Monday, April 23, 2018

MR. TRUTH – REVIEW OF LESTER TRIPS PRODUCTION AT THEATRE CENTRE


Reviewed by James Karas

Mr. Truth, created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton, is experimental theatre. That means what you see could be unusual, unexpected, bewildering, confusing or simply incomprehensible. Mr. Truth has all these attributes and perhaps more. I did say incomprehensible?

The show starts with some music and one of the performers running around the stage and among the audience in the tiny BMO Incubator rallying us to get involved. She repeats phrases like “Are you ready to have fun?” and tells a couple not particularly funny jokes which are received with ecstatic guffaws by some in the audience.

On a large screen we see some women running in a forest for a couple of minutes. Gillis and Hutton appear and we are treated to a lengthy illustrated lecture on masturbation.  We get an almost clinical description of clitoral stimulation by one of the performers while she is performing the act on the other one (Sorry, I don’t know who is who). The actual site being stimulated is judiciously hidden from the crowd but the description is quite vivid and detailed.

Sex dominates the play in various descriptive forms from dream sequences (which I did not get) to the sado-masochistic which I understood better. The two performers take on a large array of characters both male and female and they display highly developed acting techniques and an ability to jump from one characterization to the next. You may want to complain that the characters that they take on are neither developed nor understood and even in a seventy-minute show you are hard pressed to remember much of what is happening or who is who.

But the all-pervasive sex with suitable raunchy language does stay with you.

We see a tall person in a black cape with a white hoodie and hollow black face walk across the stage. I don’t know what provokes him or what his presence indicates. Presumably he is Mr. Truth and I have no idea why he is not Ms Truth or perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Truth.

The dream sequences are illustrated with what looks like an electrocardiograph on the screen and I am not sure what the squiggles on it meant, if anything.

As I said, a few members of the audience reacted enthusiastically and laughed with unalloyed exuberance at the beginning on lines that were devoid of comedy. That is pretty much expected from some people on opening night and you wait to see how much stamina they have to maintain their vigour. By the end of Mr. Truth even the most enthusiastic had petered out into almost complete (and blessed) silence.

After writing this I read the Creators’ Note in the programme which bears repeating:
If someone told you that this show was structured rhythmically and dramaturgically to resemble a female orgasm, or a woman’s orgasm, or a feminine orgasm, or any orgasm of the non-aristotelian variety, would that change your viewing experience?
I don’t know the differences among a female, a woman’s and feminine orgasm let alone the rhythm or dramaturgical structure of an orgasm. 

I stand by what I said in my first paragraph and wonder how many attributes I missed. That is the whole point of experimental theatre.

Mr. Truth is part of the 2018 Riser Project that includes Tell Me What It’s Called, Speaking of Sneaking and Everything I Couldn’t Tell You.
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Mr. Truth, created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton continues until November 24, 2018 at The Theatre Centre, BMO Incubator, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

TAKE D MILK, NAH? – REVIEW OF PARASRAM’S PLAY AT THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE


Reviewed by James Karas

Jivesh Parasram has identity issues and he tells you all about them at the Theatre Passe Muraille in a one-man show written and performed by him.

Identity issues are hardly a novelty in Canadian society and culture what with immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America – make that the whole world – but Parasram is a special case. He starts with Indian culture and Hindu religion which he transports to Trinidad and then transfers to Nova Scotia. He has to deal with the remnants of British imperialism (or is it colonialism?), Caribbean poverty and Canadian racism. And that’s just the beginning.
 Jivesh Parasram. Photo: Graham Isador 
Parasram blends music, personal stories, sharp commentary and singing into a 90 minute show that has much to offer. He is a prodigiously talented actor and performer with a show that is perfectly suited for a Toronto audience where there is a vast array of cultures and perhaps people with more significant identity issues than Parasram’s though I doubt it.

The problem I had is that my identity concerns are different from his and I did not understand many of the references to events, rituals, people or anxieties that he has lived through or is living with. He spoke at times as if he were addressing people who had similar backgrounds to his who could relate to what he was talking about and they were enjoying it but it went over my head. So much for knowing what our neighbours are all about and I am speaking only for myself.

Some of the humour is self-deprecating and his analysis of being marginalized is astute but verges on being an academic analysis. His story about calving a cow (the secret animal of the Hindus, remember) is a bravura piece of hilarious comedy combined with cultural commentary.

In the first half of the show Parasram tells his story in front of colourful curtains suggesting an Asiatic culture. In the second half he becomes almost a cabaret singer and performer.
  Jivesh Parasram. Photo: Graham Isador 
He relates with the audience superbly. There is a scene a scene where he wants to establish that we are all Jiv or somehow related but the scene is too long and ceases to be amusing. Parasram persists in asking the names of members of the audience until they all say they are Jiv. It’s not the best part of the show.

Tom Arthurs Davis directs the energetic performance and is credited with being the dramaturge of the piece. The show is created by Parasram, Davis and Graham Isador.

Immigrants go through phases of alienation and confusion followed by attempts at integration and assimilation and finally in self-assertion. During the journey they affect the “Canadians” whom they found on arrival and strive toward becoming unhyphenated Canadians where the quotation marks are removed for all. It is a long journey and we are a long way from achieving it. Parasram’s show helps us all on the way.   
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Take d Milk, Nah? by Jivesh Parasram in a production by Pandemic Theatre and b current will run until April 28, 2018 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.on.ca (416) 504-7529

Friday, April 20, 2018

CATEGORY E – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION


By James Karas

Category E is a play based on a great idea that has a strong beginning, an impressive and intriguing middle but unfortunately fails to find an equally powerful end.

Belinda Cornish’s play, now playing at the Coal Mine Theatre, opens with two people in hospital overalls in a cage. A third person, a perky young girl called Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives. She smiles nervously, tries to be friendly, seems apprehensive and we try to figure out what is going on.

The other occupants of the room are Corcoran (Robert Persichini) and Filigree played by Diana Bentley but referred to as “it” throughout the play. There are two cots in the cage and it has an open door leading to a corridor that the occupants use. In other words, the cage is real but it is not completely enclosed.
 Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini, Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Photo by Tim Leyes
Corcoran is serious, commanding, gruff and sometimes sensible but we are not sure about him. He has a patch over one eye and his other eye is bloodshot. We find out that he is a scientist and is doing an acrostic puzzle that is seventeen years old.    

Filigree fidgets, makes sudden moves and tries to strangle Millet for no compelling reason. We conclude that she is a psychopath. We are not sure what Millet is doing there as she goes between terror and attempts at friendly relations with the other occupants.

The three are ordered to go somewhere using codes and the numbers written on their backs instead of their names. At times they go to pick up their food, at other times they leave the cage for mysterious but unpleasant reasons.

This is not a mental hospital but some kind of research or testing centre of human behaviour and endurance. We follow the circuitous routine of life in the cage from storytelling, to listening to numerous commercials for health products, to spying on their neighbours through a grate in the wall. It is a frightful and mysterious existence.

Filigree has a large dressing on her back; Millet is fed disgusting food that Corcoran is trying to prevent her from eating; Corcoran’s other eye is removed. Filigree was raised without any parental love and she cannot make any connection with human beings although Corcoran does have some control over her. Is this a dehumanization centre or a testing lab of human endurance under barbaric conditions? Is this a different form of Dr Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz? For Christians, is this hell?

It may well be all of those things but who is the creator or controller of the place and its inhabitants? If it is hell, there is no Satan. Is it degraded human kind? Is this 1984 of Brave New World? Is it the world now or in the future? There is no answer that I could discern and that left me disconcerted. I wanted more information and more context. The people in the cage were left in a worse condition at the end of the play (I will not disclose more information) than at the beginning but I was left dissatisfied and in limbo.

I must recognize the superb performances of the three actors. Persichini’s Corcoran is mysterious and human. He is intelligent, strong and a victim but we do not realize his fate until the very end of the play. Bentley and Endicott-Douglas give highly impressive performances that convey the terror and mystery life in the cage. Rae Ellen Bodie gets full marks for outstanding direction. You can complain if you want but it is a play and performances that do not leave you.     
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Category E by Belinda Cornish continues until April 29, 2018 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Friday, April 6, 2018

JULIUS CAESAR – REVIEW OF LIVE NATIONAL THEATRE BROADCAST


Reviewed by James Karas

The National Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar that was broadcast live to cinemas presents an original reading of the play in a new theatre in London. Nicholas Hytner ran the National Theatre for 12 years and upon leaving it he founded, with Nick Star, the Bridge Theatre near Tower Bridge in London.

Julius Caesar is produced in a theatre-in-the-round with a stage in the middle and people standing around the stage. The production begins with a rock concert that lasts for about a quarter of an hour. The musician are wearing T-shirts that read JUST DO IT! JULIUS CAESAR and a very youthful crowd enjoys the loud music. The tribunes appear among the crowd and start castigating them for taking time off for no apparent reason. The concert crowd becomes the Roman mob attending the return of Caesar.
David Morrissey as Mark Anthony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
Caesar (David Calder) enters, a gray, overweight man in a suit wearing a red baseball cap with the Just Do It!! motto on it and looking very much like Donald Trump. The costumes are all modern casual wear. When Caesar faints from the falling sickness we see him being taken away in a wheel chair with an oxygen mask on. Nice touch to indicate that this man who perhaps wants to become king but pretends the opposite is past his best before date.

The play is set in a modern war zone with automatic weapons and pistols and a generous use of bullets. The actors are in the middle of the audience so that at about half of the spectators watch the back of the players. The audience in the movie house have no such restriction because there are camera on all sides and we have a full view of the action all the time.

All the action takes place during darkness and we see the small square platform and some members of the audience in the beginning. Once the war starts and there is broken furniture and wires all over to indicate a war zone. At least we get glimpses of it but rarely do we see the whole stage. When there are flashes of light and we get a long shot and we get some appreciation of the havoc that is in front of us but when the actors speak the camera usually focuses on them. When the camera focuses on the speakers we usually see only a dark background.

This produces an uneasy feeling. You know there is a great deal going on and at times all you see is faces of characters but no context. It’s like experiencing war scenes without really getting a good look at them.  

Ben Whishaw plays the honourable Brutus. Whishaw’s performance is distinguished by his ability to show intelligence, integrity and a fundamental weakness. Cassius has an instinctive understanding of his friend’s character and is able to manipulate him and convince him to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. A highly nuanced and effective performance by Whishaw.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Hytner has cast woman in some of the major roles. They are referred to by the feminine pronoun but aside from that they are men. Michelle Fairley is a clever, scheming and cunning Cassius able to control and pervert people to his wishes. She gives us a superb performance.

Kit Young’s Octavius is petulant, arrogant and dismissive of others and an emperor in the making. David Morrissey’s Mark Antony is a capable politician who is ambitious but lacks the unscrupulousness and instinct for going for the jugular.

Hytner is an old hand at directing Shakespeare and he has gathered a cast that delivers Shakespeare’s lines clearly, meticulously with attention to every syllable. It is no small achievement.

The production is meticulous and nuanced but it suffers by the way it is presented in the movie house. I felt that I missed as great deal of the bigger picture although I enjoyed the close-ups and the avoidance of having to watch actors’ backs.
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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare was shown in select Cineplex theatres on March 22, 2018. For more information visit  www.cineplex.com/events.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS – REVIEW OF STAGE VERSION OF GERSHWIN MUSICAL


Reviewed by James Karas

An American in Paris has such unbeatable, indeed aristocratic, provenance that it attracts attention, imitation and adaptation. With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin its position in the American musical pantheon is assured of a prime position. The 1951 musical with Genre Kelly and Leslie Caron directed by Vincent Minnelli is one of the best films in the genre.

The film has been adapted for the stage by Craig Lucas who was “Inspired by the Motion Picture,” according to the program and the musical has reached Toronto in the hands of a touring company.

It goes without saying that the Gershwins are the stars. “An American in Paris” is a brilliant concert piece that is used for the long ballet sequence. “I got rhythm,”  “’S Wonderful” and “shall we dance” are familiar and beautiful songs that are a pleasure to hear. In short, you will get some superb ballet sequences, some decent singing, some moronic comedy and Broadway glitz that add up to a highly entertaining night at the theatre.
 
                                  An American in Paris Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox) is an American soldier in Paris at the end of World War II. He tears up his return ticket to the U.S. and decides to stay in Paris to pursue his passion for painting. He sees a beautiful and mysterious woman and falls in love with her. Sure. Enough suspense. Her name is Lise (Allison Walsh) and she is a budding ballerina.

He meets Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott), an American musician who was wounded in the war and he will be useful for some comic relief. He describes himself as Oscar Levant who, for those old enough to remember him, was in fact a concert pianist, composer and colourful personality and played Adam in the movie.

We need a third man to get some symmetry in the love triangles and Henri (Ben Michael) fits the role. He is the son of the wealthy Monsieur Baurel (Scott Willis) and Madame Baurel (Teri Hansen) and he has a secret ambition to become a nightclub entertainer.

The woman who will fascinate the men is Lise and she is beautiful, poor, exceptionally talented and has a high moral obligation to marry Henri. Stay tuned because there is a touching story to be told.

The main cast is rounded off by Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), rich, blonde American who gets involved in the lives of the aforementioned.

McGee Maddox is a superb dancer and you wait for the ballet sequences. His athletic coordination and bravura dancing from beginning to end are worth the price of admission alone.  Simply marvellous. He is not too bad as a lover and somewhere in the same category as a singer. You can’t have everything but he does have a lot.
 
                                      McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Allison Walsh meets him step by step in their ballet sequences and she is good vocally as well. Kirsten Scott’s Milo is a classic in the genre of the rich and beautiful who almost get the prize hero. She manages some fine cadenzas and gets high marks for her overall performance.   

Craig Lucas’s book goes quite well until the beginning of the second act when the writing drops to silly sitcom comedy that provides few laughs. But the story eventually finds its rhythm and the dancing propels it to heights of absolute delight.

The set by Bob Crowley shows realistic and abstract views of Paris and a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. The costumes are impressive and you are left with an overall dazzling show. 
      
Director Christopher Wheeldon keeps up a balanced pace that ranges from the frenetic to the dramatic, to the romantic and in the end all is well and a bit of escapism comes to a rousing conclusion.
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An American in Paris by George Gershwin (music), Ira Gershwin (lyrics) and Craig Lucas (book) opened on March 29, and will play until April 29, 2018 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com/  416 872 1212

Monday, April 2, 2018

ANIMAL FARM – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER’S PRODUCTION OF ORWELL’S FABLE


Reviewed by James Karas

I have a prejudice against the adaptation of novels into stage plays. There is a world of difference between the two and I feel that adapting a successful work of fiction for the stage shows a failure of imagination or ability on the part of a writer. If you want a play, write a play. There are successful transfers from novel to stage but my prejudice remains.

The current adaptation of George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm for the stage by Anthony MacMahon for Soulpepper did nothing to mitigate my prejudice. Director Ravi Jain and Set and Costume Designer Ken MacKenzie dressed up the cast in various costumes to represent the animals of the story and made brave attempts at humour and drama but many of the efforts fell flat.
 
 Animal Farm ensemble, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Animal Farm is a fable that indicts and satirizes the Russian Revolution and the communist takeover of Russia by the Bolsheviks. Communism is one of the greatest crimes and frauds perpetrated against humanity but there are still people who support it despite overwhelming evidence of the evil it has meted on humankind.

Eleven actors take on twenty four roles under the direction of Jain in Soulpepper’s presentation of the takeover of Mr. Jones’s farm by the animals in clear parallel with facts of Russian history from Lenin to the brutalities of Stalin.

The actors wear ears, snouts, masks and other paraphernalia to indicate the numerous farm animals of Anima Farm. There is a great deal of effort dedicated to changing the voices of the animals. The horses have low voices, the chickens cackle and most of the voices seem to have an echo or reverberation. After a while I found the sound less than attractive and would have preferred to have the actors do their job rather than have artificial changes to their voices that proved unhelpful.

As a result the satire on the abuse of the animals by the pig called Napoleon (Rick Roberts), who becomes the party leader, the lies and the propaganda are reduced to caricature that is neither funny nor effective. Laughter is scarce and muted when we should be able to get at least a few hearty guffaws. The suffering of the animals, especially of the faithful horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis) should be very moving but the production reduces that part to the point where it is neither human nor animal.
 Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Squealer (Miriam Fernandes) is the ultimate propaganda machine who lies with complete conviction and for whom facts mean nothing. Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) retains his judgment and sees the corruption of the leaders and the fate of the other animals with clarity.

In the 2 hours and 15 minutes running time of the performance, including a 15 minute intermission, you could read the book and get much more out of it than you do from this production. But all of that may just be my prejudice.     
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Animal Farm by George Orwell, adapted by Anthony MacMahon continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

LES MISERABLES - REVIEW OF THEATRE SMITH-GILMOUR PRODUCTION

James Karas

Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour are the dynamic duo who created Theatre Smith-Gilmour in 1980. In some 40 productions since then, they have proven to be ambitious, inventive, enterprising and just plain bloody good. If they have any competition in longevity and creativity, I am not aware of it.

This year they have taken a huge bite – Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables - and offered a series of dramatic scenes from the novel. Even though a large swath of the novel is taken up by essays on various subject, the idea of presenting the main plot thread involving the hero Jean Valjean is simply breathtaking. To give you an idea of the size of the novel, I have an old edition that runs to four volumes.
Smith and Gilmour have six actors represent some 29 characters. The action takes place on a bare stage with a few props and some video projections. Much of the action is mimed and the play does achieve some very dramatic moments. But it also contains an inordinate amount of Dickensian melodrama and sentimentality, and numerous coincidences without Dickens’ humour.

The action is launched with Gilmour as Valjean telling us about his arrest and conviction for stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery in order to stave off gnawing hunger. Gilmour does impressive acting and miming of events in Valjean’s life. He is sent to prison for five years to serve in a galley. His sentence is increased to 19 years for his attempts at escape and the story continues.

On his release Valjean is mistreated because he carries the yellow passport of a convict but he finds shelter and food in the house of a bishop. He steals silver from the bishop, is caught and the bishop pretends that he gave the silver to him. We have met generosity and nobility.

We meet the beautiful Fantine (Nina Gilmour) who has an illegitimate child and has an extremely difficult time surviving. She gives her child to the evil Thenardier couple (Daniel Roberts and Diana Tso) who extract money from her. After some melodramatic scenes, she dies and we will have her daughter Cossette (played by Nina Gilmour) for the rest of the play.
One of the main plot threads is the vengeful pursuit of Valjean by the relentless and merciless Inspector Javert (Mac Fyfe). The other pursuit is by Marius (Benjamin Muir) of Cossette. He is a caricature of the obsessed romantic lover who runs into more obstacles than a steeplechase.

The personal histories are intertwined with national events including war and revolution as Hugo covered a large portion of history and Gilmour and Smith attempt to do justice to the novel. I think they try to chew much more than is possible even in two hours and forty minutes.

Marius’s pursuit of Cossette becomes tiresome because there is overstated ardour without humour. Scenes that may be dramatic become simply sentimental, almost mawkish, and in the end your interest in Valjean’s fate is seriously diminished. When Valjean is given another chance to exterminate the creepy Inspector Javert and he decides to be merciful, I felt like screaming “Blow the bastard’s head off.”    

The six actors’ ability to take on numerous roles is admirable and I don’t want to take anything away Michele Smith’s deft directing and the couple’s brave attempt to give us their stage presentation of a small part of a massive novel.  In the end it is a noble attempt at an impossible task that has some redeeming features but also some big potholes.
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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo adapted by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour continues until April 1, 2018 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. http://theatresmithgilmour.com/ or www.theatrecentre.org

Friday, March 30, 2018

WHAT A YOUNG WIFE OUGHT TO KNOW - REVIEW OF MOSCOVITCH’S PLAY AT CROW’S THEATRE


James Karas

What a Young Wife Ought to Know, the title of Hannah Moscovitch’s play, is not posed as a question but as a statement or perhaps a wish. If the question were what a young working class wife knew about sex, love, pregnancy and birth control about one hundred years ago, the answer is simple: almost nothing.

Moscovitch tells the story of Sophie (Lisa Repo-Martell), her husband Johnnie (David Patrick Flemming) and her sister Alma (Rebecca Parent) who live in the back water city of Ottawa. They have committed the crime of being born poor and therefore uneducated and therefore condemned to work in jobs that frequently do not pay even subsistence wages.
Lisa Repo-Martell and David Patrick Flemming, Photo: Timothy Richard
Sophie addresses the audience directly, husbands and wives separately, and we join her in her life with her sister and her courtship, marriage and family with Johnny. Her innocence has a certain pathetic charm when she kisses a dying young man on the cheek and fears that she may have become pregnant. She is attracted to the handsome Johnny and haltingly, even comically they consummate their marriage. Consummate would be a foreign word to her, so let’s say they have sex.

Poverty and ignorance do not abate their passion but a society that espouses ignorance and suppression of all knowledge about sex, birth control or abortion and seems to keep it away completely from the working class as if it were the bubonic plague is hardly to be sought. Not to mention that it was illegal to provide birth control information in Canada at that time and for many decades afterwards.

Children arrive, alive and stillborn, the Irish immigrant Johnny loses his job as a stable worker for a hotel, more pregnancies, no information about birth control, lack of basic necessities such as food arrive. Isn’t life and love just wonderful?

The spirit of Alma never leaves Sophie. Alma was gutsy, smarter and fearless. She became pregnant and put an end to her pregnancy - and her life. Her ghost visits Sophie as if it were a reminder of the road not taken or the road available to Sophie. It is frightful proposition.

Moscovitch tells us in the program that the play is based partly on the book of letters received by British birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes (Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s). One hundred years later it is hard to imagine the conditions that prevailed then unless one glances at the life of the poor in most countries of the world not least of which are parts of some southern states of what has finally become Great America Again.
Lisa Repo-Martell and Rebecca Parent. Photo: Timothy Richard
From commentator to pathetic, ignorant and tragic woman, wife and mother Repo-Martell does a fine job and is well-contrasted with the self-assured Alma of Rebecca Parent. Flemming as the handsome, macho, ignorant man who faces social challenges beyond his comprehension and ability to control looks for means of survival and can find none.

In the end there is a resolution as Sophie emulates her sister. I will not spoil the plot for you.
The play makes its points but it does not flow particularly smoothly. The plot shows structural weaknesses as it lunges from one point to the next.

The production is done on a bare stage designed by Andrew Cull with a few props such as a table. The rest of the atmosphere is handled by the lighting design of Leigh Ann Vardy.

What a Young Wife Ought to Know was first produced in Halifax in January 2015 by the Halifax-based 2b Theatre Company. The production is directed ably by Christian Barry, the Artistic Co-Director of 2b Theatre Company. It is theatre to see.
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What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch continues until April 7, 2018 at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/ or http://www.2btheatre.com/

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

SCAPIN THE SCHEMER (LES FOURBERIES DE SCAPIN) – REVIEW OF COMEDIE-FRANCAISE PRODUCTION FOR THE CINEMA


Reviewed by James Karas

La Comédie-Française has joined other theatre companies in transmitting performances either live or recorded to cinemas around the world. A pre-recorded performance of Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin translated as Scapin the Schemer was shown in Toronto on March 14, 2018.

Scapin is a farce and this production seemed to have many of the virtues to provide a laugh-filled couple of hours in the theatre. Unfortunately the performance falls flat evoking only nominal laughter in the cinema as well as the audience in the Salle Richelieu in Paris.
 First, the story. We are in Naples and Argante (Gilles David) and Géronte (Didier Sandre) are away on business but they are planning the marriages of their sons Octave and Léandre. In the meantime, Octave has fallen in love with the lovely but poor Hyacinthe and married her. Léandre has fallen madly in love with the gypsy Zerbinette. Both men have committed filial disobedience of the worst kind. They problem can only be solved by Léandre’s valet Scapin who is a trickster, a schemer, a liar and a man of infinite talents.

The plot is straight from New Comedy and we know that all will be resolved in a couple of hours and the young lovers will live happily ever after. The play has an interesting difference. In this case the parents are not obstacles to their sons’ choice of brides. They are simply unaware that Hyacinthe is in fact Géronte’s daughter and Zerbinette is Argante’s daughter and the fathers’ choices for their sons.

Scapin, played by Benjamin Lavernhe dominates the play. Lavernhe seems like a highly talented actor who can do physical and verbal comedy. Director Denis Podalydès with Lavernhe and the rest of the cast has decided that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. There is and Podalydès milks many scenes for laughs long after they have ceased being funny.

Scapin extracts money from both fathers in order to fulfill the needs of their sons. He manages to put Géronte in sack and beat him quite severely. The scene goes on forever as Lavernhe gets a youngster from the audience to take a few whacks at Géronte. That does evoke laughter as does his invitation to the audience to chant “Géronte” in unison. It is going over the top for a laugh which should have been generated by the performance without audience involvement.
 
Sandre as Géronte and David as Argante do yeomen work as classic old and stingy fathers who are used, abused and duped by Scapin.   Gaël Kamilindi as Léandre and Julien Frison as Octave are typical young lovers, long on passion, promises and ardour.

Adeline d’Hemy as Zerbinette pretends to be a wild gypsy and she gyrates wildly almost to the point of breathlessness. Pauline Clément as Hyacinthe does a fine job as a woman who knows what she wants.

Podalydès and designer Éric Ruf have set the production in the port of Naples. We see some sails in the background but the foreground looks like an abandoned storage depot with scaffolding on the right and broken boards.

In the end, we got a production that had many of the right ingredients but it misfired. The program tells us that Scapin has been performed more than 1500 times by the Comédie-Française but there had not been a new production for twenty years. Denis Podalydès was invited to do a new production. The result is a disappointment.
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Scapin the Schemer (Les Fourberies de Scapin) by Moliere was transmitted from the Comédie-Française, Paris, France on March 14, 2018 at the Cineplex Cinema Yonge-Dundas, 10 Dundas St. East, Toronto. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Saturday, March 24, 2018

THE MONUMENT – REVIEW OF FACTORY THEATRE PRODUCTION


James Karas

The monument in the title of Colleen Wagner’s play refers to a memorial for women who have been tortured, raped and killed in war. The play deals with that unimaginable and absolute evil and its success can only be limited by the impossibility of any form of art to express the inexpressible.

The play opens with a young man named Stetko (Augusto Bitter) describing how he raped a young girl. He is bragging as much as he is describing it and he accompanies his tale with a demonic laugh. He has raped and killed 23 women and he is refusing to disclose where their bodies are buried.
 
Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter in The Monument. Photo: Joseph Michael
Stetko is convicted, his hands are tied behind his back and he is awaiting execution. Mejra (Tamara Podemski) appears. She takes on many guises. She is his executioner, confessor, avenger and a seeker of an explanation about the actions of this monster. In the ninety minutes that the play lasts, Stetko the monster will present other views of his actions. He had to do it because others were doing it; things like that happen in war; there is no justice in war.

His initial denial of any knowledge of what he had done wanes and he recollects very well the horrific acts that he committed. Bitter gives a superb performance as the perpetrator of absolute evil who is transformed or perhaps finds his humanity and asks for forgiveness.

Mejra is a victim of the tactic of rape as a weapon of war and she is furious and vengeful but at the same time she is looking for information, an explanation, something to make her understand such acts of evil. Some or perhaps all of these things. Podemski in her brilliant and powerful performance goes through several phases and becomes a torturer herself in her attempts to break down Stetko.

My initial reaction was that the play should have finished in a couple of minutes with Mejra tying one of the ropes hanging from the ceiling around Stetko’s neck and raising him from the ground slowly, very slowly, as far as she could and then letting him drop to his well-deserved death in indescribable torment.

The Monument was written in 1995 and its context seems to be the rape of mostly Muslim women by soldiers during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Director Jani Lauzon tells us in a program note that she re-imagined the play through the Canadian issue and inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. This adds confusion rather than clarity. There is no war in Canada and references to soldiers raping and murdering indigenous women and girls as a tactic in ethnic cleansing are misleading. The play stands on its own well enough and the audience can relate to whatever part of the world it may be aware of where there is internecine war and rape is used as a strategic tactic.

The red dresses hanging on the stage and the ill-conceived attempt to give the play a Canadian context do not detract from the power of the play but they do not add anything either.

Wagner is groping for shreds of humanity and the idea of reaching the heart of a monster and making him ask for forgiveness. A noble sentiment that I find unconvincing. You can find or make Stetkos fairly easily in any war. Just give the orders, directly or indirectly, and many young men will succumb to rape and murder for many reasons from following the example of others to being brutalized by war and doing acts that they would find otherwise unthinkable.

The ultimate monsters are people who never kill, never fire a gun and never rape anyone. They are the political and military leaders who decide on strategy and tactics and make soldiers become monsters. Can we send a Mejra to see, say, Radovan Karadžić or Ratko Mladic or any number of other genocidal beasts and determine if there is a grain of humanity in them to make them understand their actions.

This is a riveting play that leaves you furious at our inhumanity and more so at the lack of any solution despite Wagner’s fervent hopes.
    _____

The Monument by Colleen Wagner, directed by Jani Lauzon, runs until April 1, 2018 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca/

CHRISTOS ZIATAS’ IPHIGENIA READ AT THE GREEK COMMUNITY


James Karas

Portions of Christos Ziatas’ play were read at the Greek Community’s Plymankio Centre last Tuesday, March 20, 2018. The event was organized by Bill Fatsis in honour of Ziatas’ literary achievements and to introduce the community to Iphigenia.

Iphigenia is a dramatization of the myth of the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter at Aulis in order to get favourable winds for the Greek forces to cross the Aegean Sea to avenge the abduction of Helen Queen of Sparta by the Trojan prince Paris.

As most of you will recall, troops from the Greek city-states were gathered at Aulis in Euboea under the leadership of Agamemnon and the seer Kalchas told them that the gods needed a sacrifice in order to provide fair winds.  Agamemnon created a ruse that Iphigenia was to come to Aulis to marry Achilles when in fact he intended to sacrifice her.

Well-known personalities from the Greek community read a large portion of the play in the well-attended function. Andonis Artemakis read the part of Odysseus, Tassos Michalopoulos was Agamemnon while Spyros Volonakis represented his brother Menelaus. George Zubulakis was the seer Kalchas while Kostas Klissouras read the part of the Elder and First Solier. Christina Houtri was Iphigenia and Konstantinos Bourikas read the part of Achilles. Stavroula Karnouskou read the part of the Voice of Casandra and Iphigenia’s companion.

Andreas Batakis doubled as the Narrator and the “common man” Thersitis.

The evening was hosted by Bill Fatsis who also participated in the production as the Second Soldier and read the choral poems.

Ziatas was born in the village of Chalara in the mountains of Kastoria and was taken to Romania while still in public school during the Civil War. He grew up there and attended the University of Bucharest where he studied literature. He came to Canada in 1975 and has lived here ever since. Except for visiting, he has never lived in Greece.

He refers to himself as the poet of overtime as a reflection of the 18 hours each day that he spends wrestling with words and writing. Since 1971 when he published his first volume of poetry he has produced some 40 books of poetry, plays and criticism.

Ziatas was given recognition and appreciation. What he needs and deserves is more readers to recognize and appreciate the results of his overtime wrestling with words, a match that never stops until the perfect word is found to describe the precise sentiment.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

REVIEW OF GAREBIAN’S BIOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM HUTT


WILLIAM HUTT: SOLDIER, ACTOR   
by Keith Garebian
Guernica Editions, 2017, 542 pp.
ISBN 978-177183-299-1

By James Karas

Canada has produced many highly talented and accomplished theatre people but I am not sure how many of them would qualify to be described as “great.” If a poll were taken, I have no doubt that many Canadians would name actors whom they admire and call them great but can we find some general agreement?

Keith Garebian, who knows a great deal about theatre in Canada, would not hesitate to name William Hut as a great Canadian actor. He is right.

Garebian has dedicated many years researching and writing about Hutt. He published an incomplete and unsatisfactory biography of Hutt in 1988 (William Hutt: A Theatre Portrait) and has now updated and completed that book as William Hutt: Soldier, Actor.  
 
William Hutt as Prospero
It is a major contribution to the history of Canadian theatre and a superb portrait of Hutt, warts and all, as a performer, artist and human being. He leaves no stone unturned and one is continually impressed by the breadth and depth of his research.

After playing at Hart House as an amateur after the war, Garebian writes, Hutt began his professional career in 1948. He acted for ten weeks in Bracebridge in an auditorium above the fire hall, was left with no money and had to become a bricklayer to make ends meet. After that he cleaned rugs, chesterfields and lampshades for Cleanol.

More acting jobs followed and he was finally invited to join the inaugural season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1953 in a town where actors were considered “a race of giddy whore-mongers with painted faces.”

Touring around most of the United Sates and across Canada was not unusual in the good old days of the 1950’s and they make for fascinating reading. Performing in small towns (Moosonee, Cochrane and worse) in jaw-dropping venues with hilarious mishaps makes for fascinating and enjoyable reading not just as events in Hutt’s life but as part of the development of theatre in Canada.

As such, Garebian covers a large swath of theatre history in the second half of the 20th century in Ontario as it is connected to Hutt including numerous visits to other parts of Canada, England and the United States.

Names of actors, directors and productions cascade before us. Some are still familiar, many are forgotten but sic transit gloria mundi, as some still say.

Hutt’s complex personal life receives well-deserved coverage. He was bisexual at a time when homosexuality was not merely disapproved of but was in fact illegal. Many women found him attractive and he had some relations with them but I am not sure if those relations were consummated. It is known that he was ready to marry the young and beautiful Louise Marleau in 1968 but he was more pursued than pursuing in the affair. He placed a small package under the Christmas tree, Garebian tells us, probably and engagement ring but Marleau did not show up. She boarded a private train headed for Ottawa for her affair with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  


He was decent, arrogant, jealous, generous, in other words he had many virtues as well as vices. His loves and emotional upheavals, heavy drinking are all covered but the most important part of an actor’s life is acting.
 
Garebian is astutely and keenly interested in Hutt’s development as an actor. His innate talent was developed almost haphazardly. He did not attend a theatre training school (there was none in Canada) but had to learn from directors. He learned his acting and directing skills from masters of the craft.

As late as 1968 when he was 48 years old, Hutt was still trying to establish himself as a leader of his profession. He had built his career on secondary roles, Garebian tells us, sometimes in the shadow of Christopher Plummer who had shot to the front ranks.

From becoming proficient at comedy such as Noel Coward roles to finding his inner self or the inner self of the characters that he played was a long journey of discovery for Hutt that Garebian covers meticulously.

As his reputation and success grew, Hutt adopted the arrogant persona of a star on occasion but he still felt that he had not reached the front rank.

He reached the top and performed in a staggering number of roles. He was without a doubt the best Shakespearean actor in Canada and his attention to detail and the inner self of Shakespeare’s characters from King Lear to Fest to Prospero is astounding.

The book has a large number of photographs most of them in colour. Garebian helpfully includes a Theatre Chronology listing Hutt’s performances from the summer of 1948 with the Mark Shawn Players to his last performance on stage as Prospero in The Tempest in 2005 and as Charles Kingman in Slings and Arrows for television in 2006. He died in June 2007. The inscription on his monument reads Soldier – Actor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

IDOMENEUS – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER’S PRODUCTION OF CHORAL PLAY


James Karas

Idomeneus, King of Crete, is a character in Homer’s Iliad who fought in the Trojan War and returned to his island alive and well. His story was later expanded to include some dramatic events on his return. There was a dreadful storm that sunk 79 of his 80 ships before he could land in Crete and in desperation, he promised to the god Poseidon to sacrifice the first living thing he saw on landing if he could be saved. He was saved and the first person he saw on land was his son Idamantes.

Other characters and love triangles were added to the myth and Idomeneus had a dozen operas written about him in the 18th century. That’s chicken feed compared to some other Greek and Roman heroes who had more than a hundred operas written about them in the same period.  The only opera about him that has survived is Mozart’s Idomeneo of 1781 which has a happy ending. Idomeneus does not sacrifice his son and after some negotiations, he is allowed to retire and his son lives happily ever after with the Trojan Princess Ilia.   

Michelle Monteith, Jakob Ehman, Frank Cox-O'Connell and 
Idomeneus Chorus, photo by Jose John
If opera composers dropped Idomeneus story in the Aegean Sea, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig did not follow suit. He has written Idomeneus and brought the legend back on the stage.

Idomeneus can be described as the recitation by a Greek chorus of the myth of Idomeneus and the many variations that may exists or are imagined by Schimmelpfennig.

Ten actors are lined up on the stage in front of a bare, gray wall. There is no other set but there are lighting variations.

The actors are dressed in gray with gray dust on their faces and on their clothes. They look alike. They have no names but you can at times recognize which mythological figure is speaking. When they speak, they are identified in the script as A Man, Another Man, A Woman, Two Women, Two Men and so on.

The play opens with a description of Idomeneus’s arrival in Crete after the ten-year Trojan War and his promise to Poseidon. Schimmelpfennig brings in the Argonaut Nauplius whose son Palamedes was unjustly killed in Troy. He is taking revenge on all the Greek heroes of the war by seducing their wives.
 Stuart Hughes, Jakob Ehman, Frank Cox-O'Connell and Idomeneus Chorus, 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Idomeneus butchers his son Idamantes and he is hanged. Not true, we are told. His wife was faithful; he did not butcher his son. But Nauplius is there in Idomeneus’s bedroom and he kills Idomeneus and his wife and his son. But you cannot kill a king and we cannot know what is real and what is imagined. Just like in a myth. 
The couple talk about the past. Their son Idamantes got a girl pregnant and then left her. Now he is in love with Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon.

A whale is found on the shore that has a pregnant cow inside it which gives birth to a wolf-calf, a monster which can talk and is called Idamantes. The monster claims to be Idomeneus’s child and is in love with Electra. The monster becomes a shark and disappears. Where are we? What is going on? We understand what they are saying but not what is happening.

The sacrifice of Idamantes brings on a plague on Crete and Idomeneus is exiled.

This is a sampling of the world that the chorus describes in short sentences of dialogue with frequent changes in the number of speakers. Although there are many variations in the story, it is concentrated on the return of Idomeneus and its consequences.

Director Alan Dilworth is faithful to the text and the ten actors do excellent work in their recitation. As a theatrical work, I found it more intriguing than enjoyable. The performance lasts about an hour and I doubt very much that one could absorb more variations on the ancient myth.

The performance ends with the cast dancing to Greek bouzouki music that has nothing to do with the movements of the dancers. Where are Anthony “Zorba the Greek” and Alan Bates when you need them?  

The cast is as follows: Akosua Amo-Adem, Alana Bridgewater, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Laura Condlin, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Jakob Ehman, Kyra Harper, Stuart Hughes, Diego Matamoros and Michelle Monteith.
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Idomeneus by Roland Schimmelpfennig in a translation by David Tushingham continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca.