Thursday, August 30, 2012


Rong Fu, Sarah Koehn, Diego Matamoros & Raquel Duffy. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas
** (out of five)

The Royal Comedians (Moliere) by Mikhail Bulgakov contains a funny scene from Tartuffe. You may recall that Elmire is trying to expose the religious fraud Tartuffe to her gullible husband Orgon. She has him hide under a table while Tartuffe tries to seduce her. She sends Tartuffe out to make sure all the doors are locked and her husband comes out from under the table. She covers him with the table cloth and when Tartuffe returns, he reaches under the table cloth thinking it is Elmire and of course grabs the wrong organs. It is a hilarious moment.

Unfortunately, in the Soulpepper production of Bulgakov’s play it is just about the only funny scene. The Royal Comedians premiered in the Russia of Stalin in 1936 and although it is ostensibly about Moliere it has much more to say about artistic life in the Soviet Union.

Moliere played by Diego Matamoros is a decent human being with more than the usual allotment of troubles. He leaves his wife Madéleine (Raquel Duffy) for the younger Armande (Sarah Koehn) who may be his daughter by the former. He is accused of being sacrilegious and falls out of favour with Louis XIV. You could lose your life from any one of those “troubles”.

He runs a colourful troupe of actors and there are some theatrics including several scenes from Moliere’s plays. The problem is that the play is simply not funny.

During the first half, we are on stage, behind the scenes or before the king. In the second half, the play becomes more overtly Stalinist. We are in a dungeon where we witness torture, forced confessions and oppression. This is dark comedy both literally and metaphorically.

This is a modern dress production even though there are some costumes that refer to Moliere’s 17th century. That is fair enough because Bulgakov was illustrating life under Stalin far more than life under Louis XIV.

I cannot really fault the actors for their acting. They seemed to be doing well in what they were told to do but nothing had much of an effect on the audience. Stuart Hughes, dressed in black, wearing an eye patch and boots was a farcical and brutish Marquis D’Orsini. Michael Hanrahan was a similarly brutish Marquis de Charron. Gregory Prest as Louis XIV looked like an actor playing Louis XIV. This was no doubt intentional but it left me cold.

William Webster was genuinely good as Bouton as was Daniel Williston as The Honest Cobbler. Michael Simpson garnered sympathy from a back injury and acted well as De La Grange. But none of this was enough to lift the play past the bearable. Lorenzo Savoini provides some interesting sets – all black with lots of doors leading to cells or wherever you want them to go.

The last comment must be reserved for Director Laszlo Marton who simply did not deliver a very good production. Is it just the play? Probably not. We need a better vision and approach to make us laugh and cringe at the great artists and the closed brutal society that they lived in, in the 17th and 20th centuries.
The Royal Comedians (Moliere) by Mikhail Bulgakov opened on August 7 and continues in repertory until September 21, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

*** (out of five)

Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is one of the plays offered at the Shaw Festival this year in Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell’s wide-ranging choice of productions. The new version of the play by Richard Eyre is staged at the Court House Theatre and directed by one of Canada’s best actresses, Martha Henry.

Hedda Gabler premiered in 1891 and the heroine is seen as a prototype of a powerful, independent woman who is trapped in a stultifying social structure. Her situation grows desperate and her only way out is to end her life with a bullet.

That may all be true but I failed to grasp it from the current production. This Hedda as played by Moya O’Connell struck me as arrantly cruel, selfish, manipulative, domineering, bored, vindictive, destructive and a plain bitch.

O’Connell brings out all those characteristics of Hedda but there is more to our heroine than that. Hedda is pursued by Judge Brack (Jim Mezon) and she is clearly a magnet for men. Brack is prepared to go to great lengths, including concealing a crime (remember, he is a judge), in order to gain sexual dominance over Hedda. In other words, Hedda is a sexual siren. O’Connell, with her high cheekbones and full mouth is a beautiful woman but her sexual attraction is almost eliminated in this production. Her hair gathered in pigtails and plastered on her head and her general demeanour emphasize Hedda’s monstrosity and minimize her sexuality.

Patrick McManus is perfect as Hedda’s pathetic husband George Tesman. Bespectacled, slightly stooped, over-eager to please, the poor man married a monster and he is thrilled when she calls him by his first name. In the end, he will find a decent woman.

Mezon is the ideal Judge Brack. A big man with a shaved head, he exudes confidence and sexual desire. He wants Hedda not just as his mistress but as his slave almost. He is indeed scary.

Brack’s counterpart is the idealist and visionary historian and recovering alcoholic, Eilert Loevborg (Gray Powell). He had a relationship with Hedda before her marriage but now she rebuffs him because of social pressure. He has found inspiration from Thea Elvsted (Claire Julien). When Loevborg loses a manuscript, i.e. everything that he has worked for and contemplates suicide, the nice Hedda tells him to do it beautifully.

Thea went to school with Hedda where our heroine basically tortured her and threatened to burn her hair. Now she pretends to befriend the decent Thea in order to get at Eilert. Julien does a fine job as the caring woman who has none of Hedda’s negative traits.

Jennifer Phipps shuffles onto the stage and off as the ancient servant Berthe. She trips during one of her exits and when a stage hand reaches to give her a hand she asks “who are you?” I am not sure how much of this is acting and how much of it an old woman being able to do no more than get her handful of lines. Let’s give her credit honoris causa and assume that all of it is a fine example of acting like a very old and infirm woman when she is in fact only almost old and spry.

The set by William Schmuck presented a reasonably well-appointed living room with a door and window stage right, leading to the garden. The door and window give the impression of a cage without overdoing it. There is a large couch for Hedda to lounge on but the limited stage area of the Court House does not permit much else.

The acting and staging were very good but my problem with the production is that it fails to explain sufficiently men’s attraction to Hedda and is not convincing in its portrayal of her as striking out for freedom as a new woman.

The thought that occurred to me was that a century or so later Hedda could easily become a CEO of a major corporation. Put her in low management and she will become such a master of company politics that she will manoeuvre herself to the top no matter how many bodies she left in her wake.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Richard Eyre runs in repertory from July 25 to September 29, 2012 at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


The Crucible ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas

**** (out of five)

In 1952, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible premiered in New York. It is a play ostensibly, about the witch-hunt trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In a hysterical search for the devil, people were arrested, tortured, convicted and hanged for practicing witchcraft or associating with Satan.

The play was written during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, the witch-hunt for Communists, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Devil of Salem had become the Communist Devil of America and countless lives were ruined because of their association, real or imagined, with “him”.

Many people may not be aware of the association between The Crucible and the political background in which it was written but that should be no bar to enjoying the superb production by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Albert Schultz meticulously directs a fine cast and lets the drama unfold from a seemingly insignificant incident of some girls dancing in the woods to mass hysteria where good and evil clash and all the perpetrators are convinced that they are on the side of God.

The central character is John Proctor, a rough-hewn farmer with a rather cold wife. Stuart Hughes plays Proctor as a virile, pragmatic, sensible man who tows the religious line sufficiently to stay on the right side of the church but harbours some doubts about and has an antipathy to, the village pastor, the Reverend Parris (Derek Boyes).

When the young girls become hysterical and start accusing townspeople of being associated with the Devil, the frenzy infects everyone from Deputy Governor Danforth (Joseph Ziegler) to many of the local farmers. Proctor is accused of plowing on Sundays, not attending church regularly and of being “lecherous” with his former servant Abigail (Hannah Miller).

In a powerful performance, Hughes as Proctor is ready to “confess” his association with the devil until he realizes that by doing so he will be stripped of his “name”, indeed of his humanity.

The most interesting part of the play is not the existence of selfish and evil people who want to take advantage of others but he high-minded search for Justice by people of intelligence and learning. The Deputy Governor and The Reverend John Hale (Oliver Dennis) are not evil people. They genuinely believe that there is a devil who must be found and he must be driven out for the salvation of the people. No matter how many people are tortured and hanged. God’s will shall be done, according to these high-minded Christians.

Oliver Dennis as Hale is a decent man who wants to do good until he realizes that what is at work in Salem is not the search for the extirpation of Satan but the working of the worst human traits. Dennis conveys the initial enthusiasm and final realization by Hale with superb skill.

Ziegler as Danforth displays some of the same traits but he never realizes what people are capable of. He may be close to God but he has no idea of what His creatures can do to each other.

Notably good acting is displayed by Derek Boyes as the small-minded, nasty Reverend Parris, William Webster as the decent farmer and especially by Nancy Palk as Rebecca Nurse, an extraordinarily humane and courageous old woman in a society that is tragically short of both virtues.

The individual performances deserve praise but the real applause belongs to them for their ensemble acting. The Crucible has a large cast and it must be shepherded scrupulously towards the dramatic climax. The effect is electrifying.

The costumes by Lorenzo Savoini are adequate and the set is minimalist, to put it politely. Once the drama starts building up, you forget about sets and costumes but at the beginning it looked as if the play was happening inside or outside of a barn.

A couple more facts. In 1956, Arthur Miller was summoned before HUAC and asked to snitch on his friends and acquaintances who may had had Communist associations. He refused and was sentenced to one month in jail and fined $500.00. Had the Committee seen the play?

The judges of the Massachusetts General Court seem to have been better read or more humane. In 1957, they passed a resolution that many of those executed for witchcraft in 1692 may have been tried and executed illegally. Finally, in 2001, the Governor of Massachusetts declared that all victims of the witchcraft trials were innocent!

The Crucible by Arthur Miller opened on August 9 and will continue in repertory until September 22, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

**** (out of five)

The Shaw Festival scores another signal success with its production of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. This is the Festival’s third production of a play by the American playwright who made his name during the 1950’s with plays like Picnic and Bus Stop. Come Back, Little Sheba was his first hit and it opened on Broadway in 1950.

Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw’s Artistic Director, directs a sensitive, highly detailed production that builds from the run-of-the-mill of everyday life to an overwhelmingly dramatic climax.

The strength of the production lies in the extraordinary performances of Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid, ably assisted by Julia Course, Sharry Flett and Kevin McGarry.

Koslo plays Lola Delaney, a middle-aged woman who is described as old, fat and ugly. Her husband Doc (Reid) is a chiropractor and a reformed alcoholic who is helping others stay on the wagon.

The play presents the pathetic, empty lives of this sad couple by simply showing us what they do and how they live. From making breakfast, to cleaning the house, to preparing a dinner for their lodger and her visitor, we see the humdrum routine not as a part of life but as the only existence that these people have.

They lost a child and a puppy named Sheba. The child will never come back but the cute puppy might return. Waiting and calling out for the puppy is an important part of Lola’s life. For the rest, they live vicariously through the life of their lodger Marie (Julia Course). Marie dates Turk (Kevin McGarry) a muscle-bound hunk while waiting for her boyfriend Bruce (Andrew Bunker) to arrive.

Koslo has the awkward moves of the fat woman, the pitiful voice, and the fussing of someone who wants to please but simply cannot. Doc married her because she became pregnant. She tries to establish some human contact with the Postman (Lorne Kennedy), the Milkman (James Pendarves) and her neighbour (Sharry Flett) but they are all passersby except perhaps the neighbour. Koslo’s performance captures all the pathos and vacuity of Lola’s life. The nearest she comes to reality is watching Marie “making out” with Turk.

Reid’s Doc is equally pathetic. He is quiet, docile, eager to please, especially Marie with whom he is subconsciously in love. He is pathetically jealous of her relationship with Turk and goes crazy when he realizes that she has spent the night with him. He reaches for the bottle and, of course, goes into an alcoholic stupor that eventually requires hospitalization.

Drunk, the gentle Doc becomes a monster and, hatchet in hand, blurts out all the truths about his life that he has kept buried under a veneer of civility and politeness. In the end, he gives out a piercing cry that reverberates throughout the theatre in sharp contrast to the usual nothings of his life. An outstanding performance by Reid.

The supporting cast is good. Course is the manipulative blonde who will land a husband while sleeping with Turk, a more athletic and presumably better lover than Bruce (Andrew Bunker) the salesman.

The set by Christina Poddubiuk representing an old house somewhere in Middle America is excellent. The front represents the sitting room with the kitchen behind it on the side with an invisible wall separating the two. We find out that the house is a pigsty but that is not very visible.

The production has original music composed for it by Zachary Florence. Background music in movies is so endemic, that one is pleased to watch and listen to the words of a play in silence without it. Not so in this case. Florence’s music, slow and expressive, added significantly to the quality of the production.

The puppy does not return, of course, but Inge does give a resolution to the miserable lives of Lola and Doc Delaney and the Shaw Festival gives us an outstanding night at the theatre.

Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge runs in repertory from June 28 to October 19, 2012 at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


L to R: Brandy Lynn Hawkins as Irina, Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo and Makudupanyane Senaoana as Absalom. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Reviewed by James Karas

****  (out of five)

The Glimmerglass Festival has chosen Lost in the Stars as one of its “Broadway” musicals. The work is in fact a hybrid and can qualify as an opera and be at home on Broadway as well. Kurt Weill composed the music to Maxwell Anderson’s libretto based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry, The Beloved Country.

It is a sinewy and muscular work with some beautiful melodies. It is set in South Africa and deals with racism, murder, love and reconciliation.

The Glimmerglass presentation is a coproduction with Cape Town Opera and a number of the performers are South African. It is an outstanding production, beautifully and powerfully sung and dramatically moving in the highest degree.

The central character of the musical is Stephen Kumalo (Eric Owens), a deeply humane pastor in a poor, black district of South Africa. He goes to Johannesburg looking for his son, Absalom (Makudupanyane Senaooana), and finds out that he has murdered a white man during a botched robbery.

Owens, an American bass-baritone, is simply outstanding in the role. Kumalo is a large man, deeply religious, who believes in the truth. He is caught in a situation where he has to beg the father of his son’s victim for mercy and compassion in order to save Absalom from the death penalty. With his resonant voice, his moving performance, Owens gives a defining portrait of Kumalo.

American tenor Sean Panikkar is simply superb as The Leader, a type of Chorus who appears regularly and sings with astonishing authority and sonority.

Absalom’s wife Irina is played by mezzo-soprano Brandy Lynn Hawkins. She is pregnant but not married to Absalom and his father convinces her to marry him after his conviction for murder and certain execution. She is terrific. She sings with deep emotion and pathos.

One of the main strengths of the opera is its numerous ensemble pieces. The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus not only sings well but it is used judiciously to bring out the racial divide of South Africa at the tine. In one sequence, the white members of the chorus appear standing and self-satisfied while the black members are on their knees, subservient to the “ruling race”.

The set consists largely of plain panels that are moved when necessary. It is Spartan and stark but effective.

Director Tazewell Thompson has gathered an outstanding cast for this production.

John DeMain conducted The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus in this memorable production of an opera that is good enough for Broadway or is it the other way around?

Lost in the Stars by Kurt Weill (music) and Maxwell Anderson (book and lyrics) opened on July 22 and will be performed nine times until August 25, 2012 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Sunday, August 19, 2012


AlonNashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas
*** (out of five)

Hirsch is a one-man show now playing at the Studio Theatre in Stratford. It is, of course, about director John Hirsch (1930-1989) who, in addition to being a major presence in Canadian theatre, was also the Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival from 1981 to 1985.

I think it is significant and very praise-worthy that a play about a Canadian director has in fact been produced. For many reasons, there is very little written about Canadian theatre history and directors are generally ignored. A celebration of the life and work of a dead director is infrequent if not unique.

Hirsch has been created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson. Thompson directs and Nashman performs the piece that lasts about one and a half hours. It gives some biographical information about Hirsch and some scenes of him directing several of his major productions.

Hirsch’s background could hardly be more tragic and dramatic. He was born in 1930 in Hungary and lost his entire family in the Holocaust at age 13. He ended up in a refugee camp and eventually came to Winnipeg in 1947 to live with an adoptive family.

The play jumps back and forth in time as it relates scenes from Hirsch’s childhood in Hungary, to his experience in post-war Europe and then as a director in Winnipeg, Toronto, Stratford and elsewhere.

Nashman and Thompson strive to illustrate as much as to tell Hirsch’s life. He seems to have been a hard task-master, a visionary and man who loved the theatre. There are a few memorable lines but this is hardly a play replete with anecdotes from the life of Hirsch. At one time someone commented that Hirsch was his own worst enemy and the lead actor in the play that he was directing topped it with “Not while I am alive.” 

Nashman and Thompson highlight Hirsch’s productions of King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, The Tempest and Mother Courage.  We do get some insight into bits of the plays and the director.

The approach taken by the two creators is not entirely successful. There are times when it is not entirely clear where we are and whose voice we are hearing. They are too intent on Nashman acting everything out where a more sedate approach may have been more informative and enjoyable. I am not sure if a strictly chronological narrative would have been more appropriate but the jumping back and forth in time certainly did not add anything.

Nashman manages to bear a good resemblance to Hirsch and he does give us a sense of the complex man. Hirsch was Hungarian, Jewish and gay with a nightmarish  background to boot. He became a significant Canadian director who has merited a biography (A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson. Véhicule Press, 2011).

The play and the biography are just as much a tribute to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Canadian theatre as they are to that immigrant from Hungary that made such a significant contribution to both. 


Hirsch, created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, opened on July 12 and will run until September 14, 2012 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas
**** (out of five)

For those who found the production of Misalliance at the Royal George Theatre less than amenable to their theatrical senses, the Shaw Festival has a perfect antidote in its staging of The Millionairess. It is well-paced, well-acted and just plain funny.

Bennard Shaw wrote The Millionairess in 1935 for the formidable and inimitable Edith Evans who turned the play down. It has had a chequered history since then but the Shaw Festival has been quite willing to produce it every decade or so.

The Millionairess of the title is the supremely wealthy Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga who goes to the office of her solicitor, Julius Sagamore to make her will and then commit suicide. He is prepared to draft her will and gives her a recipe and detailed instructions on how to end her life. Death is good business for lawyers.

Epifania’s husband Alastair and his hapless mistress Polly arrive at the solicitor’s office to be followed by Adrian, Epifania’s lover. We will soon meet an Egyptian Doctor and a couple that run a sweatshop.

Where is the fun? First, it is in Nicole Underhay’s performance as Epifania. Wearing a bright red dress and shoes to match, a mink stole slung around her neck, she is assertive, irreverent, exuberant, violent (when necessary) - all of which is wrapped up in a bravura performance by Underhay.

Epifania is not happy because she married the “inadequate” Alistair, a boxer, and he knocked her out on their wedding night and not by his sexual prowess. Epifania’s father instructed her to marry the man who can turn £150 into £50,000 in six months. Alistair is so stupid and foolish that he actually succeeds. Portia’s suitors in The Merchant of Venice only had to choose one of three caskets!

She has good help. Kevin Bundy as the somewhat straight-laced solicitor is given a few good lines but he does well as a straight man to Epifania’s extravagances.

Everyone is the punch bag to Epifania’s blows but no one as much as Polly, beautifully played as the dumb blonde by Robin Evan Willis. Turns out she is not all that dumb because she knows how to get her way.

Martin Happer as Alastair is stuck between his mistress and his wife with nowhere to go but up in laughter. But he is better off than Steve Sutcliffe’s Adrian who is beaten up and seriously injured by Epifania and stands no chance of getting any compensation or justice.

Michael Ball as Joe and Wendy Thatcher as his wife remove the play from its posh surroundings to a basement sweatshop where Epifania gives them a quick lesson on the workings of cutthroat capitalism. Ball and Thatcher are quite good in the relatively small roles.

Kevin Hanchard plays the Egyptian Doctor who is poor, Muslim and a Bolshevik. With credentials like that, he is a perfect foil for Epifania. Well done by Henchard.

Shaw manages to tackle social and financial issues, of course, and to satirize bankers and capitalism but he does it with a light touch and much less verbosity than in some of his other plays.

Blair Williams gets full marks for directorial finesse. He manages fine control of the action with very good pacing and plenty of fun. Designer Cameron Porteous draws more attention than usual to his art by providing some coups de théâtre in the scene changes. The designs are excellent within the severe limitations of the Court House Theatre. The first scene is dominated by bright red colours, including Epifania’s attire. The lawyer’s office would normally be decorated with law books and heavy furniture but that may have made scene changes more difficult. Porteous avoids all that and makes the scene changes a brief show in themselves.

An excellent night at the theatre.

The Millionairess by Bernard Shaw runs in repertory from June 20 to October 6, 2012 at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Dwayne Croft as Harold Hill with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production ofThe Music Man. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Reviewed by James Karas

*** (out of five)

The 2012 Glimmerglass Festival presents two operas and two Broadway musicals. The lighter of the two musicals is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man whereas Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars has more serious content.

The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957 and is about a travelling salesman who is a charming con artist. He lands in a town in Iowa after World War I in the original production but after World War II in this production where he sells musical instruments and uniforms to the unsuspecting townspeople for a brass band that he intends to form. He pretends to be a Professor of music but he is nothing of the kind.

The musical has a considerable amount of humour, some wonderful melodies and a love story. In other words all the ingredients for a Broadway hit. The success of any production of The Music Man depends to an inordinate degree on the talent of the charlatan Professor Harold Hill. He needs to convince the town people and more importantly Marian, the town librarian (Elizabeth Futral), that he is the genuine article. This becomes a tough undertaking when Marian finds out that Professor Hill’s claim that he graduated from the Gary Conservatory is not true. The Conservatory did not exist at the time of his supposed graduation.

We meet the travelling salesman, the loveable townspeople and follow the budding romance of the two leads. The humour is there and we enjoy most of it and the musical numbers are still good.

But all of this leads to my view that the production directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, to put it simply, did not grab me. The reason I think is that Dwayne Croft’s Professor Hill lacked the magnetism and conviction of the impostor with the heart of gold to keep us on his side even though we know that he is a fraud.

For some reason, the director decided to make Marian unattractive at the beginning. Why is Hill attracted to her if she looks like an ugly, old maid? She is not. She is spruced up in the end but her homeliness in the opening scenes is unnecessary. Futral is fine vocally.

What saves Hill (and keeps the plot moving) is the touching story of Winthrop (Henry Wager), Marian’s painfully shy, withdrawn and lisping young brother. Hill gives him a cornet and the kid comes out of his shell. Well done performance by Wager.

The broad humour belongs to the foolish Mayor (Jake Gardner), his wife Eulalie (Ernestine Jackson) and the townspeople.

The ensemble pieces generate considerable energy and in the end a marching band does appear just in time to save Hill from being tar and feathered but we are not convinced why Marian falls for the crook.

The deus ex machine appearance of the band at the end to wrap up the show is unconvincing but we can’t blame the Glimmerglass production for that.

In the end you get a decent production of a very good if not great musical that unfortunately does not achieve all the possibilities of the show.

The Music Man by Meredith Willson opened on July14 and will be performed thirteen times until August 24, 2012 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas
***** (out of 5)

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Sophocles’ Elektra presents an outstanding example of what it can do at its best. It can reach back to the roots of Western drama and deliver a staging of a great play that is faithful to the spirit of the original and approachable by a modern audience. It is theatre at its best.

The production brings together an outstanding director with a distinguished cast who combines a fine translation of the Greek text with music and dance to produce ancient drama in a form rarely seen anywhere.

Much of the credit must go to Thomas Moschopoulos, the director whom Des McAnuff brought from Greece. He is respectful of the poetry of the text and combines it with song, dance, rhythm and movement and physicality that dispel any idea of Greek tragedy being static or difficult to understand.

Yanna McIntosh dominates the production with a stellar performance as Elektra. Sophocles’ Elektra is a middle-aged woman obsessed with hatred of her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthos, and with an overwhelming desire to avenge the murder of her father by them. McIntosh, hair disheveled, dressed in rags, perhaps somewhat deranged, performs Elektra at such an emotional pitch that it leaves you breathless.

Seana McKenna is Clytemnestra who murdered her husband and shows no remorse. Dressed in a smart suit, she rationalizes her action as revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis. McKenna moves from the coolly cerebral to the histrionic in a simply superb performance.

Ian Lake plays Orestes with Peter Hutt as his servant who gains admission to the place by subterfuge. Both perform well as does Graham Abbey as the matter-of-fact Aigisthos.

Laura Condlin as Chrysothemis appears in an elegant pantsuit wearing stylish sunglasses in sharp contrast to her sister Elektra. She is not bothered by her father’s death and is not interested in revenge. A convincing performance by Condlin.

The essential elements of a Greek tragedy that are most frequently botched or absent are the Chorus and the use of music.

There is no instrumental music in this production but Kornilios Selamsis has composed vocal music for the Chorus of Women and most of the characters of the play. The Chorus and the main characters at different times throughout the performance, sing, chant, hum, recite and stamp their feet to produce rhythmic beats. The music may have liturgical and Cretan folksong overtones but it is essentially modern music. It emphasizes or accompanies Anne Carson’s fine translation and is not confined to the choral passages. All the main characters are given vocal passages. The Chorus also dances to the choreography of Amalia Bennett.

The Chorus does not speak in unison (a frequent pitfall for directors) but the members move freely and become fully integrated in the drama. The other pitfall is keeping them bunched together. Moschopoulos does not make that error and keeps the Chorus and the main character moving in this highly physical production.

Three rectangular tables occupy the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre. We see the dismembered parts of a statue on each of them - a head, a torso and the legs. It is a startling image, of course, and no doubt symbolic of the murder of Agamemnon and Elektra’s obsessive search for revenge. The Designer of this concrete counterpart of Elektra’s psychological state is Ellie Papageorgakopoulou.

In addition, the sides of the stage are fenced and they give the appearance of a cage, again a perfect reference to Elektra’s mental state who is imprisoned as much by her mother and her lover as her own hatred and fixation.

The costumes seem to go all over the place from the appropriate to the questionable. The clothes worn by Elektra, Clytemnestra, Chrysothemis and the Old Man (a long black robe) present no issue. The women of the Chorus wear a variety of modern dresses and clothing that need not cause any concern.

My difficulty is with Orestes who wears nothing but white, knee-length underwear in the opening scene. In the final scene, he appears wearing a white short-sleeve shirt, brown short pants and knee socks. His friend, the silent Pylades (E. B. Smith), appears clad in a dark cap and black clothes and looks like a terrorist.

In ancient Athens Elektra was performed at dawn in a large outdoor theatre at the foot of the Acropolis as part of a religious festival. The actors wore masks but we know almost nothing about the music and dance patterns of the Chorus. If Sophocles were to see his Elektra at Stratford, he may not recognize it across twenty-four centuries, but as a man of the theatre, he would no doubt applaud this production because it captures the spirit of his play.

Elektra by Sophocles opened on August 11 and will run in repertory until September 29, 2012 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Daveda Karanas as Amneris and Noah Stewart as Radamès with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Aida. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is located as far away from the hubbub of war and religious conflict as one can imagine. The rolling hills and meadows by Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown, New York are a long way from the murderous wars of the Middle East.

The Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello has decided to bring contemporary issues to the stage of the Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Opera Theatre by placing Verdi’s Aida in a war-torn setting and producing the politically-charged Lost in the Stars about South African racism.

When the curtain goes up on Aida we hear startling gunshots as soldiers rush on the stage and fall on the ground. The setting according to Verdi may be the Egyptian Royal Palace at Memphis, but in Zambello’s staging it is a bombed building. The soldiers carry semi-automatics and there are computers presumably used to prepare for war.

Flags are waved patriotically and the Ethiopian prisoners captured by the victorious Egyptians are clearly Muslims. We have a full fledged Middle East conflict with patriotism, religious differences and mistreatment if not torture of prisoners all weaved into Verdi’s opera which is more of a love story than a tale of national conflict.

The Ethiopian princess Aida is sung by soprano Michelle Johnson. She has a sensuous and expressive voice and gives a superb performance. She invests “Ritorna Vincitor”, for example, with passion and drama capturing her dilemma between loyalty to country and to love. Equally effective is her “O Patria mia”, full of the sense of loss and longing for her homeland. 

The athletic and muscle-bound tenor Noah Stewart sings Radames. From his opening aria “Celeste Aida” to the end when he is tied to a gurney, he is vocally splendid. I thought he was a bit awkward in his movements on stage but other than that he makes a first rate Radames.

Princess Amneris plays second banana to Aida. She loves Radames but he does not care for her. Zambello has made the eternal triangle more interesting by giving us a very attractive Amneris. In the hands of mezzo soprano Daveda Karanas, this Amneris is beautiful and alluring and fully worthy of Radames’s love. She is no unattractive duckling chasing the heroic general. Karanas gives an outstanding performance in the role both in characterization and vocal prowess.

Bass-baritone Phillip Gay made a fine impression as the King. He exuded regal authority and vocal power even though he is a young man. Very good work, indeed.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens is a big-voiced singer and did fine work as Amonasro and kudos go to Joseph Barron as Ramfis, Lenora Green as the Priestess and Clay Hilley as the Messenger.

The costumes by Bibhu Mohapatra were not uniformly successful. The khaki and belts suggesting soldiers at war anywhere in the Middle East presented no issue. The King was dressed in what appeared a more pharaohic costume. When she first appears Aida seems to be wearing a bridal gown. When the Ethiopian prisoners are brought in, you realize that her dress is in line with her countrywomen but by that time you have already scratched your head about her appearance.

Aida is a big opera and I have seen productions where small zoos were brought on stage for the Triumphal March. Zambello did not bring any animals on stage, thank goodness.

In the small Alice Busch Theater there may be concern about producing the grandiose parts of the opera. The outstanding Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Nader Abbassi  had no difficulty bringing the rafters down as they say. Both the intimate and the grand part of the work stood out in a rousing and splendid night at the opera.


Aida by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July7 and will be performed eleven times until August 25, 2012 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Friday, August 10, 2012


Thomas Moschopoulos
By James Karas
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival will produce a Greek tragedy this year.

That statement should merit no more than a mention in the Festival’s annual programme but it is such a rarity that it deserves a screaming headline.

The Festival has gone even further this time in hiring Greeks to direct and design the production and to compose the music for it.
Elektra will be directed by Thomas Moschopoulos who has extensive experience in directing classical and modern plays as well as opera. Most Canadians would probably claim ignorance of his work because they have never been to Epidaurus or the Athens Festival or the numerous other venues where he has worked. Millions of them, however, have seen his spectacular work as the director of the closing ceremonies at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Elektra tells the story of the revenge meted on Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos by her children. She butchered her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War and now a vengeful Elektra is waiting for her brother Orestes to return and kill their mother.

There are three extant Greek tragedies that deal with the Elektra myth one by each of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Why did Moschopoulos choose the play by Sophocles?
Although he had studied it, he had never directed the play before and the decision to do it came in an indirect way, he told me during a recent interview.
When Moschopoulos was invited by Des McAnuff to direct a Greek tragedy at Stratford, he came over to scout out the landscape, so to speak. He saw Yanna McIntosh and Seana McKenna and he was so impressed by their talent that he wanted to do a play in which he could use both of them. He quickly decided on Sophocles’ Elektra. And how did he decide to give Elektra to Yanna and Clytemnestra to Seana? “Instinctively” he replied. He could not give any further explanation other than an instinctive reaction to these actors. 

From the numerous translations available, Moschopoulos chose Anne Carson’s rendition of the play because of its simplicity. “Greek tragedy is very economical’, he said.  And the Stratford cast is “very sensible and sensitive” to the poetry, he said.  Carson uses short sentences and colloquialisms that can be recited rapidly.
The production will have original music composed by Kornelius Selamsis. Music was an important part of Greek tragedy but we know virtually nothing about it. Moschopoulos goes back to Monteverdi and the early composers of opera for the structural ideas about the music to be used. He appreciates that there is an operatic aspect to Greek tragedy but he relies more on the Greek Orthodox liturgy and Cretan folk songs for the musical approach.

The Chorus, an utterly essential part of Greek tragedy, sings a cappella but the members do not speak in unison.  There was certainly music for the Chorus in Ancient Greece to accompany the choral odes but he has chosen not to use any in this production. There was singing during the episodes of the play (as opposed to the choral parts), according to Moschopoulos, and he will use Salamsis’s music there.  Greek tragedy appears static but Moschopoulos believes that there was considerable physicality involved. We know that the Chorus danced in the original productions and that tradition will be maintained in this staging.
The actors (but not the Chorus) wore masks in Ancient Greece but they were playing in theatres that held as many as 30,000 spectators, by some estimates. Elektra will be done in the small, theatre-in-the-round Tom Patterson. It is close enough to a Greek amphitheater in design, according to Moschopoulos and he had no difficulty adapting to it. 

A few words about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Greek drama may bear repeating.  Tyrone Guthrie directed Oedipus Rex in 1954 and the production was reprised in 1955. A good start.
The next production of a Greek tragedy was in 1978 when what one critic called “a pointless rewrite of Medea” by Larry Fineberg was staged. Ten years later they offered a truncated version of Oedipus Rex.   Finally, in 1993, David William staged The Bacchae  and, if you are counting, that means it was the first serious attempt at Greek tragedy for Stratford in forty years.
In 1997, the 1954-55 production of Oedipus Rex was reprised and things really picked up in 2000 with Seana McKenna doing Medea.
In 2003 Stratford finally discovered Aeschylus and Aristophanes. The production of Agamemnon at the Studio Theatre tried to pretend that Ancient tragedy can be staged  like modern drama. Nikos Dionysios’s The Birds was an imaginative treatment that tried to capture the exuberance of Attic Comedy.

The last contact with Greek tragedy by Stratford was in 2008 with The Trojan Women directed by Marti Maraden. It had Martha Henry, Seana McKenna and Yanna McIntosh in the cast and left no doubt that Stratford can do a first rate job if it assigned the task to the right people.
Maybe we can start a trend.

Elektra  by Sophocles opens on August 11 and will run in repertory until September 29, 2012 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Kenneth Welsh & Eric Peterson. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys is a very funny play and it provides a couple doses of nostalgia. One dose is decidedly a borrowed one and the other is perhaps a real memory for many people. Soulpepper has revived this 1972 play for its summer season in a very good production.

The play is about Willie (Eric Peterson) and Al (Kenneth Welsh), two vaudeville comedians who performed sketches for 43 years. That was during the great age of American comedy or so we are told. We are quite willing to accept that verdict and enjoy a bit of borrowed nostalgia about an era and a mode of entertainment that is long gone.

The play was produced forty years ago and one may find some truth in saying that they don’t make them like they used to. You can say that about the product of any old master (Simon is now 85) and look back to the good old days even if they were not that good or are that old. Those old enough may wish to remember the good old days.

The Sunshine Boys pays tribute to vaudeville by bringing together two crotchety vaudevillians who hate each other. Eric Peterson as Willie hates his former partner because he used to spit in his face during performances and poked him with his finger. Now he lives alone in a small apartment in New York and is still looking for work. Peterson is a first rate actor and he does a terrific job in the role.

Kenneth Walsh as Al is more humane and tolerant than Willie. He is not bitter and any chance of reconciliation is bound to come from him. Walsh is a perfect foil for Peterson’s Willie and he does superb work in the role.

The catalyst for the action is Willie’s nephew Ben (Jordan Pettle) who tries to bring the two men together to perform one of their sketches for television.

There are two nurses in the play. One is the mythical, gorgeous blonde (Sarah Wilson) who has big breasts and leans over for Willie (and the audience) to stare at her “back”. Well, Wilson has the requisite attributes and gets the laughs as the dumb blonde.

The other nurse is the far more realistic, no-nonsense caregiver played by Quancetia Hamilton. She may not have Wilson’s physical attributes but she is a very funny actor who gets her laughs.

Pettle plays an agent, decked in a three-piece suit, who is desperately trying to deal with his irascible and irrational uncle and tries to get them to rehearse for their TV appearance.

The play is directed by Ted Dykstra and although it gets most of the laughs it falls short of an inspired production that instigates instant howls of laughter. I mean the type of hilarity that the audience anticipates and bursts out almost instantaneously.

You do get a taste of vaudeville of long, long ago, a smidgeon of more recent New York, some timeless and some dated humour and a good night at the theatre.

The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon opened on July 26 and will continue until September 22, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


 Ari Cohen and Jordan Pettle. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas

David Mamet is the master of machine-gun dialogue, short sentences shot out, frequently overlapping with the words of the last speaker and creating riveting theatre. This talent was displayed to good effect in his 1988 play Speed-the-Plow which is now showing at the Young Centre in a superb production by Soulpepper.

At times you get the impression that Mamet’s characters have tongues without brakes and minds without steering wheels. They say what they want to say with little regard the listener.

The play has only three characters and is a dark satire on the movie industry but Mamet is not interested only in the shallowness and vacuity of films being made and the equally shallow, ego-driven would-be moguls. He has written a subtle play about manipulation, power struggle, office politics and the interplay of greed, sex, treachery and hypocrisy.

Charlie Fox (Jordan Pettle) runs into the office of Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen) to announce that he has nabbed someone “from across the street” to do a movie for their studio. The dialogue develops around the conviction that they will make lots of money and get their names on the screen above the title of the film. They are loyal friends, they insist repeatedly, but what is really obvious is their geed, shallowness and hypocrisy.

Pettle plays Fox as an over-excited, promoter and self-promoter on the verge of success. Cohen’s Gould wants to pretend he is near the top already (he can make a movie for under thirty million dollars without any approval) but he is just as vacuous and superficial as Fox.

The anticipated success is muddled by the presence of a tall and beautiful temp worker named Karen (Sarah Wilson). She appears innocent and eager to please but the men are obviously interested in more earthy things. Gould invites her to his house and the two men make a bet on whether he will have sex with her. It is a pure game of manipulation and one-upmanship and if Gould does have sex with her the victory will be his. In their world the only thing that counts is their ego. Karen shows that she knows a few things about manipulation herself and she can stand her ground quite well.

The seesaw conflict among the three lasts for about an hour and twenty minutes but it is riveting theatre. The acting is superb. The play can be done even more quickly and forcefully but director David Storch has chosen a less violent approach to the pacing and the dialogue. A more forceful approach may have been preferable but that may be a matter of taste.

The set by Dana Osborne consists of a simple and very ordinary desk for Gould’s office – he is a powerhouse producer only in his imagination - and ordinary furniture for his apartment. He could be an office worker on a tight budget.

Speed-the-Plow is not produced very frequently and once again one expresses gratitude to Soulpepper for its judicious choice of plays and its frequently outstanding productions.

Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet opened on July 16 12 and will continue until September 22, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Tom Rooney (centre) as Robert Service with members of the company in Wanderlust. Photography by David Hou
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has taken Canadian content seriously this year. Four out of fourteen plays can claim to be “made in Canada” and one of them, Wanderlust, goes one step further. It is a musical that was commissioned by the Festival from playwright Morris Panych and composer Marek Norman, both Canadians and it is about a “Canadian” poet.

They have taken the poetry of Robert Service (played by Tom Rooney) as their starting point and fashioned a pleasant musical around his verse and a fictionalized version of his life. Panych directs the production.

Panych sets the story in a bank (Service did work for the Canadian Bank of Commerce) where as a lowly bank employee he dreams of visiting strange places like the north and writes poetry. He often sleeps on the bank vault because he stays late versifying and he is also in love with Louise Montgomery (Robin Hutton) who happens to be engaged to Dan McGrew the Assistant Manager (Dan Chameroy).

The action does move to the Yukon for “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” two of Service’s most famous poems.

The plot will turn around the eternal triangle (which will not have the usual happy resolution) and the composition of verses by Service.

Panych manages to inject some light humour into the courtship of Louise and the activities of the tellers in the bank. Mr. McGee, the bank manager, is quite amusing in the hands of Randy Hughson as is Ken James Stewart as Noah the clerk. He is quite funny.

Lucy Peacock is the drunken landlady who is in love with our hero but she is almost wasted in the role.

Dan Chameroy is the straight-laced McGrew in contrasts to the dreamy and passionate Service.

The rather thin pot is augmented with a number of musical numbers. It is after all a musical. The music is pleasant enough though hardly memorable. It is partly controlled by the rhythm, of Service’s poetry. He wrote in simple language with the regular rhythm of rhyming couplets.

Norman’s music usually follows the poetry as if he were reciting it but he does manage some melodies. I cannot remember a single one of them but the performance was good,  especially during the second half which was reasonably enjoyable.

Rooney is good as Service – a dreamy, decent man in love with Louise who insists that she loves him. Unfortunately, she is a modern woman and is lying to both McGrew and to Service.

Service (1874-1958) led a full and very colourful life but I guess Panych and Norman could not condense it or pick a few incidents from it and at the  same time give us some of his poetry.

In the end you get some poetry, a few pleasant laughs, some forgettable songs around a fictionalized life.

Wanderlust by Morris Panych (book) and Marek Norman (music) opened on July 11 and will run until September 28, 2012 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


From left: Richard Alan Campbell as General Harrison, Greg Campbell as General Renssaeler, Richard Clarkin as a Cabinet Gent, Jacob James as President James Madison, Linda Prystawska as Dolly Madison, Mac Fyfe as a Cabinet Gent, Michaela Washburn as Mrs. Hull and Anand Rajaram as General Hull in VideoCabaret's The War of 1812. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

Michael Hollingsworth has created a one-man industry writing plays about Canadian history. He calls his series of plays The History of the Village of the Small Huts (i.e. Canada) and it has kept him busy for about thirty years. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival kills several birds by producing his The War of 1812, albeit in the tiny Studio Theatre Annex: it produces a Canadian play, about Canadian history on the 200th anniversary of the event. What more do you want?

Hollingsworth also directs this production by VideoCabaret of which he is an Artistic Director. He is not interested in a narrative or patriotic tale of the war but he does give us a satirical look at the conflict that pitted the British Empire against the recently created United States with the Natives in the middle and probably getting the worst of it.

Eight actors represent several dozen characters from the American, British and Native sides. The actors wear heavy make-up, almost white faces with red lips. They usually address the audience instead of each other. The women speak frequently in falsetto voices and no one speaks in a natural tone.

The characters appear almost like marionettes and they speak in an exaggerated and at times gesticulatory manner. They may be seen as clowns or certainly caricatures of the roles that they portray. It is a satire, after all.

Jacob James, for example, portrays President James Madison, who is short, wears a wig and has an almost white face and red lips. He gesticulates when he talks. He also represents Rev. John Strachan from the British side as well as an American and British Soldier.

Linda Prystawska is Dolly Madison, Laura Secord and Ann Strachan with fairly similar characterization of all of them The point may be that these people are all fools and are involved in a foolish war. No argument there.

Anand Rajaram plays a stentorian Tecumseh and the cowardly General Dearborn. Again, they are portrayed as foolish people but for all the satire there is very little humour or laughter in the portraits of these characters.

Richard Alan Campbell plays General William Harrison and James Secord, both of them silly men.

Richard Clarkin plays the clownish General Isaac Brock from the British side and General Wingfield Scott for the American wing.

The action takes place in the dark and lights are focused on the faces of the actors. There are no props to speak of except for a couple of portraits and some maps that are shown. The plot moves quickly in short scenes, almost vignettes.

Despite the name of the production company, there is no use of video.

I make no secret of the fact that I did not like the production. There are people who find this type of satire highly effective and entertaining but unfortunately it left me cold. Frequent use of phrases like “pardon my French” by a number of characters did not help and the lack of much humour made the situation worse.

This is a clown show or a marionette presentation of a satirical look at The War of 1812 in a style that simply did not resonate with me.

You are welcome to love the whole approach and disagree violently with me.


The War of 1812 by Michael Hollingsworth opened on July 1 and will run until August 12, 2012 at the Studio Theatre Annex, Stratford, Ontario.