Wednesday, December 29, 2010


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.


Monday, December 20, 2010


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


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


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. 416 866-8666.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Photography by David Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

“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.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


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.

Monday, December 6, 2010


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.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


*** (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.

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