Monday, February 27, 2012


Mike Ross, Michael Hanrahan, Oliver Dennis & Diego Matamoros. Photo: Michael Cooper 

Reviewed by James Karas

Lee MacDougall’s High Life is a very funny play about four criminals trying to pull off a major bank robbery. It is now playing at the Young Centre in a production by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

A play can be very funny without necessarily being very good but let’s look at the bright sides of the production first.

McDougall has created four criminal characters that one of them describes as “pathetic freaks of nature.” They are drug addicts, thieves, fraud artists and all but one have spent many years in prison. Dick (Diego Matamoros) is the tough, smart one of the group who wants to rob ATM machines from inside and make everyone rich. He is foul-mouthed (they all are) and the dominant member of the group.

Donnie (Oliver Dennis) is a pathetic petty thief who specializes in stealing purses and using the bank cards to steal small amounts of money from their accounts. Where does he get the pin numbers? Eighty per cent of people have their pin numbers somewhere in their wallets. Donnie is a physical wreck with one kidney not functioning at all and the other one working at 40% capacity among an array of ailments that are a good source of black humour. Dennis is outstanding in the role.

Bug (Michael Hanrahan) is a pit-bull of a man who seethes with violence. He is of the belief that if you hit a guy and he dies, it does not mean that you have killed him! Hanrahan is a big, burly guy (or at least projects it in the role) and he gives a first-rate performance.

Billy (Mike Ross) is a con artist who is a hit with women. He claims he seduces as many as two women a day. He is addicted to morphine like the rest but has never spent a day in jail. Ross looks spaced out like an addict and one is not sure how women find him that attractive but so be it. Very well done.

These characters are almost archetypes from Hollywood gangster movies but they do provide marvelous acting possibilities. The four actors take full advantage of the opportunities and they are melodramatic, violent and quite funny and almost object lessons in the breadth of talent possessed by each of them. Matamoros is outstanding as the tough leader. I am used to seeing him as the quiet, introverted type and sometimes even the wimp and I do not recall ever seeing him in a role similar to that of Dick.

Director Stuart Hughes does a good job overall and my only comment is that in trying to achieve a brisk pace he is rushing the actors a bit much. The speed he tries to achieve resulted in some muffed lines and some unnecessary overlapping.

The play is set in a dingy apartment and a car where the criminals are waiting for their opportunity to break into the ATM machines. The dingy, sparely furnished apartment by Set Designer Lorenzo Savoini is fine but the scene in the car left me cold. Instead of pulling up two chairs to represent the backseat of the car, they use the couch from the apartment. This is not a realistic scene in a car but a couch for a backseat is unnecessary.

The play itself develops the four characters with all their swearing and injection of morphine or ingestion of pills and looming violence amid the black humour. The main plot is the planning of the bank job and in the end it wears a bit thin. McDougall keeps inventing material to keep the plot going but there is simply not enough to keep the piece going at full tilt.

The play was first produced in 1996 and won a Dora Award for Best New Play and nominated for other awards. Much of the thinness of the plot is covered by good dialogue and the totally outstanding acting of the four actors.

High Life by Lee McDougall opened on February 22 and will run until March 28, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


A scene from Act 1 of Wagner's Gotterdammerung. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has now staged Gotterdammerung, the final part of Robert Lepage’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Lincoln Centre. All four operas will be shown in three cycles in April and May of this year for those fortunate enough to go to New York to see the production.

For the rest of the world Wagner’s massive work was available Live in HD in movie theatres starting in October 2010 and culminating with Gotterdammerung on February 11, 2012.

The issue for me for all four operas is the handling of the camera angles and shots by Gary Halvorson, the director for the cinema as he is titled in the credits. No to put too fine a point on the matter, I have nothing but contempt for his work. He treats these grand productions as if they were video games for children who have a minimal attention span and opera fans who worship close-ups to the point of looking down singers’ throats. The sets, the grand view, the still shot where we listen and watch are of little interest to Halvorson. His sole interest seems to be clicking from close-up to closer-up, flicking from one shot to the other with alarming frequency and no apparent reason at all.

In Gotterdammerung, for example, at one point he showed us the back of Siegfried for no apparent reason and at another point he focused the camera on Alberich when Hagen was in fact singing. The dramatic sets, the visual pleasure of the background, they only appeared when he managed moved from one shot to another and the larger picture appeared momentarily.

Lepage’s production of The Ring was a major undertaking for the Met which means that it was very expensive. It had its share of mishaps and it garnered a great deal of publicity. By the very fact that it is a new production at the Met and staged by a famous movie director, means that it will go down in the annals of opera history. Mixed reviews? Well, has there been a recent production of Wagner that has not caused some controversy with reviews ranging from sheer adulation to Eurotrash?

The centerpiece of Lepage’s production is the moving planks. With proper lighting, they could be angled and appear like a river, lit up like a mountain and have a range of views and positions that seemed quite dazzling. This is subject to what Halvorson allowed us to see. At Lincoln Center the effect may well be spectacular or deadly. Those who saw the operas in their local movie theatres only, will never know.

The star of this performance was soprano Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde. Voigt has a powerful and stupendous voice and the physical attributes of a highly convincing warrior goddess. My slight issue with her is that she has a tendency to appear to be smiling when it is inappropriate. This is perhaps a facial feature that she has to work on and does control most of the time. In the opening scene when she comes on stage after her honeymoon night with Siegfried, she has the right (maybe?) to smile even if her lover’s performance may have been less than stellar but later on she has the right to be in a pretty awful mood. Again, she seemed to be cracking a smile at inappropriate times and it may simply be Halvorson’s idiotic shots.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris was the heroic Siegfried who is all promise but is nevertheless duped by the Gibichung clan. I would have preferred him a bit more heroic vocally but he carried the role very well indeed.

Waltraud Meier was an outstanding Waltraute with her pure and lovely voice and facial expressions that were perfectly suited to the role. Iain Paterson was the outstanding performer in terms of acting. He reacted with great sensitivity to what was going on around him as if he were a Shakespearean actor. He was excellent vocally as well. This was one befit of watching the performance on the screen; we could get details that were probably visible to few people at Lincoln Centre.

Wendy Bryn Harmer was a pretty and very loveable Gutrune. She seemed like an innocent girl who was born in the wrong family.

Erich Owens is a big and mean-looking Alberich who seethes with evil and cunning. He is a perfect match for the equally nasty Hagen of Hans-Peter Kőnig, a conniving evil man.

Fabio Luisi conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and that astonishing performance could not be affected by anyone.

With a couple of intermissions, Gotterdammerung lasts for about six hours. There are some great moments but in the end you want to see the immolation scene and expect it to knock you off your seat. This is the end of the world as Valhalla goes up in flames. You do see some red light against the planks and a bunch of large logs that make up Siegfried’s funeral pyre. The music swells up to one of those Wagnerian crescendos that leave you breathless but where is the visual effect? It may be there for all we know but if it is you have scant chance of seeing it.

Gotterdammerung by Richard Wagner was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on February 11, 2012 at the Cineplex Town Centre, Toronto, Ont. and other cinemas. For more information:

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Aidan deSalaiz and Theodore Bikel . Photo by Racheal McCaig

Reviewed by James Karas

Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron is one of those simple, funny, heartwarming plays whose plot flows seamlessly from beginning to end. It tells a simple story about a young man who is ordered by a judge to visit an old recluse. It is the choice production of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and it is currently playing at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

The play’s star attraction is Theodore Bikel who at eighty-eight deserves a round of applause for longevity let alone talent. The other star of this two-hander is Aidan deSalaiz. The play is expertly directed by Jen Shuber.

The plot is quite simple. Mr. Green (Bikel) is an old man living alone in a small, unkempt apartment in New York. He inadvertently walks into traffic and is almost struck by a car driven by Ross Gardiner, a young Harvard graduate who is working in the financial sector. Ross is charged with reckless driving and an imaginative judge orders him to visit Mr. Green every Thursday for six months.

Mr. Green is a gruff man, a recent widower, who does not want to be disturbed. He claims that he was married or 59 years and never had an argument with his wife. Neither we nor Ross believe that.

Initially, the two men seem to have nothing in common until they discover that they are both Jews. That is a start but they soon discover that their Jewishness is of little help in matters like homosexuality and interracial marriage. Ross is gay and Mr. Green cannot fathom that. He considers it a betrayal of what Jews stand for and there is no such thing as a gay Jew, in any event.

Mr. Green claims to have no children but we discover that he in fact has a daughter and he has written her off because she has married a non-Jew. As far as Mr. Green is concerned his daughter died when she married a “goy”.

The two men work out the combined theme of intolerance with humour and pathos until a resolution is reached. Bikel, the old veteran, shuffles around the stage and brings out the humanity, bitterness, nostalgia and humour of this patriarchal-looking old man. His prejudices are finally broken down or at least diluted as he is forced to face himself and his religious beliefs.

The gay Ross accepts his homosexuality and stands up to his bigoted father and we are left hoping for more tolerance and understanding. As I said it is a heart-warming story and a marvelous play with exceptional performances.

Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron opened on January 28 and will run until February 19, 2012 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Ronnie Burkett is one of those extraordinarily talented people that you watch with total admiration. He is a puppeteer, a writer, an actor and a creator of outstanding puppet shows. His talents are currently on display at the Factory Theatre in Penny Plain, a show that he has created and performs.

A puppeteer needs, as a basic minimum, manual dexterity to manipulate all the puppets and Burkett possesses that in abundance. He has a dozen characters (I am guessing) in Penny Plain and they all have to be handled with finesse. No problem here.

Along with the manipulation of body and limbs of the puppets, Burkett has to provide his characters with voices and individual characterization be it an old woman, a dog or dogs, children and an assortment of others. Needless to say Burkett provides the vocals for all of them. This is a one-man show that feels like a production by a National Theatre company.

Burkett is always visible on stage, standing on a platform just above the playing area of the puppets. The lighting focuses on the puppets, of course, and we almost forget his presence we are so engrossed in the actions of the characters.

Penny Plain is an old, blind woman who is sitting in an easy chair talking with her dog Geoffrey who thinks he is human and does not want to be treated like a dog. On the news we hear that the end of the world is upon us and the faithful dog leaves Penny Plain.

Penny starts looking for a replacement for Geoffrey and is visited by a large number of eccentric people and animals. We meet murderers, and survivalists, and a woman who cannot bear children and wants a puppet so she can transform it into a child through love. In her search for a replacement for Geoffrey, Penny Plain chooses Tuppance, a young girl who pretends to be a dog.

Any notion that a puppet show is an extended and simple comedy routine should be discarded immediately. True there is humour in Burkett’s work but it is dark humour and there is great depth and disturbing thought contained in it. He examines the classic question of the relationship of the puppet to the puppet maker. Fascinatingly, the childless woman approaches the creator of Pinocchio, surely the archetypal puppet maker, and asks him to make a puppet/child for her.

The play is in turn ironic, humorous, dramatic and in the end provides a fascinating night at the theatre.

Penny Plain by Ronnie Burkett opened on January 20 and will run until February 26, 2012 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Back row: Dimitris Kobirilis, Irene Bitha-Georgalidis, Demetre Anastasiou, Dionysios Gekopoulos
Front row: Anastassja Zanettoulli, Stella Mastrogiannakou
Reviewed by James Karas

The Greek Community of Toronto’s Nefeli Theatre reminds one of that bunny that advertizes batteries – it just keeps on going. These are not good days for The Greek Community or for Greece, for that matter, but you would never know it from the energy and dedication of Nefeli and its Artistic Director Nancy Athan-Mylonas.

This year it has mounted Fonazei o Kleftis, a light comedy by Dimitris Psathas and if that were not enough it plans to stage Euripides’s Trojan Women in April.

Psathas’s play is an ideal vehicle for an amateur troupe. It has a straightforward plot, some broad comedy, colourful characters and honesty triumphs over corruption. Ms. Athan-Mylonas supplements it with “Nancy Effects” by adding dancing and providing bilingual assistance for the linguistically challenged. The result is a boisterous evening of laughter and enthusiasm from an audience that seems to crave this type of entertainment.

Psathas (1907-1979) was a prolific writer and his 1958 play is a satire on corruption (something practically unheard of in Greece) and a celebration of virtue.

General Solon (Demetre Anastasiou) has given a job to his brother-in-law Andonis (Dionysios Gekopoulos). Andonis is a thief. He is cooking up the company books and has invented a rich uncle in America who is supposed to be sending him money. A letter arrives from the uncle and it goes to the General. He puts it in his wallet and proceeds to lose it. An honest woman named Erasiklia (Irene Bitha-Georgalidis) finds the wallet and takes it to Lia (Anastassja Zanettoulli) the General’s wife and Andonis’s sister, but refuses to hand over the letter.

There is great fear that Andonis will be exposed by Erasiklia and frantic measures must be taken to prevent the disaster.

The script may not call for dancers to appear in the General’s living room where the play is set but no one told Nancy that. She has these talented dancers, the people want to see them and she will not let anyone prevent her from presenting dance sequences between scenes to entertain the highly receptive audience.

During the performance, we are provided with a series of narrators who summarize the plot in English. There are young people who may not be able to follow the story line and those “foreigners” who married Greeks who may need to be brought up to speed.

The production is dominated by the performance of Irene Bitha-Georgalidis. She has been with Nefeli for 19 of its 21 years and if that does not make her a veteran I have no idea what does. Her name has become hyphenated by marriage and she remains a natural, comic talent of immense proportions. The role or Erasiklia almost restricts her comic abilities but she expands the role. The honest wallet-finder speaks with a Greek hillbilly accent (it’s the best way to describe it, I think) she gyrates her body and is an enthusiastic imbiber. She is the exemplar of virtue as well, who will provide the uplifting happy ending. If supporting actors could convince Parliament to amend the Criminal Code to create the crime of scene-stealing, Bitha-Georgalidis will most assuredly be convicted.

The General is decent, a bit of a dolt and putty in the hands of his conniving wife. Anastasiou does a marvelous job in the role. He is a big guy playing someone perhaps three times his age. He manages to be quite funny in his histrionics and is melodramatic as necessary

Stella Mastrogiannakou’s Lela is lithe and sexy and espouses high morality in theory but prefers to practice it at less exalted levels when it comes to her husband’s conduct. The pony-tailed (sign of a mangas, no doubt) Andonis of Gekopoulos is the perfect crook who just wants easy money because life is so much more fun with it.

Zanettoulli is very good as the General’s devious wife. She can have a heart seizure on demand and is quite proud when she has not had or needed one for months or is it weeks. Maria Agrapidis is the perfect eaves-dropping maid Tasia who will tell you what she heard emanating from your bedroom last night.

Fonazei o Kleftis was performed at Hanaskayin Theatre in the Armenian Youth Centre at Victoria Park and Highway 401, Toronto. Not the usual venue for Nefeli. It is a very nice 400-seat theatre but that is not the point. Nefeli usually performs at the Polymenakion Cultural Centre in a makeshift theatre where chairs, lighting and a sound system are rented for each production. For financial reasons, this year’s production is in the Armenian Youth Centre and provides a sad reminder that the Greek Community is lacking something.

Last year at this time the shell of the Hellenic Cultural Centre was put up for sale and the question posed was if Nefeli Theatre will continue. A year later the Hellenic Cultural Centre has not been sold yet, the Community’s dream has been shattered but Nefeli keeps on going. Some bunnies never stop.

Fonazei o Kleftis by Dimitris Psathas opened on February 10 and will play on February 11, 12, 18 and 19, 2012 at the Hamaskayin Theatre, Armenian Youth Centre, 50 Hallcrwon Place, Toronto. Ontario. or Telephone (416) 425-2485

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel
Reviewed by James Karas

Zero Mostel was one of those comic geniuses that left an indelible impression on first encounter. You may forget all the actors in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but you will always remember the wily slave Pseudolus, the one with the beefy face, the rolling eyes and the hilarious facial expressions.

Mostel has found a double in Jim Brochu who has created a one-man show called Zero Hour that is now playing at the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto.

Brochu bears an amazing resemblance to Mostel. He has managed to copy Mostel’s movements, his voice and mannerisms and to convince us that we are in fact watching the great comedian tell his story to a newspaper reporter.

The play covers Mostel’s life from his beginnings in Brooklyn and on a farm in Connecticut, through his years in the theater, the movies and his experience as a blacklisted actor.

Brochu has chosen a substantial number of one-liners that are quite funny and he manages to give a good deal of information about Mostel’s life. “My life is an open zipper” says Mostel. When he goes to be examined by an army doctor, the latter tells him to “stop masturbating! I am trying to examine you.”

When he marries Katie, a non-Jew “from the original dysfunctional family” his own family disowns him. The rift is never bridged and decades later when he takes his son to see his grandmother on her deathbed she turns away from him.

Brochu also relates the dark period, financially and professionally, of Mostel’s life. It happened when he was accused of being a Marxist and hauled before the witch-hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Not surprisingly, Brochu recalls Mostel’s venom against the people who named names before HUAC such as Martin Berkeley, Lee J. Cobb and especially Jerome Robbins, “the little weasel”.

Mostel made a comeback and had his glory years in the 1960’s with roles like Pseudolus and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He was in fifteen films and twenty-five Broadway shows, we are told.

The show takes place in Mostel’s studio where he enjoyed his life’s passion, painting. He acted so he can earn money to do what he loved most.

Zero Hour is directed by veteran actor Piper Laurie and it is a bravura performance. I found myself laughing out loud and thoroughly enjoying the show.

This production of Zero Hour is a reprise of last year’s presentation by The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and it is definitely worth a visit.

Zero Hour by Jim Brochu runs from February 8 to March 11, 2012 at the Bathurst Street Theatre, 736 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. 1 855-Hit-Show.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Thomas Hauff, Arsinée Khanjian and Abena Malika in Cruel and Tender. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Reviewed by James Karas

 If you are searching for Greek tragedy in Toronto, you will probably not be surprised to find none. May we say “almost” none? Canadian Stage has brought something akin to it in the form of Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis. Crimp entitled his play Cruel and Tender and it is now playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Sophocles’ play tells the story of Heracles and his wife Deianira who inadvertently poisons him when she attempts to win back his love. Heracles is away waging war but his objective is a woman, Iole, and not simple conquest. To make sure that Heracles remained faithful to her, Deianira gave him a tunic soaked in the blood of a centaur. But instead of acting like a love charm, the tunic caused unbearable pain that spelled the end of the great hero.

Crimp is reasonably faithful to Sophocles’ play. Amelia (Arsinée Khanijian) lives near an airport and is waiting for her husband The General (Daniel Kash), to return from the war on terror that he is waging. As with Heracles, however, the General’s objective is a woman, Laela (Abena Malika), and not the rooting out of terrorism. In fact Laela is brought to the General’s home as a war victim-cum-trophy.

Amelia is worried about her husband’s feelings for her and pours the contents of a vial on The General’s pillow having been promised by a chemist that the chemical will restore her husband’s fidelity. It causes excruciating pain instead.

The performance lasts ninety minutes and the first two thirds are dominated by Amelia who is anxiously waiting for the return of her husband. Khanijian, directed by her husband Atom Egoyan, gives a highly physical performance. She uses her hands, arms and body almost constantly. She seems to be conducting herself as she delivers her lines. The interesting part is that there is relatively little emotional depth in her performance, indeed in the entire production.

Sophocles’ Chorus of women of Trachis is replaced by a Physiotherapist (Cara Rickets) and a beautician (Sarah Wilson) and they are joined by the Housekeeper (Brenda Robins). Other characters include Jonathan, a government minister (Nigel Shawn Williams), and a journalist named Richard (Thomas Hauff). The Chorus and these characters deliver most of their lines like messengers. There is scant emotional involvement.

The General’s son James (Jeff Lillico) does show some emotion but what he and Laela have to offer amounts to relatively little.

In the final half hour we see The General who is in agony and more or less demented. Kash invests his performance with pain and emotion and we are given projected close ups of his contorted face.

The single set consists of stark off-white walls with narrow windows at the top and a staircase in the middle. There are almost no props except for a chair.

The opening line of the play, delivered by Amelia speaking to the audience, is: “There are women who believe that all men are rapists.” She does not believe that and there is no evidence in the play to support that proposition. True her husband is waging war for a woman but his means of acquiring her is military conquest not rape.

Crimp has done a reasonable job of being faithful to the plot of Women of Trachis and transferring it to the 21st century. Egoyan delivers a cerebral production which despite some dramatic acting by Khanijian and Kash, I found surprisingly unmoving. What a waste of talent.

A bad night at the theatre.

Cruel and Tender by Martin Crimp will run until February 18, 2012 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Ravi and Asha Jain. Photo: Erin Brubacher

Reviewed by James Karas

Theatre by one definition is a representation of reality. Actors pretend to be other people and we suspend our disbelief and accept them as the characters that they are supposed to represent.

When someone gets up on the stage and does not pretend to be anyone but himself then he is not “acting” but simply presenting or representing tales from his life. That is what A Brimful of Asha, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre is all about. Asha and Ravi Jain tell us some amusing incidents from their lives without pretending to be anyone else but the mother and son that they are.

Asha Jain is Indian and she was married by arrangement to a man who became a successful businessman in Canada. On stage and, we presume, in “real” life, she is a simple woman who has strong, traditional views about love, marriage, the position of children and life in general. She wants he son Ravi to get married and settle down. The woman he marries, needless to say, must be Indian and preferably one that his parents have arranged for him or, at least, approve of.

Ravi does not share all of those views. The younger generation not agreeing with the world view of their parents is one of the mainstays of comedy. In this case however the generational gap differences are supplemented with cultural differences and that, in the hands of a talented writer, can be a source of even more humour.

In the normal course of events, children grow up and marry. (Please put quotation marks around most words). That is the Canadian and Indian course of life. Yes, it is! The Indian way provides an additional curl: as far as Asha is concerned, the spouse of the single young person is found, examined, negotiated and settled upon by the parents.

Which brings us to Ravi. He goes in for theatre studies, flies off to Greece and does not obey the natural course of settling down with a wife and a mortgage as his mother wants him to. Enter the Indian modus operandi for connubial bliss: take him to India and find him a wife.

Ravi and Asha tell us what happened when they went to India (he for a visit, she and her husband for wife-hunting). Ravi is a professional actor, a good story teller and knows how to work an audience. His mother is not an actor which means she does not project or enunciate and makes numerous mistakes because her English is not perfect. But she is a loving mother who wants to see her son settled and she is advertently and inadvertently hilarious.

The two of them simply tell us what happened in India as the parents went from one marital prospect to another and all of them were unsuccessful.

I have never seen an audience that is so warm and receptive to what is happening on the stage. All, I assume, agreed with Ravi that he has the right to find his own wife based on love and whatever else makes people jump into matrimony. But emotionally, the audience was with Asha. They simply loved this woman who has been happily married for thirty-eight years and believes that love grows after marriage rather than diminish.

Ravi will no doubt choose his own wife and not allow his parents to choose for him. But will he choose the right one? Maybe he should just listen to his mother.

This Why Not Theatre production is directed by Ravi Jain and even if he can’t find a wife we must give him credit for his marvelous writing, acting and directorial talent.

An excellent night at the theatre.

A Brimful of Asha by Asha and Ravi Jain opened on January 26 and will run until February 26, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Of Mice and Men, Carlisle Floyd’s opera based on John Steinbeck’s novella of the same name, premiered in 1970 in Seattle, Washington. It has had a number of revivals since but it did not reach Australia until July 2011 when Opera Australia produced it at the Sydney Opera House. That production directed by film director Bruce Beresford was transferred to the Arts Centre Melbourne for four performances between November 26 and December 10, 2011.

The novella is a parable about friendship, the search for roots and the dreams of ordinary people. Two men, the cynical and wiry George and his friend, the ironically named Lennie Small are migrant farm workers in depression-era California. Lennie is a simpleton who loves animals and soft things but has an unwitting propensity towards violence. That characteristic will destroy the two men’s dream of acquiring their own farm and provide a truly harrowing and unforgettable ending.

Floyd has attempted to give musical and vocal expression to the seemingly simple story and has produced a significant modern opera. The piece has some visceral music, some marvelous lyrical and moving passages and captures the spirit of the novel.

American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey sings the role of Lennie. Griffey’s Lennie is a big man with enormous physical strength but severe mental limitations. He is like a cuddly bear that can crush you in the mistaken belief that he is showing affection. Griffey showed vocal and physical strength and emotional breadth. He has a marvelous duet with Curley’s Wife where both express their dreams, she of becoming a movie star and he of getting a farm.

Lennie’s most emotionally and vocally powerful moment comes at the end of the opera when he imagines his farm as George, standing behind him, describes it. He yells a heart-wrenching “I see it” as George shoots him.

Australian baritone Barry Ryan takes on the role of George, the small, intelligent friend of Lennie who could live a much better life without the mentally challenged charge. But he does not partially because of a sense of obligation (a promise to an aunt) but mainly because of human love, decency and simple friendship. Ryan was very effective in the role although he was not as vocally powerful as one may wish.

The floozy, dim-witted and abused Curley’s Wife (she does not have a name) is sung by soprano Jacqueline Mabardi. She plays the part quite well and sang it well and, as stated, is very effective in her final scene with Lennie where she is gains the audience’s sympathy in the expression of her dream of becoming a Hollywood actress, just before she is smothered to death.

Her obverse is the unsympathetic and brutish Curly sung by Australian tenor Bradley Daley. A capable performance. New Zealander Jud Arthur is superb in the role of the pathetic, old farm hand Candy who shares Lennie’s dream of owning a piece of land.

Beresford and Designer John Stoddart give us a realistic presentation of the clearing in the woods where the opera begins and ends and of the bunkhouse on the farm where the rest of the action takes place. A number of paintings of life on a farm are projected on the stage and a realistic film clip is shown of Lennie running away after he inadvertently kills Curley’s Wife. The video is good but the lighting from the orchestra pit made it difficult to watch. I was relieved when it was turned off and I could see the bright colours of the set again.

Tom Woods conducted Orchestra Victoria with verve and efficacy.

A very effective production of the opera which has some powerful moments but also some banal passages where ordinary English is sung in recitative to no great advantage.

Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd opened on November 26 and was performed four times until December 10, 2011 at the Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia.,au

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

It has become de rigueur for the Canadian Opera Company to offer two very different works for its “winter season” (two operas hardly constitute a season, but let that be) – a familiar chestnut and something very new or unusual. The choices for 2012 are Puccini’s Tosca and Kaija Saariaho’s Love from Afar. The latter work is a 21st century composition by a Finnish composer and is directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca of Cirque du Soleil. How is that for unusual?

The current production of Tosca is a revival of the 2008 staging by Scottish director Paul Curran. It was good then and it is good now and the cast is even better.

The COC has two casts for Tosca and Cavaradossi and one singer for Scarpia. I saw Adrianne Pieczonka and Carlo Ventre on opening night and she gave an exceptionally fine performance. Pieczonka has a big, beautiful, ringing voice that is well-suited to the tempestuous heroine. Her rendition of “Vissi d’arte” is full of longing and sustained pathos and that alone is almost worth the price of admission.

Uruguayan tenor Ventre suited the role of the heroic Cavaradossi both physically and vocally. If he sounded a bit rough in “Recondita armonia”, his first aria, he made up for it and delivered an outstanding “E lucevan le stele” and proved that he can hit a high note and maintain it when he exultantly exclaimed “Vittoria.”

American baritone Mark Delavan was a disappointment as the evil Baron Scarpia. The main problem was volume – on many occasions he simply could not be heard over the orchestra. In other passages when the orchestra was subdued his fine baritone voice was a pleasure to hear. Scarpia displays the depth of his depravity and his lust for our heroine when he exclaims “Tosca you make me forget god.” This should come out like a shot from cannon, as a statement of ultimate sacrilege. We barely hear it. The statement is important, of course, because Tosca’s last words as she jumps to her death are “O Scarpia, we meet before God!”

The Sacristan is a minor role but he is usually good for a few chuckles at the beginning of this dour opera. Unfortunately Canadian bass-baritone Peter Strummer and by extension director Paul Curran do not take full advantage of the chances to provide us with a few light moments.

Tosca requires three sets: the interior of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Scarpia’s rooms in the Farnese Palace and the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo. Set and Costume Designer Kevin Knight does a very good job on all counts. The church is grandiose within the space available at the Four Seasons Centre; Scarpia’s rooms are indicative of wealth and power without the gimmicks, for example, of the red couches in Luc Bondy’s production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The ramparts in Act III with the chain link fence are also appropriate and convincing.

The COC Orchestra is conducted by Paolo Carignani and the underused COC Chorus sounds superb.

The COC then delivers a first-rate, solid production of a well-known opera that should please opera goers.

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini opened on January 21 and will be performed fourteen times with some cast changes until February 25, 2012 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Esther Jun & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Ins Choi calls Kim’s Convenience “my love letter to them [his parents] and to all first generation immigrants.” It is an apt description of this warm, touching and funny paean to newcomers to Canada. People who arrive in a strange land where they do not speak English and must adjust to a completely different culture.

The play is about a Korean family which operates a convenience store in Toronto’s rough and tumble Regent Park. If they were Greeks, the play would be set in a restaurant, if Italians, in a construction site and so on as the stereotypes of immigrants evolve and flourish.

A convenience store where Koreans and others spend countless hours trying to eke out a living seems hardly a conducive subject for a play. Ins Choi has discovered a way of creating a world with humour, pathos and well-defined characters that make up for delightful theatre.

Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) was a teacher in Korea but now has to run a small store, watch out for thieves and see his children move away from his cultural roots and become “Canadian.” Like many immigrants he lives in the past, in the culture that he left, while his children live in the present and have little connection with the past.

For Mr. Kim what happened in 1904, Koreans’ relationship with the Japanese and the history of Korea are a daily part of his life. When a Japanese-made car parks in front of his store, he calls 911! He wants you to know that in 1904 Korea defeated Japan. He rhymes off significant events in Korean history with alacrity and pride.

His son Jung (played by the playwright) ran away from home while young and racked up a criminal record. His daughter Janet (Esther Jun) is pretty, smart, self-confident and wants to be a photographer. She is not interested in running the store.

The mother, played lovingly by Jean Yoon, understands everything and knows that love and patience are the only way to deal with her husband and her children.

Choi brings in a number of colourful characters into the story all played very ably by Clé Bennett. We have the thief, the real estate agent and the cop. The cop has a crush on Janet and she wants him too. There is a hitch: he is black and there is fear that the bigotry harboured by so many immigrants will conquer love. Not so. Mr. Kim is intelligent and humane and does not allow prejudice to interfere with his judgment.

The most touching scene is the reconciliation between the gruff, proud father and the prodigal son. Jung has become a “Canadian” but he has also established a connection with his father’s world, the world of Korean history. That connection brings about the reconciliation of father and son and the continuation of Kim’s Convenience store.

The production, directed by Weyni Mengasha, features simply marvelous performances. Lee is superb as the gruff, humane, funny and decent father. High marks to Bennett who presents the five visitors to the store with excellent versatility and to Jun who is attractive, lively and sassy as Janet.

I make no secret that Kim’s Convenience struck a chord in my immigrant’s heart. It is a subject that is not examined often enough with intelligence and sensitivity. Immigrants are too often viewed as objects of ridicule as if their heavily accented English and their connection to their past make them “different” and most certainly inferior. Their story perhaps is told best when they tell it themselves as in Choi’s love letter to us all.

A wonderful night at the theatre.


Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi opened on January 12 and will continue until February 19, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.