Thursday, May 31, 2018

FROZEN – REVIEW OF SEVEN SIBLINGS THEATRE PRODUCTION


 By James Karas

Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, now playing at Artscape Wychwood Barns, consists of about thirty brief scenes performed by three actors. There is a dramatic plotline that emerges slowly and builds up to a climactic scene. Most of the scenes are monologues with the actors addressing the audience directly and a handful of scenes involve two characters but never all three together.

Director Will Kings tells us in a program note that he was drawn to the as a piece for actors and he is right. We see Nancy McAlear, Madryn McCabe and Scott McCulloch being put through a series of tough and talent-testing scenes that may serve as great acting school exercises where the student is asked to act out difficult emotional states. 
 
Madryn McCabe and Scott McCulloch in Frozen 
Madryn McCabe plays Agnetha, a psychiatrist who is doing research on serial killers and the idea of forgiveness. She has issues of her own including fear of flying and problems with her fellow researcher. We see McCabe/Agnetha as a lecturer before fellow professionals, as a psychiatrist trying to understand the mind of the psychopath Ralph (McCulloch), dealing with Nancy (McAlear), the mother of one of his victims and her own problems. With some exceptions, she is facing the audience and alone and goes through a series of emotional turmoils that she must rise to in a matter of seconds. There is very little time for emotional build-up and she must rise to the demands of the scene in a leap.

This applies to all three actors. Nancy’s daughter has disappeared at age ten. She holds on to a dream that one day her girl will knock on the door and say she is back.

She slowly learns that it is not likely to happen and finally must accept the fact that her daughter was brutally sexually molested and murdered by a serial killer. The range and depth of emotions that McAlear must express, including the idea of forgiveness and meeting with the murderer, is staggering and she rises to them.

Ralph has a very expensive collection of pornographic material with an emphasis on little girls. He regrets that killing young girls is illegal. He is a liar and goes through a series of emotional outbursts screeching his anger, breaking down occasionally and in the end showing perhaps a shred of humanity or maybe not even that. I will not spoil the ending for you.
 Scott McCulloch 
The play takes place in England but Agnetha is American and therefore speaks with an American accent. Ralph speaks in an English accent, and it is thick cockney. Nancy, my guess is, speaks with a Yorkshire accent.

The play is done in a small room in Artscape Wychwood Barns before an audience of about a dozen people. The only props were four white boxes which were stacked in different configurations by the actors.

Lavery, who is now 70, has written some 25 plays and Frozen is probably her best and certainly her best known work.
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Frozen  by Bryony Lavery produced by Seven Siblings Theatre opened on May 25 and will run until June 3, 2018 at Artscape Wychwood Barns, 601 Christie St. Toronto, Ontario. www.sevensiblingstheatre.ca/

Monday, May 28, 2018

OF MARRIAGE AND MEN – REVIEW OF DELIGHTFUL DOUBLE BILL AT SHAW FESTIVAL

James Karas

The Shaw Festival has found a highly pleasant pair of one-act plays by Bernard Shaw and given them a delightful production. The plays are The Man of Destiny and How He Lied to Her Husband. The first is the more substantial play but not enough to fill an evening at the theatre. Shaw wrote How He Lied in 1905 while on holiday in Scotland during four days of continuous rain.

The title given to the comedy double-bill is ironic because in both plays an intelligent, strong woman dominates men and both plays are concerned with the honour of a woman.   
Krystal Kiran and Shawn Ahmed in How He Lied to Her Husband. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Henry (Shawn Ahmed), dressed in tails, arrives at the well-appointed drawing room of Aurora. He is a handsome eighteen year old poet who is full of so much passion and ardour that it simply overflows. The object of his passion is the mature and beautiful Aurora (Kristal Kiran). He wants to take her to the theatre and then to his place. But there is a problem.

Aurora is married to Teddy (David Adams) but that is not the problem. Teddy has found the poems that Henry has written to Aurora and that is the problem. Henry says he didn’t. Teddy says he did. Tempers flares, violence is imminent. A lady’s honour is at stake. OK. Change tactics. Yes he did write the letters. Disbelief, distress, tempers boil over. During all of this Aurora, the intelligent, strong woman looks at the two men with an insouciant smile and serene demeanor.

We watch with pleasure the fine performances by Adams, Ahmed and Kiran under the fine directorial hand of Philip Akin on the beautiful set by Steve Lucas. How He Lied to Her Husband is like a Greek loukoumada, crusty dough filled with heavenly honey. Just delightful.

The Man of Destiny is about the youthful Napoleon who in 1796 is in an inn in Italy. A hapless Lieutenant (Andrew Laurie) arrives supposedly bringing dispatches only to blubber out that the dispatches and his horse have been swindled from him by a charming young man. He is really angry.

A Strange Lady (Fiona Byrne) arrives and the Lieutenant says she took the dispatches. Well, after a few turns in circles, it turns out that the Strange Lady was impersonating a Man when she hoodwinked the Lieutenant.

Napoleon (Kelly Wong) knows that he has met a woman of strong character and high intelligence and it takes some effort to get the dispatches. But the Lady is not interested in the dispatches. She wants to save the honour of a lady and that is none other than Josephine, the wife of Napoleon. There is a dispatch suggesting that Josephine has been unfaithful.

Andrew Lawrie, Martin Happer, Kelly Wong and Fiona Byrne in The Man of Destiny. 
Photo by Emily Cooper.
The entertainment comes from the poor lieutenant who is quite amusing in the hands of Lawrie and Martin Happer as the inn owner Giuseppe who sports a heavy Italian accent is quite funny. Wong is a strong Napoleon who is no fool but he knows a scandal is better avoided that provoked.

Fiona Byrne gives the best performance as the Strange Lady who combines mental dexterity and female wiles to keep the men, even Napoleon at bay and get her way.

Once again Philip Akin deserves kudos for his directing of a fine cast and achieving commendable results.

The set designed by Steve Lucas and representing the inn is bright and pleasant. 

Shaw could not resist descending into verbosity but in this one-acter it is limited and we enjoy seeing two marvelous productions of rarely seen plays.
___________
Of Marriage and Men by Bernard Shaw had its media premiere on May 23 and will continue in repertory until October 2, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

GRAND HOTEL – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

 James Karas

The Shaw Festival’s big musical for this season is Grand Hotel. It is indeed a grand musical that places enormous demands on the financial resources and the talent pool of any company. The Shaw Festival has a considerable amount of both and they were used to good effect in this production but there were a few gaps.

Grand Hotel (based on Vicki Baum’s novel) is set in Berlin in 1928, perhaps a pivotal year in European history. The hotel is the most expensive one in Europe and as such the crossroads of the wealthy and famous.  Most of the action takes place in the lobby and Set Designer Judith Bowden has provided large columns, rich lighting, a not so grand staircase and an even less grand staircase on wheels that does give the impression of wealth and perhaps decadence.
 
 Vanessa Sears as Frieda Flamm (Flaemmchen) with the cast of Grand Hotel. 
Photo by David Cooper.

 The musical has a number of plot strands involving the lives of the hotel’s guests. Most of them live on the edge of the precipice. Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Deborah Hay) is a famous Russian ballerina well past her prime and on yet another final tour. She tripped and fell during her last performance. She is in a desperate state while trying to maintain her pride and dignity. She reminded me of the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Hay did convincing work as the pathetic ballerina despite an unsteady Russian accent.

Like Norma Desmond, Grushinskaya has an assistant called Raffaela (Patty Jamieson) who must encourage, cajole and pretend that the ballerina can still perform in order to keep their financial needs covered. Jamieson does it all with charm and conviction against major odds such as reality.

Baron von Gaigen (James Daly) is tall, slender, blonde, charming and handsome but broke to the point of being pursued by an enforcer who demands payment of his “boss’s” debt. All his marvelous attributes do not bring money and the poor Baron resorts to theft. He has a stroke of good luck when the ballerina falls in love with him but there is no happy ending for him.

The bookkeeper Otto Kringelein is a decent man and a Jew who wants to live well for a brief while before his imminent death. He is socially awkward and exposed to anti-Semitism. Michael Therriault gives a superb performance in the role.        
James Daly as Baron von Gaigern and Michael Therriault as Otto Kringelein 
with the cast of Grand Hotel, The Musical. Photo by David Cooper
Hermann Preysing (Jay Turvey) is the general manager of a company that is losing money and he is forced to lie to the shareholders. He descends into further immorality by trying to get Frieda Flamm (Vanessa Sears), a would-be actress, to go with him to the States as his mistress. The current climate about sexual abuse of women by powerful men made the scenes between Preysing and Sears even more poignant.

The musical covers several social strata from the front desk employees of the hotel, to the telephone operators to the scullery workers.

The musical opens and closes with the Colonel-Doctor (Steven Sutcliffe), a man wounded physically and psychologically during World War I. He injects morphine into his arm and acts as a chorus throughout the play. All the action takes place in his shadow and we are never allowed to forget what preceded the high life of the 1920’s nor what lies ahead. With marvelous voice and presence, Sutcliffe gave a bravura performance.

The large cast needs singers, dancers and actors that perform routines that require considerable prowess. The dancers who perform various numbers are quite superb especially Matt Nethersole and Kiera Sangster as the Jimmys, a song and dance team. Parker Esse’s choreography is outstanding.

The singing is a mixed bag of voices that have a considerable variation in quality. That was one of the major gaps of the production.

Eda Holmes deserves kudos for directing a complex musical with good results despite some issues.

Berlin in 1928 and the world are the survivors of a catastrophic war that is followed by an era of laissez-faire, easy money and apparent enjoyment of life. But that world is coming to an end and the crash of the stock market and consequent misery are around the corner. The musical is set on the cusp of that era, albeit with the benefit of looking back. Despite all that, the musical does end on at least one positive note: the happy birth of a child.      
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Grand Hotel by Luther Davis with music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest based on the novel by Vicki Baum had its media premiere on May 23 and will play in repertory until October 14, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

LUISA MILLER – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

James Karas
   
Carlo loves Luisa. There can be no doubt about that: they are head over heels or in whatever acrobatic position you fancy, besotted with each other. Her father has some reservations which grow into terror when he is informed that Carlo is a fraud and a seducer and is in fact Rodolfo the son of Count Walter. The Count is violently opposed to his son having anything to do with a commoner like Luisa, the daughter of a miller, especially since he has promised Rodolfo’s hand in marriage to the wealthy Duchess Federica.
 

 Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa and Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo. Photo: Chris Lee / Met Opera

Now Federica has a lot of virtues like royal provenance and wealth, and she and Rodolfo grew up together. On the downside she does have reduced resistance to the law of gravity, she is a mezzo (and we know the soprano gets the guy) and Rodolfo would rather eat dirt than marry her.

Tyrol, we have a problem.

Call Verdi. Call Salvatore Cammarano for a libretto. This calls for an opera to resolve all these problems. And the result is Verdi’s 15th opera, Luisa Miller, which was first seen in 1849. It is no longer completely ignored but it is infrequently performed and underrated. It is a marvelous opera and deserves more frequent productions.

The Met has revived Elijah Moshinsky’s production, first seen in 2001, with a first-rate cast and the result is an astonishingly impressive and enjoyable afternoon at the opera. Luisa Miller makes punishing demands on the lead soprano and tenor. In soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa and tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, the Met has vocal power and beauty to spare.

Yoncheva exudes youth and innocence as she expresses passion, disappointment, grief, fear and courage as she goes through the phases of Luisa’s life. She sings with tonal beauty and gives us a superb Luisa. Matching her is Beczala who is also passionate, heroic and human. His vocal prowess and range are never in doubt and always on display.    

Placido Domingo sings the role of Miller, Luisa’s compassionate father, a baritone role. He has sung Rodolfo many times and there is a DVD of him in that role that was recorded in 1979. The Deity that is protecting him and especially his vocal chords has clearly done an outstanding job. There can be no rational explanation for someone singing as well as Domingo does at age 77.

Mezzo soprano Olesya Petrova has a rich, luscious voice and sings the role of the rejected Federica. She has been in love, we are told with Rodolfo all her life, and she loses her last chance to the peasant girl Luisa. No wonder she is angry and unforgiving. An excellent performance.

Bass Alexander Vinogradov is Walter, the father of Rodolfo and together with Wurm (Dmitry Belosselskiy), the heavy of the opera. When his son threatens to marry Luisa, Walter orders that Luisa and her father be arrested. But Rodolfo has a secret weapon that he pulls out and stops Walter in his tracks.
 Plácido Domingo as Miller, Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, and Piotr Beczała as 
Rodolfo. Photo: Chris Lee / Met Opera
In Wurm, Walter has a fixer who takes care of things for him. I thought of him as a progenitor of Michael Cohen. Perhaps I am being unfair. Wurm was promised the beautiful Luisa and all Cohen got was money. We get a fine performance in the role by Belosselskiy.

Moshinsky’s and Set Designer Santo Loquasto’s production is opera on a grand scale. From the opening scene of a 19th century village in Tyrol (they tell us it is in England but no great matter) to the grandeur and opulence of Walter’s castle, we see production values to leave us impressed. We see the change of sets in the live broadcast and they require organization, manpower, budget and engineering that no more than a handful of opera houses can even imagine.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus were conducted by Bertrand de Billy in a production that may claim to be one of the best you are likely to see this season.

And, oh yes, there is good news. Rodolfo and Luisa enjoy a last drink and they live happily ever after. But, where?

You will just have to see the opera to find out.
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Luisa Miller by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Salvatore Cammarano was shown Live in HD at select Cineplex theatres across Canada and can be seen again on May 21, 23, 27 and June 16, 2018. For more information go to: www.cineplex.com/events

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

AFTER THE BLACKOUT – REVIEW OF RARE THEATRE COMPANY’S PRODUCTION OF JUDITH THOMPSON’S PLAY



After the Blackout is a startling play written and directed by Judith Thompson. Each of the six characters in it is suffering from one of the following: brain-damage, drug addiction, leg amputation, deafness (2 of them), hands and arms amputation and blindness. But the actors are not representing people with these conditions. The actors have exactly the same or at least similar disabilities as the characters that they play.

Six people from disparate backgrounds find themselves in a cottage in northern Ontario. The star-lit sky looks unbelievably beautiful and we discover the stories of these six. Roxy (Mary Beth Rubens) was a successful actor, a star in fact, until she suffered a serious brain injury that disabled her for life. In the first scene she meets a young man whom she met on line. He is young enough to be her son and she cannot understand what he is after.

 After the Blackout Ensemble. Photo by Elias Campbell.

We soon find that the youth is Dash (Yousef Kadoura) whom she gave up for adoption. His lower leg has been amputated and we see him with and without his prosthesis. He is searching for his mother to find out why she gave him up for adoption. He finds her and the reason she gave him up is not very pleasant.

Zola (Tamyka Bullen) is deaf and can only communicate in sign language. Her friend Beatrix (Catherine Joell MacKinnon) is also deaf but she has learned to read lips and Zola considers her a traitor.Khari (Prince Amponsah) has had his hands and arms amputated. He is a wise man and a professor of writing. His wife Jamie (Melanie Lepp) is blind from juvenile diabetes.

I give all these details because I feel it is important to know under what conditions these actors are performing. Neither the actors nor the characters consider themselves disabled in the conventional sense. All of them are intelligent and accomplished with the possible exception of Dash who spends time in jail for breaking and entering and sexual assault. But he too is a poet. All of them have problems “after the blackout” that brought their current condition but all of them surpass them. Maybe. Maybe not. See the play.
 
Melanie Lepp. Photo by Elias Campbell.
The play is episodic as the characters are allowed to tell their story. There is unevenness in the writing. Near the end Thompson goes off the rails when she starts preaching about racism. The end is overwritten and takes too long to wrap up and unravel the possible conclusions to the stories.

There is unevenness in the acting as well. Some of the actors have scant acting experience and the plot does creak a bit. But their stories are so gripping that you overlook all such details as you see the drama of adversity, conflict and triumph unfold. This is by no means a rah-rah play about people with disabilities making it. It is not Paralympics but a play about real people with real disabilities who are playing people with real disabilities.

The set design by Sue Lepage in the small Tank House Theatre features scenes of cottage country with a tree line of evergreens, a star-lit sky and scenes at a cottage and elsewhere with a minimum of props.

The play needs some dramaturgy but the performance and the view of the actors will stay with you for a long time. This is extraordinary theatre. Go see it.
         _________

After the Blackout by Judith Thompson in a production by Rare Theatre Company continues until May 26, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca,   www.raretheatre.org/

Friday, May 18, 2018

STAGE KISS - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl is a romantic comedy that combines farce with the old device of asking the question of what is reality and illusion. Some of the farcical scenes are very funny, there is some unnecessary overacting but it is decent light entertainment. It is the season’s second media premiere at the Shaw Festival.

A sexually magnetic Fiona Byrne plays She, an actress who has done very little work for the past decade. She was in love with He (Martin Happer), a down and out actor who is struggling to survive. She has a Husband (Sanjay Talwar) who is good at math and can figure out how many times his wife and He kissed during a four-week run of the play they are doing.  
 
Fiona Byrne as She and Martin Happer as He in Stage Kiss. Photo by Emily Cooper
He and She (there is no doubt a reason why Ruhl does not give them names, but it escapes me) are cast in a play directed by Neil Barclay (again no name, just Director) and they meet during rehearsals.

The play that they are rehearsing under the hapless direction of the Director is a mirror image of the real life of the characters except that the characters in the play are rich and successful. The old passion between He and She is re-ignited in both situations, the husband is compliant and the show goes on.

As you may suspect there is a lot of kissing on stage and off between He and She. When He fails to show up for rehearsal, his place is taken by Kevin, the understudy played by Jeff Meadows. Kevin has to kiss Ada, She’s part in the play, but he has a problem kissing women. He is not straight, he tells us. The real director of Stage Kiss, Anita Rochon, has him approach the lips of Ada (the character She is playing) with his mouth wide open several times as if he about to eat her. That may be funny the first time but it does not bear repeating. A director no matter how inept (I am referring to Barclay’s part) or an experienced director like Rochon) would have told him to close his mouth and grimace after the labial contact or do some other funny business.
 
Fiona Byrne and Jeff Meadows in Stage Kiss. Photo: Emily Cooper 
There are some very funny scenes involving back-stage flaps but once you get the main outline of the two parallel plots, there is not much left to say. The issue of what is illusion (acting) and what is reality (the real lives of the characters) is interesting but not exactly compelling.

Byrne is superb in a fast-paced comedy and she leads the pace of the play. Happer is a passionate lover who is caught up in some funny situations and does a fine job. Barclay is an incompetent director who gets laughs for being a failure. Talwar is the cuckolded husband who acts nobly in the play-within-a-play. His wife has a degenerative disease and has only thirty days to live. There is some surprisinng information about that but I won’t spoil it for you.

Sarena Parmar and Rong Fu play several minor roles each with mixed results.

The sets by Gillian Gallow consist of an empty theatre, an actual set for the performance of a play and He’s messy apartment. They are fine.

Stage Kiss should fill the spot for the light comedy of the season.  
___________

Stage Kiss  by Sarah Ruhl had its media premiere on May 9 and will have its opening on May 25, 2018 and will run  in repertory until September 1, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


James Karas

The Shaw Festival had its “media premiere” with The Magician’s Nephew, an adaptation for the stage by Michael O’Brien of C. S. Lewis’s novel for children. It is an interesting attempt to bring a book about dreams, magic and a journey to other worlds to the limited ambit of the stage and the production can only be described as a limited success.

The Magician’s Nephew, chronologically is the first part of The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven fantasy novels for children that were published between 1950 and 1956. The Magician’s Nephew was the sixth novel in order of publication and deals with the creation of the magical world of Narnia.
 
Kyle Blair as Aslan with the cast of The Magician’s Nephew. Photo by David Cooper
Judging by the uniform of the soldier, I thought the play takes place around the First World War. The program informs us that we are in London at the turn of the twentieth century. It takes place in a magical world in any event. We first meet the Dream Detective who detects dreams, of course. We then meet Digory (Travis Seetoo) and Polly (Vanessa Sears). They are wide-eyed youngsters who go to an abandoned house on their street and meet Uncle Andrew (Steven Sutcliffe), the magician. Digory wants to find a cure for his sick mother and the two of them set out on a journey that leads them to the magical world of Narnia.

The play has a large number of animals starting with the soldier Aslan (Kyle Blair) donning the mask of a lion. The members of the ensemble have white papier-mâché masks on their head that do not interfere with their speaking voices.

There is generous use of projection to create the world of magic. The basic physical ingredient of the staging is cardboard boxes which the cast put in various configurations. The projection of various colours cover the back of the stage and the sides thus create panoramic views. It is quite effective.  

The cast spoke with an English accent which was mostly passable and we should just let it go at that. Sears and Seetoo maintained a good energy level and gave us the wide-eyed enthusiasm that is appropriate for the roles.
 
Vanessa Searsy, Travis Seetoo, Steven Sutcliffe, Deborah Hay and Michael Therriault. Photo by Emily Cooper
Digory and Polly travel through the magical world and they find Jadis, the Empress of Cham who killed all the people of her empire. She is the evil White Witch played by Deborah Hay.  Kyle Blair as the Lion is the creator of the world of Narnia. 

Director Tim Carroll, Lighting Designer Kevin Lamotte and Projection Designer Cameron Davis attempt to create and capture a world beyond reality, with a flying animal, talking lions and horses, a White Witch and others. When one reads a book of fantasy one is driven by the author’s prose to create images that suit his or her imagination. In this production, we are denied much of the prose and driven by the imagination of the artistic team.

It worked reasonably well and but failed to capture my imagination. The theatre had some 350 pupils from about half a dozen schools. They were a rambunctious bunch before and as they were entering the auditorium but fell silent through most of the performance. There were moments when they appeared engaged but it was the exception rather than the rule.

The Magician’s Nephew is a children’s show without diminishing its attraction for adults. I found it a bit odd that Carroll would use it for the opening of the Festival. The matinee performance was billed a “media premiere” and the opening will be on May, 25. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Two openings? Really?
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The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien and directed by Tim Carroll had its media premiere on May 9th and will run in repertory until October 13, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF WILSON’S PLAY



August Wilson wrote some powerful and perceptive plays about the condition of blacks in America. When he turned the spotlight on them, it became like a scalpel that dissected the inner being of people who were monstrously mistreated for centuries in what surely amounts one of the greatest crimes against humanity.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in a recording studio in Chicago in the 1920’s and tells the story of blues singer Ma Rainey and the band that accompanies her when  she sings. The four musicians tell most of the story but the powerful and temperamental Ma Rainey dominates the scene when she is on stage.
 
Alana Bridgewater. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Soulpepper’s production, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, has an outstanding cast that deliver riveting performances and provide an unforgettable night at the theatre.

Canadian Alana Bridgewater plays Ma Rainey, the temperamental, domineering blues singer who knows only one way – her own. She travels with her lesbian lover Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and no one can gainsay her. That is the performance that Bridgewater gives. Her voice is not as powerful as her acting but she makes an impressive character nevertheless.

Wilson draws the four band members with distinctive brushes and they represent what it meant to be black in America in the 1920’s. There are only two whites in the play who are not overtly racist but they consider blacks as sources of money and do not socialize with them at all.

The trumpet player Levee who is a composer as well and wants to start his own band gives most vocal expression to their plight. Lovell Adams-Gray gives a stellar performance as a young musician who is angry with the world and angry with himself. He rages against people and against God until the final dramatic scene of the play. If you have seen the play before, you don’t need to be told. If you have not, I will not spoil it for you.

Cutler plays the trombone and is the leader of the band. He tries to maintain peace among the musicians and he is a man who knows that Ma Rainey is the boss. Lindsay Owen Pierre gives us a decent and sympathetic man who just wants to get the job done.

Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) is bass player and a professional musician. He got his name by dancing slowly with a woman for hours in order to win some money in a contest. Again a sympathetic portrayal.    
 
 Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Alex Poch-Goldin, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards, and 
Alana Bridgewater. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Toledo (Beau Dixon) is the piano player and intellectual of the band. He speaks knowledgably and eloquently about the plight of black Americans. A fine performance by Dixon.

Sturdyvant and Irvin are the only whites in the play. They are not overtly racist but they are fundamentally racist. Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) owns the recording studio and his sole interest is making money. He looks at Ma Rainey and the band players simply as tools for making money. If they are people as well, that is just a fact that he need not concern himself about. 

Alex Poch-Goldin as Ma Rainey’s agent is an oily figure who is forced to please people, including the blacks, because he can make money. His relationship with blacks never moves beyond strictly business.

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu directs superbly. We get a glimpse of a recording session in Chicago a long time ago. But we also get a picture of American racism and gross injustice that has been around for centuries with few signs of fundamental change on the horizon.

A riveting night at the theatre.  
         _________

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  by August Wilson opened on May 10 and will run until June 2, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

ANNA BOLENA – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION


James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Anna Bolena provides an opportunity to see and hear a magnificent soprano at the height of her powers singing a great role. The soprano is Sondra Radvanovsky and she sings the title role of Donizetti’s bel canto wonder directed by Stephen Lawless.

Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn) is the hapless wife of King Henry VIII who has reached her best before date in her husband’s eye and he wants to discard her. He has already found a replacement in Jane Seymour who happens to be Anna’s lady-in-waiting and he has recalled to court Lord Percy, Anna’s former betrothed, in the hopes that his return will ignite their former relationship and give grounds for the disposal of Anna. 

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena. Photo: Michael Cooper
Radvanovsky gave a dramatic, passionate and vocally dazzling performance that simply brought the house down. We see her as a woman spurned, afraid, betrayed and driven to madness. In the end she faces death with grace and beauty.

Henry VIII is sung by bass-baritone Christian van Horn as a young and slim king who may be in love but we suspect that he is simply a dictator who wants his way and there is almost nothing to stop him from getting it. Van Horn reaches exceptional vocal sonority and acting to give us an effective if disgusting character.

The other tragic figure in the opera is Jane Seymour sung by mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema. She owes a duty to the Queen but is drawn by Henry. In the end she regrets her choice. A finely modulated performance.

Mezzo Allyson McHardy sings the pants role of Smeton, the pathetic court musician who is secretly in love with Anna. He lies about being Anna’s lover in order to save her but the “confession” has the opposite effect. A fine performance by McHardy.

Tenor Bruce Sledge sings Riccardo Percy who still loves the unhappy Anna but she resists him. Sledge’s agile and splendid voice give us a very good performance.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the COC Orchestra and Chorus in exemplary fashion

Lawless and Set Designer Benoit Dugardyn set the opera in London’s Globe Theatre which was built more than fifty years after Anne was executed. The set consists of semicircular balconies that surround the main stage. The chorus is found there much of the time except when it is essential for them to be on the ground floor. Many of the characters are also seen on one of the balconies. Unfortunately, the unadorned panels that are moved around and the balconies give the impression that the opera takes place in a barn rather than a palace.       

We do get to see a wooden throne that lacks the ostentatious red velvet that one associates with regal seats. There are few props aside from that but we do get an impressive bed where Percy compromises Anne even though she does not allow him to do anything improper.
 
(l-r) Bruce Sledge as Riccardo Percy (kneeling), Christian Van Horn as Enrico VIII, Thomas Goerz 
as Lord Rocheford (behind chair) and Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena. Photo: Michael Cooper

There a number of infelicities in relation to positioning of characters where making use of the whole stage takes precedence over people confronting each other. The final scene where Anna is beheaded with an axe is understated and a good opportunity for a dramatic finale was lost.

All of which amount to legitimate observations but they do nothing to take away from the singing and orchestra playing that are second to none and make this Anna Bolena an extraordinary production.

And, as a sideline, it may be worth mentioning that the Globe Theatre went up in flames in 1613 during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henty VIII. Perhaps it was a posthumous expression of God’s distant vengeance on the memory of the cruel king.  
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Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti on a libretto by Felice Romani continues until May 26, 2018 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West Toronto, Ont. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

ANNIE – REVIEW OF 40th ANNIVERSARY REVIVAL AT ED MIRVISH THEATRE

By James Karas

“Maybe” her parents are young and leading an ideal domestic life. She wistfully and longingly imagines how life could have been for her if her parents had not made the mistake of giving her up. The reality is “Hard Knock Life” in the orphanage with no love and an empty belly while sewing and cleaning. But there is always “Tomorrow” when the sun will shine and all will be well.

She escapes the orphanage, goes past “Hooverville” and eventually ends up in a mansion and decides “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here.” Soon after, she hears the promise of “You Won’t Be An Orphan for Long.”
 The Cast of ANNIE – Toronto Production. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 2018
There are a few more songs and plot twists, but that is the trajectory of the life of the sweet and spunky 11-yyear old Annie as represented in the musical of that name. Optimistic, sentimental, funny and mythical (poor orphan girl adopted by billionaire and is a force in solving the economic crises of the depression by inspiring the president of the United States). Yes, Annie is all of those things and, in a word, it is delightful.

The revival production at the Ed Mirvish Theatre displays all the virtues of the musical that made it a hit 40 years ago and can still enchant and entertain us.

Isobel Khan and Ruby Stokes will alternate as Annie with Isobel playing on opening night. She displayed all the spunk and vigour expected of her but her voice struck me as having a slightly nasal quality that I did not particularly like. Is it her voice or the microphone? Aside from that, she is the type of Annie you imagine and expect.

Lesley Nicol gets the classic role of Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic orphanage matron who is corrupt and funny.  She goes into partnership with Rooster (Matthew Hawksley) and Lily (Kate Somerset How) who pose as Annie’s parents to get the $50,000 reward offered by Daddy Warbucks. They are marvelous.
 
Lesley Nicol in ANNIE – Toronto Production. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 2018
Alex Bourne plays the billionaire Warbucks and in the era of Donald Trump and Co.it is hard to imagine a decent man with that kind of wealth. He is and he is attracted to his secretary Grace Farrell (Carolyn Maitland) as we are. We know he will marry her and they will make great parents for Annie.

If you are in a mythical world, there is no point in stopping and in this musical Annie meets President Roosevelt played by Stephen McGlynn who does not seem to have a handle on the accent we hear from film clips of the president.

Ella the dog does a great job acting as Sandy the dog.

The set has several arches that are painted ugly turquoise with puzzle pieces on them. We see a large gold W when Warbucks is on stage which is a bit too reminiscent of Trump Tower.

The Ed Mirvish Theatre was full of children around Annie’s age who seemed to be enjoying the show. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and recommend it highly.
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Annie  by Thomas Meehan (book0, Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics), directed by Nikolai Foster continues until June 3, 2018 at The Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Monday, May 7, 2018

I AND YOU – REVIEW OF OUTLOOK THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Lauren Gunderson has brought together three unlikely elements to produce a delicate, moving and intriguing play called I and You. The first two parts of the play are two teenagers, Caroline (Abby Weisbrot) and Anthony (Jake Runeckles) who meet for the first time. The other part is the poetry Walt Whitman.

Anthony arrives at Caroline’s bedroom, unexpected and uninvited for the purpose of doing a school project on the poetry of Whitman. They are classmates but don’t know each other and they are poles apart. She appears tough, unfriendly, combative and miserable. She has not been to school for a long time and we find out that she is seriously ill and practically a prisoner in her bedroom.
 
Anthony is outgoing, popular and athletic. He loves Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and thinks that Caroline’s innate artistic ability can help him get a high mark. She knows nothing about Whitman. He wants to do a critical analysis of Whitman’s use of the pronouns I and You in Leaves of Grass but cannot make any headway against Caroline’s resentment of him. He makes a small breakthrough when he reads her the lines about the spotted hawk swooping by. The sound if not the meaning of the verses get to her. Through the bickering and snarls, art and the poetry of Whitman are used by Gunderson as devices to facilitate communication.

As the dialogue progresses we discover facts about the two teenagers, their relationship changes and Whitman is always present in the background or the foreground. Gunderson writes sensitively and adroitly about the people and the literary device that she employs and the result is an engrossing and captivating play that stands with its mystery “Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical” to quote Whitman.

For the seriously ill and probably dying Caroline, Whitman can be a provider of comfort, Anthony tells her. He was not afraid of death but stood up to it and, to freely paraphrase, spits in its eye. As the discussion of their lives and poetry continue, Caroline takes over and she asserts her understanding of the last lines of the poem where the poet becomes part of the earth, he bequeaths his body “to the dirt to grow from the grass I love” and he will “stop somewhere waiting for you.” Caroline feels that “you” is Whitman’s direct reference to her. What a beautiful connection between poetry and life.

Weisbrot and Runeckles give stellar performances as typical teenagers. Completely atypical teenagers, sensitive, confused and in the end indefinable and mysterious. Marc Bondy handles an apparently simple script that is quite complex with dexterity and precision.

If the lead up to the final scene is tantalizing and marvelous, the final scene will leave you astonished. You will leave the theatre with many thoughts but the first word to come out of your mouth may well be “wow.”
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I AND YOU by Lauren Gunderson, direct by Marc Bondy ran from April 19 to 29, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com
(Circumstances caused inexcusable delay in reviewing the show. Another mea culpa and my eternal abode is guaranteed to be where there is no air conditioning.)

Saturday, May 5, 2018

GIRLS LIKE THAT – REVIEW OF TARRAGON THEATRE PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Girls Like That by Evan Placey is a play about bullying in school but the word is never mentioned. The setting is St. Helen’s School for Girls, in England, which accepts only twenty gifted and creative girls each year. They are admitted at age five and consider themselves special and they make a pact that they will be friends for life.

Scarlett is a fat girl whose naked picture is posted on the internet. Her friends for life turn on her and in the opening scene chant “slut, skank, whore, tart, harlot” and a number of other words that I do not understand but assume that they mean pretty much the same thing.
 
The cast of Girls Like That. Photo: Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The attack on Scarlett by the girls attains a viciousness that should give pause to anyone with a scintilla of humanity. The girls appear to have none as they describe Scarlett’s body with sadistic glee and find fault with her appearance which assures them of their own superiority.

The play can be performed by as many as 20 actors or fewer. Director Esther Jun has chosen to do it with seven actors and they are enough. Except for Scarlett, the girls have no names and the lines of the script are distributed among them as the director chooses. They often speak in unison and perform a number of dance routines to rock music and are very good at it.

Ensemble acting dominates the play and the girls address the audience frequently, describe conversations and often do not follow the rules of ordinary dialogue. They reminded me of the avenging Furies in Greek drama and myth who pursued wrong doers until they drive them mad. The goddess Athena transformed them into Erynies (the kindly ones) but she is nowhere to be found in Girls Like That. The girls we meet at age five are the same at age 45.

Scarlett, the victim of the Furies, is the exception. In the end she takes her own revenge on her tormentors. In a fine speech she describes what humanity, maturity and success mean. I will not give more details about it. The issue I have with the play is that there is nothing in it beyond the vicious cruelty of the girls to prepare us for the revenge.
 
Shakura Dickson, Tess Benger, Rachel VanDuzer, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lucy Hill and 
Nadine Bhabha. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The characters, aside from Scarlett, are described as Girls and they are played by Tess Banger, Nadine Bhabha, Shakura Dickson, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Lucy Hill, Cynthia Jimmenez-Hicks and Rachel VanDuzer. They do fine work as chanting furies, screaming students, dancers and representatives of one of the worst features of our society – bullying.

Director Esther Jun had her work cut out to coordinate the numerous moves, scene changes and handling of the dialogue demanded by the play and to keep a fairly frenetic pace without the actors falling over each other. Well done but that did not improve the play which makes its point about bullies but fails to develop the characters or give some depth to the issue.      
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Girls Like That by Evan Placey opened on April 25 and will play until May 27, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com