Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Jason Howard as Rigoletto and Simone Osborne as Gilda

Reviewed by James Karas

 *** (out of five)

Can you set Rigoletto, in a high-rise apartment building, in modern dress, without popping any of your credulity strings? Probably not but that is what Opera Hamilton has done in its production directed by Michael Cavanagh.

During the overture, Rigoletto, a court jester, walks on stage dragging a large duffel bag from which he pulls out a puppet that he will use to mock the courtiers. We will see the duffel bag again.

The opening scene of the opera is a ball in the Duke of Mantua’s palace. In this production we are in an apartment or office in a high-rise building with a view of a city’s skyline in the back. A bunch of businessmen change from their black suits into Halloween costumes. They are going to have a wild party. Women are sexual objects, at best, and morality does not exist even as a word.

My full review of this production may be read here:


Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 20 and will be performed four times until October 27, 2012 at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts, Hamilton, Ontario

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Michael Schade and Laura Tucker. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

** (out of five)
A huge pocket watch swings ominously stage right and a woman is tossing in a large, fancy bed, stage left. Time or watches will play a significant role in this production. The woman is obviously dreaming but what about? She may be dreaming about what is happening in her life or having a nightmare about the production of Die Fledermaus by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

The woman is Rosalinde Eisenstein (Tamara Wilson), one of the main characters in Johann Strauss II’s comic operetta directed by Christopher Alden. Did I say “comic? Alden believes that the word “comic” is inapplicable to this dark, Freudian psychodrama and proceeds to prove it over the next couple of hours.

Let’s get back to the bed (or is it a psychiatrist’s couch) and keep a keen eye on it. It will be on stage almost all evening.

There is great turmoil in the well-off Eisenstein house.  Rosalinde’s husband Gabriel (Michael Schade) is about to go to jail for a few nights.  Her feisty maid Adele (Mireille Asselin) wants to go to a party and fibs about having to see a sick aunt in order to get the night off. Alfred (David Pomeroy), a horny opera tenor is courting Rosalinde with Italian passion (and arias) and has in fact made it to her bed. To make things worse, he is wearing her husband’s dressing gown.  That is what you call comic confusion – sorry, make that a dark, shadowy plot for Freudian analysis.

The Eisensteins have a friend called Dr. Falke (Peter Barrett) and a bad lawyer called Dr. Blind (David Cangelosi). The latter is the papier-mâché type of bumbling fool who manages to sneak in a few laughs in the psychodrama.

Amid the dark shades, the shadows of bats and Dr. Falke dressed up as a bat, we see a crack in the back wall of the stage and a party breaks out (or is supposed to break out) in Prince Orlofsky’s (played by Laura Tucker) pad. Even here Alden does his best to make sure that the jollity is kept within bounds and laughter is limited to a few twitters.

Operetta is perceived by some as “popular” entertainment – good for the masses but lacking the hauteur and cultural superiority of opera. Light, effervescent, melodic music, a silly but funny plot, broad humour – those are the ingredients that some of us look for in an operetta. If it lacks the snobbish appeal of opera, we have the strength of character to enjoy it.

Alden and perhaps the COC want to have it both ways. They want us to keep our snobbery by producing an operetta at a high-toned opera house and make sure we do not enjoy it too much by removing most of the elements that make operetta such fun.

Happily, there is rebellion in the ranks. The first to rebel against Alden’s deadly approach is Strauss himself. Those marvelous tunes, wonderful waltzes and some of the humour simply breaks through and you find yourself enjoying the piece.

Tamara Wilson as Roselinde is fairly irrepressible and Mireille Asselin is funny and sings well as the maid. Michael Schade can sing but he falls a bit short in his comic acting as Eisenstein. There are lots of opportunities for broad humour with James Westman as Frank, the prison warden, Jan Pohl as the jailer and Claire de Sevigne as Adele’s sister Ida but most of them are squashed.

The plot is based on mistaken identities, farcical situations and verbal humour. Humour rarely survives surtitles and Alden goes for the jugular by doing the production in German. This is enough to give snobbery a bad name and laughter the door.

The Canadian Company Chorus was corralled around the stage for reasons that escaped me. Alden gives them a pillow fight for reasons best known to him but effectively hidden from me. They rebelled by singing well Conductor Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra ignored all Freudian problems and stuck to the lively music. 

For Sigmund Freud everything in human conduct was caused, or affected by, sex. Almost everything. The cigar-smoking psychiatrist was once asked if the big stogie in his mouth was not a sexual symbol.

The astute Freud replied that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Alden should have listened to the old master: sometimes an operetta is just an operetta.

Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II opened on October 4 and will be performed eleven times until November 3, 2012 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

*** (out of five)      

What do you get when you have a woman being burnt on the stake and her daughter tosses a baby – the wrong baby – on the pyre? The correct answer is Giuseppe Verdi’s incredible melodrama, Il Trovatore. 

The Canadian Opera Company’s production (borrowed from Opéra de Marseille) eschews melodramatic displays but does provide some thrills. There are also a few gaffes but overall the production does credit to Verdi.

My full review of this production may be read here:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


By James Karas

What was the first modern Greek play to be produced in the United States?

Your chance of getting that right is less likely than winning the next $50 million lottery. There are some exceptions of, course, especially if you are the son of the man who produced the play.

The play is called He Who Must Die and it is an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s great novel Christ Re-Crucified. It was staged at the Yale School of Drama in 1960. The adapter of the play was Michael Antonakes. The play was produced again in 1972 at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts and Eleni Kazantzakis, Nikos’s widow was in attendance.

Skip forty years and land in Toronto (well, OK, Richmond Hill!) where you will find He Who Must Die being produced by an ambitious and talented young man named Dean Antonakes, the son of Michael.

The production of a play, any play, may not seem like a momentous event. But consider the following: Modern Greek drama in Toronto, where the largest number of Greek-Canadians reside, is almost non-existent. Nancy Athan-Mylonas keeps the theatrical flame flickering as the Artistic Director of the Greek Community of Toronto’s Nefeli group. She has produced a version of Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek but her focus is on light comedy done mostly by young people for an audience that prefers song and dance to serious theatre.

After Nancy, the desert.

Dean, who in real life runs a software company, is producing He Who Must Die in order to introduce Canadians to a play by Kazantzakis and to pay homage to his father on the 40th anniversary of the last production of the work.

No production of a play can ever be classified as a one-person operation but this venture comes awfully close. Dean has spearheaded just about everything about the production from the idea, to contacting Greek organizations, to finding a theatre, to raising funds and to keeping everything flowing,. His official title is Artistic and Music Director of the company.

The play is directed by Andrea Emmerton who has more than 25 years of experience in directing plays. 

Christ Re-Crucified (sometimes translated as The Greek Passion) is set in a Greek village under Ottoman rule in 1922. The villagers are putting on a play that will re-enact about Christ’s crucifixion. At the same time, a group of refugees arrives at the outskirts of the village seeking help. As the title suggests, the result is an enthralling story.

“The play forces people to face their own Christian values” said Dean in a recent interview. It is done entirely in English and he hopes that young people, including children, will be exposed to the play and to Kazantzakis in general.

The play has a Narrator and mezzo-soprano Ariana Chris has accepted the role. Dean considers this a happy coup. Chris is well-known in the operatic and Greek community and is “a major plus” to the production.

“All of the speaking roles have been cast to experienced stage actors, eleven of whom are Greek-Canadians. We are still looking for ten adult male extras,” according to Dean.

The production will feature music composed by Paul Demakis and played by famed instrumentalist Pavlo on guitar and George Vasilakos on bouzouki and baglama. Samples of the music are available on the production company’s website (see below).

The Antonakes family has deep roots …in the United States. Dean’s grandfather served in the U.S. Army in World War I and his father served in World War II. Any ideas of assimilation or disappearance of Greek roots is dispelled quickly by Dean.

His father Michael taught in the English Department of Salem State University from 1965 until his retirement in 1992. His specialty: Greek literature, especially Kazantzakis. In fact, Michael’s doctoral thesis and much of his writing are centered on Kazantzakis. He also translated Kazantzakis’s Russia: A Chronicle of Three Journeys in the Aftermath of the Revolution with Thanasis Maskaleris.

He studied for one year in Athens and has written, directed and acted in over 40 productions, according to his son. In fact, he is a member of Actors Equity, the union of professional actors.

When son Dean was getting ready to join the matrimonial sweepstakes, the Antonakeses took no chances: they shipped him off to an AHEPA convention where he found, Nina, a nice Canadian girl of Greek origin. She took no chances with him being swallowed by Americana and brought him to the safe haven of Pickering, Ontario. Now she gets to do the marketing for the play.

Professor Antonakes will give a lecture entitled "A Tribute to the Life of Nikos Kazantzakis" on Saturday October 13, 2012, 1:00 pm at the Gold Room of the North York Memorial Community Hall, North York City Centre, 5100 Yonge Street, Toronto.

Dean makes no secret of his enthusiasm for the play and the production. He does not hesitate to classify the staging as the Greek cultural event of the decade, exclamation mark included.

That truthfulness of that assessment will depend on higher judgment, more theatrical experience and unambiguous objectivity. No, I do not mean the audience. I mean his father.  
He Who Must Die by Michael Antonakes based on Christ Re-Crucified by Nikos Kazantzakis will be performed six times between January 4 and 6, 2013 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Preforming Arts, 10268 Yonge St. Richmond Hill, Ont. For more information go to or 905-787-8811



Friday, October 5, 2012


Foreground: R.H. Thomson, David Fox. Background: Daniel Giverin, John Dolan, Nicola Lipman, Ben Irvine, Stephen Guy-McGrath. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

*** (out of five)

No Great Mischief is the title of a novel by Alistair MacLeod which was adapted for the stage by David S. Young. It opened at the Tarragon Theatre in November 2004 and it is the opening production of the same company’s current season.

Despite Young’s brave attempts to make the adaptation entertaining, I found it a generally uninspiring night at the theatre. There were many reasons for the failure to generate much excitement or even small pleasure at the production.

Young tries to maintain some of MacLeod’s prose by having a narrator who is also the main character of the play. You end up with some scenes that are re-enacted and described at the same time. In other words we have both narrative and action where neither is satisfactory.

I have a general antipathy to the adaptation of novels for the stage. The novelist’s prose style, narrative method and descriptive passages go mostly by the board and you may end up with only the highlights of the plot. Sometimes that is the equivalent of getting a skeleton when you are looking for flesh and blood. Adaptations work when the playwright can create an almost new work based on the novel and maintain some fidelity to the original. Young attempts that in this adaptation but with only limited success.

The central “character” of the play is the MacDonald Clan of Scotland. The clan has a long history and memory reaching back to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The main part of the story, however, begins with the arrival in Canada of Calum Ruadh in 1779.

The play opens with dentist Alexander MacDonald (R.H. Thomson) visiting his alcoholic brother  Calum (David Fox) in Toronto. Young mixes action and narration as Alexander describes what is happening while being a part of it. This happens throughout the play, as I mentioned, and I found it unsatisfactory. If you want the narrative and MacLeod’s fine prose, you can stay home and read the novel.

The play moves down memory lane to Cape Breton where the MacDonald Clan grew after Ruadh’s immigration and to the move to the mines of Elliot Lake, Ontario. The MacDonalds like to sing, dance, drink to excess and get into trouble. A couple of violinists appear on stage frequently and music is ever present in the play.

Aside from the two brothers in this well-peopled play, we have Grandpa played by John Dolan and Serious Grandpa played by J.D. Nicolson. Ben Irvine plays the major roles of Cousin Alexander and California Cousin and Nicola Lipman plays all the women in the play. Daniel Giverin and Stephen Guy-McGrath play half a dozen roles each.

The set consists of a painted wall and six chairs. The actors, when not involved in a scene tended to stand facing the wall at the back of the stage and at one point they looked as if they were urinating.

The play shows/narrates some dramatic scenes in the lives of the MacDonalds from a drowning, to a killing of a miner. There is singing (much of it in Gaelic) and dancing and some noisy sections all of which made a surprisingly limited impression. Some of the actors spoke in a clipped manner (I can’t really describe it as an accent) that forced you to sit up and listen carefully to follow what they were saying.       

At the beginning of the play, Alexander tells us that the story of the MacDonalds is part memory, part imagination or family history elevated to myth. I think that Young and Director Richard Rose have failed to raise the play to the mythical or to create a mythical world for the Canadian part of the clan.

The title of the play comes from a remark about the MacDonald Clan made by Major General James Wolfe during The Battle of Quebec in 1759. He wrote that “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to rough country and no great mischief if they fall.” He may have meant it as a compliment or, more likely, as an expression of contempt towards the people he used as cannon fodder. To put it in perspective, the MacDonalds were considered less important than the dogs to the English.

Worse was to come. Two members of the mythical clan whose life and adventures Young tries to bring to life on stage were returning to Cape Breton in the 20th century and were stopped by a Causeway Policeman. He asked who they were.

“We are MacDonalds,” answered one of them said proudly.

“The guys who make the hamburgers?” asked the Policeman.

With some highly talented actors in the cast, the play is not a hamburger but it fails to do justice to the great clan.
No Great Mischief. by David S. Young adapted from the novel by Alistair MacLeod  opened on September 19 and will run until  October 23, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.