Monday, January 31, 2011


Allyson McHardy at Popera Plus, 2011

by James Karas

Listening to operatic favourites for an evening is like going to a restaurant and ordering only hors d’ouvres. If you are at a Greek restaurant and order more mezedes than you can count on one hand, the only direction you should take at the end of the evening will be towards a severe diet or the treadmill. In other words you can have a very good time with an evening of highlights from opera and you won’t have to go on a diet.

The advantage of concert versions of arias, duets and short scenes is that you skip the part of the opera that you are not crazy about and go right to the familiar piece. No buildup, no recitatives, just the aria that you love. The disadvantage is that there is no buildup, no development and all you get is the aria that you love.

Opera Hamilton presents an evening of favourite pieces every year and it calls it Popera Plus!, Those with a mild or serious case of operaphobia, can taste a few bites of the art and overcome their psychosis. Next thing you know, they may become full-fledged opera fanatics.

This year’s programme headlined four singers, the McMaster University Choir, the Opera Hamilton Chorus and the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Speers.

Soprano Lynne Fortin, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass baritone Daniel Okulitch gave a good accounting of themselves in the varied programme.

Fortin opened the vocal part of the programme with the “Ave Maria”, the dramatic aria from Verdi’s Otello. It is a prayer and a farewell to life sung by Desdemona who knows that she is about to be murdered by her jealous husband. Fortin brought out the intense emotional strength of the aria but one would clearly have wished for the lead up in a full production.

Fortin also sang “Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux” from Massenet’s Le Cid. Another dramatic piece sung by a woman whose father has been killed by her lover! She is not exactly a petite Cio-cio San but she made an affecting Madam Butterfly in “Bimba dagl’occhi”, the duet from Madama Butterfly that she sang with Gietz.

McHardy made a superb impression. She sang the marvelous “Non piu mesta” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola beautifully and with plenty of verve and was a superb Carmen in the habanera from that opera. She was at her best as Zerlina in the “La ci darem” duet from Don Giovanni sung with Okulitch. Give her the role in the next production.

Gietz has a fine tenor voice and did well in “Chanson de Kleinzach” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. He did not sound very good in the lower register in the opening bars of “E lucevan le stele” from Puccini’s Tosca but he handled the higher notes with ease and produced some fine singing as he did as Pinkerton in the duet from Madama Butterfly.

Okulitch has a strong and wonderful bass baritone voice but he was a bit stiff at times and needs to loosen up on stage even in a concert performance. At one point he sang with his hand in his pocket. He quickly corrected that and found the use of his hands.

He was given the fun aria “Non piu andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro and the tough-going “O du mein holder Abendstern,” the ode to the evening star from Wagner’s Tannhauser. He also sang one of the most unfamiliar pieces of the evening, Aleko’s Cavatina from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s one-act opera Aleko. He produced some heavy-duty emotional depth and vocal sonority in an aria where a husband sings about his wife who has found another lover.

The large combined chorus's vocal quality was not always commensurate with its size but they did provide the necessary singing for the Cigarette Girls Chorus for Carmen and and “Kermesse Waltz Chorus” from Gounod’s Faust. They finished the evening with “Va pensiero” the rousing Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco, and that is one piece that no one can go wrong with.

Opera Hamilton’s next production will by Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, the classic double bill by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo, on April 22 and 23, 2011. And that will be a full meal without any fat.

Popera Plus! was performed on January 27 and 29, 2011 at The Great Hall, Hamilton Place, Hamilton, Ontario. Tel. 905 527-7627

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Sabryn Rock and Yanna McIntosh

Reviewed by James Karas

A young woman is working in her vegetable garden with her baby nearby. Her husband has gone to town to buy her an iron pot, something she has wanted for some time. It is as much a gesture of love as it is a purchase of a necessity. The scene is bucolic. Some soldiers appear and they grab the woman One of them kills the baby by crushing its head with the heel of his boot.

For the next five months the woman is tied with a chain to a tree trunk and repeatedly raped by the soldiers. When she is finally released she is rejected by her husband and the rest of the village and she becomes a prostitute.

This is only a part of the harrowing background of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

The play is set in Mama Nadi’s ramshackle bar and whorehouse in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is in the centre of a “fertile and blessed land” rich in precious minerals. It is also in the middle of the rebel and government forces who, if anything, try to outdo each other in brutality. Ostensibly, the rebels are trying to liberate the people while the government forces are attempting to restore order.

In the opening scene, Christian (Sterling Jarvis), a travelling salesman, brings two women to Mama Nadi’s bar and sells them to her. One of them is Salima (Sophia Walker), the woman who was tied to the tree for five months. The other woman is his niece Sophie (Sabryn Rock), an 18 year old girl whom Mama Nadi is reluctant to accept. Sophie is limping and is described as ruined, damaged, broken. It takes a while to realize the full meaning of these words. Sophie is far more than damaged goods - she is the victim of female genital mutilation. She cannot even be a whore and that is why Mama Nadi does not want her.

Yanna McIntosh gives an outstanding performance as Mama Nadi. She runs a bar and a whorehouse in a literal and moral jungle, situated between two brutal armies. She has to be tough and diplomatic but is also fundamentally humane. Marci T. House plays Josephine, a tough and sassy whore who has to survive by servicing the soldiers and the miners. A fine performance.

I saw the London premiere of the play at the Almeida Theatre last April and the current production suffers somewhat in comparison. The set consists of Mama Nadi’s bar with a bedroom on the far right. It is rather awkward switching scenes in the corner. The English production solved this problem by having a revolving stge.

The set and the sound effects fail to convey the feel of the jungle and the rain. The production plods along for some time until it reaches the climax of the play. This is when Salima’s repentant husband Fortune (Marc Senior) crashes in with the iron pot that he bought for her and she collapses on the ground. There are other searing emotional scenes but the most effective ones are in the last quarter of the play. In other words, director Philip Akin gets the punch line but is not as successful in the lead-up to it.

Walker and Rock provide the wrenching emotional impact of the play when faced with the brutality of the soldiers and the tough commanders of the army units played convincingly by Andre Sills as Osembenga and Anthony Palmer as Kisembe.

The play does end on a note of redemptive humanity. Mama Nadi gives up her most precious possession, a diamond, for Sophie to get corrective surgery. She also reaches out to Christian and they connect on a human level that seems to have almost disappeared in the African jungles of inhumanity.

Lynn Nottage’s play premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in November 2008. It opened in New York City in February 2009 and this is its Toronto premiere. It has won the Pulitzer Prize and an OBIE among other prizes. The current production is by Obsidian Theatre Company in Association with Nightwood Theatre.

Ruined  by Lynn Nottage  runs from January 16 to February 12, 2011 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ont. or   

Thursday, January 27, 2011


By James Karas

Walt Wingfield is a Canadian institution. He is the stockbroker who became a farmer in Persephone Township, somewhere in Southern Ontario about twenty-five years ago. Well, 1985 is when Letter from Wingfield Farm premiered and Walt’s letter writing to the local newspaper and hilarious and touching attempts at farming began. They have not stopped.

Walt Wingfield is the creation of writer Dan Needles and actor Rod Beattie who, directed by his brother Douglas Beattie, has brought him to life across Canada. Wingfield Lost and Found, now playing at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto, is the seventh incarnation of Walt and, it bears repeating, another appearance of a Canadian institution.

What is happening to Walt these days? He still works on Bay Street a couple of days a week and tends his very problematic farm the rest of the time. He has celebrated the third anniversary of his wedding and has a lovely daughter named Hope and the old assortment of colourful neighbours is still there. It is quite a collection of people and animals and they all come to vivid life during the evening.

As you may have gathered or should know the Wingfield plays are one-man shows. But you would never know that if you listened to a recording of the show or even watched it in the theatre. The supremely talented Beattie modulates his voice, makes facial expressions and changes in body postures and accent so that he sounds like at least half a dozen distinct and memorable people – and a dog.

The current show consists of a number of sketches of life on Wingfield Farm and its attendant problems. Walt buys some cows that are supposed to be docile but they turn out to be Olympic sprinters and jumpers as they hop over fences and scoot around the neighborhood. The neighbours get together to find and catch the errant animals.

There is a nest of bees in the ground and Walt must get rid of them using an ecologically friendly method (hot water) instead of chemicals. He discovers the efficacy of baking soda in treating stings and burns. There is also the red-tailed hawk who is lunching on Walt’s chickens. The hawk is not supposed to like chickens and Walt cannot shoot it because it is a protected species. Leave it to Mrs. Wingfield to find a solution – chickens are also protected birds!

The connecting links of the sketches are the drought that has befallen the Township, the search for water using witching doctors, discovering the identity of a tune that everyone is humming and finding Mrs. Wingfield’s bracelet. All of these things are “lost” and order and equilibrium are restored in the lives of the residents of Persephone Township when these things are “found.”

Beattie’s incredible characterizations are there and Needles’ wry humour and other-worldly setting is entertaining. Even though Walt has become ecologically aware and he speaks of Kyoto and the environment, Persephone Township and its people are a long way from downtown Toronto or downtown Anytown.

What Wingfield Lost and Found does not deliver is the huge guffaw. There were some close calls but there was no comic build-up to the punch line that has you almost doubled-up with laughter. The other Wingfields were funnier or it may be that memory is playing tricks on me. The sun was warmer and summers more wonderful 25 years ago and the Wingfield plays may be like times past, better in memory than in reality. This Wingfield did not seem as good as some of the previous ones.

But the credit remains. Needles and the Beattie brothers have created a world in Persephone, a comic institution in Canada and some wonderful evenings in the theatre. Now that is an achievement.


Wingfield Lost and Found by Dan Needles will run until January 30, 2011 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, January 24, 2011



By James Karas

When the temperature has dipped to a bone-chilling - 25ยบ and the snow plows have blocked your driveway; when driving to the supermarket is so hazardous, you may end up in a vat of molten lava for eternity; when the sweet showers of April seem as distant as Chaucer, it is time to think of warm summer afternoons in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake and attending the theatre. The very definition of civilized living.

Between them, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Shaw Festival offer a total of 23 plays. Yes, I know that is hardly enough to satisfy the more refined tastes, but take heart: there are other festivals and there is theatrical life in Toronto during the summer and fall.

Both Festivals provide a wide range of plays in an attempt to attract audiences and fill their theatres. Yes, one can complain about the choice of plays but some of my brain cells are frozen and all I want is that damn plow to clear the side streets so that people will stop offering to push my car over the slightest of inclines.


The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is the senior showcase in Canada and they use all kinds of superlatives to describe themselves. Most of the time they deserve them, their very existence being cause for cheering. This year, General Director Antoni Cimolino and Artistic Director Des McAnuff are offering a dozen productions, same as last year.

If you go to Stratford, there is a good chance you want to see Shakespeare, his plays in any event, and this year the Festival offers four of his works. That is a respectable one-third of the productions. The centre-piece will be Twelfth Night directed by McAnuff followed by the less frequently seen The Merry Wives of Windsor directed by Frank Galati, both at the Festival Theatre.

Richard III and the almost comically brutal Titus Andronicus can both be seen at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Two chestnuts and two more interesting than great plays by Shakespeare should give the summer a nice intellectual boost.

Stratford likes to give us a side show on Shakespeare and this year’s offering is Shakespeare’s Will by Vern Thiessen at the small Studio Theatre. Seana McKenna will play Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s widow, who is about to read her husband’s will after his death.

The other offering at the Studio Theatre is John Mighton’s The Little Years, a play about a woman growing up in the 1950’s and facing the repressions of the era.

Stratford offers two big ticket musicals: Camelot at the Festival Theatre and Jesus Christ Superstar at the Avon Theatre. You may be hearing Richard Burton’s voice from the stage production or have an image of Richard Harris from the movie, but Camelot is a grand show by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Jesus Christ is a rock opera that caused a huge ruckus when it was first produced in the 1960’s and we can only wait and see how much of its bite remains. Des McAnuff directs and you know it will get full attention.

When it comes to “serious drama” we will get Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, an opaque play seething with understated violence and humour. Jennifer Tarver will direct some of Stratford’s finest including a returning Brian Dennehy. Skip a musical if you must and see this.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great American novels of the 20th century and it will be staged in an adaptation by Frank Galati and directed by Cimolino. Are you a fan of novels being adopted for the stage?

Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna is a milepost in Canadian theatre. It was produced at the Tarragon Theatre in 1974 with Richard Monette in the lead and has become a theatrical legend. Maria Vacratsis decided to become an actress after seeing the oroginal production of this play. How can anyone miss this production?

Not to seem parochial, the Festival will also take us to 17th century France and offer Moliere’s The Misanthrope in the Richard Wilbur marvelous translation. With Brian Bedford directing and playing one of the roles, one can already hear the rhyming couplets of this great play at the Festival Theatre.


2011 marks the Shaw Festival’s 50th season and it offers 11 plays in its four venues. If Stratford can stage a Lerner and Loewe musical so can Shaw. They are one-upping Stratford in a way because My Fair Lady is a better musical than Camelot and it is based on a play by Bernard Shaw. Killing two birds with one stone, as they say.

If Pygmalion could be used to spawn My Fair Lady, can Shaw’s On the Rocks be updated into “a new version by Michael Healy”? Shaw’s politics could be witty and murky and we will have to wait to see what a Canadian writer can do with a second-rate play.

Heartbreak House and Candida are the major Shaw plays and if we allow a half point for the musical and the adaptation, then he will get credit for three out of the eleven productions. Much the same as Shakespeare at Stratford.

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fills the slot for serious American drama and J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton does the same for English comedy. Admirable choices, one would say.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has made a habit of finding works that have all but disappeared from the repertoire in general and have never been seen in Canada. Drama at Inish – A Comedy by Irish playwright Lennox Robinson will get its Canadian premiere on May 6 at the Court House Theatre.

If that’s not adventurous enough, how about the premiere of a musical: Maria Severa by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, again at the Court House. The musical is about the birth of fado, the Portuguese music of the street. Raise your hand if you know anything about it.

Jackie Maxwell does not stop there in her mission to broaden our horizons. She is offering Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner Topdog/Underdog and When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell. The latter is from Australia and one can safely say that Aussie plays have not exactly flooded Canadian theatres. Both plays are at the Studio Theatre.

But if you want to see a tour de force or a bravura performance or whatever superlative you want to dig up for outstanding theatre, don’t miss Lorne Kennedy in The President by Ferenc Molnar as adapted by Morwyn Brebner. This one-act play was shown in 2008 and is a farce about a president of a large corporation who must transform a boorish Communist cabby into a successful capitalist. You never knew that anyone could speak English at speeds that would earn a speeding ticket if done on the highway. A must-see.

Now let’s start complaining. Why don’t they produce plays by …. Why are they ignoring …..

I need to shovel the driveway; my car’s transmission is acting up; there are icicles hanging from my mustache. Bring some warmer weather and some openings at the theatre and I will shut up and never complain – until the weather improves.

For more information about the festivals, visit their websites: and

Wednesday, January 19, 2011



Maria 1 - Nikos 0

by James Karas

[I wrote this piece in 2007, the 50th and 30th anniversaries of the death Kazantzakis and Callas respectively. Some members of the Kazantzakis Society of Toronto had not seen it and it seemed like a good idea to post it here]

Nikos Kazantzakis died 50 years ago. Maria Callas died 30 years ago.

Greece, the birthplace of neither but the mother of both of these famous Greeks wants to recognize and celebrate their achievements. One way of doing that is by choosing a suitable anniversary and proclaiming the year in which it falls as The Year of …. . But you can’t have more than one honouree (it tends to dilute the distinction) and George Voulgarakis, the Greek Minister of Culture, chose to dedicate 2007 to Maria Callas “because” he is quoted as saying “she is a great figure whom we have not honoured enough. We must lay claim to her and stress that she was 100% Greek”

It seems, then, that fears of losing her to someone else or fending off doubters about her 100% Greekness is the great impetus for the recognition accorded her as much as redressing our past failure in honouring her sufficiently. But who is denying that some or all of Callas was not 100% Greek that we need to lay claim on her and stress, again and again, that she was 100% Greek?

The Italians! There are Italians, according to the Minister who “consider she belongs to them.” Those spaghetti-eaters cannot be trusted with anything and nothing less than a year of Greek claims to Maria will have any effect on them. Who can forget or forgive their claim that Christopher Columbus was Italian and that the famous Greek opera composer Iosif Prassinos was also Italian. Those tricky Italians stealthily changed the name of the latter to the Italianate form of “Verdi” in order to hide the evidence of his identity. And now Callas!

The Minister could have steered away from the ludicrous and idiotic and said that Callas is one of the most famous Greeks of the 20th century. In fact she is frequently described as “the voice of the century” and she did have a significant effect on opera. She is credited with reviving the bel canto form and left behind a substantial recorded legacy.

All true. But opera is a foreign form of culture in Greece (name a famous Greek opera?) and although there are reasonably regular performances in Athens, you may not wish to try your hand at seeing too many performances in the provinces, as they say. Callas spent about eight and a half years in Greece from 1937 when she was 13 until 1945 when she was 21. Aside from singing in some concerts, she sang seven operatic roles in 56 performances. She sang in Greece a few times later but her influence on Greek opera and culture was zero. She had a famous affair with Aristotle Onassis, the ultimate Greek but, alas, she was married to an Italian.

Nikos Kazantzakis is another story. He is one of the great writers of the 20th century and he put Greece on the literary map of the world. If Greece had not worked so hard against it, he would have almost certainly received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His travel books, novels and his poem The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, are read world-wide and explore “Greekness” or “Cretanness”, if you will, from the time of Homer to the Greek Civil War of the 1940s and beyond.

Does the Minister feel that Greece has honoured Kazantzakis just about enough and no one is laying any claim on him so there is no need to stress that he was 100% Greek therefore we can put him in the back seat of the Limo of Honour and celebrate him along with Nikos Engonopoulos and Dionysis Solomos? (The latter are “also” honoured in The Year of Maria Callas”). We may have to mount a separate campaign to defend Solomos. His first language was Italian and he never stepped on liberated Greek soil. Let’s hope the Italians don’t get wind of this or there goes our National Poet.

If Greece puts Nikos Kazantzakis in the “also honoured” tier, the rest of the world is not so stingy. The 50th anniversary of his death has provided the excuse for dozens of symposiums and conferences around the world where his work is considered and his achievement celebrated.

One of the significant events of the year is the publication of Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit, Volume 2, by Peter Bien. The first volume of his study was published in 1989 and it examined Kazantzakis’s work until 1938 when The Odyssey was about to be published. The second volume deals with Kazantzakis’s work from 1938 until his death in 1957, in other words the years when he wrote the novels that have made him famous.

Bien writes in a highly readable and at times almost conversational style and is both enthusiastic and critical of Kazantzakis. He finds his book on Spain, for example, “exasperating” and states that “Kazantzakis attempted to have his cake and eat it, too.” He accuses him of duplicity for his refusal to take a stand during the Spanish Civil War. Kazantzakis refused to support either side in the war and he even presented himself “either as a full diabolist, viewing both sides with unfeeling detachment, or as an emotional partisan of one side or the other.”

Was Kazantzakis for or against Mussolini, Hitler or Metaxas? There are no simple answers but there are great uncertainties. Bien examines the question but states that “I know of no evidence showing Kazantzakis’s opposition to Metaxas.” He warns against oversimplification of Kazantzakis’s views and states that if we must affix a label on his views “artist” is perhaps the most appropriate.

Bien traces the progress of Kazantzakis’s writing for the theatre and his development as a writer and a man. Kazantzakis, notes Bien, developed an antipathy towards Greeks in his youth, but in the 1930s and 1940s he started becoming more patriotic or at least started reaching a rapprochement with his fatherland.

Bien approaches Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis’s most famous novel from political and philosophical points of view and provides an antidote to those who think the Michael Cacoyannis’s film expresses the writer’s view. The last scene of the movie where the Boss asks Zorba to teach him how to dance and they both eat goat meat and drink wine in Dionysian abandon is misleading. It gives the impression that the Boss has become like Zorba. That is not true, insists Bien. Zorba helped release the Boss from his intellectual impasse and allowed him to start writing again. He did not become like Zorba but was able to write about Zorba. More importantly, in Zorba the Greek Kazantzakis was able to reconcile East and West into a third way, the Greek Way.

Cacoyannis felt that Kazantzakis was expressing his hatred of Greeks in the novel and certainly reflects this supposed hatred in the movie. Bien argues that the novel demonstrates Kazantzakis’s admiration for the Greeks.

After finishing Zorba, Kazantzakis continued his examination of his roots and the question of Greekness by tackling subjects from ancient Greece (a trilogy of plays based on Prometheus), Byzantium (Constantine Palaiologos) and the modern era (Kapodistrias).

Kazantzakis spent World War II on the island of Aigina where he wrote the five plays just mentioned and Zorba the Greek. He has been criticized for not taking part in the resistance but his aloofness does not seem to have affected his reputation. After the liberation of Greece in October 1944, Kazantzakis went to live in Athens where he established a political party in May 1945 and in November of that year was invited to participate in a government of national unity. He resigned in January 1946 and returned to Aigina. He left Greece in June 1946 never to return except as a corpse.

Kazantzakis emerged from that tempestuous period, notes Bien, as a mature artist and went to write some of his most remarkable work in the last decade of his life. His fame spread and in 1946 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature together with Angelos Sikelianos. The nomination was controversial and unleashed a campaign of vilification by right-wing newspapers calling them “EAM-Bulgarian communists” and warning the Swedish Academy against “the international deceit whereby two perpetrators of the December 1944 uprising, two ambitious figures, ‘entirely foreign to Greece’ were supposedly representing the Greek nation.” His candidacy was opposed by successive Greek governments and of course he was never awarded the Nobel Prize.

Bien considers Christ Recrucified, written in 1948, as Kazantzakis’s most ambitious novel and his “political, religious and metaphysical summa.” He gives a detailed analysis of the book in relation to the current political situation (the civil war) and Kazantzakis’s development as an artist. He notes the irony that Kazantzakis wrote Christ Recrucified as “a lark” yet in it and his later novels he found the most mature and most enduring part of his prodigious output.

Bien writes that Freedom or Death (Kapetan Mihalis in Greek) “is probably the most lavishly praised of all of Kazantzakis’s novels” In his opinion, however, the novel “is severely flawed both aesthetically and politically.” Regardless of its patriotic appeal to Greeks, one of the basic problems is that the novel was intended as an epic but is mixed with realistic and psychological elements. With the mixing of genres “everything is likely to go wrong” notes Bien and in fact it does and the result is “aesthetic confusion.”

After Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation is Kazantzakis’s best known novel. The furor it caused among religious leaders insured the novel’s success. The Greek Orthodox Church attempted to excommunicate Kazantzakis but he was saved by the intervention of Queen Frederika, notes Bien. The Catholic Church put the book on its Index of Forbidden Books and Protestant fundamentalists campaigned to have the work removed from libraries, according to Bien. But Kazantzakis was not without religious supporters. Unitarians, Quakers and religious liberals were in favour of the book because it made Jesus so human.

In his two volumes Bien presents a comprehensive study of the work of Kazantzakis. He puts it in the historical context of events in Greece and relates it to Kazantzakis’s life and, more importantly, his spiritual, philosophical and artistic development. He examines the large and complex output of a complex man and attempts to capture his changing outlooks, his spiritual development and his political involvements. The books show a lifetime of studying Kazantzakis and anyone reading any book by Kazantzakis will profit greatly by consulting the relevant chapters in Bien’s study or, better still, reading both volumes.

KAZANTZAKIS: Politics of the Spirit, Vol. 2
by Peter Bien
610 pp. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Michael Therriault (right) with the company. Photo by Kesta Graham.

Reviewed by James Karas

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) was the first Jew to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. He was a brilliant jurist. Justice James McReynolds sat on the Supreme Court with Brandeis but he was such a blatant and virulent anti-Semite that, according to one source, he “refused to speak to Brandeis for three years, refused to have his picture taken with him, and often left the room when Brandeis was speaking.” Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916.

A few years earlier, McReynolds’ strain of anti-Semitism was displayed with more deadly results in the case of Leo Frank who was accused of murdering a young girl in Atlanta, Georgia and convicted on trumped up evidence largely because he was a Jew.

Playwright Alfred Uhry and composer Jason Robert Brown have written Parade, a musical about the Frank case and it is now showing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs in a production by Studio 180 and Acting Up Stage Company and directed by Joel Greenberg.

Leo Frank was a Jew from Brooklyn and his uncle gave him a job as a supervisor in a pencil factory in Atlanta. Memories of the Civil War were still fresh in the South and racial bigotry, religious fervour and intolerance were the rule rather than the exception. The “parade” of the title is the celebration of the Civil War that Southerners observed - a war that they lost, as Frank ruefully observes.

In April 1913, Mary Phagan, a 13-year old worker was found dead in the pencil factory. Suspicion fell on the black janitor and the Jewish supervisor. What followed was not just a travesty of justice but a frenzy of hatred and bigotry that staggers the imagination. Frank was convicted and all his appeals were refused. When the Governor commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment the good citizens of Georgia took the law into their own hands and lynched the hapless Frank.

That is the dramatic story on which the musical is based. Fifteen actors take on more than several dozen roles as the writers explore the events in Frank’s life from the last time that he saw Mary Phagan to the time that a noose was placed around his neck.

The music is played by four musicians on a guitar, a banjo, a cello and percussion instruments. They provide surprisingly rich sound. Much of the singing is accompanied recitative. There are some powerful moments that are accentuated by the music but many of the numbers do not gain from having music in the background. The ensemble pieces are much better and more expressive.

Michael Therriault is an effective and well-done Frank. He is thin, wears horn-rimmed glasses and rubs his hands when he talks. He is a Jew from the North and must be guilty, some people conclude. His wife Lucille (Tracy Michailidis) is a strong woman and a faithful Southerner who fights for her husband and is able to bribe where necessary and eventually sow some doubt in the Governor’s mind.

Most of the rest of the cast take on several roles and form part of the ensemble. Not all of them can sing and in some instances such as the giving of evidence in a recitative, the play is ill-served. I was reminded of the story of the famous Russian ballerina Pavlova who was asked by an admiring fan “what does it mean” after watching her perform. “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have danced it” she replied. In the case of parts of this musical, they could have been said a lot better than they were sung.

That does not take away from the force of the story and the musical.

Parade was first staged at New York’s Lincoln Centre in 1998 and it won Tony awards for best book and score as well as Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards as best musical. It was produced as a large scale musical with the attendant large scale costs. The current production is a scaled-down version of the musical done with four musicians on a single set with a lot of doubling up by the actors. It gains in intimacy in the small Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs but does lose in grandeur.

Parade is a great reminder of the force of bigotry that, for all our hopes, frequently rears its head even in Canada. Perhaps no one would dare do what Justice McReynolds did or act as he acted. Perhaps, but it was not that long ago that when a lawyer asked an Ontario Superior Court Judge for an adjournment because of a Jewish holiday, the judges remarked “Are you one of them?”

Justice Brandeis and Leo Frank would have known what he meant.

Parade by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics), presented by Studio 180 and Acting Up Stage Company, opened on January 3 and will run until January 22, 2011 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ont. (416) 368-3110.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Michelle Giroux, Patrick Galligan, Julian Richings, David Storch, Stephen Gartner, Brandon McGibbon, Andrea Runge, Stuart Hughes, and Maria Ricossa. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann

Moliere’s The Misanthrope is one of the masterpieces of world drama and it is mentioned in the same breath with the plays of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde. It has been translated into English numerous times and often set in places other than 17th century Paris.

The current production at the Tarragon Theatre is a wonderful re-imagining of the play by English playwright Martin Crimp. It is a “version” as opposed to a mere translation. Crimp places the play in late 20th century London where the artistic community of that city deliver the translated rhyming couplets.

Crimp changes the names of all the characters except Alceste the misanthrope. They are, of course, acting like modern English people rather than the French upper class of Louis XIV.

This version was first presented by The Young Vic Company in 1996 and it is the first time that it is being seen in Toronto.

The production, beautifully directed by Richard Rose, is fast-paced, well-timed and except for some glitches works marvelously well. The central figure is Alceste (Stuart Hughes), who espouses high morals, believes in complete honesty and despises cant and hypocrisy. His friend John (Patrick Galligan) espouses a more practical morality and tries to be more rational and accepting of human weaknesses. He tries to convince Alceste to be less categorical in his condemnation of humanity.

Alceste is in love with a shallow, fun-loving American actress named Jennifer (Andrea Runge) who does not share his high moral standards. When Covington, a reviewer, played by David Storch, visits Alceste to show him a play that he has written and promises to write favourably about him, Alceste snubs and offends him.

As fate would have it, Jennifer falls in love or at least has an affair with Covington. What can be worse than someone you love having sex with someone whom you hold in contempt?

Julian (Brandon McGibbon), Alexander (Julian Richings), the bitchy Marcia (Maria Ricossa) and the journalist Ellen (Michelle Giroux), complete Alceste’s social circle.

The world of these people will unravel when Ellen writes a story based on an interview with Jennifer. The latter ridicules all of them and as a result appears to be left with no friends. Loyalty is not a prized quality when promoting one’s career.

Alceste, in turn, drops all his fulminations about hypocrisy and morality and is willing to take Jennifer back provided she renounces the world. She is not prepared to go that far and Alceste storms off the stage as the others continue with the party.

The rhyming couplets are handled reasonably well, the pacing is superb and the overall effect is highly entertaining. One can take issue with the English accents which most of the actors simply could not do. Runge does not have to try because she is an American.

The strongest and most delightful performance is turned in by Giroux in the relatively minor role of Ellen. She is simply hilarious as the world-weary reporter who ends up betraying Jennifer’s confidence in order to further her career. The slim, highly attractive and very sexy Andrea Runge is a perfect Jennifer: a bit ditzy but no fool.

Hughes fulminates as Alceste and Galligan provides the counterweight as the two give very fine performances. McGibbon and Richings can overact with delightful, results and equally high marks go to Storch as Covington.

There was some annoying music between scenes and the ending was unsatisfactory. In this regard I am simply prejudiced by Tony Harrison’s version in which Celimene (Jennifer) is left alone on the stage, abandoned by her “friends” in a very effective scene. The original play simply ends with Philinte/John running after his friend Alceste in order to change his mind. Alceste takes off with the intent of abandoning civilization.

Director Richard Rose does a wonderful job for most of the platy but does not provide a more than just satisfactory ending.

It should be noted that Moliere and classical comedy are not natural denizens of the Tarragon. The Misanthrope replaces Kent Stetson’s The Harps of God, a Canadian play that was originally scheduled for this time slot. The good news is that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will also stage The Misanthrope this summer, directed by the inimitable Brian Bedford.
The Misanthrope by Moliere in a version by Martin Crimp opened on January 6 and will continue until February 6, 2011 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Laura Albino (Rosalinda) and Adam Luther (Eisenstein)

Toronto Operetta Theatre bid farewell to 2010 and rang in the New Year with one of the best operettas in the repertoire: Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr. Subject to the usual constraints that lack of funds brings, TOT does a rousing job and provides both vocal pleasure and lots of laughs.

Die Fledermaus is a “revenge” comedy that starts in an upper-crust residence in Vienna, continues in the posh ballroom of a Russian prince’s villa and ends in a state prison.

Things are in a bit of an uproar at the Eisenstein house. Husband Gabriel (Adam Luther) is supposed to go to jail; his wife Rosalinda (Laura Albino) is courted by an opera tenor and a lawyer friend drops in while the lovely maid Adele (Lucia Cesaroni) wants to go to a ball. The jailer arrives to discover Alfred the opera tenor (Keith Klassen) wearing Eisenstein’s dressing gown and courting Eisenstein’s wife. Alfred goes to jail pretending to be Eisenstein in order to protect the lady’s honour. That’s what you call a gentleman! Next act, please.

The ball is at the posh villa of Prince Orlovsky (Gregory Finney) and the guests start arriving. The real Eisenstein has not gone to jail and shows up at the party disguised as a French noble. His wife Rosalinda arrives disguised as a Hungarian; the maid Adele comes pretending to be an actress; the prison warden (Mark Petracchi) comes disguised as a Frenchman and in the end you don’t know who is who and you don’t care because you are having fun.

The elaborate joke, for those who care, is set up by Eisenstein’s lawyer friend Falke (Andrew Rethazi) to get even with Eisenstein over a joke that was played on him.

Those of us who do not care too much about the plot details have better things to do. We listen to the music and the singing which happen to be some of the best in the genre. Strauss put together lively arias, ensemble pieces and, of course, waltzes to keep you humming and tapping your feet until your soles wear off.

Soprano Laura Albino makes a first-rate Rosalinda. She is pretty, poised and can sing delightfully. She is the best part of the evening. Keith Klassen as the opera tenor has to sing bits of arias from half a dozen operas and he is put under considerable strain. It is no easy task to go from “La done e mobile” to “Che gelida manina” and he is not always successful but it is a tough role and he does get the laughs and most of the notes.

Tenor Adam Luther is good as Eisenstein but he too is not without his vocal limitations. The same can be said of Andrew Rethazi as Dr. Falke and Petracchi as Frank, the prison warden.
Some of the best comedy was provided by Finney and Guillermo Silva-Marin. Finney played the “bored” Prince Orlovsky and elicited laughter with ease. Silva-Marin, the General Director of TOT had a great time over-acting as Frosch the jailer and the fun was shared by the audience.

Die Fledermaus provides great opportunities for current humour. Silva-Marin who directs the production has provided additional dialogue and humour. He includes jokes about Martha Stewart, the recent G20 meeting in Toronto, Conrad Black and a host of references to current events. His free-wheeling approach to the work is quite appropriate. Operetta is supposed to be funny and easily understood and he succeeds in making it so.

The fifteen-member orchestra under Derek Bate sounded much bigger than its numerical strength would indicate and the chorus was very good.

TOT has severe fiscal limitations which appear most blatantly in its choice of venue and sets. It would be nice to see operetta produced at the Elgin/Winter Garden or even at the Bluma Appel Theatre next door. The Jane Mallett Theatre is small and, at best, functional. The sets are barely adequate to suggest the scenes of the operetta. You are carried by the music and the signing but it would be even better if we could enjoy posher sets.

The women’s dresses designed by Edward Kotanen and rented from Malabar were beautiful and the men’s tuxedos were fine.

TOT’s next production will be Luisa Fernanda by Moreno Torroba beginning March 9, 2011. You may have been to every operetta production in Canada and still not have seen this one. It has never been produced in Canada – yet.

Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr. opened on December 28, 2010 and will run until January 9, 2011 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: (416) 922-2912.