Wednesday, December 30, 2015

THE STUDENT PRINCE - REVIEW OF TORONTO OPERETTA THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre deserves credit for plugging a hole in the amusement availability gap between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This year’s lifter-upper is Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince. It is an energetic and enjoyable production done, as usual for TOT, on a modest budget.

If the “Overhead moon is shining,” and you are in your “Golden Days” of “Student life” and “Drink, drink, drink” when the garlands are bright deep in your heart in Heidelberg then you are in operettaland or in Karlsberg watching The Student Prince. If all of those things are happening to you and you are not at the St. Lawrence centre, you are delusional.


                Stefan Fehr, Jennifer Taverner, Adam Norrad and Ernesto Ramirez. Photo Gary Beechey
The classic 1924 operetta is based on Old Heidelberg, a play by German playwright Wilhelm Meyer-Förster with book and lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly. Director Guillermo Silva-Marin takes advantage of the beautiful melodies, the rousing ensemble songs, the comic elements and the romantic entanglements to provide an entertaining evening at the theatre.

The student prince of the title, sung by Mexican tenor Ernesto Ramirez, is sent to Heidelberg University to study. He meets some rowdy students and Kathie, the innkeeper’s lovely niece.  I will let you fill in some of the blanks about what happens after that. Ramirez has lovely voice and he can sing piano and even better forte where he belts out his lyrical phrases. My only complaint about him is his enunciation. He can use a bit more drilling to cease obscuring parts of some words.  

Soprano Jennifer Taverner is the winsome Kathie – lively, sweet-voiced and the type of girl a prince will fall for, put her “Deep in my heart” and dream of living happily-ever-after with her alone.

Three members of the female vocal ensemble take on solo roles as well and do a good job, namely: soprano Carrie Parks as the haughty Grand Duchess Anastasia, mezzo soprano Dina Shikhman as Princess Margaret, a woman who knows how to get her man, and mezzo soprano Katerina Utochkina who has a similar talent.

The operetta has its share of comic characters from the overbearing but ineffective prince’s valet Lutz, (played struttingly by Sean Curran) to the waiter Toni (Ryan Moilliet) to the students and members of the Saxon Corps. Some of the comic business misfired but the audience enjoyed the comedy overall.

Bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan sang with his usual resonance, the role of the humane Doctor Engel.

Derek Bate conducted the small orchestra, almost a band really, which nevertheless gave a spirited performance of the score.

Toronto Operetta Theatre is in its thirtieth year and it bears repeating that it is the conception, creation and continuation of Guillermo Silva-Marin. For The Student Prince, he is credited with stage direction, décor and lighting design. The production succeeds because of his talents but suffers from shortage of funds. More funding would provide better decor from the few items to indicate a palace antechamber, an inn garden and a palace. A bigger orchestra would help and a more plush theatre would be a definite asset.

He does a great deal with the sparse resources at hand. Toronto owes him a great debt for bringing and keeping operetta in the city almost single handed.

TOT’s next production will be Los Gavilanes by Jacinto Guerrero, a zarzuela dating from 1923, that, as happens so often, will be getting its Canadian premiere.          
________

The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg opened on December 27, 2015 and will be performed five times until January 3, 2016 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 366-7723. www.stlc.com or www.torontooperetta.com

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

PETER PAN IN WONDERLAND: REVIEW OF ROSS PETTY EXTRAVAGANZA

Reviewed by James Karas

Ross Petty is shameless. For twenty years he has used and mostly abused fairy tales to produce riotous laughter, ferocious theatrical energy and enthusiasm to make all competitors green with envy.

This year he takes on Peter Pan (again) and sends him Wonderland (no, not Canada’s, Alice’s, if you please) in a show that has all the characteristics mentioned in the first paragraph.

Petty revels in playing the “bad guy” and in Peter Pan in Wonderland he is none other than Captain Hook. The audience is informed, indeed provoked, to boo the nasty Captain at every opportunity and young and adult alike relish every opportunity to do so. Petty speaks directly to the audience, goes off on tangents, overacts and stops at nothing to get a laugh. He is a very funny man and the laughs come pouring in.


Ross Petty as Captain Hook Photo: Racheal McCaig Photography

Dan Chameroy is another hilarious performer as Tinkerbum. Dressed in drag with hair that looks like a couple of dried haystacks, Chameroy sports a riotous accent and movements that never failed to provoke laughter. He does not get as much stage time as Petty but his every appearance is a delight.

In addition to Tinkerbum, we have Tweedle Dum (Eddie Glen who doubles as a funny Smee) and Tweedle Dummer (Jessica Holmes who also has the more substantial role of Queen of Hearts). The Mad Hatter (Lamar Johnson), the Cheshire Cat (Taveeta Szymanowicz) are also there.

Peter Pan (Anthony MacPherson) is an energetic and agile young boy who can fly, sing and perform acrobatics. He does leave his home base of Neverland and ends up in Wonderland. Captain Hook is there up to no good, as you may suspect, and he wants to marry the Queen.

Alice is there as well and Jordan Clark who plays the part is able to belt out songs and dance with marvelous energy but that is just the beginning. The girl can perform acrobatics that would give those Russian Olympians pause. This is an athletics showcase as much as a musical.


Dan Chameroy as Tinkerbum, Anthony MacPherson as Peter Pan.Photo: Racheal McCaig Photography

The dancers are just as athletic and amazing in the numbers by choreographer Marc Kimelman. The sets and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco are a riot of colour and a perfect background for the show.

Petty (again shamelessly) incorporates commercials in the production. The Toronto Star, Hilton Hotel and Sick Children’s Hospital put on ads. He has enough sense to make the commercials fit the show by garnering a few laughs while satisfying the sponsors.

The humour goes all over the place. Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, The Maple Leafs, the Blue Jays and others are all included in Petty’s insatiable search for laughs.

Singing, dancing, broad comedy, some political satire, slapstick, a plot built on two familiar stories, both fractured to good effect – that is a major achievement. Add to that the energy provided by the audience. Everyone one seemed to be on a sugar-high, screaming, booing, laughing, applauding.

There is no by-line in the programme but Chris Earle gets credit as the writer near the end of the credits and well after FLYING BY FOY. He cribbed Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie, of course.  The choreographer is listed at the bottom. I suppose this is the Ross Petty Show and everyone lines up behind him.

Mr. Petty, you should be ashamed of yourself for abandoning ship after only twenty years of great shows!
___

Peter Pan in Wonderland  opened on December 3, 2015 and will play until January 3, 2016 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.rosspetty.com

Saturday, December 5, 2015

P@NDORA – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION OF BERTHIAUME’S PLAY

By James Karas

P@ndora is a complex and provocative play about teenage angst, pornography on the internet and the fundamental problems of growing up. It veers between dream or let’s say “unreality” and reality and is frequently surreal.

That may seem like an unlikely choice of play for Young People’s Theatre but Sarah Berthiaume’s work is a remarkable vehicle for inciting thought and discussion in the young and not so young.. The opening day audience consisted of high school students who are no doubt living through some of the issues raised by the play and can identify on some level with the characters.

Bria McLaughlin and Sean Colby

The all-gifted Pandora of Greek mythology was given a box by Zeus containing all the evils of humanity. She disobeyed the order not to open the box and thus unleashed all the evils that you can imagine on us. The @ in the title no doubt suggests that the internet is a great gift to us but it also contains  a great deal of evil.

Pandora of the play (played marvelously by Bria McLaughlin) is a high school student who meets a pervert in the washroom. She opens the website that he mentions and discovers pornography. We get a fairly sanitized description of what she sees. One of the participants in the video is a person with a chicken’s head. At the end the chicken’s head is removed and Pandora sees her own face.

Pandora is worried about her looks – every part of her body looks bad, she thinks. Her friend is prettier and all the boys are after her. Pandora finds herself at a party and in a bedroom with Alex (Sean Colby), the boy that she likes and there are awkward moments of attempted sexual contact.

The pervert that Pandora met in the bathroom is Firefox (Sean Colby) and he is a constant presence in her life. Is he the tempter, a reflection of her inner soul, the devil - you can decide for yourself.

Sean Colby plays Firefox as well as Alex and he has considerable room for acting the evil as well as the good character. A fine performance indeed.

Alex and Pandora find themselves in a field of hydroelectric poles and it is impossible to tell if Pandora is dreaming or if they are in fact in this strange surrounding. The play is multi-layered and it grabbed and kept the attention of the audience. Among the layers there is a strong message about self-assertion, about not being sucked in by the evils of the internet and about finding your way out of the field of hydro poles and the addictive attraction of trash on the internet without fear.

Michel Lefebvre directs this fascinating play. It is acted in a black box (the Nathan Cohen Studio) with a large display case in the middle of the stage with fluorescent lights in it designed by the director.    
     
P@ndora was commissioned by Quebec’s Youtheatre and is here produced in a translation by Nadine Desrochers. 
 ______  

P@ndora by Sarah Berthiaume opened on November 30 and will play until December 11, 2015 at the Nathan Cohen Studio, Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Thursday, December 3, 2015

SEMINAR - REVIEW OF REBECK’S PLAY AT PANASONIC THEATRE

By James Karas

Seminar is a play about writing, becoming a writer, drink, drugs, ambition, sex and the life of a certain segment of New York society that exists mostly in the imagination of hoi polloi.

Theresa Rebeck’s 2011 play has five reasonably well-developed and distinct characters who engage in some or all of the above-noted practices with wit sarcasm, meanness, lust, pain and brutality. In other words, they are very entertaining.


The cast of Seminar. Photo: Dylan Hewlett
The key player is Leonard (Tom McCamus), a formerly successful novelist who has fallen on bad times. He is drunk, high on drugs, rude, crude, offensive, and obnoxious.  Apparently he is also a very god judge of writing.  

Four young would-be writers pay Leonard handsome amounts of money to have him comments on their work. They gather in a nine-room apartment in the Upper Eastside of Manhattan and Leonard who is as usual high on something starts tearing into the young hopefuls.

He reads about five words of Kate’s (Andrea Houssin) short story that she has been writing for years and tears it to shreds mercilessly. He does find some positive things to say about a couple of the other writers before axing their hopes  but we can only discuss literary ambitions for so long. We need sex.

Izzy (Grace Lynn Kung) is beautiful, desirable and available. She gives Martin (Nathan Howe) the best sex he has ever tasted and Leonard partakes as well. Yes, there are moral issues here but let’s just forget them.
 
Leonard does zero in on the abilities of his students between being insufferably insulting and cruel. The well-connected Douglas (Ryan James Miller) can write a workman-like novel but his best bet is to go to Hollywood. This advice comes after he calls him whorish.

Kate manages to get approval when she pretends that the piece she submits is by a Cuban transvestite. But Leonard does espy a true voice in what she writes. He beds her and helps her get a ghost-writing job.

 Nathan Howe and Tom McCamus in Seminar. Photo: Dylan Hewlett
Martin is poor, idealistic and afraid to submit his work to Leonard. Eventually he does and sees the work that Leonard is doing and the play reaches its climactic end.

McCamus could hardly do or be expected to do a less than superb job in the role of Leonard. His lined face, his rumpled hair and clothes, his gravelly voice all combine to give a splendid performance as the obnoxious but tortured and talented writer/editor.

The rest of the cast give impressive performances. Andrea Houssin garners laughs and sympathy as she eats to get fat when she is depressed until she finds a way to get approval and sex from Leonard. Miller’s Douglas is cool, ambitious, uppity and well-connected and must swallow the bitter criticism that Leonard shovels at him.

Kung’s Izzy is a sexual magnet with some writing talent. Howe’s Martin is intense, sensitive and at times childish but he does grow up during the play.

Stewart Arnott’s directing is sensitive and precise. The acting and reacting is finely modulated so that we see the aim of every insult and bit of praise painted on the face of the recipient and the faces of the other actors.

Seminar is a well-crafted play that combines the high ground of literature, the middle ground of ambition, fear and search for a way to literary success and the lower floors of sex, insult and drugs. Just the sort of place you want to visit.

Highly enjoyable.
 _______

Seminar  by Theresa Rebeck opened on November 14 and will play until December 6, 2015 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Monday, November 30, 2015

DOMESTICATED – REVIEW OF BRUCE NORRIS PLAY AT BERKELEY STREET THEATRE

By James Karas

Domesticated is a new play by Bruce Norris and it has received its Canadian premiere at the Berkeley Street Theatre. It has some funny writing and interesting scenes but it is an unfinished work that needs some editing.

The plot is taken from headline news that occur all too frequently. A successful politician is caught with a prostitute. He appears on national television, his wife beside him, blurting a grovelling apology – mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
 Akosua Amo-Adem, Martha Burns and Paul Gross 
Bill Pulver (Paul Gross), gynaecologist-turned-politician has been caught in a hotel room with a prostitute named Becky (Vanessa Smythe). She accidentally falls, hits her head and lapses into a coma.

We soon find out that Bill is a serial philanderer and a congenital idiot. His wife Judy (Martha Burns) is quite understandably furious with him. Her fury increase exponentially when  she finds out that he was watching pornography at work and paying one thousand to two thousand dollars per session with a prostitute for an approximate total of $75,000.00. Judy writes a book about her life and her husband.

For Bill, the situation hits bottom when Judy finds out that he had an encounter with her best friend Bobbie (Torri Higginson) in a car during which Bobbie provided only manual stimulation or, more crudely, a hand job.    

There is enough substance in the hurt, anger, humiliation, desire for revenge and possible reconciliation in the situation but Norris does unsatisfactory work with it. A young girl steps up to the microphone a few times during the performance and describes the sexual and reproductive lives of animals. It is pointless and unnecessary at best. Cut it out.

The good lines are given mostly to Judy and many of them are funny but Norris seems to run out of steam and goes searching for coals to stoke the fire.

Bill and Judy as well as Becky and her mother (Nicola Lipman) appear on a TV talk show. The host (played hilariously by Akosua Amo-Adem) is an effusive and dramatic woman who wants to hear her own voice and occasionally the voice of her guests. We get several very funny scenes thanks to Amo-Adem.

Bill is humiliated, leaves his wife and children, is unemployed, needs medical attention and has no insurance. One would think that he might have learned something about his failings as a human being, achieved a passing acquaintance with contrition and made some attempt at reconciliation with a promise of fidelity. Not so. He is so dense he cannot accept the idea of fidelity or much of anything else.

Norris is again hard put to fill the 160 minutes, including intermission, and he writes a scene in a bar with a transsexual who throws a punch at him and detaches the retina in one of his eyes.

The scenes with Bobbie are more effective partly I suppose because Higginson does such a fine job. Burns turns in a stellar performance. Gross gets very little to say in the first act but he gets better lines in the second act without his character becoming a more perceptive man.

The play uses minimal sets (designed by Nick Blais) and the scenes flow from one to the next seamlessly. A table and chairs, a bar, a set for the talk show sequence is all that is used.

Director Philp Riccio does a fine job of minimizing the creaks of the play and going for the good lines but there is only so much you can do with an unfinished play.
______
Domesticated by Bruce Norris continues until December 19, 2015 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com  416 368 3110 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

JULIE – REVIEW OF CANADIAN STAGE PRODUCTION OF BOESMANS OPERA

By James Karas

August Strindberg’s 1888 one–act tragedy Miss Julie has inspired numerous adaptations and productions including several operas. Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans composed a one-act chamber opera in 2005 based on a libretto by Swiss director Luc Bondy and director and playwright Marie-Louise Bischofberger which was produced in a number of European cities with considerable success.

That did not put it on the radar of any North American opera or theatre company except for Matthew Jocelyn, Canadian Stage’s Artistic and General Director. Jocelyn has made it his mission to expand Torontonians’ theatrical horizons, come hell or high water and he has seen both over the last five years. But he has not lost his nerve and is forging full speed ahead.


Lucia Cervoni and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Julie, as the opera is called, has now received its North American premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre in a production by Canadian Stage in association with Soundstreams, a major presenter of new Canadian music.  

The interaction among the three characters of the play has many layers and complex motivations but the central issue is sexual attraction. Julie (Lucia Cervoni) is the daughter of a Count and she is sexually attracted to Jean (Clarence Frazer), the valet. Jean has a relationship with the servant Christine (Sharleen Joynt) and we have a ménage á trois with a difference.

Boesmans’ avant-garde music shapes and punctuates the dialogue of the three characters and it is shaped by it. There is obviously a large variety of musical phrases but the diction of the dialogue is maintained. Mezzo soprano Cervoni, baritone Frazer and soprano Joynt handle their roles vocally with ease and their characterization is sound.

Jean and Julie consummate their relationship with utter good taste without allowing their lust to shock the censors and cause them to forbid public performances as it did when the play was first produced. As may be expected, the relationship does not work out, and in the play Jean gives Julie a straight razor and she goes off the stage with it in her hand. In the opera he gives her an extension cord and in the final tableau we see her in silhouette wrapping the cord around her neck. Very effective.
 
 Sharleen Joynt and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Musical Director Leslie Dala conducts the 18-piece chamber ensemble adroitly through Boesmans’ largely unfamiliar musical style where what we associate with traditional opera is left out completely. Don’t look for Puccini or Verdi, in other words.

Set Designer Alain Lagarde provides a black curtain for background which acts as a mirror as well. The kitchen set is good and it provides the “naturalism” that Strindberg wanted without being slavishly realistic.

The driving force behind the production is Matthew Jocelyn for bringing a work that has the familiarity and approachability of a play that was written in 1888 with the unknownness of a recent, avant-garde work that is being produced here for the first time. 
Do you want to compliment or criticise him for this or just leave it hanging? 
     ______
Julie by Philippe Boesmans (music), Luc Bond and Marie-Louise Bischofberger (libretto) adapted from August Strindberg play, opened on November 17 and will run until November 29, 2015 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canstage.com

Monday, November 23, 2015

JACOB TWO-TWO MEETS THE HOODED FANG – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION

By James Karas

As the whole world knows, Jacob Two-Two is 2+2+2 years old, he has two eyes, two hands, two feet etc. and he says everything twice.

Young People’s Theatre has produced the wonderful musical, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang 2+2+2+2 times to the delight of young and not so young alike. This year is the, well, let’s economize, 2 x 20 anniversary of the publication of Mordecai Richler’s book and I am allowed to say it again this is a wonderful musical based on the novel.


L-R: Matthew G. Brown, David G. Black and Damien Atkins. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
I attended opening night of the current revival with my Associate Reviewer, a highly precocious and perceptive seven-year old (“I’m going to be eight in March!”) to make sure I did not miss any of the nuances of the production.

The play has new music and lyrics by Britta and Anika Johnson that are tuneful and enjoyable. The production is fast-paced and starts with some amusing scenes with Jacob’s family and I get an early review.

Associate Reviewer: This is funny.

Jacob is sent to the grocery store to buy some tomatoes and he is arrested for offending an adult. He is represented by lawyer Louie Loser (Darrin Baker) in front of Judge Rough (Saccha Dennis) and an even rougher jury. He is found guilty and thrown in prison. The justice system a drubbing with all the bad stereotypes of the incompetent lawyer, the bad judge and the abusive treatment of Jacob but my Associate did not seem to mind. She just found Louie Loser funny.


L-R: Jeigh Madjus, Drew Davis, Sarah Gibbons and Ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Jacob goes through some hair-raising experiences as he meets many very colourful and some scary characters. Master Fish (Matthew G. Brown) and Mistress Fowl (Kira Guloien), Artie Octopus (Jacob McInnis) and of course, the terrifying Hooded Fang (Damien Atkins). This is frightening and my Associate leaned over.

Associate Reviewer: “Is this a real story?”

Note; My Associate Reviewer saw Hanna’s Suitcase and I told her that it is “a real story” and Hana’s fate clearly made an impression on her. I assured her that it is not a real story and that Jacob was dreaming the whole thing. 

David Gregory Black is a lively, funny and just superb Jacob. (He alternates in the role with Drew Davis.) The rest of the cast take on a couple of roles or play in the ensemble. It is a fast-moving acting and singing ensemble.

Co-directors Allen MacInnis and Jen Shuber with Set designer Dana Osborne and Costume Designer provide some 2 x 35 minutes of fast-paced, colourful, funny, scary and delightful entertainment. The last words belong to my Associate:

“When are we coming back?”
______  

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang  by Mordecai Richler opened on November 19, 2015 and will play until January 3, 2016 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Saturday, November 21, 2015

WORMWOOD – REVIEW OF NEW KUSHNIR PLAY AT TARRAGON THEATRE

By James Karas

Wormwood is a new play by Andrew Kushnir that is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre. The playwright is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent and he wants to comment on the sorry state of Ukraine and then some. It is a noble attempt but the result is a not always focused and as such success is limited.

When the lights go on Scott Wentworth wearing sunglasses is led on the stage by a young man dressed in a traditional East European costume. Wentworth is supposed to be a kobzar, a traditional blind bard who sings epic songs. Wentworth tries to tell some banal jokes and he looks straight at the audience. This is simple carelessness but Kushnir’s intention is to bring a deeply rooted Ukrainian tradition that seems akin to the Homeric bards. 


Nancy Palk, Amy Keating, Luke Humphrey and Ben Campbell. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

The kobzar, the bandurist (Victor Mishalow) who plays a traditional stringed instrument and a Cossack (Ken James Stewart) do very little for the play aside from adding a bit of colour and perhaps pointing to the rich cultural past of Ukraine. We need more.

The main story centers on Ivan (Luke Humphrey), a young Ukrainian-Canadian TV salesman who has gone to the land of his fathers to monitor the presidential elections. Naïve is the politest word one can use for Ivan. We never learn who sent him or how he is supposed to monitor the elections. He never does, in any event. He ends up in a house instead of a hotel, his passport is stolen and he is unable to communicate with most people because they speak Russian and he speaks Ukrainian. Humphrey is a highly energetic performer and he can be very amusing but he needs a different role.

There is a great deal of dialogue in Russian or Ukrainian which may be unimportant because we do not understand what they are saying or we are to get the gist of it from the context which is even worse. Let’s just say that lengthy stretches of dialogue in a language that most of the audience does not understand is, to put it politely, annoying.


Luke Humphrey, Chala Hunter. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Ivan ends up in the house of The Professor (a very loud Ben Campbell) who has an even louder Housekeeper (Nancy Palk) and a Daughter (Amy Keating.) The Housekeeper does not speak English during the first half but she becomes very fluent after the intermission.

The play moves into surreal territory when Ivan enters a garden adjoining the house of The Professor. He meets the beautiful Artemisia (Chala Hunter), the daughter of the Doctor (Scott Wentworth). She does not speak but Ivan and she eventually establish rapport and fall in love. She finds her tongue in the second act.

The play does have a climactic scene which is indeed dramatic provided your attention has not wandered off by then. The mysterious garden and the isolation of Artemisia are explained by the radioactive poisoning caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The window adjoining the Professor’s house to the garden is locked because the garden is contaminated. The Doctor’s wife was near Chernobyl when the accident happened and she died a horrible death as a result of radioactive poisoning.

The foolish young Canadian who is to monitor elections that he knows nothing about; the Professor’s dysfunctional and ludicrous family and the overprotective doctor and his outlandish daughter are neither representative of a country in crisis nor even an intelligent comment on it.

Most of them attempt Russian or Ukrainian accents with varying success. The play, however hard director Richard Rose, tried to make it entertaining, lacks focus. Kushnir tries to cover too much ground. Bring in the dramaturge.  
                                           ______


Wormwood by Andrew Kushnir opened on November 18 and  continues until December 20, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontariowww.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, November 16, 2015

HERETIC – REVIEW OF SARAH THORPE’S TAKE ON JOAN OF ARC

By James Karas

Sarah Thorpe’s retelling of the story of Joan of Arc opens with a woman on her knees being asked to confess. She replies in a steady voice that is neither sanctimonious nor fearful that she has done nothing wrong. The words are spoken at the opening and closing of the play, moments before Joan, age 19, is executed. 

Thorpe’s curiosity about the young girl who at age 13 claimed to hear divine voices and became a French military hero has driven her to look for the young woman behind the saint and retell the story of Joan in her own way.


Sarah Thorpe. Photo: Laura Dittman (LD Photo & Video)

Thorpe is a tall woman who presents a Joan that has courage, persistence, fearlessness and faith. She is neither overly pious nor particularly deferential but gets her way by strength of character.

We are given some historical background and follow Joan’s story from a rebellious 13-year old that is flogged by her father to her confrontations with French clergy and nobility. We hear the story from a modern standpoint and Thorpe/Joan admits that she was not perfect and that she made mistakes.

Thorpe acts some of the parts of the people that Joan encounters with voice changes for some and prerecorded voices for others.

The show is all Sarah Thorpe. She makes good use of the stage; there is some humour and she is able to modulate her voice to marvelous effect. Joan of Arc is probably beyond comprehension but Thorpe’s version is a refreshing change from the usual image we get of the girl and young woman who was executed by the Catholic Church and then made a saint by the same institution. 
______

Heretic by Sarah Thorpe, produced by Soup Can Theatre, will run until November 22, 2015 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. http://soupcantheatre.com/ Tickets: www.artsboxoffice.ca/

Friday, November 13, 2015

THE TROUBLE WITH MR. ADAMS – REVIEW OF TARRAGON THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Trouble with Mr. Adams is a new play by Gord Rand that examines the relationship between a high school teacher and volleyball coach, and his star player, a pretty (almost) sixteen-year old girl.

There is plenty of material for a play in that situation and Rand attacks it head on but with limited success.

The 45-year old Mr. Adams (a passionate Chris Earle), feels that Cupid’s arrow has struck him and he has fallen in love with Mercedes (Sydney Owchar). Those are his words. Mr. Adams does have a few issues that should cause him to yank the arrow out of his heart, to wit: he is married, has two children, he is in a position of trust vis-à-vis the object of his passion, and the Board of Education, the Criminal Code, her parents and society in general, may, to put it very politely, take a dim view of his actions.
 Sydney Owchar and Chris Earle. Photo: Cylla vo Tiedemann 

None of which register on the self-righteous, blind (by love?) and perhaps fundamentally stupid Mr. Adams. After spending three hours with Mercedes in his car during a snowstorm (she missed the bus after a tournament) he announces to his wife Peggy (Philippa Domville) that he is leaving her.

That is the first of the three confrontations in the play. His wife is furious and demands to know what happened during those three hours in the car and his answer is: nothing. The argument takes a strange turn when Peggy seduces him into a rather graphic sex act which I guess is supposed to convince him that what he has at home is damn good and it is not worth being branded a pedophile. Perhaps but Mr. Adams is adamant.

The next confrontation is with Barbara (Allegra Fulton), the union’s tough lawyer who is also sexually attractive. She takes a prosecutorial attitude and he acts like a juvenile until he finally gets the message that the only way he can save his neck is by blackening Mercedes. Paint her as a tart and put a saintly tint on yourself. We are not sure how well the approach works because in the next scene, two years later, we find Mr. Adams teaching part time in St. Catharines, living in a basement apartment and not permitted to coach a girls’ team. Sounds like a split decision at discipline committee level without criminal prosecution.

In the final scene Mercedes, who is now 18 years old, and Mr. Adams meet in a motel room where she is staying during a tournament. He still has idiotic ideas about living with her and dreams of promoting her career as a volleyball player. She stays for too long talking with him and finally leaves to bring the play to an end.
 Philippa Domville and Chris Earle. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I have given a summary of the plot to point out the dramatic possibilities and some of the creaky aspects of the plot. Rand does not find enough substance in the relationship or in the characters to make for a satisfying drama. Whatever Mercedes’s attraction to her teacher, it is all too easy to file it, if not dismiss it, as a teenage crush or puppy love, if you will.    

Mr. Adams, however hard he tries to take the high ground by invoking the intervention of Fate through the offices of Cupid, comes out as no more than a horny, middle aged man who breaks the rules rather stupidly. Rand failed to find substance to create a convincing, fully-rounded if flawed human who attracts and repels us.

The performances within the confines of the play are very good. Philippa Domvilles’ furious and hurt wife comes through; Fulton’s Allegra is officious and finally helpful in suggesting how Mr. Adams can approach his problem; Owcher is good as the undeveloped character of Mercedes. She has outgrown Adams but she is still somewhat confused. We do not see her as the sixteen-year old who “fell in love” with her coach but Owcher’s performance cannot be faulted for that. Earle is full of passionate intensity like a teenager who has just discovered love but not common sense.

The same applies to Director Lisa Peterson who puts the best face on a flawed play.
______


The Trouble with Mr. Adams by Gord Rand runs until November 29, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, November 9, 2015

BANANA BOYS – REVIEW OF FACTORY THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Banana Boys is a complex play about Canadians of Asian origin who are neither assimilated nor  outsiders to the dominant culture of Canada. The play’s five characters are smart, articulate young men who speak perfect English and find themselves in a culture laden with prejudices and preconceptions about them and their forebears. As the title suggests derisively, these men are yellow on the outside but white inside. Are they Chinese or are they “Canadian.” In Canada, the answer should be a resounding “yes” but that may be is more easily said than practiced.
 The Banana Boys. Photo: Joseph Michael Photography
The play is based on Terry Woo’s novel which has been adapted by Leon Aureus. It covers a dazzling number of subjects from the obvious concern with stereotyping immigrants and people of a “different colour” to love, loss, ambitions, drugs, alcohol, identity and a number of other issues.

The five actors who play an array of characters are Darrel Gamotin, Matthew Gin, Oliver Koomsatira, Simu Liu and Philip Nozuka. They are an amazing group of performers. While covering a frequently changing array of topics and people, they showed astounding versatility and talent. They are almost acrobatic in their physical agility and their performances are more memorable than the play.

The set consists of a large table with an opening in the middle. The action takes place mostly on and around the table, in the square opening with judicious use of the steps in the auditorium. Director Nina Lee Aquino maintains a pace and discipline as if this were an Olympic event. Well done.

The word complex may be complimentary but can also mean confusing and both meanings are applicable to the play. It has a beginning, a middle and an end somewhere but you would be hard put to find it. Some of the anxieties, torments and turmoil, be they cultural or personal of the young men, are illustrated quite well. But there is so much going on, so fast and in such a disarray that your interest starts fading and you are just as likely to look at your watch as to try and follow every nuance of the performance.

The play and the novel have achieved success because they deal with Asian Canadians, a subject largely ignored on the cultural stage. The idea of the Canadian mosaic, multiculturalism and the avoidance of the American melting-pot approach to immigrants in favour of an inclusive Canadian ideal are all commendable if not always achieved or achievable. They are certainly a great subject for the theatre to explore.

How many plays have you seen recently about different ethnic groups in Canada? Not many. Now there is a startup that has endless possibilities. Banana Boys and a handful of other plays that are already around are a damn good start.       
_____

Banana Boys by Leon Aureus adapted from the novel by Terry Woo will run until November 22, 2015 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca

Saturday, November 7, 2015

HAMLET – REVIEW OF HART HOUSE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Hart House Theatre produces one of Shakespeare’s plays every year and for the current season it has tackled the big one: Hamlet. The play tests the mettle of most professional companies and one is not surprised that it gives a tough time to the mostly young and largely recent acting graduates.

Everyone has his own Hamlet and director Paolo Santalucia is no different. He has opted for a modern dress production right down to the iPhone. There is nothing to indicate royalty or a palace. In fact Santalucia and Set Designer Nancy Perrin go to great lengths to place the play in a down market milieu. 

Dan Mousseau as Hamlet. Photo: Scott Gorman 
The most prominent feature of the set is a pile of wooden chairs that dominate the right side of the stage. There are plastic curtains hanging on the left side with some scaffolding. Claudius (Cameron Johnston) sits on a wooden chair in his opening scene. The set looks like a basement storage room and one is hard put to understand what it is supposed to mean. A chair leg came in handy, however, for Hamlet to bludgeon Polonius with in Gertrude’s bedroom.

Musical Director Kristen Zara has inserted short pieces of music and songs and they were no doubt intended to enhance the action. I could not follow the modern music and could not figure out what a snippet from “Tales of the Vienna Woods” was supposed to add.

There were some dramatic scenes but most of the actors were clearly out of their depth. Shakespeare’s language is difficult at the best of times but a desire to deliver it at a fast speed without sufficient enunciation resulted in many syllables simply disappearing.

Hamlet is a very long play and judicious cuts are the norm rather than the exception. Dramaturge Susan Bond should have perhaps considered more aggressive deletions to keep the performance well under three hours and give the actors the luxury of delivering their line at slower speeds.

Hamlet has plenty of humour but much of it misfired or the audience laughed at scenes that were not particularly funny. Rosencrantz (Alan Shonfield) and Guildenstern (Dylan Evans) are usually good for a few laughs but this time they barely generated a twitter.

Dan Mousseau played a youthful Hamlet and he registered some dramatic effects. Unfortunately he has no poetry in him and we got no vocal modulation for Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters. It was all ordinary prose.

Johnston’s Claudius came out as a pretty ordinary fellow and, with a wig and a long shirt the Ghost (played by Johnstone) looked pretty ridiculous. They showed a large portrait of King Hamlet in the bedroom scene and he was a long way from looking like Hyperion.

One can quibble, criticize and argue about many aspects of every production of Hamlet. However it behooves us to keep in mind that these are young actors who got the chance to sink their teeth into one of the greatest plays in the world.

The audience sensed that and gave the production an enthusiastic approval.  
__________


Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on November 4 and will play until November 21, 2015 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

TANNHÄUSER – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Otto Schenk’s production of Tannhäuser for The Metropolitan Opera is 38 years old and it may be a throwback to a style that is more derided than emulated these days. It may be called loosely “realistic” but it is opera on a grand scale and a production that is a thrill to watch.

Wagner’s fifth opera opens in Venusberg, the abode of the goddess of love where the knight Tannhäuser has spent a year having the time of his life. Set Designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen provides a grandiose grotto with rising bluffs in the background. The lighting was not perfect and we missed the full effect of the set in the movie house. This is a place for carnal pleasure and perhaps even orgies.
 Peter Mattei as Wolfram, Johan Botha in the title role, Günther Groissböck as Landgraf Hermann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Choreographer Norbert Vesak gives a sensuous ballet sequence that is erotic to the point of decadence. Muscular men and gorgeous women dance with erotic wildness and Dionysian abandon.

The scene in the valley near Wartburg castle is equally grandiose. Mountains can be seen in the distance and there is a dirt road leading upward into the mountains and down into the valley. The castle of the next act is drawn on a similar scale. This is grand opera on a grand budget.

The singing is generally outstanding. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has a mellifluous voice and her Elisabeth shows passion and compassion. She scales the Wagnerian heights and appears to sing quite effortlessly.

Tenor Johan Botha has a fine voice but his Tannhäuser is problematic. Botha’s acting skills can charitably be described as limited. His facial expression remains practically unchanged through most of his performance. He does break into a mirthless smile on occasion and he attempts some emotional expression near the end of the opera with very little success.  His body language is almost non-existent and he barely moves his arms when singing. In other words he looks like a lump that can sing.

Botha suffers in comparison to baritone Peter Mattei in the role Wolfram. Mattei has an impressive and expressive voice but he is also an effective actor. He sings and moves with ease. His face and body movements express what he is singing and he gives us a sympathetic characterization. On the other hand, Botha’s Tannhäuser never gains our sympathy.     
   
Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung made a visually and vocally stunning Venus. The goddess dominates the first act of the opera and the singer must do some impressive vocal somersaults that require unerring agility and amplitude.

Wagner composed some stunning and some loud choruses for Tannhäuser and the Met chorus does quite a stupendous job.

The Met Opera Orchestra under James Levine deserves to be described as mighty. Hearing the overture to Tannhäuser alone is almost worth the price of admission. Well, I exaggerate but not by much.

Tannhäuser has some unpleasant aspects. The knight’s trip from a life of carnal pleasure in it to practically a brothel to severe piety is unconvincing not to say nauseating. Then there is Elizabeth’s faith in him and let’s not forget his pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope and coming home empty-handed! Are we supposed to take these things seriously?

Schenk’s production, the outstanding singing and the mostly fine performances of the singers and the great Met Orchestra iron out many of the problems and you end up enjoying the opera despite some of its shortcomings.
_____

Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner was transmitted Live in HD on October 31, 2015 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  There will be encore broadcasts on January 9, 11 and 13, 2016. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

PYRAMUS AND THISBE – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s choices for its second production for 2015-2016 can best be described as bold, innovative and commendable. It is advertised as Pyramus and Thisbe, a world premiere of a Canadian opera by Barbara Monk Feldman but there is more than that.

The first piece of the programme, which lasts only an hour and twenty minutes, is Lamento d’Arianna, a scene for solo soprano and orchestra and the only surviving fragment from Claudio Monteverdi’s second opera L’Arianna. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo sings the role of Ariadne, the Cretan princess who showed Theseus how to kill the dreaded Minotaur and find his way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus promised to marry her but on his way back to Athens he abandoned her on the island of Naxos.
Phillip Addis as Tancredi and Krisztina Szabó as Clorinda. Photo: Michael Cooper
Szabo as the betrayed and grief-stricken Ariadne sings of her love for Theseus, her anger and her desolate state. She is alone on an empty stage with only a chair to sit on. The music and the singing are elegiac, plaintive and heart-wrenching with bursts of anger when she curses her betrayer. A beautifully rendered piece.

The second part of the programme is Il combattimento di Tancrdi e Clorinda, a piece for three voices from another Monteverdi opera. The three voices are Szabo as Clorinda, baritone Phillip Addis as Tancredi and tenor Owen McCausland as Testo. Il combattimento has a plot. The Christian knight Tancredi does battle on the walls of Jerusalem with an infidel. He wounds the infidel who reveals that she is in fact his beloved, Clorinda – an infidel. She asks to be baptized before she dies on a note of Christian forgiveness.

Testo gives us a blow-by-blow description of the battle but the narrative rarely matches what the two warriors are doing. No problem. We are there to listen to the singing and not watch a brawl.

(l-r) Owen McCausland as the Narrator, Krisztina Szabó as Thisbe and Phillip Addis as Pyramus. Photo: Michael Cooper
The last work and I suppose the pièce de resistance of the evening is Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. Although the lovers are called Pyramus (Addis) and Thisbe (Szabo) we are quickly disabused of any notion that this is a retelling of Ovid’s tale of the tragic lovers or Shakespeare’s hilarious take on them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.     

Monk Feldman treats the lovers’ story as a tone poem sung in a slow, deliberate, often dream-like fashion. In addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Monk Feldman uses William Faulkner’s The Long Summer, St. John of Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus. The opera is sung mostly in English but there are sections in German and Latin.

The slow and deliberate pace used almost throughout the opera eventually becomes ponderous. Banal phrases seem to take a very long time to sing. There are some beautiful passages for the singers and the chorus but not enough to keep one from looking at his watch.

Director Christopher Alden takes a minimalist approach to the three pieces and that is commendable. Ariadne’s lament does not need any movement and the last thing we want is a swashbuckling scene between Tancredi and Clorinda. Pyramus and Thisbe as a tone poem for the stage is not entirely satisfactory.
_________
Pyramus and Thisbe  by Barbara Monk Feldman opened October 20 and will be performed a total of seven times until November 7, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Monday, October 26, 2015

ARMIDE – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier is celebrating its 30th Anniversary Season with a revival of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide. And why not? Co-Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg know a good thing when they see it.

The last production of Armide in 2012 went to the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. The current revival is travelling to the Royal Opera House at the Palace of Versailles in November.   
Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide). Photo by Bruce Zinger
Armide premiered in Paris in 1686 and it has characters with magical powers, demons, a visit to the Underworld and a Water Nymph. And that is an incomplete list. We have Renaud, a Christian virgin knight versus Armide, a Muslim, virgin warrior. She is a sexual magnet who is immune to attraction (except to Renaud) and Renaud who is just as immune except when influenced by magic. You get the idea.

Armide is opera as well as ballet and the problem is how to get everything on stage and have a successful production. You need magic. This production is a masterly exercise in operatic and balletic magic by Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg. The style is, we assume, high baroque and Lajeunesse Zingg as choreographer inserts graceful dance routines that blend with the action. Did I say it is magical?

Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye is Armide, the virgin princess who has walloped the Christians during the First Crusade but has not captured Renaud, the greatest knight whom she hates and loves. Today we would call her conflicted but don’t tell Lully that. Kriha Dye gives us a well-crafted portrait of the tragic princess.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth is the perfect Baroque opera hero and with his beautifully toned voice, the ultimate heroic knight. Armide’s magic magnetism makes him fall in love with her but his knights manage to break the spell with their own brand of magic.

The company of Armide. Photo by Bruce Zinger
The cast gave noteworthy performances. Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay were elegant and vocally beautiful as Armide’s companions. Baritone Daniel Belcher sang Hatred and guarded the Underworld with verve and panache. Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus did a fine job as Hidraot, Armide’s uncle who recommends marriage for her.      

The set by Gerard Gauci, the lighting by Bonnie Beecher and the costumes by Dora Rust d’Eye show fine eyes for colour, elegance and variety. The opera may be set in medieval Damascus but we see the splendours of Versailles on stage from the gorgeous gowns to the graceful dancers of the Atelier Ballet.
David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performing to its usually high standards Lully’s score on original instruments.          

If you feel you are impervious to opera the way Renaud and Armide thought they were impervious to love go and see this production and you will find yourself begging for more.
           ____


Armide  by Jean-Baptiste Lully with libretto by Philippe Quinault based on Torquato Tasso’s  Jerusalem Delivered opened on October 22  and be performed six times until October 31, 2015 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com