Friday, May 18, 2018

STAGE KISS - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl is a romantic comedy that combines farce with the old device of asking the question of what is reality and illusion. Some of the farcical scenes are very funny, there is some unnecessary overacting but it is decent light entertainment. It is the season’s second media premiere at the Shaw Festival.

A sexually magnetic Fiona Byrne plays She, an actress who has done very little work for the past decade. She was in love with He (Martin Happer), a down and out actor who is struggling to survive. She has a Husband (Sanjay Talwar) who is good at math and can figure out how many times his wife and He kissed during a four-week run of the play they are doing.  
 
Fiona Byrne as She and Martin Happer as He in Stage Kiss. Photo by Emily Cooper
He and She (there is no doubt a reason why Ruhl does not give them names, but it escapes me) are cast in a play directed by Neil Barclay (again no name, just Director) and they meet during rehearsals.

The play that they are rehearsing under the hapless direction of the Director is a mirror image of the real life of the characters except that the characters in the play are rich and successful. The old passion between He and She is re-ignited in both situations, the husband is compliant and the show goes on.

As you may suspect there is a lot of kissing on stage and off between He and She. When He fails to show up for rehearsal, his place is taken by Kevin, the understudy played by Jeff Meadows. Kevin has to kiss Ada, She’s part in the play, but he has a problem kissing women. He is not straight, he tells us. The real director of Stage Kiss, Anita Rochon, has him approach the lips of Ada (the character She is playing) with his mouth wide open several times as if he about to eat her. That may be funny the first time but it does not bear repeating. A director no matter how inept (I am referring to Barclay’s part) or an experienced director like Rochon) would have told him to close his mouth and grimace after the labial contact or do some other funny business.
 
Fiona Byrne and Jeff Meadows in Stage Kiss. Photo: Emily Cooper 
There are some very funny scenes involving back-stage flaps but once you get the main outline of the two parallel plots, there is not much left to say. The issue of what is illusion (acting) and what is reality (the real lives of the characters) is interesting but not exactly compelling.

Byrne is superb in a fast-paced comedy and she leads the pace of the play. Happer is a passionate lover who is caught up in some funny situations and does a fine job. Barclay is an incompetent director who gets laughs for being a failure. Talwar is the cuckolded husband who acts nobly in the play-within-a-play. His wife has a degenerative disease and has only thirty days to live. There is some surprisinng information about that but I won’t spoil it for you.

Sarena Parmar and Rong Fu play several minor roles each with mixed results.

The sets by Gillian Gallow consist of an empty theatre, an actual set for the performance of a play and He’s messy apartment. They are fine.

Stage Kiss should fill the spot for the light comedy of the season.  
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Stage Kiss  by Sarah Ruhl had its media premiere on May 9 and will have its opening on May 25, 2018 and will run  in repertory until September 1, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

The Shaw Festival had its “media premiere” with The Magician’s Nephew, an adaptation for the stage by Michael O’Brien of C. S. Lewis’s novel for children. It is an interesting attempt to bring a book about dreams, magic and a journey to other worlds to the limited ambit of the stage and the production can only be described as a limited success.

The Magician’s Nephew, chronologically is the first part of The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven fantasy novels for children that were published between 1950 and 1956. The Magician’s Nephew was the sixth novel in order of publication and deals with the creation of the magical world of Narnia.
 
Kyle Blair as Aslan with the cast of The Magician’s Nephew. Photo by David Cooper
Judging by the uniform of the soldier, I thought the play takes place around the First World War. The program informs us that we are in London at the turn of the twentieth century. It takes place in a magical world in any event. We first meet the Dream Detective who detects dreams, of course. We then meet Digory (Travis Seetoo) and Polly (Vanessa Sears). They are wide-eyed youngsters who go to an abandoned house on their street and meet Uncle Andrew (Steven Sutcliffe), the magician. Digory wants to find a cure for his sick mother and the two of them set out on a journey that leads them to the magical world of Narnia.

The play has a large number of animals starting with the soldier Aslan (Kyle Blair) donning the mask of a lion. The members of the ensemble have white papier-mâché masks on their head that do not interfere with their speaking voices.

There is generous use of projection to create the world of magic. The basic physical ingredient of the staging is cardboard boxes which the cast put in various configurations. The projection of various colours cover the back of the stage and the sides thus create panoramic views. It is quite effective.  

The cast spoke with an English accent which was mostly passable and we should just let it go at that. Sears and Seetoo maintained a good energy level and gave us the wide-eyed enthusiasm that is appropriate for the roles.
 
Vanessa Searsy, Travis Seetoo, Steven Sutcliffe, Deborah Hay and Michael Therriault. Photo by Emily Cooper
Digory and Polly travel through the magical world and they find Jadis, the Empress of Cham who killed all the people of her empire. She is the evil White Witch played by Deborah Hay.  Kyle Blair as the Lion is the creator of the world of Narnia. 

Director Tim Carroll, Lighting Designer Kevin Lamotte and Projection Designer Cameron Davis attempt to create and capture a world beyond reality, with a flying animal, talking lions and horses, a White Witch and others. When one reads a book of fantasy one is driven by the author’s prose to create images that suit his or her imagination. In this production, we are denied much of the prose and driven by the imagination of the artistic team.

It worked reasonably well and but failed to capture my imagination. The theatre had some 350 pupils from about half a dozen schools. They were a rambunctious bunch before and as they were entering the auditorium but fell silent through most of the performance. There were moments when they appeared engaged but it was the exception rather than the rule.

The Magician’s Nephew is a children’s show without diminishing its attraction for adults. I found it a bit odd that Carroll would use it for the opening of the Festival. The matinee performance was billed a “media premiere” and the opening will be on May, 25. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Two openings? Really?
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The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien and directed by Tim Carroll had its media premiere on May 9th and will run in repertory until October 13, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF WILSON’S PLAY



August Wilson wrote some powerful and perceptive plays about the condition of blacks in America. When he turned the spotlight on them, it became like a scalpel that dissected the inner being of people who were monstrously mistreated for centuries in what surely amounts one of the greatest crimes against humanity.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in a recording studio in Chicago in the 1920’s and tells the story of blues singer Ma Rainey and the band that accompanies her when  she sings. The four musicians tell most of the story but the powerful and temperamental Ma Rainey dominates the scene when she is on stage.
 
Alana Bridgewater. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Soulpepper’s production, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, has an outstanding cast that deliver riveting performances and provide an unforgettable night at the theatre.

Canadian Alana Bridgewater plays Ma Rainey, the temperamental, domineering blues singer who knows only one way – her own. She travels with her lesbian lover Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and no one can gainsay her. That is the performance that Bridgewater gives. Her voice is not as powerful as her acting but she makes an impressive character nevertheless.

Wilson draws the four band members with distinctive brushes and they represent what it meant to be black in America in the 1920’s. There are only two whites in the play who are not overtly racist but they consider blacks as sources of money and do not socialize with them at all.

The trumpet player Levee who is a composer as well and wants to start his own band gives most vocal expression to their plight. Lovell Adams-Gray gives a stellar performance as a young musician who is angry with the world and angry with himself. He rages against people and against God until the final dramatic scene of the play. If you have seen the play before, you don’t need to be told. If you have not, I will not spoil it for you.

Cutler plays the trombone and is the leader of the band. He tries to maintain peace among the musicians and he is a man who knows that Ma Rainey is the boss. Lindsay Owen Pierre gives us a decent and sympathetic man who just wants to get the job done.

Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) is bass player and a professional musician. He got his name by dancing slowly with a woman for hours in order to win some money in a contest. Again a sympathetic portrayal.    
 
 Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Alex Poch-Goldin, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards, and 
Alana Bridgewater. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Toledo (Beau Dixon) is the piano player and intellectual of the band. He speaks knowledgably and eloquently about the plight of black Americans. A fine performance by Dixon.

Sturdyvant and Irvin are the only whites in the play. They are not overtly racist but they are fundamentally racist. Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) owns the recording studio and his sole interest is making money. He looks at Ma Rainey and the band players simply as tools for making money. If they are people as well, that is just a fact that he need not concern himself about. 

Alex Poch-Goldin as Ma Rainey’s agent is an oily figure who is forced to please people, including the blacks, because he can make money. His relationship with blacks never moves beyond strictly business.

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu directs superbly. We get a glimpse of a recording session in Chicago a long time ago. But we also get a picture of American racism and gross injustice that has been around for centuries with few signs of fundamental change on the horizon.

A riveting night at the theatre.  
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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  by August Wilson opened on May 10 and will run until June 2, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

ANNA BOLENA – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION


James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Anna Bolena provides an opportunity to see and hear a magnificent soprano at the height of her powers singing a great role. The soprano is Sondra Radvanovsky and she sings the title role of Donizetti’s bel canto wonder directed by Stephen Lawless.

Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn) is the hapless wife of King Henry VIII who has reached her best before date in her husband’s eye and he wants to discard her. He has already found a replacement in Jane Seymour who happens to be Anna’s lady-in-waiting and he has recalled to court Lord Percy, Anna’s former betrothed, in the hopes that his return will ignite their former relationship and give grounds for the disposal of Anna. 

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena. Photo: Michael Cooper
Radvanovsky gave a dramatic, passionate and vocally dazzling performance that simply brought the house down. We see her as a woman spurned, afraid, betrayed and driven to madness. In the end she faces death with grace and beauty.

Henry VIII is sung by bass-baritone Christian van Horn as a young and slim king who may be in love but we suspect that he is simply a dictator who wants his way and there is almost nothing to stop him from getting it. Van Horn reaches exceptional vocal sonority and acting to give us an effective if disgusting character.

The other tragic figure in the opera is Jane Seymour sung by mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema. She owes a duty to the Queen but is drawn by Henry. In the end she regrets her choice. A finely modulated performance.

Mezzo Allyson McHardy sings the pants role of Smeton, the pathetic court musician who is secretly in love with Anna. He lies about being Anna’s lover in order to save her but the “confession” has the opposite effect. A fine performance by McHardy.

Tenor Bruce Sledge sings Riccardo Percy who still loves the unhappy Anna but she resists him. Sledge’s agile and splendid voice give us a very good performance.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the COC Orchestra and Chorus in exemplary fashion

Lawless and Set Designer Benoit Dugardyn set the opera in London’s Globe Theatre which was built more than fifty years after Anne was executed. The set consists of semicircular balconies that surround the main stage. The chorus is found there much of the time except when it is essential for them to be on the ground floor. Many of the characters are also seen on one of the balconies. Unfortunately, the unadorned panels that are moved around and the balconies give the impression that the opera takes place in a barn rather than a palace.       

We do get to see a wooden throne that lacks the ostentatious red velvet that one associates with regal seats. There are few props aside from that but we do get an impressive bed where Percy compromises Anne even though she does not allow him to do anything improper.
 
(l-r) Bruce Sledge as Riccardo Percy (kneeling), Christian Van Horn as Enrico VIII, Thomas Goerz 
as Lord Rocheford (behind chair) and Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena. Photo: Michael Cooper

There a number of infelicities in relation to positioning of characters where making use of the whole stage takes precedence over people confronting each other. The final scene where Anna is beheaded with an axe is understated and a good opportunity for a dramatic finale was lost.

All of which amount to legitimate observations but they do nothing to take away from the singing and orchestra playing that are second to none and make this Anna Bolena an extraordinary production.

And, as a sideline, it may be worth mentioning that the Globe Theatre went up in flames in 1613 during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henty VIII. Perhaps it was a posthumous expression of God’s distant vengeance on the memory of the cruel king.  
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Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti on a libretto by Felice Romani continues until May 26, 2018 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West Toronto, Ont. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

ANNIE – REVIEW OF 40th ANNIVERSARY REVIVAL AT ED MIRVISH THEATRE

By James Karas

“Maybe” her parents are young and leading an ideal domestic life. She wistfully and longingly imagines how life could have been for her if her parents had not made the mistake of giving her up. The reality is “Hard Knock Life” in the orphanage with no love and an empty belly while sewing and cleaning. But there is always “Tomorrow” when the sun will shine and all will be well.

She escapes the orphanage, goes past “Hooverville” and eventually ends up in a mansion and decides “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here.” Soon after, she hears the promise of “You Won’t Be An Orphan for Long.”
 The Cast of ANNIE – Toronto Production. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 2018
There are a few more songs and plot twists, but that is the trajectory of the life of the sweet and spunky 11-yyear old Annie as represented in the musical of that name. Optimistic, sentimental, funny and mythical (poor orphan girl adopted by billionaire and is a force in solving the economic crises of the depression by inspiring the president of the United States). Yes, Annie is all of those things and, in a word, it is delightful.

The revival production at the Ed Mirvish Theatre displays all the virtues of the musical that made it a hit 40 years ago and can still enchant and entertain us.

Isobel Khan and Ruby Stokes will alternate as Annie with Isobel playing on opening night. She displayed all the spunk and vigour expected of her but her voice struck me as having a slightly nasal quality that I did not particularly like. Is it her voice or the microphone? Aside from that, she is the type of Annie you imagine and expect.

Lesley Nicol gets the classic role of Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic orphanage matron who is corrupt and funny.  She goes into partnership with Rooster (Matthew Hawksley) and Lily (Kate Somerset How) who pose as Annie’s parents to get the $50,000 reward offered by Daddy Warbucks. They are marvelous.
 
Lesley Nicol in ANNIE – Toronto Production. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 2018
Alex Bourne plays the billionaire Warbucks and in the era of Donald Trump and Co.it is hard to imagine a decent man with that kind of wealth. He is and he is attracted to his secretary Grace Farrell (Carolyn Maitland) as we are. We know he will marry her and they will make great parents for Annie.

If you are in a mythical world, there is no point in stopping and in this musical Annie meets President Roosevelt played by Stephen McGlynn who does not seem to have a handle on the accent we hear from film clips of the president.

Ella the dog does a great job acting as Sandy the dog.

The set has several arches that are painted ugly turquoise with puzzle pieces on them. We see a large gold W when Warbucks is on stage which is a bit too reminiscent of Trump Tower.

The Ed Mirvish Theatre was full of children around Annie’s age who seemed to be enjoying the show. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and recommend it highly.
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Annie  by Thomas Meehan (book0, Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics), directed by Nikolai Foster continues until June 3, 2018 at The Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Monday, May 7, 2018

I AND YOU – REVIEW OF OUTLOOK THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Lauren Gunderson has brought together three unlikely elements to produce a delicate, moving and intriguing play called I and You. The first two parts of the play are two teenagers, Caroline (Abby Weisbrot) and Anthony (Jake Runeckles) who meet for the first time. The other part is the poetry Walt Whitman.

Anthony arrives at Caroline’s bedroom, unexpected and uninvited for the purpose of doing a school project on the poetry of Whitman. They are classmates but don’t know each other and they are poles apart. She appears tough, unfriendly, combative and miserable. She has not been to school for a long time and we find out that she is seriously ill and practically a prisoner in her bedroom.
 
Anthony is outgoing, popular and athletic. He loves Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and thinks that Caroline’s innate artistic ability can help him get a high mark. She knows nothing about Whitman. He wants to do a critical analysis of Whitman’s use of the pronouns I and You in Leaves of Grass but cannot make any headway against Caroline’s resentment of him. He makes a small breakthrough when he reads her the lines about the spotted hawk swooping by. The sound if not the meaning of the verses get to her. Through the bickering and snarls, art and the poetry of Whitman are used by Gunderson as devices to facilitate communication.

As the dialogue progresses we discover facts about the two teenagers, their relationship changes and Whitman is always present in the background or the foreground. Gunderson writes sensitively and adroitly about the people and the literary device that she employs and the result is an engrossing and captivating play that stands with its mystery “Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical” to quote Whitman.

For the seriously ill and probably dying Caroline, Whitman can be a provider of comfort, Anthony tells her. He was not afraid of death but stood up to it and, to freely paraphrase, spits in its eye. As the discussion of their lives and poetry continue, Caroline takes over and she asserts her understanding of the last lines of the poem where the poet becomes part of the earth, he bequeaths his body “to the dirt to grow from the grass I love” and he will “stop somewhere waiting for you.” Caroline feels that “you” is Whitman’s direct reference to her. What a beautiful connection between poetry and life.

Weisbrot and Runeckles give stellar performances as typical teenagers. Completely atypical teenagers, sensitive, confused and in the end indefinable and mysterious. Marc Bondy handles an apparently simple script that is quite complex with dexterity and precision.

If the lead up to the final scene is tantalizing and marvelous, the final scene will leave you astonished. You will leave the theatre with many thoughts but the first word to come out of your mouth may well be “wow.”
                                           ______

I AND YOU by Lauren Gunderson, direct by Marc Bondy ran from April 19 to 29, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com
(Circumstances caused inexcusable delay in reviewing the show. Another mea culpa and my eternal abode is guaranteed to be where there is no air conditioning.)

Saturday, May 5, 2018

GIRLS LIKE THAT – REVIEW OF TARRAGON THEATRE PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Girls Like That by Evan Placey is a play about bullying in school but the word is never mentioned. The setting is St. Helen’s School for Girls, in England, which accepts only twenty gifted and creative girls each year. They are admitted at age five and consider themselves special and they make a pact that they will be friends for life.

Scarlett is a fat girl whose naked picture is posted on the internet. Her friends for life turn on her and in the opening scene chant “slut, skank, whore, tart, harlot” and a number of other words that I do not understand but assume that they mean pretty much the same thing.
 
The cast of Girls Like That. Photo: Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The attack on Scarlett by the girls attains a viciousness that should give pause to anyone with a scintilla of humanity. The girls appear to have none as they describe Scarlett’s body with sadistic glee and find fault with her appearance which assures them of their own superiority.

The play can be performed by as many as 20 actors or fewer. Director Esther Jun has chosen to do it with seven actors and they are enough. Except for Scarlett, the girls have no names and the lines of the script are distributed among them as the director chooses. They often speak in unison and perform a number of dance routines to rock music and are very good at it.

Ensemble acting dominates the play and the girls address the audience frequently, describe conversations and often do not follow the rules of ordinary dialogue. They reminded me of the avenging Furies in Greek drama and myth who pursued wrong doers until they drive them mad. The goddess Athena transformed them into Erynies (the kindly ones) but she is nowhere to be found in Girls Like That. The girls we meet at age five are the same at age 45.

Scarlett, the victim of the Furies, is the exception. In the end she takes her own revenge on her tormentors. In a fine speech she describes what humanity, maturity and success mean. I will not give more details about it. The issue I have with the play is that there is nothing in it beyond the vicious cruelty of the girls to prepare us for the revenge.
 
Shakura Dickson, Tess Benger, Rachel VanDuzer, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lucy Hill and 
Nadine Bhabha. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The characters, aside from Scarlett, are described as Girls and they are played by Tess Banger, Nadine Bhabha, Shakura Dickson, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Lucy Hill, Cynthia Jimmenez-Hicks and Rachel VanDuzer. They do fine work as chanting furies, screaming students, dancers and representatives of one of the worst features of our society – bullying.

Director Esther Jun had her work cut out to coordinate the numerous moves, scene changes and handling of the dialogue demanded by the play and to keep a fairly frenetic pace without the actors falling over each other. Well done but that did not improve the play which makes its point about bullies but fails to develop the characters or give some depth to the issue.      
                                           ______

Girls Like That by Evan Placey opened on April 25 and will play until May 27, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com