Tuesday, January 30, 2018

TOSCA – REVIEW OF McVICAR’S LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

James Karas

After you have found the singers, the orchestra and chorus, a successful production of an opera requires a grand vision and scrupulous attention to details. The Metropolitan Opera has assembled everything for its new production of Tosca and the result is, not surprisingly a massive success despite numerous mishaps of which more below.

Let’s start with the singers. The title role is taken by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. She has a luminous voice and manages to give a truly dramatic performance as the jealous diva. She and her lover Cavaradossi (tenor Vittorio Grigolo) are youthful lovers who cannot keep their hands and lips off each other. Their duets and her solos are splendid examples of vocal delivery. Her “Vissi d’arte” may lack some of the sustained high notes and emotional breadth we ideally expect but it brought the house down. Her relish in killing Scarpia was delightful for those of us who love to see a creep put down for ever.
 

Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi and Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca. 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Grigolo brought youth and erotic intensity to Cavaradossi. His fine voice and physical agility make him ideal for the role. He was especially dramatic and moving in his “E lucevan le stelle” where the camera concentrated on his face poised from underneath. Everything was right about his singing and he brought the house down.

Baritone Željko Lučić sings the nasty Scarpia and he is splendid at it. Lučić has a resonant voice that he uses to fine effect to express his evil megalomania and cruel depravity. With the deep furrow between his eyebrows and his swaggering, authoritarian manner, he expresses a man who is used to getting his way. A superb performance.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus has an easy night with singing basically only a “Te Deum” but the segment rises to absolutely thrilling heights. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Emmanuel Villaume rises to equal heights throughout.

Tosca has had a somewhat spotty history at the Met of late. After revving Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the 1980’s for a quarter of a century, General Director Peter Gelb hired Luc Bondy to do something different. It was a more or less a disaster not that there were not people who thought highly of it. For the current new production, Gelb retained Director David McVicar who has opted for a traditional, opulent production in line with Franco Zeffirelli’s.

McVicar and Set and Costume Designer John Macfarlane give traditional sets. The first scene set in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle features grand pillars and an imposing interior of a Baroque cathedral. Scarpia’s office is large, mostly dark with the painting of The Rape of the Virgins and suggestive of menace. The ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo with the winged statute of the Archangel Michael hovering above is another example of operatic sets on a grand scale.

But along with the grand vision, McVicar pays attention to countless details that give the production an unexpected freshness. A few examples. McVicar humanizes the Sacristan (Patrick Carfizzi) be making him take snuff to calm his nerves and slightly mocking Cavaradossi. We like the Sacristan.
When Cavaradossi tries to kiss Tosca in the church, she pushes him away because they are in front of the Madonna. Then she points to a spot where the Madonna cannot “see” them and they smooch like the young lovers that they are. Tosca is burning with love, Cavaradossi tells us, and he is right and she proves it.

A scene from Act III of David McVicar's new production of "Tosca". 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
As Scarpia is ordering his henchmen to search for Angelotti in the church, several attractive women walk by and one of them looks longingly at him. This lecher has many women on the line. In his office with Tosca, he brags of his lust and of his preference for violent sex. The word has almost gone from common usage, but Scarpia is a rapist. When he tries to rape Tosca he grabs her breast and then her crotch. This is the gross conduct of a rapist and McVicar does not shy from showing his action graphically.

Cinema director Gary Halvorson showed many scenes from below giving extraordinary details that the audience at Lincoln Center did (could) not have witnessed. I have criticized and almost shown contempt for many of his efforts in the past. This time I have nothing but praise for him.

Few words about some of the debacles that the production faced. Jonas Kaufman cast as Cavaradossi bailed out and was replaced by Grigolo who has never sung the role before. Kristine Opolais quit as Tosca. Hello, Sonya. Conductor Andris Nelsons dropped his baton and James Levine was sent to pasture over allegations of sexual misconduct. Welcome, Emmanuel Villaume. Baritone Bryn Terfel phoned in vocal fatigue – what are you doing tonight Željko?

Despite all of those mishaps, this proved to be a thrilling performance on the big screen in every respect from vision to detail, to singing and to a grand afternoon at the opera.
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Tosca by Giacomo Puccini was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on January 27, 2018 at the at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 17, 26, 28, March 3 and 11 2018 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Friday, January 26, 2018

THE CRUCIBLE – REVIEW OF HART HOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is the type of play that you can know by heart and yet react as if you had never seen it before when you watch the next production. You want to know what the director and the cast bring to the production but when you watch the play you get absorbed in the plot as if have no idea how it will end.

The Crucible, for those who have never seen it, is about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts that took place in the spring and summer in 1692.   A few hysterical girls’ accusations of witchcraft turned into a hunt for a satanic conspiracy to overthrow the theocracy of the little town. There is no shortage of witchcrafts but Miller was living through the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s when he wrote the play which premiered in 1953.
Melissa Taylor as Elizabeth Proctor, Jon Berrie as John Proctor. 
Photo: Scott Gorman
The current production at Hart House Theatre directed by Michael Rubinstein has a fine cast and an imaginative and highly effective take on the play. Rubinstein and his production team set the play in a dark and forbidding milieu at the edge of civilization. Trees are visible and we know that there and beyond lie more darkness, the unknown and the ominous.

The production opens in the forest with some children dancing furtively and aware that what they are doing is, at the very least, not permitted. The scene is not in the play but an addition by Rubinstein.

The forest or the edge of civilization is always visible. The scenes in the homes of Reverend Parris, John Proctor, the Salem meeting house and the cell in Salem jail are only indicated. Some of the characters are usually visible in the background, in the darkness of the forest. The play takes place in specific places but also everywhere in the hysterical minds of most people who see Satan everywhere and want to eradicate him.

John Proctor (John Berrie) is the tragic figure of the play. He is a struggling farmer married to Elizabeth (Melissa Taylor). She is described as cold and sniveling and her husband committed the crime of lechery with their servant Abigail Williams (Courtney Lamanna). John and Elizabeth grow during the play from a bickering couple into people who see the evil around them, accept their fate and do not lose their humanity. Excellent performances by Berrie and Taylor.

Reverend Parris is a small minded, paranoid, hell-and-brimstone preacher. He thinks there is a conspiracy to have him thrown out and he is in constant desperation. Anthony Botelho plays the Reverend well as he fidgets, interrupts people and shows us that Parris is a small and evil man who does not have a single Christian virtue and possesses all the vices of fanaticism and superstition.
 
Thomas Gough, Nicholas Koy Santillo and David John Phillips. Photo: Scott Gorman
The truly evil person is Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth (David John Phillips). He has a perfect vision of Satan who is a precise operator so skillful that he can possess the soul of people and control them completely. He must be pursued and expunged mercilessly and hanging people engaged in witchcraft, i.e. possessed by Satan, is a sacred duty. Phillips displays all the self-confidence and arrogance of a man with power but without humanity in a frightful portrayal of the man of God in pursuit of God’s enemies.

The decent people of the town who are caught and destroyed in the maelstrom of hysteria are portrayed well by Thomas Gough as Giles Cory (his wife reads books). Tom Anthony Quinn as Francis Nurse and Marilyn Willock as Rebecca Nurse. They place weights on your chest to force a confession. If you confess to being a witch, you lose your property. If you die without confessing, your children inherit your land. And there is the town’s version of Donald Trump in Thomas Putnam (Tomas Ketchum) who is ready to grab whatever acreage is or is not available.

I find the fate of Reverend John Hale almost as tragic as that of Proctor. He is a man of his time, of course, and believes that witchcraft and Satan are real and must be pursued and obliterated vigorously. He soon realizes that the hysteria of the girls is a fraud and the enthusiasm of the persecutors unfounded. He tries desperately to save people’s lives but he can do nothing about it. Nicholas Koy Santillo gives us the transformation and desperate attempts of Hale to bring humanity and reason to Salem in a fine performance.   

I was transfixed by the production and waited until the final scene of the performance as if I had never seen the play before.
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The Crucible by Arthur Miller continues until February 3, 2018 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ont.  www.tickets.harthouse.ca 416 978-8849

Thursday, January 25, 2018

LEAR - REVIEW OF SUPERB PRODUCTION BY GROUNDLING THEATRE COMPANY

Reviewed by James Karas

The Groundling Theatre Company has staged a nuanced, moving and superb production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The title role is played by a woman (Seana McKenna) and thus the play is called simply Lear.

Director Graham Abbey has found in Seana McKenna one of Canada’s best actors to play Queen Lear. She delivers a powerful performance, with meticulous inflection, intonation and dramatic depth. When she curses her daughter Goneril by invoking the goddess to: “into her womb convey sterility. / Dry up in her the organs of increase” and finishes with the curse that one day “she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” I found the words more terrifying because they are by a mother to her child.  Lear’s descent into madness is developed with painstaking detail and McKenna emerges as an outstanding and memorable Lear.
Colin Mochrie, Diana Donnelly and Seana McKenna. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Colin Mochrie, the Fool, has a broad face that looks comical as befits a jester but he can also turn serious when he delivers acute barbs at Lear. A refreshingly comical-serious Fool. A blonde Deborah Hay and a red-haired Diana Donnelly make a well-matched pair of evil doers as Goneril and Regan. Their greed, ambition and egocentrism stand out and they are indeed thankless and merciless children.

Cordelia (Mercedes Morris) comes out as somewhat bland compared to her brutal sisters but I suppose there is not much one can do with quiet virtue.

Jim Mezon gives a notable performance as the Earl of Gloucester. He is decent, generous and loyal but easily deceived and not very bright. The latter qualities bring (about) his downfall and in the end he becomes a tragic character that almost parallels Lear’s life.    

Alex McCooeye, tall, and lanky, plays the snake-like, treacherous bastard Edmund while Antoine Yared plays the virtuous Edgar. Abbey eschews flourishes and soliloquies like Edmund’s “Thou, Nature, art my goddess” are delivered in a relatively low key.

The play is done in the intimacy of the Harbourfront Centre Theatre on a small acting area flanked by the audience on each side. The set by Peter Hartwell consists of a raised area with a desk that has a number of moveable planks that can be used to create a flat playing area or tossed around to emphasize dramatic moments. The intimacy of the theatre and the pace set by Abbey work extremely well in accentuating every move and every line of the play. Meticulous attention pays off.
 
Mercedes Morris, Colin Mochrie and Seana McKenna. Photo: Michael Cooper
The playing area, as I said, consists of a raised platform and this created a small problem in the final scene when Lear carries in Cordelia in his arms. It is the famous “Howl, howl, howl!” scene. McKenna could not possibly lift Morris and quite rightly drags her in on a sheet. The problem arises when she has to lift Cordelia’s body a few inches from the floor onto the playing area. Lear is almost chanting the heart piercing cry “Howl,” a highly dramatic moment, while trying hard to roll Cordelia’s onto the playing area. A few awkward moments that beg for a solution.

The costumes by Peter Hartwell were 19th century or thereabouts tails and cravats or black uniforms of uncertain description.

In all, however, this is a superb production of a very difficult play and it provides a great night at the theatre.
____________

Lear  by William Shakespeare in a production by Groundling Theatre Company continues until January 28, 2018 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto. Ontario. www.groundlingtheatre.com

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A DELICATE BALANCE – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER’S DELICATE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Director Diana Leblanc takes her cue for the current production of A Delicate Balance, for Soulpepper from the title. She gives a sensitive, low-keyed and delicate handling of Edward Albee’s 1966 play which presents a number of people whose personal lives are precariously balanced and who live in a world that is affected by terror and the plague.

Indeed there are many delicate balances that the characters have to face some of which cannot be maintained and that is where the drama of the play lies.

Tobias (Oliver Dennis) and Agnes (Nancy Palk) are wealthy, live in a fine house, and belong to a club. But that is just the surface. Agnes fears becoming insane as she gets older and she has to maintain a number of delicate balances so she can keep her cool composure and self-control. She has an alcoholic sister, Claire (Brenda Robins) whom she hates, issues with her husband’s erstwhile infidelity, lack of intimacy with him after the death of a son and a crazy daughter, Julia (Laura Condlin).
 
 Oliver Dennis, Kyra Harper, Laura Condlln, Brenda Robins, Nancy Palk, and Derek Boyes 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

 As if that were not enough, their best friends Harry (Derek Boyes) and Edna (Kyra Harper) arrive to stay with them because they are simply terrified. We don’t know of what but they are eventually accused of bringing the terror or the plague to the house of Tobias and Agnes.


Tobias, a gentle man, tries to balance the obligations of friendship with his daughter’s vehement objections to Harry’s and Agnes presence not just in her parents’ house but in her bedroom. She is a mess herself having been married and separated four times (quadruple amputation, they call it) and now staying with her parents again who must balance parental obligation with a desire for a quiet life.

There are more delicate balances in their imbalanced world that seems to be on the verge but we are not completely certain on the verge of what.

Oliver Dennis plays Tobias superbly. He wants to be a good friend to Harry and Edna, a good husband, a good father to Julia and a good brother-in-law to the eccentric, erratic and frequently drunk Claire. He breaks down completely in the final scene when he tries to express his friendship with Harry and finds that there are limits to it and he tells his best friend he wants him to stay but asks him to leave.
 Laura Condlln, Oliver Dennis, Derek Boyes, Nancy Palk, and Kyra Harper 
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Boyes and Harper must walk the fine line between being frightened into leaving their home and both politely and impudently asking for shelter with Tobias. They feel entitled to it as a debt of friendship while admitting that they would not welcome Tobias and Agnes under similar circumstances. Boyes and Harper walk that line with marvelous delicacy.
Laura Condlin as Julie is a spoiled brat who chooses losers for husbands and runs to her parents when she divorces them. Condlin is appropriately histrionic in the role.  

Brenda Robins is the crazy Claire who drinks, lies on the floor and brings out an accordion to cause havoc. She is comic if you ignore her sharp tongue and her desire to kill her sister if not everyone else.

The play is done in a theatre-in-the-round style with a set by Astrid Janson. The benefit of that is that we are all close to the living room of Tobias and Agnes. The negative is that there is very little scope for set design. There is a couch and a bar (they all drink a lot) but it is impossible to indicate the wealth and posh décor that money can buy.

Leblanc insists on low tones, on maintaining the veneer of upper crust politeness and then allowing the emotional eruptions to take their effect. A brilliant approach to a difficult play     
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 A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee opened on January 18 and will play until February 10, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  416 866-8666.

Monday, January 22, 2018

RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO – REVIEW OF ROYAL COURT THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Rita, Sue and Bob Too was written by Andrea Dunbar when she was 19 and was first performed in 1982. It has now been revived at the Royal Court Theatre in London in a fine and intriguing production.

Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) are 15 year old girls who are babysitting Bob’s (James Atherton) children. On his way to taking them home, he stops his car in an out of the way place and has sex with both of them. The sex is consensual but the only conclusion to be drawn is that Bob will be arrested sooner or later and spend some serious time in prison. We wait for the event that will precipitate his arrest.

Sue and Rita continue having sex with Bob alone or together and there is no sign of the police.
 Gemma Dobson (Sue), James Atherton (Bob) and Taj Atwal (Rita) .Phoyograph: Tristram Kenton
We meet Sue’s Dad (David Walker) and Mum (Sally Banks) and they are seriously unsavory, working class people who use foul language as a matter of course. Mum may have some redeeming features, but calling them Neanderthals is not too far off the mark. You get some idea of the pleasant atmosphere in Sue’s home.

Bob is married to Michelle (Samantha Robinson) an attractive, intelligent and sympathetic woman with perhaps a lower sexual drive than Bob’s. She is suspicious about his outings and becomes certain that he is cheating on her when she finds condoms in his pants.

Where is the police?

The police never come and I will not spoil the outcome of the play by revealing the ending. The explanation for the treatment of the situation comes from the author’s personal experiences. She was raised in a situation similar to that of Rita and Sue. She became pregnant three times by different men while still a teenager, became a heavy drinker and died in 1990 at the age of 29.

There is a resolution in the play but an unexpected one.
 
Taj Atwell as Rita, Gemma Dobson as Sue and James Atherton as Bob.
Atwal and Dobson speaking in a Yorkshire accent are convincing teenagers who are looking for a way out of their ugly life. They have hopes and dreams within the limited opportunities of having sex with a much older married man. By jumping to the current atmosphere of sexual abuse of women by men in authority from Donald Trump down we are missing the point of the lives of the teenagers and the choices that they make.

Atherton as Bob rationalizes his conduct by the fact that sex with his wife is infrequent and unsatisfactory. He is fine with having sex with the teenagers provided they do not tell each other of what is going on. His rationalization is as thin and as inexcusable as that of any predator of today’s crop or those of the past.

The set by Tim Shortall consists of a few chairs which are moved around to represent the car, Sue’s home and a store where the girls and Michelle work. Simple and effective.

Kate Wasserberg directs meticulously and effectively.       

A very interesting play that combines the autobiographical and the imaginary. In 1982, when the play opened, were things that different that no one called the police or is this peculiar to the poor, working class milieu of Yorkshire. I don’t know but I admit that I kept looking for the police that never came.
__________ 

Rita, Sue and Bob Too  by Andrea Dunbar, in a production by Out of Joint, Octagon Theatre Bolton and the Royal Court Theatre runs until January 27, 2018 at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London. England. https://royalcourttheatre.com/

Saturday, January 20, 2018

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY – REVIEW OF PINTER’S PLAY IN LONDON

Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter wrote The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, in 1957 and it was staged for the first time in 1958. Thus the current revival at the London theatre named after him can properly be classified as a bow to the sixtieth anniversary of The Birthday Party.

I can’t resist the temptation to refer to the reception the play got when it was produced at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958.  The critic for The Daily Telegraph opined that The Birthday Party is “one of those plays in which an author wallows in symbols and revels in obscurity” He then tried to end his review on a happy note for Pinter: “Oh well, I can give him one word of cheer. He might have been a dramatic critic, condemned to sit through plays like this.”

 Zoe Wanamaker and Toby Jones. Photo: Johan Persson 
Harold Hobson gave the play and Pinter a resoundingly positive review in the Sunday Times and stated that “Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party....and Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”

The current production directed by Ian Rickson with a superb ensemble of actors confirms Hobson’s opinion not that any confirmation is needed.

The Birthday Party is theatre of the opaque or the absurd. Nothing is what it seems at first blush or on final consideration. Meg (Zoe Wanamaker) and her husband Petey (Peter Wight) are a conventional couple living in a boarding house in some seaside area. They have a boarder called Stanley (Toby Jones) who is unshaven, unkempt and erratic and decidedly of uncertain provenance. He says he was a former concert pianist but he could just as well be a homeless bum.

Two men come to stay in the boarding house but they are quite inexplicable. In well-tailored suits, apparently well-mannered, they accuse Stanley of betraying the organization.

There is menace lurking at every turn of the play and constant jockeying for power and dominance. The two men, Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) exert some real violence, they engage in blind man’s bluff and the pervasive feeling is that of fear, menace and uncertainty.
 Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Toby Jones. Photo: Joan Persson 
We are not sure if anything that the characters say is true or if they are recollecting facts or fantasizing about the past.
A woman called Lulu (Pearl Mackie) appears and we are never sure what her role is in relation to the characters.

Petey seems to be quite sane. He arranges the deck chairs on the beach and there is no suggestion that he is nuts. There is a birthday party of sorts but Petey does not stay for it. As for the sanity of the others, we can never be sure.

The set by Quay Brothers is the realistic eating area of a kitchen with a table, chairs and a sofa.

Rickson and the fine cast capture all the ambiguities, shifting realities and underlying menaces and fears of the play superbly.   
__________


The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter continues until April 14 2018 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, England. www.atgtickets.com.  Box office: 0844-871 7627.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

CELL MATES – REVIEW OF HAMPSTEAD THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Simon Gray was a prolific playwright who wrote a few good plays and many mediocre ones. Cell Mates was produced in 1995 directed by Gray and may have been ready for a decent run until the star, Stephen Fry, walked out after a few performances. The play had not been performed again until Hampstead Theatre picked it up last year for a production directed by Edward Hall.

It is an interesting situation based on fact. In October 1966, George Blake escaped from London’s Wormswood Scrubs Prison and flew to Moscow. He had been a double agent spying for the Soviet Union and Britain and was sentenced to 42 years in prison.

His escape was engineered by a petty criminal with some literary talent, an embittered Irishman named Sean Bourke. Bourke had help from Russian agents and he was lured to Moscow by Blake where he stayed for a number of years against his will.
 Geoffrey Streatfeild, left, as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke. Photo Marc Brenner
Blake, played by Geoffrey Streatfeild, is reserved, diffident, elegantly dressed and the image of the English gentleman. He is also a traitor who does not think much of human life. He knows of the millions that have been butchered by the Communists but he is ready to rationalize everything with the hackneyed metaphor that if you want to make an omelet you have to crack some eggs. It is all in support of the creation of “the country of the future” he tells us several times and that country of course is the Soviet Union.

Sean Bourke (Emmet Byrne) is a petty criminal who drinks too much and tries desperately to get out of Moscow but his “friend” Blake who owes his escape to him tells him that the KGB wants him to stay there.

Blake and Bourke are fascinating characters and the situation is of great interest but Gray does not quite bring it off. The two Soviet KGB men are out of a B movie. Viktor (Danny Lee Wynter) and Stan (Philip Bird) are menacing by profession but making Viktor sound like a poor imitation of Peter Lorre goes over the top into banality.

The leave-stay scenario with Bourke runs out of steam and when he starts singing “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with the housekeeper Zinaida (Cara Horgan) you know that Gray is struggling for things to say.
 
Danny-Lee-Wynter, Philip-Bird, Geoffrey-Streatfeild, and Emmet-Byrne. 
Photo-by-Marc-Brenner
Blake wants Bourke to believe that the KGB men are cold blooded killers and they will not hesitate to snuff him if he disobeys them. What is difficult to believe is that despite that type of atmosphere both men have bulky tape recorders (it’s 1966) and they are recording their thoughts and their plans. Are they completely stupid?
The set in the first scene consists of a Spartan office in the prison that Blake occupies as the prison literary magazine and in the second scene it is an ordinary flat. From then on, the men are housed in a well-furnished apartment in Moscow with a housekeeper and plenty of champagne and vodka.

I will not divulge the ending because despite its shortcomings, the play is worth seeing. Streatfeild and Byrne do a fine job and Hall deserves to be credited with doing a good job with them. The KGB men with their bad Russian accents need some fine tuning even if they look as if they are straight from Central Casting.       
_______
Cell Mates by Simon Gray continues until January 20, 2018 at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, England. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES – REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA AND ROUNDHOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Royal Opera and Roundhouse have teamed up for an intriguing production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It is done at the Roundhouse and the shape of the theatre sets the tone, indeed shapes the entire production.

As its name indicates, The Roundhouse is a theatre in the round. The stage for The Return resembles a donut with the orchestra being placed in the hole. The action takes place on the perimeter of the donut of course as the singers make use of all the available space in the circle. The opera is sung in English and surtitles are displayed above the playing area.
 
The donut for the The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse. 
The use of a circular playing area provides for considerable mobility in an opera that can be quite static. With the orchestra being in the middle, it has a close relationship with the audience and provides a more intimate feel. There are no sets or props, of course, but the immediacy of the action makes up for that.

Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro uses a conventional retelling of the return of Ulysses as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Monteverdi included personifications of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune, Love and Minerva but their appearance in this production is mercifully short while a number of other deities have been deleted.

Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was scheduled to sing Penelope but she lost her voice several days before opening night and the role was sung by Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup. Rice walked the role and Hulcup sang from the orchestra pit. The arrangement worked quite well partly because of the position of the orchestra. Hulcup appeared relaxed and she sang beautifully. She has some luscious low notes and a splendid midrange to deliver a fine Penelope if only vocally.

The cast of a dozen singers and a large chorus perform quite well but there is some unevenness in the singing. Baritone Roderick Williams sings the heroic if initially abused Ulysses who can only reveal himself in the last scenes as the powerful warrior and loving husband of Penelope.
 Ulysses and Minvera, Photo ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey
The youthful tenor Samuel Boden arrives on a bicycle built for two to sing the role of Telemachus. He has a delicate voice and made a fine son of our hero.

Mezzo Catherine Carby with a gold breastplate to inform us that she is the goddess of war Minerva exerts power – vocal and physical - and helps Telemachus. You can’t miss her.

As we all know, Penelope was besieged by a herd of suitors who wanted to replace the long-missing king. Monteverdi gives three samples of them: Tenor Nick Pritchard as Amphinomus, countertenor Tai Oney as Peisander and bass Davis Shipley as Antinous. The three baddies cover the main voice ranges and they all get their comeuppance. Monteverdi also adds Irus, a parasite, who has balloons stuffed under his clothes and looks like the Goodyear blimp. He is sung and acted well by tenor Stuart Jackson.

Ulysses has faithful servants such as the elderly and faithful Eurycleia (mezzo Susan Bickley), Eurymachus (tenor Andrew Tortise), the shepherd Eumaeus (tenor Mark Milhofer) and Melantho (soprano Francesca Chiejina). Except for the latter who plots to get one of the suiters, the rest are sympathetic figures.

The Orchestra of Early Opera Company conducted by Christian Curnym played with exemplary fluidity the music of Monteverdi. 

Director John Fulljames had his hands full trying to organize and direct movement around a moving circle. There was a certain fluidity to the movement of the singers but there were times when some entrances and exits were not clear. Still Fulljames deserves credit for doing well in a tough situation.

The costunes by Kimie Nakano were a grab-bag of clothes that seemed to belong to no era that I could recognize. The women wore mostly black skirts. The servants wore servant’s uniforms and the men struck me as wearing whatever they showed up in for the performance.

The translation by Christopher Cowell worked reasonably well with the usual limitation of trying to sing in English a libretto that was written in Italian.

In any event, this Return had mostly positive features and many unique ones that made for a very fine night at the opera.
______________
The Return of Ulysses  by Claudio Monteverdi opened on January 10 and will be performed eight times until January 20, 2018 at the at the Roundhouse, Camden London. www.roh.org.uk or www.roundhouse.org.uk

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

JULIUS CAESAR – REVIEW OF ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company has brought last summer’s productions of Shakespeare’s Roman plays from Stratford-upon-Avon to London’s Barbican Theatre.

Angus Jackson’s production of Julius Caesar is inept and disappointing for a number of reasons and one wonders why none of them were avoided.

We first see the plebeians dressed in a grab bag of costumes playing and celebrating in the streets of Rome. The Tribunes Flavius (Marcellus Walton) and Murullus (David Burnett) admonish them. They speak slowly, deliberately and distinctly which is perhaps not the tone most appropriate for upbraiding someone. But so be it.
 
Andrew Woodall as Julius Caesar (centre) 
Photo © Royal Shakespeare Company / Helen Maybanks
We soon meet Cassius (Martin Hutson) who wants to draw in Brutus (Alex Waldmann) into a murderous conspiracy. Cassius glances around furtively now and then but he does not sound conspiratorial at all. He and Brutus speak slowly and distinctly as do most of the actors. In fact they speak so slowly and distinctly with so little modulation, that they all sounded as if they are doing a read through of the script with little attention to much of anything except the words. Is this a high school production or young actors getting used to speaking Shakespearean English?

Most of the conspirators are very young. We expect Brutus to fit the description of a highly respected statesman. He is not. Waldmann walks like an awkward teenager with his body weaving from side to side. Where is his gravitas?

Cassius appears half-naked during the storm. Yes the text hints at it but surely it can be taken metaphorically instead of letting him appear like an idiot.

When all the conspirators except Brutus have stabbed Caesar, he turns towards his beloved Brutus and says one of the most famous line in Shakespeare: “Et tu, Brute.” These words are uttered, I suggest, after Brutus has stabbed Caesar. In this production, they are said before. Caesar may know that Brutus will stab him but how can he be sure that his friend will not do it?

We slog through the text as if walking through mud for about one hour and a half and get a break when Brutus is about to address the crowd following the assassination. It is a very long one and a half hours. By the way when Mark Antony asks to have a word with Brutus following the stabbing, the audience laughed.

When Cassius said that the “lofty scene” i.e. the assassination shall be acted over in many ages hence in states unborn, the audience laughed again.

The rate of speaking picks up some speed in the second half. James Corrigan does a good job as Mark Antony with “Friends, Romans, countrymen.” Kristin Atherton was an effective Calpurnia and Hannah Morrish was fine as Portia.

The set by Robert Innes Hopkins is of the monumental style with huge columns. There is nothing wrong with that type of image of imperial Rome and it may be okay for Republican Rome in its final days.

It did not hurt or help a production that was a bore.
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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare continues until January 20, 2018 at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, England. www.rsc.org.uk.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

SALOME – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S PRODUCTION AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

The Royal Opera House has revived David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome to good effect. McVicar shows originality, creativity and attention to detail that make established operas appear fresh and highly exciting.

The atmosphere of the current production done in modern dress (tuxedos, elegant gowns, khaki for the soldiers and traditional clothes for servants) ranges from a high-toned party thrown by Herod to the highly erotic and somewhat lewd atmosphere in the dungeon below where St. John the Baptist is guarded. More below.
 Michael Volle as Jokanaan, Malin Byström as Salome © ROH/Clive Barda
We get a glimpse of the posh affair situated at the top of the stage and reached by a grand staircase on our right. The dungeon has exposed cement walls and a steel cover over the cistern in which Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned. All of the action of the opera takes place in the dungeon, of course, but McVicar and Designer Ed Devlin want us to know of the decadent world of Tetrarch Herod and his cronies.

Swedish soprano Malin Byström who has made a name as a lyric soprano tackled the dramatic role of Salome with superlative results. Salome is disgusted by the leering of her stepfather Herod (John Daszak) who killed her father and is married to her mother. And she has developed a passion for the imprisoned John the Baptist. The more he rejects her, the more impassioned she becomes and expresses her unrequited love for him with ever-increasing ferocity. Byström has a plush and powerful voice and the ability to confront all these vocal and acting demands.

She gives a magnificent performance of the power of irrational love that has taken a grip over her. She agrees to dance for Herod provided he will give her whatever she wants. Here is the disappointing part of the evening. Malin Byström can’t dance. She runs across the stage, she twirls a veil and dances a few steps with Herod. Even imaginative video projections can’t hide the fact that she is not a good dancer and all we can do is settle for Strauss’s music. McVicar wants us to believe that this is a journey into Salome’s past and her troubled childhood that traumatized her. OK. Good try.
 Duncan Meadows as the Executioner and Malin Byström as Salome in Salome (ROH)© Clive Barda
Tenor John Daszak looked hormonally possessed and menacing as he tried to seduce Salome and was forced to promise “anything” to the more powerfully possessed Salome. The matronly and fine-voiced Herodias of Michaela Schuster suffered the double humiliation of being thrown over and for her daughter at that.

Powerhouse singing is required from the Baptist and Michael Volle provided the requisite vocal ammunition. Looking like a wild man, he heaps scorn on all the sinners who are not aware that the Son of God is on earth. He is especially vehement towards Salome which increases her obsession and the tension between the two. Volle dominates the stage when he is singing and makes a superb duo with Byström.

McVicar is attracted by the contrast between the coarse and the genteel. While the sophisticated party is going on above in Herod’s quarters, we see a nude woman in the dungeon who appears scantily dressed a number of times. There is an Executioner (Duncan Meadows) who looks like Atlas holding the world in his powerful hands and he is buck naked. All of which pales in comparison with the ultimate scene where Salome fulfils her sexual passion for the Baptist by kissing his severed head on the lips.

David Butt Philp sings a delicate Narraboth who is in love with Salome. Louise Armit sings the role of Herodias’s slave who is in love with Narraboth. They are small roles but McVicar makes the most of them.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to great effect with Strauss’s commanding and very difficult music.
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Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 8 and will be performed seven tomes until January 30, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk

Friday, January 12, 2018

THE FERRYMAN – REVIEW OF GREAT PRODUCTION OF BUTTERWORTH’S PLAY

Reviewed by James Karas

The Ferryman is theatre on a grand scale. English playwright Jez Butterworth manages to deal with national issues and personal histories seamlessly, brilliantly and deftly so as to produce a superb play. The play is about the execution of a man that Butterworth expands into almost all the history of the occupation of Ireland by the English and especially the Time of Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and later It is also about the history of a large family which stands for the tragedy of individuals and the story of Northern Ireland.

All of this takes place in about a day in the kitchen of the Carney family on a farm in County Armagh in Northern Ireland at the end of August, 1981. 

The play opens dramatically. The well-preserved body of a man is found in bog water. It is that of Seamus Carney who was shot in the back of the head in 1971. Two tough guys interrogate Father Horrigan and the third, Muldoon, demands that the priest tell him what Seamus’s brother reveals to the priest during confession.

Thus begins the multi-layered and complex saga of the relations between England and the IRA and the story of the large Carney family that is caught in the middle. One may well say that the story really began with the crime of the invasion of Ireland by the English many centuries ago. The Irish at first and then the Catholics of Northern Ireland demanded some rights. The English responded with suppression, intimidation, imprisonment, torture and shooting.

The IRA responded with hunger strikes, terrorism and murder. The murders are not confined to the English alone. They murder their own if they suspect them of disloyalty or treachery. Combined with religious intolerance, the situation provides a perfect definition of barbarism.

Quinn (Will Houston) and Mary (Catherine McCormack) Carney have seven children ranging in ages from a few months to sixteen years. They also have the garrulous Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert), Aunt Maggie Far Away (Maureen Beattie) who is usually very far away but does have moments of lucidity and the tough and crotchety Aunt Patricia (Dearbhila Molloy).

Caitlin Carney (Sarah Greene), the widow of Seamus and the sister-in-law of Quinn, plays a central role in the play. She has to deal with the lies about the death of her husband, her son, her relationship with Quinn and her intuitive intelligence about the whole situation.

It is the day of harvest and the Carneys and the young Corcorans are eating, laughing and preparing for the joyous harvest. At the same time the news of the discovery of Seamus’s body and the possible consequences for the family and the IRA are being revealed. The complex facts unfold slowly, dramatically, interspersed with humour, dancing and singing.   There are intricate issues of morality, of pride, of freedom, of murder and of simple lying. The murderous Muldoon (Stuart Graham), arrogant, cold-blooded, a man who is possessed by the cause he represents and would kill without mercy, appears again.   

The charade of lies is slowly discarded until the play comes to an intensely dramatic end that leaves you stunned and breathless.

There are times when most of the large cast of twenty-two actors is on stage which, except for the first scene, is the Carney’s kitchen. Director Sam Mendes has no difficulty handling the crowd. Better still his deft directing brings out all the drama, humour and tragedy of the personal and national tragedies to the fore.

The ensemble and individual acting never fall below superb. Sarah Greene and Will Houston are outstanding in their portrayal of the people most deeply affected by the surfacing of Seamus’s body. Their relationship is a key element in the play and Greene outshines all the others.

The ferryman of the title refers to the boatman of classical mythology who transports the souls of the dead across the River Styx to Hades. The image adds to the epic proportion of the play and the grandness of the themes that it deals with. Indeed the plot unfolds like a Homeric epic and The Ferryman provides a great night at the theatre.  
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The Ferryman  by Jez Butterworth continues until May 19, 2018 (and its run may well be extended) at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave. London, England.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

HEISENBERG – REVIEW OF LONDON PRODUCTION OF STEPHENS’ PLAY

James Karas

In Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg, Georgie, an attractive woman of forty-two, is having a relationship with Alex, a man of seventy-five. She is searching for her 19-year old son and she cannot find him. She stumbles onto Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and explains to Alex that if you watch something closely you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there. It seems to apply to her search for her son and to life in general.

Stephens uses the uncertainty principle as the background, brilliantly and unobruseivly, as he constructs his play that deals with the rather unusual relationship of Georgie and Alex.
 
 Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in 'Heisenberg' © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Georgie kisses the back of Alex’s neck in a railway station in London. We do not see her kissing him but a conversation ensues that leads to their extraordinary bond. She tells him she is a waitress who was previously married and has a son. She describes trips abroad and delicious foods that lead her to farway places by their taste alone. In the following scene, she tells Alex that hse was never married, that she works as a receptionist and that she has never travelled to the exotic places that she mentioned.

Alex is a articulate, musically cultured and intelligent butcher. He is reserved and has some difficuly comprehending the behavious of this vivacious and attractive woman.

Georgie finds Alex’s butcher shop and visits him there and they go out for dinner. Their relationship progresses to the point where she suggest that they have sex. They do and the relationship is maintained but there is a sense of unreality about it and everything around them.
 
Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in 'Heisenberg' © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Heisenberg portrays a delicate and intricate bond between two people that develops accidentally  or perhaps purposefully. There is no reality because there is no certainty or uncertainty is reality and we have no way of knowing anythind different. 

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham give nuanced, finely tuned performances as they banter, connect, love and live in a world of unreality.

Director Marianne Elliott handles the complexity and delicacy of the play with precision and care. With designer Bunnie Chistie and Movement Director Steven Hoggett, she accentuates the unreality of the play by providing balletic movements between scenes and using appropriate lighting and stage effects.

The bench, the bed, the desk and the stools used in the play are all white and they are brought up from the stage floor and disappear there when there is a scene change. The lighting suggests movement as if we were is a lab.

Werner Heisenberg may have been on the verge of developing the atomic bomb for Hitler’s Germany but that is very controversial. He did get the Nobel Prize for physics.       
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 Heisenberg by Simon Stephens ran until January 6, 2018 at  Wyndham’s Theatre, London, England. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

RIGOLETTO – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S ORGY AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

Imagine Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Judge Roy Moore and a couple of dozen other sexual predators with women available to them in a milieu where they are the law unto themselves. The result would be an orgy where the men can use and abuse the women as if they were objects and discard them at will.

That describes the opening scene of Rigoletto as directed by David McVicar in a revival of his 2001 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. When the lights go on, a disheveled woman comes out holding her clothes against her body. She starts crying and we know that she has just been raped or at least sexually abused. We will soon learn that she is the daughter of the courtier Monterone in the court of the Duke of Mantua where an orgy is in progress. The predatory men chase woman, grab them sexually, simulate coitus and act in an animalistic manner that is as frightful as it is abhorrent.

The women’s breasts are exposed, one man is undressed completely and the courtiers crawl on all fours as if they are jackals. Rigoletto ridicules Monterone about his daughter’s and his humiliation. Monterone’s daughter on stage is McVicar’s invention and we will see her several times crouching on the floor and being abused by the pigs of Mantua. She is damaged goods and men can do whatever their animalism inspires and their imagination conceives.
Dimitri Platanias and cast of Rigoletto. Photo: Mark Douet
Rigoletto is about the Duke’s deformed court jester who amuses his lecherous employer by ridiculing the other courtiers. It is a bad job for a man who is hiding his beautiful daughter from the moral black hole of the court.

The production has an extraordinary cast that fulfills the vocal and emotional requirements of the opera to the hilt. Baritone Dimitri Platanias has a big voice that can express contempt and deep emotion with exceptional resonance. This Rigoletto, in addition to being hunchbacked, has crippled legs and needs two canes to hobble around the stage. He expresses his scorn and ridicule of the courtiers, his deep love of his daughter Gilda, his terror at being cursed and his hatred (a major gamut of emotions) with astonishing finesse and range.

Soprano Lucy Crowe as Gilda is the picture of beauty, innocence, indeed purity, with her blonde hair and simple but attractive white dress. No wonder the Duke says he is in love with her. Crowe matches those physical attributes with a clarion voice of splendor and luster.

Tenor Michael Fabiano as the Duke and chief predator is completely amoral and feels entitled to do whatever he wants with whoever he wants. Fabiano’s vocal power and strutting leave no doubt about the Duke’s abusive abilities. He has a strong voice that he commands like a fine-tuned instrument. A delight to the ears.
 Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile and Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto © Mark Douet
Bass Andrea Mastroni has a deep, sonorous voice quite becoming to a principled assassin who provides a public service. Well, sort of, but if you must hire one, go to him as Sparaficile but make sure his sister, the slutty Maddalena (well dome by Nadia Krasteva) is on holiday in Bulgaria.

The set by Michael Vale is in keeping with McVicar’s raunchy interpretation. The ducal palace looks more like a large steel shed. There is not a single indication of elegance or wealth let alone civilization. Sparafucile’s place of business is understandably grungy and his street office is logically in the down-market part of town.    

I should note that the revival director is Justin Way. Stats-crazy operaphiles, may want to know that McVicar’s 2001 production has been revived seven times. The most recent revival before the current one was in 2014.      

Alexander Joel led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a vigorous performance of the score in a richly thought out, nuanced and superb production of Verdi’s chestnut.

And if you don’t see this production, you will have to settle for lurid stories about American politicians, business executives and stars without the benefit of music, singing and a great night at the opera.
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Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave continues with some cast changes until January 16, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk

Sunday, January 7, 2018

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS – REVIEW OF PLAYHOUSE THEATRE, LONDON, PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Have you ever met a man of good character where real estate agents are concerned?

That is the question (but concerning women) that Professor Higgins poses to Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady to which his own reply is “no.”

Anyone watching David Mamet’s 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross about real estate salesmen would consider that reply almost complimentary to the cutthroats and jackals that we see on stage.
 Christian Slater (RIcky Roma) & Kris Marshall (John Williamson) - 
Glengarry Glen Ross at The Playhouse (c) Marc Brenner
The salesmen are desperate men on the brink of emotional and financial collapse. It seems that they have no choice but to engage in any conduct however immoral, despicable, even criminal to make the next sale. They do not have souls or any ethical standards to sell or breach. They want a sale at any cost as a means of simple survival.

Shelley Levene (Stanley Townsend) confronts, begs, threatens, cajoles and bribes the office manager John (Kris Marshall) for “leads,” potential buyers or suckers that can be made to sign a contract. He is foul-mouthed and so desperate that there is no level that he will not sink to. 

We see salesman Ricky Roma (Christian Slater) in action as he sits near a man in a bar and through mealy-mouthed philosophizing wheedles himself into James Lingk’s (Daniel Ryan) confidence and like a beast of prey goes for the jugular. He makes the man sign to buy land in Florida.

Dave Moss (Robert Glenister) is even bolder in his desperation. He is prepared to steal all his employer’s leads and sell them to his competitor. He dupes George (Don Warrington), a hapless patsy, into doing the actual theft while he goes to the movies and has a perfect alibi. Almost.

Marshall as the office manager initially appears as fair divider of the leads but is quickly revealed as corrupt, pitiless and ruthless to the bone.

Warrington gives a fine performance as George who may be a decent salesman but he is not too bright and is quickly hoodwinked into a criminal conspiracy and theft.    
 
Oliver Ryan (Baylen) & Christian Slater (Ricky Roma) - (c) Marc Brenner 
Sam Yates directs a powerful production that brings out the terror and desperation of the salesmen that leads them to act despicably.

Glenister, Slater and Townsend as the jackals are highly effective but I think they fall just a bit short of the animal brutality that Mamet demands. They bruise when they should bludgeon and the play demands a certain type of actor that has the animal instinct to do that. But that is a small complaint. You will be blown over by the production.

The play was written during the heyday of the Ronald Reagan era. Much has changed since then but with Donald Trump as president everything seems the same. The difference may by that Mamet’s salesmen were not vicious and inhuman enough. If only they could have taken a few lessons from Trump, they may have ended up as billionaires and presidents.

By the way, have you met a man of good character where real estate agents are concerned?
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Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet continues until February 3, 2018 at  Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Ave. London, England.