Monday, October 5, 2015


By James Karas

We the Family is a new play by George F. Walker that received its premiere at Hart House Theatre as the first production of its 2105-2016 season. Stand up and applaud enthusiastically.

The play promises multicultural mayhem, love, larceny and death! Prick up your ears. There are vast possibilities for examining multicultural conflicts in Toronto and as for the rest, well, love, larceny and death are always welcome on stage.  

Phoebe Hu, Sarah Murphy-Dyson and John Cleland. Photo: Scott Gorman 

In the eighty minutes’ performance, you will get some superficial satire of multicultural conflicts, a tad of love, a dose of lust, some gratuitous criminal conduct and a large quantity of jokes some of which are quite funny. But the plot takes so many twists and turns, so quickly that there is no room left for any character development. The episodes come on so quickly, that there is very little time to consider anything. In the end Walker seems to have run out of steam and brought the thing to a quick end after only an hour and twenty minutes. Take a deep breath and a sigh of disappointment.

On the bright side, director Andrea Wasserman and the cast do heroic work to bring this play to life. They do get some laughs and handle Walker’s black comedy well but the play serves them badly because most of the characters are papier mache caricatures rather than human beings.

The multicultural clash involves Jews, Chinese and Catholics when a Jewish young man marries a Chinese woman. We never see the couple but we learn that they are kidnapped on their honeymoon. David Kaplan (John Cleland) is the wealthy and creepy father of the groom who wants to negotiate a good deal with the kidnappers. He enlists his Russian mistress Sonya (Jessica Allen) to use her crime boss father in Russia to help with the negotiations.

In the meantime his crazy, alcoholic and psychotic wife Lizzie (Sarah Murphy-Dyson), is seeing a psychiatrist who does not have an office (played by Renée Haché) and an Arab (played by Mike Vitovich). She wants to kill her husband.

David’s father Sonny (David Cairns) is a criminal while his wife Merle (Connie Guccione) is a racist nut.

The Chinese family is not much better but there are only two of them: Jenny (Phoebe Hu), the mother of the unseen bride and her daughter Lucy (Sherman Tsang).

The several compartments of Brandon Kleiman’s dark set serve well for the numerous scene changes from a bedroom, to a courtroom, to a restaurant scene and a highway.

Walker in the end seemed to have run out of twists and he brought people back from the dead. By then there was nowhere to go but drop the curtain which he does.

In the end your enthusiasm has waned and you are left unsatisfied by unfulfilled expectations and you applaud the director and the actors for their work as you scratch your head about why a fine playwright like Walker allowed a half-baked script to be produced. 

We the Family by George F. Walker played from September 18 to October 3, 2015 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. Telephone (416) 978-8849

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Yours Forever, Marie-Lou is Michel Tremblay’s frightful portrait of a working class family in the 1960s in Quebec. Diana Leblanc has directed a pitch-perfect production for Soulpepper that captures every nuance of the play. This is theatre at its best.

This marvelous play works simultaneously on two solitudes. A husband and a wife are sitting on raised couches on each side of the stage exchanging barbs rooted in deep-seated hatred and disappointment. There is a crucifix behind Marie-Lou (Patricia Marceau) as she sits knitting throughout the play. Her husband Léopold (Christian Laurin) has bottles of beers in front of him and a steering wheel hangs behind him. He is a machine operator, friendless and full of bitterness and resentment.
Patricia Marceau, Geneviève Dufour, Suzanne Roberts Smith & Christian Laurin. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Their daughters are on the stage below the parents and they are in the present day while their parents’ actions took place ten years before. Carmen (Suzanne Roberts Smith) and Manon (Geneviève Dufour) are the products and indeed the victims of the corrosive atmosphere in the family.

Leblanc directs a first rate-cast that brings this pathetic family to life in all its horrors. Marceau as Marie-Lou is sympathetic and pitiable. She is the victim of a religious morality imposed on her that makes sex a duty to be endured occasionally for procreation. Her husband practically rapes her on the few times that they have intercourse and she lives in a closed world where knitting seems to be her primary preoccupation. An outstanding portrayal.

Laurin is equally effective as Léopold, the machine operator who identifies himself with his machine. He has no other world except that of drinking excessively and warring with his wife. He has sex and impregnates his wife against her will and in the end he realizes that he has absolutely nothing to live for.

The two daughters review events that happened ten years before. Manon has become a copy of her mother, right down to her clothes. She is trapped in the same morality with holy water and crucifixes as the central themes of her life. Dufour’s portrayal of this pathetic woman is superb.

Carmen has found an escape route. Smith comes dressed in a cowboy hat, a blonde wig, cowboy boots and the paraphernalia of a country western singer that has much more to do with sexual appeal than anything else. She is the type of woman her father would have gawked at. This, anything it seems, is better than the suffocating and acidic world of her parents and her sister.              

The actors speak with a slight indication of a joual accent that is perfect. The accent locates the play in Quebec without making the characters sound like Quebecois speaking a foreign language. Pitch-perfect.

That is one of the touches by Leblanc who captures every detail as the play builds up to the tragic end for all the members of that sad family. 

The set by Glen Charles Landry shows, as I said, the parents on raised couches. There are parts of cars in the background that will eventually make sense. The atmosphere is unpleasant, to say the least, and the set is a perfect reflection of the lives of the characters.

The play was originally translated by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek for its first English language production at the Tarragon Theatre. The current production is in a new translation by Linda Gaboriau, the dean of Canadian translators. Those with long memories will recall that the first translation was called Forever Yours, Marie-Lou.    

It is a must-see production of a landmark Canadian play.

Yours Forever, Marie-Lou by Michel Tremblay on September 23 and will run until October 17, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015


The inimitable P. G Wodehouse adapted Ferenc Molnar’s The Play’s the Thing for English speakers and the result is a very funny play. Soulpepper is reprising its production directed by László Marton and the result is, as far as the audience is concerned, a not very funny play.

The Play has a terrific plot. Playwrights Sandor Turai (Diego Matamoros) and Mansky (William Webster) have written an operetta to the music of the young Albert Adam (Gordon Hecht). Albert is madly in love with Ilona (Raquel Duffy), the star of the operetta. He overhears her making love to Almady (C. David Johnson), an aging actor, and is so heart-broken, he threatens to tear up the music for the operetta.
 Gordon Hecht, Diego Matamoros, Raquel Duffy & C. David Johnson. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

How can the crafty Turai convince Adam that Ilona and Almady were simply rehearsing a play and not doing …what they were doing. The solution is simple: write a play for the two lovers to rehearse, be overheard by Adam and convince Adam that Ilona is faithful.

The play has some very funny lines to go with the delightful ruse that Turai is concocting. Matamoros’s Turai is arrogant, insulting, clever and inventive. Johnson as the married and aging Don Juan caught in a situation where his wife may get a telegram revealing his escapade, is simply hilarious.

Raquel Duffy is attractive and entertaining as the woman in the middle who must convince the composer that when she said to Almady in her hotel room “don’t bite the delicious, round thing” she meant a peach and not a part of her anatomy.
 C. David Johnson, Gregory Prest & Raquel Duffy. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Oliver Dennis has the cameo role of the insouciant waiter who never says what a servile waiter ought to say and turns in a fine performance. Webster as Mansky is Turai’s sidekick and he is the recipient of the latter’s barbs and putdowns. Gregory Prest has the small role of the supposed manager of everything who manages nothing but he is quite funny in his frustrations and exasperations.

The play is set in a posh castle but the sets by Julie Fox, the original set designer, and Victoria Wallace, the Remount Set Designer, leave most things to the imagination. A few pieces of furniture and a large frame on the wall only hint of luxury. One can only assume that it is a matter of budget and the failure of imagination.

The problem was that the action on the stage did not travel well to the audience. Theatre is a communal thing and it works at its best when the energy, humour and situation created on the stage are transferred to the audience and they follow and react to all that is happening on the stage. The audience in the performance I attended laughed mostly politely. The humour caught on much better in the second half when Johnson was trying to say seven-hyphen French names. For the rest of the performance most of the witty lines and very amusing situations simply did not evoke sufficient laughter. Too bad.

The Play’s the Thing  by Ferenc Molnar adapted by P. G. Wodehouse continues until October 17, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.  

Friday, September 25, 2015


Marat/Sade is the short title of Peter Weiss’s play whose full name is The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under  the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.

The play made a great stir in 1964 when Peter Brook directed a production in London. Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s Artistic Director, has now mounted a credible production of a confusing play that has a lot of theatricality but falls short on comprehensible drama.

A programme note informs us that the play is a “potent stew influenced by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Kafka’s sense of paranoia, Henry Miller’s jaunty eroticism, and especially Brecht’s theories.”
 Stuart Hughes and the Marat/Sade ensemble. Photo: Cylla non Tiedemann 

That is a lot of stew to ingest let alone digest and the production for all its brave attempts at bringing everything forth does not always work.

Schultz and Set Designer Lorenzo Savoini set the play in a cage. Fair enough, we are in an asylum. The play is updated to today’s Canada with the asylum of Charenton being moved to Collins Bay Institution in Kingston. There are some references to current events and we are treated with a couple verses of O Canada.

The central figure of the play is Jean-Paul Marat (Stuart Hughes), the French radical journalist and revolutionary who was assassinated in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday (Katherine Gauthier). That is dramatic enough but I think his fame rests more on Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat which was painted shortly after the assassination.

The large cast goes all over the place with singing and cavorting around the stage. Marat sits in his bathtub throughout but does stand up occasionally as his assassination approaches with Corday’s visits.

The Marquis de Sade (Diego Matamoros) who directs the inmates’ performance sits on the side on a raised chair and takes relatively little part in the action. Jacques Roux (Frank Cox-O’Connell), former priest and radical, Marat’s mistress Simonne Evrard (Deborah Drakeford) and the hormonally overcharged Duperret (Gregory Prest) take the leading roles. Oliver Dennis plays the Herald who is a sort of manager and chorus of the inmates.

As the time for the assassination (and the end of the play) approaches, we see Corday doing a veritable striptease behind a screen. She moves erotically towards Marat in the tub and says “I am coming” with an obvious sexual connotation. She raises the knife to stab Marat and a cast member stops her with a sign that reads “interruptus.”

Another actor daubs some red makeup on Marat to indicate blood and the troupe continues with a song about what happened in the fifteen years following Marat’s death. This is a good indicator of Brecht’s idea of epic theatre – tell a story without re-enacting it realistically. There are strange happenings but we are in an asylum after all.

There are some effective scenes but on the whole the play rambles without focus for much of the time.

Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss opened on September 22 and will run until October 17, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.  

Monday, September 21, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

***** (out of five)

Toronto’s redoubtable Tarragon Theatre opened its 45th season with a fraud. I speak of Blind Date, a ninety minute play by Rebecca Northan which is surreptitiously called “a creation.”

The “creation” is based on the premise that an actor, the same Rebecca Northan in this case, can choose randomly a man from the audience and go on a “blind date” with him right in front of our eyes, a date that lasts almost 90 minutes.

The result on the night I saw the production (September 17, 2015) was an infectiously hilarious evening at the theatre but can we really believe the premise of an instant blind date?
Rebecca Northan as Mimi. Photo: Michael Meehan

Let’s start with Northan. She plays Mimi, a woman from Avignon with a delicious French accent, a clown’s red nose and extraordinary comic talent. She can turn an insignificant line into a comical gem. She uses the usual panoply of a genuine comedian: timing, intonation, body language, in short, genius for comedy.

The clincher here is not that she has all of those characteristics but that she practices them to superb effect with a man that she just plucked from the audience who could easily be a dunce who freezes on stage.

On the day I saw the creation, Northan picked a young man from the audience named Dach. Dach is a self-employed equipment salesman who works from home. He went to the theatre with his girlfriend whom he had dated eight times.

Dach gave an outstanding comic performance. He was convincingly a bit nervous on his unrehearsed transformation from spectator to star in a few seconds and he was very funny. Dach had to deal with a glass of wine that had fruit flies in it; give personal information and leave with Mimi to go to her apartment carrying a glass of wine. The police stops them and Mimi hides their glasses of wine between her legs. Dach has to reach under her dress to get the glasses from there so Mimi can step out of the car for the sobriety test. Can you hear the laughter?

The creation has two more characters who work in the bar and Northan turns these minor parts into comic marvels. Christy Bruce serves wine and Kristian Reimer is the bar manager but both get laughs by simply serving a couple of glasses of wine and reacting to Mimi and Dach. Bruce and Reimer are also scenographers and Bruce is an alternate Mimi.

If you were in the theatre, you would be sitting on the edge of your seat laughing but since you are not, you are no doubt getting heart palpitations at the accusation of fraud. It is quite understandable.

Well, j’accuse Northan of creating and acting in a piece that is simply too good to be the result of a random pick from the audience. The play, the acting and the ambience that Northan creates is simply too good to be true as she contends. Is it possible for Northan to pick up energy from her guest, create situations, come up with replies to his comments and create extraordinary comedy spontaneously? Remember this is not someone being picked from the audience as on some television show, kept on stage for a couple of minutes, perhaps mildly ridiculed and sent packing after a couple of cheap laughs.

Dach is treated with respect, Mimi recalls what he says long after he has said something and creates comedy from these comments.

This was also one of the rare occasions when the performers have the audience in the palms of their hands and can make them laugh at will.

Is it possible that someone is so talented that she can do this every night or is it just a setup? Northan tells us that she has been having blind dates on stage for some seven years and she has trained other women to do the same. Good grief!

The only solution is for you to see Blind Date and we will have a referendum on the issue. We can put it on the ballot on October 19 or have one of our polling experts tell us if this is comic creativity at its most mindboggling 19 times out of 20 with no margin of error.  

Blind Date created by Rebecca Northan continues until October 4, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto,

Monday, September 14, 2015


By James Karas

Happy Place is a new play by Pamela Mala Sinha that just premiered at Soulpepper. It is an interesting play about the lives of broken women seeking help in an upscale in-patient facility. It has some moving narratives, considerable humour and a journey into the lives of its characters.

There are six women of different ages and backgrounds in the facility who are joined by traumatic experiences. They have attempted to commit suicide and they are hoping to mend their lives with the help of therapist Louise (Deborah Drakeford) and other unseen staff of the institution. 
Caroline Gillis, Irene Poole & Pamela Mala Sinha.   Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Sinha, who also plays the role of Kathleen, one of the patients, tells the stories of the women mostly through short scenes. There are almost continuous entrances and exits by the characters with some longer scenes where the narrative is developed and we are permitted longer views into the lives of these women.

Mildred (a very dramatic Diane D’Aquila) is the oldest patient. She is the victim of a botched hysterectomy and is a deeply troubled woman. Her clothes are disheveled, her hair is a mess and she  still seeks sexual pleasure with considerable humour. In the end she breaks down in the most dramatic scene of the play.

Rosemary (Irene Poole) is a woman approaching menopause who is deeply troubled by not having a child of her own while desperately trying to become a mother to her stepson. She tries to hide her emotional distress from the others but we get glimpses at the depth of her turmoil.

Samira (Oyin Oladejo) is a black woman who was raped as a child with a pillow pressed against her face. She did not see anything or perhaps she did but she cannot come to terms with remembering the event. Nina (Liisa Repo-Martell) is so intent on having a child that she produced false positive results on a pregnancy test. She is convinced that she is pregnant. Like all of the women, she is on a suicide watch.

Joyce (Caroline Gillis) smiles continuously at the beginning of the play but her smile slowly disappears from her face as she begins to face her relationship with her husband.

Drakeford’s Louise is drawn with some sympathy even though she has to be somewhat officious and stern as the overseer of the woman’s therapy. It is an incomplete and uneasy character drawing.    
          Irene Poole & Liisa Repo-Martell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The play has a lot of ground to cover. There are six women who have been so traumatized that they want to take their own lives. Most playwrights would be content to tell the story of one of them alone at some depth without a thought to more than one, let alone six. The quick change of scenes by the characters moving on and off the stage and different plot strands being picked up every time is almost too much to absorb at times.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini consists of a white-painted room with a couch, a TV set and a kitchenette. Some changes in lighting by Lighting Designer Kimberly Purtell are used to indicate scene changes including exterior scenes.

Director Alan Dilworth has the women walk on and off the stage through the side and back entrances to the stage with precision and evinces good performances from the stellar cast.

Sinha manages to tell the stories of all the women with considerable effectiveness but there may be just too much happening and more than can be told in a couple of hours or so.  

Happy Place by Pamela Mala Sinha opened on September 10 and will run until October 17, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. 416 944-1740

Sunday, August 30, 2015


James Karas

A COMPLIMENT: The Stratford Festival gives us a robust, superbly acted and splendidly directed production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

A COMPLAINT: Well, let’s leave that for later.

The Alchemist was first produced in 1610 and is invariably accepted as one of the masterpieces of English drama. It is set in 17th century London and has a wide range of references and language and jargon pertaining to the fake science of alchemy that are not always easy to follow by a modern audience. But Director Antoni Cimolino drives a truck through all of that with a first-rate cast that generates energy and humour from start to finish.
 From left: Stephen Ouimette as Subtle, Brigit Wilson as Dol Common and Jonathan Goad as Face. Photography by David Hou.

The world of The Alchemist is divided into two types of people: the swindlers and the swindled. In the absence of the owner, a servant and his two partners take over a house and turn it into a fraudsters’ paradise. Subtle (Stephen Ouimette) is the alchemist who can instruct on how to establish a successful business, quarrel like a slick gentleman, make a fortune in gambling, marry a wealthy widow and become wildly wealthy by having all your pots and pans turned into gold. And much more. Jeremy, the servant who provides the house and names himself Face (Jonathan Goad), is the rainmaker/businessman who is quick of mind, tongue and foot. Dol Common (Brigit Wilson) is the peace maker and piece provider who completes the trio of scammers supreme.        

Ouimette, Goad and Wilson give excellent performances. They exude energy and feed off each other as the characters they play go through various transformations to keep up with the demands of their customers and one step ahead of being discovered. Ouimette deserves extra kudos because he has the biggest and toughest role to play.

They are ready for the dupes. Scott Wentworth plays Epicure Mammon, the greediest and the funniest of them all. His puffed up costume makes him look as if he could fly away if he were not full of blubber. Mammon’s greed has no bounds. He fantasizes that the philosopher’s stone of the alchemist will give him wealth, love, honour, long life and victory. With it he will be able to turn an old man into a child. Wentworth’s performance was equal to Mammon’s exuberant fantasies with one minor glitch. As the audience was enjoying his performance, Wentworth momentarily slipped out of character for a cheap laugh.
 Jonathan Goad (left) as Face and Scott Wentworth as Epicure Mammon. Photography by David Hou
Randy Hughson, with his gravelly voice, was highly entertaining as pastor Tribulation. Antoine Yared, dressed in a barrister’s gown and wig, played the greasy law clerk Dapper who wants to get lucky in gambling, so lucky in fact that the other gamblers won’t have enough money left to buy dinner.         

Steve Ross plays the innocent and not-too-bright Drugger who wants business advice about his new tobacconist shop. He gets nothing and loses a lot but Ross’s acting gives a great deal of pleasure to the audience.

Give kudos to Wayne Best as Surly, Mammon’s sidekick, who is smart enough to want to catch the fraudsters. He disguises himself as a Spaniard, falls for the dumb Dame Pliant (Jessica B. Hill) and in the ends gets nothing.   

Antoni Cimolino deserves the greatest credit for the success of the production. The play opens on a high note as Subtle and Face argue vigorously about billing, one could say. Subtle is on the toilet and he grabs the pot wherein he did his job and threatens to toss it on Face. Hilarious invention by Cimolino.

Then the dupes start arriving, first singly and later in pairs or more. Cimolino sets the pace and there is a build-up of energy and laughter as the plot thickens and eventually explodes.  

THE COMPLAINT: Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare and is usually considered only second to him in the quality of his output. Take a guess and count on your fingers how many productions of his plays the Stratford Festival has offered since 1953. One hand will do.

We had to wait until Jean Gascon became Artistic Director in 1969 for the first production of a play by Jonson in Stratford. We got The Alchemist and two years later Gascon gave us Volpone with William Hutt.

The next coffee break lasted until 1999 (count fingers, toes and other appendages for numerical precision) for another Jonson play and got The Alchemist and a mere ten years later we saw Bartholomew Fair directed by Cimolino. Two plays by Jonson in six years may seem like a feast when in fact it is a disgrace. The same holds true of productions of the plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries but that’s another subject.

See Cimolino’s The Alchemist and you will realize what we are deprived of.

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson opened on August 15 and will run in repertory until September 19, 2015 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.