Thursday, June 21, 2018

HAMLET – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, has exercised the prerogative of a boss and given herself the best and toughest role of the season. She plays Hamlet. The production is directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While and the result is eccentric and idiosyncratic which means you get the good, the bad and the awful.

Terry seems to be aggressively gender neutral and perhaps gender blind which is commendable to a point. Seeing Shakespeare’s plays done by all-women and all-men casts is a frequent occurrence and having some roles played by the opposite sex should not raise many eyebrows. Perhaps.
  
Terry’s Hamlet is a hyperkinetic prince who frequently uses his whole body it seems to make his points. He goes mad or pretends to be crackers quite early on and I felt that the directors did not tell Terry to follow Hamlet’s advice to the players. This Hamlet does not just use his hands when talking but flails his arms to near contortions. He puts on a clown’s suit from his first meeting with Polonius to almost the end of the play.

His histrionic delivery does not apply to all parts of his soliloquys which are delivered in almost matter-of-fact style. The Hecuba speech is a dramatic self-accusation of his failure to avenge his father’s death yet, as delivered by Terry, it does not rise to any meteoric level of emotion. For “To be or not to be” Terry kneels at the edge of the stage and speaks to a few of the yardlings in front of her.

She does a superb job in the bedroom scene where Hamlet attacks his mother for her betrayal and murder of his father. Here Terry shows strength and superb delivery of her lines.    

Ophelia is played by Shubham Saraf, a tall young man, dressed in a nice gown that brought to mind high school casting. On high school productions, you take what you have and not what you want. The directors’ and Terry’s choice was not that grim but in this case it was ridiculous. He did not fit the role in any way. He did a much better job as Osric.
Laertes is played by Bettys Jones, a spitfire of an actor who does a good job in the role. She would have made a fine Ophelia to Saraf’s Laertes if it were not for perverse gender swapping.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are marginal characters, good for few laughs, even though you may wonder about Hamlet having them as friends at university. Rosencrantz is played by Pearce Quigley who has a white beard and is clearly a man of a certain age and could be Polonius’s brother. Let’s assume that Wittenberg accepted senior students. Guildenstern is played by Nadia Nadarajah who is unfortunately a deaf-mute. The biographical note in the program states that she trained at the International Visual Theatre in Paris and has considerable acting experience. Guildenstern is a speaking role and sign language cannot replace what he/she has to say. Giving people with disabilities opportunities is laudable but it should be in roles that can be adapted to their abilities. In this case, it simply did not work to put it politely.

Colin Hurley does a fine job as the Ghost, the wonderful role of the Gravedigger and a Player. The Ghost, however, is not really a ghost. During the scene on the parapets of Elsinore, he touches his son. When the Ghost appears when young Hamlet is haranguing his mother, he puts his arm around his son’s shoulder in order to restrain him. Interesting conception of a ghost.

The directors find humour in a number of places. When Polonius (Richard Katz) delivers his lengthy advice to Laertes, for example, there are pauses and intonations that make it quite funny.             

The costumes for which Loraine Ebdon-Price is credited as Supervisor seemed to consist of whatever London’s equivalent of Malabar’s had on hand. The play takes place sometime in the past and costume need not play any significant part.

Eccentric? Idiosyncratic? I revise my opinion downwards when thinking of poor Ophelia and Guildenstern but I will leave it at that.
__________

Hamlet by William Shakespeare continues until August 26, 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

LOHENGRIN – REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

It has taken the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden more than forty years to roll out a new production of Lohengrin but the result is vocally outstanding with truly exceptional production values form David Alden.

Brilliant vocal artistry is provided by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as the heroic knight Lohengrin who demands anonymity. His vocal chords are a precision instrument that can rise to high notes with power and sing lyrical passages with tonal splendor.
 
Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Irish soprano Jennifer Davis stepped in to replace the indisposed Kristine Opolais with exceptional results. Poor Elsa has much to contend with as a woman accused of killing her brother. She is saved by the would-be nameless Lohengrin only to be maliciously misled into betraying him and herself. She needs strength of character, beauty of tone and has the Achilles heel of weakness to doubt her savior. An outstanding performance.

Baritone Thomas J. Mayer has sung the role of the nasty and ambitious Friedrich von Telramund all over Europe and is making his Royal Opera debut in the role this season. With his resonant voice and stage presence he has all the equipment for a superb performance which he provides. His character’s partner in sorcery and evil is Ortrud sung by dramatic soprano Christine Goerke in an equally well done performance.

Bass baritone Kostas Smoriginas with his commanding and booming voice served as the Herald.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus are conducted by Andris Nelsons and produce music of extraordinary power and beauty. When the full orchestra, chorus and soloists are mobilized, for example, after Lohengrin’s victory over Telramund, they produce a sound that is so thrilling that it transports you to another dimension.

David Alden brings some intriguing and in the end fascinating ideas to the opera. With Set Designer Paul Steinberg and Costume Designer Gideon Davey, he sets the opera in a devastated city after the war. The action takes place in a bombed building where only the outer walls have survived.

It becomes slowly clear that there is a power struggle among Telramund, King Heinrich (finely sung by Georg Zeppenfeld) and Elsa who represents her brother Gottfried, the rightful duke.

Alden saves us from having to watch a swan drag Lohengrin’s boat unto the scene. Judicious use of lighting suggests his arrival as the knight who will fight for Elsa and that is all we need.
 
Jennifer Davis and Klaus Florian Vogt in Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, London. 
Photo: Tristram Kenton
But the swan or swans are not entirely left out. Near the end, as Lohengrin is about to depart because he was betrayed into having to reveal his identity, large red and black banners with white swans emblazoned on them are dropped across the stage. They are frightfully similar to the large banners with swastikas that were used by the Nazis.

It is an unexpected and startling scene. As Lohengrin walks quickly off the stage and disappears. Elsa falls to her death, the banners come crashing down and the old order disappears. Gottfried, the rightful duke appears, and order is restored. I found the scene breathtaking and the production awesome.    
__________

Lohengrin  by Richard Wagner opened on June 7 and will be performed on different dates until July 1, 2018 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Two Noble Kinsmen is a creaky play by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. If Alex Trebek were to ask you “what is Shakespeare’s last play, press the button quickly and say “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” No, it is not The Tempest. That was Shakespeare’s last complete play. Shakespeare’s Globe gives it a largely worthy production that cannot erase the play’s weaknesses but we are happy to see it.
 
The company of The Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare's Globe
© Nobby Clark
The plot has ancient provenance. Like everything worthwhile in the world, it started as a Greek legend, wound itself through Roman culture and, unlike the Parthenon Marbles, landed honestly in England. (No, they are not the Elgin Marbles. Stolen items are not named after the thief).With Chaucer using the legend for The Knight’s Tale and other writers penning poetry and plays based on it, it’s curious that Shakespeare did not use the tale for one of his plays until near the end of his life and then only as a collaborator of John Fletcher.

Palamon (Paul Stocker) and Arcite (Bryan Dick) are knights who were captured by Theseus (Jude Akuwudike) in a war against Creon. (Don’t sweat the details.) While in jail as captives, the two knights tell us that they are cousins and the closest of friends and nothing will ever separate them. Then they see the gorgeous Princess Emilia, Theseus’ sister-in-law and fall madly in love with her. That puts an end to their friendship and they become mortal enemies without having exchanged a word with Emilia. Remember that courtly love in which the knights engage is a long distance affair and contact with the object of love and adoration is not required, in fact it is undesirable because it ruins everything.

We have a no-name Jailer (Andy Cryer) who has a no-name Jailer’s Daughter (Francesca Mills who falls in love with Arcite who is banished from Theseus’ Kingdom but returns for Emilia. In the meantime, the Jailer’s Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and the plot thickens.

The two cousins meet in combat to decide who will get Emilia (who does not say very much). The Jailer’s Daughter goes nuts because Palamon does not love her but a doctor (Jos Vantyler) finds a cure: get her no-name dolt of a Wooer to dress up like Palamon, agree to marry her and that will cure her of her madness.
 
The Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. Photo: Nobby Clark
The heroic tale is spiced with some humour, singing and dancing. The cousins are typical young men that can be seen on the street and there is nothing knightly about them. Theseus has a commanding presence and the statuesque and beautiful Moyo Akandé has an impressive presence as Hippolyta.

Mills is a midget and a ball of fire. She has comic skills galore and thanks to her size can be tossed around easily. She is the most memorable character of the play as the lower class daughter of a jailer who aspires to marry a knight. After a bout of madness, she finds a husband and happiness.

Cryer’s Jailer has a rich working-class accent and gives a fine portrayal.

Director Barrie Rutter handles the play with a light touch, with music, dancing and comic business. The choreography of Ewan Wardrop helps as does the music of Eliza Carthy. I suppose it is the best way to treat the play because otherwise it may well prove to be a heroic, romantic bore. You want to see The Two Noble Kinsmen a few times during your life honoris causa and to check what can be done with the play. You may adopt this production as one of them
__________
The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare continues until June 30, 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com  The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Monday, June 18, 2018

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

Miles Potter directs a highly commendable production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s long-winded family saga for the Stratford Festival. It plays in the small Studio Theatre which has the advantage of intimacy and the issue of limited space.

Long Day’s Journey tells the story of the Tyrone family. James Tyrone is a one-role matinee idol who sold his soul to Mammon and abandoned Melpomene (maybe). He rose from poverty and did amass some wealth but he could not shake off his years of hardship and remained a miser all his life. He was convinced of his great acting talent and recalled or perhaps imagined playing opposite the great Edwin Booth and alternating the roles of Othello and Iago with him.
 
 Seana McKenna as Mary and Charlie Gallant as Edmund. 
Photography by Emily Cooper.
It is a devastating portrait of O’Neill’s father and Scott Wentworth does a superb job in the role. He shows us James as a heavy drinker, an arrogant man, a selfish husband and a repulsive miser who keeps his whisky locked up and can tell if someone has had a drink from an open bottle. His sons are forced to pour water into the bottle to fool their father.

Wentworth does a superb job of presenting all those traits in Tyrone but I missed the matinee idol. This Tyrone is the one-role actor who thinks of himself as a star while regretting prostituting his talents for money but his star quality is never shown.

The long day’s journey into night is the story of James’s wife Mary brilliantly portrayed by Seana McKenna. Mary is a pathetic woman who was raised in a convent and fell in love with the image of Tyrone as an actor and had to live the reality of cheap hotels, addiction to morphine, the death of a son and the double life of hiding from reality until she goes into the inevitable night. McKenna gives a deeply-felt portrayal of the unfortunate Mary who goes from the pretense of health to the reality of madness. She shows us Mary’s torn interior as we see the wrecked exterior behind which the truth is supposed to be hidden.
 
Charlie Gallant (left) as Edmund and Gordon S. Miller as James. 
Photography by Emily Cooper.
James Tyrone Jr. (Gordon S. Miller) is a wastrel who spends his time drinking and whoring and has no other ambition in life.

Edmund (Charlie Gallant) is the youngest son and he is suffering from tuberculosis as did O’Neill. It is a self-portrait of the playwright as a sickly man, a would-be poet and a dreamer. Gallant with his sallow complexion, deep-set eyes and sickly appearance has to cope with the fear of tuberculosis and his father’s penny pinching. Mendacity, as Big Daddy put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a deeply rooted habit in the Tyrone family.

The cast has to express the hatreds, love and harrowing ghosts and emotions that tear the Tyrones apart and keep them together.

The maid Cathleen with her thick Irish brogue is very funny and provides a perfect contrast to the warring Tyrones and Amy Keating is a delight to watch in the role.

The play takes place in a summer home in Connecticut during a single day. The Tyrones wear light summer clothes and should be enjoying the holiday. The set by Peter Hartwell and costumes by Gillian Gallow are a pleasant image of a well-off family enjoying the summer. Again the image and the reality do not match.

O’Neill’s verbosity is inescapable but in Long Day’s Journey is becomes a tool for driving home the emotional morass and the toxic atmosphere in which the Tyrones live. Despite some complaints, in the end it all adds up to a great night at the theatre.  .            
______

Long Day’s Journey Into Night  by Eugene O’Neill continues until October 13, 2018 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street East, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

THE TEMPEST - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

There is a poetic justice and chronological beauty about the Stratford Festival’s production of The Tempest. Its place in history will remain also as the opening night that was cancelled because of a terrorist threat. Indeed it was and the actual opening happened on June 10 instead of the original May 28. But I am not referring to that. I am talking about Martha Henry, actor, director extraordinary. She played Miranda in 1962, her first season at Stratford. This year, fifty six years later, she plays Prospero and gives a masterful and indeed historic performance.  

Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino directs the production and he seems to have spared no effort to make it one of the finest in recent memory. He has selected the finest cast and directs with such attention to detail and imaginative outpouring as to make your attention riveted to every aspect of the performance. 
 
From left: Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand, Martha Henry as Prospero and Mamie Zwettler as Miranda. 
Photography by David Hou. 
Martha Henry. Age has taken its toll on Ms Henry. She appears frail, slightly crouched and one had fears about what type of Prospero she will make. No one need be concerned about her. Her voice is steady and strong, her enunciation clear and her ability to deliver iambic pentameters simply impeccable. This Prospero has aged and gained wisdom and knows when it is time to quit, to break his staff. He has every cause to seek revenge but decides that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance” and forgives his enemies.

The Tempest is a complex play with many layers but one of its main aspects is the growth towards forgiveness and grace. By the end of the performance I felt that a woman playing Prospero is preferable to a man in the role. Henry’s physical frailty and strength of character make a powerful combination for the character of Prospero and for some of the themes of the play. The deposed Prospero who seeks refuge on an island becomes an occupier and deposer herself until the end when all changes.

The island may have four inhabitants, Prospero, Miranda (Mamie Zwettler), Ariel (Andre Morin) and Caliban (Michael Blake) but it has a boatload of Spirits, Monsters, Nymphs, Reapers, Dogs and a Harpy. Not to mention Iris (Chick Reid), Ceres (Alexis Gordon) and Juno (Lucy Peacock.) Cimolino gives full attention and play to all of them in a production that, as I said, nothing is underdone or left out.

Stephen Ouimette as the jester Trinculo and Tom McCamus as the drunk butler Stephano are hilarious and as is usual with good actors steal the show when they are on stage.

Mamie Zwettler as Miranda and Sebastian Heins as Ferdinand are the pure and innocent lovers and we enjoy watching them fall in love and provide for a happy post-Tempest future.

The baddies are Graham Abby as the usurper Antonio who convinces Sebastian (Andre Sills), the equally bad brother of King Alonso, to murder the king.   David Collins plays the distraught Alonso, the father of Ferdinand. But there is virtue among evil and it is represented by Gonzalo in a fine performance as usual by Rod Beattie.

There is no effort to make the spirit of the air, Ariel, fly around the theatre but Andre Morin gives us a spirited performance. Michael’s Blake’s Caliban is both nasty and hilarious, especially in his scenes with Stephano and Trinculo.

Cimolino opens the production with Prospero sitting atop of her cell with the scene dominated by the leafless trunk of a tree. She raises her staff and brings about the storm that will wreck the ship and bring the good and bad Italians to the island for the drama to commence. There is no doubt about who controls everything on her island.

The staging, the set designed by Bretta Garecke, the lighting, designed by Michael Walton, the sound design by Thomas Ryder Paine with Berthold Carriere’s music emphasize and indeed celebrate the magical, other-worldly atmosphere of the island.   

There are many exquisitely acted and directed scenes. Near the end, when Caliban is freed after being treated roughly, perhaps because he tried to rape Miranda, as he walks by her she puts her hand on his shoulder in a wonderful gesture of forgiveness.

At the end, a trap door opens, the lights are dimmed except in the hole in the stage boards and Prospero throws her staff, her crown, her gown, her books of magic and all she had on the island and she becomes free.

Most of us can only imagine Martha Henry as Miranda in 1962 but no one who saw her will forget her Prospero or Cimolino’s Tempest of 2018.
__________
The Tempest by William Shakespeare opened on June 10 and will run until October 26, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

INNOCENCE LOST – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION


James Karas

“To be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

These words were addressed to a fourteen-year old boy in a courtroom in the small town of Goderich, Ontario on September 30, 1959.

The boy was Steven Truscott and he was convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year old classmate, Lynne Harper. The case went to the Court of Appeal and to the Supreme Court of Canada soon after the conviction. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and the Supreme Court refused to hear it.
 
 Nancy Palk, Dan Mousseau, and John Jarvis. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

There was a lengthy and exhaustive review in a reference before the Supreme Court in 1966. There were more references, appeals and proceedings. All of them concluded that Steven Truscott was guilty as charged.

The case became a cause célèbre with books and articles written about it, a film, documentaries and much publicity keeping it in the eye of the public. Fifty-nine years after the murder the case is still haunting us and its latest appearance is in a play by Beverley Cooper, Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott.

Cooper tells the story of the Truscott case using ten actors who reenact scenes and speak directly to the audience about events as they unfolded. We see stories from the investigation, the reaction of the town people, the evidence gathered against Truscott and portions of the trial. All the characters in the play are based on real people except for a woman called Sarah (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) who takes part in relating the horrible saga and is an invention of Cooper. Truscott is played Dan Mousseau who appears innocent and unsure about what is happening and that is exactly what one would expect.

One of the key characters is Isabel LeBourdais (Nancy Palk), a young journalist who wrote a book about the case that was very influential in bringing the case to the attention of politicians and the public. It set in motion a series of events that lead to the 1966 Supreme Court reference into the case which was unsuccessful.
 Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, Berkley Silverman, and Dan Mousseau. 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
The murder understandably shook up the small community and the fascinating part of Cooper’s retelling of the events is the changing attitude of the public (call it mob, if you will) from disbelief to slowly turning against the boy. The police, the judge and the witnesses were all decent people but perceptions change, subconscious decisions are made and what everybody thought was a fair trial proving guilt (albeit all based on circumstantial evidence) was the right verdict becomes doubtful.

What no one seems to have considered at the time was if the community where the victim and the accused lived and in the tension that was created, was the proper place for the trial. It clearly was not because the chances of finding an impartial jury was almost impossible. Not that any juror was consciously predisposed to convicting Truscott or the investigators had any predilection in that direction. Innocence Lost illustrates the emotional turmoil of a community that cannot be expected to be impartial.

The play has numerous scenes and the actors change characters in order to tell a good part of the story. Director Jackie Maxwell is more than adept at handling the intricacies of the case as presented by Cooper. But only a small part of the story is told because the case is too big and too complicated to tell much more.

Innocence Lost will whet your appetite for more information about the Truscott case and that is a high complement for the director, the cast and the production.

The play deals very briefly with the events after the conviction. The sentence of hanging was commuted to imprisonment, Steven Truscott served his sentence and was paroled, later married and had children. But he remained guilty of the rape and murder of Lynne Harper and all the judges who dealt with the case agreed with that verdict.

Until 2007, that is. The case reached the Court of Appeal again and after an exhaustive review of the events of June 1959 and everything that occurred after that in connection with Steven Truscott, five judges stated that Truscott’s “conviction for murder is set aside and an acquittal entered.”
____________
Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott  by Beverley Cooper continues until June 22, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Brighton Beach Memoirs is Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play about his youth, his family and his beginnings as a writer. It is set in the New York suburb of Brighton Beach in 1937 when the fear of another major war was in the air and the memory of the last great war was a recent memory.

It is a genial play about family conflict, sexual awakening and the struggle for survival involving fundamentally decent people who love each other deeply. That is the atmosphere that any production of the play must capture and the current one by The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company does it beautifully.

The central character is Eugene Jerome (mostly Neil Simon as a teenager) played by Lawrence Libor. Eugene dreams of becoming a baseball players as he tosses a baseball against the wall of his house to the annoyance of everyone. His hormones have woken up and he is wondering about his cousin Nora’s breasts and what a naked woman looks like. When his older brother Stanley (Umed Amin) gives him a picture of a completely naked woman, Eugene goes hilariously crazy. But he is mostly an observer of his world and an inveterate note taker. He is Neil Simon in the making and Libor goes through the angst of puberty in an exemplary fashion.

Amin as Stanley is a brother, a friend, a competitor and a supporter despite some friction and disagreements. A convincing relationship is developed by the two actors.

The Jerome family, father Jack (David Eisner), mother Kate (Sarah Orenstein) and their two sons are working class immigrants who have trouble making ends meet. Kate’s widowed sister Blanche (Nicole Underhay) and her two daughters, Nora (Kelsey Falconer) and Laurie (Meghan Caine) live with them and there is tension among them.

Eisner as Jack is a factory worker who wants his children to have principles and stand for what is right. He holds two jobs to make ends meet until he suffers a heart attack. He is a peace-maker and in the end a mensch. Kate loves her family but there is tension between her and her sister going back to childhood. Blanche wants to date an Irish neighbour and Kate is against it because he is probably a drunkard but more so because he is Irish. Simon is not afraid to look at prejudice going both ways. Again a fine relationship is developed by the two actors in their fine performances.

Nora has been offered a small part in a Broadway musical and her mother and uncle do not want her to take it. She should finish high school. The family’s ambitions go no further than high school. College is a distant dream. Falconer in the role ably displays the determination of a young girl and the friction that it creates.

As is inevitable, the living arrangements cannot last for long and the two families do break up. Blanche goes to live with a friend. But relatives from Europe are on their way and the play ends on a positive note. In real life, the Simon family moved out.

The set by Sean Mulcahy consists of six playing areas on two levels giving us a cross section of the Jerome house. There are two bedrooms and a balcony on the upper level, a living room, dining room and doorway into the house on the lower level. It is an image of a comfortable home.

The task of director Sheila McCarthy was to capture the humor, the love and wonderful interaction of the characters in the atmosphere of familial conflict that is nevertheless overwhelmingly loving. She has done that in this affectionate, humane and humorous look at the largely autobiographical look at the author’s puberty.   
____________

Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon, production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, continues until June 10, 2018 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Friday, June 8, 2018

LA BÊTE – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF HIRSON’S PLAY


James Karas

David Hirson’s 1991 play La Bête is a brilliant tour de force combining intelligence, wit, brilliant dialogue and stirring arguments, all done in rhyming iambic pentameters. Soulpepper Theatre does justice to the play with some bravura performances that would test the mettle of the most experienced players.

La Bête is set in France in 1654, in other words in the age of Moliere. It is a play about culture in general and about the theatre in particular. Valère (Gregory Prest), the beast of the title represents low-brow, street theatre. Elomire (Sarah Wilson) represents high-brow theatre and both she and Valère depend on Princess Conti (Rachel Jones) for their livelihood. The stage is set for the two sides to put forth their positions.
 
 La Bête Ensemble. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
Elomire despises Valère and considers him a low-class clown who has no business being in the court of the Princess. But Valère has arrived there and we hear from him. That is an understatement because Valère delivers a monologue at the beginning of the play that lasts for half an hour. No one says anything, while Prest as the beast delivers his incredibly lengthy deluge of words.

Valère is common, vulgar, crude, arrogant and fawning, a one-man street troupe who needs a few more offensive words to do him justice. He is the epitome of everything that people of taste and culture would abhor. Prest’s half-hour monologue is astounding for his ability to memorize that many line alone. But he does more than that. His performance is modulated as he shows us all his disgusting characteristics which at times are very funny and never become boring. It is an unforgettable performance.

In the meantime, Elomire (the name is an anagram for Moliere) listens and reacts with facial expressions. Sarah Wilson, dressed in a beautiful gown, is tall, beautiful, statuesque and the epitome of the cultured woman and the representative of the “theatuh.”

Rachel Jones’s Princess Conti must decide which path her court theatre will take. She saw Valère perform in a town square and invited him to her court to work with Elomire. She puts Valère to the test in a solo performance and with Elomire’s troupe. Conti, the essence of aristocracy, is generous, reasonable, and affable and exudes beauty, class and culture. She asks for only one thing: that she be obeyed at all times. Aristocrats then and now are wonderful people provided you do what they want.
Oliver Dennis, Sarah Wilson, and Gregory Prest. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
Oliver Dennis plays the limping, humpback Bejart and does a good job, as usual. Fiona Sauder plays the servant Dorine who cannot say more than a syllable and I am not sure what the character is all about. There are four other characters who are part of the troupe but they are not very well developed. James Smith is De Brie, Ghazal Azarbad plays Catherine De Brie, Raquel Duffy plays Madeleine Bejart and Paolo Santalucia plays Rene du Parc. They participated in Valère’s performance but aside from that they did not do very much.

There is a Marquise-Therese Du Parc listed as being played by Michaela Washburn but for the performance that I saw the role was distributed amongst the ensemble to no good effect. I found out afterwards that Ms Washburn was indisposed.

The principal actors gave extraordinary performances in a play that combines meaty intellectual arguments, high and low humour (Prest scratching parts of his body and emitting gas).

Tanja Jacobs’ direction is outstanding. The play takes place in the court theatre and Ken MacKenzie’s set is appropriate and well done.

La Bête as a play about the theatre and culture has obvious appeal to theatre lovers. But it is also a reflection of today’s cultural and even political milieu where people like Donald Trump and Doug Ford are considered as acceptable leaders. Classical theatre, music and opera have difficulty in surviving, let alone thriving and standards appear to be falling.  La Bête raises the flag and shows that all of that is not true. Go see it.
____________
La Bête by David Hirson continues until June 22, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, has become a classic of American literature. Its sensitive treatment of growing up in Alabama in the 1930s is full of wonder, discovery and humour. Its treatment of the disease of racism and the fate of a black man accused of raping a white girl is harrowing to the core and utterly unforgettable.

The novel was adapted for the screen by Horton Foote and the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck is considered one of the great movies of the 20th century.
 

Jonathan Goad (centre) as Atticus Finch with members of the company. Photography by David Hou.

In 1990 the novel was adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel and the Stratford Festival has staged his adaptation at the Festival Theatre. Subject to one complaint, this is a compelling production of a novel-turned-into-a-play that is almost completely successful.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams has assembled a superb cast to tell Lee’s great story. Jonathan Goad plays Atticus Finch, a decent small-town lawyer, a genial man, a sensitive father and in the end a truly brave defender of a black man before a jury of bigots and in the face of the Ku Klux Klan.   

Finch is a widower with two children to raise, Scout (Clara Poppy Kushnir) and Jem (Jacob Skiba). They have a friend Dill (Hunter Smalley) and Williams has the issue of dealing with three youngsters on stage. He deals with them as with the rest of the production with expertise. Kushnir is superb as the intelligent, curious and very active Scout and Skiba and Hunter are both foils and partners in her activities.

The children develop a fear of and a prejudice against a neighbour that they call Boo Radley (Rylan Wilkie). The plot strand is illustrative of the danger of bigotry and a story of growing up and learning.

The main plot strand is the accusation of Tom Robinson (Matthew G. Brown) of raping Mayella Ewell (Jonelle Gunderson). He is black; she is white and his guilt is presumed. Some of the most dramatic scenes in and out of the courtroom ensue as Robinson is put on trial. Randy Hughson gives a stunning performance as Bob Ewell, Mayella’s ignorant and vicious father.

Tim Campbell is an impressive sheriff and Joseph Ziegler is the folksy but tough Judge Taylor.
 From left: Hunter Smalley as Dill, Irene Poole as Jean Louise Finch and Clara Poppy Kushnir 
in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photography by David Hou.
Even if you know the plot, the production provides riveting drama as the trial proceeds from the examination of witnesses to our view of the ignorance, evil and bigotry of most of the townspeople. The apogee is reached when Atticus sits in front of the jail door at night and the townspeople come dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods ready to lynch Robinson. It is a frightful and unforgettable scene.

Sergel’s dramatization is excellent in capturing the drama, humour, atmosphere and the social structure of the town. But he decided to add a character to the play that provides nothing but annoyance. The play opens and closes with a woman called Jean Louise Finch and we see her throughout. She is a grown up Scout in 1968 and she looks back at the events of her youth in the 1930’s. Jean Louise (Irene Poole) almost never leaves the stage and quickly becomes a fly in the ointment. She sits at the counsel table and on the witness chair when there is no witness there and is basically and annoyingly everywhere.

We are also shown photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and hear his sonorous voice from speeches that he made in the late 1960s that have nothing to do with the novel which was written in 1960. We could have done without her and without the additions.

Aside from that the production provides another opportunity to visit a great novel that Stratford’s production renders into unforgettable theatre.   
______

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, dramatized by Christopher Sergel, opened on June 2 and will run in repertory until November 4, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW – REVIEW OF 2018 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

If you are a devotee of the cult musical The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien you need not read this review. Get your tickets immediately for the Avon Theatre where it will be performed in repertory until October 31, 2018. If you are not, you may wish to share my wonder at a show that has attracted, if the audience at the Avon Theatre is indicative, a following of aficionados whose enthusiasm for it has no bounds.

As you get near the Avon Theatre, you will see men and women dressed in leather, black stockings, lots of feathers, black attire, loads of makeup, high heels and an assortment of similar apparel. That describes a substantial portion of the audience. As for the stage, the actors wear similar but substantially more exotic costumes.
 Dan Chameroy (centre) as Frank N. Furter with members of the company. 
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The theatre is full of haze and the idea that this is no ordinary theatrical performance is apparent everywhere from the sidewalk to the auditorium. When the show begins there is a flash of lights aimed at the audience which is followed by an instantaneous outburst of vigorous applause and yelling. An Usherette (Erica Peck) selling popcorn appears on the stage and her sheer appearance and subsequent singing, screaming and screeching are accompanied by such passionate applause and noise from the audience as to leave you breathless.

And that is just the beginning. The enthusiasm of the audience and their participation in the show may compare with the reaction of teenagers to a rock music idol where they scream with orgiastic passion ceaselessly for no apparent or detectable reason.

The Rocky Horror Show has been around since 1973 and it is a takeoff on the Frankenstein story, with loud, very loud music, sci-fi characters and somewhere between the screams and the outlandish acting, a plot. The plot? Well, Janet (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) and Brad (Sayer Roberts) are engaged to be married but they lose their way while returning from a wedding. They get a flat tire and end up in a castle in Transylvania while looking for a telephone to seek help.

We meet the Narrator (Steve Ross) who is greeted with noises of derision from the audience on sight. We quickly discern that the cult disciples know every word, every note, every move and every gesture of the musical and react accordingly. We will meet a chorus of phantoms, Riff Raff (Robert Markus) and Frank ‘N’ Furter, (Dan Chameroy). By now you know you are in some inter-galactic universe at least on the stage and pretty soon you wonder if that applies to the Avon Theatre as well. Frank introduces himself by singing “Sweet Transvestite” from Transsexual Transylvania. Transvestite and transsexual only begin to describe the sexual content of the show.

The Rocky Horror Show is highly interactive. A good number of members of the audience (I could not tell if they are real members of the audience or plants) yell out comments and generally participate in the show. Some of the comments seemed planted. When someone on stage asks who is Eddy? Someone in the audience yells out “A Trump supporter.” On the question of where did he get something, the answer comes “from Ikea.” Before Brad starts singing “Once in a While” someone screams “How often do you jerk off?”
 Members of the company in The Rocky Horror Show. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Frank creates Rocky (George Krissa) who is a gorgeous specimen of a man - handsome, musclebound and blond, he could be a Greek god.

Trevor Patt plays the scientist Dr. Everett Scott and the cast adds up to a large number of players on stage.   

The decibel level on and off the stage was unbelievable. As the show’s end approached, the audience burst into yet another round of applause and I don’t mean with hands held at chest level. The hands are thrown up in the air and they yell, they scream, they stand up, they start dancing on the spot and in the aisles doing The Time Warp Dance.

The show is directed and choreographed by Donna Feore with sets by Michael Gianfrancesco and costumes by Diana Osborne.

The Rocky Horror Show is more of an orgiastic and ritualistic experience than theatre, musical or otherwise. If you have never seen it, you may wish to experience it. Those who have experienced it, are not reading this review.           
__________________
The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien opened on June 2 and will run in repertory until October 31, 2018 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St, Stratford, ON N5A 1X2. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

Keira Loughran directs an imaginative and at times robust production of The Comedy of Errors for the Stratford Festival. Shakespeare’s short play comes directly from Roman comedy, Plautus’ Menaechmi, to be exact. It involves two sets of identical twins with identical names, separated from childhood. They find themselves in Ephesus and mistaken identities and mayhems ensue. There are opportunities for a lot of physical humour and verbal exchanges that can be the source of laughter if well executed.

Loughran takes the play by the scruff of its neck, shakes it up vigorously and gives us a sometimes enjoyable and at times confusing evening in the small Studio Theatre. The play requires some 18 actors, a lot of commotion with entrances and exits and deserves a larger stage but Loughran does the best she can in the small space available.
 
Members of the company in The Comedy of Errors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The play is set in Ephesus but the Ephesus of this production is somewhere in the imagination both in location and time. The costumes are a motley collection of colours and styles, vaguely sexually provocative and the only locale I could deduce was anywhere, anytime.

Men take on women’s roles and vice versa without any respect for Shakespeare’s text. The Duke of Ephesus is played by Juan Chioran dressed like a great Victorian dame but with suede boots above the knee and enough leg showing to place her anywhere you want. The courtesan is played by Sebastien Heins in drag. Heins is a big man and Qasim Khan who plays Antipholus of Ephesus, a client of the courtesan, is not. One can just imagine the services rendered by the courtesan to him to deserve a very expensive present that Antipholus is buying for her!

Egeon (Gordon Patrick White), the Syracusan merchant and father of one set of twins wore a top hat, long coat and had piggy tails that made him look like an indigenous North American in offensive attire.
Amelia Sargisson (left) as Luciana and Alexandra Lainfiesta as Adriana. 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
Luciana (Amelia Sargisson), the sister-in-law of Antipholus of Ephesus, is made to look like Sarah Palin.

Antipholus of Syracuse (Jessica B. Hill) is a woman while Antipholus of Ephesus (Qasim Khan) is a man. With their wild hairdos and purple shawls, they look like unemployed actors trying to make an impression.  Similarly, the servant Dromio of Syracuse (Beryl Bain) is a man while Dromio of Ephesus (Josue Laboucane) is a man.

You get the idea. But there is a question: what is the point of all of this? The plot has enough intricacies and can stand on its own as highly entertaining of well done. If Loughran had a vision for the play, it escaped me. All the variations in costume, sex and look-alikes added confusion rather than clarity and just plain fun.

The production did contain some forceful delivery of lines, physical comedy and imaginative choreography of physical encounters which produced laughter.

Rod Beattie as Dr. Pinch, the schoolmaster and conjurer, almost steals the show He looks like a plastic toy which shakes and quivers and suddenly stops on being given a signal. Beattie also plays Luce, a grotesquely obese woman.

Loughran seems to have been striving for a production that is so imaginative as to be out of this world but the result was simply confusing. There were just too many things that were inexplicable and they took away from the virtues of the production rather than adding to them. Too bad.
______

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare opened on June 1 and will run in repertory until October 14, 2018 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, June 4, 2018

AN IDEAL HUSBAND – REVIEW OF 2018 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival delivers a largely successful production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband deftly directed Lezlie Wade with sets by Douglas Paraschuk and costumes by Patrick Clark.

An Ideal Husband is a Victorian melodrama that is raised above the genre by Wilde’s wit, aphorisms and inverted phrases. The plot creaks on occasion and the wit dries up now and then (unlike, say, in The Importance of Being Earnest) but it can be made to work.

The melodrama? Our ideal husband, Sir Robert Chiltern (Tim Campbell) is rich (Paraschuk’s set of the front hall and the parlour of his house in Grosvenor Square proves it) and very successful. He is Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs. He has a beautiful and devoted wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Sophia Walker), a pretty sister, Miss Mabel (Zara Jestadt), and life is good.
Bahareh Yaraghi as Mrs. Laura Cheveley and Tim Campbell as Sir Robert Chiltern. 
Photography by Emily Cooper.
But there is a skeleton in Sir Robert’s closet. He achieved his wealth and position by selling a cabinet secret!  

Enter the beautiful, unscrupulous, greedy and ambitious Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Behareh Yaraghi). She wants Sir Robert to lie to the House of Commons about the Argentina canal project and present it as a good investment when in fact it is a fraudulent scheme. Mrs. Cheveley will make a pile of money of course. If Sir Robert does not stoop to the blackmail he will be ruined and disgraced because she has the evidence of the treachery on which his wealth and position are built. Full marks to Yaraghi for a fine-honed performance.

An Ideal Husband is set in London’s high society in 1895. Only the servants don’t have titles, otherwise the stage is strewn with aristocrats, ladies and gentlemen. The representation of that society on the stage, in their opulent setting, with their impeccable tuxes and suits for the gentlemen and gorgeous gowns for the ladies, requires a certain stylized acting and the perfect upper crust, chiseled English accents. They are not easy to achieve and the success of the cast of An Ideal Husband ranges from the passable to the well done.

The success with accent is not necessarily the ultimate mark of success. The talented Joseph Ziegler, for example, who is not particularly adept at accents, does a superb job in the secondary role of Lord Caversham. He gives a fine portrayal of the upstanding peer who has a wastrel of a son. Ziegler gives an excellent portrayal and gets all the laughs.
 
Joseph Ziegler (left) as The Earl of Caversham and Brad Hodder as Lord Arthur Goring. 
Photography by Emily Cooper.
The show is stolen by Brad Hodder as Lord Goring, Lord Caversham’s son. He is cynical, lazy and basically does nothing except live for pleasure. His problem is his father who wants him to get married and make something of himself. Hodder plays well with the clever Miss Mabel who outsmarts him into proposing to her.

I had difficulty taking Tim Campbell as Sir Robert. He is a big man and I see him as a grandee in a Western rather than as a British gentleman. His pairing with Sophia Walker as Lady Gertrude did not seem to work very well and their deep love for each other as the perfect couple was less than convincing.

There are a large number of ladies and gentlemen, footmen and servants in the cast who were nicely dressed with uneven performances and accents.

Lezlie Wade directing gets most of the laughs and despite the unevenness of the play and the relatively minor issues with the cast, we get an enjoyable evening at the theatre.    ______________
An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde opened on May 31 and will run until October 28, 2018 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St, Stratford, ON N5A 1X2. www.stratfordfestival.ca