Monday, January 30, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and London’s Old Vic Theatre have initiated The Bridge Project through which they co-produce plays for audiences in England and the United States. Richard III was performed in London last June and it is now playing at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, New York.

It is an astounding production of Shakespeare’s long and complex play. It is directed by Sam Mendes with Kevin Spacey, the Old Vic’s Artistic Director, in the title role.

Mendes directs a taut production done in modern dress, on an almost bare stage and a minimum number of props. He concentrates on the text and delivers a Richard III who goes from an exuberant, nasty and ambitious duke to a murderous and mad king. His followers and hangers-on become veritable Nazi sycophants or eventually realize the depth of his depravity and abandon him.

Spacey’s Richard has a hunched back and a seriously deformed leg causing him to walk crouched and require a cane for support. He decides in the opening soliloquy that he is not fit for the fineries of court life but will devote himself to villainy. His villainy has a highly comic vein and Spacey and Mendes take advantage of every opportunity to display it. Spacey contorts his face, rolls his eyes and pauses like a comic genius to evoke laughter. He modulates his voice speaks with extraordinary timing that makes him comically and frightfully successful in his nefarious objectives.

His first objective is to seduce Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey) during the funeral procession for her husband, a man that Richard killed. Spacey wheedles, cajoles, dissembles and manipulates the poor woman until she succumbs to his entreaties. His pride soars at his success as he celebrates his victory and boasts: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won?”

The exuberance and comic effects will slowly and subtly give way to increasing madness and brutality. In the end, Richard will have murdered all who stood between him and the crown and be left surrounded by a few toadies. He will be killed by the Earl of Richmond (Nathan Darrow) who will become King Henry VII.

The action of Richard III takes place in the shadow of civil war, usurpation of power and dynastic disputes. The Lancastrian King Henry VI was deposed by the Yorkist Edward IV. Mendes wants to emphasize the internecine bloodshed by having Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, appear on stage frequently like a ghost haunting the present and reminding us of the past. A very effective device and well done by Gemma Jones.

There are more than a couple of dozen characters in Richard III and many of them play minor roles in advancing the plot or are not particularly well developed. Shakespeare did much better with the woman of the play. Scholey, dressed in black gown with a large cross around her neck is the picture of grieving majesty that succumbs to Richard’s dogged perseverance.

Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth and Maureen Anderman as the Duchess of York give superb performances as women with titles but scant power caught in a man’s world where a madman rules.

Notable among the men are Chandler Williams as Clarence and Chuck Iwuji as the Duke of Buckingham.

The costumes by Catherine Zuber consist of modern suits and black military uniforms for the men and long gowns for the women. They are quite sufficient for the effect that Mendes wants to produce.

There is judicious use of music especially drum which serve effectively especially for the battle scenes.

A powerful and memorable Richard III

Richard III by William Shakespeare opened on January 10 and will play until March 4, 212 at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


The cast of The Golden Dragon. Photo Cylla vpn Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

One of the plot lines of The Golden Dragon, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play now showing at the Tarragon Theatre, is that of a boy with a toothache. He screams in agony a number of times until the tooth is removed by a kitchen worker using crude pliers. Although the play does have some interesting turns and flashes of theatricality, the ninety minutes it takes to watch it were about as pleasant as a visit to the dentist.

The play takes place mostly in the kitchen of The Golden Dragon a Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant and requires five actors who play a large number of roles. The characters are describe as A Man Over Sixty (David Fox), A Woman Over Sixty (Lili Francks), A Man (Tony Nappo), A young Woman (Anusree Roy) and a Young Man (David Yee) but that is of little help in terms of the characters that we will meet and the roles played by the actors..

All five work in the kitchen and they will play a number of parts in the various strands of plot that Schimmelpfennig devises. Two men will become flight attendants whom we see in the restaurant and their apartment. One of them will find the boy’s bloody extracted tooth in her soup and eventually put it in her mouth.

The boy will bleed to death and he will be wrapped in a carpet and disposed of in a river.

We will hear the story of an ant and a cricket, the tale of the people in the apartment upstairs and the goings on in the busy kitchen. The action will move quickly from one plot strand to another until the 90 minutes are finally up.

The set for all this activity is on and around a raised platform in the middle of the theatre with the audience seated on both sides. The actors put on white aprons at the beginning when they are in the kitchen and make small changes during the performance such as the flight attendants putting on wigs to indicate the blonde and the brunette and wrapping a red blanket to indicate the woman in the red dress.

Schimmelpfennig is not interested in any realistic portrayal and the characters frequently (and annoyingly) punctuate their speech with “pause” and short “pause”. He wants us to know that we are being told a story and not watching a representation of a tale.

There are a few laughs scattered here and there and the image of people in the hole of the tooth is quite arresting. But by the time you get there, you are bored out of your mind. The strands of plot move slowly, the screaming boy becomes annoying, the action is slow and tortuous. Is it the production or the play? I am not sure.

A few words about the playwright. According to Ross Manson, who directs the production, “Schimmelpfennig is the most produced living playwright in Europe.” He has received numerous awards for his plays and The Golden Dragon won the Muhlheimer Dramatists Award and was selected as Theater Heute’s Play of the Year in 2010. Clearly some critics saw qualities and virtues in the play that simply eluded me. Schimmelpfennig writes in German and what we see is a translation by David Tushingham.

I really cannot complain about the talents of the actors or their ability to move swiftly from one character to another and to give, in the end, impressive performances. Perhaps the transatlantic and translingual voyage has made an awards-winning play into a pretentious bore.


The Golden Dragon by Roland Schimmelpfennig opened on January 18 and will play until February 19, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite and Joseph Calleja Faust.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust directed by Des McAnuff, the Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It is an interesting staging, well sung, but lacking much cohesion in vision or presentation.

Before the curtain goes up we see the projection of a large, black and white, image of a dour-looking Faust (Joseph Calleja). When the curtain rises we see some white girders on both sides of the stage with raised platforms on each side. There is a couple of winding staircases that rise to the top of the stage. That is the set by designer Robert Brill.

We are supposed to be in Faust’s study where the distraught scientist is contemplating suicide. As he is about to drink some poison, we hear a chorus of women and labourers outside. McAnuff dresses the chorus in white lab coats and they appear in Faust’s “study”.

Mephistopheles saunters in, sword on his side, feather in his cap, a cloak over his shoulder. Well, that’s what the libretto says. In this production he is wearing a Panama hat and a white suit, and he looks like a debonair gentleman in a sunny climate. He will change into a dark suit as will Faust and the two protagonists will look like a couple of men about town trying to get lucky with women.

The real deal is somewhat different, I would argue. Mephistopheles is Satan and he has supernatural powers. Faust has sold his soul to him in return for youth and the love of the beautiful Marguerite. There is a supernatural quality in the story and the opera that must be visible; this is not middle class drama. The libretto by Jules Barbier & Michel Carré may leave a lot to be desired but there are better and more dramatic approaches to the opera than we get in the current production.

The gentleman Faust is sung by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja who sings clearly and ringingly but not always with passion. Is he not allowed to be expressive because we are not in favour of passion in this production?

The suave Mephistopheles does better in the hands and vocal chords of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto who sings with superb sonority but is not allowed too many supernatural powers. He sings “Le veau d’or” with panache and style and he delivers an impeccable performance within the limitations of this production. He does smash a sword and direct a fight from afar but this a devil you would invite home for dinner – almost.

Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya was a superb Marguerite. With a ribbon in her hair, she looked young and virginal and was physically convincing and vocally outstanding. She expressed passion and sorrow beautifully in the “Jewel Song.”

Romanian baritone George Petean was an imposing and effective Valentin, Marguerite’s brother. American mezzo soprano Kate Lindsay provided good contrast and vocal beauty in the pants role of the hapless Siebel.

The Met Orchestra was conducted by Alain Altinoglu.

In the end, this one struck me as a rather muddled and unfocused production of an opera that is admittedly not without its problems.

Faust by Charles Francois Gounod with libretto by Jules Barbier & Michel Carré opened on November 29, 2011 with a different cast and continues at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Manhattan is experiencing some of the coldest weather of the year (you thought Toronto is cold!) and you could suffer frostbite going from a Starbucks to the TKTS Discount Booth on Broadway. That could mean thirty feet of walking. The fastest way to defrost may be through laughter and one of the best providers of that is Relatively Speaking, three one-act plays now showing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

The three comedies combine wit, broad humour and some thought to give you a couple of hours of delight.

Talking Cure by Ethan Coen is about a psychiatrist talking with a convict in a mental institution. The doctor (Jason Kravits) thinks he can cure the criminal patient (Danny Hoch) who is a brilliant postman and can confuse anyone. The patient is smart enough to suggest that by the end of the session, the doctor may become the patient. Coen gives a bit of an “explanation” about the patient’s current condition by showing us his parents just before the patient was born. The parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) are arguing at the top of their lungs while waiting for guests to arrive for dinner. As the door bell rings, the mother goes into labour and the curtain comes down amid the laughter.

George is Dead by Elaine May is even funnier than the first play and develops a couple of characters. Doreen (Marlo Thomas), a rich, spoiled and useless woman, knocks on the door of Carlas’s (Lisa Emery) apartment and announces that her (Doreen’s) husband George just died on the ski slopes.

Doreen does not have a clue about what to do and she is so self-centered that she cannot feel or express any grief for her husband or any empathy for another human being. She is hilarious in her selfishness. Emery is also funny but she is humane, down to earth and reacts with superb sensitivity to Doreen’s foolishness. A marvelous performance by Emery. Husband Michael (Grant Shaud) makes a brief appearance where the couple argues and he leaves.

The third play, Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen is the piece de resistance and it is simply hilarious.

Nina (Ari Graynor) wearing a bridal dress and Jerry (Steve Guttenberg), wearing a tux, arrive at an extremely tacky motel room directly from the wedding ceremony and are about to start their honeymoon. Eddie (Grant Shaud), a friend of the groom arrives and points out that the “groom” is not the groom, not even the best man, but the stepfather of the real groom. The stepfather and the bride eloped just before she could say “I do.”

Jerry’s wife, Judy (Caroline Aaron), andNina’s parents (played by Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker) arrive as does the officiating Rabbi (Richard Libertini). The latter will progress from tipsy to drunk during the play.

This is classic Woody Allen and jokes about sex, politics, psychiatrists and you name it will abound. The zingers will keep you laughing.

The actors directed in all three plays by John Turturro maintain speed and timing and comic panache that keep the laughter coming.

Just don’t forget to put your hat on when you get out of the theatre. It is still cold outside no matter how warm you may feel after so much laugher.

Relatively Speaking – 3 One Act Comedies opened on October 11, 2011 and continues until January 29, 2012 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, now playing at the American Airlines Theater in New York, has a slow start that does not pick up much, if any, speed until the second act. By the end of the performance you do realize the complexity of the play, the number of issues it raises and the interesting bits that have been revealed. But by then is almost too late to enjoy the performance. True you can think about and appreciate the depth of a play and the marvels of the production well after you have seen it but it is difficult to give a performance much of a review if you were quite bored much of the time.
The play is set in a village in South Africa which one character describes as the earth without God. It comes from a quotation by Balzac who described the desert as God without mankind.

Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris) lives in that godless place. She is an old, eccentric sculptor living in a house full of ornaments with provocative examples of her creations in the front yard. She is visited by Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a friend and a teacher who drives twelve hours to Helen’s village. There is a great difference in age and Elsa always refers to the other woman as Miss Helen.

The two women who have a sometimes rough relationship talk about what they are doing now and reminisce about the past. Some of what they say is of some interest but the pace is simply soporific and the audience finds itself fighting yawns.

The pace picks up in the second act when a self-righteous pastor named Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale) arrives and tries to convince Miss Helen to leave her house and go to an old age home. Miss Helen is indeed old and at times confused. The new curtains that were mentioned in the first act were replacements of the ones that were burned when Miss Helen left some candles burning and started a fire, the good pastor reminds Elsa.

The play does cover a wide range of themes from artistic expression in a closed-minded society that ends up acting rather viciously against Miss Helen, the loss of religious faith, the treatment of blacks in South Africa and the relationship among the three friends.

Mecca is the symbol of a city of light and splendor and it is that light that Miss Helen is seeking. In a fine bit of irony, it is also the symbol of the Muslim religion in a situation where her faith has lapsed and she cannot even remember when she had her confirmation as a Christian.

Harris is one of the major talents of the modern theatre and Gugino and Dale cannot be faulted for their performances. But director Gordon Edelstein has directed the play at a pace and in a way that whatever its virtues or shortcomings, the end result is the ultimate sin in the theatre: it is boring.


The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard opened on January 17, 2012 at the American Airlines Theatre, New York in a production by Roundabout Theatre Company.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

In September 2009, New York’s Metropolitan Opera parked Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca and replaced it with a new staging by Swiss director Luc Bondy. Zeffirelli’s interpretation of Puccini’s potboiler held the stage for 25 years at Lincoln Center and a new production was definitely in order. The reception, however, was less than enthusiastic and Bondy was roundly booed when he took his bow on opening night.

The Met has not been deterred by the controversy and it has mounted the production again with a different cast and I caught the performance of January 14, 2012. American soprano Patricia Racette sang the title role with considerable success. She managed to be convincingly jealous and dramatic and what she lacked in tonal beauty at times did not detract from making her performance enjoyable. Her “Vissi d’arte” was quite gorgeous.

Tenor Roberto Alagna as Cavaradossi hit his stride early with “Recondita armonia” and maintained a finely tuned performance. He hit his high notes with ease and unerring accuracy, interacted well with Racette and gave a superb performance.

Georgian baritone George Gagnidze was a disappointing Scarpia. In his open black shirt, he looked more like a minor Mafia thug than a Baron and the Chief of Police. When I saw the performance Live in HD from the Met he exuded evil and depravity that were simply not visible in the live performance. He did not express any authority and gave the impression of a dirty, old man (OK he is middle aged) who is simply nasty and ineffectual. The three hookers in his office seemed simply out of place and his performance was unsatisfactory.

Part of the blame goes directly to Bondy and his directing of Act II. The set with the large couches and tawdry appearance, Scarpia’s attempted seduction of Tosca and her murder of him was almost comical in its ineffectiveness. The second act takes place in Scarpia’s study in the Farnese Palace. It looks more like a warehouse with barren walls and the large couches, useful, no doubt, for the hookers who seem to share the baron’s study.

Cavaradossi is famously tortured in an adjoining cell during the second act and in most productions he screams in agony. Bondy saves us from the melodramatic screams but he does not let Tosca see her beloved being abused either. There is something missing here to convince us that she has overwhelming cause for her pretended agreement to surrender her virtue to the monstrous Scarpia.

Richard Peduzzi’s set for first act in the church is reasonably effective. The set is grandiose if unadorned. Angelotti (Richard Bernstein) comes down a rope through a window in his dramatic escape from the police.

The set for Act III, the execution scene, is barebones with a wall for the shooting and a parapet for Tosca to jump off. Cavaradossi is shown playing chess with a guard. Really? Tosca usually jumps to her defiant death off the wall and away from the audience. Bondy has the dramatic idea of having her leap towards the audience. The lights are dramatically turned off as she is about to jump to her death.

Peduzzi’s sets and the costumes designed by Milena Canonero range from the good to the indifferent. Do move away from Zeffirellian concepts but give us something that will grab us with its originality and brilliance and not just make us scratch our heads.

Finnish conductor Mikko Franck conducted the superb Mtertopliyan Opera Orchestra brilliantly. If you did not like what was on stage you could always rely on what was coming from the pit.

In the end this is a Tosca to remember as much for its faults as for its virtues while waiting for a more inspired conception.

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini produced by the Metropolitan Opera continues at Lincoln Center, New York.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

For its new production of Don Giovanni, the Metropolitan Opera turned to British theatre director Michael Grandage. He has made his mark in the theatre especially as Artistic Director of London’s redoubtable Donmar Warehouse but he is a relative newcomer to opera. We have the right to expect a fine-tuned theatrical approach to the opera of operas and the result is not disappointing. Seeing the production on the movie screen, one gets the benefit of noticing details that are not easy to detect in the opera house but there is a “but” to that.

A stellar cast does not hurt the production and the result is an exceptional production if not an ideal one.

The first thing you notice when the curtain goes up is that the Commendatore whose daughter the lecherous Don Giovanni is seducing lives in a tenement house. It is a three-story building with shuttered windows and doors, peeling paint and the over-all look of almost a slum. This set will do for the rest of the production. The front part of the tenement will be moved to the side and some of the action will take place in the courtyard of the tenement.

The oft-produced opera has been set in as many locales as directors and designers could imagine from the traditional Zeffirellian grandiose palaces to a bare stage to a library so a tenement is just another twist.

Otherwise this a traditional production with 18th century costumes of no particular distinction although Donna Elvira is dressed quite gorgeously. The Set and Costume Designer is Christopher Oram.

Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien tackles the role of Don Giovanni with enthusiasm and gusto. He is an agile actor and singer with a marvelous, light baritone voice who swashbuckles his way through the evening.

Don Giovanni’s sidekick Leporello is sung by Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. This Leporello is physically bigger than his employer and has a hefty but sonorous voice. He is weary of his boss’s shenanigans and immorality but he is not beyond imitating him. Kwiecien and Pisaroni interact well and provide superb performances.

Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira is a mature woman who is deeply hurt but still obsessed with Don Giovanni. She says that she wants revenge but you do not believe her because all she wants is for him to go back to her. Frittoli has a luscious luminescent voice and makes a dramatic Donna Elvira.

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka is the eternally grieving Donna Anna. Dressed in black, she is angry and moving and when she tells her betrothed Don Ottavio that the wedding is off for another year, you simply believe her.

Ramon Vargas is physically suitable as the well-meaning but ineffectual Don Ottavio but I am not entirely fond of his vocal style. His aria “Il mio tesoro intanto” has some gorgeous long phrases that require a light tenor voice of exceptional expressiveness and mellifluousness. Vargas simply did not give that type of delivery and sounded more like a Verdian hero than a weakling Don Ottavio.

Vargas sings “Il mio tesoro intanto” to Donna Elvira and she in fact goes to Donna Anna on the second floor of the tenement and embraces her. Don Ottavio continues singing to the country girl Zerlina and Masetto and I am not sure if a nobleman would ask peasants to comfort his betrothed.

German soprano Mojca Erdmann and Austrian bass-baritone Joshua Bloom are a well-matched Zerlina and Masetto. She is pert and lively with a perfectly suitable lilt in her voice while he is a peasant without being a particularly stupid. They end up being the only happy couple in the opera. Enjoyable.

Live from the Met means lots of close-ups which, as I never tire of repeating, allow for absorption of details at the cost of enjoying the overall effect. In this broadcast we are allowed to look at a scene for whole seconds without changes in shots and the camera does pan the scene now and then. Otherwise it is the usual horror story of changing camera shots and angles.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a production that you can complain about only after you have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 29, 2011 and rebroadcast on January 9, 2012 at the Cineplex Town Centre, Toronto, Ont. and other cinemas. For more information:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Lara Ciekiewicz and Keith Klassesn 

Reviewed by James Karas

Those gypsies are all over the operetta landscape. The Gypsy Baron, The Gypsy Glade, The Gypsy Virtuoso, The Gypsy Premier, not to mention Gypsy Love and Gypsy Dust, give these people a major niche in the genre. With that type of dominance how could Toronto Operetta Theatre not produce The Gypsy Princess by Imre Kalman again?
TOT gave The Gypsy Princess its Canadian premiere in 1988 (none too soon for a work that premiered in 1915) and the current production is full of vim, some wonderful singing and a good way to end the old year and greet the new one.

Plot? Well, Prince Edwin of Austria (Keith Klassen) is madly in love with Sylvia (Lara Ciekiewicz), a cabaret singer in Budapest. As you may have guessed, his parents back in Vienna do not approve and they are in fact planning for him to marry Countess Stasi (Elizabeth Beeler).

We will start backstage in the Orpheum Theatre, Budapest, where the Chorus and Dancers will whip up some energy and give us some delectable singing and Edwin will propose to Sylvia in order to prevent her from going abroad. But his friend Count Boni (Ian Simpson) will ruin all by disclosing the fact that Edwin is already engaged to Stasi.

Ciekiewicz has a luminous face and voice and she handled the main role with panache. She could reach her high notes with ease and was lyrical and splendid in her romantic duets.

Tenor Keith Klassen has the looks and bearing of prince in an operetta but he was not at his best on opening night. He sounded forced at times, almost harsh at other moments and he was overwhelmed by the small orchestra on other occasions. Not a good night for him.

Ian Simpson sang competently as Count Boni. He carried much of the comedy in the operetta and helped with the plot by marrying Stasi. You see Stasi is a nice blonde with a lovely voice courtesy of Beeler and she has to be taken care of for plot purposes.

Prince Leopold, Edwin’s father, was quite comical partly because of the ridiculous beard and wig parked on Joseph Angelo’s head. Mezzo soprano Eugenia Dermentzis as his wife Princess Anhilte flicked her head backward in aristocratic disdain at the lower orders.

The fifteen piece orchestra with a good contingent of strings was conducted by Derek Bate and sounded very good especially when it came to the wonderful waltzes..

The sets consisting of the backstage of the theatre and the ballroom of Prince Leopold’s palace in Vienna are presented quite effectively with a minimum of furnishings and effective lighting.

The directing is efficient and well done. This broad comedy is handled ably and there are a few references to current events that are funny without being glaringly inappropriate. Credit for stage directing, lighting design, set décor and dance sequences goes to TOT’s Founder and General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin, the company’s sine qua non. There is little enough operetta in Toronto but without Silva-Marin availability may be reduced to almost none.

The costumes were simply beautiful. There seems to be no room for a costume designer but whoever arranged for renting the gowns from Malabar had good taste.

Once again TOT has managed to do a superior job in producing an operetta against a background of reduced arts funding. The audience had a different message. On opening night the theatre was quite full.

TOT’s next production will be TAPTOO by John Beckwith and James Reany which will be receiving its professional premiere on February 22, 2012.

The Gypsy Princess by Imre Kalman, music, and Leo Stein and Bela Jenbach, libretto, opened on December 28, 2011 and will be performed seven times until Januaryb8, 2012 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: (416) 922-2912.