply superb.

American tenor Clifton Forbes sang the role of Siegmund even though he was indisposed. He struggled through the performance and deserves credit for that but further comment is uncalled for.

American soprano Christine Goerke has a big, clarion voice and sang a superb Brűnhilde. She dominated the scenes that she was in and was especially effective with the Valkyries. When Brűnhilde approaches Siegmund to inform him of Wotan’s decision that he must die, she raises a white sheet to her body and flames cover her torso. It is marvelous touch by Egoyan that foreshadows Brűnhilde’s fate. 
  
Clifton Forbis as Siegmund, Dimitry Ivashchenko as Hunding and Heidi Melton as Sieglinde. Photo: Michael Cooper

Danish baritone Johan Reuter did not make the ideal Wotan. His voice is marvelous in the lower register but it tended to show strain in the upper notes. Part of the problem is that his voice is simply not big enough to go over the orchestra when it is playing at full force. Wotan needs to have an over-powering voice befitting a god. Reuter did not manage those heights all the time.

Russian bass Dimitry Ivashchenko made a superb Hunding. He was vocally strong and resonant and physically threatening. He was well-matched with American soprano Heidi Melton as Sieglinde. She has a big, lovely voice and she showed fear, tenderness and courage as the wife of the boor Hunding and the loving sister/wife of Siegmund.
  
At the end of the opera, Wotan punishes Brűnhilde for her defiance of his orders to allow Hunding to kill Siegmund by placing her atop of a rock surrounded by flames. She will sleep there until a hero rescues her. Wotan’s Farwell to Brűnhilde is one of those great scenes in opera that one could wait not four but forty hours to see it. In this production there is no rock and Brűnhilde simply lies on the ground. But Wagner’s grand music played brilliantly by the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus provides a brilliant moment. As the scene winds up, the Valkyries descend of the stage carrying flaming torches. They surround Brűnhilde as if paying homage to the great Valkyrie and place the troches around her body. Brűnhilde is indeed protected from cowards until a great hero comes to rescue her.

See this exceptional production and wait until next year for the sequel.    
_________


Die Walküre by Richard Wagner opened on January 31 and will be performed a total of seven times until February 22, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca