Thursday, September 29, 2011


Scene from COC production of Iphigenia in Tauris. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company concluded its 2010-2011 season with a stunning production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice directed by Robert Carsen. In a brilliant move, General Director Alexander Neef, has chosen to launch the current season with a masterly production of another opera by Gluck, Iphigenia in Tauris directed by the same director.

Iphigenia in Tauris premiered in Paris in 1779 and has invariably been described as a masterpiece and perhaps Gluck’s best opera. The COC has never produced it before and it has teamed up with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for this production. It is all worth it.

We all know that the creation of opera some four hundred years ago in Florence was intended to revive Greek tragedy, as it was perceived. Opera was supposed to be a perfect fusion of words, music and dance the way Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides did it when their plays were produced on the foothills of the Acropolis during the Golden Age of Athens.

Recreating Greek tragedy was a good idea then and it is a good idea now but we have sparse knowledge of how it was done. We have the texts of a handful of plays but almost nothing remains of the music or the dances that were fused with the words when they were staged at dawn so long ago.

Robert Carsen in his dark conception of Iphigenia in Tauris makes a convincing case for capturing some of the spirit of ancient drama. The music is provided by Gluck, of course, and the libretto is by Nicolas-Francois Guillard who remained fairly faithful to the play by Euripides.

Tauris in Scythia is a “barbaric” city on the east coast of the Black Sea where Iphigenia is a priestess in a temple dedicated to Diana. Iphigenia, you will recall, was supposed to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to appease Diana and get fair winds for the Greek fleet to sail off to Troy. Diana saved Iphigenia at the last second.

Years later, King Thoas of Scythia wants Iphigenia to sacrifice two strangers who have landed in Scythia. One of the strangers, unbeknownst to Iphigenia, is her brother Orestes. He killed his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge the murder of his father by her. This is the ultimate irony: the victim of a sacrifice by her father is asked to sacrifice her own brother!

The opera opens in the temple of Diana during a violent storm and Iphigenia and the other priestesses are praying for calmness and protection from the gods. They are all dressed in black and the stage is also black. Carsen and Choreographer Philippe Giraudeau provide a ballet sequence that gives choreographic expression to the words and music of the scene. The scene could be done with Iphigenia and the chorus simply singing. It is not and it is a highly effective opening.

Carsen will follow the same style for the entire production. All the cast and chorus are dressed in black, the stage is black and the names of Iphigenia, Orestes and her parents are written in chalk on the walls.

Conception, design and direction play a crucial part in this production and I make no bones about my fascination and admiration for Carsen’s approach. Those qualities will only go so far, of course, without a first rate cast and orchestra and once again Neef and the COC have earned very high marks.

Soprano Susan Graham has almost co-opted the role of Iphigenia as her own and with good reason. She has four major arias to sing and carries much of the opera. The plot could hardly be more dramatic and she displays both vocal and acting ability to render an extraordinary Iphigenia. Her performance combines physical movement, emotional range and vocal splendour.

Orestes (baritone Russell Braun and Pylades (tenor Joseph Kaiser) are almost interchangeable in costume and conduct. They are close friends and each is willing to give up his life for the other. They gave unreservedly fine performances. I have serious reservations about bass-baritone Mark S. Doss’s singing in the role of King Thoas. Doss sounded rough and not quite up to the requirements of the production.

The chorus and ballet dancers were excellent. The COC orchestra was conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado in this outstanding night at the opera.

Iphigenia in Tauris by Christoph Willibald Gluck with libretto by Nicolas-Francois Guillard opened on September 22 and will be performed eight times on various dates until October 15, 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Jane Spidell, Stuart Hughes, Michael Hanrahan. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Arthur Miler’s The Price has, as its title suggests, a great deal to do with money and the value of things and relationships. It is an excellent and perhaps even a great play and Soulpepper has given it an exceptionally good production under the direction of Diana Leblanc.

The Price tells the story of the Franz family whose fortune was lost in the 1929 stock market crash. Before that, the Franzes were a wealthy couple, with a finely furnished house, a chauffeur and social status in New York’s society. Their two sons were highly intelligent and destined for great careers. All that came to an end when the money was lost and the father became emotionally paralyzed and sat in an easy chair staring into space much of the time.

The play tells the story about the relationship between the two brothers, Victor (Michael Hanrahan) and Walter (Stuart Hughes) and their relationship with their father. After the crash, Walter left his father to his fate and became a successful and wealthy surgeon. His family life was not as successful and he ended up divorced, estranged from his children and living alone.

Victor chose to stay at home and support his father. He did not have enough money to finish university and became a policeman. Both brothers have a lot of emotional issues to deal with when they meet for the first time since their father’s death. Their father died sixteen years ago and the play deals with the meeting of the brothers in order to sell the contents of their father’s house to an old and colourful Jewish furniture dealer named Gregory Solomon (David Fox).

The strength of the production and the play is the balance that it maintains in the arguments of the two brothers. Victor takes the high moral ground of having sacrificed his career in order to attend to his father. He is bitter about that and about Walter not giving him $500 to complete his university degree. Walter counters with the fact that their father had money stashed away which he refused to give to Victor. Walter had telephoned their father and told him that he had changed his mind and was prepared to give the money to Victor. The father never told Victor of the phone call.

It is this constant emotional seesaw that keeps the audience riveted to the play. The old furniture dealer has a marvelous sense of humour amid his own emotional baggage and provides some dramatic contrast to the attitudes of the other characters.

Victor’s wife Esther is caught in the middle trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the feuding and to deal with her own problems.

Hanrahan is superb as the bitter, resentful and confused cop who feels he has done the noble thing. His brother consistently disabuses him of that illusion and points out that the choice he made was not based on love or noble sentiments. There was no love in their family, only paternal selfishness and manipulation, according to Walter.

Walter’s choice to become a great surgeon and acquire wealth was not a great choice either. He is a lonely man and envying his brother’s apparently happy family life. Stuart delivers Walter’s humanity and attempts at reconciliation with superb emotional control and forthcoming humanity.

Solomon is a comic and wise character, almost ninety year old with a checkered past. Fox is simply outstanding in the role. Jane Spidell gives us an Esther who is worried, troubled and probably an alcoholic who is trying desperately to achieve some emotional and financial equilibrium.

Philip Siler’s set design is excellent with the large array of furniture and furnishings indicating past wealth and comfort.

The only complaint I have about Leblanc’s directing is the slow pace of the opening scene. She treats it like a play by Pinter where there are too many and far too long pauses. Pick up the pace, please. We can get the message and the effect of the play without waiting that long for the next line.

An outstanding night at the theatre.


The Price by Arthur Miller opened on September 2 and will run until September 21, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


From left: Amanda Lisman as Lavinia, John Vickery as Titus Andronicus, Dion Johnstone as Aaron and Claire Lautier as Tamora. Photo: Andrew Eccles  

Reviewed by James Karas

In Sarah Kane’s play Blasted, a soldier’s girlfriend is brutalized and killed by other soldiers. The solider takes revenge by raping one of the rapists, gauging his eyeballs out and eating them.

Violence on the stage is as old as drama and gauging eyes has a history going back to Oedipus and King Lear. The vilest form of vengeance is probably the murdering of children, cooking them and serving them to their father but the field of human depravity has many other examples.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus has a place of honour among plays that show human viciousness. Near the end of the play, the villainous Aaron, in order to save his neck promises to speak of “murders, rapes, and massacres, acts of black magic, abominable deeds, complots of mischief, treasons, villainies.”

That is an accurate laundry list of events in Titus Andronicus, an early tragedy of revenge but it does nothing to give you the flavor of what you will see at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Titus Andronicus is not a very good play and it is generally ignored but because it was written by Shakespeare there are occasional productions. Director Darko Tresnjak gives us a straight-faced and decent production with some questionable bits.

Titus Andronicus is a good general and a virtuous man in a corrupt Roman Empire but he is not politically astute. He is victorious against the Goths and brings Tamora, their queen, and her sons as trophies to Rome. He sacrifices one of her sons in revenge for the death of his two sons. In an act of generosity he gives the crown to Saturninus, the eldest son of the late emperor.

The plot moves quickly with Saturninus falling in love with Tamora and dumping Lavinia. She in turn marries Bassianus (Skye Branton), the emperor’s younger brother.

The escalating rounds of revenge begin with the queen’s sons raping Lavinia and mutilating her. The ultimate act of utter vengeance comes straight from Greek mythology when Queen Tamora and the Emperor are served pastries at Titus’s house and Tamora’s sons are nowhere to be seen.

John Vickery plays the title role as a square-jawed soldier, who is powerful if sometimes stentorian.

From the large number of roles in the play, there are some distinguished performances such as David Ferry as Marcus Andronicus, Claire Lautier as Queen Tamora and Sean Arbuckle as Saturninus. Dion Johnstone gets the juicy role of the evil Aaron, Tamora’s lover and an all-around bastard.

Amanda Lisman gives an extraordinary performance as Lavinia, Titus’s daughter who is raped and has her tongue and hands cut off to prevent her from identifying her violators. We first see Lavinia as an attractive and self-assured woman; then we see her bloodied, trembling and shaking like a leaf in a heart-wrenching performance.

The minimal requirement of serving a revenge tragedy to a modern audience is the prevention of giggling or outright laughter. Taking us through the text with straight face and good acting seem to work until Tresnjak started pulling some inexplicable tricks that are intended, I assume, to provoke laughter. When Titus stretches out his hand for it to be cut off as an indication of his loyalty, he changes his mind and offers the other hand. The pastry with the human flesh is offered to members of the audience. Are we supposed to split our sides laughing with revulsion?

We could do without tricks like that. A straight-forward reading of the play may be all we can expect until a director is found who can bring out the violence and the revulsion that we are supposed to feel without making us giggle.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare opened on July 14 and will run September 24, 2011 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival’s final production during its fiftieth anniversary is When the Rain Stops Falling, a riveting piece of theatre by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell. It is an ingeniously constructed play that builds to an incredible climax. Much of the strength of the play lies in its architecture but it does have an inherently dramatic plot.

The play deals with the intertwined story of two families covering the period between 1959 and 2039. It takes place in London, the Coorong and Uluru, Adelaide and Alice Springs, Australia. That is a lot of time and space to cover with nine characters two of whom are shown as young and old especially when their story is not told chronologically.

The play opens in 2039 with Gabriel York (Ric Reid), a middle aged man, standing on a large table and letting out a scream. It is raining heavily and a fish falls out of the sky. The world is in a strange state and there are indications that the end may be near. Gabriel receives a call from his estranged son Andrew and he makes arrangements to meet him.

The scene and time change to London in 1988 and then, still in London, but in 1959.

The play will move back and forth in time and place as the family histories are slowly revealed. One of the men is a pedophile and he is thrown out of his house by his wife before the police arrests him. He ends up in Australia. He goes to a beach and a seven-year old child is abducted and murdered.

His son Gabriel goes to Australia to look for his father and meets Gabrielle and they marry and have a child. We find out who the murdered little boy is (I am deliberately not disclosing details in order not to ruin the effect of the pay.) It is a mystery and the way the family secrets are revealed constitutes one of the main attractions of this difficult but intriguing play.

The son of Gabriel and Gabrielle is also named Gabriel. He is the first person we see in the play, living in a one-room flat in Alice Springs and looking for his son. His father went from England to Australia to look for his father and made some extremely unsettling discoveries.

Henry Law and Elizabeth Law in their youth are played by Graeme Somerville and Tara Rosling. Donna Belleville plays Elizabeth as an older woman. Their son Gabriel Law is played by Jeff Meadows. He will go to Australia and fall in love with Gabrielle from the York family whose story is told in the play.

Performances are superb from Rosling as the distraught young Elizabeth to Belleville as the older, alcoholic Elizabeth that has some devastating secrets to hide.

Krista Colosimo is the spirited young Gabrielle and Wendy Thatcher the older, demented Gabrielle who is married to Joe Ryan (Peter Millard).

The play has a wealth of historical and literary references as well as symbols. The personal stories are interwoven with references to historical events. It is a beautifully written, richly textured play that grabs your attention and holds you enthralled for the more than two hours that it lasts, with no intermission.

What a rare and wonderful find for the Shaw Festival! The play premiered in Adelaide in 2008 and has already been produced in London and New York. This is its Canadian premiere and a major accomplishment for Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell.

The loudest applause must go to director Peter Hinton who takes on a complex play and delivers a great night at the theatre.

When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell opened on August 26 and will play until September 17, 2011 at the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Members of the company in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

The cover of the 2011 Souvenir Program of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows a smiling Brian Dennehy and an amazed Stephen Ouimette with golf clubs in hand and dressed in golfing attire. This is clearly an important image that we are to take home with us from this year’s offerings of a dozen plays.

As it turns out the golfers are in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by Des McAnuff at the Festival Theatre. In case you didn’t know, McAnuff is the Artistic Director of the Festival.

There are some praiseworthy aspects to the production and they will be duly credited. But let’s start with the obvious: McAnuff is an imaginative and sometimes brilliant director who never saw a cheap laugh that he bypassed or thought of a gimmick that he did not stage. When you throw in every cheap laugh and gimmick into a production some will work but many will not. McAnuff is like a youngster who is full of ideas but has little judgment in choosing the good and discarding the mediocre. He will make a fine director when he grows up and develops that judgment.

In this production, McAnuff includes golf, tennis and baseball playing by the characters. None of these sporting interests add anything to the play and the round of golf is silly and made worse by going for cheap laughs. In Shakespeare’s play, Sir Toby (Brian Dennehy) and his companion Sir Andrew (Stephen Ouimette) arrive at the Countess Olivia’s house after a night of drinking. The servant Maria (Cara Rickets) reproaches them for the hours that they keep. In McAnuff’s play, the men are playing golf, Maria is a caddy and they have a golf cart as well. The difference between the action as suggested by Shakespeare’s text and the activity imagined by McAnuff requires leaps of the imagination and suspension of any rational thinking that are unnecessary and not particularly entertaining.

McAnuff has made a name for himself as a director of musicals and he takes Shakespeare to task for not writing a suitable musical for him to direct. True, there are several beautiful songs in Twelfth Night but that will not do for Des. He reverses the order of the first two scenes (we start with Viola and the Captain on the shore instead of at Orsino’s court with “If music be the food of love) and before Viola has finished speaking a band appears and they start playing annoying music. The band will be kept busy throughout the production with increasingly inappropriate appearances. No sooner have you settled into the poetry and humour of the play, than the musicians appear to make sure you are not enjoying the performance.

It gets so bad, that even the Captain in his short appearance with Sebastian, goes out singing “If music be the food of love.” Again, Shakespeare should be castigated for not writing something suitable for Mr. McAnuff to direct.

Among the gimmicks and cheap laughs, there are some genuinely funny moments and some excellent performances that, to put it uncharitably, defeat McAnuff’s attempts to wreck the play, but (more truthfully) show that he can be a talented director.

Tom Rooney is an outstanding Malvolio. Rooney’s Malvolio is efficient and officious and gets very few laughs. He does not deserve the treatment that he gets from Sir Toby and the rest. In a nice directorial touch, when the lights dim at the end of the play, the spotlight is on Rooney as Malvolio.

Andrea Runge is a beautiful Viola/Cesario. She is tall, attractive and speaks with passion if not poetry. Her identical twin brother Sebastian (Trent Pardy) is quite convincing as her mirror image, a feat not easy to achieve.

On the low comedy side, Stephen Ouimette carries the day quite easily as the foolish Sir Andrew. Ouimette shows a natural, comic affinity for the role as he prances around and gets very emotional to hilarious effect. A Sir Andrew to remember.

Brian Dennehy is clearly supposed to be one of the stars of the show (and the Festival) as the forever drunk Sir Toby but his performance is a big disappointment. He is unable to generate many laughs or convince us that he is such a funny bon vivant and he is easily upstaged by Ouimette.

Mike Shara made a decent Orsino if you ignore the fact that he uses his hands too much in the beginning and that he does not have an ounce of poetry in him in a role that has nothing but. Sara Topham’s Olivia was alright but did not thrill me. She simply did not show enough passion and anger for me. Ben Carlson can be an excellent Feste but McAnuff kept unleashing his musicians on him and his performance was largely ruined.

More restraint and respect for the text, fewer gimmicks and cheap laughs would have given us a fabulous production of this great comedy. As it was, it seemed to grate on my nerves as much as to please me.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare opened on July 15 and will run until October 28, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Irene Poole (left) as Kate and Bethany Jillard as Tanya. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

John Mighton’s The Little Years was first seen at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 1995. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival commissioned Mighton to re-write the play and the new version is now running at the Studio Theatre.

I have no idea what unfulfilled virtues the original play had that convinced the Festival to commission a new version and thus achieve, presumably, an improved product. The result is a shallow and boring play that has very little to recommend it.

The play has some lofty social and political ambitions. Mighton accuses our education system of killing people’s ambitions and especially the aspirations of women. Schools exist to convince people that they cannot do things, according to Mighton.

The indictment is based on the story of Kate who was raised in the Happy Days of the 1950’s when women were considered incapable of doing sciences and mathematics and were advised to become stenographers.

We meet Kate at 14 (Bethany Jillard) as a precocious, brilliant high school student who is socially ill-adjusted and looking what we would call today like a geek. Her interest in science, especially the concept of time, shows the mind of a genius who has the social graces of a dork.

The stupid school principal (Victor Ertmanis) steers Kate towards a vocational school which she does not finish. She ends up as a secretary and eventually in a mental institution. She has written some brilliant material but she decides to simply throw everything in the basement.

If Mighton wants to suggest that Kate’s problem is caused by society, or her family, or the education system, he is completely unconvincing. In all likelihood she has a mental illness and it is hard to fathom that she ends in a psychiatric facility because her ambitions were thwarted. She is given electrical shock therapy perhaps for sound medical reasons and maybe not but the issue is not explored by Mighton.

Kate has a brother who seems to be everything that she is not. He is a successful writer who is admired by everyone. People are climbing over the fence of his house to pay their respects to him after he dies and his ashes are buried in his backyard.

We never see the brother but we do see his wife Grace (Yanna McIntosh), a saintly woman who takes great pains to look after Kate. We see the older Kate (Irene Poole) in the psychiatric ward, and as an older woman holding down a secretarial job for the sake of the benefits. The brilliant youngster has become a shriveled old woman who has not acquired basic social skills. Kate never becomes a fully developed human being and her tears at the end of the play are not convincing.

An artist named Roger (Evan Buliung) is the other major character in the play. His paintings are supposed to be deep and full of meaning at some point but tastes apparently change and he becomes the Barry Manilow of art. He has an affair with Grace –how and when the affair started is left in the air.

Grace has a daughter named Tanya (Bethany Jillard, again) who is a re-incarnation of her aunt Kate minus that lack of social poise. She owes a great deal to Kate, she tells us, and the shriveled up Kate shows some emotion in the last few minutes of the play. By that time we have stopped caring about her and the whole sad family. Chris Abraham directs this boring and little play.

Mighton is a brilliant mathematician and talented playwright. His Half-Life is an intelligent, witty, intriguing and moving play. The Little Years is not his best work.


The Little Years by John Mighton opened on July 13 and will run September 24, 2011 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Seana McKenna as Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare's Will. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

About a month before he died, William Shakespeare signed his will. In the penultimate paragraph he wrote what was to become one of the most famous and most controversial bequests in history: “I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”

Scholars have debated the meaning of the bequest but no one has dared tell us what Mrs. Shakespeare thought of it and for good reason: we have no idea what her reaction was. Playwright Vern Thiessen has provided an imaginary answer in Shakespeare’s Will, his one-woman play now showing at the Studio Theatre in Stratford.

The play premiered in 2005 at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and it was staged at Stratford with Seana McKenna in 2007. That production is reprised this year.

It is the day of Shakespeare’s funeral and his wife returns from the church with his will. She has not read it yet but she begins to tell us her story.

Anne Hathaway as imagined by Thiessen met Shakespeare at a fair and they ended up in her father’s barn. She was eight years his senior and clearly the aggressor. Poor William had nothing to recommend him in the eyes of Anne’s father: he was the son of a glover and the worst mayor Stratford ever had, a Catholic and a tutor. What was Anne thinking of? We do not know, of course, but we do know that she was pregnant!

Thiessen presents Anne as a sexually active woman who had relations with townspeople and tradesmen during Shakespeare’s lengthy absences in London. Shakespeare himself was bisexual and he had a long lasting relationship with a man in London, according to Thiessen.

Anne describes her domestic life, from hating Shakespeare’s sister Judith, to giving birth to their children and to the devastating loss of their son Hamnet at age 11. Her husband gains fame and fortune in London but his visits to Stratford-on-Avon become less frequent and Anne is left with the job of raising the children.

The reason for the paltry bequest in the will is punishment for the death of their son. Thiessen imagines that Hamnet drowned on a visit to the sea and Shakespeare blamed Anne for the accident and never forgave her.

This is historical fiction of a delightful nature. We know very little of Anne’s life with Shakespeare and Thiessen’s ingenious recreation of it stirs the imagination. The play is written in free verse that allows for elevated expression but is easy to on the ear especially as delivered by Seana McKenna, a master of the craft.

She has a distinctive voice and her looks convince us that Anne Hathaway probably looked just like Seana McKenna! She walks around the stage, sings a little and tells the story of her life from sexual escapades, to descriptions of the plague and the devastation that it caused, to happy domestic scenes when Shakespeare wrote plays for his children and had them in stitches with laughter.

The play lasts about an hour and ten minutes and is done without an intermission. Thiessen could have imagined twice as many incidents and McKenna could have kept us enraptured for twice as long. A delightful evening at the theatre.


Shakespeare’s Will by Vern Thiessen opened on July 13 and ran September 2, 2011 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival added a fourth stage, the 202-seat Studio Theatre, two years ago to produce “a new stream of programming” according to Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell. Two plays are staged there this year, namely Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parkas and When The Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell.

Topdog/Underdog is one of those extraordinary works that you see and wonder why in the world it has not been produced sooner in Canada? The play premiered in New York in 2001 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first time by a black writer. It received its Canadian premiere at the Shaw Festival in a production in association with Obsidian Theatre.

The play has two characters, brothers pointedly named Lincoln and Booth, and takes place in a seedy rooming house. They are black.

Lincoln (Nigel Shawn Williams) plays the 16th president of the United States in an Arcade where he is constantly being shot. He is supposed to be sitting in a theater and his assassination is constantly re-enacted, so to speak.

His brother Booth (Kevin Hanchard) is unemployed but he does have an apartment where both of them live. Booth is practicing 3-card monte, the game where a player shuffles three cards and people bet on picking out the winning suit. He has perfected the art of shop-lifting and returns to his apartment from a shopping spree with an amazing amount of booty.

The men come from a broken home where the parents more or less left them to fend for themselves. Lincoln recalls his father taking him on his adulterous ventures and at times letting him watch and at one time even partake. Booth recalls his mother being bent over and having sex in the kitchen with her lover.

Lincoln is decent and hardworking. When he is fired from the arcade, he finds another job as a security guard. At one time he was an expert at 3-card monte. Booth wants Lincoln to teach him all he knows about the game so the two of them can team up and make a killing. Lincoln refuses to join in the scam.

The plot moves backward as we find out details about the men’s past and forward as Booth dreams of making money and marrying Grace, a woman we never see. The play moves slowly and methodically to a powerful climax that will take your breath away.

Williams and Hanchard give powerful performances as the displaced brothers who look back and forward trying to make a connection to their past and each other. Director Philip Akin handles the action splendidly in a play that is deceptively simple and powerfully moving.

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks played until August 27, 2011 at the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

There are some critics who consider Bernard Shaw as an essayist and political pamphleteer who strayed onto the stage to expound his views in plays, a medium for which he had limited ability. There is some truth in that but in his best plays he shows immense dramatic talent that few would denigrate.

When his dramatic genius failed him, as it did sometimes, especially in his dotage, Shaw was capable of writing plays of verbosity and tedium that would challenge the patience of his most ardent admirers.

Shaw called his 1933 play On The Rocks “a political comedy” and although there are lots of politics, there is precious little comedy in the piece. The Shaw Festival produced it for the first and only time in 1986, most assuredly honoris causa. A Festival dedicated to the works of Shaw would find its honoris indefensible if it did not produce the entire Shavian canon but what do you do with a talkathon that may play to an empty theatre?

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell found the solution: have someone adapt the piece and make it a bit more palatable. The job was assigned to playwright Michael Healy and his adaptation is up and running at the Court House Theatre.

Healy has made a number of changes including the order of the action; added a good number of witty lines and made the play more tolerable. Director Joseph Ziegler has added some overacting by a couple of youngsters, some overenthusiastic exits and entrances and gave us a taste of the play without boring us to death.

The play is set in a cabinet room in the residence of the British Prime Minister. It takes place during the depression and there is high unemployment, great unrest and people have taken to the streets demanding that something be done. The Prime Minister, Sir Arthur Chavender (Peter Krantz) has just made a revolutionary speech and the Chief of Police (Thom Marriott) and the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Dexter (Steven Sutcliffe) arrive to express their shock at its content.

They will be followed by an array of titled personages, from Admiral Sir Bemrose Hotspot (Norman Browning) to Dame Adhira Pandranath (the marvelous Cherissa Richards) to the properly named Earl of Barking (Martin Happer). The Duke of Domesday (David Schurmann) will totter in as will the Mayor of the Isle of Cats (Anthony Bekenn) with Miss Aloysia Brollikins (Marla McLean). Their colourful names do not betoken colourful characters as they will simply add to the talkfest. Claire Jullien plays The Lady who will inspire the Prime Minister.

The political discussion is broken up by the Prime Minister’s wife (Catherine McGregor) and their two obnoxious children (played by Ben Sanders and Maggie Blake). Ziegler has them rushing on and off the stage and overacting for the sake of getting a few laughs.

Mary Haney is also good for a few laughs as the Prime Minister’s ever-suffering secretary, Miss Hilda Hanaways.

The three-piece suits and Christina Poddubiuk’s design within the extreme limitations of the Court House Theatre suggest the stuffy atmosphere of the British ruling class. The general inability to produce an impeccable Oxford accent by the actors, detracts from the atmosphere but you learn to live with it. Aside from that, the actors do their job well; Krantz is likable, Sutcliffe, detestable; Marriott, an upstanding policeman; Richards, terrific; Browning looks the part but can’t do an English accent if his life depended on it.

If my counting is correct, Shaw wrote 53 plays and six playlets. The Shaw Festival is in its 50th year and I have not seen anything indicating that they have produced everything that he wrote for the stage. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival staged the bard’s entire canon but he left about 30% fewer plays than Shaw. Will we see everything?

In any event, you can see On the Rocks and cross it off your list even if you had to cheat a bit by seeing an adaptation!


On the Rocks by Bernard Shaw continues until October 8, 2011 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Monday, September 5, 2011



 Reviewed by James Karas

 J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton is a nice comedy that contains a mild send-up and critique of the British nobility at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is Shavian comedy minus the bite and verbosity of Shaw and could provide an entertaining night at the theatre. It is now playing at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake in a production directed by Morris Panych.

As you open your programme, you notice that the production has “Musical Direction by Ryan deSouza” and “Choreography by Valerie Moore.” Have they turned the play into a musical รก la Pygmalion to My Fair Lady?

You peruse the cast list and find The Wolf, The Crow, The Hare, The Fox and The Crane. Have they turned the play into a musical fairy tale?

None of the above. Panych has added the birds and animals to act as a Chorus and do some dancing, including a rather fulsome routine at the end of the play. He has added snippets from about half a dozen songs and, of course, an orchestra to play them. He has moved the time of the play to 1920 from 1902. To what end, pray?

About the play. Lord Loam (David Schurmann) is a decent but slightly obtuse peer who reverses the roles of his household once a month by having his nose-up-in-the-air family cater to the servants. Crichton (Steven Sutcliffe), the butler, finds this objectionable because it is not natural to disturb the order of things. Masters are masters and servants are servants, as far as he is concerned.

Lord Loam, his three daughters, Ernest (Kyle Blair), a young and selfish aristocrat and Rev. John Treherne (Martin Happer) together with Crichton and servant Tweeny (Marla McLean) all end up on a desert island. Think of Gilligan’s Island, if you are old enough. They must fend for themselves and here inherent ability and character count and the structured and class-ridden society of England has no application. Sure enough, the highly capable Crichton rises to the top and he achieves dominance over the hapless and helpless aristocrats.

A couple of years later, they are all rescued and are returned to London where the old order is restored and Crichton becomes a deferential servant again. It is all good fun with some ribbing at the useless upper classes who are generous and liberal as long as they are obeyed.

Sutcliffe has mastered the manners and mannerisms of the faithful servant while in London and adapts to his position as master quite well on the desert island. Schurmann makes a good if somewhat dense peer. Blair typifies our image of the useless, arrogant young aristocrat and Happer is a nice vicar but no more useful than the rest of the upper class. Loam’s three daughters (Cherissa Richards, Moya O’Connell and Nicole Underhay) are typical of women in their position – lazy, selfish and beautiful.

Now for Mr. Panych. The addition of an orchestra and songs does not enhance the play though I am sure it adds quite a bit to the budget of the production. An utter waste.

As for the Chorus of animals and birds, they are at best annoying and one can use even stronger language than that. What in the world was Panych thinking by adding these idiotic characters?

Panych changes the time of the play from the beginning of the twentieth century, that era of splendour and glory for the aristocracy, to 1920. World War I had a devastating effect on all of Great Britain including the upper crust. It was hardly a time for role reversals and mild ribbing at the nobility. By that time they had proven their almost criminal incompetence by causing destruction on an unprecedented scale. Changing the date of the play is more than annoying; it is plain dumb.

Barrie’s play does sneak through all the dross put around it by Panych. You will enjoy the scenes when the animals are not around and the orchestra is resting. But we should not have to wait for such scenes. Less self-indulgence and thoughtless tinkering with the play by the director would have produced much better results.


The Admirable Crichton by J. M. Barrie runs from June 22 to October 29, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.