Saturday, March 31, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

In Basildon is a new play by David Eldridge, now playing at London’s Royal Court Theatre. The play has some marvellous scenes that are moving, funny and almost macabre but Eldridge seems to lose his way a couple of times and follow some unwarranted pathways.

The main plotline involves the death of Len (Phil Cornwell) and the question of the distribution of his estate between his two warring sisters, Doreen (Linda Bassett) and Maureen (Ruth Sheen). There is Len’s good friend Ken (a rotund and excellent Peter Wright) and Pam (Wendy Nottingham), a decent and perhaps nosey neighbour. Doreen’s son Barry (Lee Ross) and his ample wife Jackie (Debbie Chazen) are also keenly interested in Len’s estate. Maureen’s daughter Shelley (Jade Williams) shows up with her idiotic boyfriend Tom (Max Bennett), but she is not interested in joining the beneficiary pool.

The opening scene is dramatic enough. Len is on his deathbed, slowly breathing his last as his sisters who have not spoken to each other for some twenty years spew venom at each other. We watch and hear Len until his last breath. Here the staging has major problem in that the theatre is divided in two and there are seats on each side of the playing area. For those near the front on one side, the dying Len is invisible.

These are working class people with very little in the way of property and the fear and anxiety about who will get Len’s money increases as does the backbiting among the characters. There is also plenty of laughter in the play.

The plot development towards the reading of a lawyer’s letter about the will (reading the actual will is too hackneyed for words) is good enough but Eldridge cannot stay on the straight and narrow.

First diversion is towards the title. Basildon is an area near London in Essex where people migrated after World War II. Eldridge dedicates some lines to singing the praises of this area and giving us to understand that the people who live there are special and different. OK, put Basildon on your itinerary for your next voyage into the void.

Next, Eldridge decides to get political and they argue over Labour v. Conservative Parties and who did what to the country. Working class Basildon is conservative but we can do with less politics and more plot.

If that were not enough, we have Tom, the son of a banker who wants to help the lower classes. He disagrees with his father and wants nothing to do with him (except receive monthly support cheques). Some of this is entertaining and perhaps a necessary subplot but I think it is not an entirely well-fitted appendage to the play.

The play has some very funny moments as when the cowish Jackie wants to have sex with her husband because she is ovulating and she does not want to miss another month. Well, he is eating a sandwich at the time and priorities are priorities.

Bassett and Sheen are excellent as the siblings who cannot stand each other and Williams’ Shelley, young attractive, sensible, is a breath of fresh air.

The play has a fourth act set 18 years before the death of Len. If this was supposed to explain the sisters’ hatred and tie some loose ends, I did not find it particularly effective. Bur the scene with the Reverend David Williams (Christina Dixon), a black pastor who comes to talk to the family about funeral arrangements and proceeds to get drunk, is simply hilarious.

Praise is due to Director Dominic Cooke for stick-handling the flawed play brilliantly. Designer Ian MacNeil’s decision to put the playing area in the middle of the theatre between to banks of seats is questionable at best.

The diversions and the staging do not ruin the play because the striking situation, the fine acting and the humour do add up to a fine night at the theatre.

In Basildon by David Eldridge opened on February 16 and continues until April 5, 2012 at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, England.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


 (L-R) Harry Hadden-Paton (Marlow), Katherine Kelly (Kate Hardcastle), Cush Jumbo (Constance Neville), Steve Pemberton (Hardcastle), John Heffernan (Hastings), David Fynn (Tony Lumpkin), Sophie Thompson (Mrs Hardcastle). Photo by Johan Persson

Reviewed by James Karas

The comedy of mistaken identity is as old as the theatre itself and one of the best users of the device is Oliver Goldsmiths 18th century classic She Stoops to Conquer. It is now playing at the National Theatre in London in a wonderful production directed by Jamie Lloyd.

Londoner Charles Marlow is sent by his father to the country to see about marrying the young and pretty Kate Hardcastle.

Charles and his friend Hastings lose their way and are deceived into thinking that the Hardcastle house is in fact an inn. They arrive there and start treating the owners as innkeepers.

Marlow is very shy around upper crust women but he does fine with the lower orders. Kate pulls another mistaken identity stunt by pretending she is a barmaid. Hastings wants to elope with Constance and she has to pretend she loves Tony, Mrs. Hardcastle’s dunce of a son, in order to achieve their end.

It is a comedy rich in possibilities and the National Theatre production takes advantage of all of them and then some. Goldsmith’s wit, the broad comedy and the nicely unwinding plot come out marvelously in a delightful production.

The cast comes in for high praise with s couple of reservations. The broad comedy is provided by Steve Pemberton as the bewildered and put-upon Mr. Hardcastle and the equally stressed and distressed Mrs. Hardcastle of Sophie Thompson. Mrs. Hardcastle’s son Tony who plays the trick on the two men is stupid, illiterate and very funny in the hands of David Fynn.

Harry Hadden-Paton is the leading male as Marlowe who is shy with some and quite free, indeed, obnoxious with others whose identity he does not know. John Hefferman as Hastings has to move quickly to arrange his getaway with the lovely Constance of Cush Jumbo and to fool Mrs. Hardcastle. Excellent performances.

City sophisticates meeting country bumpkins is a perennial source of humour and Lloyd does not miss any opportunities for humour overall but especially with the servants. They are not used to high-toned city folk and trying to raise their standards is hilarious.

The play takes place in a village pub, Mr. Hardcastle’s house and in the woods. The sets designed by Mark Thompson are superb. Mr. Hardcastle’s wood-paneled sitting room with the lit fireplace is a visual delight. Mark Thompson, take a bow.

Lloyd, for some reason, has decided to add music and dancing to the play. During several scene changes, the servants and some of the other characters break into cacophonous song and rowdy dance. It is not part of the play and makes no sense. The play is funny enough without dumb additions.

The other negative comment is mild overacting that results in actors stepping out of character. There were some very funny moments when the audience was laughing so hard that the actors stopped and repeated a gesture for the added laughter. The stage manager should simply tell them to knock it off. You are acting in a play by Goldsmith, not collaborating with him.

A hilarious night at the theatre.

For those who do not have easy access to the south bank of the Thames River, She Stoops to Conquer will be broadcast in movie theatres in Canada on March 29, 2012. For details visit and for Toronto and other Canadian cities go to
She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith opened on January 31 2012 and continues until April 21, 2012 in repertory at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

As you are waiting in the tiny hallway to enter the small Theatro Technis on Crowndale Road, London, you hear some rowdy noises. About a dozen young girls come pouring in from one of the auditorium doors, jumping, yelling, chanting, dancing. They are dressed in colourful outfits, some with veils, some in tights of various colors, and short skirts.

When you enter the theatre, you find it full of smoke and the young ladies are on stage dancing and chanting. A performance of Euripides’s Bacchae is about to begin and you realize that they are the Chorus.

This is a wild production of the classic by the Fourth Monkey Theatre Company, a troupe of young actors who range in age from 18 to 30. They are using Ranjit Bolt’s rhyming couplets translation, are not exactly faithful to the text and despite some obvious issues, they generate a lot of energy and give a fascinating production of a very difficult work.

The first chorus that is chanted/yelled by the Chorus is not entirely clear but you soon see Dionysus (Jack Riddiford) arrive. He is wearing a white suit, a hat and sunglasses with an electric guitar slung around his neck. A would-be rock star? He delivers his opening speech explaining who he is.

The Chorus will remain on stage throughout but their wild and somewhat incomprehensible yells will be transformed into a couple of beautiful chants and some segments spoken by several members.

Cadmus (Sean Delaney), Dionysus’s grandfather appears as does the old seer Teiresius (Max Sisterson). The other main characters are Pentheus, the king of Thebes (Stuart Mortimer), the Messenger (Sam Adamson) and Agave, Pentheus’s mother (Thea Beyleveld).

All of them are young actors and there is no attempt made to make them look older by the use of costumes, makeup or voice change. The men are dressed in slacks and flannel jackets with Pentheus, wearing black. He does not believe that Dionysus is a god and the latter will prove his point by providing one of the most harrowing scenes in all drama. Pentheus will be torn to pieces by the possessed women of Thebes, the bacchants. One of the women tearing Pentheus to pieces is his own mother Agave.

The actors show considerable ability in handling the rhyming couplets and Euripides’s complex text. Dionysus may be a god but he is also a spoiled child who resents his lack of recognition and becomes brutally vengeful. This may not be everybody’s idea of Dionysus but Ridddiford does a very good job in presenting him as director Natalie Katsou sees him.

Stuart Mortimer’s Pentheus is young and self-righteous and pays for his lack of faith in the new god who is also his cousin. Agave and Dionysus’ mother Semele are sisters. She was raped by Zeus and the result was Dionysus.

Sam Adamson with his mop of red hair and youth makes a good messenger, delivering his lines with precision. Delaney and Sisterson play much older parts and some attempt to indicate old age would have been nice and Katsou’s choice to leave the two old characters as young men is questionable.

Agave shows genuine emotion at the discovery of her son’s fate and gives us a dramatic scene.

Ancient Greek tragedy is notoriously difficult to produce and an interpretation however eccentric that retains some fidelity to the text and captures the central idea of the plot is worthy of applause.

The Bacchae by Euripides in a translation by Ranjit Bolt in a production by Fourth Monkey Theatre Company ran from March 1 to March 17, 2012 at the Theatro Technis Theatre, 26 Crowndale Road, London, England.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Pitmen Papers is a marvelous play, funny, moving, beautiful, that tells a most unusual story. It is now playing at the Duchess Theatre in London in a co-production by Live Theatre Newcastle and the National Theatre Company. It is a superb play and production on its own merits but the facts on which it is based make it even more interesting and enjoyable.

Unless you are an art specialist, it is highly unlikely that you have heard of the Ashington Group, otherwise known as the Pitmen Painters. As the name suggests, they were coalminers in northern England. About 30 of them became unprofessional painters and produced a significant number of paintings that were eventually housed in the Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington, Northumberland.

The Ashington Group started painting in the 1930’s and lasted until after World War II. They gained some fame at the time and their work was sold and displayed to some extent. In 1988 William Feaver wrote their story in Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984.

Lee Hall was inspired by the book to write The Pitmen Painters which opened in Newcastle in September 2007, then made it to Broadway and it is now running in London. It tells the great story of workers who were uneducated but had the talent, will and luck to become painters and did.

Hall reduces the number of painters to four. Three are miners and one of them is a dental mechanic because he was gassed in World War I and became unfit for mining.

The four of them and an unemployed youth want lessons about art from Robert Lyon, an art teacher. After some hilarious and touching opening encounters (they have no idea what the teacher is talking about), they start painting and the result is fairly miraculous. All four display some talent, gain knowledge and appreciation of art and provide simple, direct, poetic and graphic paintings of their incredibly difficult lives.

George Brown is the leader and organizer of the art lessons. He is a tough, domineering figure who would sooner bluster than listen and wants his way. He believes in democracy provided there is no voting on any issue. Joe Caffrey is simply outstanding in the role.

Michael Hodgson does a very good job as Harry, the dental mechanic, who is a dedicated socialist, quotes Karl Marx and is a humane person. David Whitaker plays the rather selfish Jimmy while Brian Lonsdale is the unemployed youth who is usually yelled at by George.

The most talented painter and most sympathetic character is Oliver Kilbourn played by Trevor Fox. Kilbourn becomes aware of his abilities but he is even more keenly aware of his social status and his lack of education. Fox’s sensitive portrayal gives us the intense conflict that Kilbourn must resolve when he is given the choice of abandoning mining to become a full time painter financed by a rich patron (played by Joy Brook). He is asked to give up his world for another. An outstanding performance.

In contrast to the thickly-accented and rough-hewn “locals” we have Robert Lyon, the art teacher, who maintains his reserve as he tries to encourage and teach the difficult concepts of art. Ian Kelly makes a sympathetic Lyon who is responsible for the existence of the group but at the same time gains a professorship by writing a thesis about the unprofessional painters.

There are several screen on stage on which the work of the painters is displayed and discussed. A very intelligent idea because otherwise we would have had little chance of appreciating what the painters were doing.

The Pitmen Painters is much more than the story of coalminers who managed to paint as well. It presents a picture of the life of coalminers who worked 10-hour shifts for about two pounds a week. The young lad escaped by enlisting in the army in World War II. The others gained some benefits from their painting but in the end they remained as coalminers.

Lee Hall has constructed a fitting monument to their achievement and Director Max Roberts and the outstanding cast have broadcast it far and wide and provided a great night at the theatre.

The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall opened on October 5, 2011 and continues until April 14, 2012 at the Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine St. London, England.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Tyne Daky and Naomi O'Connell in Master Class

Reviewed by James Karas

Maria Callas has been dead for almost thirty-five years and her career ended well before she died in 1977. But her reputation as the greatest soprano of the century and her legendary personality have continued to thrive and provide fodder for critical acclaim and popular biographies.

In 1995, American playwright Terrence McNally paid tribute to Callas by dramatizing an imaginary master class that she gave well after her voice had gone. It is a story of the lion in winter, when her teeth and strength are gone but she has kept her strong personality and has memories of her greatness. Callas did in fact give some master classes at Julliard in 1970-1971 but they bear no relationship to the play. The best that can be said is that those master classes suggested the idea for Master Class to McNally.

Callas appears on the stage wearing a black suit with a piano accompanist and she will hear, judge and advise young singers in the art that she excelled at and dominated. Well, that may be the intent or usual structure of a master class but in the hands of Callas nothing is done in the usual course.

McNally’s Callas is imperious, domineering, sardonic, sarcastic, in a word, a diva. Above all that, she is a singer, a musician, an actress who is totally steeped in her art. She expects everyone who approaches that art to do so with complete, indeed religious, dedication, conviction and fervor.

All of these characteristic are displayed in her relations with her accompanist Emmanuel (Jeremy Cohen), the stagehand (Gerard Carey) and the three singers who she is to coach. They are soprano Sophie de Palma (Dianne Pilkington), mezzo soprano Sharon Graham (Naomi O’Connell), and tenor Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson).

Tyne Daly has the look and mannerisms of a diva and her sarcasm comes with precise aim and produces the desired laughter. It is a bravura performance that brings out the ego and former greatness of Callas but there is a complaint. Callas berates her students (victims, really) about their diction. When Sharon sings the word “Macbetto” she is told that it has two t’s. The problem is that Daly’s diction is not perfect. Not that we are expecting her to copy or imitate Callas but we have a right to demand that her diction be perfect.

Daly has a touch of a New York accent modified with Mediterranean tones but she cannot get the hard r’s nor pronounce her real name, Kalogeropoulos or Kalogeropoulou properly. She should also wait for the laughter to stop before saying her next line.

Pilkington was excellent as the shy singer who wants to be heard by Callas and manages to sing only one note. O’Connell’s character is humiliated to the point where she runs off the stage and vomits in the bathroom. But she has the gumption of a diva and returns to face Callas. In a marvelous scene, she stands her ground and puts Callas in her place. A superb performance.

Sorenson does even better: he takes the sarcasm, stands his ground and manages to sing a whole aria, quite well, one might add.

The accompanist also manages to get a few laughs.

The one who is not wowed by Callas and gets laughs by his insouciance and insubordination is the stagehand. It’s a small part but Carey makes the most of it.

This is a Manhattan Theatre Club production that opened on Broadway and has been transferred to London. Stephen Wadsworth directs deftly except for the comments above.

In the end we get a few facts about Callas from her time in Greece at the beginning of her career during World War II, to her marriage to the hapless businessman Menegheni and the relationship with Ari Onassis. But that is mere background to her immersion in opera. The rest may be fictitious but it fits with our image of a diva and is a lot of fun.

Master Class by Terrence McNally opened on February 7 and will continue until April 28, 2012 at the Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Sarah Dodd, Nicole Underhay, Rick Roberts, Claire Calnan, Raquel Duffy. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

The title of Carole Fréchette’s new play now playing at the Tarragon Theatre provides a good lead if not a summary of the plot: The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Without knowing anything about the play, you know there will be just what the title states, almost certainly in a big house and the room will contain something mysterious that will take a couple of hours to unravel.

Sure enough, we have Henry (Rick Roberts), handsome, wealthy, with graying hair slicked back, who owns a 28-room house with an Olympic-size swimming pool, gardens and other indicia of affluence.

He meets Grace (Nicole Underhay), blonde, slim, beautiful, they fall in love and in 52 days he proposes marriage to her. He gives her everything and puts only one condition, nay, make that a request, that she not enter, you guessed it, the small room at the top of the stairs.

Grace has a sister, Anne (Claire Calnan) who is not slim, blonde and beautiful and with whom there are issues of sibling rivalry or lack of rapport, let us say.

Their mother Joyce (Sarah Dodd) named her daughters after princesses and she is tickled to her funny bone at the knowledge that her beautiful daughter has snagged a husband with 28 rooms of which 10 are guestrooms.

Henry has a servant named Jenny (Raquel Duffy) who appears subservient, efficient but rather mysterious.

Fréchette gets through with the introductions briskly because the play will develop around what is in that small room that Henry is so insistent that Grace avoid completely.

Please leave the plain, school-marmish Jane Eyre and the grim Mr. Rochester alone. He was hiding a lunatic wife in the small room and he never brought champagne and roses to Jane. For a better precedent, look to the beautiful Pandora, the Eve of Greek mythology, who was given a box with all the evils locked in it and, yes, she opened it. Or maybe the ghoulish Bluebeard who stored former wives on meat hooks in a room in his castle.

Henry travels a lot and his flights have a habit of being cancelled. But Grace’s curiosity mounts and she goes to the small room. Her behavior becomes increasingly frantic as she discovers something very frightful in the room. There are interruptions to the mounting suspense as she tries to figure out what is going on and Henry unexpectedly returns.

He turns on the light and shows her that there is nothing in the room. Then why is he telling her not to go in there? She saw and touched something terrible.

The Small Room is an old fairy tale, wrapped in Gothic style and delivered in modern dress. The set is a black platform with dramatic lighting. The actors sit on the side of the stage when they are not performing.

The hardest work is done by Underhay who is on stage almost throughout the play. She has to move from the happy, sexy woman who found a dream husband through the mounting tension and drama of what she finds in the small room.

Roberts is a romantic millionaire who is generous and loving but he has a secret to hide and he explodes when he is gainsaid. What is his relationship with the maid? And what is that maid all about? She has something to hide, we know it in our bones.

Dodd as Joyce is a classic example of the ambitious mother who wants her daughters to do well. Calnan’s Anne is the envious unattractive sister.

There are all kinds of undertones and mythical references from the salve that works only with true tears, to the dreams of some of the characters. Director Weyni Mengesha and Set and Costume Designer Astrid Janson have opted for a dark, stark presentation using a large, empty platform for a set. The lighting is effective.

The empty, gleaming black floor and the fast-changing scenes give an impressionistic effect of the world of the play rather than the eye-popping murder mystery variety. Mengesha garners performances suitable to that type of approach to the play and provides an interesting evening at the theatre.

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs by Carole Fréchette opened on March 7 and will play until April 8, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Happy Woman is a new play by Rose Cullis that is now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto, in a production by Nightwood Theatre.

You don’t have to be a member of Mensa to guess that the title is meant ironically and that no play can have a beginning, a middle and an end with the word “happy” having straight-faced applicability.

The “happy woman” is Margaret (Barbara Gordon). She has a son named Christian (Martin Happer) who is married to Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet) and a daughter named Cassie (Maev Beaty). They have a rather self-righteous and nosey neighbour in BellaDonna (Maria Vacratsis) but life is good.

Margaret has a sunny, optimistic disposition and although there may be some clouds lurking on the horizon and perhaps hidden in the past, she is unwilling or unable to see anything but sunshine. Let’s start with the acting kudos and give a big bag of the stuff to Gordon.

Christian is a fine young man who strives to do well by his wife and sister. He seems to have a very close relationship with Cassie and they do not hesitate to engage in some physical horseplay like very loving siblings. Well, you cannot deny that Happer does a good job in the role.

Cassie is a bit of a problem. She has unorthodox attitudes towards sex or let us say that she errs on the generous side of partaking in it and prefers the express rather than the slower collector lanes in getting to it. Beaty’s character has more serious issues than promiscuity and a fine acting job does justice to the problems that Cassie is facing.

Christian’s wife Stasia is pregnant and her behaviour ranges from the erratic to the psychotic. In fact she starts seeing things, screams uncontrollably and eventually ends up in a psychiatric unit where she gets electric shock treatments. She is so annoying at times you want to smack her. Doucet is perfect for the role.

BellaDonna, the neighbour, is placed on a platform and watches the action and comments on it. She is sane, realistic, self-righteous, a busybody and a gossip of the first order. She is the antithesis of the “happy woman”. A superb acting job by Vacratsis.

The plot develops in alternating scenes of the actors addressing the audience directly or interacting. We know there will be a big punch line from the title alone and the programme note stating that this is a “darkly comic exploration of what happens when bliss gets in the way of truth” sets the tone for what we are to expect.

The comic is almost non-existent. There are very few chuckles here and even in the darkest of plays we can and do get some big laughs.

What about the big secret? Let’s put it this way. The Happy Woman reminds me of someone with no talent for the art trying to tell a joke. You know the type: he starts the story, forgets his line of thought, changes his mind and by the time he gets to the punch line the joke is ruined.

Cullis’s build-up to the revelation of the dirty family secret is slow and methodical but you have almost lost interest by the time they get there. And then, the story was told so slowly that the punch line barely registers.

Director Kelly Thornton gets good performances from the actors but the structure and the content of the play are of little help in building up suspense and then shocking us when we discover the awful truth beneath the veneer or the weasel under the coffee table as Harold Pinter put it.

The unrealistic set consists of a turquoise cut-out of a two storey house at the back and a green platform for BellaDonna to sit on the side. It is appropriate for the play.

The Happy Woman may be more effective if it had been cut to a taut one-act play where the characters are developed briskly but effectively and we are in fact shocked by what went on in that family.

The Happy Woman by Rose Cullis opened on March 7 will run until March 24, 2012 in a production by Nightwood Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ont.

(L-R) Maria Vacratsis, Martin Happer, Maev Beaty, Ingrid Rae Doucet and Barbara Gordon in The Happy Woman. Photo Credit: Guntar Kravis

Monday, March 12, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Radio, television and the local papers gave the event the type of coverage and hype reserved for sports events or pop stars. No, the Maple Leafs did not make it to the playoffs and Madonna is not giving a concert in the Rogers Centre. The brouhaha outside the Princess of Wales Theatre, with news media running around, cameras poised to record the every movement, mounted policemen at the door indicated something of momentous, indeed, extraordinary, importance.

What was the fuss all about? Well, it was the opening of … a play. War Horse, that is, a play adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book of the same name. It is about a boy and his horse that are separated by a world war but eventually get together again.

That is no doubt true but it is like saying the Titanic was rowboat that overturned in Lake Ontario. War Horse is in fact a very moving story, a spectacular war play, an extravagant theatrical experience and a drama that, once you have seen it, you will never forget.

War Horse opens unprepossessingly enough with a foal running around. It is not a real horse, of course, but a puppet manipulated by three people who are perfectly visible. In a few moments, the foal handlers will thow their arms up in the air and the pony will become a fully grown horse. From then on two people will control the horse’s movements from inside and one person will manipulate the horse from the outside. The play has a number of horses that strut, run and kick in a similar way.

What is the effect? The movements of the horse from raising its head, to running, to eating, to flicking its tail are so realistic, if that is the right word, that we cease seeing the handlers almost immediately and the moving skeleton becomes a real horse. This is not mere suspension of disbelief but actual conviction without any effort that what we are seeing is a horse. We grow to love and sympathize with the fate of Joey, the main horse of the story.

The Handspring Puppet Company which is credited with working with Nick Stafford in the adaptation of the novel provides some birds that fly around and a goose that runs around the farm but the really memorable puppets are the incredible horses.

There is more. There is World War I that is “covered” from its declaration in August 1914 to its murderous conclusion on November 11, 1918. With the judicious use of projections, stunning music and the use of the puppets and people, War Horse is an incredibly effective re-creation of the horrors of the war. Modern technology, music and outstanding design and directing, show that live theatre can in some ways outdo even the movies in the reproduction of moving war scenes.

In sharp contrast to the boom-boom of war we have a Song Person with Fiddle (Melanie Doane) and a Song Person with Accordion (Tatjana Cornj) who appear like a Chorus in Greek tragedy and sing beautiful folk songs.

All of the above are assembled to tell the story of Joey as a foal (handled by Mairi Babb, Patrick Kowk-Choon and Rahnuma Panthaky) and Joey as a grown horse (handled by Brad Cook, Bryan Hindle and Caden Douglas) Joey is purchased by farmer Ted Narracott (Brad Ruby) and it becomes Albert Narracott’s beloved horse.

The war intervenes and Joey is taken by the British cavalry to the Western Front where his British rider is killed and the horse ends up in German hands. We meet German soldiers including Friedrich Muller (Patrick Galligan) who deserts and becomes an ambulance driver with Joey as the workhorse.

The war scenes including the death of people and horses, the bombing and the appearance of tanks is shown in starkly stunning scenes. Joey and Albert are eventually re-united in a scene that did not leave a dry eye in the house. I am not exaggerating at all.

War Horse is a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. The Toronto production uses all local talent.

This is no boy and his horse story. It is elemental and unforgettable theatre.

War Horse based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford and Handspring Puppet Company opened on February 18, 2012 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Gregory Prest, Nancy Palk & Joseph Ziegler. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

The journey that Eugene O’Neill presents in Long Day’s Journey into Night is indeed long and the night when it arrives is very dark. He wrote this autobiographical play in 1941 and asked that it not be produced until 25 years after his death but his wife allowed it to be staged in 1956. He died in 1953.

Long Day’s Journey is a landmark play of the American theatre. It tells the story of the dysfunctional Tyrone family where booze, drugs, tightfistedness, sibling rivalry and illness provide for very potent drama. James Tyrone (Joseph Ziegler) is a talented actor at the end of his career who wasted his gifts on a single, second rate play that he acted in for the money. He knows what poverty is and perhaps as a result he is almost pathologically miserly.

His wife Mary (Nancy Palk) is a drug addict who at one time wanted to be a nun. She comes from a family with status. Their older son Jamie (Evan Buliung) is a self-destructive drunkard who is jealous of his younger brother. Edmund (Gregory Prest), the younger son, is artistic and has consumption. He is a portrait of the author.

Diana Leblanc directed Long Day’s Journey for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival back in 1995. She was lucky in having two extraordinary actors for the lead roles in William Hutt as James and Martha Henry as Mary. It was a landmark production in which the lead actors took possession of their roles and seared into the memories of the audience. For this production Leblanc has Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk for those parts and therein lies the problem.

Tyrone is a man of the theatre, a matinee idol and a one-time Shakespearean actor who was complimented on his Othello by no less a personage than the great Edwin Booth. Ziegler is moving and dramatic but there is no hint of theatricality in him. By the end of the performance I thought I was watching Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman instead of James Tyrone.

There is a similar problem with Nancy Palk. She is a powerful actress with a robust voice and is placed in the role of a fragile woman going to pieces. The journey into night is largely hers as she descends into madness. Palk does capture some of the high qualities of Mary and does indicate some of the descent into hell but she lacks the fragility to be fully convincing in the role.

The sons have much better luck. Evan Buliung is outstanding as the drunkard Jamie. He is not only self-destructive but he subconsciously and perhaps even more so consciously tries to destroy his younger brother who he thinks is favoured by his parents. In the great confessional scene near the end of the play, Jamie admits his reprehensible conduct and there is a reconciliation of sorts and an expression of deeply rooted love.

The consumptive, poetic Edmund is drawn with affection and care by O’Neill and acted with precision and emotional depth by Prest. Prest and Buliung play well against each other and are a pleasure to watch.

The production misfires because it fails to capture the world in which the Tyrones live. James is an actor who sees his life as a failure because he failed to act in great plays such as Shakespeare’s and sold out for money. That is a major component of the play. Palk’s performance also misfires because there is no fragility in her. She does get some upper crust mannerisms but there is not enough in her performance to bring the horror of Mary’s descent to full light. The sons do very well but that is not enough to rescue the production from the acceptable and raise it to the exceptional.

Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill opened on February 23 and will continue until March 31, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Taptoo Chorus of Exiles. Photography by Gary Beechey

Reviewed by James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre is nothing if not ambitious. Its name may suggest productions of safe, light operettas from the 19th and early 20th centuries to amuse old men who wear suspenders and ladies who wear hats. Nonsense. For TOT and its General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin operetta is alive and well with neglected works to be discovered and new ones created.

This year TOT has gone a big step further in producing a Canadian musical, on a Canadian theme, in its premiere professional performance and commemorating the bicentenary of The War of 1812.

TAPTOO! is by composer John Beckwith and playwright James Reany and I don’t think it qualifies as an operetta by any measurement but it is decidedly a musical. It is supposed to cover a period of thirty years from 1782, I suppose, to the brink of The War of 1812. The timeline of the libretto is less than clear and most of the time I had no idea of the date. Nor could I find a link to The War of 1812.

We do get the clash between the largely English settlers in North America who rebel against British rule and those who remain loyal to the king. The rebels will become Americans and the loyalists will become “not Americans” and will eventually evolve into Canadians.

The rebels of the opera are led by Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne (Robert Longo) and the loyalists are led by our own John Graves Simcoe (Todd Delaney).

Reaney tries to embrace a great deal of history in his libretto. He has the pacifist Quakers, Mr. and Mrs. Harple (Mark Petracchi and Sarah Hicks) and their son Seth. Harple will be tarred and feathered by the rebels and will end up with the loyalists only to be told that he cannot take his place in the legislature because he refuses to take an oath.

Seth Sr. (Michael Barrett) will marry an Indian girl and we will be taken through battles and later social scenes in Upper Canada where the question will be do we start a ball with a minuet or a step dance.

The musical is written through and because much of it deals with a time of war there is a great deal of rather noisy and military-sounding music. There are some quieter solos, duets and ensemble pieces but the stentorian parts stayed with me.

There are two children sopranos, the 12-year old Teddy Perdikoulias and the 14-year old Daniel Bedrossian. They both have very sweet voices if with somewhat limited ranges. The problem with both is one of volume and enunciation. We want to hear the sweet sounds that emanate from your throats and we need to understand every syllable.

Baritone Todd Delaney was an impressive and domineering Simcoe and baritone Robert Longo was a brusque Wayne. Soprano Allison Longo was a well-sung and sympathetic Indian girl, Atahentsic, well-matched by Barrett as her husband. Mezzo soprano Eugenia Dermentzis was a classy Mrs. Simcoe and sang well.

The small orchestra was conducted by Larry Beckwith, the composer’s son, and it was enthusiastic, sometimes brilliant and frequently noisy. A bit too much brass and percussion.

Guillermo Silva-Marin is credited as Stage Director, Lighting, Set Décor and Dance Sequences. The set consisted of an empty stage and lighting was adequate. The musical has lots of exits and entrances and general commotion interspersed with quieter moments. They are all handled well.

The plot is probably confusing at its best but it gets worse when you cannot understand what is being said. This happened frequently and some of the singers who could be heard over the orchestra could not always carry their notes.

None of which takes anything away from the credit that belongs to TOT for the work that it is doing and for producing TAPTOO! The Lt. Governor of Ontario, David Onley was present and he paid tribute to his antecedent, John Graves Simcoe, the first Lt. Governor of our province. His Excellency stated that TOT is “Canada’s finest operetta company.” No argument.


TAPTOO! by John Beckwith (music) and James Reaney (libretto) was performed on February 24, 25 and 26, 2012 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: (416) 922-2912.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


(left to right) Acrobat Antoine Marc, Russell Braun as Jaufré, acrobat Ted Sikström and acrobat Annie-Kim Déry (in the air) in a scene from of Love from Afar, 2012. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

Love from Afar is a 21st century opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho that has received a visually stunning and vocally outstanding production from the Canadian Opera Company. The conception, direction and design for the production are products of the fertile imagination of Daniele Finzi Pasca. He deserves an extended standing ovation for bringing to life a static if beautiful opera.

At first blush, the plot of Love from Afar looks like a pretty unlikely subject for an opera unless boredom is the prime objective. A 12th century prince from Aquitaine falls in love with a countess from Tripoli. They have never met and their only means of communication is through a pilgrim. When they do meet the prince is stretched on a gurney and about to die.

From that unprepossessing material, Saariaho weaves a musical and vocal tale that appears static but can be made into something theatrically quite extraordinary. Most of the opera is made up of long solo singing or duets with the Prince and the Pilgrim, and the Countess and the Pilgrim. The setting is Aquitaine, the sea and Ancient Tripoli.

Finzi Pasca and Set designer Jean Rabasse, using a few props, video projections, judicious and impressive lighting and acrobatic dancers provide a theatrical and operatic experience that is visually stunning.

The music goes from dark tones to shimmering chords as the lovers express their longing, their passion and their fears. The three characters have two doubles each that give external expression to the internal emotions of the character that they “duplicate” or express a different state of mind. I am not completely sure about the full intent of the use of doubles but they are effective.

In addition, there were acrobats floating above the action at times. When the Prince is singing about the Countess there is an acrobat hovering above him. The projection of the sea when the Prince is crossing the Mediterranean is dramatic and a visual delight. Robert Lepage, forget the flying planks at the Met’s Ring Cycle. Call Pasca Finzi to give you a Rhine River.

Canadian baritone Russell Braun sang the role of the prince Jaufré Rudel with resonance and emotion. Canadian-American soprano Erin Wall displayed her gorgeous voice as Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli, especially in the Middle Eastern cadences of the opera. There are no show-stopping operas but there are stretches of sustained notes of love and passion that are simply gorgeous.

Mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabo as the Pilgrim gave a fine performance with sustained vocal beauty.

Johannes Debus conducted the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and helps create the ethereal quality of the opera, so full of longing and unrequited love. Quite a piece.

Love from Afar by Kaija Saariaho opened on February 2 and was performed eight times until February 22, 2012 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.