Tuesday, September 25, 2012

DEATH OF A SALESMAN – SOULPEPPER BRINGS BACK OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION

Joseph Ziegler & Ari Cohen. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
 
Reviewed by James Karas

 ***** (out of 5)

Two years ago, the redoubtable Soulpepper Theatre Company staged an outstanding production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The same production is now back with some cast changes at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District.

The heart of the production, directed by Albert Schultz, is Joseph Ziegler’s performance as Willy Loman, the travelling salesman. Ziegler is so convincing as the tired, irascible, irrational dreamer that you adopt him as the quintessential depiction of the character. He exudes the powerful illusions that Loman harbours and passes on to his two sons to the point of destroying their lives as well as his own. The drama is searing and the raw pain felt by the Loman family is fully shared by the audience.

Willy’s son Biff (Ari Cohen) is a clone of his father. A petty thief, a nobody, a bum, in his own words, he believes that he is a great entrepreneur and a leader of men. His conviction is based on what his father has told him and on nothing more concrete than illusory dreams. Cohen brings out Biff’s empty bravado, his meanness, pettiness and, in the end, his self-realization. An outstanding performance.

Mike Ross as Happy, the other son, is just as deluded about his abilities and just as capable of lying to himself and others. In the end, he remains his father’s true creation and still thinks he can “make it.” A very good performance.

William Webster plays the debonair and self-assured Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful brother who has mysteriously become wealthy.

The opposites to the Lomans are their neighbours Charley (Michael Hanrahan) and his son Bernard (Gregory Prest). Charley is decent, successful, sympathetic and generous. Prest as Bernard was treated badly by the Loman boys and he may have been a bit geeky but he had brains and used them to earn success as a lawyer rather than dream of accomplishment without any effort. Stellar performances by Hanrahan and Prest.

The holder of the centre, the person who sees it all and tries to keep family and sanity intact is Willy’s wife Linda, played superbly by Nancy Palk. She supports, cajoles, encourages, endures and loves her husband and her sons until she realizes the baseness of her children. Marvelous work by Palk.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini was minimalist with an ordinary kitchen in the foreground and the boys’ bedroom a few steps up to the back. A panel on the right was used to project images of green branches, neon signs for the motel sequence, tall buildings for the New York street scenes and an imposing apartment building for the present location of the Loman house. The set worked reasonably well but seemed incomplete and could have been larger and more imposing.

Soulpepper has a very ambitious number of productions and it has taken over the classical repertoire as far as theatre in Toronto is concerned. It has also adopted a system of bringing back productions that sometimes seems like a bad habit. The problem is probably financial and it is hard to argue with an ambitious programme that runs into a lean budget. The latter will always win and if critics and audiences want more productions all they have to do, I suppose, is cough up the dough

Death of a Salesman has been analyzed as a critique of the American Dream, a commentary on the vacuity of American capitalism and a presentation of the common man as a tragic hero.     

No doubt it is all of that and much more but in the present production it is also a great night at the theatre.

 _________

Death of a Salesman  by Arthur Miller opened on September 8 and will run in repertory until October 6, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  416 866-8666.

 

Friday, September 21, 2012

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME – VERY GOOD “LIVE” THEATRE FROM LONDON ON THE BIG SCREEN


 
Reviewed by James Karas
 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the long title of an amazing play by Simon Stephens based on the novel by Mark Haddon. A performance from London was broadcast to theatres around the world “Live” from the Cottelsoe Theatre which is part of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank.

The Curious Incident is an engrossing play that tries to see the world through the eyes of Christopher, an autistic but brilliant youngster of 15. The play starts with the arresting image of a dog that was killed using a garden fork and the plot develops from there. Christopher, accused of killing the dog, in effect becomes a detective and starts questioning the neighbours in order to find the real killer.

His investigation leads to some very unpleasant discoveries including the fact that his mother Judy (Nicola Walker) had an affair with Mr. Shears (Nock Sidi) the owner of the dog and she ran away with him. His father (played by Paul Ritter) leads him to believe that his mother is dead. Christopher however discovers that his mother is in fact alive and, more shockingly, that his father is the killer of the dog.

That is pretty dramatic on its own and if we add the elements of a dysfunctional family in the suburbs we would have a bloody good story between the covers of a book or on the stage. But Haddon and Stephens give us much more than that because we see it all through the eyes of the autistic Christopher. He is brilliant in mathematics but he cannot stand to be touched, lacks most social skills and is almost empty of any feeling. He reacts emotionally for the dead dog but he cannot handle most basic functions of everyday life and is bereft of emotional intelligence.

The play is performed on a small rectangular stage and makes use of video projections and the stage floor which can be seen from above and there is extensive use of lights. The play is set in a number of locales from Christopher’s house in Swindon, to his school, to the train station and to the streets of London. The scene changes are done with speed and effectiveness and again all is seen through the troubled eyes of Christopher.

Because much of what Christopher does is in his imagination, there is a character named Siobhan (Niamh Cusack) who acts as a narrator. She is Christopher’s friend and mentor and understands him well enough to describe some of his thoughts and dreams. This is a necessity, no doubt, otherwise we will not get the full effect of what is going on in Christopher’s mind.

Luke Treadaway as Christopher speaks in a slightly staccato and monotonic manner and he gives a simply outstanding performance in the lead role. You understand his genius and see his pathetic character as he can solve complex mathematical equations but cannot find a building that someone points out to him a few hundred feet away.

There is a large number of characters in the play performed by a small number of actors who take on numerous roles. We have a sterling example of ensemble acting and individual talent directed to outstanding effect by Marianne Elliott.   

What we saw in the theatre was a performance that was filmed earlier so it was the next best thing to “live” The production started at 7:00 p.m. in Toronto and London theatres are not open past midnight. But that is not a problem.

We were at the mercy of the cameras set around the Cottelsoe, a small theatre in the round. The close-ups of the actors were welcome but had their drawbacks. We could see the microphones taped to the back of their necks and we could see the cameras being rolled around the theatre. We could see overhead shots that may not be available to the audience in the theatre but that may well not be true.

There were some technical glitches especially in the audio where words were blipped an inordinate number of times. At the beginning I thought they were censoring swear words but that was not true. There were technical problems.

The author of the novel and the adapter attempt the impossible. They want us to see the world through the eyes of a boy in a condition that they can only imagine and guess at. Christopher may display some examples of the conduct of an autistic child but no one can know what the world looks like to an autistic child.

Their guesses and assumptions make for riveting theatre. The emotionally incapable Christopher is given a dog near the end of the play and he is able to pick it up and show some emotion toward it. The play ends with Christopher saying that he can do anything. That may or it may not be true but Haddon and Stephens with director Elliott have provided stimulating, intelligent and  very good theatre, glitches and all.
   _____

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Simon Stephens  based on the novel by Mark Haddon was shown at the Scotiabank Theatre  259 Richmond Street West, Toronto ON and other theatres on September 6, 2012. For more information visit http://www.cineplex.com/

Saturday, September 15, 2012

GOD LOVES CAVIAR: ADVENTURE AND PHILOSOPHY JOINED IN FILM BY IANNIS SMARAGDIS

Catherine Deneuve and Sebastian Koch
 
Reviewed by James Karas
**** (out of five)

God Loves Caviar is the catchy title of Iannis Smaragdis’ film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2012. It is a biopic, a costume drama and an adventure story that has a deep philosophical and perhaps religious substratum. It presents the physical and spiritual journey of Ioannis Varvakis, an almost unknown Greek historical figure, who lived from the mid-eighteenth century until 1825.

Smaragdis, in addition to directing the film, is credited as one of the four script writers and with the idea of the story. In other words, the film is a reflection of Smaragdis’ ideas and ideals; it is a film by a philosopher director.

The outward story of Varvakis’s life provides ample material for a film full of adventures, love stories and displays of marvelous scenic tableaux and costumes.

Varvakis was an illiterate sailor who became a pirate in the Aegean robbing and destroying Turkish ships. He was captured by the Turks and escaped to the Russia of Catherine the Great where elegant manners, bewigged gentlemen and bejeweled and begowned ladies abounded. The rough-hewn, penniless sailor found a method of extending the shelf life of caviar and became extremely wealthy.

In his search for love, Varvakis married a woman (played by Olga Sutulova) who not only did not love him but also betrayed him with his teacher Kimon (played by Akis Sakellariou). (This treachery and infidelity will serve as an example of Varvakis’s spiritual growth and magnanimity when he eventually forgave both of them.)

Not having found love or any other fulfillment, our hero chucked everything in Russia and returned to Greece in search of freedom. The type of freedom that wealth cannot provide. At that time, Greece was in the throes of war against the Turks and more seriously in the midst of a civil war. Varvakis tried to help but he was considered dangerous for reasons that are not entirely clear and shipped off to prison on the island of Zakynthos.

I give this summary of the “adventure” plot to indicate that although it is a part of the film, it is not the main thrust of the movie. Smaragdis is more interested in Varvakis’s spiritual journey. Varvakis is in search of something much higher and deeper than the physical world around him provides. Inversely, he is perhaps driven by a higher force outside the physical world that he inhabits and to some extent controls.

At the outset of the film, Varvakis abandons his first wife and infant daughter Maria to go seek his fortune or perhaps himself. After escaping death in the hands of the Turks, he walks from Constantinople to St. Petersburg during the winter with nothing but the clothes on his back. We have started moving away from the strictly physical travel to the spiritual journey.

The events in Russia (second marriage, commercial success, reunion with his daughter (played by Marisha Triantafyllidou) and death of his son by his second wife) leave him unfulfilled and propel him towards further travel and search. The journey leads him back home to his roots in Greece.

Greece and the movement towards Greek independence and always lurk in the background. Varvakis keeps encountering a mysterious friend, Lefentarios, whose loyalties seem to be shifting. We know that he represents the emerging Greek nation in its struggle for liberation.

Varvakis encounters the even more mysterious Fisherman of God (Lakis Lazopoulos) and his spiritual transformation continues. He is immersed under water and his baptism and spiritual growth appears to be complete. Varvakis emerges from this as an old, Christ-like figure who is about to go through his own Passion.

On his return to Greece, as indicated, he ends up a prisoner of the British on Zakynthos where he dies with nothing but the company of his servant Ivan (John the Baptist, John the Evangelist?). He leaves his fortune to Greece but the old adage about that country seems to be fulfilled: Greece eats its children.

Smaragdis frames his film as a story told by Ivan to a few children on the British-held island of Zakynthos. Varvakis has just been delivered there in old age purportedly to a sanatorium but in reality to prison. Ivan acts as a narrator throughout the film and in the end he takes Varvakis out on a rowboat to die.

Smaragdis has assembled an international cast and as is almost inevitable not all of them are ideal for the roles. The German Sebastian Koch plays Varvakis. He has an expressive face and eyes that reveal his emotional turmoil. His accented English is neither Greek nor German and makes him Everyman. A stellar performance.

His assistant Ivan played by Russian Evgeny Stychkin is well done but I had a small problem with his telling of the story to the children. The children do not speak English and Ivan speaks a few words in Greek to them and then translates himself and continues in English. It is a minor but avoidable annoyance.

The Argentine-Spanish Juan Diego Botto plays Lefentarios, a mysterious Greek who seems to be working for other countries but we know instinctively that he is a patriot fighting for the liberation of Greece. The dapper Botto is excellent in the role.

Catherine Deneuve brings star power and elegance to the role of Catherine the Great. The German princess who became Empress of Russia speaks with a French accent.

John Cleese as McCormick sits behind his desk listening to the story of Varvakis and makes wry remarks. He is good but one wishes greater use could have been made of him.

The cinematography of Aris Stavrou and the Production Design of Nikos Petropoulos are quite stunning. From broad shots of the Aegean, to the court and bordellos of St. Petersburg to the battle scenes on the Acropolis, the film is a delight on the eyes.

Minos Matsas’ music is gorgeous and fitting.

The marriage of philosophy and adventure is not always easy to maintain. Throw in politics, love and infidelity and you have a rich mixture of ingredients fighting for prominence.

Smaragdis is largely successful in keeping all the elements afloat and reasonably balanced in a film that is worth seeing and pondering.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

GOD LOVES CAVIAR BUT DOES HE LOVE IANNIS SMARAGDIS EVEN MORE?

                                                                    Iannis Smaragdis
by James Karas

“EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE.” That is the subtitle of God Loves Caviar, a film directed by Iannis Smaragdis that will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Perhaps not coincidentally it is a phrase that describes one of Smaragdis’ most cherished convictions.
The film tells the story of Ioannis Varvakis a Greek pirate who made his fortune in Russia selling caviar and eventually became a great philanthropist during Greece’s War of Independence. He gave all for love.

Smaragdis is in Toronto for the premiere of his film. Asked how he chose the subject of the almost unknown Varvakis for his film he replies that it was a gift or largesse from a Higher Power.  He believes that a Higher Power or an Ultimate Source gave him the opportunity and he went about executing it.  Smaragdis also believes that if you want something badly enough and seek it, it will be granted to you. He considers himself to be the messenger or an intermediary of the Higher Power. In practical terms, the idea for doing a film about Varvakis was given to him by former student of the Varvakio High School of Athens (which was originally funded by the film’s hero and still bears his name). But according to Smaragdis the former student was also a mere messenger.
                                               Sebastian Koch as Varvakis
 
Smaragdis was attracted to the story because he considers Varvakis to be the prototype of the Greek of the Diaspora who leaves the motherland and returns wiser and perhaps richer. The Greek goes on a great Journey, like Odysseus, and returns to help those whom he left behind. He does not consider Varvakis as merely a historical figure or a man of the future but a Greek of the present, perhaps the ideal Greek of today and the best hope for Greece. 
The Greeks are a great people with a long history and the present crisis is a temporary setback from which they will emerge in a few years stronger than ever, according to Smaragdis. They have come a long way and they have a long way to go, he says with pride. He believes that directors and producers and in fact all artists have a duty to bring out the best in people especially when a country is going through a crisis. He considers God Loves Caviar as fulfilling such a responsibility.

This is Smaragdis’ third appearance at TIFF. He was first here in 1996 with Cavafy and returned in 2008 with El Greco, the award-winning telling of the life of his fellow Cretan. In fact Smaragdis was born about three hundred meters from the house where El Greco was born. El Greco is probably the single film seen by some half of the population of Greece  thus making it the most watched Greek film. One million, two hundred thousand tickets were sold at theatres alone and the rest of the viewers saw it on DVDs, he states proudly. Then he adds that this was despite the fact that most Greek critics gave it an emphatic thumbs down.
He knew that he will make God Loves Caviar even before he started shooting El Greco. The Message had arrived. Asked what problems he had in making the film, he replies that he had only three: money, money and money. There were four delays while filming the scenes with Catherine Deneuve alone, all related to the shortage of funds. But if the messenger did not come with a cheque, the Higher Power did grant luck to Smaragdis. He was able to find private investors who together with the help of the Greek Film Centre, the film was finally completed at a cost of 6.5 million. It is the most expensive Greek film ever made. The previous record, at 6.2 million, was held by El Greco.

Smaragdis uses actors from six countries starting with the German Sebastian Koch as Varvakis. No one could have done the role better than Koch, Smaragdis states with utter conviction. John Cleese was a comic riot and Catherine Deneuve is such a star that the cast and crew started applauding instinctively when she walked on the scene in her costume as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. He goes even further in his tribute: he credits the actors with wanting to help Greece which is generally getting a battering from all sides.
He speaks with devotion and admiration about the music composer Minos Matsas and with sheer enthusiasm about directing the film despite all the difficulties.

He cannot disclose what his next project will be. As an intermediary, he will no doubt be given the message or his “prayer” will be answered. There is no doubt that a Messenger is out there ready to deliver the good news.
For now the Messenger can find him in Toronto where God Loves Caviar will premiere on Thursday, September 13 and will be shown again on Friday and Saturday.

But He should not try to see the film – all tickets have been presold. Then again, He should never be pessimistic – the recipient of His message will remind him that Everything is Possible.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

HIS GIRL FRIDAY – ROLLICKING FUN AND ENERGY AT SHAW FESTIVAL


Reviewed by James Karas
 
**** (out of five)
 
The Shaw Festival’s Production of His Girl Friday is so full of energy and laughter that the audience needs to catch its breath at the end of the performance. Director Jim Mezon does make a few unfortunate gaffes but the end result is still a riotous comedy.

His Girl Friday is an adaptation of The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur which premiered in 1928.  The protagonists in the play were two men, a reporter and an editor but Columbia Pictures changed them to a man and a women for a movie version in 1940.

John Guare adopted the play for the stage and kept the protagonists as a man and a woman who are divorced.

His Girl Friday takes place in the press room of the criminal courts building of Chicago. It is August 1939 and an anarchist who killed a policeman is scheduled to be hanged in the morning. The press room is filled with an array of colourful reporters. The central story is that of reporter Hildy Johnson (Nicole Underhay) and her former boss and husband, the editor Walter Burns (Benedict Campbell).

One source of comedy is the reporters who are sparring for a story about Earl Holub (Andrew Bunker) the poor anarchist who is about to be executed. The rude and crude newspapermen have scant regard for or even interest in the truth – they just want a story that will sell papers. Director Jim Mezon orchestrates the reporters and the other characters in exemplary ensemble playing that provides a great deal of energy and laughter.

The main plotline is the relationship of Burns and Hildy. She has fallen in love with Bruce (Kevin Bundy) a hapless insurance salesman and Burns wants her back as his wife and as a reporter to cover the execution and  expose the corruption of Chicago politicians.

Underhay and Campbell are a marvelously matched set for the verbal and physical comedy that the play provides. Both deliver their lines with speed, perfect timing and bravado. Bundy as the insurance man who is henpecked by his mother is a terrific foil for the two “lovers” as is his imperious mother played by Wendy Thatcher. Both of them are hilarious.

There are individually distinguished performances as well as the ensemble acting. Peter Krantz is hilarious as the corrupt sheriff as is Thom Marriott as the bullying and totally corrupt Mayor.

Lorne Kennedy has the small role of Pincus, the messenger but he turns it into a marvelous laugh-getter. Nothing is wasted in this production.

I think Andrew Bunker was miscast as Holub. He was not convincing as the anarchist who shot a cop. We could have done without characters speaking in unison at times. It went from unnecessary to annoying.

Aside from that it was an evening filled with laughter.
______

His Girl Friday  adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the Columbia Pictures film His Girl Friday runs from June 10 until October 5, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Friday, September 7, 2012

THE BEST BROTHERS –DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE AND MARVELOUS PLAY


Reviewed by James Karas
 
**** (out of five)
 
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival may bear the name of a 16th century English playwright but this year it also boasts the world premiere of a Canadian play in Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Brothers at the Studio Theatre.

The Best Brothers is a brilliant, witty, literate, funny and thoroughly entertaining play. It has only two actors on the stage but they play a number of characters including the brothers of the title.

The Best brothers, Kyle (John Beale) and Hamilton (Daniel MacIvor), get together to write the newspaper announcement of their mother’s death. They are very different people and composing an almost pro forma notice becomes a revealing and funny scene.

Kyle is gay, high-strung, emotional, at times exuberant and always unorthodox. He is having a relationship with a male prostitute and rarely agrees with his brother.

Hamilton is a tough, sensible man who speaks forcefully and at times gruffly. He is a building designer (architect?) who tries to keep Kyle earth-bound with little success.

Beale and MacIvor handle the roles with aplomb and high effectiveness but the author gives them more than just the well-defined main characters. Their mother was just killed in a freak accident during a Gay Pride Parade. She was an artist, an eccentric and a fascinating character who lived life to the fullest. We never see her but her two sons enact solo scenes from her life and the actors have the chance to perform in very different ways.

The other non-appearing character is their mother’s dog Enzo who has some interesting characteristics including the ability to destroy a $250,000.00 kitchen and display sexual prowess in the park, despite being fixed, that would make Don Juan envious.      

The plot moves simply from the writing of the death notice for the paper, to discussing visitations, to delivering the eulogy at the funeral and the “settling” of the estate. Each step is accompanied by arguments and the brothers end up at each other’s throats during the eulogy.

It is a simple play that finds depth, love, eccentricity and a host of bizarre characters and situations that are hinted at or passed over sometimes all too quickly. The fascination is in how much MacIvor packs into an hour and a half with only two actors handling the entire load.

A few props suffice for the set and there is judicious and intelligent use of lighting for the rest. Julie Fox gets credit as the Set Designer and Ital Erdal is the Lighting Designer.

Credit for outstanding work goes to director Dean Gabourie who brings the whole production together as a funny and moving piece of work that conveys the love and eccentricities of the Best family. 

The programme lists a number of people who participated in the development of the play but the end result is  marvelous and deceptively simple theatre.
__________

The Best Brothers by Daniel MacIvor opened on July 12 and will run in repertory until September 16 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca