Wednesday, March 15, 2017

LA TRAVIATA IN INSPIRED AND OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION LIVE FROM THE MET OPERA

By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has sent Willy Decker’s inspired production of La Traviata around the world live from the Met once again. Decker directed the opera for the Salzburg Festival in 2005 and it was shown in movie houses Live from the Met 2012. It is a production that rates the word masterpiece.

Decker almost reinvents the opera as he focuses on the characters in the tragedy which is performed on an almost bare stage with the most prominent feature being a huge clock. It is the perfect symbol for Violetta, the courtesan pursued by many but loved by none, who is under sentence of death to her illness and the clock is ticking towards her final demise.
 
Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
When the curtain opens, we see an empty stage and during the overture Violetta (Sonya Yoncheva) stumbles towards a forbidding old man with gray hair wearing a black coat. He will appear a number of times throughout the performance. In the final scene we will see him as Dr. Grenvil (bass-baritone James Courtney), the sympathetic physician who attends on Violetta, but that is not his real role in this production.

He struck me as being Charon, not just the ferryman who took souls across the Styx in Greek mythology, but the being who takes the souls of people from their deathbed. The mysterious figure in Decker’s interpretation of the opera may be the personification of death but I prefer to see him as Charon who waits for Violetta’s time on earth to run out so he can take her soul.

There are many splendid touches by Decker that illuminate the opera. The guests at the party in the opening scene are all men. Even her friend Flora (mezzo soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb) is turned into a pants role. Violetta has no friends, only clients.

For the second act scene in the country, the five couches that are all the props on stage are covered with brightly colored fabric and Violetta and Alfredo wear housecoats that match the couch covers. This is domestic bliss. They are happy, playful and in love. Charon is nowhere to be seen and the clock that is ticking towards Violetta’s death is covered.

When Giorgio Germont appears and wrecks the couple’s happiness, the couch covers are removed and the clock is uncovered to continue its relentless pace.
 Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva in La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
Yoncheva makes an astounding Violetta. She presents a tough exterior and knows that being a courtesan will not allow her the luxury of a conventional love relationship and she is equally aware that her death is imminent. But all of that goes by the board when Alfredo declares his love and proves his devotion to her. Yoncheva has a plush voice that evoked her character with splendor. The final scene where she knows she is about to die and Charon is right there to take her soul is extraordinarily moving. The clock disappears, Charon pulls back because he probably has her soul and she finds peace and almost apotheosis as we ache with sorrow at her fate.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo makes a perfect match for her. He is tender, fragile, shy and the perhaps the type that would fall madly in love with a beautiful courtesan. This Alfredo is believable because a strong personality would more likely use Violetta as a paying satisfier of his ego and lust rather than desiring her as a wife. A clue to his character is given by an incident when he is with his father. When Alfredo resists his father’s imploring, the latter hits him across the face so hard that he knocks him to the floor.

Baritone Thomas Hampson has sung the role so many time(s) that he can do it on automatic pilot. He does not. He is effective both in his vocal output and as the conniving father who is prepared to use emotional blackmail and violence, and as a sympathetic father and eventually friend to both Alfredo and Violetta.

Matthew Diamond directs the performance for live cinema with in measured camera shots that allow us to see the performance. He does not think La Traviata is a video game and it is a pleasure to watch a sensibly directed broadcast.    

Nicola Luisotti conducts The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in this defining production of the perennial favorite.
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La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on March 11 and there will be encore broadcasts on April 15, 17 and 19, 2017 at various Cineplex Cinemas. For more information visit www.cineplex.com/events

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

SAINT JOAN – REVIEW OF DONMAR PRODUCTION LIVE FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan opens famously with Captain Robert de Baudricourt screaming at his steward “No eggs! No eggs!! …what do you mean by no eggs?” The steward replies that “it is an act of God.”

That is not how the play opens in the Donmar Warehouse production seen in movie theatres in the National Theatre Live broad cast. We see three large screens and watch the business report that tells us there is a serious shortage of eggs in France and the price has gone through the roof.


Then we meet Robert and his steward and follow Shaw’s text. But will have a number of news stories as the action of the play develops.
 Gemma Arterton as Saint Joan 
Director Josie Rourke has brought Saint Joan into the 21st century in a stunning production that makes the play seem as if it were written yesterday and makes for extraordinary theatre.

Aside from the TV screens, the dominant feature of the play is a large boardroom table set on a revolving stage. The confrontation between Joan on one side and the combined power of Church and the political authorities on the other is as relevant today as it was in 1429.

The focal point of any production must be the character of Saint Joan. Rourke directs Gemma Arterton into a believable and powerful character. She avoids making Saint Joan sanctimonious which can be almost fatal to a modern production. Arterton’s Saint Joan is strong without being haughty and humble without being servile. She must choose between her inner voices and the massive authority of the Church. She states with conviction but without arrogance that she is a child of the Church but refuses to abandon the commands of God. This is a magnificent performance by Arterton and a brilliant approach to the play by Rourke.

Shaw’s verbosity is never far off in most of his plays and we do get somewhat bogged down in the lengthy discussion among Warwick, Bishop Cauchon and the Chaplain. But that is a minor issue.

The rest of the performance is riveting and the dramatic effect struck me as if this were the first time I was seeing the play.

Some of the outstanding performances:  Jo Stone-Fewings plays the wily, unscrupulous and powerful Earl of Warwick who wants to capture and execute Joan. Niall Buggy plays the Archbishop of Rheims, a bulldog of a man, a cleric in name only, who, like the other clerics, wants to protect his power and by extension the total authority of the Church. Less obnoxious but equally authoritarian is Elliot Levy as Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais  
 
Fisayo Akinade and Gemma Arterton in Saint Joan 
Fisayo Akinade plays the Dauphin, a pathetic weakling who objects even to wearing the coronation robes because they were too heavy. 

The Inquisitor (Rory Keenan), the English Chaplain, John de Stogumber (Richard Cant) and the rest join forces and accuse Joan of being a witch, a heretic, a potential destroyer of the power of the nobility and most importantly a disobedient servant of the Church. They are protecting nothing more than their supremacy and authority over people and God and religion are the tools that they use godlessly and brutally.

Some may argue that Saint Joan in the 15th century, Shaw in the 20th century (the play premiered in 1923) and Josie Rourke’s production in the 21st century constitute a statement about women’s rights. I think not. The play is about totalitarian control of people.


This is a brilliant interpretation of the play with superb performances.
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Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw was shown at various Cineplex Cinemas on March 12, 2017. For more information visit:  http://www.cineplex.com/

Sunday, March 12, 2017

THE MILLENNIAL MALCONTENT – REVIEW OF ERIN SHIELDS’ PLAY AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

It is possible to watch a play and get very little out of it. The characters, the plot and just about everything about it conspire to drive your attention away from the happenings on stage and you end up scratching your head about the whole thing afterwards.

That is what happened to me while watching the premiere of Erin Shields’ The Millennial Malcontent at the Tarragon Theatre. I saw shallow, pretentious, tiresome characters romping around the stage, dressing up in ridiculous costumes for a party and evoking almost nothing. There was some humour that the opening night enthusiastic audience reacted to but I found nothing of substance to enjoy.  
Rong Fu, Natasha Mumba, Frank Cox-O'Connell, Reza Sholeh, James Daly, Amelia Sargisson, 
Alicia Richardson, Liz Peterson. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
Shields tells us in a Note in the program that her inspiration for The Millennial came from Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife which he may have written while he was a prisoner in the Bastille and was first acted in 1697. The play is about the unhappy marriage of Sir John Brute and Lady Brute in a world where divorce was not available but adultery was. The characters go off to town in search of love, excitement and revenge, much of it not related to the unhappy marriage that is supposed to be the main plot.

Shields’ play contains echoes of Vanbrugh’s play but it is about today’s superficial, self-centered, Facebook society. No doubt it is intended to be a satire perhaps even a mockery of our youth but it simply misfires.

Johnny (Reza Sholeh) is married to Moxy (Liz Peterson) and they are not happy. Faith (Rong Fu) is in love with Johnny. Frank Cox-O’Connell plays the extravagantly obnoxious Charm who makes videos but spends most of his time tiresomely showing off and frequently at unacceptable decibel levels.
 
Liz Peterson, Rong Fu, Natasha Mumba, Frank Cox-O'Connell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Mimi (Amelia Sargisson) is his nice sidekick. We also have Teasel (Natasha Mumba), Heartfelt (James Daly) and Raz (Alicia Richardson. Most of them show up in outlandish costumes the most bizarre being that of a blow-up penis. There are some crude scenes involving genitals and masturbation and some salty language.

Interestingly, The Provoked Wife was roundly denounced for its immorality and in a production in 1701 the actors were indicted for speaking the play’s profane language.

Today’s youth may well be as shallow, pretentious and tiresome, and fully deserve to be satirized as Erin Shields apparently intended but I missed the satire and after a couple of hours I left the theatre trying to figure out what director Peter Hinton and Shields had in mind that simply did not come out.
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The Millennial Malcontent by Erin Shields opened on March 9 and will continue until April 9, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, March 6, 2017

7 STORIES – REVIEW OF REMARKABLE PRODUCTION OF PANYCH’S PLAY AT HART HOUSE THEATRE James Karas

James Karas

Hart House Theatre treats us to a remarkable production of Morris Panych’s 1989 surreal play 7 Stories. It is done by a group of young actors and a production team which display amazing talent.  

As you enter the theatre you see a man holding an umbrella standing on a ledge of a high-rise building. He is clearly contemplating suicide. He stands mostly still until the lights go down in the auditorium and the performance begins.

There are half a dozen windows behind the unnamed Man (Brian Haight) and he will interact with about a dozen people that will pop up from some of the windows. If we assume that the Man is on the edge both physically and metaphorically or, to put it crudely, nuts, it is nothing compared to the people that he meets. 
   Brian Haight as The Man, Rakhee Morzaria as Charlotte, Scott Kuipers as Rodney
The Man at the beginning is mostly a sounding board for some of the lunatics that pop out of the windows but eventually he is allowed to speak about himself and gives a reason for being on the ledge. Haight plays the Man as a reserved and at times stone-faced being who appears far more rational than the other loonies of the play.

The first intruders into the Man’s encounter with his chosen fate are Rodney (Scott Kuipers) and Charlotte (Rakhee Morzaria). They are having an affair. Rodney is a lawyer, Charlotte is a poet and he is trying to kill her. They argue violently and Morzaria gets some great lines and gives a superbly histrionic performance. Kuipers does well as almost her straight man. Morzaria has another juicy role as the one-hundred-year old Lillian. She changed the life of a Frenchman with the only French that she knew which turned out to be “the grapefruit is on the table.”

Kuipers gets more scope for his talents as Michael, the obsessive artist who distinguishes between a shade and a tint. Good work by Kuipers in portraying the punctilious and sensitive appreciator of colour who, like everyone in the play, has loose hinges.

Nicole Hrgetic plays Michael’s partner Joan and the sadistic Nurse Wilson who loves people but can’t stand individuals and has no feelings but is humanitarian. Good work by Hrgetic.

 Brian Haight as The Man, Kevin Forster as Marshall

Kevin Kashani plays the psychiatrist Leonard, one of the more bizarre characters in the play.  Leonard works in a loony bin (his words) and he is completely crackers. Kashami gives a splendid portrayal of the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist fast. Kashami also play Percy, a guest at a party on the floor, who is as batty as the psychiatrist.
Kevin Forster plays Marshall and Al, two characters that are almost caricatures and require some showy acting. Marshall seems to have an identity crisis. He is a homosexual about to marry an heiress who almost ran him over, an actor who could not act and a fine character for an actor like Forster. The latter also plays Al, a man who knows how to put an end to a bad party – start a fire.

Margarita Valderrama plays the religiously fanatic Rachel (she poisoned her mother but it was an act of God) and Jennifer, the garrulous dummy who thinks it would be a thrill to jump off the ledge.

Panych has peopled the play with some fascinating and fantastic characters for actors and full credit goes to the cast and even more so to director Rebecca Ballarin for putting everything together and pulling off a successful production.

The play displays, wit, marvellous non-sequiturs and comments about the play itself. One character leaves the stage (closes her window) because there are too many pauses in the conversation. Take that, Pinter. Any number of labels can be attached to the type of play this is but your best bet is to forget branding it and just go and enjoy it.
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7 Stories by Morris Panych opened on March 3 and continues until March 11, 2017 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849