Saturday, December 7, 2019

A CHRISTMAS CAROL – REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL HOLIDAY SEASON PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

HUMBUG!

No, really. The Shaw Festival has a Holiday Season in November/December with two productions: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn.

You know all about A Christmas Carol, right? The ghost story about Christmas was published in 1843 and I am not aware of any other work of fiction that has established such a dominant place in the Western imagination. It created such an image of a major Christian holiday as the story of Scrooge that is almost as astounding as the transformation of the skinflint.

The Shaw Festival’s version is an adaptation by its Artistic Director Tim Carroll who directed the original production. This year’s staging is directed by Molly Atkinson and the result is a delight.

The adaptation is faithful to the story but there are a number of Christmas carols sung at the beginning, the end and during the 90-minute performance. The production uses puppets and shadow theatre, and is done on a simple set requiring almost no props except imagination.
 The cast of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Emily Cooper
The performance begins on a bare stage with a painted backdrop showing an advent calendar with a church, some buildings and chimneys. Bob Cratchit (Andrew Lawrie) holds a small board and swings to the right and left to “open” and “close” the door to Scrooge’s business establishment. Another actor places a small board on her head and becomes Scrooge’s desk.

The major prop is a four-poster canopy bed which is highly moveable and has curtains that close it off. It will serve as Scrooge’s bed and proves useful throughout.

The ghost of Marley and the three Spirits are imaginatively constructed and very entertaining. Marley’s ghost is an over-sized, headless man with a hat perched above his shoulders. “He” is operated by a couple of actors from inside his clothes and they speak in unison.

The spirit of Christmas past is a delightful Sarena Parmar. The spirit of Christmas Present is a scary man on roller blades (Sanjay Talwar). The spirit of Christmas Future is a frightful creature with eyes bulging under a large sheet scaring the hell of Scrooge. By this time we are ready to be reformed.
 Michael Therriault as Scrooge with the ghost of Jacob Marley in 
A Christmas Carol (2017). Photo by David Cooper.
There is liberal use of puppets from Tiny Tim to Scrooge in one of the scenes. There is also a shadow theatre to show us Scrooge’s happy childhood Christmas. There are some ingenious scenes such as having Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Peter Fernandes) and his wife Emily (P J Prudat) wear hats with drinks on top.

Michael Therriault as Scrooge heads the fine cast of ten actors. Patty Jameson plays Mrs. Dilber, Marla McLean plays Mrs. Cratchit and is responsible for movement and is the Puppetry Captain. The cast takes on roles as they are needed and in the end give us a worthy retelling of a marvelous story that has made its mark on western civilization.

The production is colourful, well-paced, enjoyable and perfect for the season.

Merry Christmas. 
__________
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Tim Carroll continues until December 22, 2019 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Friday, December 6, 2019

ANASTASIA – REVIEW OF MUSICAL AT THE ED MIRVISH THEATRE

By James Karas

Anastasia is the beautiful name of a beautiful Russian princess who was murdered in 1918. Some people would like to believe or pretend that she was not killed and that way we can get a good play, a movie or two and a musical about her. The story of the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra has been around for a while (historians be damned – see below) and playwright Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have put together a musical that is now playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

The story goes that the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the massacre of her family, suffered from amnesia and went missing somewhere in Soviet Russia. Her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, offered a large reward for anyone who could find her. Con artists entered the picture searching for a suitable candidate and two hucksters, Dmitry and Vlad found a suitable candidate, groomed her and presented her to the Dowager Empress who eventually accepted her as the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

It’s a good albeit familiar plot. Flaherty’s music ranges from the recitative to the melodic but it rarely hits any heights in the latter category. He prefers fast paced numbers that sometimes sound like toe-tapping march music that is easy on the ear. There are some soaring moments but here the problem was clearly with the singers, especially Taylor Quick who replaced Lila Coogan as Anya, the Anastasia of the title. She simply could not generate any vocal excitement.
 Lila Coogan (Anya) & Jake Levy (Dmitry) in National Tour of ANASTASIA - 
Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
The rest of the actors ranged from the adequate to the decent. Exceptional performances were given by Edward Staudebmayer as Vlad and Tari Kelly as Countess Lily. They sang well and did an entertaining comic duet.

Vlad’s cohort in grooming the street sweeper Anya into Anastasia is Dmitry played with enthusiasm and agility by Jake Levy. The heavy but humane Bolshevik Gleb is played by Jason Michael Evans.

With many of the other cast members, one did not care what they said because they looked so great. Check out Brad Greer as Tsar Nicholas II and Lucy Horton as Tsarina Alexandra and their family. It’s just amazing how well you can dress if you have an empire to supply your needs. 

The scenic design by Alexander Dodge was simply gorgeous. We have scenes in the palace in St. Petersburg, the Paris Opera, Leningrad and Paris that were a visual delight. The costumes by Linda Cho are stunningly elegant and Aaron Rhyne’s projections are striking and effective. They all add up to a theatrical feat.

Peggy Hickey’s choreography was fine especially the ballet sequence from Swan Lake which gave us a bit of Tchaikovsky’s music which simply pointed out the difference between the lush classical and Flaherty’s workmanlike composition.

Director Darko Tresnjak handles the large cast, numerous scenes and great deal of activity very well.        

For the factually obsessed and historically minded, take note. In July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children were executed in in the basement of Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It was the end of the Romanov dynasty’s 300-year rule over Russia and the beginning of Bolshevik totalitarianism.

That was the end of that chapter of Russian history for those who rely on facts. Soviet denial of the murders led to speculation which led to the belief that the family may have survived in whole or in part. Enter French playwright Marcelle Maurette who wrote the play Anastasia in 1952 imagining that the Romanov’s younger daughter survived (maybe) and was taken to her grandmother who accepted her as such (perhaps).

It was delicious story and the play was widely produced. In 1956 Twentieth Century Fox made a movie with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner and in 1997 it morphed into an animated film and the myth has been kept alive.

In March 2017, Anastasia opened as a new musical on Broadway and it has now been bought to Toronto. If you want more, go see the musical.       
___________
Anastasia by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) continues until January 12, 2020 at The Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

KATYA KABANOVA – REVIEW OF VOICEBOX OPERA PERFORMANCE

Reviewed by James Karas

Leos Janacek has been recognized as major opera composer of the 20th century. Recognition has not translated in numerous productions but if you try hard enough you will find most of his operas produced now and then around the world. All you need is lots of time and money.

Toronto is not exactly a hub for productions of Janacek’s operas (good luck finding one) but Voicebox: Opera in Concert has stepped into the breach with a concert production of Katya Kabanova. The opera premiered in 1921 in Czechoslovakia and (if you must know) was not touched by the Canadian Opera Company until 1994.

Voicebox: Opera in Concert produces ignored or infrequently produced operas in the Jane Mallett Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. Let’s just say not the ideal venue for opera.  One feels that General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin and Voicebox have so many obstacles militating against them that only the attitude of damn the torpedoes propels them to go ahead. If you want another metaphor, think of a boxer going into the ring with one hand tied behind his back.

There was no orchestra, no set and none of the paraphernalia that give a staged production the trappings and trimmings for a full-blooded performance.  

The one and only performance on December 1, 2019 was creditable and worthy. The score was played on the piano by Jo Greenaway who was also the music director. The opera was sung in English in Norman Tucker’s translation with projected English surtitles.

Soprano Lynn Isnar sang the tough role of Katya. She is a woman in a loveless marriage with an overbearing and thoroughly bitchy mother-in-law. Katya yearns for love and her good sense is overpowered by her attraction to Boris. Katya goes from longing, to capitulation, to moments of bliss. She confesses her affair to her husband and goes through a mental deterioration. That is a tough role that must be done with minimal interaction with the other characters and no orchestral support (piano accompaniment is not the same). Isnar does a good job despite the handicaps.

Mezzo-soprano Emiliya Boteva is fine as Kabanicha, the oppressive, man-eating mother of Katya’s husband Tichon (Michael Barrett). She wants her son to love her more than his wife. Boteva spikes her high notes upward as if stabbing someone and her Bulgarian accent adds to her malevolence.

Tenor Cian Horrobin sings a commendable Boris, Katya’s illicit lover. He is oppressed and insulted by his Uncle Dikoj (imposing-voiced Handaya Rusli). Boris and Katya will not do well but Vanya (fine-toned tenor Edward Larocque) and Varvara (lively Stephanie O’Leary) make up a contrasting happy couple.

Singing a translation from Czech to English has its own issues. All the English words do not fit the notes for which the composer wrote the music. At times there are more syllables in English than the music could accommodate resulting in awkward syncopation.    
   
Silva-Marin is the man who keeps the Toronto Operetta Theatre alive and one can give only credit to his unfailing persistence in providing the city with rare cultural entertainment.

The next production of Voicebox will be Kamouraska by Charles M. Wilson on Sunday, February 16, 2020. One performance only.

If you are interested in the sad production history of Katya Kabanova (and who isn’t) consider these dates. It reached England in 1951 at Sadler’s Wells and Glyndebourne in 1989. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden did not produce it until 1994. New York’s Metropolitan Opera got around to producing it in 1991 and will use the same production by the late Jonathan Miller in May 2020. The Canadian Opera Company got it in 1994.

That’s in the past. There have been many more productions in the 21st century. Just look for them.
___________
Katya Kabanova by Leos Janacek was performed once on December 1, 2019 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.operainconcert.com/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

CATS – REVIEW OF GRAND MUSICAL AT PRINCESS OF WALES

James Karas

The facts please: Cats premiered in May 1981 in London and is one of the most successful and widely produced musicals in history. The catalogue of places where it has not been produced is shorter than the names of places where it has been.

Why do you want to see it? Here is a short catalogue of reasons.

You love cats and you want to see them dressed like human beings (or is it the other way around?) sing and dance up a storm.  You are a misanthrope (no that does not make you a fan of Moliere) and you don’t like people on the stage. After The Lion King there are not many choices where this if offered and you go to Cats repeatedly. 
The North American Tour Company of CATS.
Photo by Matthew Murphy 2019
You don’t like cats and go to see Cats to confirm your animosity to the creatures while secretly enjoying a rousing, rip-roaring musical done by humans pretending to be cats.

You want to warm up to T. S Eliot and assuage your guilt and ignorance about poetry. You were traumatized in high school when you tried to figure out how the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. You suffered psychological damage leading to post-poetic metaphors syndrome when you found out that The Waste Land is not a John Wayne movie.

Well, with Eliot’s collection of feline poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, you found something readable and very useful to Andrew Lloyd Webber for his lyrics for Cats. Served with music and memorable melodies, the musical lets you kill two cats (sorry, make that metaphors) in one evening. You can sound haughtier than thou in your literary knowledge and musical discrimination.

You find dialogue interferes with the flow of a musical and Lloyd Webber has obliged you with a written-through approach and provided an extraordinarily rich musical score.

You are a dance aficionado and the music with Gillian Lynne’s masterpiece of choreography (with Andy Blankenbueler) is a choreographic, scenic and athletic marvel. She combines ballet, tap dancing, jazz and modern dances in a tour de force of a performing art.

You want a display of splendour, exoticism, glitz, extraordinary energy and sheer magic. Cats presents a kaleidoscope of these with sheer energy. 
Keri René Fuller as Grizabella. Photo by Matthew Murphy 2019
Your chances, realistically speaking, of convincing St. Peter to open wide the Pearly Gates for you are pretty slim. You are curious about how a tribe of cats chooses one of their group to ascend the upper Heaviside Layer and then return as a new feline. Maybe you can pick up some pointers from the plot of Cats to guide you to a place that has air conditioning, at least.

You don’t like musicals that showcase only “stars” but admire bravura ensemble performances. Cats has a bit of both and a few names from the large cast may be à propos. Keri Rene Fuller as Grizabella, the lady that sings the unforgettable “Memory,” Brandon Michael Lase as the wonderfully-named Old Deuteronomy, Emma Hearn as Bombalurina, McGee Maddox as Rum Tum Tugger and PJ Digaetano as Mistoffelees. “Memory” is the only song sung solo and the rest involve more than one singer or the company. A pleasure to listen to.

Among the crowded list of credits you should notice that Trevor Nunn, one of the top directors of England, directed the original production and it has been kept alive since 1981.
__________
Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), T. S. Eliot (lyrics) and Gillian Lynne (choreography) continues until January 5, 2020 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com/  416 872 1212 or 1 800 461 3333

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Monday, December 2, 2019

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY - REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Coal Mine Theatre is continuing with its judicious and laudable choice of plays. It does not mean you will like all of them but there can be no arguments about the care taken in their choosing. Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis now playing won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and that is no doubt an attention grabber.

Between Riverside and Crazy receives a full-blooded and full-throated production directed by Kelli Fox in the small rectangular storefront theatre on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. There are some issues with the play where subplots appear and then are left hanging and unresolved. The end of the play appears rushed to an inexplicable and unexplained resolution as if the playwright looked at his watch and decided to bring in a quick end.
 
Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas and Nabil Rajo. Photo: Dahlia Katz 
Walter “Pops” Washington, played with vigour, passion, zeal and some humanity by Alexander Thomas, is a former New York cop who was accidentally shot six times by a rookie. He wants compensation and has raised the stakes for getting it by stating that he was called a “nigger” by his shooter. It is a lie but he has maintained it for eight years. He has a chequered past which is hinted at with few details provided.

Pops lives with several shady characters in his rent-controlled apartment that he is in danger of losing. His son Junior (Jai Jai Jones) is making a living by other means than working. Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo) refers to Washington as his father (he is not) is on parole but he wants to straighten himself out. Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin) is physically stunning and she wants us to see it all the time. She is studying accounting (sure) and is pregnant (maybe). Her past is also very shady. We have four social misfits and we wonder if there is a way out for them. And what about the rent-controlled apartment?

That is not all. Washington has a couple of “friends” from the police department and both of them are intense, passionate, loud and almost on the edge of emotional breakdowns. We are not fully certain why. Claire Armstrong as Detective O’Connor and Sergio Di Zio as Lt. Caro play Washington’s friends and pay attention to the $30,000 ring that the lieutenant has given to the detective. They go into emotional high gear very quickly and one is not sure if lower emotional intensity may not be more persuasive.
 Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones, Zarrin Darnell-Martin and Alexander Thomas. 
Photo: Dahlia Katz 
For a good laugh, much mystery and some nefarious activity, Washington is visited by the Church Lady played by Allegra Fulton. She is not so much shady but downright swampy and Fulton makes good work of the role and surprises us more than we anticipate.   
             
The problem with the play is that some of the scenes are overwritten and pass over from dramatic to melodramatic. Some plot strands, as I said, are vague and left hanging but there is not much that Kelli Fox can do about them except to keep up the pace. She does.

The set consists of Washington’s apartment and here designer Anna Treusch attempts to give a representation of it in the small space of the Coalmine Theatre. The kitchen is on a raised area furthest from the audience. There is a living room just below that and a bed closest to audience. Most of the action takes place in the kitchen and relatively little happens in the bed. The design is awkward and one asks if putting the kitchen closest to the audience may not have worked better.
___________
Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis continues until December 22, 2019 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press 

Friday, November 29, 2019

HERE ARE THE FRAGMENTS - REVIEW OF THEATRE CENTER PRODUCTION

James Karas 

If you think of theatre as an auditorium or a room where you sit and watch a performance, then hold onto your seat. Better still let go of your seat because if you see Here Are The Fragments you may sit in any number of seats or you may not sit down at all. You will be able to meander in a large number of areas, look at sets and equipment, and touch anything you want or put earphones on and listen to various items.

Let’s start from the beginning. Before you enter the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre, you will be informed that, well, this is not a conventional production. You can go in and out of the theatre during the performance. You can touch everything but are asked to put it back where you found it and basically that this is freewheeling theatre unlike anything you may have seen before. 
 Peter N. Bailey. Photo: Dahlia Katz
When you enter the playing are, you find exactly eight chairs for the audience and the rest stand against the walls of a large room. There may be around forty or fewer people in the audience. A man wearing a white coat enters holding a clipboard and asks a series of questions such as do you hear voices, do you read people’s thoughts, do you think someone else is reading your thoughts etc.

The questioner is a psychiatrist and we realize that these are questions that may be asked of a person who is delusional or hallucinatory or suffering from some other form of mental illness. The psychiatrist takes his white coat off, sits in a chair and is transformed into a man suffering from schizophrenia. His son is trying to get to him by offering food and conversation but the man is lost to all contact.

That is the introduction to this ninety-minute play written and created by Suvendrini Lena, co-created by Leah Cherniak and Trevor Schwellnus, and co-directed by Cherniak and Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu.

At that point we move into the much larger space of the Boni theatre. There are numerous sections to see as you walk around. There are small cubicles, open spaces and a large number of headphones that you can put on and listen to something about mental illness. I tried several headphone and the subject was schizophrenia.

The main subjects of the play are mental illness, its treatment (or lack of it) and racism. The psychiatrist Dr. Chauvet (played by Allen Louis) is black as is his son Eduard (Kwaku Adu-Poku). Ether (Kyra Harper) is a woman suffering from schizophrenia. The forth character is Frantz Fanon (Peter N. Bailey), the psychiatrist and brilliant intellectual who wrote Black Skin, White Masks about the depth and negative effects of racism, especially under colonial conditions.
 Allan Louis. Photo: Dahlia Katz
Here Are The Fragments touches on racism, colonialism and schizophrenia. What you see depends on where you are in the various places available to you. You may pick up a copy of Black Skin, White Mask and read the helpful passages marked for you. There are many other books that may draw your attention. You may listen to something on earphones. You may watch a scene where Dr. Chauvet is treating a patient who has been hospitalized for some forty years and is on her deathbed. You may listen to Fanon broadcasting about the fate of Algerians before and during their revolt against French colonial occupation. Or you may go for coffee or do nothing.

There is no focus and no attempt to lead you to any coherent understanding of a plotline. There is no doubt about what you ingesting about mental illness and racism. If you are a good liberal and imagine that you know something about racism and pat yourself on your superior back, you should be shocked by the depths of racial hatred that Dr. Chauvet and Frantz Fanon faced and that is certainly still with us.

In the end we go back to the first scene and witness Eduard trying a new approach to his father’s schizophrenia thus leaving us on somewhat hopeful note. I am not sure how much hope there is for theatre so unfocused and disjointed.
____________
Here Are The Fragments in a coproduction by The ECT Collective and The Theatre Centre continues until December 1, 2019 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

BETWEEN BREATHS – REVIEW OF PLAY ABOUT JON LIEN AT FACTORY THEATRE

James Karas

Can you write an effective play and illustrate the life of a humanitarian scientist who devoted much of his life to rescuing marine animals, mostly whales off the coast of Newfoundland? Robert Chafe has. The play is Between Breaths about Dr. Jon Lien who was a professor at Memorial University. He rescued more than 500 whales that were caught in fishing nets, a feat that involved knowledge, expertise, considerable risk and just plain guts. Lien had them all.

Chafe wants to give some details about Lien’s life but he also wants to demonstrate the difficulties and risks of untangling massive trapped animals. 
 Steve O'Connell and Berni Stapleton
The play has three characters, Jon (Steve O’Connell), his wife Judy (Berni Stapleton) and his assistant Wayne (Darryl Hopkins). It also features three musicians (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge) who are on stage throughout the performance and play music composed and arranged by The Once.

In the opening scene we see Jon seated in a wheelchair and unable to speak. He is clearly suffering from a kind of dementia. He is comforted by his wife but we witness the tragic end of life. In fact Dr. Lien died in 2010 at 71 after suffering from mental illness for many years.

The play opens with his death but it takes us though episodes of his life and ends with the triumphal saving of a whale. The play is indeed a tribute to a great humanitarian and it is no doubt deserved.

How well does it work as a play? It has its moments but in the end it does not work particularly well. The musicians provide background music and songs that add nothing to the production. Because they play most of the time, the actors have to be seriously and obviously miked and some of the time their delivery is simply stentorian. In a small theatre, the mikes should be unnecessary and if the music makes them a necessity, we can do without the music.
Darryl Hopkins and Steve O'Connell
The set by Shawn Kerwin has the musicians occupy a semicircle at the back of the stage. The centre of the stage features an area that is supposed to represent the ocean and the action takes place in front of that, close to the audience. There is lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy, and sound design by Brian Kenny. These are necessities for illustrating the rescue of a whale and as such they are effective.

Director Jillian Keiley and the actors make great efforts to convince us that what is happening on stage represents the rescue of a whale. It is not convincing and we have to accept the fact that certain things cannot be done well on the stage.

The actors deserve kudos for their work especially O’Connell as the main character.

The admiration for Dr. Lien’s work, his contribution to marine science are well documented and he is deservedly honoured for his achievements. The play does make his name known to people who may have never heard of him and it is a delight to see Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland perform in Toronto. (I am sure there is a profound reason for the unorthodox name (simple irony?) but it escapes me.)       
_________
Between Breaths by Robert Chafe in a production by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland  opened on November 21 and runs until December 8, 2019 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca/

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press