Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM BUT IT LOST ITS ZEST IN TORONTO



The entire acting company, with Bruce Dow as Pseudolus in the centre. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is an old Broadway musical (opened in 1962) that offers all that you can ask for from a musical. It has some wonderful songs, a good plot, verbal and slapstick humour and a love story. There is also some dancing and “something for everyone” as Pseudolus, its lead character would say.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival produced the musical in 2009 and David Mirvish has brought it back to the Canon Theatre in time for Christmas and for the January blues.
The production is directed by Des McAnuff, the Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. McAnuff, like all directors, I suppose, wants to put his mark on every production in bold letters. He believes that comedy should be broad and if a director can think of a gag or a pratfall or any stage business that will produce a laugh he should use it.
One may argue that not every gag is appropriate even if it may appear to be funny. The character as developed or the situation may not call for such a gag and, perhaps, just perhaps, it should be avoided, even if it is the brainchild of such a talented director as Des McAnuff. Not likely. Is it funny to see the three Proteans in modern sailor’s hats or watch their turquoise underwear? Not really.
To be fair, the authors of A Funny Thing perceived their show as a “scenario for vaudevillians” where many tricks were “intended to be supplied by the actor.” That is license enough, if any were needed, for any director to go to market inventing whatever business he wants. But there are limits. When Prologus sings the wonderful opening number, “Comedy Tonight”, and farts on the words “Something repulsive” is he really being funny?
A Funny Thing is based on ideas and characters that Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart took from the plays of Plautus (about 254 to 184 B.C.), the great Roman playwright who laid the groundwork for so much of the comedy of the past couple thousand years. The young lovers that outwit their elders, the clever servant who manipulates his masters and other comic standbys all have their predecessors in Plautus.
Pseudolus is an illiterate but clever slave who works in the house of Senex in Rome a couple of hundred years before Christ. Pseudolus has left a host of heirs from Sancho Panza to Figaro to Jeeves. For this production we have Sean Cullen and Bruce Dow alternating in the role. I saw Dow’s opening night performance. He uses what the creators of the show gave him and McAnuff’s bag of tricks to reasonable effect and does get a few laughs. He is a slave who will do anything to gain his freedom.
Senex (Randy Hughson) is a horny old man who is put upon by his imperious wife Domina (Deann deGruijter). She is a screeching bitch, while he tries to get lucky with the virginal Philia (Chilina Kennedy). Philia is in love with his son Hero (Mike Nadajewski) but has already been sold to the pompous Miles Gloriosus (Dan Chameroy).
In order to gain his freedom Pseudolus must outwit Miles, Philia’s owner Marcus Lycus (Cliff Saunders) and chief slave Hysterium (Steven Sutcliffe). And he only has a couple of hours in which to do it.
The romp through the streets of Rome should be full of laughter and joy. The Proteans have all kinds of pratfalls, the Courtesans display their well-developed talents, and the lovers sing “Lovely”. Senex and the rest of the company sing “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid”.
It should be a delicious romp but it rarely rises to the occasion. It is mostly flat and uninspired. They all seem to be trying very hard without getting the desired response from the audience. 
The small orchestra sounded thin and perhaps was one of the reasons for the unfortunate result.
Miking has become a fact of life and in a huge theatre like the Canon the idea of no microphones may be a non-starter. But that does not change the basic fact that the microphones may add volume but they add nothing else.
A disappointment made worse by high expectations of seeing a favourite musical again.   
   _______

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) opened on December 18 and will run until January 16, 2011 at The Canon Theatre 244 Victoria St. Toronto. http://www.mirvish.com/




                                                            

Monday, December 20, 2010

GRAND PRODUCTION OF DON CARLO LIVE IN HD WITH REALLY BAD SETS


Last Saturday’s (December 11, 2010) broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo on large screens started at 12:30 in the afternoon and did not finish until after five. There were two intermissions but make no mistake this is grand opera in conception, execution and chronological demands. Verdi makes it all worthwhile even if New York’s Metropolitan Opera has made some serious faux pas in the assembling of an otherwise grand production.

For his 25th opera Verdi tackled some large themes and subjects that were close to his heart: political oppression, national unity, foreign domination and a few well-placed kicks in the groin of the Catholic Church. A love story is de rigueur and two ardent lovers are provided who fall in love at first sight but she is forced to marry his father!

Plot? Well, Don Carlo, the heir to the Spanish throne is madly in love with Elizabeth, the daughter of the King of France. For state reasons, Elizabeth marries King Philip of Spain, Don Carlo’s father. They still love each other despite the marital arrangements. Princess Eboli is also in love with Don Carlo and we have the perfect trio for an opera.

On the international scene, we have the oppressed Flemish people who want some elbow room. They have a champion in Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. The Catholic Church enters in the hideous guise of the Inquisition and a few Flemish people are burned at the stake. It is all very dramatic and the perfect if somewhat overlarge subject for an opera.

The current production is by Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director of Britain’s National Theatre and it is designed by Bob Crowley.

For Don Carlo you need half a dozen singers some of whom need to have the stamina of vocal Marathoners with an orchestra that can deliver the richly textured music. The Met does exceptionally well in this department. Our hero Don Carlo who is rarely off stage is sung by tenor Roberto Alagna. He does an exceptional job despite the heavy demands of the role. He is still young enough to look acceptable as a hero and deserves full marks for his performance.
Our heroine is the hapless Elizabeth who finds the love of her life only to be told that she has to marry his old father for political reasons. She is the prize or price for the peace treaty between France and Spain.

Soprano Marina Poplavskaya has a fine voice and sang with exceptional beauty and vocal control. The problem with her is that she has a charmless face with disproportionately large jaws and taut skin that seems impervious to the expression of emotion. She can hardly smile and knitting her eyebrows was the height of her emotiveness.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside sang an outstanding Rodrigo, Don Carlo’s friend, who tries to be a good subject as well. Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings the despotic King Philip who does have one major aria of introspection, “Ella giammai m' amò!” (She never loved me!). He realizes that Elizabeth never loved him and that he will only find peace when he dies. He sings with assured sonority throughout and looks and acts his part.

If the king has at least a moment of introspection and humanity, the Grand Inquisitor has none. Dressed in the flowing red robes of a Cardinal, bass Eric Halfvarson exudes raw power and unrelenting evil. When he first appears, his hands shake as if he is suffering from Parkinson’s but Halfvarson soon forgets the Inquisitor’s illness. He should either kept it up on never started it. His shaky voice is sufficient indication of his dotage.

Mezzo soprano Anna Smirnova is a generously proportioned and powerful Princess Eboli who at one point sings about the curse of being beautiful. The Princess who is in love with Don Carlos is a nasty piece of work and Smirnova does a good job at bringing this character out.
Don Carlo opens in the forest of Fontainebleau in the winter where Don Carlo and Elizabeth are separately lost. A few trees and some snow on the ground will do and let’s get on with Don Carlo’s opening aria “Fontainebleau! Foresta immense e solitaria” where he tells us that he saw his beloved’s smile. We never see her smile but let’s not quibble. They do treat us to a great duet and we are on our way.

The rest of the sets were inept, inappropriate, invisible and downright annoying. Take the scene outside the monastery of St. Just. The chorus of ladies-in-waiting sings about a shady pine grove where a fountain cools the heat of summer. There is a reddish panel in the background and some barely visible cypress tress on the side. It is dark and dreary and one wonders what the hell were Hytner and Crowley thinking of. You can have light and colour without taking away from the seriousness of the opera.

Gary Halvorson does not help things. He is the man responsible what we see on the big screen. He has not figured out yet that the broadcast of an opera is not like playing a video game. If you keep changing shots and angles with appalling frequency you are guaranteed to get some stupid shots not that frequent changes is not sufficiently stupid in itself.

You need to get used to this idiocy and I have made some strides but am not quite there. Bad sets and bad camera angles can affect but cannot ruin a grand production and this one is decidedly worth seeing.
_____

Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi was shown live in theatres on December 11, 2010 and will be shown again in various theatres on January 22 and February 14, 2011.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN MACEDONIA

ARMENOHORI, FLORINA, GREECE - Aerial view
By James Karas

In the north-western corner of Greece, a stone’s throw away from the borders of Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia lies the city of Florina. A few kilometers east of Florina lies a village of ancient lineage, incomparable beauty and immeasurable importance. The allocation of these attributes to this village is not based on any unreliable esthetic criteria or mere human judgment. It is based on the simple fact that I was born there. Armenohori is the most beautiful village in Greece.


There is archeological evidence (not based on the fact that I was born there) that the village has been inhabited for the past three and a half thousand years. Alexander the Great’s grandmother, Eurydice, was a princess from Lyngistis and I firmly hold that he went by my village many times on his way to visit his relatives. In this case, faith trumps lack of historical evidence.

I spent about a decade of my childhood in Armenohori, back in the 1950’s and it has left me with memories that are, as Ernest Hemingway said about Paris in the 1920’s, a moveable feast.

In the 1950’s Armenohori was an agrarian village where little had changed since the time Princess Eurydice left to marry King Amyntas III of Macedon. There was no electricity, no plumbing and nothing mechanical. Water was brought in from a well on the edge of the village in pitchers that resembled those used in the Bronze Age. Although horses were around, the most frequently used source of power was a team of oxen. It was an integrated society that still told stories about the Turks (the area was liberated in 1912) and had lived through world wars, famines and a civil war. The villagers were completely self-sufficient and remembered with pride that while people were dying in the streets of the big cities during World War II, no one went hungry in our village.

Life in the village was centered on work and religious holidays. Easter was the most important religious event but Christmas provided the most excitement for the children. One great tradition was the lighting of bonfires in every neighbourhood (mahala) during the night before Christmas Eve.

Gathering the wood for the bonfires was the job of youngsters and it took weeks of scavenging to find enough wood. Armenohori is in a valley with very few trees around and the houses were heated mostly with coal. Finding wood therefore was no easy task and we had to go out in the country looking for some dead tree or shrub that had not been carried away already.

There was an open space near the gate to my house and that was where the bonfire of our mahala was lit around midnight. We piled the wood in my yard near the front gate and got up as soon as our mothers would let us. We carried the wood across the road to the open space and lit the fire. I still remember my mother telling me that I had to get some sleep or she would not let me go.

Naturally there was fierce competition about which neighbourhood would have the biggest bonfire. That depended on the number of youngsters of the mahala and their industry. My neighbourhood had pride of place when I was small but by the time I was ten, many of the houses had been left empty. The villagers had started leaving for Australia and Canada. The handful of us that were left did our utmost to keep up. One Christmas, we gathered in my yard to carry the wood to the bonfire and discovered that nothing had been left. Youngsters from another mahala had come and carried away every twig.

My mother woke up the other neighbors (my father had already left for Canada) and they all pitched in and in a short time there was enough wood to start a respectable fire.

The tradition was that the youngsters started the fire and the men joined them before dawn. The men brought tsipouro (a powerful whiskey) and chestnuts and sat around the fire eating and drinking. The women were at home preparing for Christmas.
Just before dawn all the children gathered by the gate of a house on the edge of the village. This was the starting point for visiting every house in the village where we were given a chestnut or a potato. The chestnuts were usually boiled and sometimes raw; the potatoes (given by poorer families) were always boiled.

The anticipation for the woman in the first house to come out and give us the chestnuts was no less than waiting for a rock star to appear. When she came to the gate, we rushed at her as if she were about to distribute manna to Moses’ followers. From there we followed a well-defined route that allowed us to visit every house in the village.

There was even more excitement when we stopped by the homes of relatives where we could expect a coin in addition to a few extra chestnuts. Five, ten or twenty centimes was the going rate depending on the wealth of your relative. These were the coins with the hole in the middle and, to put it in context, a drachma had one hundred centimes.

It took several hours to visit every house and you ended up with a satchel full of chestnuts and maybe a couple of drachmas. In short, you were wealthy.

The fat guy with the red suit and the ruddy cheeks also known as Santa Claus had not heard of Armenohori yet and we had not heard of him either. I first saw him on a Christmas card that my sister sent me from Canada but he made no impression on me and I had no idea that he was supposed to drop in through the chimney on Christmas and bring me presents. The only presents we got were a couple of luxury items such as apples or oranges and they were just handed to us. The Christmas tree had not been invented yet. My version of Santa Claus was of course St. Basil but he wore a halo and looked like all the other scary saints that I saw in church and had to kiss on Sunday.

The traditional Christmas food in the village was pifti, boiled pig’s fat that had formed into a jelly with pig’s feet, knuckles and other such delicacies in it. It was larded with garlic and eaten cold. I could not get enough of the stuff. Fifty years later, my sisters still make this item of peasant haute cuisine but, alas, my enthusiasm for eating it has been reduced to honoris causa and only a small plate, please.

The bonfires were lit again on New Year’s Eve and the same tradition was followed. St. Basil did arrive at midnight without any of his North American paraphernalia: no deer, no red costume and no gifts except for some fruit on the table. On New Year’s Day we had the traditional vasilopita with the coin in it. It was cut in ritual fashion, one piece for each member of the family and one for the house. The pan was twirled around three times and we were then allowed to take the piece that stopped in front of us. The one who got the coin was to have good luck during the year.

Starting with Christmas, there is a name day to be celebrated every other day it seems. People named Christos, Stefanos, Vasilios, Fotis, Yannis and others have their saint’s day and an excuse for the men of the village to visit them for a drink and meze. The drink was almost invariably tsipouro which had been made a few weeks earlier in the village still. The women joined the men for visits to close relatives houses but there were no restrictions on where the men went.

January 6 is the Epiphany and for Armenohori it meant that the whole village went to the river after church service. The priest, my grandfather, conducted a service there and threw a cross in the river. The water was cold and frequently had a thin sheet of ice on top but this did not stop the young men from entering the river in order to catch the cross. My mother would not allow me to get near the water – I was simply too young. The man who caught the cross was considered lucky and he and his friends went around the houses where they were given money.

Armenohori is still there but my village has disappeared. When I returned as an adult the bridge that was a couple of hundred yards from my house and where I used to play had changed completely. The huge steel span across a roaring watercourse had shrunk into a pot-hole ridden, rusty bridge that could fit only one car at a time. The river was a mere rivulet that in the summer went almost dry. I used to swim and catch fish in it when I was a child. The water buffalos, the sheep and cattle that crowded the muddy streets are gone and finding a parking space has become an issue. The grass was not as green, the sun was not as bright, even the roads had shrunk; all had changed.

The best parts, however, still remain. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, what Armenohori has left me shall be for ever new, for ever warm, for ever young and still to be enjoyed: it has left me with prime memories of undiminished splendour.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A CHRISTMAS CAROL – SCROOGE BECOMES COMMERCIALLY ACCEPTABLE AND FUN


Reviewed by James Karas

Ebenezer Scrooge poses a menace to capitalism. Make that “posed” a danger because he was eventually reformed and came to his senses to make the world safe for business and render Christmas a commercial success.

If you want to examine Scrooge closely, you can (and should) go to Soulpepper’s revival of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as adapted for the stage by Michael Shamata. Soulpepper is putting it on for the fifth time at the Young Centre with Joseph Ziegler as the unforgettable bah, humbugger.

But let’s not get sidelined by the spirit of Christmas or mawkish sentimentality and such trivia as love, kindness and humanity. None of the latter ever paid the rent and if pre-reformation Scrooge lacks all of those qualities no business owner at the Eaton Centre would give a gnat’s ass about it.

What is the real problem with Scrooge before his terribly disturbed Christmas Eve slumber?

Soulpepper’s theatre-in-the-round production directed by Shamata moves us deftly through the text and the important issues appear quickly. Scrooge disapproves of his nephew Fred (Matthew Edison) spending money that he does not have. He refuses to give a farthing to a charity and he orders his employee, nice-guy Bob Cratchit (Oliver Dennis) not to put any more coal on the fire.

This man is a menace. If credit cards are not over-loaded by fools like Fred, charities are not handsomely supported and fuel is not used, how are the outlet malls going to survive?

It gets worse. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts during the night (a bad meal will do that to you) representing Christmases past, present and future. The Ghosts and his late partner Jacob Marley are all played expertly by John Jarvis. We see the same pattern – this man will not help the economy. Even the lovely Belle (Sarah Wilson) refuses to marry Ebenezer because he has become a greedy accumulator of money.

If he were a “good” man, he would have spent a fortune on jewelry, wedding expenses, gifts and gone on to children, mortgages and the full catastrophe as Zorba the Greek would say. All of that is good for business. Scrooge evades, indeed, avoids, the whole mess. He lives cheaply but quite comfortably is held in low esteem by his family and his colleagues putatively on moral grounds. If they denigrated him on purely commercial principles, they would have been closer to the mark.

The dead Marley and the three ghosts do their job. Before the transformation of Scrooge we are treated to a visit with the poor-but-happy Cratchits where the participation of the nauseating Tiny Tim (Owen Cumming) is kept to a minimum. Then Scrooge wakes up and he is a new man, homo cheopo has become homo spendo.

It is Christmas morning but the butcher, unlike Bob Cratchit, does not get the day off and he has not sold the biggest turkey in the store. Ebenezer helps the poultry industry by buying the turkey, the transportation sector by using a coach to deliver it and the charities by promising a handsome amount to some institution. Things are looking up. He gives Cratchit a raise so he can spend it on his annoying children, and launches into a spending spree that should delight Bond Street and Oxford Street shop owners.

A Christmas Carol has more than forty roles and there is a great deal of doubling up. The production moves quickly and sentimentality is somewhat checked. Even Tiny Tim’s last line of “God bless us, every one!” is given to Scrooge who, by now, is one of us.

Everyone is supposed to speak with an English accent but we have come to accept the fact that with most Canadian actors that is a consummation to be wished for rather than achieved. So be it. The performances are otherwise very good.

A Christmas Carol was published 167 years ago but the idea of human transformation (even if not necessarily for commercial purposes) is as old as humanity and as fresh as last night’s fine production of this wonderful story.

__________

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Shamata continues until December 30, 2010 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING – OUTSTANDING ONE-WOMAN SHOW AT TARRAGON THEATRE

Photography by David Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas
jameskaras@rogers.com


“What could be finer than listening to a singer of tales … with a voice like a god’s? Nothing we do is sweeter than this.”

Thus spoke Odysseus when he was being feted by King Alcinous and they were listening to the bard Demodocus reciting poetry. It was one of the earliest one-man shows.

Demodocus is no longer around (if he ever existed) but the idea of one actor entertaining an audience has persisted and a fine example of that can now be seen at the Tarragon Theatre. It is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and the extraordinary actor is Seana McKenna.

The Odyssey was recited by travelling bards with some musical accompaniment perhaps, and the performances, we assume, lasted for hours. The singers of tales had dactylic hexameters to recite some of which they composed on the spot. Seana McKenna does not have Homeric poetry on hand but she does have a superb piece of prose writing and she does not have to compose anything on the spot.

Didion was married to writer John Gregory Dunne. On December 30, 2003, during an uneventful evening at home, Dunne dropped dead from a heart attack. They had been married for some forty years and had one child. At the time their daughter Quintana was in hospital in a coma.

In the play Didion describes the process of grieving and coming to terms with the two excruciating and parallel events in her life. She is a rational, highly educated and strong woman, “a cool customer” as a hospital worker calls her, and this is not a maudlin account of grief and mourning. There is only one emotionally charged moment; the rest is an almost clinical examination of what happened to her and what she did after her husband’s death as she tried to take care of the aftermath and continue caring for her daughter.

The cool, rational, almost clinical examination of events has an obverse side. Joan Didion went through a year of magical thinking. Under the rational examination of events, there was a stream of irrational thinking and believing that is quite extraordinary. Magical thinking means that if you wish strongly enough for something to happen, it will.

Didion seems to have started thinking magically, it seems, soon after Dunne died. He died in New York, and she spoke with a reporter in Los Angeles. Because of the time difference, she thought that her husband was not dead in California yet and if she rushed over there she might find him alive. When disposing of his clothes, she did not give away his shoes because he might come back.

Seana McKenna as Joan Didion relates these events coolly and eloquently. She sits on a chair or moves around the stage but no more than a good lecturer will. There is some humour and some emotional modulation but most of the performance is based on the delivery of well-wrought prose written by a first-rate writer.

It all looks simple and director Michael Shamata must have had very little to do. When things work well, they look very easy. They are not.

Homer’s singer of tales did not have a director and he performed before people “sitting side by side throughout the halls feasting and listening,….the tables filled with food and drink” with a server filling their cups with wine. The Tarragon Theatre had none of that. Perhaps they should take a page from Homer and have Ms McKenna recite Greek poetry while the audience eats and drinks.

Until that happens, there is still this extraordinary combination of outstanding writing delivered impeccably by an extraordinary actor.

______

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion continues until December 12, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

WIDE AWAKE HEARTS - JEALOUSY AND VERBOSITY AT TARRAGON EXTRA SPACE


Reviewed by James Karas

** (out of five)

Brendan Gall’s new play, Wide Awake Hearts, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space, lasts only eighty minutes without an intermission. Unfortunately it feels as if it is twice as long and provides only half the pleasure.

The basic idea behind the plot is as old as comedy or perhaps as old as the movies. A screenwriter is making a movie which involves some torrid love scenes. The female role is played by his wife. For the male lead, he casts his oldest and best friend. Well, we don’t need a crystal ball to deduce the potential problem. Will the passionate on-screen love scenes spill over somewhere that is less public?

The husband does not need an Iago to become suspicious. The problem becomes more severe and the screenwriter’s jealousy and suspicions more acute, when his “best and oldest friend” is invited to stay in the house of the screenwriter and his wife.

An additional plot complication is provided by the arrival of the film’s editor who is clearly “known” to the lead actor.

The plot, however hackneyed, provides all kinds of opportunities for high drama, low melodrama, wit, humour, even suspense. Gall could have chosen any one or a combination of these or some other mode of expression to create and hour or so of theatrical entertainment. He is not particularly successful.

First of all, Gall decides not to give names to his characters. In the programme and on the video screen they are referred to as A, B, C and D. One may charitably assume that they are types, say, Everyman and Everywoman. That would stretch charity beyond the capacity of the play to convince us that the people named after the four letters of the alphabet are representatives of more than their rather shallow selves.

A is the screenwriter, (Gordon Rand), B is his wife (Lesley Faulkner), C is the lead actor, (Raoul Bhaneja) and D is the editor, (Maev Beaty). Tom, Dick and Harriet would have served perfectly well as names and given them a greater representative aura than letters of the alphabet.

Gall seems to be highly enamored of lengthy speeches. In fact the play opens with A talking for what appears an eternity about the behaviour of a couple of four-year olds on a movie set. Is it supposed to be funny, cute, informative, interesting, decent prose, mildly entertaining, somewhat ironic? I am not sure because it was none of the above and Rand delivered it at a fast pace as if he was not sure what it was all about either. Maybe he is just nervous or neurotic and has a galloping tongue syndrome.

When D, the editor, runs into C, the actor, there is a great opportunity for some witty lines by the former lovers. If Gall tried to provide them, they all fell flat. If there was a different intention, the point of the scene simply escaped me.

The play opens and closes with the use of a video designed by Lorenzo Savoini. He wants to give the impression that we are watching one of those old, black and white Hollywood romances. I suppose the reference is meant to be ironic. The kissing in those old chestnuts was passionate mostly in the imagination and not in the superficial labial contact where pressure made up for depth.

Gall and director Gina Wilkinson do provide several rather graphic sexual encounters where much is suggested and a great deal is shown. Well done and fair enough in a play about sexual passion and suspected infidelity but we wanted a little more substance. Bhaneja and Faulkner can definitely put on a love/sex scene whether real or “pretend” and Beaty could have done a great deal with her role if she were given better lines. Rand was stuck playing the garrulous, jealous husband to no good effect.

In the programme, Gall expresses his heartfelt thanks to more than twenty people without whose help the play “could not have been written.” One wonders how much advice one can absorb from so any people and apply it to a fairly short play. He may have been much better off to ignore all of them and write a play in his own voice.
______

Wide Awake Hearts by Brendan Gall runs until December 12, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, December 6, 2010

STUDIES IN MOTION: VISUAL AND AURAL ASPECTS OVERRIDE VERBAL COMPONENT

Studies in Motion, Cast. Photo Credit: Bruce Zinger

*** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

Matthew Jocelyn, the Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage, has turfed conventional theatre out the window in his programming for the Bluma Appel Theatre. He wants to lead Torontonians to a new theatrical landscape away from the familiar classic and modern plays that have been offered for the past few decades.

For his third production at the Bluma Appel he has chosen Kevin Kerr’s Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge, a production of the Electric Company Theatre of Vancouver. It is a bold and original work that goes beyond the limitations of the conventional play.

Muybridge (1830-1904) was an English photographer who spent most of his career in the United States. He discovered that by using multiple cameras he could take sequential pictures of an animal or a person in motion and show them in a gismo he called a zoopraxiscope. In effect this was an early form of a moving picture. His fascination with photographing and capturing locomotion knew no bounds. He took hundreds of thousands of photographs of animals and people in motion and published a number of books. He was able to show that the hooves of a horse are indeed all off the ground when it is galloping.

He also had a colourful personal life including marrying Flora Stone who bore him a son named Floredo Helios. Flora had a lover named Larkyns whom Muybridge killed. He was acquitted of the charge of murder on the grounds of justifiable homicide. The jury felt that he was justified in killing his wife’s lover. Muybridge had doubts about Floredo’s fatherhood and was haunted by his killing of Larkyns.

The title Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge is apt and accurate. Kevin Kerr’s play examines Muybridge’s fascination with motion and his work in that field as well as his haunted life. The music for the play was composed by Patrick Pennefather and choreography was provided by Crystal Pite. Both play a significant part in the production. From primitive looking nude dances to the moving people photographed by Muybridge and his numerous assistants, the capturing of motion plays a key part in the play.

His life is told in short scenes, some almost vignettes, as he moves from place to place around the United States. We see quarrels with colleagues, visits to the orphanage where his son lives, scenes in the dark room and the confrontation with his wife’s lover.

There are a dozen actors in the cast and some of them play several roles. Most of them are part of the “chorus” which plays a significant part by providing the dance movements. Aside from the secondary plot of Muybridge’s life, his career as a groundbreaking photographer is the most important part of the play.

The dominant character of the play is Muybridge played masterfully by Andrew Wheeler. The white-maned and bearded Muybridge is a striking figure and he dominates almost every scene. The rest of the characters, including his wife Flora (Celine Stube), his son Floredo (Julien Galipeau), the three roles played by Allan Morgan and Jonathan Young’s Eakins and Larkyns appear more as props to Muybridge’s vision of photography or his haunted personal life.

The most prominent and interesting aspects of the play are the visual and the aural. The heavy beats of Pennefather’s music brought to mind the primitive rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the dances and dance movements were equally fascinating.

The dialogue connecting the strands of Muybridge’s life was serviceable but the development of plot and character were on the shallow and quick side. For those raised in a verbal universe and the more classical approach to theatre that look for plot and character development, this will appear like a major shortcoming.

For those who are more in tune with the modern emphasis on the visual and the quick, the play will have more to offer.

Studies in Motion is live theatre paying homage to a man whose work had an incalculable effect on its fortunes. Muybridge’s work led to the invention of the motion picture and if you want to see the effect on theatre look around you: how many live theatres do you see compared to movie houses?

______

Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge by Kevin Kerr opened on November 25 and will run until December 18, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canstage.com

Thursday, December 2, 2010

VOLPONE AND THE DUCHESS OF MALFI ON DVD FROM GREENWICH THEATRE LONDON


*** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

The idea of recording stage performances is as old as the movie camera. There are strips of film of productions from well before the advent of sound but without the dialogue they are of historical value only. Cameras were poised in theatres after sound came to the movies but most of the results were less than perfect. There is a respectable collection of recordings of Broadway productions but they come with a warning. They may represent significant even great performances but the sound and video quality leave a great deal to be desired.

Digital technology may have changed much of that. Recordings of operas on DVD have become commonplace. They can frequently boast superior sound and video quality but there is no shortage of duds. New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company has gone into broadcasting some of its productions live and in high definition around the globe.

Theatres have been slow to jump in partially, I suppose, because of the language barrier. You can broadcast Don Pasquale or Das Rheingold anywhere in the world and opera lovers will enjoy the production thanks to subtitles. King Lear or Tartuffe, even if done by the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Comedie Française, are unlikely to be big hits with people who do not understand English or French.

Happily England’s National Theatre has jumped into the fray with a number of productions that it has broadcast from its London home. All we can hope for is that there will be enough interest and audience generated to make the broadcasts frequent.

Stage on Screen, an English company, has joined in with the production of two DVDs of classic English plays that were produced at The Greenwich Theatre London, a small house with big ambitions.

The plays are Ben Jonson’s Volpone and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. I saw both productions live at The Greenwich last spring. I counted seven (apparently there were eight) cameras spread around the theatre recording the performances for future editing and release. I now have the DVDs and it is interesting to compare the live performance with the recorded one.

There are some clear advantages to the recorded performance. One advantage is the close-up. You can see every facial expression and movement far more clearly on the DVD than live. Jonson’s and Webster’s language can be difficult but you can switch on the subtitles and be helped with the text. You can watch scenes repeatedly and for students the DVDs should be a great boon to studying the plays.

The above advantages have an obverse side as well. The close-ups are decided for you by the video director and there are times when you see more than you want. The reaction of the listener may be more important than the tone of the speaker but you have little choice as to what you will watch. Some shots are clearly lousy but, usually, they are done fairly professionally. The microphones do not record everything evenly and you do get some gaffes.

Actors on stage speak very differently from actors in a movie. The former are speaking to the people in the back row of the theatre whereas the latter have no such restriction and can speak pianissimo or fortissimo as the scene dictates.

All of these pros and cons apply to Volpone and The Duchess of Malfi. The productions had a shared cast and it was interesting to see actors in different roles. Mark Hadfield played the conniving, oily, hand-wringing Mosca in Volpone and the brutal Cardinal in The Duchess. Very different roles delivered with confidence.

Tim Treloar is Voltore and Bosola, Maxwell Hutcheon is Corbaccio and Pescara and Tim Steed plays Corvino and Ferdinand, all respectively and effectively in Volpone and in The Duchess.

Richard Bremmer is a larger-than life example of unbridled rapacity. He simply enjoys taking people’s wealth on the pretext that he is about to die and will leave his wealth to the most generous dupe. Greedy citizens of Venice are prepared to disinherit their sons, give him their daughters and offer their wives on the promise of becoming his sole heir.

Aislin McGuckin played the role of Celia, who is supposed to be a very beautiful woman after whom Volpone lusts. She looked unattractive live and even worse close up on the DVD. She has much better luck as the Duchess of Malfi and gives a superb performance as a strong woman surrounded by evil.

The sets for both productions were rather sparse and meant to be interchangeable. The most visible part is the black and white chequered floor. The vagaries of lighting made the background almost invisible and you ended up watching actors speaking with nothing but darkness behind them. This was so even in the live performance but it is far more pronounced in the DVD.

Elizabeth Freestone directed both productions. The emphasis is on the language and content of the plays and both productions in their own way are minimalist. One can hardly complain for being given the opportunity to hear and experience these marvelous plays that are rarely seen in Canada.

For more information, visit: www.stageonscreen.com

Thursday, November 25, 2010

DON PASQUALE WITH ANNA NETREBKO LIVE FROM THE MET



Anna Netrebko and John Del Carlo in "Don Pasquale." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A rich old bachelor wants to marry a beautiful young woman. She is in love with a handsome young man and the two must outwit the old fool. There is a clever go-between who will devise a plot to get rid of the old codger and unite the young lovers.

Sounds familiar and in fact could be Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Close enough but in this case we are talking about Gaetano Donizetti’s comic masterpiece Don Pasquale. The opera premiered in Paris in 1843 and was one of the last bel canto operas to be composed. It is also one of the best.

The Metropolitan Opera has an all-star cast for its production at Lincoln Center and, for us less lucky mortals, in movie theaters around the world Live in HD. The production is lively, brisk, funny, well sung and provides several hours of supreme entertainment. One does miss the ambiance of Lincoln Center and New York but you can’t have everything.

Don Pasquale wants to punish his nephew Ernesto for not marrying the woman he has chosen for him. He decides to marry the beautiful widow Norina. But she is in love with Ernesto and we have Dr. Malatesta, the plot mover, who will disguise Norina as a virtuous convent-trained girl and marry her off to Don Pasquale. She will turn into a bitchy spending machine and drive Don Pasquale crazy. He will get rid of her and she will marry Ernesto and we or maybe just they will live happily ever after.

The opera is a storehouse of marvelous melodies, gorgeous arias, duets and trios and some of the fastest patter songs you ever heard. One of them (the duet with Don Pasquale and Malatesta near the end of Act III) is such a perfect example of machine-gun speed parlando delivery, that the singers stop and provide an encore on the spot. Not an everyday occurrence but it was certainly a crowd pleaser.

The star of the show is clearly soprano Anna Netrebko as the widow Norina. There are no qualms about heaping praise on Netrebko's lustrous voice but there was a question mark about her doing this role. Opera buffa is not her natural territory but she showed that she has considerable comic flair and she handled the role with gusto. Her Barbie-doll pretty face is not capable of great expressiveness but she is still a pleasure to watch and a sheer delight to hear.

Bass John Del Carlo sang the name role. He is a Falstaffian comic actor and singer who seems to have been born for the role. He has an expressive face and a voice that is suited to the foolish old man who convinces himself that he can marry a feisty widow.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is the perfect Ernesto, the young lover who would rather be disinherited by his uncle than marry a woman he does not love. He is earnest, passionate and sings with a lover’s conviction.

The conniving Dr. Malatesta is sung by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He is vocally excellent but appears a bit young for the role. I think of him as a Figaro figure but he lacks the barber’s wiles and humour. For some reason he wore sunglasses and I can only assume it was because the lights bothered his eyes and not because the director or designer decided the character needs them.

The main setting for Don Pasquale is a room in his house. Designer Rolf Langenfass’s set gives the impression that Don Pasquale’s house is full of dilapidated furniture occupied by a slob. He should hire a cleaning lady, you say, but he has all those servants. What are they doing? Why the mess? Whatever the answer, the messy set adds nothing to the production.

Director Otto Schenk sticks to a traditional production that lets you enjoy the myriad of melodies and comic business from one of the best examples of the genre.

Gary Halvorson’s handling of the camera angles and close ups was sensible and you could enjoy an outstanding production and start saving for a trip to New York to see the real thing.

The production will be shown in movie theatres again on December 4, 2010 and on January 17, 2011. Go to www.Metopera.org/HDLive or www.cineplex.com/events for more information.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

LENIN’S EMBALMERS – DEADLY BLACK COMEDY FROM HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE

From L to R: James Durham (Apparatchik 1), Hardee T. Lineham (Vladimir Vorobiov), Janine Theriault (Nadia) & Arne MacPherson (Apparatchik 2).

** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas


Playwright Vern Thiessen had a brilliant idea: write a play about the heroic embalming of the great leader of the people, Lenin. The outline of the story already existed in a book by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson called Lenin’s Embalmers and all he had to do was shape it into a play with black humour and a satirical look at Russia in 1924. He did that but unfortunately the result was not as happy as the original idea.

Thiessen’s play, Lenin’s Embalmers, opened in New York last March and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre has brought it to Toronto at the Al Green Theatre on Spadina Avenue. The limited virtues of the play are made worse by a creaky production directed by Geoffrey Brumlik.

After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin decided to preserve the body of the great leader forever and put it on display in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. He rightly guessed that people would line up for hours to see the embalmed remains of the great man. The irony of making an almost holy relic of a dead Communist is simply astounding.

The problem was that no one knew how to preserve a corpse forever and the job was given to Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiev, two Jewish scientists. The advantage of giving the job to Jews, aside from the ability to do it, was that they are twice as easy to kill. There was no need to kill them right away, because in the hands of the two scientists the impossible became reality and they became national heroes for their achievement. Their success and influence, like that of many Russians of the day, was short-lived. Stalin shipped them off to a prison camp and they disappeared.

The play is or is intended to be fast-paced with people walking on and off the stage in a quick succession of scenes. The main plot of the embalming is supplemented with a subplot about Stalin’s relations with Trotsky who, as we know, went into exile and was murdered with an ice pick in Mexico.

The problem with the play and the production is that just about nothing works. Thiessen inserts a fair number of jokes in the play, probably a good sign that he had difficulty coming up with decent lines arising from the situation. Examples: What is the difference between capitalism and socialism? In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it is the other way around. Lenin collects jokes that people tell about him; Stalin collects people who tell jokes about him. These may authentic examples of Russian humour of the time but like all jokes they need to be delivered properly. The delivery that Brumlik evinces simply kills the humour.

Near the end of the first act, we see the two scientists embalming the body of Lenin. They put gauzes on his face, pour liquids in a bathtub, put the body in the tub, and presumably spend days or weeks in the process. They do not say a word during the scene which seems to last as long as the actual embalming. The audience waits for something, anything, to happen but nothing does. Surely some dialogue laced with black humour would be á propos.

The scientists and some of the other characters are somewhat buffoonish, indeed budding comedians. Martin Julien as Zbarsky is almost a figure from a farce and Hardee Linehan plays the alcoholic Vorobiov without humour or drama. David Fox struts around as Stalin with little notion of the evil depravity of the man. Arne MacPherson’s Trotsky is not much better while Steve Ratzlaff plays the bureaucrat Krasin and has to deliver some awful dialogue. Harry Nelken is Lenin alive and dead. In the end the characters look as if they came out of a meat grinder. Janine Theriault, the only woman, plays several Nadias but the humour of her metamorphoses gets lost in the dross of the rest of the play and the production

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company is in its fourth year and has had a mixed bag of productions all dealing with the Jewish story. Lenin’s Embalmers will not be counted as one of its successes. Unfortunately, neither the play nor the production merits much praise.

The company’s next production will be Zero Hour, a play about Zero Mostel and it will open on March 26, 2011. It will be followed by To Life, a musical revue, next May.
______

Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Thiessen runs from October 30 to November 21, 2010 at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.hgjewishtheatre.com/

Monday, November 8, 2010

DEATH OF A SALESMAN – OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION OF A MASTERPIECE FROM SOULPEPPER

Tim Campbell, Ari Cohen, Joseph Ziegler, Nancy Palk. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

***** (out of 5)

Reviewed by James Karas

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered 61 years ago which makes the play a couple of years younger than Willy Loman, the salesman of the title. It is one of the masterpieces of the American theatre and Soulpepper’s production at the Young Centre, Toronto, is an extraordinary staging that does justice to the play.

Director Albert Schultz elicits stellar performances from an outstanding cast and the result is, to coin a phrase, a must see production for anyone who cares about the theatre.

Willy Loman is an ordinary man in the extreme. He drives all over New England carrying samples for a New York store and selling whatever he can. He has a wife and two sons and lives in a small house that was once surrounded by greenery but is now hemmed in by high-rise buildings. He has a mortgage and bills to pay and all the ills of a middle class American. But Willy has dreams, ambitions and desires on a grand scale. He does not see himself as an ordinary salesman but as a salesman who is well-liked; he does not have to wait to see the buyer; the cops do not give him tickets; he beats sales records; he is a somebody.

It is this simplicity and complexity, this pathos, exuberance, pathetic ambition and lack of ability in Loman that Joseph Ziegler captures in his defining performance.

Loman conveys some of these qualities to his two sons and they grow up with the faith that they are better than everyone and that they will succeed on character and desire instead of ability and effort. Biff (Ari Cohen) and Happy (Tim Campbell) grow up not just as shallow human beings but as liars and, in the case of Biff, as a thief and a criminal. Campbell plays Happy as the classic narcissistic womanizer who denies his own father to gain favour with a woman. Biff uses the discovery of his father’s infidelity as a crutch to cover his own nothingness.

The Lomans are surrounded by success. Willy’s brother Ben (William Webster) went into the jungle and came out wealthy. What is his secret, asks Willy. His neighbour Charley (Michael Hanrahan) owns a business and his son Bernard (Gregory Prest) becomes a lawyer who is about to argue a case before the Supreme Court and will stay with friends who have their own tennis court. Everybody around him is living Willy’s dream and he cannot pay his bills. He is reduced to begging foe a job from his employer Howard (Brendan Wall), another successful man, who summarily fires him.

Nancy Palk, speaking in her lower register, gives an outstanding performance as Willy’s wife Linda. Linda understands everything, says little and supports her husband to the end.

Set Designer Lorenzo Savoini opts for a small, claustrophobic set. The kitchen and sons’ bedroom in the Loman house are small and there is a panel on one side of the stage to indicate the changes in scenery. The panel shows greenery when Willy remembers the past but displays a forbidding tenement building in the present. The scene in Howard’s office and the restaurant are indicated with a view from a skyscraper and neon lights respectively. Very effective.

Near the end of the play, the travelling salesman imagines his own funeral. He sees people with cars with strange license plates from all over New England coming to pay their last respect to the well-liked Willy Loman. By that time Willy’s dreams and ambitions have all crumbled and the only think left for him is inglorious death and hopefully a funeral becoming someone of his ambitions if not his success. In the end, almost no one attends even his funeral

The final scene of the play is a Requiem for Willy on his grave site. Only his family and neighbours Charley and Bernard are there Biff has reached a cathartic realization that he is a nobody. The play ends with everyone leaving the cemetery. Schultz however wants us to know that Willy has an heir for his vacuous dreams and ambitions: his son Happy stays on the grave site after everyone leaves.

But if Willy was a failure right up to his funeral, he manages to achieve some posthumous success. By committing suicide, he leaves a substantial amount of insurance money for his wife – from a life insurance policy by money he “borrowed” from Charley.

A great night at the theatre.
_________

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller opened on October 21 and will continue until November 13, 2010 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

ACIS AND GALATEA IN GORGEOUS PRODUCTION FROM OPERA ATELIER


Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay in Handel's Acis and Galatea. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Reviewed by James Karas

****1/2 (out of five)

For its 25th season, Opera Atelier offers two 18th century works, namely Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. The first is playing now at the Elgin Theatre; for the second you will have to wait until April 2011.

For the 1732 production of the pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, the advertisement read that “there will be no Action on the Stage, but the scene will represent in a Picturesque Manner, a rural Prospect, with Rocks, Grottos, Fountains and Groves.”

The current production of the work by Opera Atelier pays no heed to the early advertisement and co-artistic directors Marshal Pynkoski an Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have produced a delightful version of the work. There is considerable humour and action on the stage in the form of dances choreographed by Ms Zingg but unfortunately very little evidence of groves and fountains. More about that later.

Acis and Galatea was first performed in 1718 and it was George Frideric Handel’s first dramatic work in English. His librettist John Gay based the wok on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and tells of the love triangle of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus. Galatea is a Nereid, a sea nymph, one of the 50 daughters of Nereus, the god of the sea.

Somehow she finds herself in Arcadia or Sicily and the semi-divine Galatea has fallen in love with a mortal named Acis. The one-eyed, man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus is also in the same neighborhood and he has fallen in love or more accurately in lust with Galatea. (this is before he took up sheep rearing full time on the island of the Cyclops and dined on some of Odysseus’s men). Polyphemus’s father is the god Poseidon and you know things will not turn out well for the mere mortal Acis.

Acis and Galatea has been variously described as a masque, a serenata, a pastoral and a pastoral opera. It has a number of melodic arias, duets and choruses that tell the story of the love of Acis and Galatea and the fate of the mortal lover in the hands of Polyphemus. There is a fourth character named Damon who is sometimes described as a Shepherd but Pynkoski has wisely chosen to have him played as spirit. He comments on the action and is a connecting link in the plot.

The delight of the evening is soprano Mireille Asselin’s Galatea. Ms Asselin has a lovely voice, rich in tone and colour and she was a pleasure to watch and hear. She was well-matched by tenor Thomas Macleay as Acis. Handel does not require lung-stretching vocal histrionics but he does demand beauty of tone and Macleay delivers some marvelous singing.

Pynkoski has chosen to present the Cyclops Polyphemus as a comic character rather than as a straight villain. Polyphemus is larger than life and he must be either a terrifying monster or a comic burlesque of a monster. Bass Joao Fernandes struts on the stage and overacts as becomes a clownish monster and produces some laugher but he is not larger than life. His singing was good but the character needed to take a more extreme shape to be satisfactory. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford was sprightly physically and vocally as the spirit Damon and a good example of a properly conceived character.

The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir gets some of the best parts of the opera and from the opening chorus of “Oh, the pleasure of the plains” to the final “Galatea, dry thy tears” is simply superb. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the baton of David Fallis is matchless in this repertoire.

The opera has a large number of solo airs and if the singers were allowed to simply sing their numbers there will indeed be no Action on the Stage. Leave it to Choreographer Zingg to devise dances for the Atelier Ballet to accompany the singing. The production becomes a ballet as well as a pastoral opera.

The single backdrop that serves as a set for the entire production looks more like a decaying gothic castle on “a dark and stormy night” rather than anything that remotely resembles any notion one might have of Arcadia. When the choir sings of the pleasures of the plains, there are none to be seen. The center looks like the opening to a cave with overhanging rocks. The sky is dark and menacing and there is no hint of groves. Even the animals that are come bouncing across the stage seem to be running away from an approaching storm rather than happily romping through the dales of Arcady.

Aside from those two complaints, this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.
_____

Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on October 30 and will be performed seven times until November 7, 2010 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

DELIGHTFUL MARRIAGE OF FIGARO FROM OPERA HAMILTON

Ariana Chris as Cherubino, Nathalie Paulin as Susanna and Brett Polegato as Count Almaviva. Photo: Peter Oleskevich
Looking for opera in Southern Ontario is not exactly like looking for oases in the Kalahari Desert but neither are productions so plentiful that you feel you cannot see everything. The Canadian Opera Company offers seven productions, Opera Atelier provides only two and if you want to see more you will have to settle for some concert versions or see opera on the movie screen Live from the Met.

But there is another oasis, a scrapper known as Opera Hamilton that refuses to be deterred by budget deficits and offers two full productions and a concert version of opera favourites each year.

For 2010-2011, the operas are The Marriage of Figaro (October 21 and 23 2010) and a double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci (April 21 and 23, 2011). In between, they offer POPERA Plus! which they subtitle a “gala super concert” (January 27 and 29, 2011) of familiar and less frequently heard arias and ensembles.

The production of The Marriage of Figaro was a delight. Not that there were no shortcomings and much of the credit belongs to Mozart. But director Brent Krysa invested the production with many nice comic touches (like Marcellina holding Figaro on her lap like a baby after she discovers he is her son) and maintained a good pace that in the end left you patting yourself on the back for being wise enough to see it.

Let’s start with the strengths of the production. Canadian bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus made a fine Figaro. He sang and acted well and handled the comic business with panache. His counterpart is Count Almaviva, sung by Canadian baritone Brett Polegato. Where Figaro is the clever and funny servant, Almaviva is the serious and dramatic aristocrat. Polegato was just that, thundering his notes with musical authority.

Susanna (soprano Nathalie Paulin) is the other quick-witted servant who can match and even surpass Figaro in cleverness. Paulin has a lovely voice but it took her a while to warm up. Initially I thought her voice may be too small for a large auditorium. But she settled in and did a fine job.

Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte’s Countess presented several problems. The Countess, in contrast with her servant Susanna, should be regal, even majestic. Her marriage to the count has gone stale and she is pensive and perhaps depressed because she feels that he no longer loves her. In fact the Count wants to seduce Susanna. In her beautiful first aria, “Porgi amor,” the Countess laments the loss of her beloved husband’s love and expresses her deep sorrow. The long phrases of the aria should be delivered with a majestic beauty that Whyte does not quite achieve. The same can be said of her singing of “Dove sono” where she asks where the lovely moments of sweetness and pleasure have gone.

The other issue with Whyte was simply sloppy directing on the part of Krysa. The Countess’s movements and manner should be in sharp contrast to that of her maid. Begowned and bejeweled, she should move with the gait of a princess not the quick steps of a servant. She does not.

Mezzo soprano Ariana Chris did a superb job in the pants role of Cherubino. He is hormonally overcharged and can usually be found where he shouldn’t be. Aside from some wonderful comic business he/she gets two marvelous arias, “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” (I don't know any more what I am, what I'm doing) and “Voi, che sapete che cosa è amor” (You ladies, who know what love is) where poor Cherubino simply quivers with sexual excitement. Chris acted convincingly boyish and, as they say, delivered the vocal goods.

Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Lichti delivered Bartolo’s “La vendetta” aria with sonority and he and mezzo-soprano Lynne McMurtry’s Marcellina made a nice comic team of the would-be spoilers of Figaro’s wedding plans. Gerald Isaac sang the roles of Basilio and Don Curzio with a comic twang that was quite appropriate.

The set, designed by Susan Benson was functional. It was not big enough to fill the stage and when Cherubino jumped out the window we saw him scamper off to the wings. Once you get used to it you forget the stage and listen to the music and the singing.

The Opera Hamilton Chorus sounded thin at times and the Hamilton Philharmonic under the baton of Gordon Gerrard went through some uneven patches but gave an overall god accounting of the score.

In the end, it was a very enjoyable evening at the opera.
_____

The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart was performed on October 21 and 23, 2010 at The Great Hall, Hamilton Place, Hamilton, Ontario. www.operahamilton.ca Tel. 905 527-7627

Thursday, October 21, 2010

DAS RHEINGOLD AT THE MET: VOCALLY AND VISUALLY STUNNING PRODUCTION – IF ONLY WE COULD SEE IT

Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas


In the spring of 2009, New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged Otto Schenk’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the last time. The production had been around for some twenty years and who would have thought that its final staging would become a cultural “event”. Yet, it was.

No sooner was Schenk’s staging retired than a new production was announced for the fall of 2010, this time directed by Robert Lepage. Lepage is an extraordinary director who pushes the visual boundaries of opera beyond what we are accustomed to. His production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables by Igor Stravinsky for the Canadian Opera Company last year gave Torontonians a good taste of his tremendous imagination.

With that type of background, expectations for his production of Wagner’s massive cycle are running high and the first installment, Das Rheingold, is already in. Mortals who are favored by the gods saw the production at Lincoln Centre. The less fortunate got to see it on a large screen in a movie theatre. We all expected a high tech approach with visual effects that should be at the very least surprising and perhaps stunning.

Needless to say, Lepage steers away from Schenk’s grandiose and traditional sets. The set that he provides, (designed by Carl Fillion) consists of a series of platforms that can be moved laterally, vertically and in every other way, it seems. With the help of appropriate lighting the result is usually amazing. The opening scene of Das Rheingold, in the depths of the river is stunning. The Rhinemaidens flap their fins and glide down a sloped platform and the impression that they are indeed underwater is marvelous.

In the scenes that follow from the top of the mountain where Wotan negotiates with the giants Fasolt and Fafner over the bill for the construction of Valhalla to the underground home of the Nibelungs, the judicious and imaginative use of lighting and moving platforms create a credible and at times exciting production visually.

The costumes, designed by Francois St-Aubin, from Wotan’s plastic breastplate, to the long gowns for the goddesses, are appropriate. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are given masses of hair and puffed up sleeves. I thought they looked more like overfed hillbillies than giants but let that be.

Unfortunately in a Live from the Met telecast in a movie theatre, you are subject to the capricious and often ridiculous choices of Gary Halvorson. He is the telecast director and he chooses the shots from close-ups to full stage views, to the angles from which we poor mortals are allowed to see the production.

His work ranges from the barely acceptable to the utterly deplorable. At the beginning there were enough long shots for us to get a sense of the staging and get the benefit of close-ups of the Rhinemaidens and the slimy Alberich. After that full views or even shots of most of the stage became rarer. There were times when we could see the character and a view of the boards and some shade of the set. The impression was that the gods were having a get-together on a shady deck in suburbia.

Let’s get to the real pleasure of the production. A frail James Levine in his 40th year at the Met conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to produce sonic splendour on, how else can one put it, Wagnerian scale. The lead singers were outstanding. Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is a magnificent Wotan. A patch of hair over one eye, a plastic breastplate and a couple of weeks of beard add up to an impressive appearance to supplement his vocal prowess.

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was Fricka. She is supersized vocally and physically and if one characteristic may be more attractive than the other we have to accept Wotan’s choice for a spouse and just listen.

German basses Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter Kőnig (Fafner) are the lumbering giants who sound Wagnerian (thank god) even if they look Tennessean. America bass-baritone Eric Owens’ Alberich is slimy and scary. His acting and singing are superb and this is an Alberich to remember.

Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon sings beautifully as the earth goddess Erda who warns Wotan and Wendy Bryn Harmer is suitably attractive as Freia, the goddess of beauty.

The visual effects that Lepage provides do not always satisfy. When the gods finally enter Valhalla – just a minute, where is Valhalla? As ordered by Wagner, the colours of the rainbow appear, the music soars but there is no visual representation of the grand palace of the gods. I expected something visually stunning that surpasses anything that a realistic representation could provide. It was not there. The only solution here is to one-up Lepage. Close your eyes and imagine a Valhalla more grandiose than any director can imagine or set designer devise. All you really need is the music and Levine delivers that gloriously.

What Halvorson allows you to see of Das Rheingold will be shown again in movie theatres on November 20 and 29, 2010.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER: CANADIAN STAGE COMPANY OPENS ADVENTUROUS SEASON

Ngozi Paul as Julia and Ashley Wright as Fernando. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Summer is over and the theatre season has opened in earnest. The professional and amateur theatre compnies have opened their intitial productions and the eternally optimistic audience has begun looking for that great production of a great play. Let’s start with a list of plays that you will be able to see in he coming months: Fernando Krapp Wrote me this Letter, The Anderson Project, Studies in Motion, Saint Carmen of the Main, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union and Untitled.

How many of those plays do you recognize? Where are they playing?
The answer to the first question may be “none” and the guess to the second question may well be that the plays are being produced by some experimental company in a theatre that you need your GPS to find.

Would you believe, as Maxwell Smart used to say, that they make up the Canadian Stage Company’s new season at the Bluma Appel Theatre?

Canadian Stage has a new Artistic and General Director in Matthew Jocelyn. He replaced Martin Bragg who served in the post for 17 years. A Torontonian, Jocelyn has spent most of his artistic life in Europe. Words used to describe his approach are bold, innovative, trans-disciplinary and redefining. The titles of the plays alone tell us that Canadian Stage Company and the Bluma Appel Theatre may never be the same.

For his first production Jocelyn has chosen German playwright Tankred Dorst’s Fernando Krapp Wrote me this Letter: An Attempt at the Truth which he translated and of course directed. On the surface it is a simple, almost mythical story. But it is the type of play where most of the action takes place beneath the surface and in the end you are left scratching your head. This is not intended to be a light evening out for the tired businessperson.

When the play begins, Julia (Ngazi Paul) tells us that Fernando Krapp “wrote me a letter”. Julia is a poor woman who lives with her father in a city. Fernando is very wealthy and he gave some money to Julia’s father (Walter Borden) and consequently she accuses her father of selling her to Fernando. She is adamant that she wants nothing to do with Fernando.

Fernando (Ashley Wright) appears and he is not a sleazy or tough Donald Trump-type tycoon. He is a rather jolly, overweight man wearing a beige-coloured three piece suit. He is arrogant, to be sure and wants his way but he does not seem nasty at all. He marries Julia and they seem to be quite happy.

The Count (Ryan Hollyman) visits Julia and they get along quite nicely. Is Fernando jealous? No. Are Julia and the Count having an affair? No. Let’s go over the last propositions again. In a bizarre way, we will find Julia and the two men in her life in a mental hospital. She is mentally ill and Fernando and the Count are psychiatrists. Julia is cured and at home and we see the two men with her again.

The plot moves seamlessly and without any connecting logic from one point to the next. This is theatre of the absurd that make sense and no sense. As the subtitle of the play states, Fernando’s letter and the play itself may be an “attempt at the truth” but you are never sure what the truth is or for that matter what is the question. In other words, you cannot find the truth if you do not know what you are looking for and Dorst does not give you too many clues to assist you in your search.

This is theatre of questions and not answers; of “what was that all about” head scratching and a desire to see the play again or find out more about it. Perhaps that is the highest compliment one can pay to both director and author.

The real question however is if this production and the other plays on this season’s roster will bring people to the Bluma Appel Theatre. Let’s hope that it does.
______

Fernando Krapp Wrote me this Letter: An Attempt at the Truth by Tankred Dorst opened on September 28 and will run until October 16, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canstage.com

Monday, October 11, 2010

AIDA IN TIM ALBERY’S QUIRKY PRODUCTION FROM CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY

Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, Jill Grove (above centre) as Amneris and Rosario La Spina as Radames . Photo: Michael Cooper

The Canadian Opera Company opened its 2010-2011 season with a surefire crowd pleaser –Verdi’s Aida to be followed by the more adventurous choice of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice.

Even the greenest neophyte has heard “Celeste Aida” or the Triumphal March and most opera fans have seen a production of Aida which probably included a zoofull of animals like a tiger, an elephant, a horse and a camel. In fact those animals were featured in a production by Royal Opera Canada in Mississauga a few years ago. The eternal love triangle, a palace, a couple of temples and the banks of the Nile, all add up to grand opera on a massive scale.

Director Tim Albery will have none of this. His conception of Aida is of a modern drama, in a poor country where human emotion may be paramount and the paraphernalia of grand opera are chucked. The Pharaoh’s palace becomes a rather shabby conference room with a pine boardroom table and a few cheap chairs. The Egyptians wear rather drab suits and the army officers wear ordinary not to say shabby uniforms.

You are expecting a Triumphal March? Forget it. You will hear the music but there will be nothing on stage to correspond to the thrilling trumpets. You imagine Aida, the Ethiopian princess who is the prisoner of Princess Amneris of Egypt as a beautiful woman for whom Radames, the powerful Egyptian commander falls in love? Forget that too. This Aida is a frump, dressed in an ugly dress and an uglier jacket. She is a defeated woman and all her body language indicates a mouse rather than a princess. Why would Radames fall in love with her?

Every director wants to and must put his imprimatur on a production of a staple of the opera house. You don’t want the same production with different animals walking across the stage for the few minutes of the Triumphal March. But there must be a correlation between the obvious content of the opera and the specific conception of the director. That correlation simply does not exist in the current production.

But all is not lost. The COC has much better luck in its singers than in Albery’s quirky approach. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is an outstanding Aida. She has a lustrous voice and achieves emotional and vocal splendour. She is marvelous in the long “Ritorna vincitor” and extraordinarily moving in “O patria mia.”

Tenor Rosario La Spina handled the role of Radames with self-assurance but with his bulky figure and military uniform he looked more like a tin pot dictator than a romantic lover who betrayed his country for the love of a woman. When the voice works, we overlook physical appearance. La Spina’s vocal prowess more than makes up for his lack of the ideal physical accoutrements for the role.

Jill Grove’s Amneris is a full-sized girl, as they say, but she does get a better wardrobe than Aida and she has a full-sized mezzo-soprano voice that stands her well. Her big moment comes near the end of the opera where she goes through the gamut of emotions. She wants Radames to die, she loves him, she wants him saved, she wishes he loved her. Grove gives a tour de force performance.

Baritone Scott Hendricks made a dramatic Amonasro while Alain Coulomb was a good King of Egypt. Phillip Ens was a sonorous Ramfis. The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra was conducted by Johannes Debus.
Hildegard Bechtler’s sets were, in keeping with Albery’s conception, drab with couches being pushed on and off the stage. The Egyptians may be able to whip the Ethiopians but as a country they cannot afford a bit of decent furniture even for the King.

And a final note on directorial choices. Aida sneaks into the underground chamber where her lover will be left to die for his treachery. Radames is unrepentant for his betrayal of his country and his love for Aida. They are left to die and they sing the beautifully melodic duet “O terra, addio.” Amneris is seen above the chamber and the three scenically make a triangle. Well and good, but would two lovers who are about to die for their love stand some fifteen feet apart? How about a final embrace at least, instead of the two collapsing to the ground as if they were strangers?

____

Aida by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 2 and will be performed twelve times on various dates until November 5, 2010 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Friday, October 8, 2010

YOU ARE HERE GETS YOU NOWHERE AT THE ALUMNAE THEATRE

In her memory, Alison (TABITHA KEAST) watches Diane (ALYSSA QUART) and Jerry (CAMERON JOHNSTON) meet on the film set. Photo by Karen Braaten


Reviewed by James Karas

There are some plays and productions that get you nowhere. You try to find points of interest, guess the author’s intentions, the director’s point of view and come up empty-handed. The current production of Daniel MacIivor’s You Are Here by the Alumnae Theatre Company left me with such an impression. I could find nothing in the play or in the production that made the play rise higher than tolerable and most of the time it was plain boring.

The play is centered on Alison (Tabitha Keast) who should be an interesting character but is so badly developed you do not much care for her. She is an intelligent and educated journalist. She first appears on the sand-covered stage with a bottle full of sand. She filled it from the shore of the Black Sea, the cradle of civilization, and she prizes it very highly.

She meanders through her opening monologue for so long that even the flashes of literary language begin escaping you and you want her to stop jabbering and get on with the play. Whatever the symbolic significance of the bottle, we will not see it until a couple of hours later when she empties it.

We flash back to her time at university and meet Prof. Steeves (Joseph Cochrane) and Connie Hoy (Seema Lakhani). The latter is a student and a Teaching Assistant and the professor is sleeping with her. That may be improper but it is mentioned in passing only and we go on to the next scene. Alison has a good friend in Richard (Michael Vitorovich) who also acts as a kind of Chorus in the play.

Alison interviews Diane Drake (Alyssa Quart), a shallow and ditsy actress, and Thomas Rowan (Will O’Hara), an arrogant director. Alison marries Jerry (Cameron Johnson), a psychologist but leaves him for Thomas. She then goes with Paul (Jamieson Child) a gigolo for reasons that escape me. Why she married Jerry is not made clear any more than the rest of the spouse-swapping that occurs.

Jerry the psychologist becomes a screenwriter and Thomas directs the film that Alison produces. We continue, in the meantime, with the deterioration of Alison’s condition for reasons that are not apparent.

Alison addresses the audience a number of times including telling us that intermission has arrived. We are grateful. Later on Connie provides comfort by telling us that there are only a few minutes left in the play. We are relieved.

Director Paul Hardy has the eight actors of the cast walk through the sand on the stage, as they must, and no doubt they are walking through the sand of time. There are virtually no props. The pace is soporific and the pauses are so long at times that you have forgotten what preceded them. Your mind is wanders away from what is going on on stage and it takes an effort to concentrate.

The actors deliver their lines more out of duty than conviction and I have no idea why this soporific play was chosen for production in the first place.

Perhaps if Hardy picked up the pace, tightened the acting, we may get a lot more from the play. There seemed to be some good lines but all were buried in the sand on the stage and not necessarily on the historic shore of the Black sea.

A bad night at the theatre.

_____

You Are Here by Daniel MacIvor opened on September 24 and will run until October 9, 2010 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.alumnaetheatre.com 416 364-4170

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

THROUGH THE LEAVES – OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES IN GRITTY DRAMA

Nicholas Campbell and Maria Vacratsis in Through the Leaves

Through the Leaves is the mysterious title of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play that has been staged by The Company Theatre and is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space.

The play provides two meaty roles for actors in the characters of a butcher named Martha (Maria Vacratsis) and a factory worker named Otto (Nicholas Campbell). If one were to call the play kitchen-sink drama to indicate its gritty realism, one should add that the sink is filthy. It is literally filthy from the tripe that Martha handles and the actions of the characters from oral sex (under a towel) and drunken abuse of Martha.

Martha runs a successful butcher shop specializing in offal. She has a sitting room attached to the shop and an apartment upstairs. Her problem is that she is in her 50’s, very plain and very lonely. She meets a man, virile and attractive in his own way and she wants to connect with him.

She prepares some caviar snacks and invites him over. She wants to savour every minute with Otto and she starts keeping a diary. She wants him to do the same. She uses all her charm and humanity to develop a relationship with him. She offers him money and a job and even takes him to a ball. In short, she is prepared to do almost anything to keep him, as she tells him and her diary.

Otto is not quite the diary keeping variety. In fact he is a crude drunkard who tells her that she is so homely that he stays with her because he feels sorry for her. He demands oral sex from her and feels quite noble because he puts a pillow on the floor for her to kneel on. He is unfaithful and words like Neanderthal, trash, human garbage are a propos to describe him. If he has any redeeming features, aside from his penis (if one can call that a redeeming feature) and human form, I could not find any.

The plot of the play revolves around the deteriorating relationship between the two people. She keeps trying to put up with him despite his increasingly despicable behaviour and he continues on his merry way without any conception of his conduct.

Half-way thorough this short play (about 75 minutes) I started wondering about the punch line. Something has to be revealed about one of them or something must happen to provide one of the Aristotelian essentials of a play: a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning and the middle are there and done well. What about a satisfactory conclusion?

Martha being a butcher, we see her handling some bloody offal and we also see some knives and a meat cleaver. At the beginning of the play there was a barking dog that Otto threatened with a knife and which bit him. Surely the dog or the met cleaver will re-appear. They do not.

Despite all her efforts to keep him Otto walks out of Martha’s life and leaves her sitting alone. She is as lonely as ever and no doubt misses him. A successful but unattractive woman is reduced to wanting to live with a creep rather than alone.

Despite the rather unsatisfactory ending, the play does have two superb roles for actors and in the hands of Campbell and Vacratsis we have two marvelous and riveting performances. Our attention never flags as we watch these two masters of their craft delineate Kroetz’s characters. The play is superbly directed by Philip Riccio.

Kroetz may be telling us, I suppose, that sometimes there is no punch line or cathartic end in real life or in the theatre, even if there is a meat cleaver hanging on the wall.
___

Through the Leaves by Franz Xaver Kroetz continues until October 3, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. http://www.companytheatre.ca