Thursday, April 20, 2017

ORPHANS – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Helen and Danny live in a nice apartment and are having dinner with some white wine. They have one child but have reason to celebrate: Helen is pregnant again. 

That is the opening scene of Orphans by Dennis Kelly now playing in a terrific production at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto.

The happy scene is quickly broken with the entry of Helen’s brother Liam who is covered with blood. He speaks quickly, nervously, in broken sentences in a thick Cockney accent that reveals more than he says. He saw an injured man on the street, he tells his sister and his brother-in-law and he tried to help him but they start asking questions, a lot of questions, and we start doubting Liam’s version of events.

The plot of Kelly’s brilliant 2009 play shifts like the proverbial quicksand as the dynamics among the three characters change. Liam, played superbly by Tim Dowler-Coltman, looks for support from his sister, is beaten down with questioning, seethes with violence, takes the upper hand and we slowly get the revelation of a racist and indeed a monster. An admirable performance by Dowler-Coltman.
 Diana Bentley and Tim Dowler-Coltman in Orphans. Photo: Shaun Benson  
Diana Bentley as Helen goes through a number of transformations as the sister of Liam. The two were raised as orphans after the tragic death of their parents and they need to stand by each other. She tries to protect Liam but is compelled to keep asking questions about the incident with the injured stranger. Her husband Danny appears like a reserved gentleman but is he that or a coward? Again we have the shifting sand and the continuing revelations. Bentley gives a finely controlled and nuanced performance.

David Patrick Flemming as Danny appears reserved and gentlemanly, the type of character that may be described in the old phrase as having a stiff upper lip. There is more to him than that and we see him as well go through different phases as the situation unfolds. A splendid performance.

The set by Brian Dudkiewicz in the tiny theatre (it is really a converted store with about eighty seats at each end of the space with a playing area in the middle) consists of a couch and a table and chairs with a simple bookshelf. It looks pleasant enough for a young couple.

At an hour and a half with no intermission, with numerous changes in the relations among the three main characters, the play presents considerable difficult in maintaining a taut pace and unfailing performances. The credit for that goes to director Leona Morris for delivering a gem of a production.

The fourth character is the play Shane, the couple’s young boy, played by Cody Black.

When we have become fully aware of Liam’s character and get a glimpse of the world or at least his version of the world, we and Helen and Danny have seen something dreadful. Helen’s reaction goes from the celebration of her pregnancy in the opening scene to considering abortion at the end.

An outstanding night at the theatre.
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Orphans by Dennis Kelly opened on April 12 and will run until April 30, 2017 at the 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

OUR MARIA CALLAS – REVIEW OF TSOKAS’S FILM ABOUT THE GREAT SOPRANO

Reviewed by James Karas

Babis Tsokas, the Greek-Swedish director, describes his film Our Maria Callas about the famous soprano as a dramatized documentary. That looks like an oxymoron but as it turns out that it is in fact a documentary with dramatized sections.

The film concentrates on the personal history, the tragic life and the Greek roots of the great singer. Her artistic achievement is mentioned and we hear her voice in the background singing some of her signature arias but the film is an homage to the tragic woman who achieved greatness in art but rarely found happiness.

Tsokas, born in 1945, immigrated to Sweden in 1969 and like many immigrants searches his roots. He does the same thing with Callas. Her paternal roots are in a village called Neochori in Messinia. Tsokas finds the ancestral Callas home in the village which looks like a house in Syria that was just bombed. 
 Tsokas (left) filming Myrto Kamvisidi

Maria never lived in that village because her parents left for the United States in July 1923 after the death of their son Vassilis and perhaps because of it. Maria was born in New York on December 2, 1923. She visited the village of her roots during World War II. Tsokas emphasizes Callas’s “Greekness” throughout the film and looks to the tragic aspects of her life as being akin to the fate of some of the heroines of Ancient Greek tragedy.

The importance that Tsokas places on Callas’s Greekness ranges from her singing a traditional Greek song in her youth, to the time she spent in Greece between 1937 and 1945 and visited Neochori, and to her consciousness of being Greek throughout her life.  When she is betrayed by tycoon Aristotle Onassis (he famously dumped her for Jackie Kennedy) Tsokas thinks of the betrayed as a parallel to Medea’s fate who hurls curses at the treachersous Jason who abandons her for a princess.

Maria’s mother showed little affection for her and always favored her sister Jackie. Relations between the two deteriorated so drastically that in the end her mother did not even attend Maria’s funeral.

Tsokas uses film clips and still photos from the life of Callas and dramatizes some parts in black and white and others in colour. He uses Myrto Kamvisidi to play Callas. She has is a strikingly beautiful face that bears some resemblance to Callas (who was not beautiful) and she speaks lines attributed to the soprano as well as singing a lullaby. There is no attempt for her to act out Callas’s histrionic side but she does illustrate some events in the life of Callas.
 Tsokas and Kamvisidi
One of the touching scenes that Tsokas recreates with Kamvisidi is Callas’s visit to the Chapel on the private island of Scorpios where Onassis is buried. She is carrying flowers for his tomb but the chapel is locked and she is forced to simply leave the flowers behind. Onassis was the love of her life. She had been married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini   and Tsokas gives an image of a loving couple where he adores and protects her and she loves him but more like a father than passionate mate. There is a darker side to the controlling Meneghini but there is no doubt that he helped her career and her letters to him show deep emotion.   

Tsokas used over two hundred volunteers and all the actors, except Kamvisidi, were amateurs and were used more to illustrate scenes than to act in them. We visit some of the cities of Callas’s triumphs (New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Verona) as well as residences in Greece and Paris.

We get an engrossing picture of the woman behind the voice and the legend. Tsokas views Callas’s life as tragic. The applause, the adulation and the fame were inevitably followed by a lonely evening at her apartment. Tsokas attributes some of her emotional turmoil and depression to her loveless relationship with her mother, her tragic relationship with Onassis and her failure to produce any children.

Tsokas I think sums up her life by reference to one of the arias that she sung so gloriously: Vissi d'arte from Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Tosca, a singer, who is about to sacrifice her life for her lover sums up her life in words that are applicable to Maria as well. “I lived for my art, I lived for love. I never did harm to a living soul!”

Callas was supreme in her art, unfortunate in her love and a woman of the Greek diaspora whose life and achievement stretched from the valleys of Messinia to the plains of ancient Attica and around the world.   
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Our Maria Callas, a film directed by Babis Tsokas was shown at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, ON M4H 1H8 on April 3, 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS – REVIEW OF MUSICAL AT ROYAL ALEX

Reviewed by James Karas

Laura Henderson gained fame and notoriety in the 1930’s by showing naked breasts in her theatre in London.  She became the subject of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents in which she was played by Judi Dench. The story proved too good to be ignored and a musical based on it appeared in 2015 and is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Mr Henderson had the misfortune of dying in 1919 but had the decency to leave the feisty Mrs Henderson with a hefty pile of money. She used it to buy a theatre and hired a no-nonsense manager to run it. The Windmill Theatre in London’s West end was not a success and something had to be done about it. How about some naked breasts?
 
The cast of MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
In conservative, censored England of the 1930’s that was unlikely to be allowed but, one could see paintings of naked women in the museum. Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and many other artists celebrated nudity, so why not bare breasted women in the theatre? It was acceptable to do that provided the women stood still as if they were paintings.

There are a few good lines about nakedness in the musical. When you go below, far below the breasts you reach the pudendum which is a foreign word that few can understand. Well, call the area the Netherlands and make it more acceptable with the use of conservative hair dresses.

How Mrs Henderson and Van Damm got around the restriction on nudity in the theatre is the most famous aspect of the story, but it is by no means a central concern of the musical. This is a story about London in the late 1930’s and during the war, about backstage life in a theatre that produced continuous revues, about love, loss and a couple of interesting characters.

Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson and Peter Polycarpou as the manager Vivian Van Damm dominate the performance. Mrs Henderson is crotchety, tough, humane, difficult to get along with and in the end a bit of a theatrical legend. Bennett has a husky voice that she uses to good effect in an enjoyable performance.
 
Tracie Bennett and Evelyn Hoskins in MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
Polycarpou as Van Damm is a good match for Mrs Henderson as a man of the theatre who has to deal with financial and artistic issues and we admire the relationship that he forges with his boss.

There is a touching love story involving Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) and Maureen (Evelyn Hoskins) who sing “What a Waste of a Moon” and bring home the effects of war. We have a seen in the London Underground where people hid during the bombing of the city as well as the determination to carry on. Mrs Henderson’s theatre was the only one that did not close during the war.

The set by Tim Shortall shows the backstage of Mrs Henderson’s theatre as well as the open roof garret and the underground to good effect.

The costumes by Paul Wills are colourful for the performers and appropriate for the other characters. The choreography by Andrew Wright has the fine feel of British music hall dancing perfectly matching what we would have wanted to see if we were there some eighty years ago, give or take. Full credit to director Terry Johnson.

The music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain ranges from recitative to almost ballad and the lyrics by Don Black are appropriate. The book by Terry Johnson tells the story well with good humour, dramatic scenes and touching romance that make for a very pleasant night at the theatre.
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Mrs Henderson Presents by Terry Johnson (Book) Don Black (Lyrics),  George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (Music), continues  until April 23, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com