Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Photo - David Storch, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, Mariah Inger & Sterling Jarvis

by James Karas

In 1994 between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans were massacred. The rest of the world stood by and did nothing to stop the genocide even though they knew it was happening. In fact, the United Nations withdrew 90% of its peacekeeping troops and refused to call the killings a genocide.

It is this subject that J.T. Rogers tackles in his play The Overwhelming which is now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre. It was an event of such horrific dimensions that it could not be described in almost any work of art. That Rogers fails to capture all the horror is inevitable; the extent to which he succeeds is admirable.

Rogers attempts to blend the personal story of an American family as they interact with foreign officials and Rwandans in the days leading up to the genocide. The play is part personal drama and part documentary and the two plot strands are interwoven.

Jack Exley (David Storch), a teacher of International Relations goes to Rwanda to write a book about Dr. Joseph Gasana (Nigel Shawn Williams). Exley and Gasana were roommates in college and Gasana is now running a paediatric hospital for AIDS sufferers. Exley needs to write a book in order to save his academic career.

Exley’s wife Linda (Mariah Inger) is a creative non-fiction writer and she wants to capture the sprit of Rwanda in a magazine article. Both Exleys are naïve to the point of stupidity and arrogance. They are so devoid of common sense that they are downright annoying. She is black and he has a son, Geoffrey (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett), from a previous marriage who is equally annoying.

The personal and family issues of the Exleys are the background to the swelling political problems as Tutsis threaten to return to Rwanda from Burundi where they were forced into exile by the Hutus. The extremist Hutus believe that the only means to ensure their own survival is by massacring all the Tutsis.

Rogers wants to bring a number of issues to the foreground and he uses twenty-two characters played by eleven actors in order to achieve that. There are French and American diplomats, a British and a Rwandan doctor, a UN Officer, and Rwandan government officials.

Samuel Mizinga (Sterling Jarvis) is a charming Rwandan official who befriends Linda and attempts to convince her that Tutsis are not real Rawands but mere invaders who must be resisted with every force. The French and American diplomats are not prepared to do anything and the UN forces are so few that they could not do anything even if they wanted to.

With twenty-two characters played by eleven actors in numerous locations, there are some scene changes that are not easy to follow and you have to pay very close attention to keep up with who is doing what.

This is a huge subject, as I said, and it cannot possibly be covered in a couple of hours but one does get the sense of the paranoia, the hatred and the fear between the two tribes. How two tribes that have a great deal in common can foment hatred leading to genocide is one of the astounding and unanswerable questions of history and the play.

The choice of the Exleys is not a sound one, I suggest. They should be less naïve, less annoying for the story to flow.

David Storch does a superb job as Jack Exley, the naïve and ridiculous academic. Storch was so effective in the role that I almost wished that Rogers had created a less disgusting character. Mariah Inger is a perfect foil for the foolish academic. Hardee T. Linehan is the hearty American diplomat Charles Woolsey whom we meet on the golf course as the massacre is proceeding.

Nigel Shawn Williams does well as Dr. Gasana and in several minor roles. Paul Essiembre successfully tackles three roles while Andre Sills takes on five rolls including that of UN Major.

Director Joel Greenberg prefers speed to ponderousness in scene changes. There are lot of scene changes done quickly and actors frequently speak simultaneously. There are at least four languages and the plot is not always easy to follow. Less speed may serve the play better.

The Overwhelming is a production of Studio 180 Theatre Company. This, they tell us, is their eighth major production following such successes as Stuff Happens and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook. Pretty good record that.

The Overwhelming by J.T. Rogers continues until April 3, 2010 at the Berkeley Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ontario. 416 368-3110.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Graeme Somerville, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Conrad Coates.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

“This does not make sense” says one of the characters in Hush, Rosa Laborde’s new play, currently at the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space.

A play that is concerned with dreams and nightmares and matters spiritual may not be expected to make sense. Still, you may wish to understand something of what is going on and proceed from the beginning to the end of a one-act play with some enjoyment.

One cannot accuse Ms Laborde of lacking ambition. In a short play she tries to bring Greek mythology, Peruvian spiritualism, a witch doctor, rampant symbols of sacrificial lambs and, frankly, I don’t know what else. But rest assured it was all there.

We start with a simple premise of Lily (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), a 12-year old having a nightmare. She is a bright kid about to become a teenager and she is troubled. Her mother is dead. She is very articulate and her dentist father Harlem (Graeme Somerville), is trying to be supportive. He is named after the Dutch city and I am not sure that I caught the significance of that fact.

Harlem is involved with a very spiritual and spirited, if those are the right words, woman named Talia (Tara Rosling). At the end of the play there is a suggestion that she may be his long-dead wife but by that time maintaining any kind of interest in the play and its characters has become rather difficult.

The fourth character is Andre (Conrad Coates), another dentist who exhibits considerable charm. Coates doubles as the witch doctor of the dreams.

A play about dreams and nightmares cannot be expected to follow a logical sequence of events in its plotline but this one was so confusing that I was frequently bewildered about what the hell was going on.

World mythology is alive and well in these characters’ dreams and we are also told that Talia is named after the Muse of Comedy. The Muse’s name is usually written as Thalia but be grateful that we are told that much. You are on your own about the rest.

These people are very, very literate and they say some ponderous and some very ridiculous things. If you heard anyone talk like that you would scratch your head and wonder what part of the planet they are from. Maybe people get more articulate or just use more arcane language in their dreams and nightmares.

The acting talents of the four actors are very apparent despite the deficiencies of the script. Ms Endicott-Douglas can take on the role of any adolescent brat or genius or troubled girl and shine in it. Tara Rosling can do a good job even with bad lines.

Somerville gets some convoluted lines but he does a very good job in taking us through the nightmares whosoever’s they may be. Coates gets easier lines to speak and or he makes them seem easy. He carries the role Andre with aplomb.

A white sheet and some boxes covered with black cloth pretty much make up the set. All is black except for the sheet and a flower. There are some interesting sound effects and lighting but this is a play that can be produced on a string budget. The starry night at the end is quite effective.

Unfortunately I found little to enjoy in the play.


Hush by Rosa Laborde ran until March 21, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Athena Lamarre, Caroline Gillis, Sarah Dodd
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Communion, Daniel MacIvor’s new play at the Tarragon Theatre is simple and direct and may contain a great deal of subtext but it lacks text and theatricality. After eighty-four minutes with no intermission you step out of the theatre wondering what the play was all about and was it worth it after all.

A woman with the dramatic name of Leda (Caroline Gillis) is visiting her therapist Carolyn (Sarah Dodd). We don’t know if the therapist is a psychologist or psychiatrist but it may not matter. Leda is distraught, dramatic, and to call her a low-life may not be overly crude. Let’s say she has had a troubled life what with being an alcoholic, a woman estranged from her daughter and searching for advice.

The therapist probes into Leda’s life, coolly, carefully. She maintains a suggestion of a smile on her face but displays no emotion. She is the quintessential professional who asks a lot of questions and makes few comments. Leda is ill with cancer and she throws herself back on her chair at times as the sad narrative of her life is revealed. This is of some interest and may do nicely in a novel but it is not particularly theatrical.

In the next scene we meet Leda’s daughter Annie (Athena Lamarre). Mother and daughter confront each other in a hotel room and we are about to go behind what Leda was telling her therapist. The first thing we notice is that Leda is a different person from the Leda of the first scene. She is spruced up, reasonable and desperately trying to connect with her daughter whom she has not seen for many months.

Annie is angry, bitter and hateful and once she sets that tone she maintains it almost to the end of the play. Some variation on the theme would have been apropos but MacIvor is not interested in that. Annie is religious zealot but the sect she belongs to does not seem to be interested in love, charity or forgiveness. Annie married Bud some time ago but she did not invite her mother to the wedding. Her father and his new wife were there. Annie reveals that she is pregnant and the scene ends.

In the final scene Annie meets, indeed confronts, Carolyn. The latter is closing her practice and moving away. She is no longer the dispassionate therapist but a lesbian whose relationship has fallen apart and who is not happy with what she achieved in her professional life. We learn that Leda whose real name was Linda is dead and that Annie has given birth.

The confrontation ends with Carolyn sitting in the chair that Leda occupied in the firsts scene and throwing her head back the way her client used to do.

The situation and the characters are mildly interesting but are they interesting enough to sustain a whole play? There are flashes of humour but hardly enough to provide much bitter laughter.

Annie recalls going to Catholic service in her youth and taking communion and she calls the people lining up for it as “the catholic fashion review.” A good line. She has spent time in jail and has become a religious fanatic. This may be tragic or tragic-comic but Annie is far too bitchy in her scene with her mother to evoke much sympathy.

The play opens with the words “It’s the question” and there is the recurring theme of what lies behind the door and the fact that we fear the light rather than the darkness. That may be true but is there enough substance in MacIvor’s characters or their situation as he develops it for us to care about them.

In other words we may be interested in the philosophical question posed without being able to apply it to the situation in which these people are involved.

MacIvor directs his own play. Caroline Gillis in effect plays two different characters in the two scenes that she appears. The play gives her a good opportunity to display her acting talent by doing two very different people and she does it very well.

Athena Lamarre is limited to acting the angry and bitchy daughter until she breaks way from that posture near the end of the play. She does well within the limitations placed by the script and the director. Better character development by MacIvor would have displayed her talent in even better light.

Sarah Dodd has similar constraints. She is the dispassionate therapist in the first scene but she is allowed to become human and even move around in the last scene.

A disappointing night at the theatre.

Communion by Daniel MacIvor opened on March 3 and will run until April 4, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. 416 531-1827

Friday, March 19, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

If two presumably rational men fall in love head-over-heels, as they say, with a woman and are prepared to risk everything that woman better be nothing less than sensational. Now when men indulge in that type of passion by “sensational” they do not mean a member of Mensa but someone with irresistible sexual appeal.

Two men who fall in love in that manner are Corporal Don Jose and Toreador Escamillo. The femme fatale is Carmen and they all meet in Georges Bizet’s opera that just finished playing at the Four Seasons Center in a production by the Canadian Opera Company.

It has been said hat if you don’t like Carmen, you do not like opera and should look elsewhere for musical nourishment. Carmen has so much that is both wonderful and familiar, from the habanera to the Song of the Toreador that it is impossible not to enjoy any competent production to some extent.

One can no doubt say that much and more about the COC’s production. It is competent and there are many enjoyable aspects to it. But it also falls short on a number of headings and one wonders why it should be so.

The role of Carmen was sung by Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham except for the final performances for which she was replaced by Georgian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. I did not see Ms Shaham and Ms Rachvelishvili was singing the night that I attended. She has a ringing voice with luscious tones. Unfortunately she did not exude much sexual electricity. She moved awkwardly, could not dance and she did not convince anyone that even dumb men would wreck their lives for her.

Speaking of dumb men, Don Jose is quite a prize. American tenor Garrett Sorenson replaced Bryan Hymel for the last two performances of the run and it was he who sang with Ms Rachvelishvili. The roly-poly Sorenson was vocally competent but as a lover he was simply wooden.

French baritone Paul Gay looked every inch the toreador and had a convincing swagger. He made a commanding Escamillo and Carmen should have no difficulty or hesitation in dumping Don Jos for this tall, dark and handsome dude who could sing up a storm.

The most successful performance was by Jessica Muirhead as the sweet peasant girl Micaela. She has a dulcet voice to go with her gentle personality and among the thieves and other low-lives of the opera she stands out like a beacon. Marvelous vocal work by Ms Muirhead.

The production is directed by Justin Way with sets designed by Michael Yeargan. Way has opted for spoken dialogue instead of recitatives. This should move the action at a faster clip but instead what we get is some really badly spoken French and not much speed. Now one could argue that Spanish soldiers and thieves cannot be expected to speak proper French and they may be right. But they will not speak with the strange accents of some of the COC singers either.

Way has some problems with handling crowd scenes and the effect is that of a largely static production that moves at a snail’s pace. In the opening scene there is a lively march by children. In this production thanks to an iron fence, the march is cut down to very little movement. There is no reason for that.

The costumes were non-descript but the red-hot shirts of the soldiers were a good indicator of the passion that was not generated by the performers and communicated to the audience.

The COC Orchestra was conducted by Rory Macdonald.

Carmen by Georges Bizet opened on January 27 and was performed twelve times until February 27, 2010 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Tiziana Caruso as Desdemona and Clifton Forbis as Otello.
Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

As you enter the Four Seasons Centre for a performance of Otello you see a huge eye on the curtain staring at you. Is this the eye that will provide Otello with the (non-existent) “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity?

For it winter season, the Canadian Opera Company has chosen Verdi’s penultimate opera and Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The latter is one of the most frequently produced operas while Verdi’s work is staged less frequently. In both operas, army officers and essentially decent men, kill women in rages of jealousy.

Otello was Verdi’s 27th opera and when it opened at La Scala, Milan on February 5, 1887 he was 74. His source of course was Shakespeare’s Othello and his librettist was Arrigo Boito, a master of the craft. Verdi had not composed an opera since Aida and that one had premiered sixteen years before Otello.

The last time the COC produced Otello was ten years ago and this year we are treated to a new co-production with the Welsh National Opera.

Scottish director Paul Curran delivers an economical and intelligent production. The set by Paul Edwards is grand without being overwhelming and except for a few essential items such as the set for the opening scene, a bed and curtains there are no Zefirellian scenic indulgences. The oversized, gold lion when the Venetian ambassador appears near the end of the opera may be the exception. There are intelligent touches such as having Desdemona watching from above as Otello’s ship approaches and a cross appearing as she is praying in the final scene. There are some directorial booboos but more of that later.

Otello is dominated by three characters: Otello, Desdemona and Iago. The opera is, of course, about emotional warfare and the ability of Iago to conquer Otello’s soul and turn the upstanding general, a man of vast military experience and wisdom, into a jealous monster. The victim of that monster is the lovely and pure Desdemona and the means is a hapless officer called Cassio.

American baritone Scott Hendricks was the most successful and impressive as the malignant Iago. In addition to having a fine voice, Hendricks managed to look and be evil, slimy, manipulative and simply frightful. He moved around the stage with ease and made a very effective villain. When he gave us his “Credo” he epitomized both immorality and amorality.

Italian soprano Tiziana Caruso was the blonde, pure-as-driven-snow Desdemona. She has a lovely voice especially at mid-range and was also superb in her lower register. She did not seem to handle the high notes successfully all the time but still made an effective Desdemona.

The title role was performed by tenor Clifton Forbis. He has a powerful voice and he is fantastic at full throttle. However I could not warm up to his voice at all times. There did not seem to be much emotional conviction and I don’t think Curran’s directing did much to make the final scene the heart wrencher that I expected.

You can’t have a successful Otello without a first-rate chorus. The opera opens with a loud storm and thunderclaps and the chorus is there of course and provides the vocal power for the Fire Chorus (“Fuoco di giovio”) and the boisterous drinking song (Chi all’esca”). The COC Chorus under Sandra Horst delivers the goods.

The first act ends with a beautiful love duet (“Gia nella notte”) between Otello and Desdemona. Verdi wants them to sing “dolce” as they express married love. The duet starts with Otello on the right side of the stage and Desdemona on the left side, a bit behind him. His anger is calmed down, he sings, by just looking at her. No doubt it is but it would help if he in fact looked at her instead of being on the other side of the stage. They finally do get together but a bit more care in putting the scene together would have heightened the effect.

Italian tenor Emanuele D’Aguanno was good as Cassio as was Canadian tenor Adam Luther as Roderigo. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was a sympathetic and well-done Emilia.

The COC Orchestra was conducted by Paul Olmi in what was, despite some complaints, a good night at the opera.


Otello by Giuseppe Verdi opened on February 5 and was performed nine times until February 28, 2010 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Patrick Twaddle, Kristin Galer, Jeremy Lapalme, Lise Maher, Cory O'Brien
Photographs by Gilberto Prioste

Reviewed by James Karas

In the spirit of the Vancouver Olympics, we are awarding medals for knowledge of cultural history.

For gold: Who was Oscar Telgmann?

For Silver: who or what is Leo, The Royal Cadet?

For Bronze: Name a Canadian operetta that opened in Kingston and ran for 1700 performances?

People who follow productions by the Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT) have an unfair advantage over others but that is as it should be. People who practice the downhill slalom for years have an advantage over those who have never put on skis.

It is an unfortunate fact that the medals will not be claimed by most Canadians. But that is not for any lack of effort by Guillermo Silva-Marin, the Founder and General Manager of TOT who for 25 years has been producing standard and some rare operettas in Toronto under budgets and conditions that would give pause to most people.

Telgmann (1855-1946) played a significant role in the musical life of Kingston, Ontario including establishing the Kingston Symphony Orchestra. The lyrics for Leo were provided by George F. Cameron, a lawyer, poet and editor of the Kingston News. The operetta, subtitled “An Entirely New and Original Canadian Military Opera in Four Acts” premiered in Kingston 1889. It toured to a number of cities and is estimated to have racked up 1700 performances by 1925.

Let’s get to Leo. We are on the picnic grounds of the Royal Military College, Kingston, in 1878. It is Queen Victoria’s birthday, the British Empire is in its glory the cadets are toasting Her Majesty’s health and the Commander is trying to recruit some civilians into the army. You see, there are some Zulus in Africa who need to be put in their proper place and Canada will do its bit for the empire.

The young ladies show up as do Herr Shulius and Monsieur Francois, the buffoonish professors of German and French. After some boisterous singing, the boys do join the army and are sent to Africa where they do their job (a war “dance” with the Zulus but we know what that means) and return triumphant. They are reconciled with their sweethearts and after a lot more singing, the operetta ends and we all live happily ever after.

Leo does not have much of a plot even by operettic standards. But it has spirit, military spirit, that is. These people have a song for every occasion. The men will sing about “Glory and Victory”, “The Life of a Rover”, “Soldiers and Our Country’s Pride” and the ladies will tell us that “We are Maidens” and “True Love Can Never Alter”.

Leo our hero is played by a tall and heroic-looking Cory O’Brien who can belt out the military and softer lyrics to his sweetheart Nellie (well done by Kristin Galer). Robert Longo is the upstanding Colonel Hewett and Patrick Whalen is the swaggering Captain Bloodswigger, “a true British soldier.”

Joseph Angelo and Gregory Finney are the foolish professors and they are good except that Angelo does not quite look Germanic. Stefan Fehr plays Cadet Wind who is composing a piece called the Faerie Opera and when there is no more plot left, a scene from his work is used to finish off the evening.

What TOT lacks is not talent, imagination or willpower. It has no money. As a result there was no set to speak of. What was lacking in funds was made up is spirit.

Lehar, Offenbach and Strauss are in no danger of being knocked off their pedestals by Telgmann but it was a delight to see a period piece from Canada’s past.

The original production of Leo at Martin’s Opera House in Kingston was under the Patronage of the Royal Military College. The current production is stated to be “Under Honorary Patron Commodore Commandant W. S. Truelove and the Royal Military College of Canada.” That may well be the real name of the current Commandant but appearing on the programme for an operetta I could not help but think that he sounds like one of its characters.

The current production is a revised and adapted version of the original. Mr. Silva-Marin and Virginia Reh revised the operetta in two acts with additional music by S. Codman. John Greer adapted and arranged the score.

The TOT Orchestra, a baker’s dozen of players conducted by Jeffrey Huard, did yeoman’s work as did the Vocal Ensemble.

There will be no medals awarded for recognizing the next production by TOT. It will be Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance starting on April 27, 2010.

Leo, The Royal Cadet by Oscar Telgmann was performed on April 19, 20 & 21, 2010 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: (416) 922-2912.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Peter Donaldson, Jerry Franken, Martha Burns

George F. Walker has not produced a new play for ten year but he is back now with And So It Goes at Factory Theatre.

It is an absurdist drama that is perhaps best viewed as series of verses or images of a family that goes from the verge of disaster into total annihilation. There is very little that can be described as realistic or linear in the plot of the play except that it moves forward chronologically.

We meet Ned (Peter Donaldson) and Gwen (Martha Burns) in what should be an ordinary, middle-class living room. Gwen tells us that she is scared. The motif of fear will run through the play. She and her husband have every reason to be scared. They are a middle class couple with a daughter named Karen (Jenny Young). Ned is a financial advisor and Gwen is a teacher. They were in any event until they both lost their jobs and their world started spiraling downward.

In the first scene, their car is repossessed but that is only the beginning of their humiliation. They lose their house but they try to stay on their feet by Ned taking cooking lessons with a view to finding a job. He is a failure at that and is reduced to walking in front of some kind of store carrying a large sign announcing a blow out sale. The couple ends up in a shelter and Ned starts panhandling.

That is not all. Their daughter is suffering from schizophrenia. She is a drug addict and a prostitute and, of course, cannot get along with her parents. What else can go wrong?

That is a linear summary of the events of the play gleaned from the various scenes. If the incidents of the fall and humiliation of this family were presented as summarized, we would have a melodrama about a poor family being crushed by capitalism. Walker is not interested in writng that kind of play and most of us would not be interested in seeing one. The play consists of short scenes, almost vignettes at times, showing the family in different stages of their lives.

We see Gwen talking to a writer near the beginning of the play who turns out to be Kurt Vonnegut (Jerry Franken). He is dead, of course, and she is talking to him after his death. Ned talks with Vonnegut as well and the writer turns up in a number of scenes.

The daughter’s deterioration continues until she is beaten to death as she tries to pick up a john. After her death she appears as a rational and healthy woman talking with her parents.

Meeting and talking with Vonnegut and seeing their daughter as a healthy woman may be dreams. Are they the dreams of Ned or Gwen or of both? The scenes are presented realistically and there is no indication that either character is dreaming. And if they are not dream sequences what are we to make of them?

Another way of looking at the scenes is as if they are abstract art where the individual pieces do not make sense but the picture as a whole leaves the impression of what is happening to Ned and Gwen. It is an impression of their hell as they grapple with the terrible reality of their situation and grasp at the straws of chatting with a famous American writer and seeing their daughter away from drugs and prostitution. A fascinating play.

Walker directs his play and gets splendid performances from Donaldson and Burns, veterans of the Canadian theatre scene. Jenny Young gets to show her emotional range and talent as the deeply troubled daughter whereas Franken acts the more reserved Vonnegut.

This is the thinking person’s theatre which simply means that it is a play worth seeing more than once and trying to figure out all its angles.


And So It Goes by George F. Walker ran until March 6, 2010 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Yanna McIntosh and Megan Follows in Act 2 of the Toronto Production of Cloud 9. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, now playing at the Panasonic Theatre, is one of those mind-expanding plays that make your jaw drop. The author displays such a wild imagination, covers so many themes and provides such bizarre plot twists that you can barely keep up with a small number of them. The fact that there is a lot about sex does tend to keep the attention of some audience members intact.

The play starts with a simple premise. An English family in Africa in 1880, at the height of the British Empire. The whole family sings a jingoistic anthem and Clive (David Jansen), the head of the family, introduces us to its members. Betty, his wife, is the classic Victorian spouse who lives for her husband or so she tells us in a couple of rhyming couplets. She wants to be the type of woman that a man wants. Betty is played by a man, Evan Buliung.

Joshua (Ben Carlson), the black servant wants to be white so he is played by a white actor; Edward the son is played by a woman, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Victoria, the daughter is represented by a dummy. Betty’s mother Maud is played by a black actress, Yanna McIntosh. Ellen, the governess, the widow Mrs. Saunders (both played by Megan Follows) and Harry the explorer (Blair Williams) are played by actors of their own sex but don’t count on them maintaining any semblance of Victorian morality.

Act II takes place in London one hundred years later historically but the characters are in fact only 25 years older than in Act I. Betty is now played by a woman (Ann-Marie MacDonald), Edward is played by a man (Evan Buliung), Victoria is played by Yanna McIntosh. Those are the only characters that survive from Act I.

Four new characters appear. Edward’s lover Gerry (Ben Carlson); Victoria’s husband Martin (Blair Williams) and Lin (Megan Follows) and her daughter Cathy (David Jansen). Cathy is the only part played by a man in Act II and that may be a bit of a relief when you try to figure out Who’s Who.

High Victorian England in an outpost of the Empire set beside hip London of a century later should provide some stark contrasts. It does but what one notes more are the similarities. There is abuse, homosexuality, infidelity, masturbation, oral sex and bizarre situations in both centuries. The language may be politer in the 19th century but the moral universe is hardly different.

There are some very witty lines, and quick scene changes. This is surrealistic theatre that is perplexing and absorbing.

Director Alisa Palmer has a first-rate cast that can carry the extraordinary demands of the play. David Jansen plays the upright and uptight paterfamilias with many ironic twists in Act I and he plays the little girl Cathy in Act II. Ann-Marie MacDonald does superb work as young Edward in Act I and turns into Betty, a high-toned English lady in Act II, again with many twists.

Evan Buliung is the Victorian Betty in Act I and a raving homosexual in Act II. Megan Follows plays the governess and a widow full of wanton sexuality in the first act but becomes a modern lesbian pursuing pleasure in the second half of the play.

The superb Yanna McIntosh is Maud, the mother-in-law of Act I and the bi-sexual Victoria of Act II.

This is rare theatrical fare.

The subtitle of the play is A Comedy of Multiple Organisms and Churchill is pulling our leg right from the start. The extensive ground that the play covers in the end is centered on sex and sexual freedom. From casual pickups of gay men, to pedophilia, to an ‘orgy’ involving Lin and the siblings Victoria and Edward to more sexual encounters, the play manages to be funny and absorbing in its strangeness.

Churchill may be trying to cover more ground than can be done in an evening of theatre and there are patches of the play that are not as effective as others but one cannot deny that this is intelligent and intriguing theatre.


Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill opened on January 26, and ran until February 21, 2010 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


A scene from Act II of Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A buffoonish old man wants to marry a pretty young lady. He has status, a baron, and she or her father, in any event, has money. The old man wants her for obvious reasons and her father wants the baron as a son-in-law for equally obvious reasons. The young lady wants nothing to do with the boorish nobleman and wants to marry a young man for love.

The plot is as familiar as it is old. When Hugo von Hofmannsthal undertook to write a libretto for a Mozartean opera for Richard Strauss he reached into the barrel of familiar comedy plots and came up with that one.

He fine-tuned it by adding a love interest between an older woman, a princess and a 17-year old count – the same young man you will fall in love with the pretty young lady that the baron wants to marry. It turned into an exquisite libretto for which Strauss composed some plush music and the result was Der Rosenkavalier, a staple of the opera repertoire.

The Metropolitan Opera has revived Nathaniel Merrill’s production which was first seen more than 40 years ago and this time it has broadcast it around the world in HD. This is opera production in the grand style. We are in the middle of the 18th century and the ladies wear gorgeous dresses, the men wear wigs and carry swords and the rooms are palatial.

The splendour and grandeur of the sets is just the beginning. You will also see the gorgeous Renee Fleming as the princess who is more familiarly known as the Marschallin, the pretty Christine Schäfer as Sophie, the daughter of the rich merchant von Faninal who wants to pawn her off to Baron Ochs and the good-looking Susan Graham as Octavian, the young count who loves everybody.

Fleming is the Field Marshal’s wife and we find her in bed with Octavian. Their fun is interrupted by the visit of the Marschallin’s cousin Ochs. Von Hofmannsthal invented a custom of a silver rose being delivered to the future bride by a relative of the groom. The job goes to Octavian and he looks at Sophie, she looks at him, Strauss provides the rising music and it is love at first sight.

The plot line will develop the two strands. The baron’s boorish behaviour will provide broad comedy and the necessity of the Marschallin to give up Octavian and his love for Sophie will provide the touching drama and romance that make the opera such a complete work.

Fleming is that rare soprano that provides vocal and physical beauty combined with acting talent. She has a lustrous, luminous voice and her Marschallin is affecting and moving and the performance is memorable. She interacts with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham extremely well and the latter is vocally convincing as well as doing a trousers role marvellously.

Soprano Christine Schäfer is pretty, demure and spunky as Sophie. She has to stand up to her father, say no to the Ochs and go for Octavian. A job well done, one would say.

Strauss preferred female voices and he almost left men out of this opera. The major male role goes to Baron Ochs sung by bass Kristinn Sigmundsson. Baritone Thomas Aalen appears as Sophie’s father and there is an aria for a tenor (Eric Cutler) but these are relatively minor roles.

Sigmundsson is fine vocally but he has no particular comedic talent. When it comes to broad comedy the role carries him instead of the other way around.

The broadcast was directed by Barbara Willis Sweete and there are some issues that must be mentioned. Act I takes place in a huge bedroom but we rarely get to see it. The more serious problem is that it appears ill-lit even when day breaks and presumably the sun comes streaming through.

The set for Act II in the cob Faninal house is even more spectacular but again we are given scant opportunity to enjoy it. The constant change of camera angles is annoying. When we have a perfect view of the singers, leave the scene alone. There is no need for any change.

Strauss’s “Comedy for Music” is approachable, enjoyable and opera on a grand scale. The Metropolitan Opera does it full justice.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot

The end of one year and the beginning of a new one is as good a time as any to look back at the good, bad and indifferent theatrical productions that I saw in 2009.

As always, I look for things Greek. Not quite in the spirit of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding for whom everything is Greek but in the sense of searching for Ancient Greek drama and links to Greek culture. My luck in finding Aeschylus and Company on the stage during 2009 was simply dreadful. No doubt there were many productions but I was not in the right place at the right time to see much of anything.

The year did start auspiciously with a production of Euripides’s Medea at the Canon Theatre in Toronto. Miles Potter directed his wife Seana McKenna using Robinson Jeffers’s 1946 adaptation. A year later I still recall McKenna’s performance in the role of the vengeful queen. The superb production boded well for Greek drama to be made intelligible to modern audiences and be produced more frequently.

It did not happen. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival did not offer anything closer to Greek drama than Racine’s Phèdre. Seana McKenna was outstanding in the lead role and Tom McCamus gave a polished performance as Theseus but the production fell flat partly because of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s prosaic translation and partly because of director Carey Perloff’s attempt to make Racine more approachable. It may have been approachable but was decidedly not Racine.

Phèdre was also produced by the National Theatre in England with Helen Mirren in the title role. Nickolas Hytner directed the production using Ted Hughes’s translation of the play. The production had many virtues but Hytner kept Mirren’s emotional range in tight rein. I expected Mirren to deliver the equivalent of a Mad Scene in an opera but Hytner would not permit her.

Soulpepper Theatre Company promised a production of Antigone by Sophocles but backed off and produced Jean Anouilh’s version of the play. Even R.H. Thomson (Creon) and Liisa Repo-Martell (Antigone) could not bring the production to life. Not having Sophocles’ play was a disappointment made worse by having a so-so production of Anouilh’s version.

Aside from those slim pickings the only things Greek that I chanced on were The Suitcase by Nancy Athan-Mylonas and Lydia Soldevila Tombros and the opera Alexander the Great by Panayotis Karoussos.

The Suitcase presents a sentimental journey back to Greece and a celebration of the Greek immigrant and the Greek Community of Toronto. It was part of the celebration of The Greek Community of Toronto’s 100th anniversary and contained the Athan-Mylonas mixture of song, dance and story. Not least important was the fact that Ms Athan-Mylonas involved over 100 people, mostly young, in the production. The pleasant and painful memories that they evoked struck a deep emotional connection with the audience and it responded with a standing ovation.

Karoussos’s opera Alexander the Great was staged by The Pan-Macedonian Association of Ontario in a concert version at the P.C. Ho Theatre in Scarborough. As the President of the Association, I could hardly review the production but suffice it to say that it was the first time that an opera had been staged by a Greek association in Ontario.

After that the search for things Greek descends to My Big Fat Greek Wedding type of scramble for “everything is Greek.” Orfeo ed Euridice, Orphee aux enfers, Idomeneo and Demofoonte are all based on Greek mythology but Gluck, Offenbach, Mozart and Niccolo Jommelli made the egregious errors of not choosing Greek parents or being born in Greece. They are all ours anyway, aren’t they?

I saw Idomeneo and Orphée aux enfers along with Wagner’s Die Gotterdammerung during my annual visit to Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Olivier Py’s production of Idomeneo was unorthodox, eccentric, wild and bizarre. Py moved the setting from the seashore and palace of Crete to an unrealistic cityscape with chrome structures with men wielding machine guns. A long way from Mozart but an outstanding re-imaging of the opera.

Offenbach took the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it into rollicking fun in Orphée aux enfers. The unholy burlesque of gods and mortals was done to perfection at Aix.

From the light we turn to the serious, really serious, because the other production at Aix that I saw was Wagner’s Die Gotterdammerung. With the peerless Ben Heppner as Siegfried and Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde, Stéphane Braunschweig directed a sparse, almost minimalist and extraordinary production. The real star in many ways was the mighty Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.

The highlight of the year was spending a week in New York and seeing the entire Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met revived Otto Schenk’s twenty year old production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the last time and it proved to be an “event”.

This is Wagner on a grand scale, scenically, vocally and orchestrally. Katarina Dalayman took on the role of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Gotterdammerung with Adrianna Pieczonka as Sieglinde. James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in four nights of opera that may be unlikely to be repeated for a long time.

One of the great delights of the summer is going to the Glimmerglass Opera Festival near Cooperstown in upstate New York. You can see four operas in three days and have beautiful Lake Otsego, verdant countryside and Cooperstown and its countless baseball memorabilia stores thrown in as a bonus.

In 2009 Glimmerglass offered Verdi’s La Traviata, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (both directed by Jonathan Miller), Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Menotti’s The Consul. That is quite an eclectic selection as it represents the baroque era, the modern and the 19th century with two familiar chestnuts.

Director Kevin Newbury provided a naturalistic and briskly paced production of Cenerentola that brought out most of the delights of the opera. The antidote to this was the dark, political opera The Consul which is set during the Cold War. With its gritty and sinewy music it brings to the stage the world of political repression described by Arthur Koestler and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Jonathan Miller gave a back-to-basics production of La Traviata that was both sensitive and sensible and in the end highly enjoyable. He also directed Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. He set the opera in modern times with cell phones and text-messaging being quite prevalent. Purcell proved in 1689 that opera could be written in English but unfortunately no one paid much attention to the genre. Name a few operas in English that were composed before the twentieth century!

I went to London twice and managed to squeeze in twenty-four performances. A production of Waiting for Godot provided a number of pleasures. It was at the beautiful Theatre Royal Haymarket and it had the rumbling voice of Ian McKellen and the talent of Patrick Stewart. A production to remember.

Juliet Stevenson gave a searing performance in Duet for One, a play about a virtuoso violinist struck with multiple sclerosis. A number of visits to the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and other theatres provided a feast of theatrical fare.

On a swing through France I went to three theatres that I had not seen before. I saw a beautiful production of Demofoonte at the Palais Garnier, the fabled Paris Opera, the Odeon Theatre de l'Europe in Paris for a not very funny production of Feydeau’s La Dame de chez Maxim and a respectable production of Gounod’s Faust at the Theatre du Capitole in Toulouse.

Opera in Toronto has become far more plentiful than ever. The Canadian Opera Company spreads its productions over fall, winter and spring seasons and provides significant variety and mostly high quality. Dvorak’s Rusalka and Stravinsky’s The Nightingale are two rarities that were combined with more familiar works like Fidelio and Madama Butterfly.

Opera Atelier is good for a couple of productions of baroque opera each year. It is a gem of a company that unfortunately lacks the funds to produce more works. Opera Hamilton is just an hour’s drive away and last year they provided a fine Madama Butterfly.

For the financially challenged, productions from the Metropolitan Opera are available in HD at movie theatres. There are many disadvantages to seeing opera like that but it sure beats not seeing productions from New York at all. Thus you could see Madama Butterfly on the big screen from New York as well as in Hamilton and Toronto, all in one year.

The Canadian Stage Company should be the premier producer of classics and exceptional new works but it rarely rises to the occasion. With its mixture of musicals, comedies and serious drama it seems to be trying desperately to find the proper repertoire to fill the theatre. Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille are more adventurous and experimental. They promote and produce new works and have the right to fail on occasion and to be always applauded for their efforts.

Soulpepper Theatre Company dominates the production of classics and off the beaten track works. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Shaw Festival dominate the summer season and I reviewed their 2009 seasons several months ago.

There are numerous smaller companies that chase scarce funds and put on a few productions each year.

There is not world enough and time to see everything. I managed to see 130 productions during 2009. As usual there are some that were forgettable and forgotten almost as soon as I submitted my review to the paper. There are others that remain embedded in the mind. What is remembered is not necessarily “the good” but the exceptional be it exceptionally good or derisively awful. The most easily forgotten I suppose are those that required an extra large cup of coffee to keep me from falling off my seat. The others are productions that whet the appetite for more and more theatre and opera.

A New Year. A new beginning. Let’s start again.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Adrianne Pieczonka, Placido Domingo and Marcello Giordani
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

The big news about the current revival of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera was the epoch-making event of Placido Domingo, a tenor, singing the role of a baritone. The Met did not hesitate to emphasize the fact by stating without any modesty that “tenor Placido Domingo makes history taking on the baritone title role” of the opera.

One thing that you notice about Simon Boccanegra is that it is an opera that falls a bit short on tenor voice requirements. There is one tenor role, that of Gabriele Adorno, but it is not the most important one. The other male characters are sung by basses and baritones.

When I saw the superb revival of Giancarlo del Monaco’s 1995 production Live from the Met, I could not figure out what the fuss was all about. Domingo was in fine voice and if there were nuances that a baritone would have brought to the role that were not indicated by a tenor, I must admit that they escaped me. Three years ago I saw the same production in New York with baritone Thomas Hampson in the tile role. Hampson is considerably younger than Domingo and his performance was outstanding. But the opera does not suffer from being done by a tenor like Domingo in the title role.

There are more serious issues with Boccanegra than the vocal range of the singer in the title role. The opera premiered in 1857 and its premiere can safely be described as not a success. In 1881 Verdi brought in the great librettist Arrigo Boito and he did some surgery on the words of Francesco Maria Piave, the original librettist. Verdi himself did extensive revisions to the music. The end result was an interesting and enjoyable work that remains on the periphery of the standard repertoire largely because of the unbelievable plot.

The plot is convoluted beyond description and you may have difficulty understanding parts of it even if you paid close attention and read the synopsis. There is no need to worry about it; there are some fine arias and ensemble pieces and the opera is enjoyable without remembering the plot for longer than the performance.

Just a small taste of the plot. In 14th century Genoa, the plebeian party manages to appoint Simon Boccanegra, a former pirate to the position of Doge or Chief Honcho of the City. That’s clear.

He wants the job so he can gain social status and power to marry the patrician Maria who also happens to be the mother of his illegitimate daughter. Her father, Jacopo Fiesco, has her under lock and key. No sooner does Simon qualify for Maria’s hand than her father announces that she is dead. That’s just the Prologue.

We jump twenty five years to get to Act I. Boccanegra is ruling with a firm fist and has sent people into exile. He has enemies. Jacopo Fiesco has changed his name and has a ward called Amelia Grimaldi. Amelia is in fact Fiesco’s granddaughter and Boccanegra’s daughter but they do not know that.

Let’s jump to the end. Fiesco and Boccanegra will discover Amelia’s identity. She will marry the tenor and patrician Gabriele Adorno but not before Boccanegra is poisoned.

Boccanegra is a dark and somber opera and the production reflects those qualities. There are some problems with darkness on stage when it is being broadcast on the large screen but the grandeur of the sets is quite apparent. The set and costume designs are by Michael Scott and he has not spared anything from the monumental square of the Prologue to the magnificent council chamber in the Doge’s palace.

If Boccanegra is not kind to tenors it is a great showpiece for a soprano. There is only one soprano and not even a mezzo to provide some competition. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka has a big enough voice to do Wagner but also has the suppleness and vocal tone to handle to role of Amelia. Tenor Marcello Giordani was in fine form as her lover Gabriele Adorno while veteran bass James Morris was the nasty Jacopo.

The camera shots were handled by Barbara Willis Sweete who does not consider opera broadcasts as a video game for a twelve year old. There were some silly shots and some unnecessary close-ups but there were also scenes when there was no change in angle for many seconds.