Friday, December 27, 2013

FALSTAFF LIVE IN HD FROM THE METROPOLITAN OPERA - REVIEW

Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ambrogio Maestri and Stephanie Blythe in Verdi's "Falstaff."
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera delivered an exceptional production of Verdi’s Falstaff in its last transmission for 2013.

Falstaff has ten roles, 4 women and 6 men. The women easily outclass and outsmart the men and control the action of the opera around the mock-heroic fat knight.

The men with the exception of the lover Fenton are scoundrels or idiots. The women are smart, scheming and in the end triumphant.

Ambrogio Maestri made a masterful Falstaff, singing with assurance, ease and resonance. He is a big man with expressive and naturally comic features which he puts to splendid use. Despite his size, Maestri moves with grace and comic finesse. A seriously funny and fine performance.

The merry wives of Windsor, those chatty ladies who will outwit Falstaff with hilarious results are Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano), Alice Ford (Angela Meade), Mistress Quickly (Stephanie Blythe). They are not just vocally adept but are also physically perfect for the roles. Attractive, oversized, gossipy, funny. 

Lisette Oropesa and Paolo Fanala are the young lovers Nannette and Fenton who deliver some lovely singing and outwit the older generation.

Robert Carsen’s production shows imagination and brilliance in conception and execution. He sets the story of the fat knight and the merry wives in the 1950’s. The Garter Inn becomes a fancy hotel where we find Falstaff occupying a large bed with dozens of trolleys with plates and empty bottles on them strewn around. We have a glutton and a bon vivant enjoying life to the hilt. When Pistol( Christian van Horn) and Bardolf (Keith Jameson) refuse to deliver his letters to Meg and Alice, there is a bellboy who will do it. The only complaint I have about the set is that on the movie screen it did not always appear well-lit.

Falstaff’s suite is transformed into a hotel dining room of the era. After that, we find Mistress Quickly, Alice, Meg and Nannette in a huge and meticulously arranged kitchen. In the movie theatre, we are treated to a detailed view of what seem like countless kitchen gadgets and utensils.

The ladies are well-dressed or overdressed by Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel as middle-class or better women who like to laugh, giggle and plot. The atmosphere is bright and comic and Sir John’s shenanigans and Ford’s (Franco Vassallo) jealous rages complete the comic scene. Ford shows up with a detachment of cronies and searches up and down and throws everything in sight in the air and on the floor while searching for Falstaff. A well done, comic scene.

Falstaff ends up in a stable after floating up from the waters of the Thames. There is a horse munching hay while Falstaff comes to on a pile of the same stuff. The stable is transformed into the park where Falstaff is humiliated, the lovers united and the fools shown up.

Carsen has an integrated and fully-realized conception of the opera that works exceptionally well.  

Conductor James Levine has become almost a folk hero to New York audiences who greet his appearance with wild applause. He and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra deserve the ovation.
_____
 
Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD on December 14, 2013 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Thursday, December 19, 2013

THE GOD OF CARNAGE FROM STUDIO 180 - REVIEW


Reviewed by James Karas

Studio 180 gave a creditable production of Yasmina Reza’s fascinating play, The God of Carnage at the Panasonic Theatre. The production and the performances, while good, failed to ignite the script.

Reza has the ability to develop a discussion and a full-blown plot from what appears to be meagre material. In her best-known play ‘Art’ the plot was based on the discussions and arguments among three friends over the purchase of a painting by one of them.

In The God of Carnage an 11-year old boy strikes another boy with a stick after an argument in the park. The second boy ends up with a swollen lip and two broken teeth. The parents of the boys, polite, civilized, decent people, meet to discuss the incident.

The parents of the attacking boy are Alan (John Bourgeois), a lawyer, and his wife Annette (Sarah Orenstein), who manages her husband’s wealth. The parents of the victim are Michael (Tony Nappo), a businessman, and Veronica (Linda Kash), a writer with a special interest in Africa who is writing a book about Darfur.

The discussion moves from politesse to pettiness, from civility to childishness with numerous dashes to the sidelines involving Alan on his cell phone to deal with his legal work and Michael to deal with his ill mother.

At one point Veronica lets out a spray of violent vomit and that may well be the climax of the play or the total deterioration of the discussion.

The incident between the children becomes a catalyst for revealing the characters and the relations of the two couples. Bourgeois is good as the self-absorbed lawyer who is dealing with a pharmaceutical company that appears to operate on less than ethical standards. He gives the image that some people have of lawyers as manipulators and perhaps dishonest tricksters. Nappo’s Michael is a bit of a Neanderthal underneath and Kash as his wife hides more hypocrisy than fervour. Orenstein as Annette is classy and high-toned until she gets a couple of drinks.

Joel Greenberg directs but is not able to get all the laughs or create a satisfactory atmosphere for the play.

A long time ago, a client walked into my office with an “invitation” to show up in criminal court in a few days. He was very gentlemanly and told me the story about his son getting into a fight with another boy.

He felt that this was clearly wrong and he took it upon himself to call the other boy’s parents in order to discuss the incident. That is what civilized people do, right? He wanted to set an example to his son about good behavior.

He went to the boy’s parents to have a civilized discussion but he encountered serious disagreement about the facts of the fight. The civilized discussion became an argument, the argument became quite heated and ….

“What happened then?” I asked him.

“I punched him out” replied my gentle client. “Now I have to go to court for trying to be civilized.”

That is another way of treating an incident like the one Reza took up for her play. 

____

The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza ran from November 23 to December 15, 2013 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, M4Y 1Z9.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

MACBETH – SHAKESPEARE IN SHANGHAI - REVIEW



Reviewed by James Karas

Near the end of Macbeth, Malcolm orders every soldier to cut down a branch and carry it in front of him in order to fool Macbeth as to how many forces are lined up against him. Director Paul Stebbings seems to have used the same trick in the casting of his production of Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre in Shanghai. The forty characters of the cursed Scottish play are presented by six actors!

True a good number of minor parts are eliminated but the rest are done by the six actors with some of the quickest costume and role changes this side of the Yangtze River.

Stebbings is the founder and Artistic Director of TNT Theatre, a troupe that travels far and wide including Beijing and Shanghai. Its reach seems boundless with productions like King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and other plays. Its grasp my not be as successful if this production of Macbeth is any indication.

Stebbings has some original and even inspired ideas about the play. He makes the Witches a focal point of the play and he expands their role through music, dance and unexpected appearances. When Macbeth speaks his famous “Is this a dagger that I see before me” soliloquy, we see a Witch kneeling on the stage holding a dagger. This is brilliant.

The Porter scene is always held up as being very funny but how many times have you laughed while watching a production of the play? Stebbings will have you roar with laughter. The Porter (Garry Jenkins) is young and athletic, and he has a wench. The two are provided with music and they dance, do some acrobatics, fool around and provide a marvelous and unexpected scene. When the Porter says that alcohol increases the desire for sex but reduces the ability to perform, his wench sticks her arm between his legs pointing upward and then downward. Well done.

Unfortunately there is also a minus side to the ledger and here there are some serious deficits. The only “set” is three panels hanging in front of the black curtain at the back. The lighting consists of some string spotlights from the back of the theatre and the only thing that they can do is be made bright or dimmer. At times, the actors look as if they are acting in front of the headlights of an approaching car.

The combination of set, lighting and ramshackle costumes gave the feel of a production in a high school auditorium. That “feel” detracted even from the acting which was at least competent if never much more than good.

Martin Christopher as Macbeth and Louise Lee as Lady Macbeth only touched the surface of the murderously ambitious couple. Rebecca Naylor seemed uncomfortable as Malcolm and was better as Lady Macduff. Michael Wagg was a somewhat wooden Banquo whereas Dan Wilder invested Macduff with drama and humanity.

With only six actors, you can’t have a decent dinner party let alone a banquet scene. Unfortunately, the play does have a banquet scene and Stebbings takes a stab at doing it without guests. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth talk to an empty stage (they don’t even have chairs and a table) and as one may suspect, the scene does not quite work.

At the end of the banquet scene, Macbeth goes down into the audience and sits on an empty aisle seat. Whatever the intended effect, the result was laughter from the audience.

Macbeth is supposed to bear a curse and productions are plagued with accidents. This production did nothing to allay that superstition.

There were large screens on each side of the stage in order to provide a translation of the text for the largely Chinese audience. As Macduff was announcing the murder of the king, the screens froze. The audience started shuffling uncomfortably because they could not follow the action. The Windows logo appeared on the screens and desperate clicks of the mouse followed. The hapless technician found the text and he had to scroll from the beginning up to what was happening on stage.     

Macbeth may not have been fooled about the number of soldiers he was facing but he did believe that the forest was moving. In any event, he was killed by Macduff and not by the superior number of his enemies. We were not fooled by the number of actors that Stebbings has and would have preferred more with better sets, costumes and lighting and to hell with superstitions.
_____

Macbeth by William Shakespeare played from November 21 to December 8, 2013 at the Lyceum Theatre, 55 Mao Ming Road, Shanghai, China


Sunday, December 8, 2013

BETRAYAL – PINTER PLAY IN SHANGHAI - REVIEW


Reviewed by James Karas

A production of a play by Harold Pinter may be the last thing you would expect to see in Shanghai but that is precisely what I found in China’s largest city. Better still, director Philip Knight is a good ol’ Canadian boy from Stratford, Ontario and a graduate from the George Brown College Theatre School to boot.

Betrayal is Pinter’s partly autobiographical play and it is an interesting rumination on the subject of its title. It opens with the end of an adulterous relationship and moves chronologically backwards to the night of the seduction and the beginning of the treachery.

Jerry (Arran Hawkins) and Robert (John Prakapas) are best friends and business associates. Jerry is an authors’ agent and Robert is a publisher. They are such close friends that Jerry was Best Man at Robert’s wedding to Emma (Natasha Portwood). Soon after the wedding, Jerry and Emma begin a complicated adulterous relationship presumably without arousing any suspicion in Robert.

The plot unfolds in understated scenes where civility is largely maintained as grotesque treachery is committed and the façade of proper behavior is maintained.     

Hawkins gives a fine performance as the betrayer. In the opening scene he learns that his friend has known about the adulterous relationship for years but has said nothing. He appears nervous and shocked but he betrays relatively little emotional turmoil. Hawkins bears some resemblance to the young Pinter and gives a sustained performance as a treacherous friend and a loving adulterer while it lasted.

Portwood is very good as Emma, the cool-headed adulteress who tells her husband of the affair but does not reveal the disclosure to her lover for a couple of years. Portwood shows Emma’s greater emotional depth and lesser scheming powers, if you discount her concealment from Jerry.

Prakapas as Robert the cuckolded husband is the weak link in the triangle. He appears too young and inexperienced as an intellectual, a publisher and an adulterer in his own right. Prakapas has an American accent (he is supposed to be an Oxbridge Englishman) and was not as convincing in the role as I would have preferred.

Knight directs with sensitivity and attention to detail. Aside from the inevitable Pinteresque pauses (happily not overdone), he pays attention to body language, right down to minute hand movements as the lovers’ relationship unfolds and deteriorates.

The set is a bare platform with a couple of chairs and a coffee table. The theatre itself is a large storage room or perhaps showroom that holds fewer than one hundred people on plastic folding chairs.

This may be theatre in the rough but it was a delightful find and a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre.          
_____


Betrayal by Harold Pinter played from November 14 to December 1, 2013 at Strictly Designers United, 55 Fuxing Dong Lu, Shanghai, China 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

VERE (FAITH) IN SYDNEY - REVIEW


The cast of Vere (Faith). © Matt Nettheim
Reviewed by James Karas

Vere (Faith) is a brilliant, if flawed, play by Australian playwright John Doyle that is now playing at the Drama Theatre in the Sydney Opera House. The play examines the terrible subject of dementia and its effect on the life of a brilliant physicist at the peak of his career.

It is the end of term and Professor Vere (brilliantly played by Paul Blackwell) bids farewell to his students and tells them that he is going to Switzerland to participate in a conference on the Higgs boson or particle. His participation in the research leading to the discovery of the particle is a monumental achievement and Vere is rightly excited about attending the conference.



The professor is then told that he is suffering from dementia “with all the bells and whistles.” It means that his mind will quickly degenerate.

The rest of the first act takes place in a staff room where the professor has drinks with some colleagues. They are a colourful, foulmouthed and often funny bunch. Some of their jokes or cracks are so esoteric that only other physicists could get them. “There is a sign in Munich that says that Heisenberg may have slept here” is one example and I almost got the joke thanks to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

Vere’s mind begins to deteriorate as he briefly hallucinates about seeing his long-dead wife but relatively little time is spent on his pending dementia.

The second act takes place in Vere’s son’s apartment and the cast from  the first act become his family and would-be in-laws. The horny Vice Chancellor (Geoff Morrell) of the first act becomes a fundamentalist pastor. Physicist Kate (Rebecca Massey) of the first act becomes the loopy wife of the pastor and Simon (Yalin Ozucelik) another professor, becomes Vere’s son in the second act.

In the second act, Vere’s dementia has almost destroyed his brain except for moments of lucidity. He defecates on the floor and his family frantically tries to clean up the mess before the pastor with his wife and daughter (Matilda Bailey) arrive for dinner. We are treated to some low and obvious humour.

The fundamentalist pastor wants to save Vere’s soul from going to hell and maintains his belief in the creation of the world as described in Genesis. Truth is revealed by God and not discovered by human reason and imagination, according to the pastor. The juxtaposing arguments are brilliant and at the same time entertaining.

The play’s title and theme are related to the life of Vere Gordon Childe, an Australian archeologist who died in 1957. Childe apparently put an end to his life because he felt he was losing his faculties. The play is not clear about this but that act and the author’s father’s dementia were the impetus for writing the play.

Some of the dialogue and the structure of the play are reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s work, especially Arcadia which has the same structure. As is said, much of Doyle’s humour in the first act simply went over my head and I suspect it did the same for most people in the audience. By contrast, in the second act, there was a tendency towards farce at the beginning but otherwise the humour and the pathos were real and affecting.

Paul Blackwell gives a terrific performance as the decent, brilliant and ultimately pathetic victim of an illness that he can do nothing about. He knows what will happen and the horrors of it are indescribable.

Morrell is superb as the Vice Chancellor and Pastor as is Rebecca Massey. Matthew Gregan plays an awkward, stammering, boorish academic in the first act and a callow, religious youth in the second act.

The sets by Pip Runciman are Early Ikea. The staff room and Vere’s house are decorated with cheap furniture and doors that look as if they were stolen from a construction site.

Director Sarah Goodes does an outstanding job in bringing out the humour and pathos of the play. The final scene is not surprising even after a cursory look at the programme notes but I was hoping for something more visually stunning that simply did not materialize.

Despite some flaws, it was still a thought-provoking and moving night at the theatre.

_____

Vere (Faith)  by John Doyle continues until December 7, 2013 at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia. http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/


Thursday, November 28, 2013

THE MIKADO IN CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - REVIEW


Reviewed by James Karas
  
Christchurch, New Zealand is a devastated city under construction but judging by the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Court Theatre, it has lost none of its spirit or its sense of humour. The production’s whole is much greater than its parts and the end result is an energetic, funny and delightful evening out.

The Mikado is a perfect vehicle for satire and I doubt that there is any production that does not take liberties with Gilbert’s libretto to poke fun at just about everyone and everything in the city or country where it is produced. Director Ross Gumbley has taken full advantage of that license and takes shots at politicians, entertainers, radio and television announcers, construction work in Christchurch, even Michael Jackson’s hapless doctor. Some of the humour was lost on me being someone who had spent a mere week in the country but most of it came through and was funny. You don’t have to be from Christchurch to complain about all the roads being under construction at the same time – just drive around Toronto.

The production is done with one hand tied behind its back. A small orchestra is a minimum requirement for any production of the operetta. What does the Court Theatre have? A band! It consists of a piano, a xylophone and some drums but the players manage to produce some amazing music. The solos, duets, patter songs and ensemble pieces take over and the amalgam of sound is quite delightful. The task of orchestrating Sullivan’s music to fit the band of the Court Theatre was performed by Musical Director Luke Di Somma.

The quality of singing has its lacunae but again the overall effect is quite enjoyable. The star, even if he does not get most of the singing, is Matt McFarlane as Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado disguised as a ukulele player. He is handsome and wholesome and we want him to get the yummy Yum-Yum (Rachel Adams). Neither of them has stellar vocal talents but we are rooting for them. McFarlane has a pleasant midrange but does not venture much beyond. Adams tends to leap to her upper register and at times becomes somewhat shrill in that area.

The Mikado needs comic talent more than vocal prowess and here we are in luck. Danny Avery is the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko who will take an online course to learn his job. Avery is a fast-moving comic who does an excellent job. Roy Snow as Pooh-Bah, the High Lord of Everything Else is very funny and has a resonant voice. He holds enough positions to make up a cabinet but his chief talent is being corrupt.  Snow engages the audience directly to good effect and laughter.

Juliet Reynolds-Midgley plays Katisha, the Mikado’s daughter-in-law-elect. She is the virago who wants to marry the handsome prince and we have to find a way of disposing of her. Aha, let her marry the Lord High Executioner and keep the laughter going.

The role of the Mikado is played by a woman, Lynda Milligan. She is encased in a Union Jack and you can and should see Queen Victoria in her rather than a Japanese monarch. Milligan plays the Mikado as an overdone and comic character, full of bluster. Well done.

The Male and Female Ensembles who seem to be made up of many amateurs do an exceptional job. They sing, they dance, they cavort, and they are wonderful. The imaginative choreography was done by Stephen Robertson.

The set and costume designs were also by Robertson. The set consisted of round platforms with a raised walkway at the rear and a small bridge on the right. There was even a joke about the money being spent on costumes instead of musicians. The costumes were good.

Ross Gumbley gets the laurel wreath for his imaginative re-working of parts of the libretto, his energetic directing and the highly entertaining production.
__________

The Mikado  by W. S. Gilbert (libretto) and Arthur Sullivan (music) opened on November 23, 2013 and will run until January 14, 2014 at The Court Theatre, Christchurch, New Zealand.  
http://www.courttheatre.org.nz/shows/the-mikado

Saturday, November 9, 2013

HAMLET FROM BELVOIR ST. THEATRE - REVIEW



Reviewed by James Karas

In what play do you get the following: a countertenor who walks across the stage singing; a pianist who plays on a grand piano accompanying the countertenor and much of the dialogue; three ghosts and three people who die standing up: a puppet show?

If you stuck your hand up and yelled Hamlet you win a pair of tickets to the Belvoir St. Theatre production of that play in Sydney, Australia. “Production” may strike some people as somewhat of a misnomer and calling it an unrestrained ego trip for director Simon Stone may be closer to the mark.

The production does bear some relationship to Shakespeare’s play but it only serves as the basis for Stone to select scenes and characters that are suitable for his Hamlet. Anyone wishing to see a more familiar version of the play should give Belvoir Street a wide berth.

The lights go on a stage that is all black with black chairs lined up on the sides. We see a grand piano and a countertenor (Maximilian Riebl) walks on the stage singing Purcell’s O Solitude accompanied by pianist Luke Byrne.

We then see a man seated on a chair against the wall with a woman lying on a couple of chairs, her head on his lap. He saysThrift, thrift, Ophelia! The funeral baked meats
did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Those lines are spoken to Horatio in Shakespeare’s play and they are not the opening dialogue. They are in Stone’s version.


That sets the stage for this extraordinary emasculation of Shakespeare to suit the whim or vision of Stone. Hamlet has some 34 characters but Stone produces his version with eight actors who do some dubious doubling up and the two musicians.

Hamlet is played by Toby Schmitz as an intense young man who is mad from beginning to end. Stone has Schmitz perform with high emotional intensity and mental turmoil but within a very limited range. Shakespeare’s Hamlet goes through a number of emotional stages from contemplation to rage to despair to the final peace of death when all is silence. There is very little modulation in the Stone/Schmitz Hamlet.

That is unfortunate because Schmitz seems more than capable of presenting a much wider emotional range and a more complex Hamlet. He has a full-throated, rich voice that can handle much more than Stone’s version of the complex prince. He is on stage almost throughout the performance making only occasional brief exits.

John Gaden’s Claudius is a reserved patrician who rarely loses his cool. His evil is well-hidden but he seems to have had enough polish to seduce his brother’s wife and plan the murder and usurpation of the throne.

Robyn Nevin’s Gertrude, with her mop of blonde hair, lacks the sexual magnetism that would draw Claudius to her and to fratricide and the two seemed fairly business-like.

Emily Barclay played what was left of Ophelia quite well and she did get some latitude in her Mad Scene to show that she can act.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Shakespeare’s two fools, were rolled into one but not given a name. Nathan Lovejoy played the unnamed character with a straight face mostly as a foil for Hamlet and as messenger for the King.

Hamlet’s Ghost (Anthony Phelan) appears at the beginning of the play and in the Bedroom Scene in Shakespeare’s play. In this production he was on stage much of the time. He is a flesh and blood Ghost and is given some of the Gravedigger’s lines near the end. There is no indication that he is supposed to be the Gravedigger. He is the Ghost that introduces Yorick’s skull.

Hamlet shoots Polonius who ends up in a pool of blood. He gets up (Ghost No. 2) and the Rosencrantz/Guildenstern stand-in comes on with blood all over. Ophelia returns as Ghost No. 3 after she drowns. The King, Ophelia and Laertes , all have blood all over as the end approaches.

How do you handle the fencing scene at the end where Laertes, the King, the Queen and finally Hamlet die? No weapons are used and no movement. All ten actors stand on stage and recite their lines. The Queen, Laertes and the King die in turn, standing on their feet. Hamlet’s turn comes and he goes into spasmodic fits, screeching as he approaches the end. The spasms and the screeching stop abruptly and he says “the rest is silence.”

Thank, God.
______

Hamlet by William Shakespeare  continues until December 1, 2013 at the Belvoir St.Theatre, 25 Belvoir St. Surrey Hills, Sydney, Australia. www.belvoir.com.au/

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

THE FLOATING WORLD FROM GRIFFIN THEATRE – DAZZLING PERFORMANCES IN SYDNEY


Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World
 
Reviewed by James Karas

The Floating World is a play by Australian playwright John Romeril and is now playing at the 105-seat SBW Stables Theatre in Sydney. Among other things, the play provides a dazzling, bravura performance by Peter Kowitz as the main character, Les Harding.

Harding and his wife Irene (Valerie Bader) are on the Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise bound for Japan. He spent part of World War II in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and the cruise is a trip to the horrible past far more than a fun-filled holiday of a lifetime. Harding faces his tortured past as he goes through sea-sickness, drunkenness, rage, fits of jealousy and finally into madness. Each phase of the trip, especially the mad scene, requires Kowitz to perform at extreme emotional levels and maintain the same pitch for extraordinary lengths. A performance to marvel at by Kowitz.

The play moves forward as the cruise progresses towards Japan and returns to its port of departure and back into the past as remembered, imagined and relived by Harding.

The cruise has a Comic (Justin Smith) who is supposed to entertain the passengers. The passengers are supposed to have fun and that part of the play is a caricature of cruises so well done that it is enough to turn you off even the idea of getting on board such a ship forever. Smith is very good as the overenthusiastic entertainer who is so awful that he does not manage to get a single laugh.

Herbert Robinson (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a retired officer from the Royal Navy. He is a refined gentleman who spent the war in the Mediterranean and can know nothing about conditions in a prisoner-of-war camp. Llewellyn-Jones gives a fine performance as the refined Robinson who acts as a perfect foil for Harding.

The play moves quickly and seamlessly between past and present as the almost always drunk Harding loses his grip on reality. He starts imagining members of the crew as being people from his past. He recalls conditions in the camp and slowly goes mad.

The other strand of the plot is his unhappy relationship with his wife who tries to control his drinking and his misbehavior. Bader presents the classic image of the long-suffering spouse who tries to connect with other people on the ship.

Some of the characters speak at breakneck speeds and perhaps because of the speed, the accents or the many unfamiliar references, the play was not always easy to follow. The author provides three pages of glossary in the printed version of the script to help the audience but it was of marginal assistance.

The play is performed on a raised platform in the small theatre. There are very few props but there is extensive use of lighting changes including use of strobe lights to create the impression of the emotional and mental turmoil that Harding is experiencing.

Sam Strong directs this outstanding production of an amazing play. I wish I could have followed the machine-gun delivery of dialogue peppered with unfamiliar references. But nothing can take away from Kowitz’s bravura performance. 
_____

The Floating World  by John Romeril continues until November 16, 2013 at SBW Stables  Theatre, 10 Nimrod St. King’s Cross, Sydney, Australia. www.griffintheatre.com.au/

 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

ROMEO AND JULIET BETWEEN PARODY AND TRAVESTY IN SYDNEY - REVIEW

Eryn Jean Norvill and Anna Lise Phillips in Sydney Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet © Lisa Tomasetti 2013

Reviewed by James Karas

Director Kip Williams wanted to produce a bold, youthful, innovative and startling staging of Romeo and Juliet for the Sydney Theatre Company. The result is a production that goes from parody to travesty of Shakespeare and provides a largely dreadful night at the theatre.

The first problem that Williams faces is Shakespeare. He simply did not write the play that Williams wants to produce. The solution: omit scenes and characters from the play and change the entire thrust of the tragedy so that it will fit Williams’s vision.

He takes out the first scene of Romeo and Juliet that shows the brawl between the servants of the Capulet and Montague households because he does not want the play to be about the feuding families. Of the more than twenty characters that Shakespeare wrote, Williams needs only ten to give us his interpretation.

This is a modern dress production where the characters drink to excess, smoke (cigarettes or whatever is at hand) or are simply on uppers. Hyperactivity is de rigueur.

In Shakespeare’s play, Capulet sends an illiterate servant to invite townspeople to a ball. In Williams’s version, Capulet (powerfully acted by Colin Moody) is probably a Mafia don and, the director having disposed of all the servants, he (Capulet) sends Paris (Alexander England) a nobleman and prospective husband of Juliet to do the menial chore. Really?

Incongruities are inevitable in a modern production (knives replace swords, for example) but in this production they go beyond the acceptable.

Williams wants the production to be fast-moving, modern, hip and provocative. Benvolio (Akos Armont) usually has a bottle in his hand or is pushing a shopping cart full of booze. Mercutio (Eamon Farren) boogies with a cigarette in his mouth and is quite out of it. He is so hyperactive during the Queen Mab speech, you hardly hear anything. The Nurse (Julie Forsyth) is also frequently drunk and is allowed to overact as if she were parodying herself.

Lady Capulet (Anna Lise Phillips) looks like an oversized caricature of a Barbie Doll and Tybalt (Josh McConville) looks like a Mafia enforcer.

Eryn Jean Norvill is an impressive and enjoyable Juliet. She is young, pretty, has a sense of humour and impeccable timing. She could make a marvelous Juliet in the hands of a less intrusive director. Dylan Young as Romeo is not as successful. Williams wants him to be a modern and very hip young man who has no passion or poetry left in him.

The sets by designer David Fleischer are another source of head-scratching. The interior scenes take place in a barren stately room. The stage revolves frequently to show us the black back of that room. In the latter half of the play we have a black bare stage with some props as necessary.

In Shakespeare’s play, we have the famous balcony scene with the outpouring of the most beautiful love poetry.  In Williams’s version, Juliet lives on the main floor with a window and doors opening from her bedroom to the street. Williams turns the balcony scene into a very funny piece and gets quite a few laughs out of it.

When Juliet makes an assignation to meet Romeo at Friar Laurence’s (a muscular Mitchell Butel who displayed his chest) she needs a ruse. Williams adds a scene where Juliet sneaks out of the house dressed like her Nurse.

From the Barbie Doll Lady Capulet to the overacting drunk Nurse, to the binging and hyperactive characters to the funny balcony scene, the production could be done on Saturday Night Live to good effect.

Every director has the right to put his stamp on his production and they all do. The bolder the attempt the greater the chance of success and grimmer the risk of failure. This production, like the hapless suitors of Portia in The Merchant of Venice went for gold and silver and came out almost empty-handed.
____

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare played at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia from September 21 to November 2, 2013. http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/

 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

FALSTAFF FROM OPERA HAMILTON - REVIEW


Reviewed by James Karas
 
Opera Hamilton tackled a big one for its fall production: Verdi’s comic masterpiece and last opera Falstaff. The rich music and orchestration test the mettle of the best orchestras; there are some fine vocal passages but no show-stopper arias; the action takes place in five different locales that require five different sets including a set for Windsor Park.

How much of that load can a small regional company carry? In the case of Opera Hamilton, the answer is quite a lot. No doubt there were some obvious places where the production showed the strain of lack of funds and some issues with directorial choices. But in the end the production was quite enjoyable.

The thirty-piece Opera Hamilton Orchestra under David Speers was quite effective in tackling the score. The Opera Hamilton Chorus was not taxed by the score but it did its job well.

The singing was uneven but there were some highlights. Canadian baritone John Fanning played the fat knight of the title to excellent comic effect and vocal splendour. He has a fine, mellifluous voice that rolled out effortlessly and a fine command of the comic business of the lecherous and cowardly Falstaff.    

His lechery has two targets in the lovely-voiced Mistress Meg Page (Ariana Chris) and the lively Alice Ford (Lynn Fortin). The name Mistress Quickly conjures marvelous images but in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor on which the opera is mostly based and in Falstaff this is a misnomer. She is another middleclass woman rather than a lady of easy virtue for pecuniary emolument as she appears in Henry IV. The three ladies sang well as they ran around comically conjuring tricks to humiliate Falstaff.

The best singing was produced by soprano Sasha Djihanian as Nannette Ford, the sweet and pretty girl who is in love. Djihanian has a sweet and pretty voice reflecting the role she is playing and she gave us some beautiful singing. Her lover Fenton (tenor Theo Lebow) was not quite as effective vocally and appeared more oafish than ardent. But when he sang “Dal labbro il canto estasia” and the two sang “Labbra di foco!” we heard some beautiful sounds.

Bass-baritone Jon-Paul Décosse and lyric tenor Jeremy Blossey were used for broad conic relief as the lowly servants Pistola and Bardolfo. 

Canadian baritone James Westman played the jealous, scheming, stupid Ford who wants to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and marry his daughter to an older man. Westman is funny and fuming and delivers his Jealousy Aria “E sogno? O realta” with fervour.   

Director Allison Grant takes a conservative and sensible approach to the opera. She eschews cheap gimmicks in order to get laughs. (for a funny opera, it has very few belly laughs). The humour does develop naturally and there is no reason for gimmicks for the sake of laughs.

Grant chooses to underplay the final scene to the point where it becomes almost static. There may be good reason for that but there is also a missed opportunity to generate energy and humour before the curtain falls. This is the scene where Falstaff is humiliated by the townspeople disguised as elves and spirits. Thrashing an old rascal may not be very funny and Grant did not find the happy medium between cruelty and humour and settled for a rather sedate approach.

The set designed by Troy Housie consists of a series of panels hanging from the ceiling and a few essential props on the stage. The panels are manipulated to indicate locale changes but don’t look for Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. All is left to the imagination.

The costumes were traditional Elizabethan and they were rented from Malabar.   

Falstaff is not any easy opera to produce successfully. With its lack of traditional arias, its fast movement and rich music, it is anything but an easy comic piece to sit back and enjoy. This production started slowly in the steely Dofasco Centre but picked up speed and energy in the more broadly comic scenes. When Falstaff got his first comeuppance and was dumped in the Thames there was genuine laughter.
_____

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 19 and was performed four times until October 26, 2013 at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts, Hamilton, Ontario.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

LA BOHÈME FROM CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY - REVIEW

(l-r) Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo, Grazia Doronzio as Mimì, Joyce El-Khoury as Musetta and Joshua Hopkins as Marcello. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company provides a traditional production (that is a compliment) of Puccini’s La Bohème at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Its strengths are a well sung Mimi (Grazia Doronzio) and Marcello (Joshua Hopkins), fine directing by John Caird. The set design is very good except for the first act and the orchestral playing is sound. I doubt that there were too many tears streaming down the cheeks of the audience but most people rightly enjoyed a viewing of the old weepie.
Italian soprano Doronzio appeared small and frail, just as one would imagine Mimi to be. Her voice emanated from her like a flower captured in time-lapse photography. She would start slowly and tentatively as in “Mi chiamano Mimì” and then her voice would blossom and become evocative, full of emotion and a delight to hear
 
 
My full review of this production may be read here:
 

_____
 
La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica opened on October 3 and will be performed twelve times on various dates until October 30, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Saturday, October 12, 2013

PETER GRIMES FROM CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY WITH BEN HEPPNER - REVIEW



Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has judiciously chosen a real chestnut (La Bohéme) and a more complex if less popular work, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, for its fall season. The latter is given a well-sung and directed production despite some faux pas in the set design and the characterization of Peter Grimes by tenor Ben Heppner.

Peter Grimes is an orchestral masterpiece that requires superb choral singing and has a richly-textures and complex plot. The title role requires a strong tenor voice and a singer with acting ability. Heppner usually has no problem in either category but in this performance, he fell short in his characterization of the hapless man.

My full review of this production may be read here:
 
http://www.bachtrack.com/review-canadian-opera-company-peter-grimes-2013
___

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten with libretto by Montagu Slater opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times on various dates until October 26, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca
 

Monday, October 7, 2013

EUGENE ONEGIN LIVE IN HD REVIEW


 Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien as the title character of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. Taken on September 16, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera launched its eighth season of Live in HD broadcasts around the world with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This is a new production by Deborah Warner and it has, as they say, an all-star cast. You can hardly expect anything less for the opening production of the new season at the Met.

It is a well-sung staging with some extraordinarily drab sets. It struck me as more Chekhov and Gorky than Pushkin and Shilovsky in its insistence on an almost dingy and depressing country house background where these well-dressed people with very little to do apparently are headed towards inevitable tragedy.

Top kudos goes to soprano Anna Netrebko as Tatiana, the romantic teenager who falls in love with the cad Onegin. Netrebko’s Tatiana is beautiful, a touch on the plump side perhaps, but still agile physically and simply marvelous vocally. She displays all her talents in the Letter Scene alone where she goes though the gamut of emotions from distress, to uncertainty to delicious happiness and finally collapses on the floor very dramatically. This Tatiana may be an irredeemably romantic girl but she also shows strength and we simply fall in love with her.

Eugene Onegin is the handsome, brooding loner who does not want to commit himself to love and marriage. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has a supple baritone voice, a handsome face and a reasonable facsimile of the manners of a cad (not entirely convincing). He is easily bored and takes revenge on his friend Lenski for inviting him to a boring party by flirting with his (Lenski’s) fiancée Olga (Oksana Volkova).

Tenor Piotr Beczala sings the tragic poet Lenski and he gets some of the best arias in the opera. He gets a gorgeous love aria in Act I and sings his masterful Farewell to life in Act II when he is about to duel with his friend Onegin. Beczala breezes though his arias with splendid control and effectiveness. Lenski is sometimes presented as a portly and bespectacled poet. Beczala is handsome and debonair but in this production they put a pair of glasses on his nose to fit his character better. A splendid performance.

This production was staged originally by Deborah Warner for the English National Opera. She was not available to direct the Met’s production and Fiona Shaw was brought in to do the job at the Met. It is a well-thought out and directed production with numerous intelligent touches but, as I will complain about later, some awful sets.

When the Russian peasants sing their zesty chorus in the first scene, we are treated to a ballet sequence. When Onegin appears at the ball in Prince Gremin’s house in St. Petersburg, brooding, bored, dejected, Warner takes us a step further. Onegin is snubbed by the guests as he tries to make some contact with them. It is a marvelous scene of the cad getting his comeuppance. This is probably more effective in the movie theatre where we get close-ups of the guests at the ball turning away from Onegin.

What are Warner and Set Designer Tom Pye trying to convey with the set designs? The scenes at the Larin Estate in the country take place in a non-descript large room. It must be somewhere at the back of the house, I suppose, because the peasants enter through there and there are vegetables, flowerpots and various chairs and tables. The windows are dirty and the atmosphere is, as I said, drab.

The Letter Scene takes place in the same room instead of Tatiana’s bedroom.

The ball at the Larin Estate is equally depressing. The ballroom is large with a bad paint job, nothing on the walls and a chandelier not suitable to light up a chicken coop. Is this another Chekhovian image of a civilization nearing its end?  

We expect to see beauty and opulence at Prince Gremin’s house but we are disappointed again. The Prince’s idea of decoration consists of rows of Greco-Roman columns that look imposing without being impressive and massive without being beautiful. The Prince has money but no taste.

Valery Gergiev conducted the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.  

____

Eugene Onegin by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (libretto by the composer and K. S. Shilovsky after Pushkin) was shown Live in HD on October 5, 2013 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada. Encores on November 16 and 18, 2013. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Sunday, September 22, 2013

WASTED YOUTH AT TIFF - REVIEW OF FILM THAT PRESENTS BLEAK VIEW OF GREECE


 Harris Markou skateboarding in empty pool
Reviewed by James Karas

Wasted Youth is a 2011 film directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos (from Greece) and Jan Vogel (from Ecuador). It had its Toronto premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in  September 2013.
The title is slightly misleading. Papadimitropoulos and Vogel don not so much present a portrait of wasted youth as a depiction of wasted society. The film has two plots. One involves Harry (Harris Markou), a 16-year old skateboarder who is involved in some irresponsible, youthful hijinks and some pretty idiotic and despicable behavior with his friends.

The other plot involves Vasilis (Ieronymos Kaletsanos), who is trapped in a life of quiet desperation. In his first appearance in the film, he attempts sexual intercourse with his wife and fails to achieve anything.  A friend tries to convince him to go into business but he refuses. Life at home is a misery. He is a police officer who is getting night shifts because of the corruption of the officer who assigns the day shifts to someone from his hometown.
Kaletsanos maintains a look of almost clinical depression as he goes through his daily routine at home and at work. The two plot lines develop separately until near the end of the film when Vasilis runs into Harry and his friends. 

 Ieronymos Kaletsanos

 Harry skateboards incessantly, refuses to find work, gets drunk, masturbates in public with his friends and posts obscene stickers on public property. He and his friends crash a wedding and get drunk. At best, this is a disturbing image of Greek youth.

The adults do not present a much better image. We see a group watching horse races in the middle of the day. Harry’s father seems unemployed and does not get along with his son. There is a middle-aged woman who is a friend of Harry’s who lives in a large house but even she seems to be suffering the same financial stress – her swimming pool has no water and there are no indicators of wealthy living. 

There is no ray of hope in the depiction of life in Greece. The most positive character is Harry’s attractive girlfriend who does not allow him to have sex with her or to grope her.

The script is by the co-directors and the inspiration was the shooting of a youth by the police in 2008 that set off a series of riots in Athens reminiscent of the aftermath of the Rodney King shooting in Los Angeles.
The two plot lines are told in a straightforward fashion but the directors have a predilection for camera angles and shots that did not make sense or enhance the story, I thought. As a depiction of the malaise of youth and the torpor of Greek society, the film is right on target.    

Thursday, September 19, 2013

TO THE WOLF AT TIFF REVIEW – KOUTSOSPYROY AND HUGHES DEBUT FILM



Reviewed by James Karas

To the Wolf is a cross between a documentary and a fictional story shot in the mountains of western Greece, around Nafpaktia.
The film is the brainchild and product of Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsospyrou who spent several months over two years in the mountainous village and filmed the locals as they went about their business. The people knew that they were  being filmed but there was no script and no plot. The directors want to give their impression of the lives of these peasants in an atmosphere as gloomy as Hades.     

In the few days that we spend with the families of two shepherds, Giorgos Katsaros and Adam Paxnis, and a few villagers, it rains incessantly and the only light we see is at dusk or in the bleakly lit interiors at night.  
From the mountainside where the villagers raise goats, sheep and cattle, we can see some spectacular vistas of mountains and gorges but Hughes and Koutsospyrou do not want to concentrate on that. This is not a National Geographic tour of the splendours of Western Greece.

The directors dwell on the faces of the peasants that are not so much old as mythical with skins that look as if they were  ploughed. Were it not for some light bulbs and primitive plumbing, the interiors of the houses would resemble Homeric dwellings with primitive fireplaces burning a few logs. The men sit by the fire for warmth and smoke cigarettes that they rolled themselves.
There are no young people to be seen anywhere. The village priest, looking unkempt and ancient, tells us that all the young people have escaped from the village and only the old are  left behind.

The film touches on the financial crisis as the villagers speak of harsh economic conditions and hunger. The film was  made before the economic crisis became critical and we can only assume that these people had a problem surviving even before that.
The film does develop a sort of plot with the fate of Giorgos who cannot cope with the situation and Adam who is the eternal survivor. A dramatic scene is  suggested and heard at the end of the movie but we are spared the gory details.

The movie is like a poem that depicts the dark sky, gloomy atmosphere and difficult life of people up in the mountains. Like a poem, the film gives us the impression of its makers and is not necessarily true in fact. The sun does rise, the sky does clear and the people of those villages laugh and enjoy life at least some of the time. Hughes’s and Koutsospyrou’s depiction of them is not intended to be a documentary representation but in the end, it is an incomplete image. If it were a painting depicting a bleak landscape with animals and ancient people leading miserable lives, it would be a convincing portrait.  As a 74-minute film, it is only an interesting and not necessarily convincing snapshot of a moment in time in the life of these peole.