Friday, December 14, 2018

ΈΤΟΙΜΟΙ ΓΙΑ ΟΛΑ ΣΤΟ ΤΟΡΟΝΤΟ– [READY FOR EVERYTHING] - REVIEW OF IRIDA ART GROUP PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Greek community of Toronto was treated to some entertaining amateur theatre by Irida Art Group. They gave a single performance of Έτοιμοι για όλα στο Τορόντο [Ready for Everything in Toronto] to a full house at the Papermill Theatre in Toronto. 

Έτοιμοι για όλα στο Τορόντο is the creation of Gregory Terzakis who wrote, directed and starred in the play. It is involves ten people who gather at a Café Bar in Scarborough and go through a series of experiences as they try to cope with life.

The play opens as a melodrama when we meet five men in Kimon’s (Kimon Sikiaridis) café. Things are pretty bleak. The bank has served notice that it will seize the café and his friends can do nothing to help him save it. His friend Dimitris (Dimitris Vohaitis) has just been fired from his job as a journalist. Panagiotis (Panagiotis Apatsidis), Grigoris (Gregory Terzakis) and Kimon’s son Jimmy (Dimitris “Jim” Kamposos) have nothing to offer and disaster seems imminent.
Someone has a brilliant idea. Why don’t we perform dances at a night club and make money to save the café? The play turns into a sit-com as the men engage Irina (Vasso Kokkoni) to teach them how to dance. Irina is a Ukrainian dancer, slim, dressed to kill and hiding none of her sexual magnetism. The men go into hormonal overdrive. They roll their eye, slap their forehead and go into contortions to the delight of the audience.

The dance training does not have sufficient plot material so Terzakis adds sexual and marital entanglements. Kimon is married to Effie (Effie Antonakopoulou), Panagiotis is married to Ioanna (Ioanna Apatsidou) and Dimitris is married to Katerina (Katerina Tsekarea) and Kimon’s son Jimmy is going out with Panagiotis’s daughter Nikki (Nikki Vottea). We have moved into soap opera country.   

Kimon, Panagiotis and Dimitris pursue Irina. Grigoris is having an affair with Katerina and Kimon suspects that his son is gay and having an affair with Grigoris. That is quite a list of entanglements. The wives are not sure what their husbands are doing at night and in a hilarious scene catch them in the act of dancing/wooing the lissom Irina. And did I mention that Panagiotis is convinced he saw Grigoris and Jimmy necking in a car with their tongues in action? We have now changed gear and we are in farce mode. 

All of these subplots have to be untangled and Terzakis gives himself about three hours to do it.

Terzakis roots the play in the Greek community with numerous references to people and places in Toronto. The production is sponsored by The Greek Community of Toronto and the audience loved the mention of well-know people in the community.

A few comments about the production. I hasten to add that the actors are amateurs and must be judged more for their love of, and dedication to the theatre. For the most part they did a fine job but there were a few gaps. The simple rule of enunciate and speak every syllable was not always followed. Irina speaks in a Ukrainian accent but when she delivers a long, dramatic speech, she gets so involved in it that she forgets her accent.

Terzakis strives for broader type of comedy by making references to authors like Eugene Ionesco, Lorca, Tennessee Williams and others that I did not catch. Nikki, who is studying to be an actress, gets to emote with a few lines from Blood Wedding. When The Bald Soprano is mentioned, Dimitris steps forward and inform us about the play and the date one which it premiered. This struck me as unnecessary and unhelpful.

At three hours, the play is perhaps a bit on the long side. Terzakis insists on milking funny situations even after we have got the joke and he needs to move on to the next episode.

The scene changes were quite awkward because they called for the rickety curtains of the Papermill Theatre to be closed and then opened. Lowering the light would have been more efficient and sensible.

Critical harping aside, the performances was done before an enthusiastic audience who thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. That is what theatre is all about. 
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Έτοιμοι για όλα στο Τορόντο [Ready for Everything in Toronto]  by Gregory Terzakis was performed once on December 8, 2018 at the Papermill Theatre, 67 Pottery Road, Toronto, Ontario. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

THE RUNNER – REVIEW OF HUMAN CARGO THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Christopher Morris’s The Runner is a simple play where a rescue worker tells us what he does. Simple play in this case means a piece that delivers an unforgettable narrative of events that are full of humanity from a region where it seems to be all too frequently absent.

Jacob, the only character in the play, is an Orthodox Jew who works for Z.A.K.A., an organization of volunteers. Their gruesome task is to gather the body parts and blood of victims of terrorist attacks in Israel and around the world. The impetus for this seems to be the religious conviction that a Jew should be buried whole.

Jacob finds a dead Israeli man and near him a teenage Arab girl still alive but bleeding. He believes that there are no Palestinians – only Arabs and has no reason not to think that the young girl killed the Israeli man. But something extraordinary happens to Jacob. His humanity overwhelms his life’s mission as a rescuer of victims of Arab terrorists. The Arab terrorist becomes another human being and he tries to save her life. In his attempt to save her, some of her blood spurts in his mouth and he swallows it. 
It is an arresting event for Jacob and the audience.         

Jacob goes to a mass grave site in Ukraine where the remains of Jews massacred by the Nazis are found. All the victims have a bullet hole in their heads. He sees the corpses of a mother and her child. She is hugging and holding the child close to her but for what? To comfort it? To protect it? To make sure it does not witness the final moments of life?

A scene that takes your breath away.

The title describes literally what happens in the play. Gord Rand as Jacob literally runs or walks throughout the 80-minute performance without an intermission. The set by Gillian Gallow consists of a raised platform the width of a treadmill that could be a conveyor belt on which Rand walks or occasionally runs while he tells us stories of horror and humanity.

A spotlight is shone on Jacob as he runs/walks on the belt and there are times when he seems almost unable to continue. He tells about his domestic life with a mother who has dinner ready for him every night and of her desire for him to get married. He is criticized for helping the Arab girl, especially by his brother. But Jacob persists. His towering humanity overwhelms the hatreds that have made Jews and Palestinians implacable enemies with the latter wanting nothing less than the annihilation of the other.

Gord Rand gives a magnificent performance under the direction of Daniel Brooks in this hymn to humanity.   
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The Runner by Christopher Morris, in a production by Human Cargo Theatre supported by Theatre Passe Muraille, ran from November 10 to December 9, 2018 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.on.ca (416) 504-7529

Friday, November 30, 2018

THE MESSAGE – REVIEW OF SHERMAN’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

James Karas

First, the good news.

Jason Sherman’s new play, The Message, has a superior cast of actors and an experienced creative team. The result is a production with superb acting. R.H. Thomson, one of Canada’s finest actors, plays Marshall McLuhan, a highly demanding role.

The play is about McLuhan from the time he suffers a stroke to his death. For some of the time McLuhan cannot speak or has difficulty communicating. He has moments of lucidity and the brilliant scholar, philosopher and indeed prophet comes out. Thomson is seated much of the time and his portrayal of the lion in the last throes of life with glances at better times is a tour de force performance. 
Sarah Orenstein, Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson. 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Peter Hutt takes on three roles as the exuberant Gerald Feigen, Paul Klein and a student. He has lots of opportunities for high jinx and sober acting which he takes on with relish.

Patrick McManus plays the more reserved Howard Gossage and Father Frank. He is also Dr. Hildebrand who removes a tumor the size of a golf ball from McLuhan’s head. Yes, it is a real golf ball on stage and welcome to the elements of the theatre of the absurd. Sarah Orenstein plays McLuhan’s wife Corinne and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is the efficient assistant.

Now for the rest.

If The Message has a message I did not get it. Is the play intended for people who are thoroughly versed in McLuhan’s life and work? I plead relative ignorance on both counts and that may explain my not getting the message.
 
Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 
We get snippets of McLuhan’s humour, his love of puns, his admiration of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A great work of literature, no doubt, which I find, mea culpa, mea culpa, completely incomprehensible. McLuhan wants to hear it in an Irish brogue. Some of his complex ideas drive by me without my finding a parking space in my mind.

The set by Camellia Koo consists of a large chair on which we find McLuhan and a reversible bookshelf to indicate McLuhan’s home and office at the university. It is functional and superb.

Director Richard Rose does everything right with the production except for making the content of the play comprehensible. The ideas of a brilliant man shown in the context of his stroke, his inability to speak and his habit of being repetitive are hardly a good combination. The play is simply too dense, slow and in the end provides an untheatrical night at the theatre. 
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The Message by Jason Sherman opened on November 14 and continues until December 16, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

OI EROSYLIES - REVIEW OF SCANDALIS’S PLAY AT ALUMNAE THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

George Scandalis is back for a third production in Greek at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto. He has written, directed and stars in Oi Erosylies (Οι Ερωσυλίες), whose central theme is love and the many forms that it can take. There are many other tentacles in the plot but you can only get them or try to in any event if you see the play.

The inspiration for the play is the poetry of Erofili Gerasimidou and a central image is the Bourboulia, a masked ball with a difference that forms a part of the Patras Festival. The play takes place in the city of Patras.

A couple of explanations may be helpful. In the Bourboulia, women attend the ball with their faces fully covered and frequently engage in sex with unknown partners. It is an expression of feminist freedom for one night and the event dates back to 1872. It may not be exactly Dionysian revels but one could find something bacchanalian in it.

The title of the play is a word coined by Ms Gerasimidou. It comes from the word ierosylia (ιεροσυλία) which means sacrilege. Ms Gerasimidou’s first name is formed from the words “eros” and “filia” which can mean a lover of eros. Erosylia may mean the theft of love. You may get a better understanding if you see the play.

Eri (Stella Makrogiannakou) and Maria (Stavroula Karnouskou) are cousins or maybe sisters and they live with Yiota (Irene Bithas) whom they address as mother. There are many facts that you will have to figure out for yourself and I will not spoil the plot for you by revealing too much.

Maria has been engaged to Petros (George Scandalis) for some ten years but he is not marrying her because he cannot afford it. Maria is a very nice and lovable girl. Eri is the wild type who goes out at night and her mother is furious with her to the extent of calling her a slut. Yiota is a very devout Christian but there is more to her religious zeal than meets the eye.

The girls get an invitation to the Bourboulia and Eri meets Petros there. We know that they have sex there but who else knows that for certain? And when is Petros going to marry Maria?

These are the questions and complications that will keep us busy for about three hours. The performance contains extensive reading of Ms Gerasimidou’s poems which are arranged chronologically like a diary of love and separation. We hear a voice over reciting lines of her poetry. Dramatic scenes are highlighted by background music which at times takes over.

There are nine roles in addition to the four major parts that I mentioned. Some are well defined like the ditzy Natasha (Elaine Sarantakos) and her boyfriend Antonis (Dimitri Hatzikonstadinou) but others are not as recognizable. The lack of a cast list with the roles they play does not help.

The set is indicated by minimal pieces of furniture. Yiota’s house has a table and a wall full of icons, the outdoor scene is indicated by a bench and a couple of flower pots, a bed is pushed on stage when necessary and the rest of the time they perform on an empty stage.

The play, at three hours including intermission, could use some dramaturgical surgery. Yiota’s confession, for example, even when delivered by Irene Bithas, can use some trimming. The voice over announcing the number of days and providing some kind of chronology needs to be clearer.

Theatre in impeccable Greek in downtown Toronto, written, directed and starring a young Canadian of Greek descent? And supported by what looks like a large segment of the Greeks of Toronto? And attended by a significant number of young people? Yes, to all.
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Oi Erosylies (Οι Ερωσυλίες) by George Scandalis opened on November 22 and will be performed ten times until December 2, 2018 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.tentoneproductions.com

WHAT I CALL HER - REVIEW OF ELLIE MOON’S PLAY AT CROW’S THEATRE

James Karas

Ellie Moon’s What I Call Her delivers a solid punch, both physical and emotional, in its climactic scene. The play builds up to an even higher emotional apex after that with some outstanding acting by Ellie Ellwand and Charlie Gould. Unfortunately there are problems with the breadth of the play and the road to the final, enigmatic resolution.

Kyle (Michael Ayres) and Kate (Charlie Gould) are a young couple, living in a simple apartment in the Leslieville part of Toronto. They are affectionate and apparently well suited for each other. We quickly find out that Kyle comes from a very happy family whereas Kate was raised in a dysfunctional household and harbours deep-rooted hatred and revulsion against her mother and her sister.
Michael Ayres and Charlie Gould. Photo: Dahlia Katz
We will soon find out that there are some serious fissures in Kyle’s ideal family but that will be only a minor sideline.

Kate’s mother is in a hospice on death’s door and Kate has started writing her obituary. As the plot develops, the obituary takes and maintains the central focus for far too long. We slowly realize that Kate in her recollection and hatred of her family may be relating events that did not happen, myths that she has created or reliving her own psychoses.

When her sister Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) appears, unexpected and unwanted, Kate’s precarious emotional balance explodes in an expression of hatred and other complex feelings about her.

The sisters go through a roller coaster of emotions about their relationship and their relationship with their mother. The mother was sexually abused as a child and was a seriously damaged human being. Her children have inherited, perhaps, her damaged personality but are largely unaware of it and blame the mother for abusive conduct, which, as I said, may have little or no basis in reality.

Gould and Ellwand display some incredible emotional intensity in their acting. Ayres as Kyle is stuck between the two sisters deflecting shocks and being treated to some abuse himself.
Charlie Gould and Ellie Ellwand. Photo: Dahlia Katz
The problem is that there is not sufficient objective correlative to the emotional reactions. Kate is writing an obituary before her mother is dead that she does not intend to publish. Is she doing it for therapeutic reasons, for posthumous revenge, for expiation of her feelings towards her mother and her sister? Possibly. It is a thin plot device that does not sustain the play to the heights that Ellie Moon seems to have intended.

The author, the actors, director Sarah Kitz and the creative team are all young and with the exception of Ayres and composer Ali Berkok, they are all women who show a great deal of talent. The production company In Association, was founded in 2016 with the purpose of producing Ellie 

Moon’s first play Asking for It. What I Call Her is worth seeing for that reason alone and for the possibilities that it so clearly promises.  
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What I Call Her by Ellie Moon, in a production by In Association in partnership with Crow’s Theatre, opened on November 21 and will play until December 8, 2018 at the Scotiabank Community Studio, Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/

Saturday, November 24, 2018

KAPODISTRIAS – REVIEW OF READING OF KAZANTZAKIS’S PLAY

By James Karas

For those of us who complain about the paucity of Greek theatre in Toronto (starting with me), the local branch of the International Society of Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis (ISFNK), had a surprise for us last Sunday, November 18, 2018. They introduced us to Nikos Kazantzakis’s tragedy Kapodistrias at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre of the Greek Community of Toronto.

The number of people who have seen any of Kazantzakis’s thirteen plays, let alone Kapodistrias, cannot be many. In Toronto we have seen adaptations of his novels Zorba the Greek and The Greek Passion (under the title He Who Must Die) but I am not aware of any of his plays having been ever been staged.

Toronto’s Friends of Kazantzakis under the capable leadership of Voula Vetsis with the help of the Greek Community of Toronto and the Cretans’ Association of Toronto “Knossos” has given us a partial reading of Kapodistrias.

Director Maria Kordoni uses a narrator for introductory and connecting material (the inimitable Irene Stubos) and four actors to read some of the lines of seven characters of the play as well as a chorus of four women. The play has fifteen parts and a chorus that can vary in number, and is quite long. Irene Stubos made some judicial choices for what she offered the audience that packed Polymenakio Centre and was also responsible for the casting. [In my review in The Greek Press I erroneously credited the editing of the play to the director].
 
The murder of Kapodistrias by Charalambos Pachis.
The main character is of course Ioannis Kapodistrias and Andreas Batakis does an exceptional job in reading his lines. Kazantzakis’s Kapodistrias is an intellectual with political wisdom and a vision of a new Greece without fratricidal factions. He is a Christ-like figure who knows that his death is near but is ready to sacrifice himself for the people.

Batakis is tall and broad-faced, physical features appropriate for a sympathetic portrayal of Kapodistrias, as well as the vocal intonation to achieve a representation of the tragic figure. Dimitris Kobiliris reads the honest and fearless Makriyiannis. Yiannis Kassios reads Papagiorgis while Ioannis Dimitriou is the gruff Kolokotronis. The latter doubles as the assassin Konstantis Mavromichalis. Thanasis Adamos reads the parts of Giorgakis Mavromichalis and Gikas.

No one should underestimate the effort and success of the actors. Except, for the chorus, they all had to read Kazantzakis’s rather awkward thirteen-syllable verse which results in almost all speaking in a similar vein.

The chorus made up of Panagiota Vogdou, Maria Diolitsi, Ourania Korentos and Dr. Maria Lychnaki delivered some of the choral passages of the play very competently.    

The actors read their lines while seated and my only comment would be that they may have been better off if they read them standing at lecterns. This would have given them more freedom of movement including having the script on a lectern rather than their laps and would have been easier to indicate who would have been on stage in a full production.

Kazantzakis wrote Kapodistrias in 1944, near the end of the German occupation of Greece. It was produced by the National Theatre of Greece in 1946 when Greece was torn by fanatic factions and political hatreds. Despite Kapodistrias’s and Kazantzakis’s plea for moderation, all-out verbal war broke out in the newspapers between the left and right political extremes and the production was quickly closed.

The play was not produced again until 1976 and the same production was mounted in 1982. These three production, if my information is correct, are the sum total of stagings of Kapodistrias in Greece.

The local Friends of Kazantzakis who were organized in 1988, may have achieved a lot more than they are even aware of.
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Kapodistrias by Nikos Kazantzakis was performed once on November 18, 2018 at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre, Greek Community of Toronto, 30 Thornecliffe Park Drive, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

ESCAPED ALONE – REVIEW OF NECESSARY ANGEL AND SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Escaped Alone is an abstruse, absurdist play that Soulpepper endows with a fine production and superb performances.

Three old women are sitting in a fenced yard when a fourth woman sees a door in the fence and walks in. They all speak in short sentences, many of no more than three words. What are they talking about? Much of the time it is impossible to tell although there are a few facts that can be gleaned eventually.

Are they demented old women who talk in a stream of consciousness manner about whatever comes to their head or as they are prompted by a remark of one of the other women? Perhaps. We will find out that one of them murdered her husband and spent six years in prison. Another one is afraid of cats and there is talk of birds. Can we believe everything or anything they say or is author Caryl Churchill giving us an impressionist sketch of women who have gone gaga? Perhaps. They may remember or imagine shadows from their past and shadows are impossible to capture.
 
Kyra Harper, Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, and Maria Vacratsis. 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
The title of the play does give us a handle in trying to figure out what is going on. It refers to Job of the Old Testament where four servants appear before him each informing him of disastrous loss of property and of the death of all his children. Each servants ends his description of the catastrophe with the phrase “and I alone have escaped to tell thee.” The wealthy Job suffers and endures appalling and tragic losses that are almost unimaginable to us.

Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter), the woman who walks through the gate in the fence, gives an apocalyptic description of the earth shortly after joining the other women. She speaks of four hundred thousand tons of rock sliding from the hillside and aimed at children’s heads. Life moves underground where people survive by eating the dead and rats. In the end only a few insane people survive.

The women, Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) continue chatting in their non-sequential manner about shopping and Mrs. Jarrett delivers another apocalyptic description of the world. The basic order of nature is reversed as rivers change their course and flow towards their tributaries. Floods cause villages and cities to vanish.

Sally makes a long speech about cats and Vi tells us that she does not like the kitchen any longer. That’s where she killed her husband.
 
Clare Coulter. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.
The play lasts one hour with some facts coming to life during the dialogue which can sound like gibberish and the longer descriptive speeches by the characters. While Mrs. Jarrett feels terrible rage, the ladies tell a joke about why the chicken did not cross the road. Mrs. Jarrett decides she likes it there, thanks the women for the tea and goes home.

The actors have the formidable task of learning their lines alone and director Jennifer Tarver has the job of coordinating the non sequitors, pacing the performance and coming up with a fine theatrical product.   

This production of Escaped Alone marks its Canadian premiere and is a coproduction by Soulpepper and Necessary Angel Theatre Company.
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Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill runs until November 25, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  416 866-8666.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

THE PENELOPIAD – REVIEW OF HART HOUSE THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

In her 2005 novel The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood took us on a romp of a retelling of the story of Penelope, the famous wife of the far more famous Odysseus. She gave it a feminist perspective and told the story from the point of view of Penelope and, according to Homer in the Odyssey the twelve servants who betrayed her and were hanged by Odysseus

The novel was turned into a play and was staged at Stratford-upon-Avon, among other places, by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Arts Centre of Canada. It is now playing at Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto.

The play opens with Penelope in Hades telling us her own story as the unattractive daughter of Icarus and a naiad who was won by Odysseus and packed off to marry him at age 15. She gives us background information not included in the Odyssey. 
Amanda Cordner as Penelope. Photo: Scott Gorman
We see her twelve maids who are also in Hades, accuse her of treachery for not speaking up in their defence. You will recall that the suitors who had invaded Odysseus’s palace during his 20 year absence were pressuring Penelope to marry one of them. Her ruse of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes was helped by the servants who were in cahoots with her.

The servants cavorted with the suitors and maintained the ruse (mostly) but when Odysseus returned he ordered them executed for treachery.

Amanda Cordner as Penelope tells her story in a dramatic and effective manner. She presents Penelope as intelligent, faithful, patient and wily (like her husband) but also smart enough to pretend that she did not recognize him on his return or did not know about his infidelities.

The twelve maids form a chorus and they sing, dance and speak the light, sometimes burlesque verses that Atwood wrote. Some of the singing is humorous, some of it lyrical and some atrocious. They speak in groups of four or all twelve in unison and I find that approach quite annoying. You prick up your ears to follow what they are saying and it amounts to a lot of trouble for very little. There are a number of times when they sounded as if they were cackling.
 The women of the ensemble, Amanda Cordner as Penelope. Photo: Scott Gorman, 
The cast of thirteen are all women and they play more than a couple of dozen characters. Ellie Posadas is allowed to overact as the beautiful Helen and presents her as a bimbo and a moron. A nice and funny take on the famous slut. Neta J. Rose play the faithful servant Euricleia as an old hag.  
The actors who play Odysseus (Arielle Zamora), Icarus (Shannon Dickens), and Antinous (Julia Hussey) come across as female impersonators which is in keeping with the burlesque take on Homer. They are mostly caricatures resembling something from Monty Python. 

Director Michelle Langille has to deal with the serious, feminist approach to the story as well as the lighter side of Atwood’s verse.

Penelope has been usually (but by no means always) viewed as the ideal wife, a paragon of virtue, patience, fidelity and intelligence. She was the product of the imagination of men in a strictly patriarchal society. The same society did produce men who created heroic women like Antigone and Lysistrata. So that the feminist point of view is not entirely missing.

This transfer from novel to stage is not always successful but the young actors and production team of Hart House Theatre who are almost all amateurs deserve kudos for the production.   

You will get an interesting romp through the world of the Odyssey from a different perspective.
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The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood continues until November 24, 2018 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849

Thursday, November 15, 2018

MARY POPPINS – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Mary Poppins, now playing at Young People’s Theatre, has something for everybody but when it comes to young people, it has everything for all of them. The YPT production is a 90-minute version of the Broadway musical based on the Walt Disney film of 1964 which in turn was based on the children’s books of P.L. Travers.

Those who are of certain age or have read the books will recall that there is chaos in the Banks family in Edwardian England. Mr. and Mrs. Banks (Shane Carty and Jewelle Blackman) cannot find a nanny who will stay for more than a few weeks. They have prepared an ad for the Times. But, as if by magic, Mary Poppins (Vanessa Sears) arrives and offers her services. She comes before the ad appears, knows exactly what the Banks’ children want and need, has no references, is completely self-assured and gets the job.

The cast of Mary Poppins. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Mr. and Mrs. Banks are disciplinarians from the old school but their children Jane (Jessie Cox) and Michael (Hailey Lewis) are a handful. Mary is a no-nonsense nanny who manages to give the children what they want. She is magical in fact and proves her mettle by producing a very long hat stand from her bag. Mouths wide open, please.

Mary appears and disappears from the life of the Banks family as we follow the plot of Mr. Banks’s difficulties with his job, the appearance of the Bird Woman (Aisha Jarvis), the routines involving Bert (Kyle Blair) and those marvelous chimney sweeps, the arrival of the nasty nanny Miss Andrew (Sarah Lynn Strange) until we find a resolution to all the problems and a happy ending.

Mary Poppins has marvelous songs that are probably familiar to most adults from the film and the stage musicals. "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," “Feed the Birds," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," “Brimstone and Treacle" "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and "Step in Time" are a good sampling of the tuneful and memorable songs offered.

The disciplined and talented cast delivers ninety minutes of energy, humour and beautiful singing, and creates a thrilling atmosphere that kept young and old engrossed in the performance.

The songs go from the jolly “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to the threatening “Brimstone and Treacle" of the haughty and ghastly Miss Andrew to the uplifting "Let's Go Fly a Kite” to the rousing and super-energetic "Step in Time."
Pictured in promotional photo: Vanessa Sears as Mary Poppins and Kyle Blair as Bert 
 Photo by Ali Sultani.
Vanessa Sears and Kyle Blair get top honours for their superb performances. Jessie Cox and Hailey Lewis are excellent as the children and Jewelle Blackman and Shane Carty make fine parents from another generation, no doubt.

Thom Allison keeps a brisk pace when appropriate with fine variations in tone and speed when necessary. Kerry Gage’s choreography is outstanding.

The two-story set by Brandon Kleiman represents the Banks’ house and is easily converted into a street scene and even a rooftop scene for the chimney sweeps. It provides space for the musicians and is efficient and effective.

I saw the production with two of my associate reviewers, Ava (I am going to be double digit on April 2 and I am one minute older than my sister) and her twin Hannah. They gave the production and the performance enthusiastic reviews. They did not know anything about Mary Poppins before and interestingly they caught on the moral lessons of the musical. One should never give up and if you don’t try you will not succeed, they commented. They liked the reconciliation of the family when the father and the children went to fly a kite together. They liked the atmosphere of the Banks home. 

They also enjoyed the magical effects and were impressed by the dancing.

With reviews like that, the only possible verdict is a command to take your children and go to see the production
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Mary Poppins, The Broadway Musical, based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, by Julian Fellows (book), Richard M Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (original music and lyrics0 and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (additional songs and music) continues until January 6. 2019 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

HELEN’S NECKLACE - REVIEW OF 2018 CANADIAN REP THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Helen’s Necklace can be subtitled “The Education of a Shallow, Ignorant Tourist from a Northern Peaceful City in a War-torn City in the Middle East.”

Carole Fréchette’s play has six characters (two women and four men) but all of them can be played by as few as two actors or three. Ken Gass in his Canadian Rep Theatre production has chosen to stage the play with three female actors who play the characters interchangeably and not necessarily to good effect.

Initially, Helen appears as a wide-eyed, shallow, self-absorbed woman in a crowded, bombed and very busy city looking for her lost necklace. In the opening scene she is played as a blonde Caucasian by Helen Taylor and she is approaching people on the street in her search for her lost treasure.

She describes the piece of jewelry in very precise and glowing terms as a priceless treasure that has deep meaning for her to people who may speak little, if any, English. She seems impervious to her surroundings and our reaction is “how dense can this woman be?”
 
Akosua Amo-Adem,  Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor 
The role of Helen as with the other five characters, as I indicated, will be played by all three actors, the other two being Akosua Amo-Adem who is black and Zorana Sadiq who has a dark complexion and can pass for someone from the Middle East.

The place where Helen searches for her necklace and displays her blindness to her surroundings is by all descriptions a site of death and devastation.  She can’t recall what day it is, where she has been, to whom she has spoken or much of anything. She is completely absorbed by her necklace and describes it in excruciating detail.

By this time we have lost it with this bimbo but reality will soon visit her in ways that even she cannot completely ignore. In the meantime she meets Nabil, the taxi driver, who simply wants to know where to take her, as she continues jabbering about her necklace. A construction Foreman gives her a brief lesson on the effects of demolition and tells her to go home to her place which has never been bombed.  She understands almost nothing.

Helen meets a Woman looking for a red ball and hears her description of a little boy killed in the cross-fire. The Woman gives her a powerful dose of reality which has some effect on her. The Woman is looking for her son; Helen is looking for a bauble.

Then she meets a Man who has lost everything. It is a difficult concept to absorb but the Man knows it all too well. He tells her to scream “we cannot go on living like this” and she seems to have understood a bit more of reality. I will not spoil the end for you and you may want to see where Fréchette takes us.

The play can deliver a powerful punch to the self-absorbed middle class which has scant idea about what is happening in the Middle East and in other war-torn places in the world. How can we know what it means to lose everything?

But Gass muddles the emotional impact of the play by having three actors perform all the roles interchangeably. It shifts our focus from one actor to the next as we try to keep up with who is doing what and the emotional impact is almost lost or at least seriously diminished. A bad choice.

The actors show that they have the emotional depth and talent to do the play if only Gass would let them do it.

The set consist of an empty stage with some white boxes which can be used as seats in a taxi or to represent the other venues in the city.
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Helen’s Necklace by Carole Fréchette played at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre, November 8-11, 2018 and will continue at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, 440 Locust Street Burlington, ON L7S 1T7 from November 15 to 18, 2018. (905) 681-2551 bpac@burlington.ca/

Monday, November 5, 2018

BAD JEWS – REVIEW OF HARMON’S PLAY AT GREENWIN THEATRE

James Karas

Bad Jews struck me like a mediocre boxer who runs around the rink to avoid his opponent, throws punches that do not hit their target or just flails pointlessly with his arms in a sad attempt at boxing. But in the end, to everyone’s surprise, he lands a solid hook and knocks out his opponent.

Joshua Harmon does land a punch in the final minutes of the play but we can’t forget the rest of it where there are all kinds of problems.

Bad Jews is about three grandchildren who meet after the funeral of their grandfather. They meet in Jonah’s (Jake Goldsbie) studio apartment in Manhattan. His cousin Daphna (Sarah Segal-Lazar) is there and she expresses a great interest in getting her grandfather’s chai.

Jonah’s brother Liam (Jamie Elman) arrives with his girlfriend Melody (Ellen Denny) and after some time arguing about sleeping arrangements in the small apartment and looking for alternatives, the issues among the four characters are joined. The central issue is who will get the chai.

The chai (the word means living or alive) is a gold medallion that was worn by their grandfather around his neck. When he was taken to a Nazi concentration camp, he kept it under his tongue for two years. He gave it to his wife because she gave him life.

Jamie Elman, Jake Goldsbie, Sarah Segal-Lazar and Ellen Denny
Photo by Leslie Schachter
A few words about the characters. Jonah is a dishrag who tries to stay out of the conflicts among Daphna, Liam and Melody. He is a nothing, in other words, until near the end when he does deliver a punch, but it is fortuitous because it is not in character.

Melody is blonde, pretty, and not too swift with German roots. She is not Jewish and that makes her an easy target for the religious Daphna who treats her with contempt largely because she is not Jewish and therefore not worthy of marrying a Jew.

Liam is a modern Jew who points out some issues one may have with the Bible. He is an atheist Jew and has a practical approach to Judaism. He wants the chai and has in fact gained possession of it before his grandfather died. His loyalty to the family is questionable because he did not come for the funeral because he was skiing. He makes a mealy-mouthed excuse for his non-attendance.

The most interesting character is Daphna. She is a devout Jew who wants to return to Israel and become a rabbi. She is a bitch, to put it politely, and her opposition to Liam’s proposed marriage to Melody is that it will adulterate Liam’s Jewish blood. He mercilessly points out to her that she is repeating the language of the Nazis about racial purity. She attacks Jonah spinelessness, Melody for her background and Liam for just about everything from not using his Jewish name (Shlomo), to not attending the funeral, to gaining possession of the chai under false pretenses.    

Bad Jews develops slowly, very slowly, and it lacks a moral center. The chai is symbolic of deep faith that sustains life and love under the most horrific circumstances imaginable. It meant a great deal to their grandfather not just because of how he kept it under his tongue but also because he gave it to his wife as an equally powerful act of love. Daphna despoils even that by offhandedly referring to her grandmother as a bitch.

I will not disclose what happens in the final minutes of the play when there is a type of resolution after about an hour of less-than-exciting development, when the plot comes to life.

The actors do their job and they do it well. If you need someone to represent a bitch, just call Sarah Segal-Lazar. She plays with her hair to the point of distraction and in her ferocious devotion to Jewishness, her attack on her cousins and Melody she is, well, one king-size bitch.

Goldsbie, Elman and Denny play well against her and each other and director Lisa Rubin does the best she can with the play.

In the end, the grandchildren of the Holocaust survivor are not so much bad Jews as unworthy heirs to the strength, faith and love represented by him or of a play, for that matter, that does not do justice to him.
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Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon, in a production by the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts Production, continues until November 11, 2018 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

THEORY – REVIEW OF NORMAN YEUNG’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

Theory, Norman Yeung’s new play at the Tarragon Theatre, is so intellectually elevated and so emotionally intense, that you should sharpen your brain cells and tune up your emotional antennae before leaving for the theatre.

Professor Isabella (Sascha Cole) “teaches” film theory at a university. She is young, brilliant, ambitious, a visionary and a rule-breaker who wants to open the minds of students, no make that, she wants them to open their own minds. No, she is not teaching philosophy from Plato to Rawls and she probably considers what many of us may consider teaching as beneath her. She has a large class but we only get to see four of her students.
 
Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech and Sascha Cole by Cylla von Tiedemann 
The four students are an assorted lot but what really matters is that they are all geniuses. They know all about the films on the course and they can talk in academic lingo that will send you scampering to your elevated intellect to keep up with the academic jargon and you are very smart if you can keep up with them.

But they are also very touchy. With their comprehensive knowledge and ability to express their views, it seems a waste of time for them to attend class. They should all go to the common room and have a complicated or is it integrated coffee and become professors.

The professor teaching the course is white and her wife is black. Or should I say African-Canadian or African-American. I don’t think I can say Negro because, if I understood correctly, the word has been banned from normal conversation regardless of context. And the “n word” has been eradicated and if Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and a myriad of other authors used it in their time and context, they and the word should be consigned a circle of hell for Users of Offensive Words Ex Post Facto.   

The students in the course tackle a large array of films by the likes of   D. W. Griffiths, Sergei Eisenstein and a number of other directors, French, German and Latin American, mostly unfamiliar to me.

The films present political and social commentaries that brilliant professors and razor-sharp students can discern but hoi polloi probably do not.

The students walk out of class, send offensive (really offensive) emails and complain to the dean. The numerous (far too numerous) postings go into dangerous territory when one student posts a photo of the professor that he/she cuts up and covers it with blood from his/her own hand. There is a mystery about who is posting them and it creates considerable tension.
 Sascha Cole and Audrey Dwyer by Cylla von Tiedemann
The question that occurred to me as I watched the plot develop into dangerous territory was this: how can anyone who is so smart be so stupid? Isabella could not see beyond her intellectual arrogance of a know-it-all who pretends to let her students discover things for themselves. When students are complaining about you (some? all?) maybe you should get the message that you are doing something terribly wrong.      

The main plot is about Isabella’s interaction with the four students played by Bilal Baig, Asha James, Kyle Orzech and Anthony Perpuse, and the Dean (Fabrizio Filippo. And there is the subplot about her relations with her wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer).  

Joe Pagnan’s set serves as a classroom that easily converts into Isabella’s apartment. Projection designer Cameron Davis provides us with the countless messages that are shown on the stage as the menace keeps mounting.

Director Esther Jun sets and maintains a brisk pace as actors enter and exit in quick succession frequently slamming doors.

Much of what happens is fodder for a good play and a fine production but much of it is smothered in intellectual and academic dross that takes away from our enjoyment. 
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Theory by Norman Yeung continues until November 25, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

ACTÉON AND PYGMALION – REVIEW OF TWO GEMS FROM OPERA ATELIER

James Karas

Opera Atelier has chosen two one-act gems for its fall production. They are Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion, works based on Greek myths that are wonderfully antithetical and complementary. I have a feeling that Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, the Co-Artistic Directors of Opera Atelier, commissioned these works for the current season. Yes, I know that Actéon has been around since 1684 and Pygmalion premiered in 1748, but I have no time to be confused by facts.

Mr. Pynkoski as a director, wanted operas and Ms Zingg as a choreographer wanted ballets. They convinced the two composers to give them operas-cum-ballet or perhaps the other way around to maintain gender equilibrium. Ms Zingg deserves the concession since she is celebrating her 33rd year with Opera Atelier.
  The company of Actéon. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Actéon, you will no doubt recall, is the Theban prince who loves hunting but is indifferent to the love of women. He worships Diana (or Artemis for the purists) the virgin goddess of the hunt who prefers the company of nymphs and four-legged creatures in the forest to anyone else’s company. No erotic love, please.

Actéon has heard that a bear is despoiling Diana’s forest and he goes with his friend to get rid of the creature that is harming the goddess that he worships. Completely by happenstance, he sees Diana bathing au naturel. That is verboten and Diana decides to punish him. She turns the hunter Actéon into a stag and his dogs have him for lunch. Not a happy ending.

Pygmalion is different. He is great artist and sculpts a beautiful woman. Being a romantic, he falls in love with the statue and prays to Venus, the goddess of love, to do something about his passion. Enter Eros who brings the statue to life.  His girlfriend Céphise is not too pleased and storms out of his studio. The statue becomes Galatea and is taught to dance, falls in love with Pygmalion and they live happily ever after.

The moral of the stories being that if you interact with goddesses, forget chastity (yours or the god’s), find out how she feels about being seen naked and go for art instead of hunting.

The production of the two gems is a visual and aural delight. Tenor Colin Ainsworth sings Actéon, the chaste but impassioned worshipper of Diana and the equally passionate but perfectly human Pygmalion. He modulates his voice beautifully to the demands of Baroque opera and we enjoy every note of it.

The splendidly-voiced soprano Mireille Asselin, (like Ainsworth, a veteran of Opera Atelier productions) sings the roles of Diana and Eros in beautifully executed performances.      
 Colin Ainsworth and Meghan Lindsay (centre) with Artists of 
Atelier Ballet in Pygmalion. Photo by Bruce Zinger
Soprano Meghan Lindsay sings Aréthuze in Actéon and Galatea in Pygmalion. When a statue is given life by Eros and she tells you that her first desire is to please you, you have a winner and Ms Lindsay convinces us that we do.

The solo vocal singing is supplemented by the Chorus of the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum with members of the Choir of the Theatre of Early Music and they are simply superb.

Ballet forms an integral part of Actéon and Pygmalion. The hunters and the nymphs in Actéon and the dances performed in teaching Galatea to dance in Pygmalion display Ms Zingg’s choreographic talent and the exquisiteness of the Artists of Atelier Ballet. 

Gerard Gauci’s sets emphasize the beauty of the mythical world as do the costumes by Gauci for Actéon and Michael Gianfrancesco for Pygmalion.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis brings the full aural pleasure of the music to the fore.

In the end you are transported to, dare I say it, almost magically to the mythical world of Ancient Greece as seen by two Baroque French composers and brought to life, almost Galatea-like, by the artists of Opera Atelier.
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Actéon by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Pygmalion by Jean-Philippe Rameau, presented by Opera Atelier, run until November 3, 2018 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com