Tuesday, April 26, 2016

CARMEN – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

CARMEN by Georges Bizet. Clémentine Margaine (Carmen), David Pomeroy (Don José) Karine Boucher (Micaela), Zachary Nelson (Escamillo). Conductor  Paolo Carignani. Director Joel Ivany. Set Designer Michael Yeargan.
Until May 15 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto. www.coc.ca

*** (out of five)

An opera company can’t lose by producing Bizet’s Carmen with its tragic plot and familiar music but it is difficult to be completely successful. That summarizes the “success” of the Canadian Opera Company’s current production.

I saw the performance of April 20 and the singing ranged from the good to the adequate. The staging and costumes can bear the same description with unalloyed cheers for the chorus and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the baton of Paolo Carignani.
 
Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and David Pomeroy as Don José. 
Photo: Michael Cooper
Carmen, the gypsy, the cigarette girl, the femme fatale who ensnares men at will and spits them out like used gum when she tires of them, is a woman embedded in our imagination. The details may vary but all of us possess a Carmen in our souls. That means heaven help the singer who takes on the role.

French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine starts as a tame Carmen with little passion, and even less sexual magnetism. Singing accurately is not enough. Wearing a frumpy dress and with rather limited movements in the first act, she does not convince us that she can lure Corporal Don José (David Pomeroy) into a life of crime.

In the second act at Lillas Pastia’s tavern, Carmen is called to dance for Don José but unfortunately dancing is not Margaine’s great forte. She throws her arms up in the air and does a few twirls to the languid music but it is not quite the real thing.

But Margaine and the entire production do come together in a triumphal finish at the end. Don José begins by pleading and expressing his love for Carmen outside the bullring while she stands firm in her rejection. He goes crazy with passion and jealousy while she vocalizes her independence and freedom until he strikes her with his dagger.

Canadian tenor David Pomeroy did not always soar but rose to the demands of the role in the Flower Song in the tavern where he expresses his longing for Carmen and he is at his best in the final scene where he moves from lyrical pleading to murderous despair.    

Canadian soprano Karine Boucher was a sweet Micaela with a shimmering voice that was occasionally in danger of being drowned by the orchestra. American baritone Zachary Nelson was Escamillo, the toreador. He was in good voice and delivered a fine “Toreador, Toreador”.
 
Karine Boucher as Micaëla and David Pomeroy as Don José. Photo: Michael Cooper
Director Joel Ivany and Set Designer Michael Yeargan came up with some interesting staging ideas. In the first scene, there is a wrought iron fence separating the city square from the army barracks. Most of the action takes place in the square where people come and go and children march and sing. Why is a significant portion of the stage blocked off by the fence?

The third act in the smugglers’ lair in the mountains is appropriately dark and foreboding.

The final scene is staged quite magnificently. Women selling flowers, programmes, oranges and whatnots outside the bullring appear in some of the aisles of the theatre. Picadors, toreros and banderillos come down the aisle and go on the stage as does Escamillo making his grand entrance.

The hordes of people going to the bullfight usually enter the bullring and disappear. In this production we see the spectators watching the bullfight as the tragic event between Carmen and Don José is enacted. Very effective.


Monday, April 25, 2016

SCARBERIA – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION OF PLACEY’S PLAY


By James Karas

Scarberia by Evan Placey with Shelly Antony, Mishka Thébaud and Alejandra Simmons. Directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Designed by Joanna Yu. Until May 1, 2016 in the Nathan Cohen Studio, Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

*** (out of 5)

Scarberia, Evan Placey’s new play, has a lot going for it. For openers, one half of it is based in Scarborough, ONTARIO and that gives it the benefit of familiarity. No doubt there are other plays based in Toronto’s (in)famous suburb but I don’t think there are many. The other half is based in Scarborough, England which takes us out of the parochial restrictions suggested by Toronto’s ….

The play has two pairs of 15-year old friends, one pair in England and one pair in Canada and they are almost identical. The English pair consists of Craig and Simon and the Canadian pair is made up of Craven and Simian. They are played by the same actors: Shelly Antony plays Craig and Craven and Mishka Thébaud plays Simon and Simian.

Shelly Antony and Mishka Thébaud in a scene from Scarberi. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
There is a fifth character, a teenager called Marisha, played by Alejandra Simmons.

The set represents two beaches, one in Ontario (Scarborough Bluffs) and one in England. Craig and Simon are bosom friends (they spit on their palms and shake hands in affirmation of their unbreakable bond of friendship) and they discover the body of a dead young girl on the beach in England.

They discover that the young girl is Canadian, in fact she is from Scarborough and that raises the troubling and fascinating question of how her body managed to wash ashore in England. There is the mystery that must be unraveled.

Craven and Simian of Scarborough, Ontario are aware that a girl is missing and the mystery deepens as it should. So does the range of reference used by the teenagers which takes us from quantum physics or mechanics to Shakespeare. If someone is dead (like Simon’s mother) she may continue to exist in a parallel universe. Something about transference.

There are a number of references to Shakespeare especially to Romeo and Juliet. The play has what is politely called strong language and explicit sexual references. When one character speaks of Juliet going down on her Nurse, you may not want to explain the image to a ten-year old. The play is noted as appropriate for ages 14 and up. Caveat emptor. 

By this time it may be apparent that I am losing threads of the plot and, to put it bluntly, getting confused. Marisha speaking in rhyming couplets does not provide total comprehension. There is betrayal between the two friends but my interest wanes as the confusion increases.

Mishka Thébaud, Alejandra Simmons and Shelly Antony. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
Antony, Thébaud and Simmons are doing a fine job except for the accents. They are supposed to speak with a southern Ontario and northern England accent but at times it is tough to tell which is which.  Director Nina Lee Aquino munts a fast-paced thriller and she does her job but the script is not on her side.

At the end of the performance I looked at the person beside me. “I will have to read the script for this one” came the cryptic remark.


Walking down the stairs the word that crops up from the people behind me is “confusing.” These were adults and the word may apply only to the perception of people in their dotage (say over thirty) and not to those over 14 who know quantum mechanics and their Shakespeare.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

VEGGERA – REVIEW OF GREEK COMMUNITY OF TORONTO PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Greek Community of Toronto is back into theatre production. The first staging by The Adult Theatre Group of the Greek Community of Toronto, to give them their full name, is Veggera by Elias Kapetanakis. It is a comedy of manners that was first produced in 1894.

Veggera gets an ambitious production directed by the Greek Community’s new theatre director Maria Kordoni. Veggera means a visit or more than a visit because it implies entertainment and soiree may be a better translation.
 

 Cast of Veggera. Photo: George Gekas

The uncouth Mr. Neroulos (Ioannis Dimitriou) and the unsophisticated Mrs. Neroulos (Eirini Moschaki) are visited by the high-toned Mr. Stenos (Demetrios Kobiliris) and the haughty Mrs. Stenos (Rania Babasi). They are accompanied by their handsome nephew Nikos (Petros Pehlivanoglou).

Mr. and Mrs. Neroulos have two nubile but immature daughters, Marika (Athina Viopoulou) and Katina (Stavroula Krissilas), and Pipis, an obnoxious son played by Dimitris Dimitriou, a grade four student and a scene stealer. The Neroulos family is sufficiently well off to afford a maid (Iro Vakoufari) who is, of course, dense and incompetent. Froso (Maria Diolitsi) is another visitor to add to the women attracted to Nikos.

That sets up the comic situation with Mr. Neroulos boring the daylights out of Mr. Stenos who wants to get out of there but feels socially obligated to stay. Mrs. Stenos is driven up the wall by Mrs. Neroulos and the visit is topped off with the maid spilling coffee on her (Mrs. Stenos’s) dress. Nikos’s attempt at amusing the young ladies and vice versa is a disaster. In the meantime, the bratty son is wreaking havoc every time he runs on the stage and you know that this veggera is not going to end well.

Kordoni directs everyone to act effusively and use and sometimes overuse their hands. Kobiliris with his upturned collar and tie is the epitome of snobbery and Rania Babasi looks like she would rather clean stables than be with these peasants. Moschaki and Dimitriou are trying to show that they are sophisticated and they display the opposite as do their daughters.
                                                       Cast of Veggera. Photo: George Gekas
The evening starts with a “pre-show” called All the World is One Hug directed by Kordoni. A troupe of children dressed like birds are the inhabitants of a lake. They recite poetry as they try to establish a modus vivendi on the lake. They are cute, have some mishaps and the audience just loves them.

A few words about director Maria Kordoni. She is replacing Nancy Athan-Mylonas who was at the helm of theatre, music and dance productions at the Greek Community for more than two decades. Kordoni graduated from Theatre Empros drama school in 2000 and her biographical note shows considerable acting experience and some directing exposure, all of it in Greece. Most of the actors in Veggera appear to be relatively recent immigrants from Greece. The youngsters in All the World are Canadian-born. There is immense talent available in the Greek community. She will need to find it, nurture it and display it. A better venue is a sine qua non. I am not sure how much the people in the back rows of the Polymenakio Centre were able to see.

A postscript. We accept the fact that part of the mission of the Community is to educate us. By having an opportunity to see Veggera, we learn of its existence and we want to know more about the play and the author.

So who is playwright Elias Kapetanakis? The programme gives us some information and Wikipedia tells us that he was a playwright, gives his dates (1858-1922) and names the three plays that he wrote. Bruce Merry’s Encyclopedia of Modern Greek Literature does not list him at all. Linos Politis in A History of Modern Greek Literature ignores him completely and Mario Vitti in his History of Modern Greek Literature does not mention him at all either. The Readers Encyclopedia of World Drama has an extensive write up about Modern Greek theatre but Kapetanakis is not included.

Alas, even the 4498-column  Orthographic and Encyclopedic Lexicon “Ilios” omits him. It does include one Kimon Kapetanakis (born 1900) as a writer of comedies, operettas and revues.

But there is a bright spot. Dodoni Editions published Veggera and two other pays by Kapetanakis in 1992 and the book seems to be still available in bookstores in Greece.

Now that the Greek Community is back in theatre productions, our education is bound to improve as is our enjoyment of Greek plays.
________

Veggera by Elias Kapetanakis was performed three times on April 16 and 17, 2016 at the Polymenakion Cultural Centre, The Greek Community of Toronto, 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, Ontario. www.greekcommunity.org. Telephone (416) 425-2485

Friday, April 22, 2016

HAMLET – REVIEW OF FILM OF 2015 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The 2015 Stratford Festival production directed by Antoni Cimolino on the stage and by Shelagh O’Brien for the film with Jonathan Goad, Seana McKenna, Geraint Wyn Davies, Tim Campbell, Adrienne Gould, Tom Rooney and Mike Shara.

**** (out of five)

The film of the Stratford Festival’s 2015 production of Hamlet is coming to movie theatres on April 23.

I had mixed feelings about the live production but my views about the filmed version are quite enthusiastic. There are details, facial expressions and intonations in the film that I simply did not get or appreciate in the theatre.

Film director Shelagh O’Brien has filmed virtually the whole performance without any background scenery. The actors perform before a black background. The lit performance area on the stage is almost always compact and this makes scene changes quick and seamless. The lights go down in the scene that we are watching and the next scene begins immediately as the lights go on in that area.

Members of the company in Hamlet. Photography by David Hou.
The performance was filmed before a live audience but O’Brien manages to edit them out completely. We hear some laughter but there are no shots of people watching the play.

Most of the camera shots are judicious and effective except for a small penchant for close-ups. Seeing a chin-to-forehead shot on a big screen of Hamlet’s face is unnecessary not to say ridiculous. It does not reveal anything that we could not see plainly from a few feet away.

The combined effect of all the above is a well-paced drama that is directed at you, rather than the audience of a large theatre. The facial expressions of Goad as Hamlet, Seana McKenna as Gertrude and Geraint Wyn Davies as Claudius are incomparably more effective than what one can discern in the theatre.

Goad’s handling of the poetry may not be the best but he is capable of considerable dramatic range. Adrienne Gould as Ophelia does excellent work and in the mad scene she rises to meteoric heights.

Cimolino treats Polonius, played by Tom Rooney, respectfully and in fact makes him a cleric with a large cross hanging from his neck. Polonius is an easy target for ridicule but there is none of that in this production and quite right too. Cimolino lays great emphasis on the Christian morality of the play. In addition to Polonius being a cleric, there is a large white cross suspended in the air through much of the performance. A startling reminder of Christian doctrine including, among others, the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, the reason Hamlet does not kill Claudius when he finds him praying and the unsanctified ground where Ophelia is almost buried.

Horatio is a likeable figure but in the hands of Tim Campbell he becomes quite memorable as the voice of decency and true friendship. A marvellous performance.

Cimolino is a director who lives by details and this production abounds in them. One example will suffice. We see that Ophelia has a violin and a stand with the score of La Traviata  on it. Beside them there is a sewing machine. She is a cultured woman with domestic virtues. She plays a few notes on the violin and sings “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day” to her father. This is not in the text. During her mad scene, when she is grieving for her father she sings the same words. The characterization and the connection are inserted by Cimolino. Simply brilliant.

The production is done in modern dress with some inevitable changes. Hamlet, for example, shoots Polonius with a rifle. Michael Walton’s lighting is dramatic from the first beam of light that shoots upward from the stage to the same one that emanates from the grave on the stage at the end. 


Hamlet will be released in Cineplex theatres on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and on April 28.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

DAS DING (THE THING) – REVIEW OF THEATRE SMASH PRODUCTION AT BERKELEY STREET THEATRE UPSTAIRS

James Karas

Production:   DAS DING (THE THING)
Author:          Philip Löhle, translated by Birgit Schreyer Duarte
Director:        Ashlie Corcoran  
Cast:               Kristopher Bowman, Lisa Karen Fox, Qasim Khan, Philip Nozuka, Naomi                         Wright 
Company:      Theatre Smash, Canadian Stage and The Thousand Islands Playhouse
Venue:            Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario.    
Run:               April 12 to May 1, 2016

**   (out of five)

When you step in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs you see a large globe, draped in white sheets with an actor sitting on top of it. He is dressed in white and wears a crown askance. When the performance begins, a man who is identified as the explorer Magellan (Naomi Wright) limps onto the stage. He asks the petulant and somewhat thick person on top of the globe for a raise. It is refused.

The man with the crown is King Manoel of Portugal (Qasim Klan) and Magellan asks for support to find a route to the Indian Ocean by sailing west. The King refuses that request as well and Magellan departs to offer his services elsewhere and circumnavigate the globe. That is clear but the rest of the play is a complete muddle.

Qasim Khan, Lisa Karen Cox, Philip Nozuka, Naomi Wright, Kristopher Bowman. Photo by James Heaslip.
German playwright Philip Lohle’s play is described as a social comedy but I found precious little that was comic and the social commentary was spread over a number of episodes that left me cold.

Here is what the press release says about the play (and if you resort to that you are not paying a compliment to the play):

Das Ding (The Thing) spans an interconnected world that binds the unlikely fates of an African farmer named Siwa, Chinese business people, Romanian pig-breeders and two young Canadian newlyweds Katherine and Thomas. Told through the journey of the eponymous ‘thing’ – a cotton fibre in its apparently endless iterations – the play illuminates the fundamental connection between global economics and our domestic lives, forcing us to consider whether such a thing as coincidence truly exists

Five actors play a dozen roles including The Thing which is the world. The cover of the large globe is partially removed as the performance proceeds and I suppose we see a world destroyed or denuded by us.  

Löhle touches on a number of issues starting with the second scene which is entitled Love. The scene titles are projected on the rear of the stage and I was grateful for that. The love story is between Thomas (Kristopher Bowman) and Katharine (Lisa Karen Cox) and like many relationships it has its bumps. I can’t really remember what happens.
 
Kristopher Bowman, Lisa Karen Cox, Qasim Khan, Philip Nozuka. Photo by James Heaslip.
We move to more global issues. Patrick (Philip Nozuka) is interviewed on Tokyo television by an enthusiastic Journalist (Wright). There are issues with genetically modified food, photography and globalization in general. All of the actors play The Thing which is by no means inanimate. The characters sit on the globe, peer from inside and throw balls, little globes, of course.

I think that is correct but the plot is so convoluted that I found my mind wandering and I no doubt missed a few parts.

The play is co-produced by Theatre Smash and Canadian Stage and directed by Ashlie Corcoran. She tries to create energy by having the actors perform at spirited speeds and they do but the play is basically incomprehensible and provides a pretty bad night at the theatre.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

DISGRACED - REVIEW OF AKHTAR’S PLAY AT PANASONIC THEATRE

By James Karas

Production:     DISGRACED
Author:           Ayad Akhtar
Director:         Robert Ross Parker  
Cast:                Raoul Bhaneja, Karen Glave, Ali Momen, Michael Rubenfeld, Birgitte                             Solem
Location:        Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.
Production:     The Hope and Hell Theatre Co.
Run:                Until April 24, 2016

**** (out of five)

Disgraced is one of those rare plays that has such emotional intensity, verbal economy and examination of complex issues and people that it leaves you infuriated, exhilarated and exhausted. In the ninety minutes it takes to perform the play, it builds up to an extraordinary climactic scene that will stay with you for a long time.

Amir (Raoul Bhaneja) is the classic American success story. He is a lawyer working in mergers and acquisitions and lives in swank apartment in New York’s Upper East Side. His wife Emily (Birgitte Solem) is blonde, beautiful, ambitious and a talented artist.
 Raoul Bhaneja, Karen Glave, Michael Rubenfeld and Birgitte Solem in DISGRACED. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
She has a deep and sensitive understanding of the intricacies and beauty of Muslim art. Amir looks at Muslims the way many Americans, French and Belgians would regard them today. Amir is a lapsed Muslim who is on his way up the legal profession ladder and he looks like a liberal American who wants nothing to do with radical Muslims. He thinks the Koran is nothing but a hate letter.

But not quite. Amir in the end admits that he felt pride on September 11th and he likes hearing about Iran wanting to push Israel into the Mediterranean and wipe it off the face of the earth. He has tried hard to assimilate himself but his integration may be superficial. The play was first produced in 2012 but it is as relevant as if it were written yesterday.

Bur his wife wants the world to know about the superiority of Muslim art and has her own ideas about the Koran and Muslim culture.

Isaac (Michael Rubenfeld) is a Jewish art dealer who is attracted to Emily and has his own views. He is married to Jory (Karen Glave) a black lawyer who is working in the same Jewish firm as Amir and competing for the same prize – partnership in the firm. We also have Amir’s young nephew Abe (Ali Momen) who changed his name from Hussein in a desperate attempt at assimilation.

That is a long list of issues but the play tackles them with dexterity and dramatic agility leading to the all-important climactic scene.

The success of the production lies in the pace that director Robert Ross Parker establishes and maintains. Bhaneja does a good job as the passionate secularist American who turns out to have something quite different embedded in his soul.

That “something different” is embedded in the souls of the Jewish Isaac, the black Jory and the Muslim Abe and watching that “something” ripped out and exposed is part of the outstanding dramatic effect of the play.


Akhtar does not mince his words when he looks at the West’s conflict with the Muslims. The issue is presented so even-handedly and humanely that a disgusting bigot like Donald Trump would nod at some of its views and many Muslims would applaud parts of its analysis. But it is an intelligent play and fine theatre and not something that Trump would understand.

Monday, April 11, 2016

LUCIO SILLA – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Production:       LUCIO SILLA
Author:             Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Company:         Opera Atelier
Director:           Marshall Pynkoski
Principal Singers: Mireille Asselin, Peggy Kriha Dye, Inga Kalna, Meghan Lindsay, Krešimir                               Spicer
Venue:              Elgin Theatre
Location;          189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario     
Run:                 April 7 to April 16, 2016

***** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

Another Canadian premiere from Opera Atelier? Yes. Mozart’s Lucio Silla has never been produced in Canada and if you consider that it was first performed in Milan in 1772 it does make for one hell of a coffee break.

Mozart composed Lucio Silla when he was sixteen years old and was already a veteran composer. The work complies with the conventions of opera seria which means a silly plot developed though recitatives, long (very long) arias and a few choruses and duets.
The company of Lucio Silla. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Marshall Pynkoski has found many ways to turn the opera, with all its virtues and shortcomings, into an astounding production.

The arias whose words have often very little to do with the intended emotion sound thrilling if sung by superb voices. Pynkoski has four sopranos and a baritone who sing the bravura and beautiful arias as well as the inane and ineffectual simply gorgeously. The characters may be cardboard figures but their vocal prowess is not.

The plot? Dictator Lucio Silla (tenor Krešimir Spicer) loves Giunia (soprano Meghan Lindsay) who (a) hates him because he killed her father and (b) is aggressively faithful and in in love with Cecilio (soprano Peggy Kriha Dye). Lucio’s sister Celia (Mireille Asselin) tries to give her brother some pointers about wooing and tries to convince Giunia that Lucio is not a bad catch. Celia loves Cinna (soprano Inga Kalna). The opera has another tenor, Aufidio, but Pynkoski has fired him making my summary and the performance shorter. Oh yes, it turns out that Lucio is not such a bad guy and they all live happily ever after.

Giunia gets some of the best arias. She grieves for her father, meets Cecilio whom she thought dead and goes through some severe emotional scenes by opera seria standards. Lindsay handles them all with vocal splendour.

Asselin as Celia has lighter music but her singing is simply superb. Inga sings the role of the plotting Cinna who recommends that Giunia marry Lucio and slash his throat as a honeymoon night present. Kriha Dye sings the melodramatic Cecilio who has a lot to be melodramatic about what with the imminent possibility of losing his love and his life. Again marvelous singing.
Kresimir Spicer (front) with Peggy Kriha Dye and Meghan Lindsay (behind) with artists of Atelier Ballet. 
Photo by Bruce Zinger.
The only male in the production is Spicer as the unhinged Lucio. He seems to have the most fun as he blusters, threatens and overdoes everything. A fine performance in every way by Spicer.

Pynkoski and Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg take care to make full use of the stage and provide judicious movement to alleviate the length of some of the arias. What could be painfully static appears less so. Shrewd use of dancing has the same effect.

The gorgeous costumes and set by Gerard Gauci add significantly to the enjoyment of the opera. Gauci provides panels and backdrops of monumental scenes of ancient Rome. The scene changes from somewhere outside Rome, to an interior, to the entrance to a burial chamber to a prison and the outside of the Roman capitol are done swiftly and effectively.

David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra to produce its usual glorious sound and the Atelier Ballet under Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg adds the icing on the cake.

The straight-jacket conventions of opera seria were not helped by Giovanni de Gamerra, abbot, soldier, playwright and really lousy librettist, who provided the turgid text for the opera. Mozart did much better with his music albeit within the conventions.

Opera Atelier has loosened the straightjacket, managed to respect the conventions and still give us a fabulous production. It will not make Lucio Silla your favourite opera but you will be glad you saw it.