Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival continues with two more openings: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Court House Theatre and Clare Booth Luce’s The Women at the Festival Theatre.

Chekhov called his final play “a comedy in four cats” but don’t expect too may laughs. He had much greater ambitions than producing laughter. In fact Chekhov gives a snapshot of Russian society on the cusp of dramatic changes; he portrays the end of an order that deserved its fate.

The people of The Cherry Orchard exist in the present and live in the past. It is an astounding portrait of a society centered on Mrs. Ranyevskaya (Laurie Paton) the owner of an estate with the cherry orchard of the title as its centerpiece. Mrs. Ranyevskaya suffered a double tragedy some years ago: the deaths of her husband and of her son. She left the estate and went to live in Paris where she met a ne’er-do-well and squandered her estate.

At the opening of the play she returns from France, broke and forced to sell her beloved cherry orchard. She and the others who depend on her appear to be oblivious to that fact that their world is crumbling around them. The estate is about to be auctioned off and some are having a party in one room while the men are playing billiards in another part of the mansion. The most significant event of the evening is that one of the men breaks a billiard cue.

Laurie Paton as Mrs. Ranyevskaya is aristocratic and statuesque but at the same time is pretty empty-headed. Her brother Gayev (Jim Mezon) is just as vacuous and ill-equipped to come to grips with reality.

The wealthy Lopakhin (Benedict Campbell), still smarting from his lower class background, acquires the estate and gets roaring drunk at his accomplishment. He wants to turn it into lots for cottages and make even more money. That is the future.

Boris (Neil Barcley) and the rest of the land-owning aristocracy display a society that is not so much moribund as already dead. The last character left on stage at the end of the play is the old servant Firs (Al Kozlik). Like most of the others, he is a left-over from another world. In fact when he was granted his freedom upon the emancipation of the serfs, he refused it and chose to remain a servant of the Ranyevskaya family. His death at the end is truly the death of the old world which did not deserve to survive.

Director Jason Byrne has chosen to pace the production at a leisurely and at times soporific gait. The characters speak slowly and the supposed Chekhovian pauses add very little. The Cherry Orchard is one of the great plays of the 20th century but I did not enjoy this production very much.

Luce’s The Women lists some 42 characters and it took 21 actors to play all the roles. All women, of course. The play opened in 1936 on Broadway and gave a personal view of the life of Park Avenue women in New York. They are catty, gossipy, bitchy, sneaky, conniving and quite funny.

Mary Haines (Jenny Young) is beautiful, rich and happily married. Unfortunately her husband has met a beautiful salesgirl at a perfume counter and has started working very late at the office. Mary’s gossipy friends find out about the affair and the result is divorce. That is what Miriam (Nicola Correia-Damude), Countess de Lage (Wendy Thatcher) and Peggy (Beryl Bain) have also done for different reasons and the four of them meet in Reno.

You need name tags to keep up with who is sleeping with whom but the play does have a satisfactory end with Mary outwitting the sleazy mistress who stole her husband.

There are some timing issues that director Alisa Palmer should have handled better. A prime example is when a manicurist starts babbling about Mr. Haines’s affair with Crystal (Moya O’Connell). The woman listening to this gets up to leave and is asked her name by the manicurist. She identifies herself as Mrs. Haines. The manicurist’s well-timed reply should have brought he house down. Unfortunately Palmer allows her to answer all too quickly and a great joke is squashed.

There are no mishaps in William Schmuck’s well designed sets and the gorgeous dresses. This is a veritable fashion show and it’s always nice to see the rich enjoying their money and being miserable with it at times. Despite some issues, The Women provides great summer fun.


The Cherry Orchard will run until October 2, 2010 at the Court House Theatre. The Women will run until October 9, 2010 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 1 800-511-SHAW

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s comedies of love. By the end of the play the sun is shining, all obstacles are overcome, wooing is done and four couples are on the stage about to enter the happy state of matrimony.

It is also the play chosen to open this year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and one of the dozen productions that make up the season. Shakespeare gets four out of the twelve, giving him a respectable one-third share. Mind you there are also four musicals and one may argue that there is a serious overload of that genre at the expense of a mildly more adventurous choice of plays but that’s another subject.

This production of As You Like It is the brainchild of Des McAnuff, the Festival’s Artistic Director. It represents directorial self-indulgence with some very good results and some excesses that may please some people and leave others fidgeting if not shuddering.

As You Like It is set in two worlds: the world of the court and the world of the forest. In the court we meet the evil Duke Frederick who has overthrown his brother Duke Senior (both played ably by Tom Rooney) and rules with an iron fist. Parallel to the usurping Duke, is Oliver (Mike Shara) the son of the noble Sir Rowland, who mistreats his young brother Orlando and throws him out of the family estate.

Duke Senior and his followers have sought refuge in the Forest of Arden, the other world of the play. They are joined by Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind (Andrea Runge) who is thrown out by Frederick’s daughter Celia (Cara Ricketts), both in disguise. Orlando, who has fallen in love with Rosalind, soon joins them.

McAnuff and Scenic Designer Debra Henson have some dramatic ideas about the play. This is no sunny comedy of love but a dark play that takes place in the 1920’s or 1930’s under a Nazi regime. There are Storm Troopers everywhere and Duke Frederick shoots a person just to make a point.

In the Forest of Arden the shock of red colours, large banners, and paratroopers of the court are gone and are replaced by a colouful plastic floor, panes of glass and a dead tree. The Forest of Arden may be transformative, restorative and indeed redemptive in the end but it is not a pleasant oasis of rusticity and bliss. Shakespeare provided the melancholy philosopher Jaques to remind us of that, in any event.

Emphasizing the dark side of the play is a legitimate approach to it and its other qualities come out in any event without excessive attention to the comedy and the triumph of love. The rustics are very well done and very funny. McAnuff, however, cannot think of a trick or gimmick without putting it on. Storm troopers are expressive enough. Do we really need one with the head of a jackal or characters with heads covered with flowers or the horns of a stag or the face of a lion? Do they add much to the play?

There is overuse of exiting through the theatre aisles instead of the usual exits below the stage and putting Celia and Rosalind in a steam bath may not be strictly necessary.

Unstinting praise should go to the actors for speaking clearly with attention to the poetry and doing a generally superb job. Ricketts is a sassy and lively Rosalind nicely matched by a first-rate performance by Paul Nolan as Orlando.

Ben Carlson was funny as the court fool Touchstone, and Randy Hughson and Lucy Peacock was hilarious as Corin and Audrey. Dalal Badr and Dan Chameroy did fine work as Phoebe and William.

Brent Carver, dressed in a dark suit and bowler and carrying an umbrella as if he were a British barrister or banker, underplayed the role of Jaques, the cynical philosopher, to good effect.

Shakespeare’s poetry came shining through, the laughs were there and the incongruity of such a play being given a Nazi setting added interest and brought out the complexity of the play. We could have done with fewer gimmicks but the fine acting made the evening all worthwhile.


As You Like It by William Shakespeare opened on June 7 and will run until October 31, 2010 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Thursday, June 10, 2010


by James Karas

This year’s Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake offers ten productions including a lunchtime performance of a play by J.M. Barrie whose title, Half an Hour, discloses its length.

The Festival’s patron playwright, Bernard Shaw, is again a minority shareholder with only two plays but he does get 50% more than anyone else. The Irish do get three plays, same as the Americans, while the English get two and the Russians and Canadians merit one each.

I saw three productions last week and will review them in order of preference.


Mary Chase’s Harvey is one of those plays that if you see it once you never forget it. In fact even people who have never seen it may know about that play with the six-foot invisible rabbit. Yes, that’s the one and the Shaw Festival has given it a first rate production full of charm and laughter in an almost fairy tale atmosphere.

Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz) is a bachelor who lives somewhere in America and represents utter decency and love of humanity. He tried being smart, he tells us, for about forty years and did not like it. He switched to being nice and has found happiness. Happiness comes with visits to almost every bar in town accompanied by his friend Harvey who happens to be a six-foot plus rabbit. Like all rabbits of that description, Harvey is invisible to the normal eye but his presence is quite palpable to Elwood and, as the evening progresses, perhaps, to some other people.

Elwood’s socially ambitious sister Veta (Mary Haney) finds Elwood and Harvey a bit of an embarrassment and would like to commit the former to a psychiatric facility. She takes him to young Dr. Sanderson (Gray Powell) and old Dr. Chumley (Norman Browning) but Elwood so charms Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly) that Veta is committed instead of Elwood.

This calls for a lawsuit and Judge Omar Gaffney (Guy Bannerman) is summoned. The result, aside from hilarity, is a touching parable about human decency, good manners, indeed chivalry, and virtues that are almost never honoured.

Director Joseph Ziegler succeeds in bringing out the humour and humanity of the play in full measure. For Peter Krantz the role of Elwood P. Dowd must be a godsend and a career-defining performance for he excels in it. He brings out both the naiveté and intelligence of Elwood who knows a few things about life despite the apparent impression of almost no-screws left emanating from his relationship with Harvey.

Mary Haney is excellent as his uptight sister assisted in equal measure by Zarrin Darnell-Martin as her daughter Myrtle Mae. Veteran Norman Brown produces much laughter as the arrogant psychiatrist Chumley who is brought down a few pegs by drink and Elwood’s ‘reality’.

Diana Donnelly’s Nurse Kelly is attractive and humane when Dr. Sanderson is dumb and professional and both do excellent work.

The play has two sets, the paneled library of the Dowd mansion and the cold reception room of the psychiatric facility. Aside from well-designed sets by Sue LePage, the crew does heroic and extremely efficient work in changing scenes without intermission.

The Shaw scores a home run and Harvey is, as they say, a must-see.


The production of a musical is de rigueur at the Shaw but great credit is due to Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell for choosing works of substantial quality that have been almost forgotten. This year’s selection is One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. It was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in 1943 but it has been revived only sporadically ever since.

Weill (music), Nash (lyrics) and Nash and Perelman (book) make an all-star team for writing a musical. The result may not have been stellar but it is a work with wit, humour and some superb music. If some of the wit is out of the reach of today’s audience it is not the fault of the writers. Times and context change.

One Touch of Venus is a fairy tale about a statue of the goddess of love coming to life in New York and falling in love with a hapless barber named Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair).

Venus (Robin Evan Willis) disposes of Rodney’s screeching fiancĂ©e Gloria (Julie Martell) - sic transit Gloria – and the two lovers survive some scrapes including a stint in jail. But the two finally come through and are finally free to live happily ever after in a suburb of New York!

The production, in the small but elegant Royal George Theatre, (capacity 328), has the equivalent feel of watching the race scene from Ben-Hur on a 19” TV after seeing it on the big screen. You get the benefit of being close to the stage but that does not make up for the lack of a large stage for a large Broadway musical.

You get a lot of music from a 10-piece orchestra but it is a compromise. How much better would it sound with 28 instruments in a large theatre!

As for the performers, Robin Evan Willis has a gorgeous body that even Venus would have approved of – the Venus de Milo and the slim-hipped, all-too-angelic rendition of Botticelli. If Willis’s face does not quite satisfy one’s image of Venus, it is probably because no woman can. Unfortunately, her vocal ability does not match the curves of her body. She needs to soar at times but, alas, she cannot and all you get is volume instead of high notes.

Kyle Blair does a good comic job as the henpecked barber who has landed a goddess but his voice falls short of expectations. When he attempts to ascend the musical scale, he comes perilously close to releasing a flat screech.

The idea of an incarnated Venus is so delicious it energizes the imagination like a fairy tale remembered from childhood. If the production does not satisfy all our theatrical appetites the way nectar and ambrosia sated the gods, we do not leave the theatre hungry.

No doubt one can visualize a better production of One Touch of Venus just as one can imagine a better Venus but the one is more difficult to achieve than the other. In the meantime, imagination in full throttle, you can start your search in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Give it a triple.


The Festival opened with Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy An Ideal Husband. If you remove the wit, the epigrams and the balanced sentences from the play, you will end up with a melodrama that no Artistic Director would touch with a ten-foot instrument. In the hands of Wilde, however, melodrama became scintillating comedy.

I wish I could say that director Jackie Maxwell and Designer Judith Bowden have put together a production that does justice to the play and to the audience.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) is happily married, has a big house, is wealthy and is Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He is a man of rectitude, ability, honour and … well, he is too good to be true. His wife, Lady Chiltern (Catherine McGregor), another upstanding person, simply adores him.

His nemesis quickly appears in the person Mrs. Chevely (Moya O’Connell) who wants to blackmail him. She knows that Sir Robert made his fortune by using insider information and therefore is a fraud. She has a letter to prove it.

How does one stop Mrs. Chevely from wreaking havoc in this man’s life and what will his wife say if she finds out. That is a toughie but the Chiltern’s good friend and man-about-town Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) may find a solution. Where did Mrs. Chevely get that nice brooch that she was wearing last night?

For much of the first two acts, the audience sat in almost funeral silence. They emitted a bit of laughter here and there but not much. During the last two acts there was some more laughter but Wilde’s play was getting a very poor return on its excellent lines.

What went right? Catherine McGregor, dressed beautifully (as were most of the women) managed to exude the upper-crust English hauteur. Moya O’Connell’s Mrs. Chevely was from the same class but a nasty blackmailer and abuser. Well done. Anthony Bekenn managed to get most of the laughs as the imperturbable servant Phipps.

What went wrong? Just about everything else. The play opens in a gorgeous two-story room full of people, in the Chiltern residence. Here we have a dimly lit room, almost all black and seriously in need of a decorator with a modicum of good taste. It is a depressing and simply awful set. Lord Goring’s apartment looks like a warehouse that is about to be converted into lofts and his smoking room looks like a storage area. Again, simply awful.

The play requires the crisp, upper-crust English accent that makes the wit and epigrams sound as if they were cut from glass. Can Canadian actors do such an accent? If they can they are few and far between and there was little evidence of that in this production. Patrick Galligan can play many roles but he does not convince us that he is made of fine-grained prime ministerial timber. Steven Sutcliffe comes closer as Lord Goring but he is a long way from the accent of the nobility. And what was that ridiculous vest with an apron doing on him? He is supposed to be stylish not a dork.

This Ideal Husband needs to lighten up. First, literally by turning up the lights and giving the set a good paint job with light-coloured tints. Then get the actors to pick up the pace, brush up on those accents and generate some energy and some laughter before the season is quite over.

Give it a base hit.


An Ideal Husband will run until October 31, 2010 at the Festival Theatre. One Touch of Venus and Harvey will run until October 10 and 31, 2010 respectively at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 1 800-511-SHAW

Friday, June 4, 2010


Erin Fisher as Idamante and Laura Albino as Ilia in Idomeneo. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company wraps up its current season with two operas about the terrible fate of two seamen who tangle with supernatural powers. One of them is a Greek and the other is a Dutchman.

King Idomeneus of Crete runs into a violent storm on his way back from the Trojan War. He vows to the sea god Neptune that if he is saved he will sacrifice the first person that he sees on land. He is saved and the first person he sees is his son Idamantes.

A Dutch sea captain challenges the devil and vows to go around the Cape of Good Hope if it takes forever. He is condemned to sail the high seas and touch land only once every seven years. He can find redemption only if he finds a woman who will love him unto death.

The story of Idomeneus has been captured for the stage by Mozart in his 1781 opera seria Idomeneo and the hapless Dutch captain gained operatic immortality in Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman which premiered in 1843.

Idomeneo is directed by Francois de Carpentries and boasts of Isabel Bayrakdarian, Kristina Szabo and Paul Groves, among others, in the cast. For the May 19th performance, they were all given a night off and were replaced by members of the Ensemble Studio, the training arm of the COC.

The singers were put through a number of weeks of training and rehearsals for the performance and given a chance to perform in a major production. The result was something well beyond an amateur production but it did have some rough edges, some infelicitous singing and awkwardness. Mozart was always at hand to carry the performance, however, warts and all.

Idomeneo being an opera seria the singers are frequently handed lengthy recitatives or arias and left on their own. They provide true tests of one’s mettle.

Tenor Michael Colvin, dressed like a South American dictator, epaulets and all, was a good Idomeneo vocally but I found his stage movements awkward, not to say incomprehensible. He seemed to go all over the place at times and I am not sure if it was for dramatic purposes or for exercise.

The role of Ilia, the captive Trojan Princess in love with Idamante, was split between Laura Albino in the first half and Simone Osborne in the second half. Albino got to do the bulk of the work in the first two acts of the opera but I think Osborne had the vocal edge on her in the third act where the workload is lighter.

Erin Fisher is listed as a mezzo soprano and she sang the role of Idamante. She has a very light, colourless voice and her Idamante came out as simply insipid. The role should probably been given to a tenor as is done frequently or to a fine mezzo soprano.

Ileana Montalbetti sang the role of Electra, the Argive princess. She has a commanding stage presence and a considerable voice. Electra is in love with Idamante and things are not looking good for her. What is worse, the Greek princess is about to lose the Greek prince to Ilia, a foreigner and a former enemy of the Greeks.

The result is that Electra is pretty angry, no, make that furious. Her rage is apparent throughout but really comes out in Act III in her aria “D’Oreste, d’Aiace”. Montalbetti has the vocal range for the role but she could not convey all the rage. Too bad in an otherwise fine performance.

The set was very effective suggesting scenes away from the ship on the right and the ships and sea on the left, including indications of scenes under water.

The Flying Dutchman receives a magnificent production with superb performances from the principals.

The current production is a revival of the COC’s 2000 staging directed by Christopher Alden with Set and Costume designs by Allen Meyer. The dominant stage prop is a ship’s wheel. There is a path stage front leading to the raised platform that serves as a ship’s deck and Daland’s home. It is effective without being overwhelming.

Russian bass baritone Evgeny Nikitin was the distraught Dutchman and he moved with poise and sang with superb sonority. Soprano Julie Makerov’s Senta displayed vocal beauty but her costume made her looking like a cleaning lady. I expected her to grab a mop and pail any minute and start scrubbing the deck.

Swedish bass Mats Almgren was a fine Daland and German tenor Robert Kunzli was very god as the hunter Erik who loses Senta to the Dutchman.

At the end of the opera, the Dutchman becomes convinced that Senta will not be faithful to death – after all she just betrayed Erik. But Senta wants to be faithful and when the Dutchman leaves her behind, she throws herself into the sea. The Dutchman’s ship sinks and he and Senta are transfigured and rise toward heaven. In the COC version, a more practical solution is found. Erik the hunter shoots Senta and the Dutchman goes up the winding stairs to god-knows-where.

Idomeneo by W. A. Mozart was performed by the Ensemble Studio on May 19, 2010. The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner was performed eight times between April 24 and May 20, 2010 the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.