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.
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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. 

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