Sunday, June 30, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

In the epilogue to As You Like It, Rosalind tells us that good wine does not need to be enhanced by a bush but tavern owners do use good bushes for good wines. It is equally true that old wines do not need new bottles but they are no doubt poured into them occasionally if only to keep the current proverb alive since Shakespeare’s is not clear without the help of a footnote.

Putting old plays in new bottles occurs with every production but there is no doubt that some bottles are better than other. This holds true for the current production of As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon.

Director Maria Aberg, Designer Naomi Dawson and Movement Director Ayse Tashkiran have set the play in a modern non-realistic setting and added Molly dancing. According to Tashkiran, these are country dances “danced by men and women dressed up in exuberant disguises and drag.”

There is indeed a lot of dancing in the production which generates a great deal of energy and the performance evokes quite a few laughs but in the end failed to resonate with me as being a completely satisfactory vision of a favourite play.

In the second scene where we meet Rosalind and Celia in the Court of Duke Senior, there are some well-dressed people at the back performing a type of robotic dance. They move their hands and bodies like automatons. The result is that they are distracting us from the performance and the text.

Most of the play takes place in the Forest of Arden, a very different and transformative world from the world of the court. What does the forest consist of? A number of 4” x 4” wooden posts with something like dead leaves on the floor. There is a band on stage to play some loud music and provide accompaniment for the songs. This is a sterile world and if it is supposed to be yet another way of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century, please stop and let me off the ship. It is not a pleasant sight.

As You Like It is a comedy of love set against the background of a coup d'état and usurpation of the power of the rightful Duke. The foreground of the play is the friendship of Rosalind, the daughter of the overthrown Duke and her cousin Celia, the daughter of the usurper.

Rosalind, played beautifully by Pippa Nixon, is a tall and slender woman with short-cropped hair who pretends to be a man in the forest and falls in love with Orlando (Alex Waldmann), another victim of usurpation. Nixon has a marvellous delivery of Shakespearean verse and makes a splendid Rosalind.

Celia (Joanna Horton) has her own love interest in Oliver (Luke Norris), the transformed brother of Orlando. The two are accompanied by the fool Touchstone, superbly done by Nicolas Tennant. The pursuit of love among the gentry and the country bumpkins goes into high gear. By the time the play finishes, the stage will be strewn with brides and grooms as becomes a good comedy.

The Duke has some interesting companions in the forest including the grumpy Jaques (Oliver Ryan) and singer Amiens (Chris Jared). The country bumpkins such as the shepherdess Phoebe (Natalie Klamar), the shepherd Silvius (Michael Grady-Hill), the goatherd Audrey (Rosie Hilal) and her lover William (Mark Holgate) are guaranteed generators of laughter.

Aberg is not above in letting the actors abandon the text and engage the audience directly to hilarious effect.

My issue is not with individual performers but with the overall conception of the play presented by Aberg and her collaborators. We want, indeed demand, fresh interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays and look forward to the fresh, the new, the unexpected, and the miraculous. Sometimes we get it. This production did not have that effect on me.


As You Like It by William Shakespeare opened on April 24 and will continue in repertory until September 28, 2013 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.

Friday, June 28, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Many productions have a memorable tag or theme that sticks in the mind years after we have seen them. The current production of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon will no doubt be recalled as the Fencing Hamlet.

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet wears a fencing outfit throughout and fencing swords are in evidence all the time. Fencing as the central metaphor of the pay has a number of advantages. It qualifies Hamlet as athletic, nimble of mind and body and not just a brooding and deeply troubled man at war with himself and the world. In addition it makes swords available for the fights in the play. This is a modern dress production and the presence of swords may otherwise be hard to explain. Fencing is done wearing masks and we get the additional metaphor of hidden thoughts.

Aside from athletic, Slinger’s Hamlet is extremely theatrical. He is a mimic, a clown, a hyperactive person who jumps, dances and is very aggressive. In fact he assaults Ophelia, pulls her clothes off and acts like a brute toward her. When this Hamlet goes mad he goes completely wacko.

Slinger displays an amazing number of vocal intonations. He can change his voice in a second to mimic or mock other people and even himself.  When he starts the famous soliloquy, he says “To be or not to be” seriously and then in a higher, almost comic tone he states “THAT is the question.”

His madness disappears when he returns from England and we see yet another side of the multi-faceted character. A phenomenal performance.

Greg Hicks plays Claudius like a well-suited businessman. Hicks also plays Hamlet’s Ghost and his resonant voice and strong stage presence provide for a fine performance from this veteran Shakespearean.

Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in this production is a frumpy young woman who is dominated by her father. He points his finger at her and she goes where he directs her. She looks as if she is not all there from the start making her eventual descent into madness a short trip.

For her mad scene she is dressed like a bride and she shows her more forceful character when she is away from the sane world that she left. The frumpy girl becomes  a beautiful and very affecting bride. After her burial, she is left visible on the stage during the duel between her brother Laertes and Hamlet. A marvelous touch by Director David Farr.

Farr treats Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) quite seriously instead of evoking the usual laughter that is easily available at their expense. An effective choice by the director ansd well done by the actors.

Charlotte Cornwell, in a fancy dress and mink stole around her shoulders, is a portly Gertrude, well past her prime. She is usually portrayed as sexually attractive woman but not in this production. When Hamlet tells her that “at your age /The heyday in the blood is tame” he means that both desire and physical attractiveness have diminished. Cornwell rises to superb dramatic heights in the bedroom scene with her son and the Ghost.

The renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a thrust stage that extends well into the audience. There is an attempt to resemble a 17th century theatre without the open space for the groundlings and without the open roof. The advantage of course is that the audience is very close to the acting.

Farr makes full use of the stage. There is an acting area at the back, a stage with a curtain in fact,  with a table and some chairs but most of the action takes place in the open space. Farr lets the text dominate the performance and with Shakespeare one can hardly go wrong with that approach with good actors. Slinger especially displays the many ways that Shakespeare’s lines can be spoken to great effect.

An outstanding production.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on March 14, 2013 and continues in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


***** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

The National Theatre has produced Othello as a modern war drama that is full of subtleties and magnificent performances. It is the work of Director Nicholas Hytner who can take risks and deliver outstanding theatre.

In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo meet outside a pub. As Iago expresses his hatred of Othello, Roderigo offers him a cigarette. He takes one and puts the pack in his pocket. That is a nice touch of characterization of our villain who is not just a grossly evil man but also a small time pilferer. There are numerous such touches throughout this masterly production.

Adrian Lester’s Othello appears dressed in a suit like a gentleman without military or heroic bearing. He speaks well despite his claim to have no talent for courtly language. We will witness this gentleman deteriorate into a murderous animal and in the final great scene regain his stature and nobility as he realizes the enormity of what he has done. It is a performance of enormous subtlety and power.

Iago is always the more interesting character and that holds true for this production with Rory Kinnear in the role. From pilfering Roderigo’s cigarettes to his manipulation of Othello, Iago is a low-class thug. He does not seem very subtle but he is cunning, ruthless and, of course, absolutely evil. He may be loyal and capable as a soldier but even with limited perspicacity Othello must have realized that this thug has limited leadership qualities. Hence Othello’s failure to promote him and thus sealing his own fate at the hands of a man whom he considers honest.

Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona is a modern woman who first appears in blue jeans and sneakers. There is some incongruity between the descriptions she gets from the others and her actual appearance. She is a free-spirited woman who is in love with a man that her father disapproves of but the incongruity of her appearance and the descriptions we get of her works the least well in Hyrner’s production.

Othello lands in an army camp in Cyprus. We hear helicopters overhead, see soldiers dressed for war: fatigues, helmets, machine guns and backpacks. Roderigo and Cassio shoot each other and only at the end is there a sword and a knife produced. This Othello is set in the midst of a modern war.

Iago’s wife Emilia is a soldier who is assigned to look after Desdemona. Lyndsey Marshal gives a powerful performance in the role.

Tom Robertson as Roderigo is dumb, eager and innocent: a perfect tool for Iago. Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) is not as dense as Roderigo but he is no match for Iago.

The sets by Designer Vicki Mortimer are strictly army issue and perfectly suitable for the style of the production. The Duke’s office in the first act consists of a small table with a few chairs. Strictly utilitarian.

Hytner has one scene set in a bathroom. This is where Othello is driven beyond endurance and in fact collapses. He vomits in a toilet bowl and a furious Bianca (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi)  chases Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) into the men’s room. A brilliant move by Hytner that works realistically and metaphorically to emphasize Othello’s complete degradation.

Hytner is able to put Othello in  a war zone with a convincing portrait of army life. It is the sort of production that one would never think could work even after seeing many different interpretations of the play. He pulls it off with some superb acting and scenic designs.


Othello by William Shakespeare opened on April 23, 2013 and continues at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.    

Sunday, June 23, 2013



Reviewed by James Karas

Bernard Shaw wrote Geneva in 1938 and revised it a number of times. You can gauge the popularity and perhaps the quality of the play by the number of times it has been produced by the Festival that is named after him. Once and that was back in 1988.
It seems that Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has reduced the risk of producing the play for an almost empty theatre by having it adapted by John Murrell to make it simply funnier. The attempt is partially successful and the production directed by Blair Williams garners a few laughs. However, it is not a play that will make you scour theatre schedules so you can see it again.
Set in the 1930s, the play deals with the League of Nation’s Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, which apparently existed. The Committee somehow manages to haul Mussolini, Hitler and Franco before the International Court in The Hague on various charges.
Murrell spruces up Shaw’s script by adding broad humour and including Canadian and American content. Williams gives it a farcical treatment that calls for overblown characters to act overblowingly.
The opening scene is set in the dingy office of the Committee for Intellectual Cooperation in Geneva where Bell Browning whose real name is Liberty Bell Browning (Diana Donnelly) is minding the store and receiving visitors. She is a dumb, spunky and attractive American woman who is also quite funny. She is from Ohio, which is much better than Indiana!  She is holding onto her virtue for as long as it is convenient or something like that.
She is visited by Joseph Rubinstein (Charlie Gallant), a German Jew with a handle-bar mustache and an awful accent. He wants to haul Der Fuhrer to the International Court. He is quite funny as he deals with the dunce of a secretary and finds out that the Committee is a bit of a joke.
He is followed by Darcy Middleman (Andrew Bunker), a conservative from Manitoba who wants our Prime Minister dragged before the International Court because he (the PM) wants to visit Germany and listens to the operas of Richard Wagner. Middleman produces some of the standard jokes about Canadians (the cold, where is Canada) and Bunker does a fine job satirizing us.
Claire Jullien gets to be melodramatic as a gun-toting Spanish woman who wants revenge against the people who killed her husband, the former dictator of her country.
Michael Ball is perhaps the funniest in the role of Bishop Isling. He is a perfectly pompous cleric who is subject to fainting when he hears something outrageous and regaining consciousness quickly.
The fun lasts until The Senior Judge (Sanjay Talwar) arrives. The comedy plummets like the stock market on a bad day and never quite regains its liveliness and humour. The British contribution to the fun is supposed to be the Foreign Secretary played by Patrick Galligan. In a room full of outrageous accents and eccentric buffoons, Galligan falls short. The Foreign Secretary should be a Brit from central casting – avuncular, thickly accented and a caricature of the aristocratic Englishman. Galligan is simply miscast for the role. Ball would have been much better.
Mussolini (Neil Barclay) is fat as if a pump had blown him up; Hitler (Ric Reid) is a wiry buffoon and Franco (Lorne Kennedy) comes in last and is not very funny.        
All the characters are caricatures and their accents are intentional abominations (the Americans and the Canadians excepted, of course). The broad humour sneaks through but so does some of the ponderous political commentary.
There is an uneasy and uncertain marriage between the farcical and underlying serious social criticism; between sharp satire and broad humour that leaves you unsatisfied.
We may never get a chance to see Geneva and a glance at Shaw’s play will tell you that there are not too many laughs in it. With Murrell’s version we got a few laughs and left with the satisfaction that we almost saw a neglected play by Shaw.
Peace in Our Time: A Comedy  by John Murrell, adapted from Bernard Shaw’s Geneva opened on May 19 and will run in repertory until October 12, 2013 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.


Friday, June 21, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Lady Windermere’s Fan may not be Oscar Wilde’s best play but there is no shortage of wit, epigrams and balanced sentences. Its milieu is the upper-class world of nineteenth century London where Lords, Duchesses, Dukes, Ladies and Sirs abound and lesser mortals exist usually only as servants. This world has a way of acting, speaking and carrying themselves that is quite removed from the world of hoi polloi.

The current production at the Festival Theatre, directed by Peter Hinton and designed by Teresa Przybylski tries very hard to create a style of its own for the play. The costumes are beautiful, the sets elegant but unrealistic and the mode of expression deliberate. The result is a production that at one time or another can be described as slow, flat, pretentious and dragging.

After a display of beautiful gowns and fans, the curtain goes up like a box opening the left side of the stage. Hinton uses only the right half of the stage for the first part of the opening act. He does not want to rush us into the action therefore when the arrival of Lord Darlington (Gray Powell) is announced, Lady Windermere keeps busy for some time until he arrives from some distance away. Hinton wants Darlington to walk from the front door in real time.

This sets the pace for a slow, very slow, evening. I felt as if the stage were a vat of molasses into which the actors had to struggle to get any kind of speed in speech, movement or wit. Most of the lines fell flat and all one could think about was to scream “pick up the pace.”

The inability of Canadian actors to speak in any kind of aristocratic English accent is a matter of record and regret. They all try, of course. There is a way of delivering Wilde’s lines that demands a crisp, well-modulated English accent that suits the posh surroundings and expresses hauteur and elegance. You cannot just drop your r’s and hope you will sound like a Lord or a Duchess.

The accents here were within the usual parameters of the almost acceptable to the quite deplorable.

Marla McLean is attractive as Lady Windermere but not convincing. She opens her husband’s bank statement and discovers that he is handing out money hand-over-fist to a Mrs. Erlynne. Well, not surprisingly, she suspects him of infidelity.

When the Windermeres hold a ball, Mrs. Erlynne is invited. We expect her to be a beautiful woman, classy, magnetic, even gorgeous perhaps. Let your imagination and vocabulary wander but this lady has to be out of the ordinary. Tara Rosling does not quite qualify for such ascription. There is a surprise in store about the real identity of Mrs. Erlynne but I still hold that she must have attributes that would make a man run afoul of marital fidelity. Rosling fails to convince us that she is a woman with a past and a secret.

Martin Happer is an attractive Lord Windermere and has more of an aristocratic bearing than a lot of the others in the cast. He has a decent English accent but that only makes him an acceptable Lord Windermere.

The rest of the titled ladies and gentlemen and the not so noblessly-obliged suffer from the same malady – they were in a society and a world in which they could not convince us that they belonged. A disappointment.

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde run in repertory from May 9 to October 19, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 1 800-511-SHAW

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Trifles is the title of a one-act play by Susan Glaspell and chances are you have not heard of the play or the author. A Wife for a Life is a one-act play by Eugene O’Neill and you have no doubt heard of the author but it is unlikely that you know of his first attempt as a dramatist.

Despair not for the Shaw Festival will alleviate your ignorance and entertain you for almost an hour with its current production of both plays at the Court House Theatre under the title Trifles.

Both plays involve unhappy marriages. In Trifles, a man is found dead in his bed with a rope around his neck. If we were in England, the setting would be a large house in the country and a snooty butler would be the prime suspect. In Trifles, the action is set in the kitchen of a lonely farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A.

The County Attorney (Jeff Irving), Sheriff Peters and his wife (Graeme Somerville and Kaylee Harwood), and neighbours Lewis Hale and his wife (Benedict Campbell and Julain Molnar) arrive to examine the scene of the crime and gather evidence. The wife of the dead man has already been arrested as a prime suspect and we never see her.

As the men search for clues, the women look around the kitchen and reveal a great deal about the dead man and his wife. The suspected wife was the unhappy and abused victim of a brute who, among many other sins, no doubt, wrung the neck of her bird. The women talk of “trifles” according to the men, but we know better.

The performances are first-rate. Benedict Campbell is the rough-hewn, rather garrulous farmer. Molnar is his decent wife who is much smarter than she appears. Harwood is the better-educated and more sophisticated city woman while her Sheriff husband and the County Attorney are officious bureaucrats.

The ending is very satisfactory.

Trifles morphs into A Wife for a Life without a break or change of set. The lonely farmhouse kitchen becomes a prospector’s lonely cabin. Jack, a young man played by Jeff Irving tells an Older Man, played by Benedict Campbell, about a woman he fell in love with in a mining town in South America. She was married to a much older man who was a brute. She reciprocated Jack’s love but stayed with her husband until he left her.

It turns out that the Older Man is in fact the husband of the woman that Jack loves and we will soon find out the meaning of the play’s title. Old Pete, the third character in the playlet, is a miner played by Jeff Irving.

A very interesting playlet, again, done well. Meg Roe directs both pieces and she takes advantage of the similarity in place and people by having the plays acted without interruption.

The performance takes about fifty minutes starting at 11:30 in the morning. The choice of plays is brilliant because one-act plays are produced infrequently and opportunities for seeing these two again are probably non-existent. If I can borrow the words from the old tea commercial, the applicable phrase is “Only at the Shaw Festival, eh?”


Trifles by Susan Glaspell and A Wife for a Life by Eugene O’Neill run from May 29 to October 12, 2013 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Fiddler on the Roof gets a sensational production at the Stratford Festival that is a pleasure to watch from the first violin chords to the final expulsion of the residents of Anatevka, Russia. There is no nitpicking, no reservations, no adverse comments just fulsome praise for theatre at its best.

Fiddler on the Roof is nearing its 50th anniversary (it opened on Broadway in 1964) and it is, by any measuring stick, a great musical. Based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, it has a plot that is moving, funny and infused with such humanity that it tugs at everyone’s heartstrings. The people are unforgettable, the music and songs are memorable and the dance routines stupendous.

Now all you need is a first-rate director/choreographer, an outstanding cast and an army of behind-the-scenes workers and hope that theatrical magic will descend like manna from heaven for a theatrical marvel.

Stratford struck gold. Tevye, the poor milkman with five daughters who talks to God but gets no answers, dominates the musical. The role was originally played on Broadway by the inimitable Zero Mostel and a number of other actors such as Topol, Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel and Harvey Fierstein have followed. Add the name of Scott Wentworth to the list as one of the best Tevyes. I associate Wentworth with Shakespearean roles but he makes an awesome Tevye. He is wonderfully human – funny, dramatic, humane, narrow-minded, generous, put-upon and cruel in his treatment of his daughter who marries outside the faith. Wentworth gives a performance that entitles him to the highest praise and a contract to do Tevye for as long as he wants.

The rest of the cast deserves the highest praise as well because they make you feel that you are in a remote Russian village in 1905 and not watching theatre in Stratford, Ontario. Tevye’s tough-minded and enduring wife Golde is done marvelously by Kate Hennig. Their three older daughters Tzeitel (Jennifer Stewart), Hodel (Jacquelyn French) and Chava (Keely Hutton) are young girls everywhere who are dreaming of the future and looking for husbands. In their society, only a matchmaker like Yente (Gabrielle Jones) is allowed to do that and the final decision rests with the father.

None of Tevye’s daughters respect that tradition. Tzeitel marries Motel, the tailor (Andre Morin) instead of Lazar the butcher (Steve Ross); Hodel marries the radical Perchik (Mike Nadajewski) without asking for her father’s consent and Chava marries the Russian Fyedka (Paul Nolan) and Tevye declares her “dead”. He does mutter a “God be with you” when they separate, he for America, she for Poland but that is as far as he is willing to go.

Fiddler on the Roof has some of Broadway’s most memorable music and songs. From the Fiddler’s plaintive and nostalgic music (played beautifully by violinist Anna Atkinson, to the exuberant “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” the melodious “Matchmaker”, the moving “Sunrise, Sunset” you are treated to magnificent music and lyrics. The singing is excellent.

Let’s sing the praises of Donna Feore as director and choreographer. As director, she captures the essence of the musical as the picture of a community trying to maintain the essential elements that keep it together in a world that is changing fast. What was tradition one day becomes unacceptable the next and people like Tevye are asked to compromise or bend so far that they are on the verge of breaking.

There is a long list of actors and dancers in the programme listed as The Community. That is the focal point of the musical because the destruction of the village and the vision of America as the hope for the future are the connecting links between tragedy and hope.  We see and become a part of the community and we want it to stay and change. You cannot have both. Great work by Feore.

She has also choreographed the production. Fiddler provides some great opportunities for heroic and highly demanding athletic dancing and Feore has done outstanding work in choreographing  for those scenes.

I think I have gushed enough about a musical and a production that merit the word triumph. Go see it.
Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) opened on May 28 and will run in repertory until October 20, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford,

Monday, June 17, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Measure for Measure is the second play by Shakespeare offered by the Stratford Festival this year. It is directed by Martha Henry at the Tom Patterson Theatre. The production has many virtues but it also many points for disagreement  which do not necessarily qualify for the ascription of vices.

Henry sets the play in Vienna in 1949, as good year as any place, I suppose, for a society to give itself over to rampant immorality and vice. Henry displays a good grasp of the possibilities of the play and treats it with imagination and creativity. Most of her ideas work.

When the lights go on a robust woman with too much makeup and a hideous blonde wig walks on stage. She takes off the wig and her dress to reveal that it is the Duke Vincentio (Geraint Wyn Davies) in drag. This explains quite deftly how the virtuous and softhearted duke has learned that his city has become licentious and that his laws are simply not enforced. Excellent opening.

The Duke appoints the virtuous and upstanding Lord Angelo (Tom Rooney) as his temporary replacement. Angelo shows up in military uniform with his jacket off and his hair disheveled. Hmmm.

The upshot of the plot is that Isabella (Carmen Grant), a novice, will come to Angelo to beg for her brother Claudio’s (Christopher Prentice) life. He has been condemned to death for getting Juliet (Ruby Joy) pregnant without being married to her.

Angelo develops an overwhelming lust for Isabella and he proposes to free her brother if she has sex with him. Lust is no respecter of anything but for Angelo to desire Isabella so fiercely there must be something in her to make her irresistible. She must have some sexual magnetism that Grant simply does not project. This is no doubt a tall order because Isabella has chosen monastic life but I still hold that there has to be a certain latent sexuality in her to make Angelo renounce all sense of morality. Otherwise, Isabella is fine as a thin-lipped upholder of her morals even if it means her brother’s death.

Grant has a mannered way of speaking which includes nodding her head a shade too much and grimacing a tad more than necessary. A future nun should speak with a virtuously straight or at best sanctimonious expression.

Davies is quite straightforward as the Duke as is Peter Hutt as Escalus. They are both men who hold high office but the Duke gets a lot more fun by disguising himself as a monk and watching immorality in action.

In tandem with the Duke-Angelo-Isabella plot is the story of the low-lives of Vienna. They are the pimps, prostitutes and officer Elbow who are far more entertaining than the ruling class. Stephen Ouimette makes a marvelously slimy Lucio. He is a liar, a fantasizer and a delicious scoundrel. He is in good company with Mistress Overdone (done splendidly by Patricia Collins) whose character is summarized by her name and Pompey (a superb Randy Hughson) whose specialty is getting beaten up.

Constable Elbow, played to perfection by Brian Tree, is a strutting and completely ineffectual martinet who produces laughter with every over-done salute.

What Isabella lacks, Mariana (Sarah Afful) has in abundance. She exudes sexuality and is dressed for it. She was betrothed to Angelo but he dumped her because her dowry fell through. If Angelo is a man of lust, Mariana is the woman to satisfy his desires. It may be that he is attracted to Isabella’s forbidding virtue rather than her sexual appeal.

Another example of Henry’s directorial talent is her treatment of the secondary role of the Provost (Stephen Russell). Henry finds a brilliant way of humanizing the straight-backed, stiff Provost shortly after he comes on stage. He notices that one of the shoelaces of the pregnant Juliet is undone and he bends down and ties it. The functionary becomes a mensch.

A few words about Stephen Russell. He is in his 31st season at Stratford and at one time played leading roles such as Richard II and Julius Caesar and did them well. That was a long time ago and recently he has been demoted to practically walk-on roles. The part of the Provost and the upcoming Duke of Venice in Othello are better roles than he has been getting for some time. The question is why is he given such minor and frequently crappy roles?

The Duke’s last words to the Provost in Measure for Measure are equally applicable to Russell: “Thanks, Provost” says the Duke. “We shall employ thee in a worthier place.”
Antoni Cimolino should heed the Duke’s words vis-à-vis Russell.          


 Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare opened on May 29 and will continue in repertory until September 21, 2013 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart is a long and ambitious play. It is about the confrontation between Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I and deals at some length with legality, justice, religion, treachery, loyalty, love and international relations. That could result in verbosity leading to tedium but the current production at the Tom Patterson Theatre with its all-star cast, is a theatrical tour de force.

Much of the credit goes to the deft handling of the production by Director Antoni Cimolino. He has inserted a several coups de théâtre such as putting the intermission in the middle of Act III just as Mary and Elizabeth meet. But that is the least of his intelligent, judicious and indeed outstanding direction.

He is lucky in having an outstanding cast.

Mary Stuart pits two proud, imperious and ambitious women with claims to the throne of England and different religions. The conflict was real but the two women never met. Mary is a prisoner of Elizabeth; Elisabeth is on the throne and fears that her cousin may find a way of reversing their positions.

Both Lucy Peacock (Mary) and Seana McKenna (Elizabeth) have distinctive voices, what in opera singers is called timbre, a certain coloration that makes them different from other performers. They both have a unique presence so that everything revolves around them when they are on stage.

Mary is intelligent, manipulative, deeply religious and murderous. Elizabeth is politically astute, wants to maintain and expand her power and must rule over men who are equally manipulative, power-hungry and sometimes treacherous.

McKenna and Peacock give signature performances.

The production succeeds because the secondary roles are also played exceptionally well.

Geraint Wyn Davies plays the treacherous, lecherous, Machiavellian and cowardly Earl of Leicester. He pretends and perhaps even believes that he is in love with Mary and is a favorite of Elizabeth. Davies gives a convincing portrait of a despicable man.

An almost unrecognizably wigged Ben Carlson is the cunning and ruthless Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s trusted counselor who takes it upon himself to carry out the order to execute Mary.   

Ian Lake gives a notable performance as Mortimer, a Catholic fanatic who would stop at nothing for his faith. With his hair slicked back, Mortimer has the perseverance, intelligence and ruthlessness of a jihadist.

Veteran actor Brian Dennehy is given the role of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Supporting himself on a cane and shuffling around the stage, Shrewsbury (and Dennehy?) looks ancient. He tends to talk into his chest and although he finds his voice and tone when necessary, I could help wondering if the character or the actor is very, very old.

James Blendick as the jailer Paulet and Patricia Collins as Mary’s servant Hanna Kennedy deserve kudos for their performances.

The theatre-in-the-round stage of the Tom Patterson places severe limitations on the set designer. For this production, Eo Sharp is simply called the “Designer.” There is sparse and pathetic furniture in Mary’s apartment at the beginning; a dramatically lit red cross on the stage boards near the end; stage props are brought in as necessary and all is fittingly well done.

Schiller’s poetic epic was first produced in 1800 and the current production is a new version by Peter Oswald. There are numerous accents that can be attempted. Do we try to emulate how the English spoke in the 16th century or today? The play can accommodate Scottish, English and French accents with the probability of all being done badly.

Cimolino has wisely chosen to forego all attempts at different accents and lets the actors speak in reliable Southern Ontario tones. It works perfectly well and saves us from listening to incongruous tones done badly.

All trepidations about a long, poetic German play disappear as soon as the lights go on and we get an outstanding production and Cimolino and the cast a standing ovation.


Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller in a version by Peter Oswald opened on May 31 and will run in repertory until September 21, 2013 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas 

If Tommy made your stomach vibrate, Blithe Spirit will soothe your soul and make you laugh at a delightful comedy from another era and, yes, another world. Noel Coward’s comedy should delight people during the summer and well into the fall at the Avon Theatre.

Much of the credit goes to its director Brian Bedford. He has a fine ear and feel for comedies of wit which require impeccable delivery, perfect timing and that indefinable quality called style. The play exists in its own world, however, distant it may be from us and the director, and actors must create an atmosphere that is both convincing and utterly entertaining.

Coward wrote Blithe Spirit during World War II when the Luftwaffe was bombing London and the Allies were being hammered by the Axis powers. Blithe Spirit could not be farther from the war and it is a perfect escapist comedy.
Novelist Charles (Ben Carlson) has invited Madame Arcati (Seana McKenna), an eccentric medium, for a séance to communicate with the other world. He just wants to get some background information for his next novel. The result is that his dead first wife Elvira (Michelle Giroux) appears, ethereal and beautiful, and can only be seen by him. You can imagine how his second wife Ruth (Sara Topham) will react to the new guest.  

Among a number of superb performances, I give the laurel wreath to Topham. She jumps from the teenage Juliet to the middle-aged Ruth and does the role with style, perfect articulation and comic intelligence. She is simply a pleasure to watch.

Carlson plays the overwrought husband who finds himself with two wives in the house. Each wife wants to get rid of the other but Ruth cannot see or hear Elvira. Impeccable delivery by Carlson.

Giroux’s Elvira, in see-through attire, is sultry and sexy the way Ruth is reserved and proper. She floats around the set as becomes a spirit and is quite amusing.

Seana McKenna seems to be having the time of her life as the other-worldly Madame Arcati. The medium goes into a trance, collapses on the floor, flails her arms and is given numerous opportunities for comic over-acting. McKenna takes advantage of every such opportunity and milks every possible laugh out of the meaty role.

Coward liked putting eccentric servants in some of his plays and Edith (Susie Burnett), the house maid is no exception. She is from the navy and has the habit of sprinting from one place to the next. Burnett gets the laughs intended for her role.

James Blendick and Wendy Thatcher are the necessary plot movers as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. They are the dinner guests for the séance and they do their job.

The set by designer Simon Higlett represents the type of brightly lit, well-furnished drawing room that you wish you lived in. Men wear tuxedos and women long gowns for dinner and fine suits as casual wear as envisioned by Costume Designer Katherine Lubienski. The whole thing defines a splendid way of life in rural England that is even more attractive for being imaginary.

One more compliment to Bedford. He pays attention to every detail of the dialogue and the actors’ movements. He does not miss an intonation or a pause that will produce a laugh where none would be apparent in the script. For example, in one scene, Charles is trying to humour Ruth after the previous night’s row. She is unresponsive and at one point he comments that “you are very glacial this morning.” Bedford inserts a very slight pause before the word glacial and the line becomes funny.

A thoroughly enjoyable production.

Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward opened on June 1 and will in repertory until October 20, 2013 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.


Saturday, June 8, 2013


From left: Jonathan Goad, Luke Humphrey, Graham Abbey, Mike Shara. Photography by Don Dixon.
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has mounted The Three Musketeers again in a full-blooded production at the Festival Theatre. Peter Raby’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel was first staged in 1968 and revived in 1988 and 2000.   

I had not seen any of the previous productions and indeed, I thought it had been produced many more times. It is a swashbuckling, fast-paced adventure story that has been made into numerous films during the last one hundred years or so as well as television series, musicals and games.

The Musketeers represent youth in action. They are expert swordsman, brave, impetuous and rebellious, who fight against the enemies of their king and for the honour of their queen.

There are more than forty characters in Raby’s adaptation of the novel plus extras. If the Festival Theatre had a smaller stage there would be traffic congestions at times. There is not much of that happening, of course, because Director Miles Potter keeps everyone moving at a brisk speed. This is an adventure drama and there is no time for standing around. Little provocation is needed for the swords to be unsheathed and a display of swordsmanship to ensue. The programme names the Fight Director (John Stead) just below the Director, a spot usually reserved for the Set Designer, in this case Douglas Paraschuk.

There is also an Associate Fight Director (Kevin Bennett), two Assistant Fight Directors (Anita Nittoly and Kostas Tourlentes), a Fight Captain (Wayne Best) and a Movement Captain (Bethany Jillard).

The fighting and loving is done by the Musketeers D’Artagnan (Luke Humphrey), Porthos (Jonathan Goad), Aramis (Mike Shara) and Athos (Graham Abbey). D’Artagnan is technically not a musketeer but there is no reason to lose any sleep over that.

They have serious enemies such as Cardinal Richelieu (Steven Sutcliffe) and his nasty agents The Comte de Rochefort (Michael Blake), Milady de Winter (Deborah Hay) and others. I am loth to give the plot away but let me reveal only that the musketeers are successful and all is well in the world until they return for a number of sequels.

I cannot pretend that I particularly enjoyed the production and in fact started wondering why the play was put on at all. The very large number of actors and other resources that the production requires seem to indicate a substantial use of funds that may not tally favourably in a cost/benefit analysis.

Someone who knows about programming reminded me that The Three Musketeers is intended as the family show. If you want to introduce a 10-year old to Stratford, none of the season’s dozen productions is more suitable or likely to please than The Three Musketeers.

Viewed from that perspective, The Three Musketeers makes sense. Therefore, throw your youngsters in the back seat, take their video games and mobiles out of their hands and take them to Stratford. You will have a good time with them and lend a hand in saving civilization as we know it.

The Three Musketeers by Peter Raby, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, opened on June 1 and will run in repertory until October 19, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford,