Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Nicholas Campbell and Maria Vacratsis in Through the Leaves

Through the Leaves is the mysterious title of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play that has been staged by The Company Theatre and is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space.

The play provides two meaty roles for actors in the characters of a butcher named Martha (Maria Vacratsis) and a factory worker named Otto (Nicholas Campbell). If one were to call the play kitchen-sink drama to indicate its gritty realism, one should add that the sink is filthy. It is literally filthy from the tripe that Martha handles and the actions of the characters from oral sex (under a towel) and drunken abuse of Martha.

Martha runs a successful butcher shop specializing in offal. She has a sitting room attached to the shop and an apartment upstairs. Her problem is that she is in her 50’s, very plain and very lonely. She meets a man, virile and attractive in his own way and she wants to connect with him.

She prepares some caviar snacks and invites him over. She wants to savour every minute with Otto and she starts keeping a diary. She wants him to do the same. She uses all her charm and humanity to develop a relationship with him. She offers him money and a job and even takes him to a ball. In short, she is prepared to do almost anything to keep him, as she tells him and her diary.

Otto is not quite the diary keeping variety. In fact he is a crude drunkard who tells her that she is so homely that he stays with her because he feels sorry for her. He demands oral sex from her and feels quite noble because he puts a pillow on the floor for her to kneel on. He is unfaithful and words like Neanderthal, trash, human garbage are a propos to describe him. If he has any redeeming features, aside from his penis (if one can call that a redeeming feature) and human form, I could not find any.

The plot of the play revolves around the deteriorating relationship between the two people. She keeps trying to put up with him despite his increasingly despicable behaviour and he continues on his merry way without any conception of his conduct.

Half-way thorough this short play (about 75 minutes) I started wondering about the punch line. Something has to be revealed about one of them or something must happen to provide one of the Aristotelian essentials of a play: a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning and the middle are there and done well. What about a satisfactory conclusion?

Martha being a butcher, we see her handling some bloody offal and we also see some knives and a meat cleaver. At the beginning of the play there was a barking dog that Otto threatened with a knife and which bit him. Surely the dog or the met cleaver will re-appear. They do not.

Despite all her efforts to keep him Otto walks out of Martha’s life and leaves her sitting alone. She is as lonely as ever and no doubt misses him. A successful but unattractive woman is reduced to wanting to live with a creep rather than alone.

Despite the rather unsatisfactory ending, the play does have two superb roles for actors and in the hands of Campbell and Vacratsis we have two marvelous and riveting performances. Our attention never flags as we watch these two masters of their craft delineate Kroetz’s characters. The play is superbly directed by Philip Riccio.

Kroetz may be telling us, I suppose, that sometimes there is no punch line or cathartic end in real life or in the theatre, even if there is a meat cleaver hanging on the wall.

Through the Leaves by Franz Xaver Kroetz continues until October 3, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, September 27, 2010



There can be no greater pleasure for the writer than to see his or her literary efforts between the covers of a book. His name on the front cover, his photograph on the back with some biographical information and a fulsome description of what lies inside is a consummation to be wished for and savoured.

After countless hours of looking for the apt word, the perfect turn of phrase and style, you have a work that is begging for an audience. The journey from script to published volume, however, can be pretty daunting to say the least. The chances of getting a commercial publishers to put the fruits of your labours between covers and on the shelves of Chapters are about as likely as finding a pot of gold when planting tomatoes in your back yard. Perhaps, a bit better. But writers do not pay any attention to that and they continue planting tomatoes and dreaming of being published.

If you don’t beat the formidable odds of your work being accepted by a publisher, the only means of seeing your work between covers is by doing it yourself. You go to a local printer, the script is prepared, the cheque is written (your cheque with perhaps the help of some faithful friends) and presto the volume is published.

Self-publishing or vanity publishing as it is uncharitably characterized by some is not new. In fact, in the nineteenth century what were to become prominent writers had to pay commercial publishers to publish their books.

There are a number of Greek writers in Canada who have published numerous books over the years. Dannis Koromilas, Antonis Vazintaris, Christos Ziatas, A. A. Athanasiadis and Andreas Constantinides come to mind immediately and I have no doubt there are many others. They have all published their own books and they deserve a lot of credit for their efforts and the considerable expense that they have borne.

The comments that follow are not meant to take away from their efforts but to point out some of the shortcoming of their printers (we can hardly call most of them publishers) to meet some minimum standards of a well-produced book. Some are better than others, no doubt.

Some annoying features. Most people prefer that the pages of a book be numbered. Some poets feel it is unnecessary to provide such an amenity. How about some useful information about the author so we can put the writing in context? Some of them do not provide any.

I was prompted to examine some self-published books when someone gave me a book of poetry in Greek by Christos Pantelopoulos entitled Ελεύθεροι Στοχασμοί (Free Reflections). It is a high-quality paperback and I decided to examine it carefully.

Poetry seems to be in Pantelopoulos’s blood. His poems cover a dizzying variety of occasions and people. Love, loss, friendship, the flag, a funeral, the mother-in-law, the barber, the waiter, the atheist, the cheapskate, Macedonia, the Greek Community’s 100th Anniversary and a host of other subjects are fair game for Pantelopoulos. I want to write about self-publishing and will confine my comments to the format of the book aside from the poems.

The front cover has a painting of a lion, a lamb and a dove snuggling together peacefully. Below the painting appear the words Vivlio Ekto (Sixth Book), Toronto 2009. In other words, there seems to be a publisher and a year of publication.

The back cover has a colour photo of the author with the headline in Greek “A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE POET.” We learn that this volume is a continuation of the poet’s previous book of poems “Skirtimata” which was published three years ago. After that we learn almost nothing about the author but are told that the poems express his warmth, humanity, love, the beauty of nature, the pain of immigration and nostalgia for the fatherland etc.
There is a well-done title page and you turn to the copyright page for some information. There is no copyright page and therefore no information about publisher, edition or anything. Who or what is Vivlio Ekto?

There is a table of contents which lists the titles of the poems and it is followed by a Prologue without a single blank page. The prologue consists of a single paragraph that goes on for three and a half pages. It is fulsomely complimentary, as expected, but it would have been nice if it also contained some information about the poet and the poems. Pantelopoulos, we glean among the flood of adjectives, has been in Canada for more than 40 years, is married and has raised a family. If there is much more than that hidden in the lengthy paragraph, it escaped me. The Prologue is signed by the poet’s old friend M.M.

If you must know who M.M. is you will need to go to page 312 where the poet thanks his friend Mihalis Mpatsoulis for his assistance and refers to him as a “worthy educator” who teaches in the Greek schools of Toronto. I assume that he is the same person as M.M. of the prologue.

The spine of the book is left blank.

Pantelopoulos’s book is better than most self-published volumes but the question remains: Why can they not reach a higher level of professionalism. Why do the Greek printing houses not open a few books and see what a title page, copyright page and table of contents or index contain? Why do they not get an International Standard Book Number (ISBN)? Why do they not bother inserting page numbers?

Pantelopoulos’s book does not suffer from some of these deficiencies and it is eminently readable once you get past the covers and the Prologue. Self-publishing will no doubt increase and computer technology has made lay-out easy to manage. Now if we can only get our writers and their printers to pay some more attention to the formalities that accompany the literary content, we may end up with more publishing and less vanity.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Attenberg opens with a failed kiss lesson and ends on a muddy and desolate construction site where the two woman of the first scene drive off in separate vehicles. In between we are treated to a bleak emotional and physical landscape that is both fascinating and depressing.

Attenberg was written and directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari and was the sole Greek entry at the Toronto International Film Festival that wrapped up last week.

The film takes its title from a mispronunciation by one of the characters of the name Attenborough and refers to the Sir David Attenborough.

A key to understanding the film is his statement that “there is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.” He adds that if it were possible to escape the human condition and live in another creature’s world, he would choose to be with the gorilla.

We see Sir David briefly in the movie and the characters play act as animals a number of times. Starting from the first scene where Bella (Evangelia Randou) is trying to teach Marina (Ariane Labed) how to kiss and the lesson does not succeed, the two women crouch down and pretend to be fighting animals, perhaps gorillas.

The unsuccessful kiss sets the stage for the rest of the film where sexual and emotional contact will be seen from a number of angles and will prove to be an utter failure. Marina has sex with the Engineer (Yorgos Lanthimos) after some unsuccessful attempts but there is no evidence of any passion, even life. Marina’s father Sypros (Vangelis Mourikis) is an architect in a bleak town where the houses are small boxes, a waste land where there is no evidence of life. He is a widower who is emotionally and sexually dead. There does seem to be genuine affection between Marina and her father but even that cannot find genuine human expression.

We see Spyros in his house and in the hospital where he is dying. He is arranging his affairs including, most importantly it seems, his cremation and the scattering of his ashes at sea.

The two women are seen marching in unison down a path several times, mechanically, with some variation in the steps but nothing more. There are scenes on the beach, in several bedrooms, in the hospital and on the road but all provide the cumulative impression of emotional sterility on a background of physical barrenness. The sea and the landscape can all be from a post apocalyptic world. There are very few, if any, signs of life. The streets and the corridors are all empty; the sky is overcast and even the sea is lifeless.

Labed has a steady gaze as she interacts with Bella, the engineer and her father. It is a penetrating look, perhaps resembling a gorilla’s, which is searching for meaning and mutual understanding or just physical contact. It is a gaze of innocence, mystery and wonder that adds up to a marvelous performance. Not surprisingly, Labed won the Best Actress award at this year’s Venice Film festival.

The apparently more gregarious Bella of Randou is just as unsuccessful achieving contact. Spyros, the architect, the builder, the designer, lives in a dead city where he too is dying. Fine performances by Randou and Mourikis.

Tsangari is best remembered if not actually known for her work at the 2004 Athens Olympics where she was the projections designer and video director for the opening ceremony. She has also earned the dubious distinction of having her film The Slow Business of Going voted as one of the best undistributed films in 2002.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Katie Mack (Alcina), Kimberly Logan (Ismene), Jasmine Ryan (Cassia), Mandy Walsh (Amaranta). Photo: Johnny Knight

Babes with Blades is the rather racy name of a theatre company in Chicago that, according to its website, “showcases the strength, vitality, and proficiency of women in the art of stage combat”. It tells us that it is the only such company in the Windy City. How much room is there for such troupes?

Whatever the need, the company is true to its word because the actors show immense ability in staging fight scenes with dexterous use of swords, shields and staffs. I am happy to add that despite their stated mission, fighting on stage is not the sole reason for going to see them. The warning printed in large fonts in the programme that “This production contains realistic staged violence” is more appropriate to cheap television than live theatre.

What attracted me to see their current production was the tile of the play, The Last Daughter of Oedipus and, of course, the subject matter. Who can resist another visit to the cursed Royal House of Thebes!

Ismene is the daughter of Oedipus and the more famous Antigone’s older sister. She appears in Sophocles’ Theban plays (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone). In the latter play she is the one who is willing to compromise. Given the choice between obeying King Creon’s edict and a higher duty to provide her brother with burial rites, she chooses the former. Antigone, of course, is prepared to sacrifice her life in obedience to the unwritten law that imposes a duty to bury a brother rather than leave him exposed to the dogs. Antigone dies; Ismene survives.

Jennifer L Mickelson’s new play starts after the death of Antigone and we meet Ismene wracked by her conscience for not following her sister to her death. She in fact wants to, but Antigone rejects her. Her uncle King Creon is equally tortured by his conscience because he lost his son Haemon who was engaged to Antigone and died with her.

Ismene is having nightmares and she is visited by her mother Jocasta (Moira Begale) and by a self-assured, rather sassy Antigone played well by Sarah Scanlon. Jocasta had unwittingly married her son Oedipus who had murdered his father Laius. This family is seriously cursed.

Ismene goes to Athens to seek the help of King Theseus who has already set off for Thebes. She decides to go to the Oracle at Delphi to seek the advice of the oracle in order to expiate her family’s curse.

Mickelson provides a fairly straightforward text of Ismene’s confrontation with Creon, her nightmares and her escape to Athens where she confronts Athenian women who are connected to the soldiers that have gone to Thebes with Theseus. Ismene, accompanied by her servant Zeva (a very good Eleanor Katz) then goes to Delphi where she confronts the guards and enters the temple to seek the advice of Apollo.

The actors range from the competent to the excellent in delivering the text. Kimberly Logan as Ismene has an expressive face and she presents the troubled main character with strength and sensitivity. Michael Sherwin as Creon (and a guard) is conscience-stricken and blustering as becomes a usurper of power. The rest of the cast presents excellent ensemble acting with minor slides into comic business.

What takes the production out of the ordinary is the presentation of the fight sequences and the nightmares. Ismene is approached by figures who crawl frightfully towards her with faces covered. She is terrified and lashes back. Very effective scenes.

The fight scenes are the specialty of the company. Staffs, swords and shields are used with masterly efficiency and utter theatricality as Ismene and her companions – all women – confront men and other women.

Ancient Greek drama contained singing and dancing but fighting on stage was not a prominent feature, to say the least. Mickelson and Babes with Blades seem to have found a new method of searching for a solution to the mystery of the curse of the house of Oedipus.

The production credits a director (Tara Branham), a Fight Choreographer (Libby Beyreis) and a Movement Director (Mercedes Rohlfs). This is a amazing and original approach to theatre and ancient myth done with a minimum of stage props.

Live theatre is the marriage, indeed symbiosis, of audience and performers. The reaction of the audience can be almost as energizing as the actual acting on the stage. Equally, the reaction of the spectators can energize the actors to stellar heights of performance. But it cannot be done without an audience.

The performance of The Last Daughter of Oedipus that I saw was attended by four people. There are ten actors in the cast. I mention this not as a criticism but as an unalloyed compliment to the actors. They were unaffected by the empty seats and performed as if they had a full house. Bravo!


The Last Daughter of Oedipus by Jennifer L. Mickelson continues until September 25, 2010 at the Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt St. Chicago, Illinois.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

The second play by Shakespeare offered by the Stratford Festival this year is The Winter’s Tale at the Tom Patterson Theatre. This is only the fifth time that Stratford has staged the play since 1953, which means that they are not touching it even once a decade. Whenever they did produce the play, they provided major star power for it. The first staging of The Winter’s Tale at Stratford was in 1958 and it had Christopher Plummer as Leontes and Jason Robards, Jr. as Polixenes.

The 1978 and 1986 productions had Brian Bedford and Colm Feore respectively as Leontes. That is star power indeed but no acting prowess can save the play completely. It is not Shakespeare at his best.

It starts well enough and the current production raises one’s hopes of seeing a superb reading of the play.

Leontes, King of Sicilia (Ben Carlson), is visited by his great friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Dan Chameroy). They love each other like devoted brothers until Leontes is seized by the irrational conviction that his wife is committing adultery with Polixenes. He goes into a rage and orders his loyal courtier Camillo (Sean Arbuckle) to murder Polixenes.

In the meantime, he throws his wife Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) in prison and has the child that she just gave birth to exposed in the wilderness so that she will die. She does not because her life is saved by some shepherds.

So far so good. Carlson gives a powerful performance as Leontes. Seana McKenna has the relatively small role of Paulina, the wife of one of Leontes’s courtiers. She does have a crucial scene in the play in which she shows her massive talents and dominates the scene. Randy Hughson plays her husband Antigonus in another fine performance. He also has the role of Time, the creaky device Shakespeare used to tell us that we are moving sixteen years ahead. He is sitting on a crane and is twirled clockwise making the best of a small part. It looks like we have a Winter’s Tale to remember.

Unfortunately, the rest of the play falls to the ground with a thud.

We are in Bohemia and we meet the Old Shepherd (Brian Tree) and the Clown (Mike Shara) again. They are somewhat amusing and very garrulous but they are the ones who saved Leontes’s daughter Perdita (Cara Roberts) when she was left to perish in the wilderness many years ago.

It is pretty much down hill from here on. Director Marti Maraden and designer John Pennoyer do just about everything to entertain us through the less than thrilling part of the play. They dress the locals in colourful costumes for the sheep-shearing festival and they try to generate some rustic excitement and bohemian fun.

The crooked rogue Autolycus (Tom Rooney) cheats the peasants and is a colourful local. One cannot fault Rooney for the handling of the role (in fact he does a very good job) but I just do not find the character very amusing.

Among the reveling peasants, we meet Polixenes’s son Florizel (Ian Lake) – oops, I gave the plot away – and he is in love with this pretty girl Perdita who is apparently the daughter of a shepherd. Polixenes will have none of this and the two lovers are forced to go to Sicilia.

Now it is time to resolve some of the problems created by Leontes and Polixenes. The Florizel-Perdita part of the plot gets solved easily. As soon as it is discovered that Perdita is of royal blood, no time is wasted in finding her match to Florizel as made in heaven.

It gets a bit trickier to solve the Hermione issue. There is a life-size, life-like statue of Hermione erected in her memory and it looks the way she would have looked if alive now. You can guess the rest if you have never seen the play and you know all too well what happens if you have seen the play.

This is a solid, well-thought out and executed production. The real problem is the last part of the play that leaves me cringing and I have yet to see a production that can surpass that inadequacy.


The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare opened on June 9 and will run until September 25, 2010 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The programme cover for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris shows Brent Carver airborne leaping over four seated musicians who are looking at him with smiles on their faces. Carver does not perform any such acrobatic feats in the musical that is now playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre as one of the musical offerings of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

It should be noted at first that Jacques Brel is not alive, he is not well and he is certainly not living in Paris. He has been resting in a cemetery on the Marquesas Islands since 1978 but one can fairly say that his spirit has been around through his songs and I suppose there is life in that.

Brel was Belgian, born in 1929, and he wrote a large number of songs which he sang very successfully. The songs were written and sung in French but he managed to win a broad audience. The present show owes its existence and large popularity to the work of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. They provided colloquial and sometimes quite unfaithful translations of Brel’s lyrics and developed the idea of producing a revue based on about 25 of his songs.

The production opened on Off-Broadway in 1968 and has never looked back. It requires only four singers and four musicians with very few props.

The Stratford production is sung by four talented and highly capable singers namely Brent Carver, Jewelle Blackman, Mike Nadajewski and Nathalie Nadon. They sing the 27 songs in various combinations. There is some dancing and movement around the stage and a bit of humour but the show consists of songs. There is no dialogue and no plot.

It is by no means static. Director Stafford Arima has the singers, and to some extent the musicians, move around the stage and lend variety to the singing.

The songs also provide considerable variety and themes but they also do have a measure of sameness.

“Marathon”, the first song, sends us on a romp through the twentieth century from Charles Lindberg, Sacco and Vanzetti and Black Monday of the 1920’s to Orphan Annie, bread lines and Hitler of the 1930’s and on into the 1990’s where we have robots working in the cotton fields and instant happiness as the century ends. Don’t look for Brel’s lyrics in this song. The French title is “Les Flammandes” and it is about the Flemish. Blau and Shuman provide the Americanized lyrics.

Brel is also capable of biting satire as in “The Middle Class” where he compares them to “pigs /The older they get, the dumber they get … the fatter they get, the less they regret.”

“The Funeral Tango” is sung by someone who is gleefully imagining his own funeral. He laughs bitterly as he watches his friends shed crocodile tears for him and he tries to have a last laugh.

“Madeleine” about a lover waiting for the woman who never comes is done at a very brisk pace and describes a desperate situation of unrequited love.

Brel covers the gamut of themes that one finds in popular songs from love, fulfilled and unrequited, loss, death and then some.
There is considerable variety in the music and in the performances. The show does generate energy and enjoyment. I did find that some of the music began to sound repetitive. In the end the question arises: is this enough to make up an evening at the theatre? There are concerts that provide fewer songs and less entertainment and if the performer is a star charge a great deal more.

Despite the virtues of the performers and the production, I still have reservations about this being an appropriate programme for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival


Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris by Jacques Brel (music) and Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, (conception and translation of lyrics) opened on June 11 and will run until September 25, 2010 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The one-act play is a special theatrical creature. It needs a rabbit start and must achieve and maintain speed throughout. It has to take quick turns and reach a climax and proceed to a denouement without losing its balance or veering into improbability.

Most playwrights have written one-act plays but opportunities to see them are relatively rare. The Shaw Festival is an exception in this regard because it produces at least one production of a one-act play every year, even if it is during lunchtime. Last year they broke all records by producing all ten one-act plays that make up Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30.

This year’s offering is J. M. Barrie’s Half an Hour, a gem of a play in a terrific production at the Royal George Theatre. As the curtain rises, the actors strut around the stage like marionettes. A reminder that we are all subject to the vagaries of Fate? Perhaps.

Then Barrie steps on the gas and we meet Lady Lilian (Diana Donnelly) and her husband Richard (Peter Krantz) in the middle of a row. He is rich but without status, she is beautiful, blue-blooded and poor. In a perfect commercial exchange, he marries her for her looks and status and she marries him for his money. The marital brawl indicates that the merits of the conjugal union were better in the contemplation than in reality. In short they are stuck with each other.

Not quite. Lady Lilian takes off her emerald necklace and her wedding band and bolts to her poor lover Hugh Paton (Gord Rand) and the two lovers in a fit of romantic and passionate abandon, prepare to flee to Egypt. Hugh rushes out to find a taxi and Fate strikes him dead! Alright, it was motor vehicle but the result was the same.

To make a short story short, Lady Lilian goes back to her husband!

Donnelly is the perfect Lady Lilian; tall, beautiful, classy and very practical in the end. When escape is impossible, noble retreat is available and she takes it. Peter Krantz is superb as her husband; he can make money but he cannot make a woman happy. Peter Millard does a very good job as the doctor who happens to witness the accident and has to report it to Lady Lilian. A few minutes later he is at her house as a dinner guest. There is a situation that requires some delicate maneuvering as he and Lady Lilian conceal a very dramatic secret.

Half an Hour is as good as its title chronologically but, like some fine wines, its fine taste lasts for a long time. Go see it.


Half an Hour by J. M. Barrie continues until October 9, 2010 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Blair Williams, Nicole Underhay, Graham Harley. Photo by Sian Richards

In the opening scene of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, a doctor is interviewing a pretty young woman for a job. He tells her to undress and lie on his psychiatric couch. Before long his loud wife arrives, huffing and puffing. A virago of a wife discovering a naked woman in her husband’s office should be a hilarious situation in the theatre if not in real life.

In addition to the above, we notice that there are four doors leading into the doctor’s office. What we have, of course, are the basics of a farce. True to form, we will soon see the doctor’s wife in her undies and a page boy from a hotel and a cop will also take off their clothes. The four doors will be made very good use of and with any kind of plot we should be laughing heartily if not rolling on the floor.

We also notice that even though the play has the structure and trappings of a farce, it also has a dark, satirical side that is very different from, say, a piece by Georges Feydeau. Orton turns the world on its head and presents comic and cosmic lunacy. This is a thinking man’s farce.

After watching the current production directed by Jim Warren for a while you notice something even more serious: you are not laughing. The psychiatrist’s office which may represent the world upside down is neither funny nor satirical. The characters speak and act as if they are in a TV sitcom on Valium. The production does not move anywhere near the pace of a farce and even at a slow speed, it is not funny.

The basic problem is that Warren has simply taken the wrong approach to this acidic comedy. He did not want to give it the speed and flavour of a farce and he did not find a satisfactory alternative in treating it as a comedy at a slower pace. The result is a failed production. Farce, like Longfellow’s little girl, when it is good, it is very, very good but when it is bad, it is horrid.

The hapless actors who had to carry the unlit torch of the production were as follows: Blair Williams played Dr. Prentice, the henpecked and mad psychiatrist. Nicole Underhay is the nubile girl who gets to run around in her bra and panties when not dressed as a boy. Brandon McGibbon as Nicolas, the hotel page, runs around in his underwear or in a dress.

Brenda Robins is the imperious Mrs. Prentice who spends a night in the linen closet with the hotel page and she gets to run around in her underclothes as well. Oliver Dennis plays the policeman Match and he too is stripped of his clothes. Graham Harley as Dr. Rance is not asked to strip, thank God.

It is all to no effect.

Opening night jitters can cause even the best actors to muff the occasional line. It is usually not worth mentioning. This opening night must have been especially nerve-wracking because there was an inordinate number bungled lines.

What the Butler Saw, which premiered in 1969, was Joe Orton’s last play and is considered a hilarious dark farce. There is no evidence of that in the current production.

What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton opened on August 25, 2010 and will play until September 18, 2010 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


How Now Mrs. Brown Cow is an exuberant and wacky comedy that had most people in the audience laughing until they had tears in their eyes. It is the creation of an Irishman named Brendan O’Carroll, who wrote it, directs it and stars in it. Before I say more about the show, a few words about O’Carroll.

O’Carroll is one of those comic geniuses that can produce laughter at will and keep an audience in the palm of his hand for hours. He writes hilarious one-liners that are given to colourful characters (but mostly to himself) and he creates a plot of sorts to showcase his innate comic talents. He uses a good deal of profanity, a lot of physical comedy and creates situations that have the audience screech with laughter. He can do How Now Mrs. Brown Cow as a standup comic or use another ten actors. By the way, according to O’Carroll, this is the fifth play in the Mrs. Brown Trilogy!

O’Carroll plays Mrs. Brown, a working class Irish widow with five children. She is sarcastic, rude, crude and in her way a doting mother. The funny lines come at almost machine gun speed and they are quite good. The plot that supports the cracks has three strands: Mrs. Brown has a son in Boston and she is expecting him to come home for Christmas. He has told his sister Cathy (Jennifer Gibney) that he will not come home but no one wants to pass the bad news to Mrs. Brown.

The other plotline is the mysterious phone calls Mrs. Brown is getting from a firm of solicitors. They specialize in adoptions and her children are wondering which one of them is adopted.

The third plot strand is about what part Mrs. Brown will get in the Nativity Show being put on by her church. She wants to play the Virgin Mary! There are other incidents to be sure but they are all used to the same effect: clotheslines on which to hang hilarious verbal and physical gags.

Mrs. Brown has the requisite colourful family as butts for her jokes and as gag makers themselves. Her son Rory (Rory Cowan) is gay and he had a tiff with his partner Dino (Gary Hollywood) and their apartment was flooded. How? Well, Rory handcuffed Dino to the radiator and, a flood ensued, I guess.

Her son Dermot (Paddy Houlihan) is working as a penguin. He is trying to get his good friend Buster a job in the same line. Buster must be interview for the job but his only experience in that regard is being interviewed by the place – many times.

Mrs. Brown also has a wacky neighbor Called Winnie (Eilish McHugh) and an even wackier grandfather (Dermot O’Neill) who is deaf and jumps out of his bedroom window when he hears the word fire.

This is verbal and slapstick farcical comedy and it does not pretend to be anything else. If this is not your cup of tea, go somewhere else. Perhaps the review should end here but there are a few things that are deserving of comment. The set consists of a kitchen and a living room but it seems to have been constructed for a much smaller stage. It is plunked in the middle of the huge Canon stage and it clearly should have been larger to fill the space.

All of the actors were loudly miked. It is bad enough in a musical, but the use of microphones in a comedy is unacceptable. We go to watch live theatre.

O’Carroll and his cast go over the top and in a comedy of this type it is de rigueur but there is such a thing as going over, over the top. Almost all of them step out of character in order to get laughs. Dino breaks up laughing out of character and at first it seems like an uncontrollable outburst. He does not stop and repeats it on his next appearance. If he in fact stepped out of character briefly, it would be highly unprofessional and perhaps forgivable. If he is unable to stay in character, as Hollywood seems to do, then we can only hope for his sake that it is intentional. When most of the characters do it, it becomes a source of annoyance rather than pleasure.


How Now Mrs. Brown Cow by Brendan O’Carroll opened on August 19 and will run until September 4, 2010 at the Canon Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Toronto, Ontario.