Monday, August 13, 2018

O’FLAHERTY V.C. – REVIEW OF 2018 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Bernard Shaw was a master of turning the tables around on a subject or using irony as a comic tool. O’Flaherty V.C. is a one-act play that he wrote in 1915 and he subtitled it A Reminiscence of 1915 (A Recruiting Pamphlet). Needless to say it was nothing of the sort.

The play takes place in an Irish country house where we meet Private O’Flaherty (Ben Sanders) who has been awarded that rare recognition for extraordinary bravery and service to the British Empire, the Victoria Cross medal. He is a hero and his landlord, General Sir Pearce Madigan (Patrick McManus) is parading him through the Irish countryside to persuade more Irish boys to enlist.
 
Ben Sanders as O'Flaherty and Patrick McManus as General Sir Pearce Madigan 
in O'Flaherty V.C. Photo by Emily Cooper
Now for the surprises. O’Flaherty is no hero. He is just an ordinary chump who was more afraid of running away than of fighting. And that’s just the beginning of the shocks that the cartoon recruiting and Irish estate-owning General is about to get.

O’Flaherty’s mother who raised the General’s children and is a patriotic Irish woman does not know and would never allow her son to fight for the British. She thinks he is fighting for the French and the Russians who would never fight with the English. She draws her own conclusions.

The play provides a marvelous joke and a bitter satire on war and patriotism. Sanders is splendid as the young innocent who goes to a war that he knows nothing about. He has the Irish lilt and the cunning, intelligence and innocence to make an attractive character. He was a thief as a young man and explains his conduct to the General simply. His mother sold her geese to pay her rent to the General. He stole the General’s geese to pay for the rent.

Tara Rosling is the tough, no-nonsense mother who bought bottled milk for her infant but nursed the general’s daughter. She prays for the conversion of the General and cuffs her son’s ears on a regular basis. Quite a woman and a fine performance by Rosling.
 
Gabriella Sundar Singh as Teresa, Ben Sanders as O'Flaherty and Tara Rosling 
as Mrs. O'Flaherty. Photo by Emily Cooper
McManus as the general is the pipe-smoking Central Casting, as they used to say, English officer. He shocked, just shocked at O’Flaherty’s conduct and his mother’s attitude. Everyone is loyal and patriotic, no? NO.

The servant Teresa (Gabriella Sundar Singh) is another tough Irish woman with plans of her own. She sees an opportunity in the new hero. She gets into a fight with Mrs. Flaherty and delivers some marvelous insults. In the end, O’Flaherty V.C. does turn out to be, in a Shavian ironic way, a recruiting pamphlet. Go see it to figure out how.

Director Kimberley Rampersad sets a perfect pace with terrific performances and gives us a delightful 45 minutes of theatre during lunch time.
_____

O’Flaherty V.C. by Bernard Shaw continues on various dates until October 6, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

THE ORCHARD (AFTER CHEKHOV) – REVIEW OF 2018 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

There are many reasons for producing The Orchard (After Chekhov) at the Shaw Festival during the current season. It is a first play by a Canadian writer and that’s worth several solid points. It is about immigrants and their integration under the policy of multi-culturalism enunciated by former Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau and it salutes native Canadians. What more do you want?

The “more” (and perhaps “less”) is suggested by the title. Sarena Parmar has found a short cut to inventing a plot and characters by borrowing them from Anon Chekhov’s 1903 play The Cherry Orchard.  She transplanted Mrs. Ranevskaya’s orchard from provincial Russia at the turn of the twentieth century to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley in 1975 taking most of the characters along.
 
The cast of The Orchard (After Chekhov). Photo by David Cooper.
In Chekhov, the aristocratic order represented by Mrs. Ranevskaya is in decline and a new class is coming up. It is the end of Tsarist Russia. In Parmar’s play, the people are immigrant Sikhs from Punjab, India who, like their Russian counterparts, are on the verge of losing the orchard and I suppose their way of life.

The immediate cause for the loss of the estate is simply bad management. Mrs. Ranevskaya has been living extravagantly in Paris for five years and is left penniless. Loveleen (the name is a loose translation of Ranevskaya’s first name Lyubov), the owner of the Okanagan estate has been living in Bombay with a user and spends whatever money is left for her return ticket to Canada.

Loveleen (Pamela Sinha) is a beautiful and classy woman. One can’t say that she has mismanaged the estate, because she has not managed it at all and maybe she is just plain stupid. The mortgagee is about to foreclose and the estate is going on the auction block and she can’t quite grasp the situation. But she is always lovely.

Loveleen has a large family and friends. Like all immigrants, they are facing the issue of maintaining the culture of the “old country” and integrating into the new way of life. As Sikhs, some of them have the additional problem of being highly visible and having to choose between turban-and-beard and clean-shaven and hair-cut. Her niece Barminder (Krystal Kiran) has converted to Christianity and speaks of becoming a nun. Talk abou assimilation. 
 Pamela Sinha as Loveleen with Rong Fu as Donna in The Orchard (After Chekhov). 
Photo by David Cooper.
Her daughter Annie (played by the author) is a beautiful and intelligent woman who speaks English without an accent (just about all of them do) and survival and success in the host culture should be relatively easier if her mother knew some arithmetic when she was blowing the family farm.

The “Canadian” representatives are Paul (Neil Barclay), a genial neighbour who is broke and Michael (Jeff Meadows) a local shyster who acts (and overacts) like a clown but has his eye set on grabbing the orchard. No he is not a lawyer, just a local businessman rising from the bottom.

Kesur (David Adams) is the turbaned and bearded father of Loveleen and represents the old country, I suppose, and Gurjit (Sanjay Talwar) is Loveleen’s brother who meets the reality of looking “different” and searching for a job.

Parmar salutes Canada’s first nations with the presence of Charlie (Jani Lauzon) and leftist thinking with Peter (Shawn Ahmed).

The plot and the characters are grafted one way or another from Chekhov but the major themes do not take to the Canadian environment as well as one might wish. The sale by auction of the Okanagan cherry orchard and the premise of the whole play are not convincing as the decline and fall of immigrants from Punjab.

The production is directed by Ravi Jain and the play was dramaturged by Guillermo Verdecchia. It presents an interesting idea that should resonate with immigrants and “locals” and again kudos for the choice of play for the reasons enumerated at the beginning of this review.
_____

The Orchard (After Chekhov) by Sarena Parma continues in repertory until September 1, 2018 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

WEST SIDE STORY – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

A great production of a great musical.

That is a succinct review of The Glimmerglass Festival production of West Side Story directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. It is a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago and one can fairly say that she pulled out all the stops and the result is triumphal.
 

Vanessa Becerra as Maria and Joseph Leppek as Tony in "West Side Story." 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
She has a great work to work with. West Side Story has a masterful score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. That is three theatrical geniuses combining forces to bring an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Broadway in 1957. Jerome Robbins’ choreography remains extraordinary and unsurpassable. This is no pleasant dancing but an integral part of the plot that not only adds dramatic punch to the story but is an essential part of it. Remove the dancing and you have caused irreparable harm to the musical.

The original choreography is reproduced by Julio Monge. The scenery by Peter J. Davison and the costumes by Jessica Jahn show the seedy side of New York and the clothes worn by gang members, as far as we can tell. They do the job superbly.

West Side Story needs talented principals like Tony, Maria and Anita, and the main members of the two gangs and this production has them all. Aside from the love plot between Maria and Tony and the effervescent Anita, the musical is an ensemble performance because it is the portrait of two social groups at war. Who are they? Open the news and you will find them in most corners of the great United States. In this case they are Puerto Ricans and “real Americans” for which read white bigots.
 
Joseph Leppek as Tony, Vanessa Becerra as Maria and Amanda Castro as Anita in 
"West Side Story." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Vanessa Becerra as Maria has a ringing voice and shows emotional intensity of the highest order. Tony (Joseph Leppek) is man in love with the voice and the passion to show it. The gang members do dance routines that are athletic, perfectly timed and executed with dramatic power and marvelous passion. Amanda Castro makes the perfect insouciant recent immigrant who is full of optimism but can tell the difference between a dream and a daydream.

The “adults” of the show are the very sympathetic Doc (Dale Travis) and the cops, Lieutenant Schrank (Zachary Owen) and Officer Krupke (Maxwell Levy) who are perhaps exactly how we imagine police officers.

David Charles Abell conducts The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra bringing out Bernstein’s wonderful songs and music to an audience that seemed to be thrilled by every note.

A magnificent night at the theatre. 
 ______________
 West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) is being performed thirteen times between July 7 and August 24, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Friday, August 10, 2018

THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

There are productions and recordings of Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen but it is not an opera that has joined the standard repertoire. You are grateful for any production and especially thankful for one that is done well. E. Loren Meeker’s production for The Glimmerglass Festival qualifies as such as Artistic Director Francesca Zambello deserves a bow for her choice of an off-the-beaten track work.

The Cunning Little Vixen is a fairy tale about a vixen (sung marvelously by the agile Joanna Latini) fox from her youth to her death. As a cub, she is captured and taken home as a pet by the Forester (the ever sonorous Eric Owens). After killing the Forester’s hens, she escapes back to the forest where she grows up and finds love with another fox. Her cunning fails her and she is killed.
 
Joanna Latini as the Vixen and Eric Owens as the Forester in Janáček's "The Cunning Little Vixen." 
Photo: Karli Cadel/ The Glimmerglass Festival
The opera’s characters are mostly animals and insects including hens, grasshoppers, frogs, dragonflies, a wolf, a badger, a mosquito, a dog, a boar, a woodpecker …and you get the idea. Aside from the Forester and his wife (Kayla Siembieda), there is a Schoolmaster (Dylan Morrongiello), a Parson (Zachary Owen), Pasek the Innkeeper (Brian Wallin), his wife (Gretchen Krupp) and Harasta, the Poacher (Wm. Clay Thompson).

It should be noted that the entire cast with the exception of Eric Owens is made up of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program and the Glimmerglass Youth Chorus. Most of the young men and women take on more than one role and the performances are simply admirable.   

The Cunning Little Vixen is an orchestral piece, an opera and a ballet. There are some beautiful orchestral interludes and a great deal of dancing. With a few changes and additions, I think the work can easily be converted to a full-blown ballet. As such the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra by Joseph Colaneri performs brilliantly. The dancing as choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel is done quite well.

The flexible set by Ryan McGgettigan represents a large faux tree in the forest and it is easily adaptable to represent the Forester’s house or the tavern where the men drink and talk about love or the lack of it
 
Gretchen Krupp as Pasek's Wife, Eric Owens as the Forester, Dylan Morrongiello as the Schoolmaster. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Janacek adapted the stories of Rudolf Tesnohlidek for his libretto which is of course in Czech. Glimmerglass presents the opera in English in a translation by Kelley Rourke. That no doubt solves the problem of finding singers who know Czech or can memorize the libretto phonetically. But the translation does have problems. Without knowing Czech, but having heard the opera in its original language, I felt that the English translation had many more syllables. The singers had to rush through phrases that simply did not fit the music and we lost the advantage of having the words married to the music and vice versa.

You may have post-performance rumblings of your own but nothing can take away from the wisdom of choosing to produce the opera, the display of young talent nurtuted by the Festival and the overall high-caliber performance.
           _____

The Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janacek is being performed nine times between July 8 and August 25, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 9, 2018

SILENT NIGHT – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Silent Night is one of the most moving operas that I have ever seen.
              
The silent night of the title of the opera is not the well-known Yuletide carol but a truce among Scottish, French and German soldiers on Christmas Eve 1914 to stop killing each other on the Western Front.

Kevin Puts’ opera to a libretto by Mark Campbell tells a moving story about humanity and decency in the midst of brutality. It is a paean to humanity and a condemnation of our species.

Campbell has woven several personal stories involving soldiers and officers of the warring armies around the national conflicts that brought these people to the war for the sole purpose of killing each other.
 
Arnold Livingston Geis as Nikolaus Sprink in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018 production of 
Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Director Tomer Zvulun has staged a superb production that captures the horror and senselessness of war and the human decency that can rise above it.

The Glimmerglass Festival stage is divided into three sections, one on top of the other, and they are occupied by Scottish, French and German platoons. The men are patriots and fighting for their countries. They are convinced of their righteousness and want to kill their enemy.

On the personal side, there are two Scottish brothers, William (Maxwell Levy) and Jonathan (Christian Sanders), who volunteer for service. But William is killed by the Germans and Jonathan, filled with hatred, promises to take revenge.

Nikolaus Sprink (Arnold Livingston Geis) and Anna Sorensen (Mary Evelyn Hangley) are singers with the Berlin Opera and he is conscripted into the German army. He is a good singer but a bad soldier. She is conscripted to sing for the Crown Prince who is camped in a nearby chalet on Christmas Eve and Nikolaos is sent to do the same. The two lovers are reconciled but how and where they will end up is another question.

Lieutenant Audebert (Michael Miller), the son of an officer, has enlisted in the French army leaving his pregnant wife behind. These are the central personal stories that are weaved into the temporary truce that miraculously happens on that Christmas Eve.

As the soldiers are shooting at each other, they realize that their enemies are people, that they have everything in common and no reason to kill each other despite the fervent patriotism and self-righteousness that they have been indoctrinated with.

During the evening the men from the three nations drink, exchange pleasantries, eat and have a good time together. In the morning hostilities are about to resume, but, again miraculously, they decide to extend the truce for a few hours in order to bury the dead.
 
Dale Travis as The British Major with members of the company in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018 
production of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Puts’ score is an exquisite piece of music, expressive, moving, approachable, dramatic and occasionally dissonant. Campbell’s libretto is based on the screenplay of the film Joyeux Noël by Christian Carion. The opera is sung in the three languages of the combatants with some Latin. It was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and premiered in 2011.

One of the most moving scenes in the opera occurs when Father Palmer (William Clay Thompson), a Scottish cleric performs a Christmas service and all the soldiers join in. The German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Michael Hewitt) joins in for his first such service. He is a Jew. That means he is not a “real” German and the opera prepares us for what will happen to the Jews of Europe in the future.

The commanding officers take an extremely dim view of the truce. The Kronprinz, the British Major (Dale Travis) and the French General (Timothy Bruno) punish the junior officers involved in the truce and make sure that no such event happens again. As Campbell puts it succinctly “war is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person.”

Although there are some atrocious accents as the singers try to manage Scottish, German and French intonations, the opera is well sung and affectively acted.

Nicole Paiement conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus in what is, I can only repeat, one of the most moving productions I have ever seen.
           _____

Silent Night by Kevin Puts (music) and Mark Campbell (libretto) is being performed nine times between July 15 and August 23, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is in full swing in upstate New York, near Cooperstown where you have to (pretend) to like baseball as you enjoy civilized offerings of operas and other events including a talk by Margaret Atwood. Put a baseball cap and a baseball in your car as a precaution, (pretend to) visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and then go to the gorgeous setting of the Alice Busch Opera Theater.

This year four major operas are offered displaying Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello’s eclectic tastes. The ever-popular Barber of Seville is this year’s chestnut in a new production directed by Zambello. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story brings a classic American musical on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
 

L to R: Emily D'Angelo asRosina, Alexandria Shiner as Berta, David Walton as Count Almaviva, 
Rock Lasky as Figaro's Assistant and Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018 
production of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the occasion is marked with a production of Silent Night by Kevin Puts. The opera is about the Christmas truce of 1914, an event on the Western Front, where soldiers temporarily stopped killing each other in Belgium.

With the fourth opera we tread on less familiar ground with Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. There are also productions of Ben Moore’s Odyssey and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.

Zambello gives The Barber of Seville a fresh reading presenting it as a fun chamber piece with minimal sets and a maximum of fine singing and comedy. Toronto baritone Joshua Hopkins led the cast as the virile, agile and clever Figaro. He sang superbly from the machine-gun paced ‘Largo al factotum’ through all the shenanigans that his character devises.

Toronto mezzo soprano Emily D’Angelo sang a delightful, expressive and thoroughly enjoyable Rosina. For her first big number, ‘Una voce poco fa,’ she was carried onto the stage lying on a couch and she delivered Rosina’s credo of determination and spunk mostly while seated. She would be better off standing and moving to illustrate her strength. But aside for that minor point, D’Angelo used her richly-toned mezzo voice to splendid effect and she made a Rosina that we are delighted to hear and see.

American tenor David Walton sang a spry Almaviva. He had a few bad patches but otherwise his singing was splendid for the role of the passionate and resourceful lover.

American bass-baritone Dale Travis sang well and was very funny as the foolish Doctor Bartolo. Timothy Bruno as Don Basilio, Ben Schaefer as Fiorello and Alexandra Shiner  as Berta are all from the Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program and deserving of recognition and praise for their fine performances.

The opera is played against a turquoise background with moveable panels to indicate the scenery. The style is simple and quick, perhaps vaudeville style where placards give information such as a banner with word storm on it tell you that there is a storm. There is no balcony for Rosina but a moveable ladder is wheeled on the stage for her to stand on. When a window is required, a cardboard with a square hole is brought on. John Conklin is the designer. An original approach that combines the traditional and the modern and works exceptionally well.
 
Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2018 production of Rossini’s 
The Barber of Seville.’Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass FestivalMembers
Zambello proves imaginative and astute in her desire to emphasize the humour of the opera. And she is successful. When Zambello greeted the audience before the performance, she told us that the price of a ticket covers only one half the cost of a seat. At that point she produced a chair cut in half to illustrate her point. When Bartolo wants to sit down, he is given the same half chair to general laughter.

The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus wore white chef’s hats and clothes. The message I guess is this is an opera put on in some mansion and the kitchen staff has been recruited to participate. Joseph Colaneri conducted The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra at a lively pace for a very appreciative audience.

A marvelous evening at the opera.

Oh, yes. If you are a genuine baseball fan that is far more versatile than me and love opera, I have it on good authority that you can bring and even wear your baseball hat on the lawn of The Alice Busch. I have not examined the consequences of actually wearing the hat in the theatre. I am seeking an exemption for Blue Jays hat wearers as a gesture of our special relationship.
           _____

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini (music) and Cesare Sterbini (libretto) is being performed eleven times between July 14 and August 25, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 2, 2018

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR – REVIEW OF ROUSING PRODUCTION OF UNIQUE MUSICAL AT SHAW FESTIVAL


James Karas

Oh What a Lovely War is a unique musical entertainment that receives a stirring production at Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre.  The musical deals with World War I from a particularly Canadian vantage point and it combines horrifying historical events accompanied by songs mostly from that era along with some dancing and comic business. Director Peter Hinton and a fine cast of ten establish a marvelous pace and manage to inform, shock and entertain us on a grand scale.

Who wrote Oh What a Lovely War? It was first staged in England and the published script states that it is “by Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton and the members of the original cast” meaning the actors of Theatre Workshop. The original production was “under the direction of Joan Littlewood” but she gets no further credit. The Shaw Festival gives the legendary Littlewood top billing and adds Gerry Raffles for his research and then Ted Allen and others for after treatments. And that is without giving credit to the composers and lyricists of some thirty songs that make up the bulk of the show. So much for provenance.
 
Ryan Cunningham and the ensemble of Oh What a Lovely War. Photo by David Cooper.
Ten actors take on numerous roles as they present a snappy history of World War I in dialogue, song, dance and generous use of photographs and videos from 1914 to 1918. Canada’s involvement is emphasized but the production goes further than that by relating what was happening in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the time and even more so what was happening at the Royal George Theatre. Fascinating and splendid work. Incidentally, this year is the 100th anniversary of the year in which the war ended.

The songs, mostly military tunes, done at a brisk pace and patriotic fervor, compare bleakly with the constant flow of information and statistics about battles, casualties and ground gained at the cost of tens and hundreds of thousands of lives. There were 300,000 casualties in the first 26 days of the war in August 1914. The figure is updated regularly and it goes into the millions.

From “When Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser” to “I’ll Make a Man of You” to “I Want to Go Home” to the title song, we are treated to boisterous performances of some familiar and some unfamiliar songs. “The Maple Leaf Forever” is included quite rightly.

There is an outstanding collection of photographs and videos showing all horrible aspects of the war and we have descriptions as well. Negroes were not allowed to enlist until they were permitted in as second class soldiers. Canadian natives were allowed to serve and they did with distinction. After the war, they were not entitled to pensions or medical benefits. The wounded are treated by rank and not by the severity of their wounds. Medical care for enlisted men is almost an afterthought while officers are placed at the front of the line.
 Allan Louis and Kiera Sangster in Oh What a Lovely War. Photo by David Cooper.
We see martinets barking at soldiers and there is a memorable scene where the military brass of the day is satirized and indeed ridiculed. Sir John French, Sir William Robertson, Sir Henry Wilson, Sir Douglas Haig and other officers are shown dancing and backbiting each other as they jockey for position and display their incompetence. Haig lies to us and perhaps to himself as he plans an offensive against the German lines and treats soldiers as so many numbers on a page. The result of course was the slaughter of hundreds of thousands.

The musical at its core is music hall entertainment but its documentary aspect, the extensive use of video, and the superlative performances place it much above that genre of popular entertainment.

Paul Sportelli provided the musical direction for the numerous songs while Howard J. Davis was responsible for the extraordinary projections. The cast consisted of David ball, Ryan Cunningham, James Daly, Kristi Frank, Jeff Irving, Allan Louis, Marla McLean, Kiera Sangster, Jacqueline Thair, and Jenny L. Wright.

A major achievement for the Shaw Festival.      
___________
Oh What a Lovely War by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton and many others continues in repertory until October 13, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

THE KING AND I – REVIEW OF REVIVAL OF RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN MUSICAL


Reviewed by James Karas

Bartlett Sher’s magnificent revival of The King and I has finally reached Toronto after it was first performed in New York more than three years ago. It is a national tour production but the virtues of Sher’s directing are there with a few complaints about the vocal prowess of some of the cast.

The King and I premiered in a different world in 1951 and some of the differences are quite pronounced but you should take the musical at face value and enjoy it for what it is – a love story in a strange place, a long time ago.
 
The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Sher and the set and costume designer (Michael Yeargan and Donald Holder, receptively) grab our attention and dazzle us right from the opening scene. As the glittery curtain opens, we witness the arrival of a large ship into a harbour. It is dark, the sky is red and the mooring of the ship is impressive. With the help of Captain Orton (Baylen Thomas) we meet Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) and her son Louis (Ryan Stout).

She is an attractive, gutsy widow going to the palace of the King of Siam to teach his multitude of children. She asserts her independence from the moment she sets foot in a country where she knows no one and does not hesitate to put her foot down against the Prime Minister (Brian Rivera).

Parts of the expertly designed set are turned around and moved quickly to change the scene to the palace. Here we meet the royal household and of course the King (Jose Llana). He is an interesting character. He wants to be scientific, civilized and learned. He reads the Bible and wants to adopt Western ideas. But he is a traditional absolute monarch to whom everyone bows, indeed grovels.

We are in the 1860’s and Anna is dressed in a beautiful gown with a petticoat that defined elegance and style in the Victorian era. In my unstylish eye it looked as if she was wearing a tepee that dragged behind her and she had to lift it every time she walked.

We delight in Anna’s pluck as she stands up to the King but also goes down to the floor because she is not permitted to sit or stand higher than him. The King in his mannerisms and attempts to sound Western is almost childlike. In his general attitudes he is a despot who considers women as lesser beings (so did everyone in the West) but the two are attracted to each other and develop a touching kiss-less love relationship.
 
Elena Shaddow, Baylen Thomas and Rhyees Stump in Rodgers & Hammerstein's 
The King and I.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel
There is a subplot involving the slave Tuptim (Q Lim) and her lover Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). The lovers attempt to escape in a manner reminiscent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There is ballet sequence based on the plot of that novel which brings about the climax of the play.

The original production was choreographed by Jerome Robbins and the current choreography by Christopher Gattelli is based on that. The ballet sequence and the general chorography are simply splendid.

Songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance” are vintage Richard Rodgers melodies that are a delight to hear. There are many of them in the show. Not all the singers had the vocal range one would want to hear but overall the singing was quite good.  

One hell of a good show.
 __________
The King and I by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (books and lyrics) will play until August 12, 2018 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com/  416 872 1212

Thursday, July 26, 2018

GHOSTS – REVIEW OF BLINDSPOT THEATRE PRODUCTION IN ATHENS


James Karas

Yota Argyropoulou and Michalis Konstantatos have, in their words, adapted and dramaturged Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and presented it at Peiraios 260 Theatre as part of this year’s Athens Epidaurus Festival. The new play is an extension and expansion of Ibsen’s play and in the end it is only tangentially related to it.

The adaptation opens on a happy note. Pastor Manders, Mrs. Helene Alving, her son Oswald and her maid Regina are opening an orphanage which has been built in honour of her late husband, Captain Alving. The Captain is praised effusively as a great man, a patriot and a generous benefactor of the children of the community. This is part of the plot of Ibsen’s play but in that version the orphanage burns down and is not insured.
 
 As the ceremony proceeds, there is a power failure and everything changes. We see the ghost of Captain Alving projected on a screen at the back of the stage. There are some twenty ghosts in front of him. They are dressed in white with whitened faces. We hear loud music which will continue to be heard for most of the rest of the performance and the ghosts will be with us almost throughout.

Ibsen’s play is a powerful condemnation of 19th century morality and hypocrisy as we witness revelations about the Captain’s true character as a drunken philanderer, Helene’s unhappy marriage, Oswald’s congenital syphilis and the servant Regina’s parentage.

All of these facts eventually come out in the Argyropoulou-Konstantatos adaptation but most of the play is the representation of a nightmare. I could not always tell whose nightmare it was. After the interruption of the dedicatory scene, the set consists of a deserted rocky place. There is extensive use of projected video and the point of most scenes is not always clear. We see Manders and Helene on the ground with the beautiful Helene trying to initiate sexual intercourse without getting any response from him but the scene is done in slow motion as in a dream which no doubt it is.    

Helene meets Regina in a secluded area, undresses and has Regina undress. She seems sexually attracted to Regina and there is some physical contact but it falls short of consummation. Helene knows that Regina is her husband’s daughter.

There is a long scene between Oswald and Regina and they play a game of “truth or courage” which goes on for a tiresome and pointless length. I thought Pastor Manders had died but he came back to do a magic trick. He put Regina in a box and cut her in half in what is traditionally one of the great magical acts. There were references to Regina feeling that she had been cut in two and never put together again but did we really need to illustrate it in a way that has nothing to do with the play? Or is all fair in dramaturgy and nightmarish adaptation of a great play?
 
The passage of time is indicated by Manders and Oswald playing imaginary ping-pong over a period of twenty years. Is chronology of any consequence in a nightmare?

Konstantatos directs the play, the Set Designer is Kostas Pappas, the Costume Designer is Angelos Bratis and the music composer is Giorgos Poulios.

I should mention the actors and the parts they played but neither blindspot theatre group, the company behind the production, nor the Athens Epidaurus Festival make that very easy. The two small Festival programmes, one in English and one in Greek and the large 222-page programme name the cast as Yota Argyropoulou, Pinelopi Tsilika, Nikolas Papagiannis and Yorgos Frintzilas. No information in the programmes or on the website about who plays what part.

I guess that Argyropoulou plays Helene Alving and that leaves Pinelopi Tsilika as Regina. As to who plays what between Papagiannis and Frintzilas I do not know. Perhaps they can ask the people who put the programmes together why they can’t be bothered to identify the actors and the parts that they play. Antonis Myriagos appears in a video and I assume they means as the ghost of Captain Alving. I have no hesitation in recognizing the fine acting of the actors even if I can’t be sure of what parts they played.  
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Ghosts  by Yota Argyropoulou and Michalis Konstantatos based on the play by Henrik Ibsen played  on July 17 -19, 2018 at the Peiraios 260 Theatre, Athens Greece. www.greekfestival.gr

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE – REVIEW OF BLOODY AND FUNNY PLAY


James Karas

No doubt it is possible to imagine a more violent, gory and indeed disgusting play than The Lieutenant of Inishmore but it would not be easy. The play opens with a dead cat with half its brain dripping out. Next, a man is tied by his feet and strung up while someone threatens to cut off one of his nipples and make him eat it. The nipple-cutter has good manners: he asks the victim which nipple he prefers to be cut. People are shot at point blank range and blood is splattered all over. All of these actions are accompanied by laughter from the audience.

The Lieutenant is probably one of the funniest plays on the London stage. Martin McDonagh conceived the play during the 1990s when the IRA and the even more brutal INLA were actively murdering innocent people and children. He decided to write a black comedy about these brutes and the result was The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
 
 Chris Walley, Aidan Turner and Denis Conway in 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore.' Photo: Johan Persson
The play is set in a cottage on the island of Inishmore, Ireland. Davey (Chris Walley) a not too bright teenager with long hair, brings a dead cat to Donny (Denis Conway). The cat is Wee Thomas (and gets credit in the programme) and belongs to Padraic (Aidan Turner) who loves it. In the meantime, Padraic (the nipple snipper), who has been turfed out of the IRA for being too violent, is torturing a drug dealer called James (Brian Martin). The torture is terminated upon Padraic learning that his beloved cat “is in a poor way.”

He rushes off back home and threatens to shoot Donny (who happens to be his father) and Davey over the fate of his beloved cat.

Three IRA men arrive in the nick of time Christy (Will Irvine), Joey (Julian Moore-Cook) and Brendan (Daryl McCormack) and they meet an unhappy end. Padraic falls in love with Mairead (Charlie Murphy), Davey’s sister and you need not know the rest of the plot in deference to not spoiling your enjoyment of the play.

Between the shooting and dismembering of human corpses using a hacksaw (among other instruments) for easier cutting and witnessing blood all over, you will laugh.
 
Foreground: Chris Walley, Denis Conway and Aidan Turner. Background: Julian Moore-Cook, 
Daryl McCormack and Will Irvine. Photograph: Johan Persson
This is a very funny play which treats the creeps, torturers, murderers and animals of the IRA and INLA for what they are but without an iota of melodrama. McDonagh’s weapon is vicious satire and black humour and we laugh as we witness these atrocities.

Michael Grandage directs the play in a sure-footed fashion combining the cruelty and the laughter in a perfect blend. The talented cast with those delicious and at times tough-to-follow Irish accents is outstanding.

The play is set in a ramshackle cottage with the torture scene involving Padraic being done on a bare stage. You know that this is satire but you may feel a bit of guilt about laughing at cruelty, torture and killing, some of it over the fate of a cat. But this is the theatre of cruelty and laughter so just enjoy it.

It is a stupendous production of a superb play that you will and not forget for a long time.
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The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh continues until September 8, 2018 at the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4AU, England. www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Thursday, July 19, 2018

THE MODERATE SOPRANO – REVIEW OF HARE’S PLAY AT THE DUKE OF YORK’S THEATRE

James Karas

The Moderate Soprano is a genial, moving, funny and wonderful play about love. In fact, it is about two loves: the love of a woman and the love of opera. The lover is John Christie, a man of decency, integrity and generosity, and a man with a formidable will power who founded the Glyndebourne Festival. The woman he loved and who loved him was Audrey Mildmay, a soprano who was his partner in the creation of the now famous festival in the boonies of Sussex.

David Hare has fashioned a play that tells the love story of the Christies from the 1930s when the festival was started up to their old age and deaths. As John sadly tells us, all successful love stories end badly because they inevitably end in separation.
 
Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam in The Moderate Soprano© Johan Persson
The story is told in non-chronological order and Hare jumps from the 1934 to 1962. In 1934, Christie was sufficiently wealthy and ambitious to open an opera house that he started looking for talented people. He knew very little about who is who in the opera world but that did not deter him from approaching conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson). At the end of the interview, Busch summarize their conversation by saying “You’ve never heard of me, I’m not available and I waste money. What other qualifications do I need for the job?” Christie smiles and Busch goes to England to conduct at Glyndebourne.

Professor Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf) follows as well as Rudolf Byng (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) to create a Bayreuth on the lawns of Christie’s estate near Lewes, Sussex, a highly questionable venue to put it mildly. Christie, a genial man, believes in democracy as long as he decides what democracy is and is willing to listen provided he gets his way. After all he is paying the bills. He is strong-willed but never dictatorial and he does lose arguments.

There are funny and touching scenes. Christie wants to produce Parsifal and the three artists and his singer wife have to slowly convince him that it would be impossible to do that. Christie does not particularly like Mozart and they have to convince him that Mozart is the right composer for his opera house. They do.

He wants to impose his wife as one of the singers. She convinces him that integrity demands that she audition like everyone else. Humorous and touching scenes.
 The cast of The Moderate Soprano © Johan Persson
Roger Allam as John Christie and Nancy Carroll make a loving couple as we see them in their youth and in old age and illness. Fortune-Lloyd is charming and arrogant as Byng in his days before he becomes manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Jesson and Calf have their pride and perhaps even their arrogance but they are intelligent people, refugees from Nazi Germany and they have very little choice but to show class and tolerance and use the art of persuasion effectively.

There is generous use of projected photographs of the Glyndebourne estate and use of music during scene changes designed by Bob Crowley (set and costumes), Simon Baker (sound) and Luke Halls (video). Full marks to director Jeremy Herrin for capturing the atmosphere of geniality and the humour of the play.

A pleasure and a delight to watch a play about decent people in a civilized setting where a marvelous festival was created. And perhaps more importantly, a monument to John Christie and Audrey Mildmay for their great achievement that arose from love – their love for each other and their love of opera.    
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The Moderate Soprano by David Hare played at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 104 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG, England.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

ORESTES – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE OF NORTHERN GREECE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Western civilization has done well by the griefs of the House of Atreus. From Aeschylus’s Oresteia to plays by Sophocles and Euripides, the cycles of murder, revenge and progress towards justice and civilization have held centre stage for some twenty five centuries. There are numerous productions of Ancient Greek tragedy and comedy around Greece every summer. The National Theatre of Northern Greece has staged Euripides’ Orestes in the open air Theatro Dassous (Forest Theatre) where it played for two performances before embarking on a national tour that will take it from Cyprus to Epidaurus before returning to Thessaloniki in September.

I saw the premiere performance on July 12, 2018 and it was impressive. Orestes tells the story of the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who murders his mother in revenge for her slaughter of her husband. The play opens six days after the murder and Orestes has been driven mad by the avenging Furies for his action.
 
The chorus in Orestes
His sister Electra stands by his bed while the people of Argos are deciding the fate of the murderer. Orestes tells us that he was ordered by Apollo to kill his mother. The Beautiful Helen appears and she blames the gods for her elopement with Paris. A raging Tyndareus, the father of Clytemnestra arrives and he is furious and abusive towards his grandson Orestes. Menelaus shows up and waffles about the fate of Orestes but Orestes’ friend Pylades is steadfast. The play is wrapped up by the deus ex machina device where a god, in this case Apollo, appears and sends Orestes to Athens to be judged by the gods.

There are a number of strong performances. Ioanna Kolliopoulou plays a very dramatic and moving Electra.  Her brother is almost delirious a few days after he has murdered their mother and she is left in the palace with Helen and her daughter Hermione. She needs to show strength, grief and courage and Kolliopoulou does all of it.

Christos Stylianou as Orestes has committed matricide and the invisible Furies are pursuing him like the avenging spirits that they are. Stylianou must convey fear, guilt and behaviour tantamount to madness. A tough role done superbly by Stylianou.

Helen (Dafni Lamprogianni) appears with sun glasses, a stylish purple dress and is still the sexual magnet. She is afraid to go to her sister’s grave after all the deaths and destruction she caused by her elopement. An interesting take on the woman who launched a thousand ships.

In this modern dress production, Menelaus, played by Christodoulos Stylianou, appears like a naval officer (he is king of Sparta) and speaks in deadpan tones. He does show greater emotional range later in the play. His daughter Hermione (Marianna Pouregka) is a nice virgin who will make a nice wife eventually.    

Helen has a Phrygian slave and Director Yannis Anastasakis has Christos Stergioglou play him for comedy as a Trojan. The slave conveys information to the audience and is terrified for his life. After all the drama, he is a welcome piece of comic relief done well by Stergioglou.

A central problem of staging Ancient Greek tragedy, aside from the general paucity of information about how it was done, is the even greater ignorance about the presentation of the Chorus. Greek tragedy was probably closer to opera than a straight play and scholars are certain that the Chorus sang and probably danced.
 Pylades, Orestes and Electra 
The Chorus of Orestes consists of twelve young women who are Electra’s friends. They wear conservative but stylish dresses and speak separately and in unison and sing. They sing recitatives and some melodic verses with musical accompaniment composed by Babis Papadopoulos. Their movements (by Alexis Tsiamoglu) are well coordinated and appropriate and the result is a good example of what can be done with the Chorus.

The Theatro Dassous has a large semi-circular playing area and it is not always easy to position actors without having them very far apart. The theatre’s acoustics are not the best and the actors need to face the audience to be heard. Anastasakis’s direction minimized those problems with intelligent use of the space.

Orestes takes place outside the palace of Argos. The set of this production consisted of a large structure surrounded by scaffolding and enveloped by greens nets. There was a wheelbarrow, a barrel and a bucket in front of the palace and the playing area was cordoned off with a black and yellow tape. In other words, this looked like the palace was undergoing serious renovation and we were looking at a construction site.

There may be a reason for some of that but I could not figure it out. The presence of the wheelbarrow and the bucket were intentional for the rest, let’s just say it was inappropriate and leave it at that.

The play ends with Apollo making a somewhat vacuous wish about peace. Anastasakis adds a short piece of dissonant music. We all know wishes for peace are empty words and the dissonant music was a brilliant stroke.

A highly commendable production overall.
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Orestes by Euripides in a translation by Yorgos Blanas opened on July 12, 2018 for two performances at the Theatro Dassous, Thessaloniki and will tour Cyprus and Greece until September 16, 2018.