Friday, June 30, 2017

HAMLET - REVIEW OF ROBERT ICKE’S PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Robert Icke directed an idiosyncratic staging of Hamlet for the Almeida Theatre which has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. The production shows originality, imagination and outstanding directing by Icke and a superb cast. It is a Hamlet for the record books.

The modern dress production makes liberal use of video projections and sets the play in modern day Denmark. It opens with videos projected on a number of screens around the theatre showing a state funeral as it would be covered by the media. There is a motorcade, pictures of mourners and all the hoopla surrounding an important burial. The play proper begins in a security room where the guards are watching a number of close circuit camera screens where the Ghost of Hamlet appears.
Andrew Scott with Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright in Robert Icke’s Hamlet. Photo: Manuel Harlan The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Much of the action of the play takes place in a simple room with a couch and a chair with changes made for different places in the palace. When we first see Gertrude and Claudius they are dressed formally for a fine reception. The reception is behind a glass wall and the dialogue takes place on front of it.

We soon notice that Claudius (Angus Wright) and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) are very much in love. In the reception room they dance, embrace and kiss quite passionately and the relationship continues like that almost to the end when Gertrude finally realizes Claudius’s treachery.

Icke interprets almost every character in the play his own way. Hamlet is an outsider dressed in black slacks and T-shirt and is barefoot. He and the rest of the characters speak matter-of-factly in a very naturalistic way. Claudius addressing Gertrude, Hamlet, Polonius and his children and everyone else speak in the same relaxed manner. That will change of course when the emotional thermometer explodes but it will take a while to get there.

The down-to-earth Hamlet (Andrew Scott) and Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) are playful lovers. He hides in her father’s house and steals kisses. In his soliloquies he shows genuine wonder about what is happening and he is addressing us as well as himself.

He rises to the emotional demands of the play but he is never histrionic. His soliloquies are indeed conversations with himself but not emotionally overcharged. In all of this I think Icke finds a fine balance and a highly commendable approach. This is an original and finely acted Hamlet that Andrew Scott delivers under the guidance of Icke.
Ophelia is a mature young woman who hears her father’s and brother’s admonitions without listening to them. She looks on Hamlet as if they were equal and her fall is the more painful and dramatic for that.
 Angus Wright, Andrew Scott and Juliet Stevenson in Robert Icke’s Hamlet. Photograph: Manuel Harlan 
(2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Angus Wright has one of those mellifluous, deep voices that is just a pleasure to listen to. His Claudius is a very cool usurper and seducer. He is supposed to be found praying by Hamlet and is not murdered by him for fear of sending his soul to heaven. In this production he is ruminating in a chair and Hamlet is in front of him with a gun but does not shoot. The scene is confusing because they are looking directly at each other and Hamlet is pointing a gun at him.

Peter Wright plays Polonius as an elder statesman and loving father without trying to get laughs by emphasizing some of his buffoonish traits. Juliet Stevenson is a highly attractive Gertrude who is sexually attracted to Claudius and resists him only momentarily after the closet scene with Hamlet. Her realization during the fencing is superb theatre.

In addition to all the directorial touches and brilliance that Icke displays he finds his own exit for the play which is yet another marvelous touch but I will not spoil it for you.

A Hamlet for the history books.
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Hamlet  by William Shakespeare continues until  September 2, 2017 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA? – REVIEW OF ALBEE’S PLAY AT THEATRE ROYAL HAYMARKET

James Karas

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, Edward Albee’s play, refers to the animal that plays a crucial part in the play but also looks back to the roots of tragedy. The word tragedy means goat song and no one really knows what the Greeks were referring to when they assigned that word to the creation of that great dramatic genre.

The Goat is a tragedy about a man who falls in love with, yes, a goat. There is nothing comic about the intense relationship between Martin (Damien Lewis), a successful architect and a good father and husband, and the goat that he names Sylvia. He is deeply and genuinely in love with her.
Sophie Okonedo and Damian Lewis star in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Johan Persson
Martin’s wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) finds out about the relationship and, not surprisingly, freaks out. The couple has a son, Billy (Archie Madekwe) who is a student at an upscale private school and he is gay. This is a highly intelligent, articulate and loving family and Martin’s affair with a goat falls like a bomb on a peaceful meadow. A family friend named Ross (Jason Hughes) finds out about the affair and his reaction may be taken to represent society’s attitude in general.

The production is outstanding in every respect but the performance of the cast as directed by Ian Rickson is an exceptional achievement. Lewis as Martin has to maneuver between explaining his unorthodox behaviour to defending his passion for a goat. Lewis pleads, reasons, yells, becomes angry and impassioned in a superb performance.
Archie Madekwe. Photo: Johan Persson
Okonedo as the gifted wife has great cause for rage and incomprehension. When her anger boils over she starts breaking furniture, furnishings and everything she can get her hands on. We see physical and emotional destruction in a powerful performance that leaves nothing standing.

Madekwe makes his professional debut as the son, a bright boy who loves his parents and is caught in the crossfire in a situation that is beyond comprehension. In the middle of the excruciating emotional turmoil he displays a brief sexual attraction to his father and kisses him on the lips. It is another layer in the complex psychology of the play that is indeed difficult to comprehend. Madekwe’s performance is brilliant.

Hughes does a good job as the family friend and foil for Martin.  
The set by Rae Smith consists of a nice apartment with bare brick walls, modern furniture and plenty of bric-a-bracs for Stevie to break when she wreaks physical and emotional havoc.

A stunning production of a stunning play and a great night at the theatre.  
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The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee ran until June 24, 2017 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18 Suffolk Street London SW1Y 4HT London, England. www.trh.co.uk


Saturday, June 24, 2017

LA STRADA – REVIEW OF OTHER PALACE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

How about a play based on a movie, to wit, Federico Fellini’s La Strada?

Thanks, but….

Director Sally Cookson has done just that and a play based on the 1954 film is now playing at The Other Palace, a small theatre around the corner from the more famous Victoria Palace which is being refurbished.

La Strada is based on a moving story that is part myth and part ugly reality. The myth is about Gelsomina, a waif, who is sold by her mother to a brute. She goes through endurance, transformation, death and transfiguration. The reality is about post World War II Italy, devastated by the Fascists, the Nazis and the allies, with its people left with poverty and starvation.
 Audrey Brisson and the cast of La Strada. Photo: Robert Day
A mother with five children sells her oldest child to Zampano, the strongest man in the world who can break a steel chain by expanding his chest. He is a brute who flogs and criminally mistreats the young girl who is prepared to do anything to please him because she wants to send money to her mother.    

Cookson, herwriter in the roomMike Akers and Set and Costume Designer Katie Sykes are exceptionally successful in creating the world of circuses, magic and popular entertainment that Gelsomina and Zampano travel through. They travel on a motorcycle and a few rearranged boxes on the stage create the illusion of a motorcycle in a matter of seconds. The circus, a chapel, a wedding and the empty countryside are created just as quickly. The real and the magical travel together.

Gelsomina meets a clown who gives her confidence and a trumpet to play. She learns, she is transformed and stands up to her owner.

Audrey Brisson gives a moving and splendid performance as an abused child who tries and endures everything because she has no choice and wants to help her family. We follow her every step with our hearts going out to her and ready to pounce on the creepy Zampano.

Bart Soroczynski and the cast of La Strada Photo:Robert Day
Stuart Goodwin is outstanding as Zampano – we would not hate him if he were anything less. He imposes his physical strength and is ready to annihilate anyone who stands in his way.

Canadian Bart Soroczynski plays the clown who is the opposite of Zampano. He is funny, agile and a fine circus performer on the monocycle. He befriends Gelsomina and helps bring about her transformation.

There is an ensemble of actors who play various roles as Gelsomina and Zampano move from place to place, from the countryside, to bars, to places where they perform, to the seashore, to a chapel in a monastery.

Benji Bower has composed original music for the play consisting of Italianate folk melodies that are pleasant and fitting. A band of musicians is on stage to play but they are also part of the highly mobile ensemble.

Do you want to see a play based on a movie?

Yes. Thank you.
  _____

La Strada created by Sally Cookson with music by Benji Bower, written by Mike Akers, based on the screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli continues until July 8, 2017 at The Other Palace, 12 Palace Street, London, England. www.TheOtherPalace.co.uk

Friday, June 23, 2017

ROMEO AND JULIET – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION

James Karas

This is a production of Romeo and Juliet the likes of which you probably never saw before and with any luck you will never see again. Director Daniel Kramer tries to combine commedia dell’arte with modernism and the result is a burlesque of Shakespeare’s play that is painful to watch. A few points and examples will have to suffice.

In the opening scene two stretchers are pushed onto the stage with two people covered in black who turn out to be clutching miniature coffins. The prologue and the words of the Prince are heard over loud speakers. The stretchers will come in handy during the play and in the Capulet crypt.
 Golda Rosheuvel,,Kirsty Bushell, Harish Patel, Edward Hogg and Ricky Champ
Most of the characters have white masks painted on their faces and some have red noses as if they are clowns. These are commedia dell’arte types of characters with their stock characteristics, pantomime and acting style.

The function at the Capulet mansion where Romeo (Edward Hogg with his face painted white) meets Juliet (Kirsty Bushell) is a masked ball which would be appropriate. But the attendees make a pretty strange crowd. We have medieval armour, an assortment of Disney characters and brisk movement. At times the production looks like Romeo and Juliet on steroids. Is it intended to please teenagers?
Kirsty Bushell and Edward Hogg in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Alistair Muir 
The scene where Mercutio (Golda Rosheuvel) and Tybalt (Ricky Champ) are killed is presented as a party/dance scene rumble with very loud music. A mattress is brought on the stage and Juliet dances on it in anticipation of Romeo’s arrival. Romeo kills Tybalt on the mattress with Juliet jumping up and down obviously unaware of what is happening.

Kramer makes Friar Lawrence (Harish Patel) into a Muslim who speaks with a Pakistani accent. I am sure there was a reason for this that simply escapes me. Mercutio is played by a woman, Golda Rosheuvel. Reason? The bearer of the poison is a FedEx courier.

Lady Capulet (Martina Laird) looks like Mickey Mouse who has a lot of trouble keeping the hair pieces that make up her ears in place. The Nurse (Blythe Duff), with her thick Scottish accent shows spunk but has a hairdo that makes her look like a recent escapee from a lunatic asylum. Lord Capulet (Gareth Snook), with a black clown’s hat and red nose, sings “YMCA.”

When Juliet is in bed (on the mattress) talking with the Nurse, Romeo is there too. Then Friar Lawrence walks in on the same scene.

Kramer gerrymanders and combines scenes so that it seems that you are watching the play on a split screen on your computer with people being able to jump from one screen to another. It looks as if no cockamamie idea came to Kramer that he considered too inane to incorporate into the production. Shakespeare’s play is used as a clothes line for Kramer’s ideas to be hung to dry.

The result is a travesty.
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Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until July 9, 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

L’ELISIR D’AMORE - REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE 2017 REVIVAL

Reviewed by James Karas

You may recall Lady Bracknell’s admonition to Mr. Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest upon being told he has lost both his parents: ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

The Royal Opera House can hardly be accused of carelessness but it did lose the soprano and the tenor in one day of the performance of L’Elisir d’Amore.

Lady Bracknell further demanded that he ‘make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.’ The ROH did not have such luxury and in fact had to find a soprano on the day of the performance and a tenor between scenes.
 Photo of scene from L'Elisir d'Amore with different principals. Photo: Bill Cooper
During the day an email message advised that soprano Aleksandra Kurzak had withdrawn from singing the role of Adina due to illness and the role was to be taken by Jennifer Davis. At the end of the first scene after the performance began, we were informed that tenor Roberto Alagna could not finish it and that he would be replaced by tenor Ioan Hotea.

This production of Donizetti’s masterpiece of love, innocence and quackery was first directed by Laurent Pelly in 2006 and it has been revived numerous times since then. The current revival director is Daniel Dooner. Pelly set the opera in an agrarian Italian village in the 1950s. There are bales of hay, a tractor, a harvester and the ambience of a peaceful village. The men drive Vespas and the main concern is love and the promises of the quack Doctor Dulcamara.

We were not short changed at all by the replacement of Alagna by the Romanian tenor Hotea. Hotea may lack Alagna’s darker shades but he gave us a youthful and energetic Nemorino that was a  delight.  He has a marvelous, light voice in the style of Juan Diego Flores that showed beauty and agility. This Nemorino is pure innocence, love and vulnerability and deserves to get the girl.

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Adina wowed us with her tonal beauty and tenderness. Her Adina showed innocence and cunning and we enjoyed every note of Donizetti’s incomparable melodies.

Italian bass baritone Alex Esposito sang the role of the mountebank Doctor Dulcamara, a quack, a fast buck artist who is crooked but likable, sleazy but not evil. Esposito does it all with a glint in his eye and a sonorous voice in his larynx.
Nemorino’s competition for Adina is Sergeant Belcore, an arrogant martinet sung by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka. No complaints about Plachetka’s vocal and acting performance but we are glad he does not get the girl. 

Donizetti provides a wealth of choral music and the Royal Opera Chorus is shown at its best. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Bertrand de Billy is superb.
  
L’Elisir d’Amore is a delightful opera, a comedy that produces laughter even through surtitles. Pelly’s conception and its execution by an outstanding cast, orchestra and chorus makes for a wonderful evening at the opera.

You disagree with Lady Bracknell at your peril but on this occasion you may risk it. To lose…a soprano and a tenor…was neither tragic nor careless and it did not detract from the performance.
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L’Elisir d’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Felice Romani (libretto) played from  May 27 to June 22, 2017 on various dates with cast changes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England. www.roh.org.uk


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

THE CHANGELING – REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has hit a home run with its production of The Changeling. It gets to first base by simply producing this 1622 thriller which has been seen in Stratford only once before, in 1989. It gets to second base for producing a play for which it almost needs to create an audience. The Festival deserves to be criticized for ignoring much unfamiliar Renaissance drama. It gets to home base with a fine cast under the expert direction of Jackie Maxwell.

The Changeling was a big hit in the 1620’s it was popular entertainment and gave Londoners the works: love, lust, murder, madness, a fail-proof test of virginity, comedy and tragedy. After a few more productions, the play was ignored for almost 250 years until it was “rediscovered” in the latter part of the twentieth century.
 Members of the company in The Changeling. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
Jackie Maxwell sets the production in Spain in 1938 at the end of the Civil War when Franco had seized power. As with any placement of an almost 400 year old play in a modern era there are some things that do not fit but you can easily ignore them.

The plot is not as complicated as it looks but a quick read of a summary before going to the theatre may help. There are two plots, in fact, a tragic and a comic both dealing with, you guessed it, love, lust, feigned madness, real lunatics, the changing of the bride and, of course, homicide.

The central character is Beatrice-Joanna (Mikaela Davies), the daughter of Vermandero (David Collins), a local governor and owner of a castle where most of the action takes place. Vermandero orders Beatrice to marry Alonso (Qasim Khan) but she loves Alsemero (Cyrus Lane). The ugly and disgusting De Flores (Ben Carlson) lusts for Beatrice, he lends a hand and takes a finger from Alonso and he has, to put it politely, his way with her.

In the comic plot, Alibius (Michael Spencer-Davis), the priapically challenged owner of a lunatic asylum, appoints his assistant Lollio (Tim Campbell) to protect his beautiful wife Isabella (Jessica B. Hill) from intruders to her virtue. Welcome Antonio (Gareth Potter), who pretends to be a lunatic and gets admitted to the asylum with that very object in mind. Lollio has the same thing in mind and the question is who will succeed?
Cyrus Lane as Alsemero and Mikaela Davies as Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling. 
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Mikaela Davies gives us a Beatrice who is sexually magnetic, ruthless, assertive, cunning and dangerous. Her sleek gown by Costume Designer Judith Bowden doesn’t just reveal, it entices and provokes. Quite a performance. Her waiting woman Diaphanta (Ijeoma Emesowum) has the same sexual propensities as her employer which come in handy in fulfilling the title of the play. Ben Carlson turns in a fine performance as the evil De Flores but there was little attempt to make him revolting except for a blotch of purple skin on his face.

Cyrus Lane’s Alsemero is upright and gentlemanly and he wants us to know that he used sound judgment and not just hormones in falling in love with Beatrice. Khan as Alonso is simply besotted by her and he does not want to hear any arguments.

Potter as Antonio must act the fool and the lover to get to Isabella and he provides some laughter. Campbell as Lollio, with his impressive bearing and booming voice, can be a jail guard or a warden in a movie. The gravelly-voiced David Collins makes a fine Vermandero.

The theatre-in-the-round stage of the Tom Patterson has four arches with brick and mortar on the top. They represent the outside of a church, the madhouse and the castle. A single set by Camellia Koo that does the job. The men wear mostly three-piece suits with the lunatics and others being more modestly attired.

In short, Jackie Maxwell and a fine cast deliver an excellent production of a play that has been ignored for too long.
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The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley opened on June 15 and will run until September 23, 2017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, June 19, 2017

1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

A play about Canada is not as rare as it used to be but it is hardly an everyday occurrence. It is not surprising that we know more about American and British history than we know about Canada and that is pretty sad.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is precisely the type of play we need more of. It is highly entertaining and intelligent, it highlights an important historical event and, if I can say it without frightening some people off, it is educational. Rick Salutin wrote the play that started life in 1973 as 1837 as a collaborative effort with Theatre Passe Muraille, so much so in fact that the theatre is listed as co-author.
 The cast of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt. Photo by Emily Cooper
One hundred and eighty years after the rebellion and on the 150th anniversary of Canada, the play is the perfect choice to salute both events.

The play tells the story of the 1837 rebellion through a number of events during and around the time of the uprising. Eight actors represent a large number of characters including farmers, artisans, politicians, officers, soldiers and others involved in the events of December 1837. There are a number of historical figures but the most important and best known is William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the revolt.

Salutin wants us to see the two extremes of the social and political spectrum. The well-heeled ruling class of conservatives who are a compact unit of corrupt and rapacious families. At the other extreme are the poor farmers who try to get some land to eke out a living.

The poor squatter who has cleared dozens of acres but is turned out by the unscrupulous owner. The imperious lady who is on her way from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake by coach that gets stuck in the mud and treats the driver like dirt. The Tory politicians who beats up people who want to vote for reform. This is life in Upper Canada as represented in Salutin’s play.
 The cast of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt. Photo by David Cooper.
We have highly flattering scenes of American freedom, ingenuity and industry that is compared to the detriment of life in Canada. Americans can disagree but they are free to vote as they wish. In Canada, voting Reform invites fists and missing teeth for those who dare not to vote Tory. The Americans tell you how to get land without blushing: get rid of the Indians. It will take some time to give that attitude its proper name, but I digress.

There is a firebrand journalist who wants to lead a rebellion and change all of that. Mackenzie played by Ric Reid is ambitious and visionary but not necessarily astute in military procedures and strategy. The play that begins with songs ends up with ropes around some people’s necks and the sad end of the rebellion.

There are songs (sung a cappella), mime in cutting trees, fighting and warring in relating the episodes of the play. All eight actors play numerous roles with the three women taking on some male roles. I list them alphabetically: Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo and Jeremiah Sparks. I applaud them together vigorously.

The casting is color-blind as it should be but I could not help thinking that the characters played by the black and oriental actors would have had no rights at all if in fact they were of a different colour. It was bad enough for the poor whites; it was indescribably worse for non-whites.

The set designed by Rachel Forbes consists of a brightly coloured backdrop representing trees and logs. The stage has logs in a circular arrangement leading upwards. Perhaps it is an expression of hope and optimism in a corrupt world in which there should have been very little of either.

Director Philip Akin does a highly commendable job in bringing this Canadian classic to life. It is unfortunate and perhaps ironic that the theatre had many empty seats, at least on the date that I saw the play. Canadian plays of high quality in excellent productions deserve better.
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1837; The Farmers’ Revolt by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille continues in repertory until October 8, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Madness of George III, Alan Bennett’s 1991 play, has some 27 characters not including footmen, courtiers, Members of Parliament and assistants. The mentally ill King George III dominates the play and the horde of other characters go on and off the stage in quick succession that at times makes it difficult to follow the plot in detail.

Director Kevin Bennett has reduced the number of roles to 23, excluding footmen and walk-on parts and has a dozen actors play all the parts. It does not help in following the fast paced action. Bennett has made a few other unhelpful changes. The role of Greville, the King’s male equerry is assigned to Rebecca Gibian. The roles of Edward Thurlow and Sir Lucas Pepys are given to Marci T. House. Burke and Braun, both male roles, are given to Lisa Berry who also plays Lady Pembroke. Most of the other actors take two or three roles which does not add to clarity.
 
Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.
Ken MacDonald has designed a pretty set in the small Royal George Theatre. It looks almost like a miniature set with two tiers of seats for members of the audience on each side. I am not sure why Kevin Bennett decided to put audience members on stage and even less so when  the actors interact with them.

As I said, the play is dominated by King George III and Tom McCamus gives a bravura performance in the role. He goes from incredible arrogance to being tied up in a chair and humiliated by his doctors. Both ends of the spectrum are shocking. The King considers himself as only short of divine and his treatment of others is utterly contemptuous. No one is allowed to address him directly and they must walk backwards when leaving his presence. It is a pretty disgusting picture of unrestrained arrogance.

As his mental illness deteriorates, the King comes under the mercy of a number of quacks who proceed to treat him with the best medical care of the era. Bleeding, examining his stool and pulse for reliable indicators of his health, restraining with an iron crown around his head and tying him up with belts around his wrists and legs are a few examples of first rate medical care of the day. Emetics, purgation, blistering and no doubt some remedies that I did not catch are also included. It is all a horrific sight.

All of this is handled by McCamus with consummate skill. He blusters, he babbles, he screams in agony and yells in arrogance and he is tortured to the point of appearing like a Christ figure but without any humility.

Martin Happer is the foppish, hateful and scheming Prince of Wales who wants to push his father aside and be appointed Regent. André Sills is the self-assured Pitt and the foolish Dr. Warren.
 
Chick Reid as Queen Charlotte and Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of 
The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.
Chick Reid plays the loving but equally arrogant Queen Charlotte with Jim Mezon turning in a fine performance as Charles Fox and Dr. Baker.

The political forces are those of the government of Pitt poised against the opposition led by Charles Fox with the Prince of Wales as a catalyst.

Even more important in the play is the roles of the doctors, Willis and Nicholson played by Patrick McManus, Mezon as Dr. Baker and Sills as Dr. Warren. You can disagree and argue with politicians, but you cannot disagree with royalty or doctors. In The Madness of George III, doctors gain the upper hand and their treatment is so atrocious they almost humanize George III.

Unfortunately Kevin Bennett tried several ways to bring his view of the play but he met with very little success. The production needs more clarity and easier pacing so that we can keep up with action and less doubling up of roles.          
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The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett continues in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Friday, June 16, 2017

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL – REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Richard Brinsley Sheridan took no hostages in his brilliant satire of upper crust society in late 18th century England. His 1777 masterpiece, The School for Scandal skewered scandal mongering, hypocrisy and shallowness but allowed decency and fidelity to triumph.

Antoni Cimolino, the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director assigned directorial duties for the production to himself and the result is highly commendable with some reservations.
 
Members of the company in The School for Scandal. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The play has twenty-one roles plus “servants and maids” which add up to a hefty cast. The festival’s boss seems to have had no trouble recruiting the best actors in town. Look at the names that Sheridan gives to some of his characters to get the flavour of the play: Lady Sneerwell, Snake, Mrs. Candour, Crabtree, Sir Benjamin Backbite and Careless.

Maev Beaty as Lady Sneerwell with her cohort Snake (Anusree Roy) and Mrs. Candour  (Brigit Wilson) are a veritable wrecking crew of lives, reputations, marriages and engagements using that most delicate of instruments the spread of false news or innuendo.

The old bachelor Sir Peter Teazle (Geraint Wyn Davies) married the lovely young country girl Lady Teazle (Shannon Taylor) who turns out to be a wastrel. The seemingly virtuous Sir Charles Surface (Sébastien Heins) mounts an assault on her fidelity and …well, will he succeed? The rumour mills are working in full gear.

Charles is also after the wealthy Maria (Monica Peter) who is pursued by his apparently profligate squanderer of a brother named Joseph (Tyrone Savage). They are living from the generosity of their uncle Sir Oliver (Joseph Ziegler) who is arriving incognito to check on his nephews.

And that’s just the beginning. We have the foppish Sir Benjamin of Tom Rooney, Brent Carver as Rowly and the marvelous Rod Beattie as Crabtree.

The play is thickly plotted and its 18th century wit and colourful language require a light touch and in a perfect world an upper crust English accent. The verbal comedy may suffer a bit from this lack but the farcical comedy comes out splendidly. Lady Teazle is in Charles’ apartment and she hides behind a screen when her husband arrives. She is finally and hilariously discovered by her husband and a desperate Sir Oliver.
 
Shannon Taylor as Lady Teazle and Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Peter Teazle. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Sir Oliver tests his nephews’ characters by asking one for financial assistance and being roundly rebuffed. He attends the sale of his paintings by the other nephew who is willing to sell everything except Sir Oliver’s portrait. 

The plot strands of May-December marriage of Sir Peter and the revelation of the incognito visitor as Sir Oliver will merge amid the backbiting of the ladies in the rumor mill and all will be resolved.

With actors like Maev Beaty, Geraint Wyn Davies, Rod Beattie, Tyrone Savage, Sébastien Heins, Shannon Taylor, Brent Carver, Joseph Ziegler and Tom Rooney (listed in no particular order), there should have been a much more enthusiastic reception. The audience on the day I saw it (June 6) was fairly unresponsive during the first half but the laughter picked up greatly in the second half.

Designer Julie Fox gave us a lavish set and marvelous costumes. Nick Bottomley designed the projection of images and indications of place that gave the performance additional movement.

A fine production that has all the ingredients for a resounding success but lacked the necessary spark to ignite the audience.
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The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan opened on June 3 and will run until October 21, 2017 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St. Stratford, ON N5A 1X2. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Thursday, June 15, 2017

TIMON OF ATHENS - REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays and was last seen at the Stratford Festival in 2004. It was directed by Stephen Ouimette with the late Peter Donaldson in the title role.  That highly praiseworthy production is reprised this year with Joseph Ziegler as Timon and directed by Ouimette, of course.

Timon tells the story of a wealthy Athenian who is genial, kind, generous and extremely popular. He is surrounded by artists, politicians and other Athenians on whom he lavishes money and expensive gifts. Unfortunately Timon lacks sound judgment, even a modicum of common sense and does not realize that the recipients of his largesse are flatterers and leeches. He must have inherited his wealth because he has no idea of how to manage money and he goes broke.
Joseph Ziegler (centre) as Timon with members of the company in Timon of Athens. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
His creditors descend on him like furious vultures and when he asks for help from his erstwhile beneficiaries his requests are summarily rejected for the best of reasons needless to say. Timon loses everything and develops a virulent hatred of humanity that is the opposite of his genial generosity. His curses and abominations of humanity are astounding in their breadth and depth.

The success of the production is largely dependent on Ouimette’s astute directing and on Ziegler’s outstanding acting. Timon gives jewels and money and throws lavish parties for people who give him flattery in return. The unctuous Poet (Josue Laboucane), the obsequious Painter (Mike Nadajewski), the grovelling Jeweller (Rodrigo Beilfuss), the Senators and hangers-on feed Timon’s voracious appetite and perhaps deep need for flattery until he is left with nothing to purchase that commodity. Ziegler is superb in the “two” Timons. First is the suave, well-dressed, rich gentleman who likes fancy dinners, enjoys good company and basks in the adulation of the parasites.

Second is the misanthropic Timon, dressed in rags, away from his opulent surroundings and gaining some knowledge about human nature without grasping any insight. He finds gold in the cave where he lives and he gives some of it to Alcibiadis to destroy the city and some to the prostitutes to spread venereal disease. Now that is misanthropy. A bravura performance by Ziegler.
 Joseph Ziegler (left) as Timon and Cyrus Lane as First Bandit. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
His steward Flavius (Michael Spencer-Davis) tries to warn Timon that his extravagance is leading him to bankruptcy but he is deaf to such messages. The cynical philosopher Apemantus (Ben Carlson) argues vehemently against Timon’s conduct but to no avail. Carlson’s performance merits special praise. Carlson is superb in his portrayal of the distrustful, even contemptuous realist Apemantus who knows what people are really like.

Spencer-Davis’s performance as a decent, faithful and honest servant merits praise. Tim Campbell stands out as the tough-minded Captain Alcibiades, a military man and a friend of Timon.

Diana Osborne’s designs are intelligent and appropriate in the difficult confines of a theatre-in-the-round.

The play is produced in the Tom Patterson Theatre which has been reconfigured into a true theatre-in-the-round by adding seats on the wall that was usually reserved for sets or entrances and exits.

An exceptional production of an indifferent play.
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Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare opened on June 2 and will run until September 22, 20017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

ME AND MY GIRL – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

After the religious and political rigours (not to mention treachery, torture and burning at the stake) of Saint Joan, you may want some lighter theatrical fare. The Shaw Festival obliges with a production of Me and My Girl, the 1937 rags-to-riches musical.

In Canada winning the lottery may be considered as rags-to-riches but in England a stash of cash will not do it. You need to leap in a single bound to the top reaches of the social ladder in order to be considered.

Which brings us to the story of Bill Snibson ((Michael Therriault), the star of Me and My Girl. He is a Cockney whose barbaric accent alone, places him in the social dungeon but who finds out that his late father was an earl and he has inherited his cash and the coronet.     
 Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson with the cast of 
Me and My Girl. Photo by David Cooper.
Bill knows nothing about his paternity until he is presented to his father’s family and friends at Hareford Hall, the family pad which defines wealth, elegance and superb set design by Drew Facey.

A rough-hewn Cockney among the pristine aristocrats provides easy and sometimes obvious humour. When Bill is given all his titles by Parchester (Jay Turvey), the loquacious family solicitor, he faints. When he is told to be careful with a two hundred year old decanter, Bill replies “Thank God…it could have been a new one.”

Before he can take his inheritance, his father’s sister, the Duchess (Sharry Flett) and Sir John (Ric Reid) as executors of the estate must decide if Bill is a fit and proper person to become earl. That means the transformation of Eliza the guttersnipe to Miss Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame. There is in fact a reference to the play Pygmalion and to the musical. 

But there is more: Bill must marry a woman who is also fit and proper to be a Duchess. Matters become complicated because the beautiful, ambitious and covetous Lady Jacqueline (Élodie Gillett) her sights set on Bill. But Bill is in love with Sally Smith (Kristi Frank), a sensible Cockney girl who intends to renovate Hareford Hall by throwing out all the rubbish and bring some new furniture and flowered wallpaper.

Let there be no mistake about Bill and Sally’s relationship. They sing to us that they are meant for each other and intend to be happy ever after. This is crucial. As one can see, the stakes are high, the suspense intense and the situation tough to unravel.
 
The above gives a good indication of the flavour of the musical. The plot is fairly vacuous but it is perhaps vintage pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein material. Stephen Fry revised the original book by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber by adding some good lines. “She is like Mussolini without charm” is a good example.
 
The cast of Me and My Girl. Photo by David Cooper.
The signature song of Me and My Girl is “The Lambeth Walk,” a brisk melody that is perfect example of reverse snobbery. Lambeth is no Mayfair but people are happy there, everything is free and easy and everything is bright and breezy. This is part of the depression mythology that few of us can recall. The number is done with energy and fun.

The comedy works most of the time even though and the acting and singing are energetic and enjoyable even though Therriault forgets to drop his h’s sometimes. The full-sized Neil Barclay makes a very funny butler. The ensemble singing and dancing is energetic and enjoyable. Credit to Choreographer Parker Esse and Music Director Paul Sportelli.

The whole show is brought together by director Ashley Corcoran with commendable results.

Costume Designer Sue LePage knows how to dress the aristocratic ladies and gentlemen. Elegance, style, haute couture, a delight to the eye.

A pleasure.
    __________

Me and My Girl by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber (book and lyrics), revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent, Noel Gay (music) continues in repertory  until October 15, 2017 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com    

Monday, June 12, 2017

SAINT JOAN – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Shaw Festival has a new season, a new Artistic Director and a new production of Saint Joan. The first is the result of the orbits of the planets and a habit that sprang in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1962.  The second is as a result of the appointment amid some controversy of Tim Carroll as Artistic Director. The new production of Saint Joan is the choice of Carroll to direct the play.

I will refrain from commenting on the movements of the planets or on the appointment but will say a few things about his first directorial foray at the Festival. Carroll’s approach to the play and the superb performances are outstanding.
 Andrew Lawrie as Brother Martin Ladvenu, Sara Topham as Joan and Jim Mezon as the Inquisitor 
in Saint Joan. Photo by David Cooper.
Let’s start with something that may appear inconsequential: laughter. I don’t expect to get too many laughs from Saint Joan but Carroll has found a significant number. Take the opening scene where Robert de Baudricourt (Allan Louis) is bullying his Steward (Andrew Lawrie) about the lack of eggs. His blustering is toothless and when Joan appears she has no difficulty cutting him down to size and getting her way.

Joan as played by Sara Topham is a vivacious, pleasant girl with a smile on her face who expresses her convictions without being sanctimonious or overbearing. She conquers de Baudricourt and we are treated to several good laughs in the process. A very good beginning.
 The cast of Saint Joan. Photo by David Cooper.
Let’s jump to the end. Posthumously, Joan meets her tormentors and Carroll again manages to evoke some laughter. The Soldier’s (Allan Louis) description of hell and the fate of all the self-important people, the kings, captains and lawyers, who are all “down there.” We laugh at the reaction by the latter personages at the thought that Joan may return to earth. A brilliantly done scene.

Joan is caught up in a war between France and England and between the overpowering force of the Church Militant and political necessity. The most important forces are those of hypocrisy, arrogance, self-righteousness and expedience. She maintains her equilibrium almost throughout and when she breaks down she is dramatic without being sanctimonious except perhaps in her last sentence.

The wily and cynical Earl of Warwick (played with suave brutality by Tom McCamus) expresses political expediency and polite ruthlessness. Benedict Campbell is the arrogant and authoritarian Archbishop of Rheims. Jim Mezon expresses the ultimate and merciless authority of the Church in a lengthy speech at the trial. He faces the audience and speaks directly to us in a vision of the Church that should frighten even the most devout.

The production is acted on a raised platform on the stage. All wear modern costumes and the emphasis is on black. there is one scene that is mercilessly ironic where the men wear white jackets and black bow ties as if attending a high class reception.There is a plexiglass glass that is lit inside and lights stream on the stage from above. Highly effective work by Designer Judith Bowden and Lighting Designer Kevin Lamotte.  

In the end, we get a brilliant production that gives us the drama, the intellectual content and the humour of the play.
    __________

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw opened on May 25 and will run in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com