Thursday, May 28, 2015

THE PHYSICISTS - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is a brilliant play that turns the world upside down with intelligence and humour. The Stratford Festival has given it a superb production directed by Miles Potter.

Three physicists are in a lunatic asylum. Herbert Georg Beutler (Graham Abbey) thinks he is Newton. He wears a wig and 17th century clothes. Ernst Heinrich, Ernesti (Mike Nadajewski) thinks he is Einstein. Johann Mobius (Geraint Wyn Davies) talks with King Solomon. They are nuts.

The staff of the asylum is just as looney. Head Nurse Marta (Karen Robinson) and psychiatrist von Zahnd (Seana McKenna) are fit to be tied.
 Members of the company in The Physicists. Photography by David Hou
Einstein has strangled a nurse and Inspector Voss (Randy Hughson) has come to investigate the “incident.” The perpetrator is insane and there can be no murder or murderer.

The plot gets complicated but in the meantime we are treated to some fine acting, plenty of laughter and sheer fascination created by Durrenmatt’s world view. Randy Hughson is hilarious as the inspector. He is a world-weary cop who wants to smoke, have a drink and go through the motions of investigating something that he knows he cannot investigate.

Abbey as Newton has adopted the refined manners and gestures of a seventeenth century gentleman but he confides in us that he knows he is not Newton. In fact he is Einstein but pretends to be Newton in order not to hurt Ernesti’s feelings.

Nadajewski with his messy hair standing and a violin in his hand is a looney-looking Einstein.   

Mobius his hair mussed up and claiming direct contact with King Solomon looks crazier than the rest and eventually we do find out the reason.

McKenna in a white hospital gown, a white wig and a hunched back is at her usual best as the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist.

Durrenmatt takes on  the serious subject of the responsibility of scientists at a time (1962) when the devastation caused by the atomic bomb was a recent memory and the development of nuclear weapons during the cold war presented a clear and present danger.

Seana McKenna as Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd and Mike Nadajewski as Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (alias Einstein) in The Physicists. Photography by David Hou.
As it turns out the physicists are not lunatics at all. Einstein and Newton are spies for great powers and pretending to be insane in order to get the manuscripts of the genius Mobius. All three have murdered nurses because the victims were getting close to discovering the truth about the mental state and the intentions of the scientists.

Durrenmatt calls for a posh lunatic asylum but that type of set is impossible in the Tom Patterson Theatre. Set Designer Peter Hartwell has the stage strewn with furniture after the murders and has a well laid out table for dinner to indicate a different class nuthouse.

The production is an adaptation by Michael Healy using colloquial language and it works quite well.

Director Miles Potter has put together a fine production of a humorous, intelligent and thought-provoking work by an author who is not produced very frequently at all.
    ______

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt, adapted by Michael Healy, opened on May 27 and will run in repertory until September 20, 2015 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE SOUND OF MUSIC - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has chosen The Sound of Music as its big offering for the current season. It is a grand production, successful and thoroughly enjoyable from every point of view.

You may now stop reading the rest of the review and go to Stratford to see the great musical.

I have to justify my press tickets and write a few more words of praise after a marvelous evening at the theatre.
 
Members of the company in The Sound of Music. Photography by David Hou.
Let’s start with the overall production values for which chief praise belongs to Donna Feore who directs and choreographs the staging. The large cast, the numerous scene changes (there are twenty listed in the script), the adroit dancing and the concomitant complexities would tax the stamina of a general. Feore seems to handle it with aplomb and the result is musical comedy at its best. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco deserves great credit for sets that can be changed quickly and go from an abbey to mountainside, the von Trapp mansion and a concert hall.

The performance is dominated by Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria, the postulant who is sent to the house of Captain von Trapp (Ben Carlson) to look after his seven children. Rothenberg sings gorgeously and is highly entertaining. Carlson starts as the humourless naval officer but develops into a loving father and husband as well as a singer. With seven wonderful children who sing, dance and create humour not a single heart string is left unplucked.

Anita Krause leads an abbeyful of similarly attired nuns (what did you expect?) but she shines as the Mother Abbess who belts out the soaring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

Robin Evan Willis is the wealthy and stunning Elsa who wants to marry the captain. She has all the attributes that men dream of with one minor defect – she is a Nazi. Auf Wiedersehen, Elsa.

Shane Carty gets all the laughs assigned to Max Detweiler, the cynical friend of the family and the invading Nazis who is instrumental in having the von Trapp singers perform in a concert and escape.

It would be churlish to complain about anything after being so thoroughly entertained by such a thrilling and extraordinary production. I have no complaints.
        _______


The Sound of Music, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, opened on May 26, 2015 and will run in repertory until October 18, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

HAMLET – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Members of the company in Hamlet. Photography by David Hou
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival launched its current season with the usual fanfare and a production of Hamlet. Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s Artistic Director, directs a production that has some virtues, some interesting interpretations and some infelicitous moments.

Cimolino gave the lead role to Jonathan Goad, an actor who has done a considerable number of Shakespearean roles at Stratford. At 43, he still looks athletic and fit for the role of the popular prince. There are several issues with his performance some of which fall on the lap of Cimolino others that are Goad’s own.  

The main problem is his sense of poetry and emotional depth. Goad has a limited feel for iambic pentameters and he does not allow the flow of Shakespeare’s language to carry through. He delivers some of his soliloquies as if he were addressing the public. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is a rumination on life death and the hereafter. Goad looks straight at the audience as if her were speaking to, say, a large lecture hall.

When he considers catching Claudius during a performance of The Mousetrap he recalls to have heard that people sitting at a play have been so affected by the scene that they have confessed their guilt. On “sitting at a play” Goad pointed to the audience and got a laugh. For that second Goad stepped out of character for a cheap laugh.

Hamlet has some of the greatest moments in theatrical literature and Goad falls short of the emotional depths demanded by the play. He gets a decent mark for his performance but not a great one.

Geraint Wyn Evans makes a very good Claudius. He usually wears a suit except in a couple of scenes where he wears monarchical regalia. The production seems to be set around one hundred years ago. Claudius is not openly dictatorial and in fact he makes some effort to be friendly with people by touching and hugging them a bit too much. Royalty is usually aloof but Claudius has a different approach probably because of his guilty conscience.

Seana McKenna with her distinctive and expressive voice makes a very effective Gertrude. She wears several fancy dresses and is effective in the bedroom scene. Goad  is different. Rather than aiming his devastating accusations right at her, Hamlet walks around the stage. He tells his mother to repent her past sins and avoid the disgusting Claudius. She does nothing of the kind. When Claudius arrives at the end of the scene, she embraces him. This is an interesting take on the scene and supported by the text.
 Adrienne Gould as Ophelia and Jonathan Goad as Hamlet in Hamlet. Photography by David Hou.
Adrienne Gould is a dramatic and affecting Ophelia during her sanity and madness. A fine performance.

Tom Rooney’s Polonius is, in the words of T. S. Eliot, politic, cautious, and meticulous and full of high sentence but he is neither obtuse nor almost ridiculous. He is a bit garrulous but Cimolino prefers to give us a straight Polonius even though he garners a few laughs.

In the opening scene, we see some soldiers march solemnly towards a hole on the stage. We see them at the end of the performance march on stage again. The hole is Hamlet’s grave. Effective.

The scene with the nervous guards at the beginning works very well and the Ghost shining a flashlight is done simply and effectively. The Ghost is played by Wyn Evans.

Tim Campbell plays a very sympathetic Horatio. With him as well as with Hamlet and Rosencrantz (Sanjay Talwar) and Guildenstern (Steve Ross) you wonder if they are not a bit too old to be attending university but that should only be a minor afterthought.

The production should generate discussion, praise and disagreement. A pretty good result.
______

Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on May 25 and will run in repertory  until October 11, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, May 25, 2015

SWEET CHARITY – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION



Kyle Blair as Oscar Lindquist and Julie Martell as Charity Valentine in Sweet Charity. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Reviewed by James Karas

Sweet Charity is a 1966 Broadway musical that the Shaw Festival has revived as its flagship musical of the season. It is an old style musical which means it has songs with melodies that are integrated in the plot. The plot itself consists of interconnected episodes in the life of Charity Valentine, “a hooker with a heart of gold” as they say. The episodes and humour are 1960’s vintage and familiar to those of a certain age from television musical comedy shows and films.

The production and the performance deserve words of praise that are unfortunately peppered with reservations. The ultimate conclusion will be that is that this is a good, energetic production with some very good dance routines but not entirely successful. Julie Martell’s singing is good and but one wanted it to be better. That holds for the rest of the singers. They leap when you expect them to soar. 

Charity works in the Fandango dance hall as a dance hostess. Her co-worker puts it less charitably as the rent-a-body job. Charity does have a heart of gold, she dreams of a better life and, to put unkindly, is just plain stupid.

We meet Charity in Central Park imagining being engaged to a hunk of a man who simply pushes her in the lake and steals her purse. Neil Simon, who wrote the book, satirizes the New Yorkers for their aloofness as they watch the young woman drowning and run away. A Spaniard, a foreigner, saves her.  
 
Mark Uhre as Vittorio Vidal and Jacqueline Thair as Ursula inSweet Charity. Photo by Emily Cooper
In the next scene, Charity ends up on the arm of movie star Vittorio Vidal (Mark Uhre). He has an argument with his dizzy blonde girlfriend Ursula (Jacqueline Thair). Charity ends up in Vittorio’s apartment (“If my friends could only see me now” she sings) but the party is broken up when Ursula arrives. There is ample opportunity for farcical comedy and director Morris Panych takes advantage of it as Charity tries to hide from the jealous and suspicious Ursula.

Charity tries to upgrade herself by going to classes at the YMCA. She is trapped in an elevator with Oscar (Kyle Blair), a decent, shy, claustrophobic, slightly damaged young man and they end up going to a hippie church and are subsequently stuck on a Ferris wheel. She is afraid of heights. There is comedy, touching emotional contact and singing as the two “losers” reach out and fall in love.     

Jay Turvey plays the dictatorial but amusing owner of the Fandango. Nickie (Kimberley Rampersad) and Helene (Melanie Philipson) are Charity’s friends at the Fandango who have their feet on the ground and their dreams of a better life in check.
Neil Simon, Cy Coleman (book) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) created a very good show combining comedy, dance and songs. Musical Director Paul Sportelli has decided to jazz up the original instrumentation with, in his words, “electric bass, electric guitar and an array of classic keyboard sounds.”  It made the orchestra louder without improving the sound of the music.

We approach the final scene of Sweet Charity hoping that the hooker’s dream will be fulfilled; she and Oscar will find happiness running a Mobil gas station and love will triumph. Alas.
______

Sweet Charity by Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) will run in repertory until October 31, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com

Sunday, May 24, 2015

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Daly as Prentiss, Kate Besworth as Molly, Charlie Gallant as Boy and Andrew Broderick as Ted in Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas

Peter and the Starcatcher can fairly and accurately be described in the hackneyed phrase as “a show for all ages.” It is rowdy, action-packed, fantastical, funny and very literate. The last accolade is very significant because your youngster should be very bright to enjoy the allusions, anachronistic references and malapropisms that fill the play.

The play, with some wonderful songs by Wayne Barker, is based on Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry’s and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 children’s novel. Rick Elice has extracted a play from the novel and the result is bountiful fun.

A stageful of young and not-so-young people in what looks like the hull of an old ship set off for separate voyages carrying two trunks. We are in the heyday of the British Empire, Queen Victoria is our sovereign and the Never Land and the Wasp set sail for mythical Rundoon.

The plot of many twists on board the Never Land and the Wasp revolves around the Boy (Charlie Gallant) and Molly (Kate Besworth), the contents of the trunks and the misadventures of everyone.  The Boy is an unhappy orphan who has been put on the Never Land to be gotten rid of. He will eventually acquire a first name and a surname and learn to fly. This is just the beginning for him and he will become very famous because his name is Peter Pan.

His friend and competitor is the feisty, competitive and intelligent Molly, the daughter of Lord Aster (Patrick Galligan). Besworth’s Molly is athletic, assertive, and simply delightful.

We have pirates especially Black Stache (Martin Happer) with his trademark black mustache and his torture of the English language. Stache has a hilarious sidekick in Smee (Jonathan Tan) who somehow ends up as a mermaid.

Jonathan Tan as Smee, Patrick Galligan as Lord Aster and Martin Happer as Black Stache, with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper.
Billy Lake gets to play four nasty people from the sadistic schoolteacher Grempkin, to Sanchez, the worst sailor ever and Fighting Prawn, the chief of the Mollusk Islanders. He will rhyme off enough Italian dishes to fill a large restaurant menu.

There is also Alf (Shawn Wright) a gruff sailor that you should assiduously avoid lest he lean over and, as Chaucer put it, “let fly a fart as loud as it had been a thunder-clap” which he does!

The play is simply hilarious. The day I saw it (May 21, 2015) there was a busload of children who added immensely to the pleasure of the play. Their reactions were so wonderful and refreshing that they became part of the performance. When Peter gives a tiny kiss to Molly, the reaction of the youngsters was a prolonged “woooo.” They also laughed uproariously and their elation was infectious.

Director Jackie Maxwell leaves no star unturned to achieve a major comic event and a play that has fantasy and wonder and indeed star-catching.

Combine fantasy, magic, fun and literate repartee and you have a splendid show. It is a rare combination and if you have a youngster within reach, grab her or him and rush them off to Niagara-on-the-Lake. You will be doing yourself a great favour.       
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Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice continues in repertory until November 1, 2015 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Friday, May 22, 2015

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL HD PRODUCTION ON THE BIG SCREEN

Geraint Wyn Davies (left) as Mark Antony and Ben Carlson as Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival plans to film all of Shakespeare’s plays over the next ten years. It has already released three productions, King Lear, King John and Antony and Cleopatra and one can express only gratitude for the plan and restrain from griping (almost) about some of the defects.

The 2014 production of Antony and Cleopatra was directed by Gary Griffin in the Tom Patterson Theatre with an outstanding cast. The filmed version looks great on the big screen and it would have looked even better if Barry Avrich, the director for film exercised restraint and better judgment.

Geraint Wyn Evans gives a powerful performance as Mark Antony, one of the three men who took over the fate of a significant part of the western world after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

We see Antony in the fall if not winter of his life, living in Egypt and besotted with Cleopatra. Wyn Davies shows us Antony’s passion, arrogance, decency and his lack of the killer instinct. Antony has an agreeable face and is ready to grin, even smile. He is also arrogant and unable to stay away from Cleopatra despite his political duties in Rome. A superbly nuanced performance by Wyn Davies.

He is well-matched by the passionate and histrionic performance of Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra. This is a Cleopatra to be reckoned with. She is irrational, cunning, imperious and ambitious. McIntosh gives an outstanding performance.

It is interesting to compare Mark Antony with Ben Carlson’s Octavius Caesar and Brian Tree’s Pompey. The latter is a straight-laced soldier – dour, unsmiling, and “regular army,” as they say. He too lacks the killer instinct to eliminate his opponents. Octavius has a kindly-looking face but he is ambitious, crafty and duplicitous. Not surprisingly he ends up as the emperor. Lepidus, the other member of the triumvirate, played well by Randy Hughson, is an ineffectual old man and a peacemaker. He is easily eliminated.

Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra and Geraint Wyn Davies as Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by David Hou.
The large cast performs very well with some distinguished performances by Tom McCamus as the Enobarbus, Antony’s friend who eventually betrays him; Sophia Walker as Charmian, Cleopatra’s faithful servant and Sean Arbuckle as Mecenas.

On the large screen we are able to see facial expressions and movements that are impossible to notice in the theatre. We can see every grimace and expression of Wyn Davis and McIntosh as well as every wrinkle in McCamus’s expressive face.

The cameras capture all angles of the thrust stage of the Tom Patterson. Depending on where you are seated, you are bound to lose some or much of the performers’ faces in the theatre.

But there is such a thing as too much detail and far too many camera angles and close-ups. Avrich keeps clicking on different angles when the actors and the scene are perfectly visible. Just let us listen to what is being said and what is happening in the scene. We do not need a different angle every few seconds. You get the feeling that Avrich has no idea what a performance looks like in the theatre and is treating us as if we are watching a television show.

It is a constant complaint of mine and perhaps we can get some theatre goer to direct the filmed versions of plays - someone who knows the benefit of concentrating on the play instead of on camera angles.
____________

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare was shown on May 21, 2015 at the   Cineplex Cinemas Queensway & VIP, 1025 The Queensway, Etobicoke, ON, M8Z 6C7 and other theatres. It will be shown again on June 7, 2015. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Thursday, May 21, 2015

YOU NEVER CAN TELL – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Julia Course as Gloria Clandon, Tara Rosling as Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, Peter Krantz as Finch M’Comas, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Philip Clandon and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Dolly Clandon. Photo by David Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

You Never Can Tell, one of Bernard Shaw’s early comedies, gets a spirited production at the Royal George Theatre. Director Jim Mezon throws in everything to generate energy and excitement in a play that is light by Shavian standards and by no means one of his best. But Shaw never lets you off without commentary about women’s rights, meritocracy and social issues.  

The play is set in a seaside resort in southern England where we meet the Clandons. They are not your typical family. Mrs. Clandon (Tara Rosling), abandoned her husband and England and has been living in Madeira for 18 years with her twins. This is her first trip back to England. She is smart, self-supporting and revolutionary in her views.

Her twins Philip (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and Dolly (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) are supercharged, giddy, sometimes annoying and frequently very funny.

She has a very serious daughter, Gloria (Julia Course), who is made to look very unattractive in the early scenes. She has a nose that is so sharp she can cut down trees with it.  Near the end of the play, she heaves her ugly glasses and appears very attractive. Course carries herself well as the self-possessed, self-assured new woman of the twentieth century who eventually falls in love.

The “opposite” of the Clandon children is the penniless dentist Valentine (Gray Powell). He has had only one patient, he is willing to do anything for a few shillings and is a lively young man. Powell handles the role with relish.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Tara Rosling, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Gray Powell. Photo by Emily Cooper.
The Clandon children have a peculiar problem: they do not know who their father is and demand that their mother tell them.

Patrick McManus plays the dour, irascible and morose Fergus, the father of the Clandon children. His red cheeks bespeak his drinking habits and his temper makes him funny despite himself. Peter Krantz has the delightful role of Finch M’Comus, a solicitor, who can’t get anywhere with anything. He is funny.

The play has a waiter who is stiff, proper, wise and amusing. Peter Millard plays William with ritualistic movements and comes to dominate the scenes that he is in.

The sets by Leslie Frankish from the dentist’s office to scenes in the hotel are bright, colourful and indeed help create a carnival atmosphere suitable to a play where anything is possible and you never can tell what will happen next.
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You Never Can Tell by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 25, 2015 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

THE LADY FROM THE SEA – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Moya O’Connell as Ellida Wangel, Kyle Blair as Mr. Lyngstrandand Andrew Bunker as Professor Arnholm in The Lady from the Sea. Photo by David Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival shows great fidelity to the title of The Lady from the Sea. As the lights go on in the Court House Theatre we see a large rock in the centre of the stage with a naked woman lying on it. Her hair is drenched and she slowly wakes up like a mermaid washed on shore and slowly walks off.

Henrik Ibsen’s play is produced “in a new version by Erin Shields and that is always a cause for concern. A new translation, perhaps, but what is wrong with the original that we need a new version? More of this later.

The lady from the sea is Ellida Wangel (Moya O’Connell), a passionate woman married to Dr Wangel (Ric Reid), a much older man, living in a small town on a fjord in northern Norway. She is a prisoner of the landlocked little town, of her marriage of convenience and of her love for a stranger whom she met some years before. She is drawn to the sea and wants desperately to become free.

O’Connell must convey all of those conflicts and emotions. From appearing as the mermaid in the opening scene to her impassioned encounter with The Stranger (Mark Uhre), she is a woman trapped by her past secret declaration of love, her physical surroundings and her longing to fulfil her raging passion. O’Connell manages to convey much of Ellida’s condition in her fine performance.

Ric Reid as Dr Wangel is decent, confused and willing to do anything for his wife but unable to grasp what is happening until the very end.       

Ellida is Dr Wangel’s second wife and he has two daughters from his first marriage, Bollette (Jacqueline Thair) and Hilde (Darcy Gerhart). They are both searching for love, freedom or escape on a minor scale when  compared to their stepmother Ellida.

Kyle Blair plays Hans Lyngstrand, a sculptor with health problems who provides a link to The Stranger’s possible criminal past. Andrew Bunker plays Professor Arnholm, who courts Bollette. Neil Barclay has the small role of Ballested, an artist who has no particular role in this version of the play.

The play has five acts and takes place in different parts of Wangel’s garden. One act is set high on a hill with a panoramic view of the fjord. This production has the rock of the opening scene as the basic set with a couple of items added to indicate a change of scenery. It would take a large theatre with an even larger budget to accommodate Ibsen’s stage directions.

Shields has tightened up the play so that is can be done in about ninety minutes without intermission. Director Meg Roe follows suit by maintaining a taut pace and not allowing any unnecessary pauses in the action. A fine job.

The Lady from the Sea is produced infrequently compared to some of Ibsen’s other plays and many times in a “version.” That seems to be the fate of many classics that we admire in name but don’t rush to see in the theatre in their original form. It may simply be a change in tastes. 

The result at the Shaw Festival is a fine production and we are grateful to see an Ibsen play even in a “version.” The Shaw Festival has produced only six plays by Ibsen since 1974.  That is pretty sad. Shaw was a great admirer if Ibsen and it is ironic that his plays are so roundly ignored.
______


The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Erin Shields will run in repertory until September 13, 2015 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE – REVIEW OF COC ENSEMBLE STUDIO PERFORMANCE

(l-r) Clarence Frazer as Figaro, Andrew Haji as Count Almaviva, Charlotte Burrage as Rosina, Gordon Bintner as Don Basilio, Karine Boucher as Berta and Iain MacNeil as Doctor Bartolo. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company does much more than produce operas. Through its Ensemble Studio, it also trains opera professionals. What is more the COC gives some of the students the opportunity to perform in a major production at the Four Seasons Centre before a live audience.
           
One of the twelve performances of The Barber of Seville (May 15, 2015) this year was given to the Ensemble with creditable results before an enthusiastic audience.

Ensemble Studio member Clarence Frazer replaced Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in the regular performance on May 13 and sang the role in the Ensemble Studio production. Like most starters, he needs some polishing in his performance but there is no reason not to expect to see him again.

The role of Count Almaviva was shared by tenors Andrew Haji in Act I and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in Act II. Haji has a fine mid-range but his high notes still need some development.    Set Designer Joan Guillén has created an oversized guitar on which the tenor perches when serenading Rosina in the opening scene. It is not a comfortable place to be on and loss of footing could result in a tumble on the stage. Not a good place to deliver an aria from.

Fortier-Lazure has a fine, light voice and some nice comic touches in his performance in Act II. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage sang a fine and lively Rosina but she needed to be a bit more assertive in “Una voce poco fa.” Rosina is playful and self-assured but she almost needs to show some teeth to convince us that she will be victorious no matter what the obstacles. Still a very good performance.

 Charlotte Burrage as Rosina and Andrew Haji as Count Almaviva. Photo: Michael Cooper

Bass-baritone Iain MacNeil is only a first-year member of the Ensemble Studio and was given the role of the comical and foolish Dr. Bartolo. It takes some good singing and clowning to succeed in the part and MacNeil did just fine.

Rosina’a governess Berta gets to hang around for most of the evening but Rossini did write a very pleasant aria for her, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie (“The old man seeks a wife”). Soprano Karine Boucher, a first year Ensemble Studio member, has a very attractive voice with a lilt and she gave a splendid rendition of the aria. 

Unfortunately, Director Joan Font and Costume and Set Designer Joan Guillén seem to work against her. As she was singing a couple was making a bed on top of the over-sized grand piano. They laid sheets, a blanket, a pillow and got under the blanket. This type of side-show is the hallmark of this production and it was annoying throughout the performance.

The performance is judged through the prism of seeing young singers honing their skills based on their innate talents. Unlike the regular cast, the Ensemble Studio members get only a single performance unless they replace a singer whom they are understudying.

What they do is good for everyone especially for the enthusiastic audience that gave them a standing ovation. 
_________


The Barber of Seville by Giacomo Rossini with libretto by Cesare Sterbini was performed once on May 15, 2015 by mostly members of the COC Ensemble Studio at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Friday, May 15, 2015

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE – REVIEW OF COC PRODUCTION

Scene from Act II finale. Photo: Chris Hutcheson
Reviewed by James Karas
           
The Barber of Seville, the Canadian Opera Company’s chestnut offering for its spring season, paired with Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung, is disappointing. The singing is uneven and Joan Font’s production is misguided.

When the curtain opens on what should be a square in Seville, we see a large beige screen on our left and a large black screen on our right. There is almost nothing else on the stage. A man waving a bottle staggers around and a woman with a hairdo that looks like the tusk of a rhinoceros is seated on a bench. I figure that they are the town drunk and bag lady. We will see them a number of times without being any the wiser about what they are doing in the opera. One conclusion is that our well-off, heroine Rosina is living on the wrong side of the tracks.

Fiorello (Iain MacNeill) and his crooners arrive to serenade Rosina (Cecelia Hall) on behalf of Count Almaviva (Alek Shrader). The drunk and the bag lady stick around and the early risers of Seville mill around the square. Eventually light is shone on the black screen and there is an opening where Rosina appears. This is supposed to be the balcony.

The scene switches to the interior of Rosina’s house and, like the square and perhaps like the current Spanish economy, it has seen better days. There is very little furniture except for a grand piano the size of a boat and a balcony that looks like scaffolding from which to paint the house. This is depressing.

Director Joan Font and Costume and Set Designer Joan Guillén have a vision of The Barber as taking place in untraditional surroundings that, unfortunately, add nothing to the opera.

Font believes in having many people milling around for no apparent reason. Some of them move robotically, others are old and have nothing to do but the stage is almost never empty of extras that have no apparent business being where they are. Is this a comment, again, on the current high unemployment numbers in Spain and people are kept around even if there is nothing for them to do?

Font’s idiosyncratic production received little help from the uneven singing. The performance that I saw (May 13) had several cast changes. Baritone Clarence Frazer replaced Joshua Hopkins as Figaro. Frazer has a light baritone voice and did reasonably well in the role. He was uncertain of his moves as in “Largo al factotum” where he should establish his assertiveness and energy but looked rather uncomfortable instead.

Tenor Alek Shrader was a disappointing Count Almaviva. His voice was strained where it should have been mellifluously lyrical and flat where it should have soared. He was clearly not at his best.

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall was a vivacious and attractive Rosina. She did a good job delivering her signature cavatina “Una voce poco fa” and her performance was one of the most satisfactory of the evening.

Baritone Renato Girolami sang well as the foolish Doctor Bartolo and showed a fine comic sense for the role. Bass Robert Gleadow as the music teacher Don Basilio has a deep and impressive voice combined with comic turns and he did well especially in his character’s signature aria “La Calumnia.”

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the baton of Rory Macdonald did not suffer from any of the issues that diminished one’s enjoyment of the opera. They were splendid.

From the drab sets to the tiresome appearance of people in scenes where they have no business to the uneven singing, this was not a Barber of Seville to remember with unalloyed pleasure.
_________

The Barber of Seville by Giacomo Rossini with libretto by Cesare Sterbini opened on April 17 and will be performed twelve times until May 22, 2015 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Thursday, May 14, 2015

HAY FEVER – REVIEW OF COWARD’S PLAY AT THE DUKE OF YORK’S THEATRE, LONDON

Reviewed by James Karas

Is it possible to stage Noel Coward’s Hay Fever with a talented actor like Felicity Kendal, directed by an equally talented director like Lindsay Posner and produce a … well, a dud?

Yes.

The current production now playing at the Duke of York Theatre in London was first performed at the Theatre Royal Bath in August 2014. The set is beautiful, the cast is excellent and there is no reason why it does not work. Yet it does not.


Coward himself said that Hay Fever was “far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have ever encountered.” The difficulty may be in the fact that the rudeness and mistreatment of people is difficult to make amusing.

The Bliss family is eccentric, egocentric, free-spirited and in their own world. Judith (Felicity Kendal), the mother, is a former actress and is flamboyant and theatrical as becomes a star. Her husband David (Simon Shepherd) is a novelist with his own eccentricities. Their children Sorel (Alice Orr-Ewing) and Simon (Edward Franklin) are rude, spoiled brats who have no regard for other people. They do not possess even a  modicum of good manners.

The Blisses have a home in the country beautifully designed by Peter McKintosh and lit by Paul Pyant.    

Each of the Blisses invites a guest for the weekend to their country home without informing the others. Four guests arrive and they are treated with astounding rudeness and callousness. The maid (played by Mossie Smith with almost no laughs) opens the door and immediately slams it in the face of the guests. The guests extend a polite hand to Sorel and Simon and they ignore them and walk away. What should be amusing to the audience as eccentricity comes out as simply and merely offensive.

Michael Simkins as the three-piece-suited diplomat is amusing in his awkwardness and correctness in an embarrassing situation. Edward Kilpatrick as the boxer Sandy is the butt of Judith’s and Sorel’s amusement. Celeste Dodwell as Jackie and Sara Stewart as Myra are more or less helpless victims of the Bliss family.

That is not how things should work. The eccentricity of the Bliss family should be (and in many productions clearly is) a source of humour and not unease for the audience.
Felicity Kendal can and does handle the character of Judith with aplomb but the production as a whole simply misfires and the audience is treated to only a few laughs.

Too bad.
_____


Hay Fever  by Noel Coward continues until August 1, 2015 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2, England.      

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE AND ERWARTUNG – REVIEW OF LEPAGE PRODUCTIONS FOR COC


John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company is wrapping up its current season with a triumphal revival of Robert Lepage’s 1993 productions of Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung

Lepage, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine and Lighting Designer Robert Thomson give both operas dark, forbidding, mysterious and frightful atmospheres. Indeed the world they create is surreal, psychotic and incomprehensible.

Bass John Relyea is an impressive and imposing Bluebeard. Dressed in a buttoned-up officer’s uniform, he looks like an aristocratic gentleman. Relyea has a deep, rolling voice that is expressive and threatening but shows tenderness as well. He has a house full of horrors but he keeps asking Judith if she is afraid. The opera leads inevitably towards the sixth and seventh doors that will seal her fate as the wife of the Duke. Relyea gives an impressive performance vocally and looks like a self-possessed, mysterious, aristocrat who hides much evil and many secrets behind a civil façade.

Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova is a strikingly blonde Judith who insists that she is not afraid of the Duke and that she loves him. Her driving curiosity pushes her to the final door of the castle where she will find her position in the Duke’s universe.

Gubanova showed great emotional intensity as she moved from one door to the next. Her voice was not always as strong as one would have liked, but she gave a signature performance in a tough role.

Lepage sets Bluebeard’s Castle in early twentieth century Europe. For both operas the stage is set in a gold frame and darkness dominates every scene. The seven doors of Bluebeard’s castle are shown as silhouettes of brightly lit keyholes on both sides of the stage. A concrete wall dominates the right side of the stage and Judith opens the doors on the left side.

We see mostly Judith’s reaction to what lies behind the doors except when she opens the fifth door and we see a vista of the Duke’s empire projected in a kaleidoscope of colours.

Blood is a central image in the opera but Lepage does not dwell on it. There is blood on Judith’s wedding dress and there are projected images of blood but darkness remains the overriding impression.

It is a stunningly well-sung, well-conceived and well-produced staging of the opera.


Krisztina Szabó as the Woman. Photo: Michael Cooper

Erwartung (“Expectation”) is a one-act monodrama in which a Woman is searching or expecting a man, her lover. She is searching in the dark with the same concrete wall as in Bluebeard as a main feature of the set.

There is a man in a white coat taking notes for a while and people emerge horizontally from the wall. There is a cot on the stage that looks very much like a hospital bed. The woman is hallucinating or is mentally disturbed. We do not know as she continues her search and finds a man. He is her lover but he apparently has a mistress.

Schoenberg wrote some extraordinarily dramatic music for this opera that keeps you enthralled for the half hour that it lasts.

Mezzo soprano Kristina Szabo goes through all the emotional permutations that the Woman suffers with powerful singing and acting. This is opera in a different dimension.

The two operas take two hours to perform including an intermission. They have many points in common and Lepage’s production capitalizes on them to give us a unified whole of two different works.

The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus produces outstanding performances of Bartok’s and Schoenberg’s complex music.

The result is a great night at the opera.      
____

Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok and Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg opened on May 6 and will be performed seven times until May 23, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Thursday, May 7, 2015

THE AUDIENCE – REVIEW OF MORGAN’S PLAY AT APOLLO THEATRE, LONDON



 Kristin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth II with the cast of the The Audience. Photo: Johan Persson

Reviewed by James Karas

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom goes to Buckingham Palace every Tuesday to bring the queen up to speed on what is happening in the nation. It is a long standing tradition but what is said is completely confidential. Playwright Peter Morgan has written a delightful play based on fictional meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and eight of the twelve Prime Ministers who have served under her since her coronation in 1952.

The role of the queen was originally created by the inimitable Helen Mirren and the play has now been revived in London with Kristin Scott Thomas in the leading role with a different cast for the rest of the characters. Mirren is reprising the role in New York.

I take the advice of Dogberry that comparisons are odorous and will refrain from making any references to Mirren’s performance.

The play is funny, touching, immensely fascinating, highly informative (even if fictitious) and simply wonderful theatre.

Scott Thomas’s Elizabeth is intelligent, statuesque, regal, humane and knowledgeable with a highly ingrained sense of duty and entitlement. We see Elizabeth as young girl (played by other actors), as a young woman in 1952 and successively through the rest of the twentieth century and into the 21st century when she meets Gordon Brown and David Cameron. She changes dresses, make up and wigs with impeccable speed sometimes on stage and at other times during brief intervals when she is in the wings.

Footmen, horse guards, an equerry, private staff are all lined up to provide service that is so flawless it is almost ritualistic. A private audience room with rich furnishings, high columns and ceiling makes up the opulent background. This is no middleclass shack.

The Prime Ministers may bear some verisimilitude to what is known about them but Morgan exaggerates their conduct for humour and is quite successful at it.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth II, with Nicholas Woodeson as Harold Wilson. Photo:: Johan Persson
Harold Wilson (Nicholas Woodeson) lights up a cigar and explains that the pipe that he usually smokes is strictly for public consumption. He eats some cake with his hand and slobbers cream on his face. Not very likely, but very funny. In the end he comes out as perhaps the most sympathetic Prime Minister when he admits to the queen that he is beginning to suffer from dementia.

The queen falls asleep during David Cameron’s (Mark Dexter) visit and the scene becomes hilarious as he tries to get her attention. Dexter doubles as Tony Blair who comes out as far less sympathetic.

John Major (Michael Gould) is funny as he relates how he was thrust into the public eye from being completely unknown and then ends up as prime minister. The astute Elizabeth advises him to resign.

Anthony Eden (David Robb) comes out as the pathetic blunderer who was kept waiting in the wings for far too long by Winston Churchill. When he finally got the top job he colluded with Israel on the invasion of the Suez Canal and lost the top job shortly after that.       

Margaret Thatcher enters like a self-righteous hurricane complaining that Elisabeth has breached tradition and constitutional protocol by commenting on the Prime Minister’s policies. The queen is too good to fall for that and politely but firmly brushes off such comments.

Director Stephen Daldry does a superb job in orchestrating the performances and the scene changes. The play shows the coronation scene where Elizabeth is not merely crowned but consecrated by God. That gives us some perspective just in case we were fooled into thinking that she is “one of us.”

A wonderful night at the theatre.
____

The Audience by Peter Morgan opened on May 5, 2015 and continues at the Apollo Theatre, 31 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, England.  http://www.apollotheatrelondon.co.uk/

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG – REVIEW OF FARCE AT DUCHESS THEATRE, LONDON

Henry Lewis, Greg Tannahill and Jonathan Sayer. Photo: Alastair Muirr

Reviewed by James Karas

The plot of The Play That Goes Wrong is pretty well summarized in the title and if you are looking for a wild farce you will not be disappointed. Not that there are no gradations in the quality of a farce but this one has everything, well, almost everything, that you would expect in something from that genre.

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is putting on a play called Murder at Haversham Manor.  Yes, you can recall The Mousetrap or any other English mystery that involves a mysterious death in a country house and an investigation by a local inspector.

The play opens with the “director” of Murder apologizing for some understandable mishaps that the Cornley has had due to certain shortages in recent productions. Hence the Three Sisters became Two Sisters and Cats became Cat. The 350 people who came to the theatre expecting to see Mamma Mia! are extended a cordial apology because there was no Mamma Mia!.

As the cast tries (unsuccessfully) to put finishing touches to the stage props of Murder, the curtain opens and we get a dead body on a couch. Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill) is dead. He is dead on the day of his engagement to Florence (Charlie Russell) who is having an affair with his brother Cecil (Dave Hearn). Perkins (Jonathan Sayer) the butler is upset, Florence’s brother Thomas (Henry Lewis) is perturned and Inspector Carter (Henry Shields) is called to investigate.    

All is done in strict accordance with the Guide to Writing a Farce About a Murder Mystery in a Country Home. Pandemonium is unleashed quickly but methodically, pictures fall off walls, doors refuse to open, the stretcher that is to carry the corpse out of the room leaves him behind, and people are struck with doors and knocked down (the people not the doors.)

The physical comedy with some verbal assistance continues at relentless speed. Lines are muffed, Florence is put out of commission and is replaced by the stage manager (Nancy Wallinger) who does not know any of the dialogue and mayhem continues.

The actors are all adept at acting, overacting, clowning around and having the time of their lives. The physicality from pratfalls to acrobatics is endless. The audience seems to enjoy every minute of it. Most of them, in any event.

The problem with this production and the play seems to be lack of discipline and economy. When an actor muffs her lines, they go over the same scene at least four times. It was a good joke in the second turn but after that it is repetitive and progressively unfunny. Knock it off.

Farce depends on timing, momentum and energy and The Play that Goes Wrong has them all including the destruction of almost the entire set, timed with precision. In the end however farce is a matter of taste. For some in the audience, it provided almost continuous laughter. For others, it seemed a bit too obvious and a touch too long even at two hours, including intermission. Some of the humour was enjoyed more by the actors than the audience. Not good.
__________

The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields opened on September 14, 2014 and continues indefinitely at the Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine St. London, England. http://www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com/

Monday, May 4, 2015

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE – REVIEW OF MASTERLY PRODUCTION AT SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock (left) and Dominic Maftham as Antonio (right). 
(Image: Manuel Harlan)

Reviewed by James Karas

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has produced a masterly and memorable production of The Merchant of Venice that emphasizes the religious aspect of the play and does full justice to its comic side as well.

Most of the credit must go to Jonathan Munby, the director who has fashioned a production that is faithful to Shakespeare and at the same time expands our view with his brilliant interpretation.

The production boasts a stellar cast with some truly outstanding performances. Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock is a strong and confident businessman who has to put up with virulent attacks on his person by the good citizens of Venice. Their anti-Semitism is so ingrained that they are utterly incapable of realizing the depths of their inhumanity. When a Venetian spits on him Shylock calmly takes out a handkerchief and wipes the spittle off his sleeve. When he appeals to their humanity, they hear nothing. A magnificent and powerful performance by Pryce.

Rachel Pickup is an excellent Portia. She is entertaining as the woman who must allow some pretty odd strangers to bid for her hand in marriage by opening one of three caskets. She is very good when she must pretend she is a learned lawyer in the court scene. Shylock almost interrupts her several times during “the quality of mercy” speech which is not as effective as I would have hoped it would be.

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo simply brings the house down in the scene where he tries to decide whether to leave Shylock’s service. Munby has him grab two yardlings, one of them to represent his conscience and the other to act as the devil He questions them as to what he should do. It is a hilarious scene. Adegbola is entertaining throughout.

Munby gets lots of laugh from Portia’s suitors as they try to figure out which casket to open. Scott Karim as the Duke of Morocco and Christopher Logan as the Prince of Aragon are very funny.

Dominic Mafham as Antonio, Daniel Lapaine as Bassanio, Ben Lamb as Lorenzo and David Sturzaker as Gratiano are upstanding and well-acted Venetians who have a slight defect (the characters, not the actors) in their view of Jews.

In the courtroom scene Shylock forcefully asks for justice by having the letter of the law enforced. We believe him to be right despite the pleas for mercy by the anti-Semites. (By the way, for those interested in the enforceability of the bond, the answer is simple: the bond is not enforceable as a matter of public policy. Happily it is enforceable as a matter of dramatic necessity.)

When Shylock is about to claim his pound of flesh, Antonio stands up and his feet are tied up. He raises his arms and they are tied up to a pole and he appears crucified. His friends rush to him and they provoke laughter. He is no Christ.  

The final scene is a masterpiece. After the jolly recognition scene, the only thing remaining is for the three happy couples to start their married life with the proverbial honeymoon.      

At this stage Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) goes to the front of the stage, kneels, and starts singing a dirge.

A priest dressed in a white cassock and carrying a large cross appears. He is followed by a number of similarly dressed men, deacons I presume, who form a triangle behind him. Shylock, dressed in a white shirt, walks behind the priest as the procession proceeds solemnly to the front of the stage, beside the singing Jessica. The priest is about to christen the distraught Shylock and the deacons chant the baptismal service in Latin which includes asking the future Christian if he believes in the basic tenets of Christianity. Shylock, a man in agony, groans “credo” as he is completely deprived of his dignity and humanity. Water is poured over his head three times; he is duly christened and led off the stage.

Jessica, who is supposed to join her husband Lorenzo and continue her life as a Christian, walks to the back of the stage to join him. But as the door is about to close she steps back and turns towards the audience. She will not go on. It is a moment of redemption for a woman who betrayed and sacrificed everything that she was born to and raised with on the altar of anti-Semitism.

The whole scene is an incredibly moving coup de théâtre and a magnificent conclusion to this marvelous production.
_________


The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare opened on April 30 and continues until June 7, 2015 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London, England. www.shakespearesglobe.com