Tuesday, November 21, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast has been around for almost three hundred years in various forms. But Disney has generated a whole industry with its musical transformation of the tale as a cartoon on film and live on Broadway and around the world.

It is such a wonderful story one can hardly blame the Disney Corporation and others for relying on the tale for entertainment and moral instruction for young and old. Young People’s Theatre is offering the musical during November and December and if the matinee that I saw is an indication to full and enthusiastic audiences mostly of pre-teens.

The production has the virtues of a fine cast that can sing, dance, take care of comic business and get dramatic and scary as necessary. We follow the story enraptured in its telling as if we have never heard it or seen or before. But that is not all.
 
(L-R): Stewart Adam McKensy, Andrew Prashad, Emma Rudy and Celine Tsai, 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
This is brilliant entertainment wrapped with easy-to digest morality lessons. Beauty (Celine Tsai) loves her father Maurice (Neil Foster) who is an outcast in the village; she rejects the empty-headed, egotistical and boorish Gaston (Aaron Ferguson) and she makes reading books and thinking appear attractive. She may be considered odd herself but she is a strong character who can stand up for herself. Count the number of virtues this young lady displays (if you need the fingers of only one hand, you better examine your values) and have a chat with your children

Examine the actions of the handsome Prince (Stewart Adam McKensy) who throws out an old beggar woman (Claire Rouleau) and is cursed by a spell becoming a Beast. There is a period of self-realization and transformation, a personal change that results in his  humanization. And McKensy has a marvelous voice – another virtue, no dount.

Damien Atkins as Lumiere and Andrew Prashad as Cogsworth are very funny and Mrs. Potts (Susan Henley) and Chip (Phoebe Hu) are both funny and charming.  

This is a fairy tale about change, growth, transformation and cogent lessons about tolerance, understanding and decency.

Who better to judge the quality of the production and the attendant issues of the fairy tale than my two Assistant Reviewers? Jordana (I am going to be 11 in January) and Emily, bright red lipstick applied with surgical precision, (I am going to be 10 in March).

Jordana liked and complimented the singing and as the daughter of a singer and participant in musicals herself, her opinion can hardly be gainsaid. Her assessment was that “Over all, it is a very good production” [sic]. She knew the story well enough to have drawn her own conclusions about its morality.
 
(L-R): Emma Rudy, Zorana Sadiq, Dale R. Miller, Damien Atkins, Aaron Ferguson, Claire Rouleau, 
Celine Tsai, Joel Schaefer and Jacob MacInnis, Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Asked about what she learned, Emily said tersely “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Her favourite scene was when Beauty and Beast kissed.

But Emily had second thoughts about some things. “Would you have let the old beggar woman in your house if she knocked on your door?” she asked me.

“Of course” I replied a bit too quickly.
 
“But mommy tells me not to talk to strangers and never to let anyone in our house” she observed. Ah!

The YPT production is an edited version of the Broadway musical and runs for about 85 minutes that seems to be the right amount of time before the kids start getting restless. The set by Sue LePage consists of moveable panels that enable quick and efficient scene change.

The fact that I enjoyed the production is of secondary importance. Listen to the infallible and totally reliable opinions of my Associate Reviewers and take your children to see the show.              
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Beauty and the Beast  by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics), Linda Woolverton (book) directed by Allen MacInnis, continues until Dec. 31 at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca


Sunday, November 19, 2017

POISON – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Poison is a play by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans that is based on the simplest of plots and consisting almost entirely on the recollections of a couple that has been separated for nine years. Yet it is a moving, elegiac play in which most of the deep emotions, the grief and the pain that it expresses form an almost invisible undercurrent. We share the expressed and especially unexpressed pain of the couple in this superbly done production of a marvellous play.

Vekemans calls the two characters of her play He and She and they meet in a cemetery in Holland for a meeting with other people about what should be done with the people buried there because their remains may be poisoning the waterbed.

There is no meeting and He and She stay to talk to each other haltingly, with numerous pauses and embarrassment. There is considerable emotional tension, anger and attempts to conceal their true feelings. But the facts do come out, slowly and judiciously controlled by the playwright and in turn by the actors.
Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra in Poison. Photo: DAHLIA KATZ  
He left her on New Year’s Eve 1999, the eve of the millennium at a precise hour and drove away. He is now living in France and went back to Holland for the meeting. Spoiler alert. The pain that joins them is the death of their son who was killed in an accident, right in front of his mother’s eyes. The pain is unbearable.

There are recriminations, attempts to understand why he left her and why she did nothing to stop him. Attempts and some success at sharing the grief and the pain, and attempts at reconciliation or at bridging the emotional gap are made but nothing really works.

Ted Dykstra plays He and Fiona Highet is She. Highet is a tall woman with expressive eyes and a voice that intones her complex emotions about her child, her separation, her anger and her loneliness. It is a beautiful performances that draws us into her beauty and agony.

Dykstra, with his tousled hair looks more like a kid than an adult. He stands accused of abandoning his wife, of not having the depth of feeling and sorrow that she feels and of moving on with his life. It is not true but he in fact has moved on with his life. He reaches out to her and she is almost ready to reach back until she is crushed by him again. He is married and expecting a child.

This beautifully moving play is done in the small playing area of the Coal Mine Theatre, in front of a bare white wall, some white plastic chairs and a water cooler designed by Patrick Lavender. Director Peter Pasyk controls the revelations and the emotional levels of the play to almost subliminal levels. The audience feels them more acutely that way.
A moving and splendid night at the theatre.              
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Poison by Lot Vekemans translated by Rina Vergano continues until December 3, 2017 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Friday, November 17, 2017

DAUGHTER – REVIEW OF ADAM LAZARUS’ PERFORMANCE AT THEATRE CENTRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Adam Lazarus, for those who don’t know him, is a talented man of the theatre including an outstanding stand-up comic. His comedy is witty, physical, raunchy, scatological and moving. He brings all those traits to his one-man show Daughter that he wrote and co-created with Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino. Kerr directs the performance.

For Daughter, Lazarus adopts the character of a lower class Jew and starts with a description of playing with his six-year old daughter. He dances and she “dances” with him; she is clever, delightful and wonderful. Then he pushes her hard into her bed and we start with his neuroses, doubts and other incidents of his life.

He covers a lot of ground. He describes incidents like losing his virginity, drinking urine. Eating (sort of) feces, playing an injurious and mean-spirited prank on an unattractive girl, having affairs, having sex with hookers and contracting gonorrhea and protecting his daughter.

The longest segment is his description of preparing for the birth of his daughter, the endless labour and her actual birth.

Like some chic and modern parents, Adam and his wife decide to deliver their child using the system of hypno-birthing. The system as described by Lazarus uses a lot of very funny psychobabble and he as the nervous father with his camping equipment lives through it and entertains us.
 

 Adam Lazarus. Photo: John Lauener

His daughter refuses to exit and the doctors recommend Caesarian delivery. His wife starts doing yoga exercises between labour pains (which Lazarus describes quite graphically) and between her pains and fainting, the child is turned around. No need for C section.

The urine in the cup marked juice and the feces placed in a bowl using an ice cream scooper and then throwing chocolate sprinkles in top is quite hilarious.

The story of the unattractive girl who is supposed to be frightened out her wits as someone jumps out of a freezer in her basement has unpleasant consequences as she ends up in the hospital for a week with an asthma attack.

You get about seventy minutes of varied routines with his daughter as the unifying theme. It is all done on an empty stage with a stool and a couple of minor props.

Lazarus had the youthful audience in the palm of his hand throughout the performance. He could evoke a laugh by a look, a movement or a line in a way that most performers must dream about.
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Daughter, written and performed by Adam Lazarus in a coproduction by The Theatre Centre, Quip Take with Pandemic Theatre, continues until November 19, 2017 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org. 416 538-0988


Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA – REVIEW OF SOULPEPEPR PRODUCTION OF ALBEE’S PLAY

James Karas

Happy families are all alike, according to Leo Tolstoy, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Take the Gray family. At age 50, Martin is a successful architect who has won the Nobel Prize equivalent in his field and has been chosen to design The World City, a two-hundred billion project in the wheat fields of the Middle West. His world success is matched by his happy home life. He is married to Stevie who is beautiful, articulate and in short a dream wife. They are deeply in love with each other and completely faithful. They have a gay son which may or may not be an issue for them but everything about the Grays’ success is practically mythical.

But there is a flaw in the ointment. A flaw that Albee wants us to know goes beyond a passing mortal sin like infidelity or one of the frequently encountered problems in a marriage. The parenthetical subtitle of the play is “Notes towards the definition of tragedy.” Early in the play Martin refers to the Eumenides as pursuing someone relentlessly. They are the furies of vengeance in Greek tragedy who pursue most famously Orestes for the killing his father.
 

  Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

The flaw in the ideal marriage of the Grays is that Martin is in love with a goat. Albee raises the admittedly carnal relationship to something spiritual and out of the control of Martin. If you want to be grandiloquent, it may refer to Aristotle’s idea hamartia, a fatal flaw or an error in a character that leads to a reversal of fortune and a tragic end.

Alan Dilworth directs the current Soulpepper production which has some issues but brings much of the drama out. Rquel Duffy gives a bravura performance as Stevie, Martin’s wife who understandably freaks out when he gives her a detailed description of his physical and spiritual relationship with the goat Sylvia. Stevie, always articulate, frequently witty, goes from shock to rage to avenging fury punctuated with agony at the incomprehensible treachery that she faces. It is a tremendous range for an actress to cover and Duffy does it all. From disbelief, to sarcastic remarks to a heart-wrenching howl, Duffy gives a stunning performance.
 Albert Schultz and Derek Boyes, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Albert Schultz as Martin is fine in the lighter portions of the play but he fails to rise to the tragic dimension demanded of the character. His reaction and his howl as he is destroyed by the avenging fury fails to reach the heights that we hope to see.

Derek Boyes plays Ross, the friend of the family who tells Stevie what her husband has done. Paolo Santalucia plays Billy, the Grays’ teenage son who has his own sexual problems but with his father madly in love with a goat there is not much room to examine them. Boyes and Santatlucia give good performances in their respective roles.
Dilworth does a good job in directing a difficult play but there seems to be a lack of disciplined acting in some of the scenes. Some more intonation in some scenes, a slower pace in others may be of minor nature but it would be nice to have them.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini shows a brightly lit sitting room with a couch, a coffee table and some furniture pieces that evoke the home of a well-off modern house.       
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The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee continues until November 18, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

KING CHARLES III - REVIEW OF ARTS THEATRE PRODUCTION IN VANCOUVER

James Karas

Alas, poor Charles, we know thee well. Thou hast the distinction of being the longest serving Prince of Wales and were married to Diana, Princess of Wales, beautiful, not too bright and beloved of the people. You are not the sharpest knife in the royal drawer either and with your stiff bearing, floppy ears and frequent overextensions of your limited intellectual prowess, you earned our neglect of you.

But not forever. Mike Bartlett has paid you the compliment of writing a futuristic play set in the imaginary, if not too far off future, when you are King Charles III. The programme cover promises that this is a “JOVIAL POLITICAL SATIRE” and we believe it.
 The Queen is dead and the cast of King Charles III are there. Photo by David Cooper.
As it must, King Charles III opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of Prince Charles to the throne. The new king is asked to perform one of his traditional roles that of signing his assent to legislation passed by parliament. The new law purports to limit the freedom of the press. The king, who is supposed to be a serious, principled and an intelligent monarch, refuses to give his assent and thus precipitates a serious constitutional crisis. Not too many laughs so far.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition state that the King has no right to refuse to sign the legislation and the king is just as adamant that he will not do it. How will we get out of this quandary?

We have a subplot involving   Prince Harry who mixes with the people, falls in love with a commoner whose naked-in-bed photos are available for publication and who does her best to appear obnoxious. He wants to give up everything and live with her like a normal worker. In other words he takes Windsor family thickness some distance down from the low norm.

Bartlett’s play creaks on with an almost empty tank as he tries to manufacture material to keep it chugging along. Jovial political satire? Let me know if you find any. This is a serious constitutional and political impasse that could dispatch the British monarchy to the dustbin of history. Caution: spoiler. The king makes the crisis worse by using an ancient right of his to dissolve parliament. There is violence in the streets, hints of military takeover, perhaps civil war and our concern for the outcome causes our blood pressure to soar downwards.

The play may be better than it seemed in this production. The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage’s acoustics made some of the actors sound as if they spoke in a tunnel. Some of them failed to enunciate or speak loudly enough and that is not a great recommendation.

Ted Cole’s King Charles III who gives the initial impression of being smart and principled turns out to be a weakling who commands neither authority nor regal majesty. But Bartlett tells us that he is also a troubled and articulate workaholic We agree with his position on the restriction of press freedom but he does not convince us. He reminded me of Shakespeare’s Richard II who took his anointment seriously and thought that he was appointed by God.

Simon Webb as Prime Minister Evans is a caricature of a leftist with his ill-fitting grey suit and bow tie and boorish manners. Christine Wiles as the Leader of the Opposition is a classic politician who talks from both sides of her mouth without stretching a muscle.

Charles Rice with his rumbling voice plays the tall Prince William but we could have done with more consistent enunciation. Katherine Gauthier’s Kate is a clever, touchy-feely and manipulative feminist.
 
Ted Cole and Gwynyth Walsh in King Charles III. Photo by David Cooper.
Charlie Gallant’s Prince Harry in a red wig and a plebeian Jess (Agnes Tong) is a caricature of the dumb royal as is Jess of the common people.

The play has numerous Shakespearean  overtones, none so bizarre as the appearance of a Ghost (Lauren Bowler). This is the ghost of Diana who is very corporeal as she hugs and kisses her son William and Charles. She mysteriously tells both of them that they will be the greatest kings ever. Jovial satire, eh?

Gwynyth Walsh appears as Camilla wearing a ridiculous hat in the first scene but settles down to being a supportive wife of the hapless Charles.

The play is done on an empty stage designed by Kevin McAllister dominated by a large copper globe with a cross on top symbolizing the crown.

Kevin Bennett expresses his enthusiasm for the play in the programme but it may have seemed better in his imagination than he has brought on the stage. The play may have nuggets of humour and appear less sluggish in a different production. As it is in this production, it makes for a bad night at the theatre.
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King Charles III by Mike Bartlett, in a production by Arts Club Theatre Company, continues until November 19, 2017 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 2750 Granville St. Vancouver, B.C.   

Thursday, November 9, 2017

THE MAGIC FLUTE - REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET BROADCAST

James Karas

Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute for The Metropolitan Opera which was transmitted worldwide on October 14, 2017 tries to be a magical, fantastic staging with extensive use of puppets and some high tech. Many of the things she does smack of an overreaching attempt to entertain children and some of the other aspects of the production with the emphasis on darkness made the production seem heavy-footed.

Taymor, in addition to directing, also designed the costumes and, with Michael Curry, she designed the puppets. In other words this is a Julie Taymor production through and through. It premiered in 2004 and seems to have staying power.

 Charles Castronovo as Tamino in Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte." 
Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera
The use of puppets and the necessary presence of puppeteers was so extensive that I found it rather tiresome. Some of it was effective, like the huge dragon which threatens Tamino in the opening scene. The Three Ladies (soprano Wendt Bryn Harmer, mezzo Sarah Mesko and mezzo Tamara Mumford) appear dressed in black with blackened faces sporting puppet heads (or are they skulls) on their heads. The heads can also be held in their hands.

The Three Spirits are all white in contrast to the Three Ladies, I suppose. They have spiked white hair, white underwear that could be diapers and white beards that reach to below their knees. They commute on the back of a goose or perhaps the skeleton of a goose. When the Queen of the Night sings her famous aria, there are banners (her head gear) twirling around her head. She hits her high notes and gets rousing approval from the audience and should be left to sing without extraneous tricks.

There are numerous birds, monsters, bears and other creatures that fly around the stage. Even so, the emphasis is on darkness which no doubt is meant to make the emergence into light by our hero Tamino and heroine Pamina all the more pleasant. It does not.

All is fair in love and opera productions but it does no harm to recall that The Magic Flute is a play with songs written for the popular theatre. Yes, there is a Masonic connection for those who can discern it or care about it but emphasizing the darkness and the progression towards virtue and light in conjunction with generous use of presumably more entertaining puppets takes away from the joy of the opera that is not lifted by those ubiquitous puppets.

A scene from  Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte." Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera
The makeup is something else. Tamino and Pamina are about the only ones who have not been painted over as if they are from another dimension.

The underlying ideas of living for love, rejecting hatred and vengeance, espousing high morals and the idea of forgiveness are not virtues monopolized by the Masons. The people who first saw the play with songs on September 30, 1791 in the Theater auf der Wieden in suburban Vienna probably got all the virtues that are promulgated and all the low humour and enjoyed the songs.

If the use of puppets is intended to attract and entertain children, why is the production sung in German? How many children (and adults) can enjoy the low comedy while trying to read the subtitles? Even if you know the opera well, humour in subtitles does not come out well. There is no reason for The Magic Flute to be done in German except snobbery.

The production has a fine cast that is helped by James Levine conducting the Met orchestra. He is a local hero, and deservedly so, who has molded the Met orchestra into a superb ensemble.

Tenor Charles Castronovo is the romantic (love at first sight of her portrait) prince who is determined to go through fire, water, to keep quiet when told to, and do all to qualify for the title “mensch” and marry Pamina. Castronovo is heroically convincing both vocally and theatrically. Soprano Golda Schultz is the lovely, delicate and patient Pamina who sings beautifully and asserts herself. She deserves Tamino.

Baritone Markus Werba has a comic sense and a superb voice for the bird catcher Papageno but he is hampered by speaking in a foreign language. Taymor treats the would-be Harvey Weinstein Monostatos (Greg Fedderly) like a clown. He has the usual gobs of makeup and his real intentions towards Pamina are underplayed, to put it politely.
     _____

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 14, 2017 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 November 11, 27, 29 and December 10 and 16, 2017 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

TITLE AND DEED – REVIEW OF NIGHTFALL THEATRICS PRODUCTION

James Karas

Title and Deed is a one-man show now playing in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace in a production by Nightfall Theatrics. It is an interesting monologue, difficult to follow and not amenable to logical analysis.

Title is the legal right to own property and deed is the evidence of your title. That’s clear enough.

In the small Workplace with about a dozen spectators, Christopher Staunton delivers his one hour and ten minute monologue that covers a myriad of points that are not easy to follow and even harder to recall. The point is that this is impressionistic theatre and what matters is the image that author Will Eno and Stanton want to leave us with.

Stanton comes to the playing area and tells us that he going through customs and visiting for pleasure. Presumably he is coming “here” to our country from another country. We have similarities and differences with his country but we are never sure what they are.

There are philosophical musings, childhood memories general comments about existence. The subject is changed quickly and seamlessly. The performer has a bag in which he carries a stick and an empty lunch box. Protection and nourishment? Perhaps.

Stanton deserves a standing ovation for memorizing he script alone. He deserves credit for performing the confusing script in which he goes through a number of emotions and gives us some humour.

Aside from that I cannot say I got much more out of the play.
______________________

Title and Deed by Will Eno played in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario between September 19 and October 8, 2017 in a production by Nightfall Theatrics. This review is posted disgustingly late. Mea culpa.