Thursday, January 30, 2014


 The Company in London Road. Photo by David Hou.

Reviewed by James Karas

Brutal crimes are a frequent source material for plays and films and what happened in the town of Ipswich, England, proved to be no exception. In 2006, five prostitutes were murdered and the life of the town, especially of London Road where the crimes were committed, was understandably affected.

There is plenty of Jack-the-Ripper type of material from bloody murders to arrest and trial but playwright Alecky Blythe chose a different route for the creation of the musical London Road now playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre. She conducted and recorded extensive interviews with the townspeople and constructed a script based on what they said. She used verbatim what more than fifty people said from the time of the murders to the end of the trial and conviction of the murderer. Composer Adam Cork added music to highlight some of the comments with no attempt at creating any traditional melodies.

Without the music and sometimes with the music, the play struck me as another form of reality TV or it bore frightful resemblance to, say, CNN reporting a bloody crime in Smalltown, U.S.A. The breathless reporters trying to capture the mood of the town, the frightened, shocked, bewildered citizens with almost formulaic reactions are all too familiar and hardly seem the stuff of a two-hour musical.

Canadian Stage believes that they are and it has assembled a first-rate cast under the direction of Jackie Maxwell for the North American premiere of the musical.

At the back of the stage we see the picture of an ordinary street. It has gray, depressing looking houses on each side and presents an atmosphere of bleakness. There is not a single car in view but the street looks quite wide. The press kept referring to the street as “the red light district” after the murders and the residents formed a neighbourhood watch committee to beautify their street. This is where the play opens.

We meet the townspeople played by Ben Carlson, Fiona Reid, Damien Atkins, Deborah Hay, George Masswohl and others. They will play the roles or repeat what the real people of Ipswich said to Blythe. They will sing some of the lines in a type of recitative that will not tax the vocal abilities of anyone.

The scene will change effortlessly from house to house, from street to courthouse as we hear what these people have to say about the victims, the murderer and the situation in town. Just because what we hear is authentic reactions by “real people” does not necessarily make it more interesting or interesting at all. The views, after a while, sound repetitive as does the music. Once you get past the “isn’t it interesting hearing what real people have to say” you realize that they don’t have all that much to say.

Verbatim or recorded theatre is much more interesting as a concept than as a reality in performance. Leave that type of reality to people who stay home in front of the television.   

In fairness, I should mention that London Road won the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award as the best musical of 2011. Go see it and let me know what you think.

London Road by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork opened on January 23 and will run until February 9, 2014 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


left to right: Amy Keating, Michelle Polak, Kyra Harper

Reviewed by James Karas

Pacamambo is a beautiful fairy tale about love and death (and that covers a lot of ground) told marvelously by Canadian Rep Theatre. Wajdi Mouawad’s play received its English language premiere at The Citadel theatre in Toronto, directed by Ken Gass.

Julie (Amy Keating) is a passionate young girl whose grandmother, Marie Marie (Kyra Harper) dies. Julie cannot accept her grandmother’s death and she takes the corpse to a storage room in the basement and stays there for 19 days. Her dog Growl (Michelle Polak) is with her and  the two endure the stench of the decomposing body. 

Marie Marie told Julie about a country called Pacamambo where “everyone is everyone else,” a magical place, indeed. The Moon (Polak) appears and tells the grandmother that she will die. But Julie cannot accept that and she holes herself in the basement waiting to confront Death and ask for an explanation.

The “normal” world, represented by a psychiatrist (Karen Robinson) wants to find out what Julie did with the corpse and why she engaged in such seemingly bizarre conduct. Julie knows exactly what she did, why she did it and the answers that she needs from Death as she searches for Pacamambo.

It is an enchanting story told delightfully by Gass. The main strength of the production is Keating. She is utterly convincing as a bright, angry, hopeful, spunky and expressive young girl. Simply a splendid performance.   Polak plays the Moon and Growl. This is a barking and talking dog that is quite agile and has a good sense of humour.

 (left to right) Kyra Harper, Karen Robinson, Michelle Polak, Amy Keating

Robinson’s Psychiatrist, described as one with dinosaur eyes by Julie, is humane in her attempts to find out what Julie did. Robinson appears as Death and attempts to explain to Julie death’s function in life. The play was originally written for a younger audience but its wisdom works well for all ages.

The Citadel theatre, its grandiose name notwithstanding, is a small venue on the second floor that holds about 75 people seated on each side of the playing area. It is very intimate. Marian Wihak’s set consists of a bright floor, a door, a couple of chairs and a bed. It is minimalist and perfectly suited to the play. This is a fairy tale and less is more.

Gass’s direction is outstanding. He grasps the fairy tale aspect of the play and delivers the story with affection and wit. It is serious without being heavy-handed and humorous without becoming at all farcical. Excellent balance.
The English language premiere of Pacamambo coincides with the birth of Canadian Rep Theatre. A perfectionist may want to use the term “re-birth” because Canadian Rep was around some thirty years ago but it has been comatose for so long that inception rather than resurrection may be more á propos.

However you describe it, Canadian Rep was and remains Ken Gass’s and it is here to promote Canadian theatre. Kudos to Gass who started back in 1970 what was then a completely novel idea at the Factory Lab Theatre. He was dismissed disgracefully by the board of directors of Factory back in 2012 and became a cause célèbre.

To his credit, he is back and Canadian Rep plans two more productions this year: Watch Glory Die by Judith Thompson and Dead Metaphor by George F. Walker.    


Pacamambo  by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Shelley Tepperman, continues until February 2, 2014 at The Citadel, 304 Parliament St. Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


 Nicole Underhay, Blair Williams and Maria del Mar. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 

Reviewed by James Karas

Flesh and Other Fragments of Love opens with a startling and memorable image: a couple on an isolated beach finds the dead body of a beautiful woman. The seagulls are flying over it and it is beginning to decompose. The play by Evelyne de la Chenelière based on the novel by Marie Cardinal is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.

Pierre (Blair Williams) and Simone (Maria del Mar) are a French couple and they have gone to a coastal village in Ireland for a special holiday. The reason for that will be hinted at throughout but will only be revealed at the end of the seventy-minute performance.

Mary (Nicole Underhay), the dead woman, died under mysterious circumstances and her fate is the talk of the village. She was a nurse, who had a love affair with a married man, had a child and lived in New York for some time.

Mary acts as catalyst for Simone and Pierre’s examination of their marital and emotional lives. Their marriage has had a substantial amount of turmoil, separations, reconciliations, infidelities and love. Pierre and Simone are in turn deeply attracted by Mary and they each attempt to reconstruct her life from information that they glean from the village gossip and even more so from their imagination.

Mary comes to life and joins the conversation. Her love affair with Billy, the married man, is examined and Pierre becomes Billy.

We cannot be sure that anything that is being said by or about Mary has anything to do with her life. All of that is probably a reflection of the life and emotions of Pierre and Simone. That is indeed part of the fascination of the play.

The play has a great deal of dialogue, of course, but there are many segments when the characters address the audience directly. During those segments and during many dialogue sequences, the play feels like a reading of the novel. Chenelière’s richly textured and lyrical prose carries the play but there were times when I thought I would get much more from a leisurely reading of the novel.

Nicole Underhay delivers a superb performance as Mary, a deeply troubled and much-suffering woman. She displays cynicism, emotional pain and depth as a woman who may be only the reflection of the couple who discovered her dead body on the beach.
Blair Williams and Maria del Mar tell their stories matter-of-factly at times and with considerable emotional pain and distress at other times. My sympathies were equally divided between the two.

The mystery at the heart of the play is revealed at the end, as I said, and it is worth the wait to gain an understanding of the mystifying events on the beach.

Richard Rose directs with sensitivity and understatement a story that is full of emotion and lyrical beauty.

Karyn McCallum’s stage set has a dark background with a small sandbar where we find Mary’s body. Well done and quite fitting with the atmosphere of the play. 

Flesh and Other Fragments of Love  by Evelyne de la Chenelière based on the novel by Marie Cardinal and translated by Linda Gaboriau opened on January 15 and will run until  February 16, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Jesse Aaron Dwyre and Naomi Wright. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

Reviewed by James Karas

“Beauty is skin deep” according to the aphorism but it is also the most sought-after quality and its attempted achievement the greatest boon to capitalism bar none. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg has taken the esthetic and capitalist aspects of beauty for a satirical trip in The Ugly One which is now playing at Tarragon Theatre Extra Space.

Lette (David Jansen) has invented a new type of electrical plug and he expects to go to a conference to show off his new gadget. Karlmann (Jesse Aaron Dwyre), his junior, tells him that he, Karlmann, is going to the conference and he is getting royal treatment.  When Lette demands the reason for being passed over, Scheffler (Hardee T. Lineham), the big boss, haltingly tells him that he is not going to the conference because he is simply too ugly. The point of going is to sell, sell, sell the new invention and ugly is not good for business.

The shocked Lette goes home to his wife Fanny (Naomi Wright) who confirms to his utter disbelief that he is indeed ugly. The only solution seems to be radical reconstructive surgery and Scheffler becomes a plastic surgeon and proceeds to redo Lette’s face into a handsome commodity.

In the short run, this will have the desirable effect but the plot will go through several twists and turns to its conclusion where we see Lette and Karlmann kissing passionately.

David Jansen in The Ugly One. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

The play moves very briskly from the opening scene to its end evoking considerable laughter. The small theatre has a large table in the middle with about half a dozen rows of seats on each side. Some of the seats are reserved for the actors and they use them when not on or around the table. You can hardly get more intimate theatre than that.

Jansen as Lette goes from the shocking discovery that he is ugly, through his transformation to enjoying the euphoria of beauty with fine acting skills. Dwyre is the young employee who is prepared to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. Lineham’s Scheffler is the gruff, practical man of business who wants to make money. Wright is attractive and does a fine job as the wife who saw the inner beauty of her husband but considers him ugly.

I should note that the characters are as much types and caricatures as they are realistic portraits. The actors play them as such and The Ugly One as a satire is not a realistic play but more of an over-sized illustration of an idea.

The set design by Camellia Koo fits the unrealistic presentation of the ideas that the play illustrates.

Credit goes to Director Ashlie Corcoran who opens at a brisk pace and maintains the momentum to the end.

The Ugly One lasts only an hour and is performed without intermission. The shallowness of beauty, the evil of greed and indeed all the human vices denounced in the Seven Deadly Sins have become trite simply by the relish with which most people embrace and practice them. Von Mayenburg tries to view the wisdom of the old aphorism from a different angle but in the end it still has the quality of déja vu. 

The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zadein a coproduction by Tarragon Theatre and Theatre Smash, opened on January 15 and will run until  February 26, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Keenan Viau  as Chi Fu, centre, with the Ladies of the Chinese Court in The Land of Smiles. ­Photo: Gary Beechey

Reviewed by James Karas

“You are my heart's delight, /And where you are, I long to be” Prince Sou-Chong sings to Countess Lisa in the most famous aria from Franz Lehar’s The Land of Smiles but if you expect the two lovers to live together happily ever after, you would be wrong. Lehar gave his 1929 romantic operetta a bittersweet ending. Be that as it may, you should long to be where the Toronto Operetta Theatre has produced this gem at the Jane Mallett Theatre.

TOT’s General Director, Guillermo Silva-Marin, delivers a lively production albeit within the limitations of his resources. He has a tiny orchestra awkwardly lined up in front of the stage, very few props to make a set and a limited budget for just about everything. That does not seem to deter him or the company and they forge ahead producing operetta in Toronto for almost thirty years.

The principal singers of The Land of Smiles are Prince Sou-Chong (Ernesto Ramirez), the Chinese Ambassador to Vienna and Countess Lisa (Lara Ciekiewicz), the pretty daughter of a general. The two are deeply in love and Captain Gustl (Adam Fisher) who is also in love with Lisa is sent to the pasture of unrequited love.

Tenor Ramirez is Mexican and somewhat short of a romantic hero. His singing was good but his transitions were not always perfectly smooth. He appeared awkward but that is how the Chinese aristocrat may have felt in Vienna.

Soprano Ciekiewicz has a luminous voice and the good looks and aristocratic bearing to play the young Lisa. The singer is no doubt older than the character but that is almost inevitable.  
Adam Fisher looks the part of the military officer that you expect to find in a Viennese operetta  and sings quite well.

Vania Chan was very good as Princess Mi, Sou-Chong’s sister. She is the only Oriental in the cast and she sang and acted very well.

Domenico Sanfilippo as Colonel Bloch and Keenan Viau as the “testicularly challenged” Majordomo provided a good part of the comedy of the operetta.

The Vocal Ensemble was exceptionally good as was the Orchestra under the baton of Derek Bate.

The Land of Smiles takes place in a palace in Vienna and in a palace in Peking in the imperial heyday of both cities. Adequate or remotely realistic sets in the small Jane Mallett Theatre would be unthinkable and Silva-Marin does his usual; a lot with very little. A few flower arrangements, a couple of chairs and a curtain and you have the feel of an aristocratic venue. For the Peking scene he has a large gold throne and a few other touches to take us to China.

The costumes from Malabar for the Vienna scenes and from Tang Silk Whispers for the ladies’ Chinese costumes are suitable.

Silva-Marin adds a few lines of his own to the libretto and generates energy and captures some of the bitter sweetness of the plot. Lehar and his librettists Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Beda-Lohner went beyond the usual operetta plot and brought in some commentary about cultural differences and intolerance.

The Vienna and Peking of this operetta and any other operetta never existed but it’s nice to imagine that they did even for one evening through the lens provided by Lehar and transmitted to us by Toronto Operetta Theatre.   

The Land of Smiles by Franz Lehar opened on December 27, 2013 and ran until January 5, 2014 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912.