Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photography by David Hou.

Reviewed by James Karas

For its second musical, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has chosen another classic work, Jesus Christ Superstar by Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music). It is a rock opera that premiered forty years ago and has left its mark on the musical stage.

Des McAnuff, the Festival’s Artistic Director directs this robust and very well done production that received and deserves standing ovations.

Jesus Christ is written through and contains some beautiful melodies in addition to the more loud and heavy-beat rock music. McAnuff directs it economically but energetically eschewing some of the flourishes that he displays at times. Even people who are not all that keen on rock music, can enjoy this musical that retells one of the most famous stories in Christendom – the last week of the life of Jesus Christ.

The plot relates the events in Christ’s life during Passover in the Jewish calendar or Holy Week in the Christian calendar. We follow Christ from his arrival in Jerusalem to his Crucifixion.

The role of Jesus was to be sung by Paul Nolan but he became ill and had to be replaced by Jonathan Winsby (Lancelot in Camelot) who usually sings the minor role of the Apostle Phillip. He handled the role extremely well both vocally and from an acting point of view. The other major role is Judas, who in this musical criticizes Christ and the other Apostles for their views in “Heaven on their minds.” Judas, played dramatically by Josh Young will eventually betray Jesus. Judas and the Ensemble sing one of the most famous songs of the musical, “Superstar.”

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is the most beautiful song of the piece and it is sung with outstanding vocal splendor by Chilina Kennedy who plays Mary Magdalene.

Bruce Dow plays King Herod and sings “Herod’s Song” in which he ridicules Christ for claiming to be King of the Jews. Dow seems to have brought some of the mannerisms he used as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Brent Carver is a lithe and very effective Pontius Pilate though I could have done without thirty-eight of the “39 Lashes” that he sings with Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and the Ensemble.

The set by Robert Brill consists of some abstract steel beams and ladders with neon lights that form a huge H for Herod as well as the lit cross on which Jesus is nailed.

The costumes by Paul Tazewell range from the suggestions of the first century to the modern without any attempt at authenticity or historical accuracy.

An outstanding production of a musical that can be enjoyed even by those who are not crazy about rock.

Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) opened on June 3 and will run until October 29, 2011 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600

Friday, June 24, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Near the end of Bernard Shaw’s Candida, the main character of the play must choose between two men who profess to love her. She is up for auction and she asks the two men what they have to bid for her.

Her husband, the Rev. James Morell offers “my strength for your defence, my honesty for your surety, my ability and industry for your livelihood, and my authority and position for your dignity.’

Her other “lover”, an eighteen-year old poet named Marchbanks offers “my weakness. My desolation. My heart’s need.”

Candida is now playing at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake and it is the second of three plays by Shaw offered by the Shaw Festival this year.

Anywhere in the world except in England as seen by Bernard Shaw, if a young man arrived at a man’s house and told him that he is in love with his wife, he is likely to be beaten up if not shot on the spot. But let us remember that Shaw is examining the position of women and strength of character in late 19th century England and not writing about love and romance.

The point is, of course, that Candida does not belong to anyone and the men have nothing to offer her. Claire Jullien as Candida is statuesque, self-assured, beautiful and commanding without in any way appearing to be domineering. Her husband played by Nigel Shawn Williams and her lover Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) have nothing to offer to her and she has everything to offer to them.

Rev. Morell as played by Williams is a self-centred, windbag who can give lectures and deliver sermons but he is completely ineffectual. His life has been run by others who have covered his ineffectuality to the extent that he believes that he has “strength” etc. to offer Candida.

Bogert-O’Brien as Marchbanks is full of passionate but vacuous intensity. By the end of the play he at realizes that Candida does not belong to anyone and he learns to live without happiness.

Norman Browning plays Mr. Burgess, Candida’s father, an unscrupulous and gruff businessman and Krista Colosimo is Morell’s officious and efficient secretary. She is another person who is running his life while he thinks he is under control Graeme Somerville is the Rev. Lexy Mill.

Set Designer William Schmuck provides a gorgeous, oak-panelled drawing room that is a delight to look at.

The production is directed by Tadeusz Bradecki who took over for Gina Wilkinson after her death.

The play brings out what was bothering Shaw and England at the end of the 19th century and the production does it justice to a great extent. But the setting is England and the people that Shaw writes about spoke/speak with English accents. In this production, the accents were even more deplorable than usual. Williams and Browning didn’t seem to be even trying. Bogert-O’Brien was trying but mostly on the nerves. He would be much better off with his native accent. He could certainly act the passionate youth and convince us that he was in love with this older woman.

Jullien seemed much better perhaps because she had such a command of her role and Colosimo was good perhaps for the same reason.

I write at length about the actors’ accents because they seemed to be an impediment to their acting. Never mind that you would not know where you are if you simply heard them. If they did not try to imitate English accents, the whole thing would be better.

Candida by Bernard Shaw continues until October 30, 2011 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera is quickly becoming legendary. It is a high tech affair by an extraordinarily talented director from who a great deal was expected. The Met has invested huge amounts of money and was expecting superlatives over and above “most expensive.”

The superlatives for the cost were unanimous but were mingled with some unflattering adjectives when it came to the production. But the excitement generated by the name of the director, the fact of the new production alone and some high tech glitches have guaranteed plenty of publicity. Das Rheingold opened the Live in HD season last October and Die Walkure was shown in movie theatres around the world on May 14 with a repeat showing on June 18, 2011. I am reviewing the latter showing.

The production stars Director Robert Lepage and Conductor James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Opinions about Lepage’s work will inevitably vary but no one can argue about the monumental music making of Levine and the Orchestra. Wagner treated his operas as integrated orchestral and vocal works and no number of outstanding singers can do Wagner justice without a great orchestra. Levine delivers.

As one would expect, the Met has assembled a stellar cast of singers to deliver the goods on its investment in the new Ring. Soprano Deborah Voigt leads the cast as a superb Brunnhilde, Wotan’s favourite daughter. Voigt has an amazing dramatic voice and her debut in the role is triumphal. One advantage of seeing the production on the big screen is that you can see the defiance in Brunnhilde’s eyes when Wotan orders her to kill Siegmund.

Die Walkure opens with a recognition scene and an extended love duet where Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) discover that they are siblings and fall in love – yes, incestuous love. But when you are listening to Kaufmann’s powerful tenor voice and the Westbroek’s marvelous soprano voice, the details of their parentage seem insignificant. Sieglinde’s husband Hunding (Hans-Peter König) is a well-fed man who should be a little more threatening than he appears in this production.

Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has morphed nicely from Mozartian to Wagnerian. His eye-patched Wotan displays both power and tenderness (vocally and emotionally) in a fine performance. He has to put up with the nagging Fricka but he does not hide under the table as Wotan did in another production.

The supersized nag of a wife is sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Water is supposed to be (I think) the only universal solvent. When you see this Fricka, you will agree that nagging should be considered another such agent. Fricka is a law-and-order bitch who drives Wotan crazy and there may be a study out there that the dammerung of the götter came about from nagging.

And speaking of encounters that can drive you to distraction let us say a few damning words about the moronic direction for the HD broadcast by Gary Halvorson. His ambition seems to be to make sure that we barely get a glimpse of the effect that people at Lincoln Center enjoy. He keeps shifting camera views and angles, going in for close-ups and successfully wrecking the whole production for movie theatre viewers.

In the opening scene, Siegmund and Sieglinde are supposed to be in Hunding’s hut in the forest. There is an indication of a tree trunk in the center and some planks in front of them. I think I glimpsed planks above them suggesting a shack but Halvosron stuck to close-ups and you never got much sense of where these people are. Much of the time we see them singing with a dark background

Act III of Die Walkure opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries, brisk music accompanied by the girlish shouts of Hoyoyho! and Heiaha. They are riding airborne horses and carrying dead bodies. Even the Met which never shies away from putting horses and donkeys on stage does not attempt to reproduce the Valkyrie cavalry.

Lepage’s production has a large number of planks (they look like deck boards to me) that can be moved in every way imaginable. In this scene, the Valkyries are “riding” a plank each which bops up and down giving the impression of riding a horse. It is a very effective scene, if only we could see it.

If that were the only scene he wrecked, it would hardly be worth a mention. He wrecks most of the opera for viewers around the world.

The best way to watch the production may be with your eyes closed where you get orchestral and vocal splendor. Open your eyes occasionally to glimpse at what is happening, but do not let the travesty on the screen wreck your evening.


Reviewed by James Karas

Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director has made another discovery. She has unearthed Drama at Inish – A Comedy by Irish playwright Lennox Robinson and brought it to Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is a gem of a play that is given a delightful production and earns a standing ovation.

It may be safe to say that Robinson (1886 -1958) is not a household name even among theatre goers. Drama at Inish was first produced in Dublin in 1933 and it did make it to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1934 but again it may be safe to assume that there cannot be too many fresh memories of the production.

In the early 1930’s a troupe of actors arrives at the sleepy town of Inish, in Southern Ireland. They intend to produce serious drama by the likes of Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg and, no doubt, raise the spiritual and intellectual standards of the town.

We will meet the Barrymoresque leader of the troupe, Hector de la Mare, who is everything that an actor should be. He is tall with black hair slicked back, has a moustache and wears a goatee and a black cape. He is theatrical to the core and Thom Marriott loses no opportunity to act, overact, strike poses and be simply hilarious in the role.

De la Mare is accompanied by his wife Constance Constantia who is half his height and swathed in a mink coat. She can out-pose and out-overact her husband at will.

The action takes place in the sitting room of a hotel owned by John Twohig (Ric Reid) and his wife Annie (Donna Belleville). They are small-town people; he is the soul of decency and she is the example of overspending. His sister Lizzie (hilariously played by Mary Haney) runs the hotel or at least she thinks she does.

As may be expected, the presence of actors and serious drama wreaks havoc in the town. Crimes are committed, people sign suicide pacts, there are suicide attempts and, as they say, all hell breaks loose. The insipid but hilarious local Member of Parliament (Peter Krantz), inspired by Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, votes against his party and the government falls. Eddie Twohig (Craig Pike) whose marriage proposals to Christine Lambert (Julia Course) have been repeatedly spurned jumps off a pier and, well, gets wet. There is so much happening in Inish that a newspaper reporter (Ken James Stewart) arrives from Dublin to check the place out.

As one may suspect, serious drama and small town folk, don’t usually mix well. The people of Inish confirm this suspicion by staying away from the performances in droves. Things will work out eventually even if the town has to bring the circus. The maid Helena (Maggie Blake) will also work things out with Michael “the Boots” (a funny Andrew Bunker) and all will end well.

This is heart-warming, funny and simply marvelous theatre. The cast got a well-deserved standing ovation but the real hero of the production is surely Jackie Maxwell for finding the play and directing it.


Drama at Inish – A Comedy by Lennox Robinson opened on May 6 and will run until October 9, 2011 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

In 2009 Brian Bedford directed Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and took on the role of Lady Bracknell. It was a superb production even though some of the actors could not do the crisp English accents for Wilde’s upper-crust characters.

Bedford has taken the play to Broadway and staged it at the American Airlines Theater for the Roundabout Theatre Company and the production has been such a hit that it was broadcast “live” and in high definition to movie theatres on June 2, 2011. The broadcast was in fact a pre-recorded video of a live performance.

The idea of beaming live or even pre-recorded theatrical performances is catching on and we all stand to gain a great deal if it becomes a systematic habit. The Metropolitan Opera started broadcasting operas from New York several years ago and the idea has spread to theatres.

This production of Earnest, whether in the theatre or on the large screen, is a superbly acted and directed staging of one of the best comedies ever written. Brian Bedford makes a great Lady Bracknell, the virago of an aristocrat who is a gorgon without being a myth. He delivers her lines impeccably and Wilde’s familiar wit is a pleasure to hear again.

The two gentlemen, Algernon (Santino Fontana) and Jack (David Furr) are marvelous as well. In this regard this production is one up on the Stratford staging because Fontana and Furr do convincing English accents and are quite hilarious.

The only cast member from the Stratford production aside from Bedford is Sara Topham as Gwendolyn. She is superb. Charlotte Parry is not quite as successful as Cecily. She has a slightly prognathous jaw, an oversized mouth and a disproportionate nose. Even the beautiful dress and makeup could not make her the most beautiful woman in the world. Her line delivery lacks the crispness and assurance that the role demands. Paxton Whitehead delivers a perfect Rev. Chasuble

The upside of close-ups is that you can see facial expressions perfectly and appreciate the set details. The down side of close-ups is you see too much, it seems. Topham’s makeup seemed overdone in close-ups whereas it probably looks just fine from a distance. There are issues like this that need to be addressed if we are to get the full benefit of seeing live theatre on a screen.

You do not get a programme of any kind. People who go to the theatre are used to getting a programme with cast and artistic credits. The broadcast did have a host in David Hyde Pierce and we did get some general information and behind the scenes glimpses that are not available to people in the theatre.

At the Scotiiabank Theatre in Toronto where I saw the broadcast, the volume was turned on so high I thought they were trying to wake the dead. A gentlemen went and complained several times before the volume was lowered to an acceptable level. Was no one listening or watching what was going on?

There are still some glitches to be worked out but the idea of broadcasting theatre, concerts, ballets and opera productions from around the world is here to stay and one can only applaud the development.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde was shown at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto, 259 Richmond Street West, Toronto ON and other theatres on June 2, 2011. For more information visit http://www.cineplex.com/ and www.earnesthd.com Tel: (416) 368-5600

Monday, June 13, 2011


Kaylee Harwood as Guenevere and Jonathan Winsby as Lancelot in Camelot. Photography by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas

Camelot opened at the Festival Theatre in Stratford with two coups de théâtre. As the lights went on, a falcon alighted on a branch of a tree on the stage. We heard a whistle and the bird flew off and landed on the forearm of an old man. Then there was a musical flourish and everyone jumped up thinking it was the national anthem. No, they were the opening bars of Camelot, the grand musical by Lerner and Loewe based on the King Arthur legend.

Director Gary Griffin and a small army of people listed under “Artistic Credits” and “Production Credits” have produced a musical that deserves nothing less than a rave review and stock phrases like “a must-see” and “don’t miss it”.

Alan Jay Lerner who wrote the books and lyrics based on the novel The Once and Future King and composer Frederick Loewe chose their material well. The musical contains pomp and circumstance, a love story, humour, pageantry and some of the best songs heard on Broadway. The legendary King Arthur marries the beautiful Guinevere who falls in love with the French knight Lancelot.

But there is more than love and frolicking here. King Arthur is interested in justice, due process, trial by jury and the establishment of one of the great creations of civilization, the Common Law. He believes in the use Might for Right, in peace and in a borderless world. They don’t come any better than that.

Griffin and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival have assembled an extraordinarily talented cast. Geraint Wyn Davies plays and sings King Arthur. He looks great without the pillow stuffed up his short for Falstaff and he is quite magnificent.

Kaylee Harwood has a delicious English accent and an even more delicious voice and is there any wonder that Lancelot, the puritanical knight falls in love with her. Arthur is his friend and neither Lancelot nor Guinevere wants to hurt him but the force of love is more than they can withstand. We fall in love with her singing and her performance and are saddened when she ends up in a convent rather than with her lover.

Jonathan Winsby is the perfect Lancelot. He himself tells us in “C’est Moi” that he has achieved physical perfection, that he has never been beaten in battle and that he can perform a miracle or two. He is still a few steps short of spiritual perfection and although he has jousted with the best knights of the world, he has not taken on humility. He feels terrible about loving his friend’s wife and he wants to leave her, but he cannot find the right time: “If Ever I Would Leave You” he sings, it can’t be anytime during the year.

Brent Carver plays Merlin, the old wise man who lives backwards but disappears early in the play and then he (Carver) takes on the role of King Pellinore, the spaced-out king who is humane and funny.

Evil enters the kingdom in the guise of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son. Mike Nadajewski plays Mordred with a thick and hilarious Scottish accent and sings “The Seven deadly Virtues” with conviction.

We also have a courtful of knights, squires, ladies and an invisible castle where Morgan le Fey (Lucy Peacock) rules. The pageantry and pomp and circumstance are handled with humour which is a much better way than a swashbuckling Hollywood movie.

I think I have raved enough about a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre and should just end the review by saying go and see the damn thing.

Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner (Book and Lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (Music) opened on May 31 and will run until October 30, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Friday, June 10, 2011


From left: Evan Buliung as Tom Joad, Janet Wright as Ma, Chilina Kennedy as Rose of Sharon and Paul Nolan as Al. On top: Abigail Winter Culliford as Ruthie and Gregor Reynolds as Winfield in The Grapes of Wrath. Photography by David Hou.

by James Karas

“The grapes of wrath” is a byword for the social injustice and mistreatment of people during the depression in the United Sates. The jalopy loaded with all the earthly possessions of a family trekking across the desert to California is an image imbedded in the American consciousness. The phrase and the image owe much to John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. The novel, written on a grand scale, focuses on the Joad family from Oklahoma who are driven by drought and poverty to seek work as migrant workers in California.

Can and should a great or even a good novel be dramatized for the stage? It has been done often, of course, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has partaken of the habit. Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, To kill A Mockingbird and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are some of the recent conversions of novel to play at Stratford.

Why? There is no shortage of plays, new or old to produce, so that availability of works for the stage can hardly be the excuse. Perhaps familiarity with the title will ensure greater attendance. You like the novel or, more likely, you have heard of it and will go see it on stage? Perhaps. Laziness on the part of the artistic director? Don’t dismiss it out of hand.

A novel like To Kill A Mockingbird which has a great courtroom drama may work to some extent. You may even be able to transfer some of the wit and plot of Pride and Prejudice but you will never capture Jane Austen’s style and you will end up with very little.

But trying to reduce The Brothers Karamazov to a two and a half hour drama is ludicrous. Which brings us to the current production of The Grapes of Wrath at the Avon Theatre.

Adapter Frank Galati takes up the superficial and melodramatic part of the Joads’ story and using a large cast brings it the stage. The extended family is being foreclosed on by the bank and must evacuate their Oklahoma farm. They are angry, of course, and to coin a phrase, there is no justice in what is happening to them.

They go to California and they are treated like dirt by employers and the authorities. There is social unrest, violence, a struggle for mere survival and in the midst, shreds of humanity and in the end a supreme act of the affirmation of life.

There are more than sixty characters in the play but there is no difficulty in following the story line. Evan Buliung plays a very sympathetic Tom Joad. Ma (Janet Wright) and Pa (Victor Ertmanis) are the matriarch and patriarch of the family who unite toughness and humanity in almost mythical form. Chilina Kennedy is the young and pregnant Rose of Sharon. She is a pathetic example of someone caught in a social and economic crisis with almost no weapons to resist. Tom McCamus is a former preacher who behaves with conduct unbecoming, one would say, but in the end is ready to sacrifice his life for justice.

Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s General Director, directs the play and maintains crowd control. There were eight cast changes for the performance that I saw on June 4, 2011. The truck, the shantytown, the barbed wire, even the realistic storm and ditch were all there but they are not enough.

One should never lose sight of the fact that the Festival has theatres to fill and budgets to meet. If The Grapes of Wrath brings people, then there is a great compulsion to stage it. Fair enough, up to a point. A classical theatre Festival has an obligation to lead its audience and not just to pander to popular taste. There are countless plays from all over Europe and further afield that deserve to be shown. What you lose in revenue, you gain in prestige.

And next time, the General and Artistic Directors of the Festival hear of a great novel being dramatized for the stage, they should run off and buy a copy of the book and leave it and us at that.

The Grapes of Wrath adapted for the stage by Frank Galati from the novel by John Steinbeck opened on June 1 and will run until October 29, 2011 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


by James Karas

My Fair Lady should be a natural for the Shaw Festival. It is based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and it is one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. All you need is a good production and you have hit a jackpot. And that is precisely what has happened with the current production at the Festival Theatre.

No doubt, there are people who have not seen the play or the musical or the two films of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady but surely there cannot be too many who have not had some contact with one of them.

For those dying to be reminded, the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea is about the creation of a thing of surpassing beauty from nothing. Pygmalion sculpted a beautiful woman from a piece of ivory and he fell in love with her. The goddess Aphrodite eventually gave life to the statue.

Shaw adopted the myth to his own political ideals of social engineering by preaching that people could rise in society if they spoke English properly. Thus Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, undertakes to take Eliza, a squashed cabbage leaf of a flower girl, as he calls her, and turn her into a duchess by teaching her how to speak English beautifully.

Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) adapted the play and created My Fair Lady in 1956.

Thanks to Shaw, the musical has an intelligent, highly literate script that stands head and shoulders above most musicals. Helped by Lerner’s lyrics, Loewe composed some of the finest and most memorable songs and the result was Broadway history.

The Shaw Festival production is directed by Molly Smith and it captures the essence of the musical. Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle is simply superb. She can be beautifully lyrical in “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” and belt out “Just You Wait” with considerable force.

A lot is expected of whoever plays the gruff, self-centered Professor Higgins. The vocal requirements are not that onerous (it’s mostly recitative) but he does have to be dramatic and quite funny in spite of himself. “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?” and “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?” he will ask with a straight face and deliver lines of wit and sheer delight. Benedict Campbell does an exceptional job in the role and he can also sing.

Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, the common dustman-cum-philosopher, is a relatively minor but very memorable role. The generously proportioned Neil Barclay makes sure that Doolittle remains memorable in his scene with Higgins and his delivery of his two signature songs “With A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”.

Patrick Galligan gets star billing as Higgins’ sidekick Colonel Pickering. When the two first meet, Higgins guesses from his accent that Pickering’s lineage is “Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge and India.” In the case of Galligan, he should have added “and a very long stay in Southern Ontario with serious effects on your accent.” Galligan gets to sing/recite the awful “You Did It” without improving it.

In fairness, accents were generally what you expect from Canadian actors. They range from the awful to the acceptable under duress and one is best advised to shut up and put up with them.

The sets and costumes are quite another thing. The opening scene with steel girders and a sort of column is acceptable as Covent Garden Market in front of St. Paul’s Church, London. There is no hint of a church in this production but let’s move on.

Prof. Higgins’ residence in Wimpole Street is in dire need of a decorator. His posh study resembles a series of gazebos or oversized birdcages. They form the basis for the Ascot and the other scenes and all one can say is that they are awful.

The dresses for the high society scene at the race course look like colourful costumes from some African tribal dance. I have no idea what Set Designer Ken MacDonald and Costume Designer Judith Bowden had in mind. I was reminded by a friend, however, that the dresses at the recent royal wedding bore a frightful similarity to what was on stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

These are small matters of taste that take away very little from this robust and exceptionally well-done production that should prove the hit of the Festival’s 50th anniversary.


My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (book & lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) opened on May 28 and will continue until October 30, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.


Diego Matamoros in The Aleph

Reviewed by James Karas

If you are in the mood for something completely different, theatrically that is, the best place to head for is probably The Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District.

The redoubtable Soulpepper Theatre Compnay offers Double Bill, which consists of two distinct theatrical experiences. The first is entitled (Re)birth: E. E. Cummings in Song and the second Window on Toronto. The other offering is The Aleph, a one man show created by Diego Matamoros and Daniel Brooks based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Brooks directs and Matamoros acts.

When you open the programme you will quite naturally look for the names of the authors of the two pieces of Double Bill. You will not find one. Both pieces are the creation of the Soulpepper Academy, a group of young actors you have come up with a couple of interesting items.

Cummings (1894-1962) was a prolific and popular poet but not someone you would expect to be featured on the Soulpepper stage. The Soulpepper Academy, consisting of ten actors/musicians/singers, has put together a musical of sorts based on seventeen poems by Cummings. It is all done under the musical direction of Mike Ross.

The music is traditional ranging from honky-tonk to folk music to Negro spirituals. There are a couple of dozen instruments used (I did not count them) from accordions to ukuleles.

There is much more than just singing. The ensemble also performs and dances in a variety of ways. There is movement, music, singing in a variety of rhythms and styles that keep the show moving. If there is internal unity provided by the poetry, I missed it because of the speed with which the show moves. The unity of the show is provided by the ten performers who produce something quite unexpected. I am not sure how much of the poetry one gets at that speed and in that format but the attempt is at the very least interesting.

Almost the same ensemble is involved in the second part of the Double Bill called Window on Toronto. The “window” is a hot-dog selling truck in downtown Toronto. We see the world from inside the truck as customers rush by buying hot dogs and making comments to Jason, the owner.

The activity in front of the hot dog truck is frantic, reflecting the city, I suppose. People go by and purchase food or make comments to the owner at machine gun speed. Not all of the lines are good but you are simply carried away by the speed with which everything happens in front of the truck. As one would expect in the center of a large city, there are all kinds of people form locals to tourists, from peddlers to criminals that stop or dash by the hot dog vendor.

The Aleph is a short story whose central image The Aleph is, according to Borges’s story, “the only place on earth where all places are -- seen from every angle, each standing clear, without confusion or blending.”

Brooks and Matamoros have adapted the story as if it were the latter’s autobiography. Matamoros is a good and entertaining story teller. He even distributes a photo of himself as a young man. Borges too pretends that the short story is autobiographical.

The only issue I have with the play is that it does not and I have little doubt that it simply cannot translate the supernatural element of the story into a performance. Borges spends some time describing the experience and the reader tries to follow the author’s imagination. The adaptation and the performance have more limitations than a reading of a fantastical story. You end up enjoying everything but missing the central point not for lack of trying by Brooks and Matamoros but because it is impossible to convey what only the imagination can conceive.

Double Bill and The Aleph are good examples of creativity and venturing into less well-travelled paths. That alone makes them worth seeing.
Double Bill and The Aleph continue at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a superb play that provides at least three roles for actors to display their talents on a large scale. Those roles require outstanding acting ability and the Shaw Festival has hit the mark with Moya O’Connell, Jim Mezon and Gray Powell.

Williams’ cat is Maggie (O’Connell), a beautiful woman from a poor background who marries the son of a wealthy but brutal tycoon. This is Mississippi where the rich own land, (twenty eight thousand acres, to be exact), and wield tyrannical power.

Maggie is married to Brick (Gray Powell) who is a broken down young man using alcohol as a crutch for his psychological issues and a real crutch for his fractured ankle which he broke on the high school track in an attempt to recapture his youth.

Brick had a best friend named Skipper who had a homosexual attraction to him. He committed suicide after having sex with Maggie and Brick went over the hill. This is not all that straightforward as Williams digs into the psyches of his characters but it is a good start.

Maggie is a sexual magnet, a woman fighting for her husband and her survival and she must manipulate her way to victory. She got rid of Skipper and almost lost Brick in the process. O’Connell is a superb Maggie. She has the physical beauty and sensual allure but also the emotional strength to wage all out war. In a play that is all about lying, she tells the biggest lie of them all – and she succeeds. A memorable performance by O’Connell.

The other great part provided by Williams is for a male actor with a booming voice and a personality of a bulldozer and the morals of an alley cat. Big Daddy (Jim Mezon) has built an empire in Mississippi but he hates his older son Gooper (Patrick McManus), cannot stand Big Mama (Corrine Koslo), his fat wife of forty years and despises his grandchildren.

He can do almost anything except fight off his own mortality. He was diagnosed with cancer but at the beginning of the play, he has just received a new lease on life. The test results indicate that he is free of cancer. That is a lie, of course, and as the plot unwinds, he finds out that the birthday that he is celebrating together with the good news about his health, is his last. Mezon delivers an outstanding performance. He bellows, insults, pushes around and in the end shows some humanity as the lion who is about to face death.

Brick hobbles around on a crutch as he continues to drink. He is a foil for Maggie in Act I and for Big Daddy in Act II. A splendid performance.

I don’t want to take anything away from the less central characters. Koslo is excellent as Big Mama, the much-abused wife of a tyrant and McManus’s Gooper and Nicole Underhay’s Mae are done superbly. Mae is Gooper’s pregnant and disgusting wife. Gooper is the greedy and equally disgusting. They all add up to excellent theatre.

Eda Holmes directs with sensitivity and precision in this nuanced production.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams continues until October 23, 2011 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Lucy Peacock as Mistress Ford, Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir John Falstaff and Laura Condlln as Mistress Ford  Photo by David Hou.
by James Karas

Scottish pipes, trumpets, cameras, limos and a fashion show. It must be the opening of the 2011 season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The Governor-General is in attendance and some theatrical stars like Colm Feore!

The opener is The Merry Wives of Windsor, a light comedy even if not one of Shakespeare’s best plays, directed by Frank Galati. The American director comes with a long list of credits and awards for directing, acting and writing. He is a major force in the theatrical and operatic life of Chicago. We have the right to expect a lot from him.

The Merry Wives has enough structural infelicities and evidence of less than meticulous attention to detail of plot to convince one that Shakespeare wrote it in a big hurry. But we will let academics worry about that. The great attraction of the play is of course that larger-than-life- magnificent creation of Shakespeare known as Sir John Falstaff. He is best known for his appearance in Henry IV and Henry V which are set historically around 1400 but the bard had no difficulty in transporting him to the town of Windsor, some two hundred years later.

The main plot strand involves the impecunious Falstaff trying to woo Mistress Ford and Mistress Page and being put in a laundry bucket and being thrown into the Thames. The other main plot strand is the wooing of Anne Page by the foolish Doctor Caius and Slender as well as the upstanding Master Fenton. Guess who will get the girl.

There are many opportunities for broad comedy, rollicking fun and farce. What does Galati do?

He takes the play out of the Elizabethan period and sets it in Regency England. It is a period that is associated with Jane Austen, a great deal of formality, stiff manners and even stiffer clothes. Gone is the freewheeling atmosphere associated with Elizabethan England.

Galati refuses to be terribly inventive or give us farcical excesses that will send us roaring with laughter. There is very little laughter during the first half but comedy does break out (how can it not?) when we get to the fat knight being stuffed in the laundry bucket.

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Falstaff in tight breeches with a large pillow up his shirt and, although he is funny enough, he is not permitted to display the excesses of the outrageous knight. James Blendick plays Master Shallow, the ridiculous Justice of the Peace, with almost a straight face. He does get some laughs with his reactions to other characters but the humor should emanate from his foolishness and not from the silly conduct of others.

Slender, Shallow’s nephew and Anne Page’s suitor, is indeed played for laughs by Christopher Prentice and it is a job well done. The same can be said of Doctor Caius, the French physician, played successfully by Nigel Bennett and Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson played by Andrew Gillies.

Tom McCamus as George Page and Tom Rooney as Master Ford and Randy Hughson as the Host of the Garter Inn are almost wasted even though Rooney manages a few laughs when he appears as Master Brook. Lucy Peacock as Alice Ford and Laura Condlin as Meg are both good comic actors and they do fine jobs in their respective roles.

Galati puts the play in a Regency straitjacket and smothers the possibilities for broad humour and the result is only a good production. We have the right to expect more.

And speaking of Colm Feore, in 1982, the now famous star played the tiny role of Dr. Caius’s servant. He quickly rose through the ranks and has played some of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare from Iago to Coriolanus to Macbeth.

The cast list for The Merry Wives, under Townsfolk and Children of Windsor names Stephen Russell. The programme notes that Russell is in his 29th season at Stratford and this year, in addition to being one of the crowd in The Merry Wives, he is the Second Officer in Twelfth Night. These minor roles can be handled by anyone with the ability to walk. Why is a talented actor like Russell wasted on such parts? He has done outstanding work in many leading roles including a memorable Richard II in 1979. how has his star fallen that he is reduced to walking on stage and no more?

It is a question to be asked after the pomp and circumstance have subsided and we start reading the cast lists of today and yesteryear.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare opened on May 30 and will run until October 14, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


by James Karas

The Shaw Festival opened its 50th season with Heartbreak House. Shaw wrote the play between 1913 and 1919 and subtitled it “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” Chekhov with tea and crumpets, perhaps? The play is set during the summer of 1914 and examines pre-World War I English society.

Heartbreak House is one of those plays that is long on verbosity, short on plot and has occasional bursts of wit. Most of Shaw’s plays are like that, of course. I have seen the play half a dozen times and have read it several times but have never been able to warm up to it. The current production at the Shaw Festival directed by Christopher Newton has not changed my mind much as I hoped it would. It has high production values but it is only fair that I warn you about my prejudices about the play.

On one level, Heartbreak House is the story of a dysfunctional but colourful family that receives some visitors to its large house in Sussex. Captain Shotover (Michael Ball) has advanced dementia. He does not recognize his daughter Ariadne (Laurie Paton) who is dropping by after a 23-year absence. He insists that another visitor is a pirate. He considers Ariadne’s husband a numskull. His other daughter Hesione (Deborah Hay) is married to a-good-for-nothing who thinks he is Lawrence of Arabia or something like that.

We know this is not just a family but also a portrait of sorts of England. These useless people are the English nation that is about self-destruct on the Western Front.

Newton tries to bring out the best of the verbosity and there are some successful moments when Shavian wit breaks through. Ball as the 82-year old Shotover appears a bit young and not sufficiently wild for the part. He should be more eccentric and out of this world to be convincing otherwise he looks just like an old man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

The central character of the play is Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis) who represents youth, intelligence, cunning and strength. Willis does not look young or alluring enough for the part. She shows her strength when she gets the best of Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell), the ruthless businessman but she is not quite what the role requires.

Deborah Hay does excellent work as Hesione, the smart and self-possessed woman who knows how to take care of herself. Patrick McManus is good as Mazzini Dunn, the idealist, but he looks simply too young to be Ellie’s father.

Benedict Campbell does superb work as Boss Mangan, the captain of industry who does not hesitate to destroy people’s lives in the course of business. He does not do as well in the business of love where he is supposed to marry Ellie but falls in love with Hesione and both ridicule him to distraction. He is a tycoon with no money and is one of the characters that Shaw and the audience fear and have fun with.

Blair Williams plays Hector, Hesione’s husband, the romantic man-about-town who makes up heroic stories about himself. He is outfitted to look like Lawrence of Arabia in some productions but in this he is dressed rather sedately with a fancy gown and a pistol.

William Dunn (William Vickers) breaks into the house and he is caught. He is a counterfeit burglar who wants to be caught and talk his way out of it and end up with money. Vickers does get a few laughs, of course.

The set by Leslie Frankish is superb. It represents the hull of a ship with curtains and bookshelves on the sides. In the final act, the curtains and shelves are removed and we have the impression of a ship at sea and in a storm. A good metaphor for England.

The hope that Canadian actors will achieve English accents is pretty much gone. Some of the accents were good (Benedict Campbell, Deborah Hay, William Vickers) others were acceptable in a pinch and the rest were deplorable.

It is difficult to enjoy a production of a play that you are not crazy about. You end up appreciating production values and getting through the text (it is worth something) but, unfortunately, you leave the theatre with little enjoyment.

Heartbreak House by Bernard Shaw opened on May 25 and will run until October 7, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.