Monday, June 30, 2014

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION

Clive Wood and Eve Best take the title roles in Antony and Cleopatra Photo: Manuel Harlan
Reviewed by James Karas

Which of the following are you unlikely to experience in a production of Antony and Cleopatra: Airplanes whirring overhead, a baby screaming, cell phones ringing, cat whistles, an actor kissing a member of the audience?

If you see the production of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, you have an excellent chance of experiencing all of them.

That is what is called “original practices” in the production of Elizabethan drama at Shakespeare’s Globe. Maybe airplanes did not fly over the original Globe Theatre and cell phones did not ring but the rest of the stuff probably happened and more boisterously. We are talking about the interaction between stage and audience which was almost surely a vital ingredient of productions then as it is now and a relaxed approach to the theatre that makes us look like stuffed toys.

It is not that the actors play down to the yardlings, the several hundred people standing around the stage, rain or shine. There seems to be a symbiosis created the minute the action begins. They actors do not discourage it of course. They thrive on it even if many of the exchanges would seem inappropriate if not worse in a “normal” theatre. For example, Eve Best as Cleopatra tells us that when Antony is away every man will seem like an Antony. She looks at a yardling and points a finger at him. He lunges as if to bite her index finger and gets a laugh. She bends down and gives him a kiss.

Antony kisses Cleopatra and the audience whistles in appreciation, admiration or jealousy. I am not sure what that two-note short-long whistle usually emitted by men at the sights of a pretty girl denotes on this occasion. Antony, you lucky guy?

The production then manages to be faithful to Shakespeare and perhaps the way it may have been done four hundred years ago in front of those boisterous and unruly Jacobeans.

That of course is only a small part of the production. Director Jonathan Munby wants us to have a robust staging with full appreciation of Shakespeare’s play. Clive Wood as Antony is very much the virile Roman who exudes manliness in love and war. If he is besotted by Cleopatra, well, who wouldn't be?

Eve Best is the best in the cast and the play depends on her to a great extent. She is a mature Cleopatra but has not ceased being sexually potent, still feline, powerful and frequently quite funny. She is magnetic in a way that attracts and dangerous in a way that should frighten most men. Not Antony, of course, as the two of them go to their destruction.

The play has a large cast and numerous episodes that move quickly on the Globe’s stage. The baby stops screaming, you ignore the mobile phone message texters and message readers and the airplanes go away. You do not take your eyes off Eve Best and the rest in this fine production.   
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Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare continues at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann


Saturday, June 28, 2014

THE PEARL FISHERS – REVIEW OF ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA PRODUCTION

Scene from The Pearl Fishers (c) ENO / Mike Hoban

Reviewed by James Karas

“There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music” was journalist Benoit  Jouvin’s sarcastic comment when he saw Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

Director Penny Woolcock and Set Designer Dick Bird disagree emphatically with that comment. In their production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, they have gone out of their way to prove that there are indeed fishermen in the opera and you can see them under water looking for pearls. There is no lack of musical pearls either, Jouvin’s assessment notwithstanding.

The Pearl Fishers requires only four singers aside from the chorus and the ENO production has fairly good luck with the young performers at hand. Soprano Sophie Bevan does a very creditable job as Leila, the Priestess of Brahma. She is loved by two men who have sworn to keep their hands off her. She has some fine duets with them. The plot calls for her to wear a veil for much of the time and that is unfortunate.

Baritone George von Bergen plays Zurga, the man who gets elected dictator in the first three minutes of the opera. His life was saved by Leila and he is in love with her. Von Bergen has a good, resonant voice and he exuded authority as the chief honcho of the village.

Canadian tenor John Tessier sings Nadir (and gets the girl because he is a tenor). He has a supple and well-honed voice and his Nadir is quite convincing. Bass Barnaby Rea is the High Priest Nourabad, a relatively minor role but he does get to show off his low notes.to good effect.

Bizet provides some fine and showy music for the chorus and the ENO singer take full advantage of it.

The real success of the production lies in the work of Woolcock and Bird. The opera is set on the coast of Ceylon and you may expect an expanse of sandy beach with blue sea stretching to the horizon. Woolcock takes a dimmer and darker view of the opera. When the curtain goes up, the stage of the Coliseum looks like the bottom of the sea, dark and forbidding. There are divers in the water and the sky above is threatening. The coastal village consists of shacks.

We will see the divers, the billowing and menacing waves, and the poor village again. This is no coastal paradise. Religion or indeed superstition is the guiding principle of the lives of the fishermen who seek protection from the elements.

Woolcock has come up with a bold interpretation of the opera. The force and violence of the ocean is projected on a large screen, indeed for several minutes the entire height and width of the stage is taken up by a black-and-white video of surging waves. The sky is equally hostile and an entire life cycle is created for the pearl fishers.

The love triangle gains depth by not being set against an azure beach. In the final scene, Zurga sets the entire village on fire in order to avoid having to execute Nadir and Leila. This act of extreme violence fits with Woolcock’s view of the opera as inhabiting a world of elemental forces rather than a love triangle on the beach. In the final scene, we see women carrying their dead children following the torching of their homes.         
A memorable production of an infrequently seen opera.
_____


The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet opened on June 16 and will be performed nine times in repertory until July 5, 2014 at London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES.             www.eno.org

Friday, June 27, 2014

A SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION OF AYCKBOURN PLAY

A scene from A Small Family Business. Photo: John Persson

Reviewed by James Karas

A Small Family Business is a hilarious play by Alan Ayckbourn that has been revived and is now playing on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre. The play was originally produced in 1987 (before computers and cell phones) but it has lost none of its humour and light bite that it had then.

Ken Ayres (Gawn Granger) built a fine furniture business that provided handsomely for his family. At 75, he is going potty and the business is going to pot literally and figuratively.

Ken’s son-in-law Jack (Nigel Lindsay) is appointed managing director to restore trust and order in the failing enterprise. He is capable and moral beyond reproach and no one doubts him except the audience, perhaps. When a character appears that virtuous, we start rubbing our hands in glee at the prospect of seeing his clay feet, itchy fingers, marauding hormones or any combination of vices to confirm our own moral superiority.

We quickly find out that Ken’s family is like a Middle East dictatorship in its morality and like a Balkan country in its organization and discipline. They are corrupt to the bone. (Yes, yes, there are Balkan countries and Middle East states that are models of principled behaviour and organizational integrity!)

The set for the play is the interior of a well-appointed house shown in cross-section. There are six playing areas and it is the home of several characters. The action moves seamlessly from one house to the next without any changes in the set. We understand where we are from the context. Brilliant.

Jack’s hands are full starting with a corrupt private investigator (played hilariously by Matthew Cottle) who has caught Jack’s daughter Samantha (Alice Sykes) shoplifting. He is willing to forget the whole thing if he is hired to do work for the family business. NO is the incorruptible Jack’s answer no matter what that means for his daughter.

Jack’s brother-in-law Desmond (Neal Barry) has salted away enough cash to buy a villa and a restaurant, his brother Cliff (Stephen Beckett) drives a Porsche while his wife Anita (Niky Wardley) has a wardrobe to compete Coco Chanel’s and employees four Italian studs who pay retail prices for her favours and wholesale for what the family business produces.

Niky Wardley - Anita McCracken. Photo Johan Persson

With this much fun, you will not be surprised to find bribery, extortion, corruption, infidelity, dishonesty, fraud….have I missed anything?

Ayckbourn’s comedy is based on the interesting characters and often mild caricatures that he creates, on situations, of course, and a plotline that is fast-moving, entertaining, and exaggerated but with a serious side to it. He is a magician of comedy.

Director Adam Penford maintains the pacing and the timing of the performance with precision. The characters are funny. The demented Ken, the slutty Anita, the gorging Desmond, the anorexic Harriet (Amy Marston), the four Italian brothers who will come in handy to do what Italians do best (hint: was 1987 around the time of The Godfather movies?). I don’t want to give the entire plot away, not that the play is not funny even if you see it for a second or third time.

You will laugh out loud and enjoy a fine play with a moral twist almost attached to it. Next time you pocket that pen at the office or grab a couple of paper clips from work to take home, you may have second thoughts about it.
_________


A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn opened on April 8 and continues in repertory until August 27, 2014 on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Thursday, June 26, 2014

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS - REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE PRODUCTION

PRODUCTION IMAGE - UPSTAIRS AND DOWNSTAIRS -  © ROH/ CATHERINE ASHMORE

Reviewed by James Karas

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a smorgasbord of an opera that seems to suffer from a serious identity crisis. It has a Prologue with dialogue and singing set in a Viennese mansion where the wealthy has plans for lavish entertainment. If all goes well, there will be an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, a comedy, The Fickle Zerbinetta and fireworks.

All does not go well. There is not enough time for the opera and the comedy because that will interfere with the fireworks. The solution: combine the opera and the comedy. Tragedy-cum-comedy on one plate nicely tossed together like a salade macedoine. That is a real identity crisis.

The Royal Opera House has revived its 2002 production by Christof Loy conducted by Antonio Pappano. It must be judged a success for the imaginative design and direction with a first rate cast and identity be damned. After more than a century it should figure out where it stands.

The vocal power and beauty belong to Karita Mattila and Jane Archibald. Mattila is the Prima Donna in the Prologue and the long-suffering Ariadne in the Opera. She has a lustrous voice and contends with some almost Wagnerian demands on it with unerring success.

Canadian soprano Archibald has the more fun role of Zerbinetta in both the Prologue and the Opera. Torontonians will recall that she sang the role he role with the Canadian Opera Company in 2011 and managed the vocal acrobatics and the comic business demanded of her with aplomb then and now.

The opera has a dramatic (very dramatic) Tenor in the Prologue who becomes Bacchus is the Opera and Roberto Sacco soars through the role. Veteran baritone Thomas Allen recreates the role of the Music Master and sings well despite a ridiculous wig.

The opera has three singers (Sofia Fomina, Kiandra Howarth, and Karen Cargill) in the Prologue who become a Naiad, a Dryad and Echo in the Opera and sing well in both.

The Prologue takes place is two worlds: “upstairs” where the dinner guests are received in palatial surroundings and “downstairs” where the producers of the Opera and the comedy bicker. There is also the third world of Naxos in the Opera.

Loy and Designer Herbert Murauer have come up with a brilliant design to show the upstairs and the downstairs. As the guests and artists arrive, the first are led to the main floor of the house and the second are directed to an elevator. The elevator goes “down” by having the main floor raised. As the saying goes, if you can’t raise the bridge, lower the river. In this case it works in reverse and it is an eye-catching and brilliant tableaux, to say the least.

Antonio Pappano conducted the original Loy production in 2002 and he and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House handled the score with assurance.

Sigmund Freud was in his heyday when Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal composed the opera in 1912 and revised it 1916. If there were any issues of identity, there was room for all of them on his couch. I have a feeling we are the ones with the identity issues. Where is Sigmund when you need him!
 __

Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss opened on June 25 and will be performed five times until July 13, 2014 on various dates at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England. www.roh.org.uk

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

THE SILVER TASSIE – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION OF O’CASEY PLAY


Reviewed by James Karas

In the final scene of The Silver Tassie five couple are shown dancing cheek-to-cheek. The women are dressed in evening gowns and the men are wearing military uniforms. It is the end of the Great War and they seem to be enjoying the occasion. But there is something wrong. We notice that the male partners are in fact mannequins. They are what is left of the men who went off to war.

It is a startling and brilliant scene in Howard Davies’ direction of the rarely performed play that Sean O’Casey wrote in 1927-28.

The silver tassie of the title is a cup won for the team by Harry Heegan (Ronan Raftery), a handsome youth in his prime and glory. He is the town hero and in love with the lovely Jesse (Deirdre Mullins). The time is before World War I and the scene is the Heegans’ tenement in Ireland. We meet a number of people including Sylvester Heegan (Aidan McArdle) and his friend Simon (Stephen Kennedy), a couple of nincompoops representing another aspect of Ireland. The sexy and attractive Jesse is contrasted with the religious fanatic and you-will-go-to-hell spouting Susie (Judith Roddy).

The second act takes place on a battlefield somewhere in France. O’Casey strays into expressionism in the scene by using a different set of characters from the first act. His success is questionable but the production does provide some of the loudest and most sustained sounds of bombardment that I have ever heard in the theatre.

The third act takes place in a hospital ward. The victims of the war have become numbers. Simon and Sylvester are in the ward but they are not suffering from any apparent injury even though Sylvester is about to have an operation. They are as useless after the war as they were before.

But there is one victim that is truly injured. Harry is paralyzed below the waist and he is shell-shocked, as they used to say. He is anxious to see Jesse only to find out that Barney (Adam Best), the man who saved his life on the battlefield, is now in love with her. It is a devastating blow. Teddy (Aidan Kelly) is blind. A stretcher with the sheets pulled over a body is wheeled across the stage. The war has had a devastating effect.

In the final act, there is a dance at the football club, the same club where Harry became a hero by winning the silver tassie. There are medals on the men’s chests. They are war heroes celebrating or attempting to celebrate the end of the war and the team’s silver tassie. But we soon realize that they are no longer men, let alone heroes.

It is a supremely well directed and well-acted production. Raftery is excellent as the hero of the first act and the human wreck in the final scenes. McArdle and Kennedy do well as the clowns who seem untouched by the war.

The religious Susie of the first act changes into a flirtatious nurse in the hospital ward who is being chased and grabbed by the surgeon (Jim Creighton). The war has not only maimed people and relationships; it seems to have killed God and religion.
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The Silver Tassie by Sean O’Casey opened on April 23, 2014 and continues at the Lyttleton stage of the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

TWELVE ANGRY MEN – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION

The Twelve Angry Men in the jury room. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Twelve Angry Men is about a jury trying to decide on the guilt or innocence of a young man charged with murdering his father. The trial is over and the jurors have heard the evidence as well as arguments by counsel. They are sent to the jury room to deliberate but eleven of the twelve men are convinced of the defendant’s guilt and are prepared to send him to the electric chair. One of them has some questions that he wants answered.

You may have seen the 1957 movie with Henry Fonda and know the basic plotline. The Soulpepper production directed by Alan Dilworth will erase all memories and you will feel as if you are seeing this outstanding play for the first time.

The production is staged in the Michael Young Theatre in a small playing area in the centre with seats for the audience on each side. The raised playing area has a table and a dozen chairs. The audience feels as if they are sharing the heat and perspiration of the hot day on which these men are locked in a room to decide on life and death. Let’s start with kudos for Dilworth and Set and Costume Designer Yannik Larivee.

The characters of the twelve men are methodically revealed as the evidence is dissected and arguments reach blazing levels. The jurors are remarkably diverse and distinct individuals. Some strong characters and some weaklings see their convictions shattered in the face of questions raised about the evidence but, more importantly, upon perceiving the true character of some of the other jurors.

In the beginning, Juror #8 (they are not given names) is the sole dissenter and he has to face some extremely vocal and abusive opposition from the other jurors. Stuart Hughes stands his ground with a combination of strength, mild but firm persistence and resistance. A superb performance.

His opposite is Juror #3 (Joseph Ziegler), a blustering bully with an unshakeable conviction of the defendant’s guilt. Ziegler gives one of his finest performances. His private pains are transferred against the defendant. Only in the very end is he forced to finally raise a mirror to his deficiencies and change his vote.

Tim Campbell as Juror #4 is well-spoken rational, considerate, logical and dangerous in his arguments about the defendant’s guilt. His arguments are supposed to be based on the evidence and not on some emotional basis. Campbell delivers a sustained and marvelous performance. 

On the obverse side of #4 is Juror #10 (William Webster), a diseased racist representing the most frightful part of American society. Webster sweats, bellows and blusters in favour of a finding of guilt no matter what the evidence until he finally reveals his complete depravity. It is a turning point in the play.

The one disappointment is Jordan Pettle as Juror #11. He is supposed to be a European who knows what lack of freedom means and what American democracy stands for. With an ill-becoming mustache, an awkward not to say inept accent, he is just plain miscast in the role. Soulpepper has many other actors who could have filled the role and it’s a mystery why Pettle, who usually does excellent work, got saddled with the part.

There is a fascinating array of people presented with exemplary ability by a fine cast. The emotional climaxes reached are cathartic. Dilworth has defined each character with precision.  

Twelve Angry Men  has a great deal to say about the jury system (critical and laudatory) American society, and people caught in a tense situation where they have to make a tough decision. The play has the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action for those interested in such things.

However you take it or whatever you get out of it, you will have a riveting and highly stimulating night at the theatre.
     _________


Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose opened on June 17 and will run in repertory until July 19, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The lives of the rich hold a great fascination for most people, especially for Americans. The United States is perhaps the only nation in the world that has the acquisition of wealth enshrined in its Declaration of Independence as a God-given, unalienable right. When they say “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” you can be sure that the last word does not mean merely spiritual contentment.

What better subject for a play than a glimpse at how the wealthy live and marry peppered with mild satire and a great deal of laughter. That is what The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry offers and the play gets a fine production by the Shaw festival.

The focus of the play is the loaded and slightly eccentric Lord family of Philadelphia where the beautiful Tracy (Moya O’Connell) is about to marry her second husband.  

When the curtain is raised we see a spacious and gorgeously furnished room designed by William Schmuck. This is what money can buy if you are rich or have a good set designer.

Before the wedding ceremony is performed we are provided with laughter by the eccentricities of the Lords, the surprise arrival of Tracy’s father Seth (Juan Chioran) who is busy with his mistress, the presence of Uncle Willie (Ric Reid) who is busy with his hands and the arrival of Mike Connor (Patrick McManus) and Liz Imbrie (Fiona Byrne) who are on a secret mission to cover the wedding and report on the rich.

The catalyst for action is Tracy’s little sister Dinah (Tess Begner) who is conspiring to wreck the upcoming wedding to Kittredge (Thom Marriott) and restore Tracy’s first husband Dexter (Gray Powell) as her spouse.

The central character is Tracy, the virgin goddess, the spoiled brat, the young woman looking for her identity, the beautiful woman looking for love. Take your pick.  O’Connell glides and twirls around the stage gracefully and seductively. 

She got cold feet and eloped with Dexter, her first husband, two years ago but he is still very much around. Gray Powell is not terribly convincing as the romantic hero who swept Tracy off her feet once and may do so again. The wardrobe department should have another look at his outfits but that is not the major problem.

The competition is represented by Kittredge and Thom Marriott has an easier job than Powell as the big hulk who may know a lot about business but does not have a romantic bone in his body.

Juan Chioran looked uncomfortable as the philandering father who shows up for the wedding even though he is not supposed to. Ric Reid gets many more laughs as the horny Uncle Willie. 

McManus and Byrne make an entertaining couple as Mike Connor, the reporter who really wants to be a writer and the smart and sarcastic photographer Liz.

Director Dennis Garnhum does not miss any beats except for the items mentioned above.  The sizable cast is rather uneven but the laughs do come in and the production does make for a fun evening at the theatre.
          ______


The Philadelphia Story  by Philip Barry continues until October 25, 2014  at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

KING LEAR – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Stephen Ouimette (left) as Fool and Colm Feore as King Lear inKing Lear. Photo by David Hou.

Reviewed by James Karas

As the storm rages in King Lear at the Stratford Festival, the house lights go on to indicate the intermission. When the performance begins again, the storm continues with dramatic thunder and lightning, fog on the stage floor and highly effective lighting. King Lear (Colm Feore) begins raging against the elements in his famous challenge to nature to “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow.”

It is a titanic scene on a scale reminiscent of Prometheus bound on the rock defying the gods. Unfortunately Feore’s performance lacked the depth and breadth that one hoped to find in the production directed by Antoni Cimolino. Feore has a tenor voice that simply lacked to depth and resonance to make his rage against the elements convincing. Everything about he scene was done well except for the most important element, that of Feore’s delivery of the monumental lines.

Kent (Jonathan Goad), Lear’s faithful follower, is loyal to the king because he sees authority in his countenance. There is no authority in Feore’s Lear. We do not see the powerful, dictatorial and commanding King demanding expressions of love from his daughters and dividing his kingdom on the base of their performances.   

Cimolino sets the production in Elizabethan England and there are some benefits in that. We are in fairly familiar territory with no need to evoke some primitive English milieu or place it in modern times.
  
Evan Buliung has an innocent and wholesome look about him and he made a perfect Edgar, the decent son who is disinherited by Gloucester based on the lies of the perfidious Edmund.

Brad Hodder, dressed in black with short-cropped hair, delivers an understated Edmund but you realize that the bastard son of Gloucester is not just evil; he is a psychopath. Playing a truly nasty character is not quite Mike Shara’s milieu but Cimolino gives him a fighting chance as Cornwall. The blinding of Gloucester is always tough to stage and Cimolino handles it well. Shara as Cornwall takes out a dagger and lunges towards Gloucester. He stops before he stabs his victim, pulls back, gives a gleeful laugh and then gouges Gloucester’s eye. Cornwall is a sadist and Cimolino demonstrates it very effectively.

Lear’s evil daughters, Goneril (Maev Beaty) and Regan (Lisa Repo-Martell) wear Elizabethan gowns becoming to royals. The problem with that is that the gowns make them look like ladies of the court rather than warriors. They are more martial than courtly but Beaty’s and Repo-Martell’s characterization goes somewhat in the opposite direction.

Stephen Ouimette gives us a solid Fool. No acrobatics or histrionics and no Fool’s paraphernalia which at times can be tiresome. He is a “serious” and very good Fool.

Scott Wentworth is a fine if somewhat lightweight Gloucester. He is in the same range as Feore’s Lear. Cimolino does a good job in staging Gloucester’s jump off the cliffs of Dover. Rather than pretending that by rolling down a few feet he will believe he fell down the cliff, Wentworth simply falls backward. It works and is a nice directorial touch.

Cimolino does not go for extraordinary flights of fancy in his productions but prefers to be faithful to the text and give us solid, well-done stagings. That is to his great credit. This King Lear has all those hallmarks but in Feore he did not have a Lear who could do justice to the great role.
  
In fairness, I should mention that the production in general and Feore in particular got a standing ovation. See it and spread your opinions.
______


King Lear by William Shakespeare opened on May 26 and will run in repertory until October 10, 2014 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Thursday, June 12, 2014

WHEN WE ARE MARRIED - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Three couples who were married on the same day, in the same church, by the same parson are celebrating their silver anniversary. They discover that the parson who performed the ceremony was no qualified to do so and they are therefore not married.

That is essentially the plot of J. B. Priestley’s “Yorkshire farcical comedy” (his words) When We Are Married which is now playing at the Royal George Theatre as part of this year’s Shaw Festival.

It is a period piece, of course, written in 1938 but set in that wonderful if largely imaginary world of Edwardian England. It takes place in 1908 when women did not have the vote, cohabitation without matrimony was anathema, respectability was paramount and the sun was always shining..

Priestley has constructed a very pleasant play with some quite well developed characters, some satire and a great deal of fun. The cast directed by Joseph Ziegler deliver the madcap and the witty parts of the play in a well-rounded and highly entertaining production.

The three couples that go into stratospheric anxiety and anguish on learning that they are not married are at Alderman Joseph Helliwell’s (Thom Marriott) well-appointed Victorian house. He is pompous, self-satisfied and a man with a “past,” as they used to say. His wife Maria (Claire Jullien) is attractive and traditional.

Councillor Albert Parker (Patrick McManus) is stentorian, egotistical, stingy and stupid. His wife Annie (Catherine McGregor) is the longsuffering victim of this pompous ass who finds liberation in the knowledge that she never married him.

Herbert Soppitt (Patrick Galligan) is a henpecked little man who has been driven into the ground by Clara (Kate Hennig) his sharp-nosed termagant of a wife and been left with only a distant memory of a fleeting romance that, like the Edwardian summer, was more imagined than real.

The interaction among these six produces laughter and merriment that is very well done. But Priestley has added several relatively minor characters who steal the show. The fifteen-year old maid Ruby (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) steals the scenes that she is in. She is outdone by Mary Haney as Mrs. Northrop, the cook, who is frequently drunk, totally fearless and utterly hilarious.

There is one more show stealer in the photographer Henry Ormonroyd who is always drunk and uproariously funny. Peter Krantz sports a huge moustache, slovenly clothes and excellent comic acting. as you may suspect, there is "another woman" in the plot and in this case it is the entertaining Lottie Grady played by Fiona Byrne.

Priestley’s characters do develop amid the farcical elements of the play and there are satirical and touching components in the dialogue. Ziegler paces the performance very well and the cast manages to give us an indication of Yorkshire brogue even if at times I did not catch every word.   
The panelled siting room of the Helliwells with stairs leading to the bedrooms is pleasant and done well by Set Designer Ken MacDonald.

You will get a lot of laughs, some interesting characters, a visit to a world long gone when marriage meant so much and quite a marvellous evening at the theatre.     
        ______

When We Are Married  by J. B. Priestley continues in repertory until October 26, 2014 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

 Evan Buliung (left) as Oberon and Jonathan Goad as Titania inA Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

The only Shakespearean comedy offered at the Stratford Festival this year is A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Chris Abraham. The production garnered a lot of cheers and laughter from the totally unreliable opening night audience but I found it a pretentious, over-the-top directorial ego trip that served Shakespeare and the audience badly.
Abraham never saw trick that he did not include in this production, an adlib that he did not allow, overacting that he did not encourage, and just about anything that will turn a great comedy into a travesty.
As the audience filed into the Festival Theatre, we saw members of the cast milling on the stage and mingling with the audience. When the performance started we saw a wedding scene where two men are getting married. The words “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/
Admit impediments” are spoken. The lines are from a Shakespeare sonnet but what is a gay wedding doing in this play? Stay tuned.
Can you keep the lovers in Midsummer straight? Well, Hermia (Bethany Jillard) is in love with Lysander (Tara Rosling) but her father Egeus (Michael Spencer-Davis) wants her to marry Demetrius (Mike Shara). Helena (Lisa Repo-Martell) is in love with Demetrius. Abraham has decided that Egeus is deaf and communicates with sign language. No doubt there was a reason for giving Egeus this disability but to some of us it looks just plain dumb.
It quickly becomes apparent that Lysander is really Lysandra and even to someone as thick as Demetrius (and Shara does make him look thick) should realize that Hermia is in love with another woman and the idea of having a relationship with him is rather unlikely. Titania, the Queen of the Fairies (Evan Buliung) in a bridal gown is played by a man and Oberon (Jonathan Goad) goes around with the horns of a ram hairdo. Buliung and Goad exchange roles on different nights and it is difficult to choose who looks more ridiculous.
Abraham may want to score political points even with Shakespeare but interpolating a gay wedding in Midsummer does not work, to put it politely. Gay marriages are old hat in Ontario (thank God) and Abraham may have steered away from the subject to better effect.
Abraham wants to jazz up Shakespeare’s humour by allowing the actors to adlib. When Oberon, the King of the Fairies, falls in a pool of water on stage he adds that “I am a flyer and not a swimmer.” There are numerous such additions to the dialogue and they are out of place and not funny.
From left: Lally Cadeau as Quince, Brad Hodder as Starveling, Karl Ang as Snug and Stephen Ouimette as Bottom. Photo by Michael Cooper.
The artisans should have us rolling in the aisles with laughter and here Abraham is a bit more successful. Lally Cadeau plays a Quince that should be getting Old Age Security, Stephen Ouimette is an irrepressible Bottom.  Just give him a copy of the play and leaving alone. He will do a god job despite the directing. Victor Ertmanis as Flute, Karl Ang as Snug, Keith Dinicol as Snout and Brad Hodder as Starveling carry or are carried by Shakespeare to good effect.
If you want easy laughs, you put cute children to play the roles of the fairies. There are sexual innuendos when the fairies are entertaining Bottom and Abraham wisely steers away from any impropriety but do we really need this?
Abraham clearly has the imagination and ability to direct a stupendous Midsummer Night’s Dream. He needs to try less hard. Overacting by the bushel, tricks by the barrel, infidelity to the text, attempts to improve Shakespeare and overreaching to score an unnecessary political point or show originality, all add up to a very bad night at the theatre.
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A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare opened on May 31 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2014 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Sunday, June 8, 2014

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Trish Lindstr√∂m (centre) as Alice with members of the company in Alice Through the Looking-Glass. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Review by James Karas

The sale of ice cream soared, the consumption of candy went through the roof; the noise level skyrocketed and the average age dropped from dotage to youth. No, this was not an ice cream truck and a bus full of old people colliding in a schoolyard. It was the opening of Alice Through the Looking Glass at the Stratford Festival.
The Festival put on its annual show to attract the next generation of theatregoers and this year they staged James Reany’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s work. It was first seen here twenty years ago and has been brought back to cheers and laughter at the Avon Theatre.
Alice goes through the looking glass and as expected by the dotage crowd and to the amazement of the young discovers a wonderland again. Sweet, wholesome, curious, Alice is played by Trish Lindstrom who manages to look like an eleven-year old.
In the upside world of wonderland which manages to be colouful, exciting, funny and marvelous in the original sense of the word, there will be excitement, fights, strange creatures and just plain entertainment.
Members of the company inAlice Through the Looking-Glass. Photo by Erin Samuell.
Alice must reach the eighth square in order to become a queen and her journey begins. She meets a Red Queen (Cynthia Dale), a White Queen (Sarah Orenstein), a White King (Dion Johnstone), a Red King (John Kirkpatrick), not to mention a Unicorn (Gareth Potter), a Lion (Tyrone Savage), Tweedledee (Sanjay Talwar) and Humpty Dumpty (Brian Tree).
Humpty Dumpty sits on the wall with very long arms manipulated by two young women and he is at his funniest best and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men …
A huge rope is lowered from the ceiling and a couple of children in the audience pull on it and little parasols with candy are scattered through the spectators. Streamers and more candy cascade into the audience and the excitement is palpable.
Is everything over the top? You bet but it is great fun even if everyone in the audience did not understand what was going on. That is probably the best way to build an audience for the theatre and help the sale of ice cream and candy.  
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Alice Through the Looking Glass by James Reany opened on May 31 and will run in repertory until October 12, 2014 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Thursday, June 5, 2014

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Seana McKenna (centre) as Mother Courage with E.B. Smith (left) as Eilif, Carmen Grant as Kattrin and Antoine Yared as Swiss Cheese. Photo by David Hou.

Reviewed by James Karas

Mother Courage and her Children is Bertold Brecht’s sprawling chronicle about war and capitalism and the Stratford Festival has given it a highly respectable production directed by Martha Henry. The Festival has ventured infrequently into Brechtian territory and I suppose we should be grateful for this display of adventurous programming.
Mother Courage is an antiwar play set during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Anna Fierling, nicknamed Mother Courage, with her iconic wagon follows armies across Europe and supplies them with provisions of every sort
Henry has assembled some of the Festival’s best actors starting with Seana McKenna in the lead role.  She is accompanied by her three children, Eilif (E. B. Smith), Swiss Cheese (Antoine Yared) and the dumb Kattrin (Carmen Grant). Her sole ambition is to profit from the war even as she loses her children one at a time.
The play has some dramatic and possibly wrenching moments but Brecht and consequently Henry refuse to allow us to engage in such emotionalism. Masters of Ceremonies intervene to remind us that we are being told a story and not watching realistic re-enactment of events that draws on our sympathy.
McKenna shows some of Mother Courage’s roughhewn and earthy character but we almost never sympathize with this classic capitalist who profits from war and the last thing she wants to see is peace. Everything and everyone in her world is a commodity.
Henry strikes a fine balance between telling a dramatic series of events and forcing us to keep some distance from them. The actors display signs telling us where we are. Before the performance begins and during the intermission, the actors mingle and chat with the audience and there are musicians on stage. All of that is intended to add a barrier between the pretence of reality and reality itself. We are watching a show and Brecht wants us to know it. Martha Henry wants us to know it too.
Seana McKenna (background) as Mother Courage and Carmen Grant (centre) as Kattrin with members of the company. Photo by David Hou.

Eilif, the tough cattle thief, becomes a hero because of his ability to steal in war but fares badly in peace. Her stupid son Swiss Cheese steals the cash box but is killed. Kattrin shows humanity and compassion when she tries to warn the citizens of an impending attack but she too ends up as a victim of the war.  

There is a large cast of characters that surround the cart and Mother Courage.  The prostitute Yvette (Deidre Gillard-Rowlings),  the cook (Geraint Wyn Davies), the priest (Ben Carlson),  the Masters of Ceremonies (Randy Hughson and Sean Arbuckle), officers, soldiers, spies, farmers and others. In other words, there is almost a cross-section of society.
The wagon and the tree stump are just about the only props and set designed by John Pennoyer.
The translation by David Edgar is colloquial and uses very salty language. Eric Bentley’s 1955 version is practically antiseptic in comparison.
The production does justice to the play and McKenna gives a memorable performance. Go see it. It may be a while before another Brecht play is produced by the Stratford Festival.
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Mother Courage and her Children by Bertold Brecht opened on May 30 and will continue in repertory until September 21, 2014  at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca


Sunday, June 1, 2014

MAN OF LA MANCHA – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Centre, from left: Steve Ross as Sancho Panza, Robin Hutton as Aldonza and Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

For its second musical, the Stratford Festival has chosen Man of La Mancha and staged it in the smaller Avon Theatre. It is a well done production with excellent singing and it captures the spirit of the worlds of Don Quixote with a side glance at his creator Miguel de Cervantes.

Man of La Mancha is a play-within-a-play in which Cervantes is thrown into prison by the Spanish Inquisition for being an honest tax collector. The other prisoners put the writer on trial and he defends himself by reenacting the story of Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza.

It is a brilliant theatrical device because the musical can be produced on a single set with whatever props area available to Cervantes the prisoner and emphasizes the fact that all the events are imagined by Don Quixote.

Tom Rooney becomes the lithe agile, intelligent and quick-witted Cervantes, a poet by avocation, a tax collector by profession and a prisoner by the whim of the Spanish Inquisition.

Cervantes in order to defend himself at his trial by the other prisoners becomes Alonso Quijana, a poor man from La Mancha. Rooney/Cervantes/Quijana puts on a beard, a wig and some makeup and becomes a straggly, pathetic looking man who wants to be a Knight Errant long after the age of chivalry. He becomes Don Quixote who is a dreamer, a fool, an idealist, a madman and in fact an entire facet of humankind. Rooney does superb work in representing the multifaceted man, indeed, men.

Sancho Panza represents another facet of humanity, practical, loyal, sensible and with an instinct for survival. Steve Ross is a natural comic and he is wonderful and hilarious as the faithful Sancho.

The other prisoners tolerate or play along with Cervantes in the telling of his tales. There is a stageful of colourful characters all of them involved in the marvelous double illusion of actors playing roles playing roles.

Aldonza is the rough-hewn prisoner who becomes a serving woman and prostitute at the inn (a castle in Quixote’s imagination) where Don Quixote and Sancho stop. Aldonza is transformed into Dulcinea, the idealized woman of chivalric pursuit. Robin Hutton shows all he rough edges of Aldonza but also displays “Dulcinea’s” humanity.

The brigands in the jail and in Don Quixote’s story are violent men who do not hesitate to abuse people and probably rape Aldonza. The Governor of the prison/Innkeeper (Shane Carty) shows decency in an indecent world.

Director Robert McQueen and Designers Douglas Paraschul (set) and Dana Osborne (costumes) do not shy away from the ugliness, cruelty and inhumanity of Cervantes’s world. That makes his quest to set every wrong right and fight for justice all the more delusional, ironic and touching.               

The dingy prison shows a huge windmill at the back, the eternal symbol of Don Quixote’s hopeless fight against “the enemy” the dreaded Enchanter (Shawn Wright). The real world is represented by a set of steps that hang above which are lowered when the captain of the Inquisition descends among the prisoners.

Man of La Mancha has many musical numbers and dance routines and they are done well. Like many other musicals, it has one song that stands out and in this case it is the famous “The Impossible Dream.” It has become an anthem for the pursuit of idealism, the fight against injustice, the dream of a better world and conquest of imposable obstacles.

As you watch this exceptional production of Man of La Mancha and its worlds of degradation, cruelty and injustice, with its humour, illusions and delusions, with its songs and dance routines, you will have a something to think about and be grateful for a terrific night at the theatre.           
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Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), Joe Darion (lyrics) opened on May 29 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2014 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600