Wednesday, December 31, 2014


A scene from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has a number of unique features: it is Richard Wagner’s only comic opera; it holds the Guinness World record as the longest opera; it is an opera that manages to be of epic proportions and comic at the same time.

The Metropolitan Opera has revived Otto Schenk’s 1993 production for the last time and sent it around the world in HD. Not everyone in the theatre had the stamina to stay for the full six hours but those who did were treated to a grand production, vocally, musically and theatrically.

German baritone Michael Volle dominated the performance in the role of Hans Sacks, the humane shoemaker and mastersinger in 16th century Nürnberg. Volle’s sonorous voice is perfect for evoking Sack’s humanity, humour and decency. He maintains his dignity and generosity including the self-awareness that he is too old for Eva, the heroine of the opera. A performance that is as attractive and enjoyable as the character that Volle is playing.

South African tenor Johan Botha plays Walther von Stolzing, the knight who comes to     Nürnberg and falls in love with Eva, the goldsmith’s daughter. Knights used to get the girl by defeating the competition in battle; in Nürnberg he has to best everyone in singing. If he does, he will marry Eva. Our knight has the voice but not the knowledge and he has a few hours to master rules and compose a Prize Song. Botha has a marvelous voice displaying both romantic fervour and power. But there is a problem that may be made worse by the close-ups of watching the opera in the movie theatre.

Stolzing is the dashing knight that Eva falls in love with at first sight. We are quite used to singers who are a poor match for the way we imagine a character and critics should avoid commenting on a singer’s appearance. But in the case of Botha suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. He is a big man, who moves awkwardly and the idea of him as a figure of romance is hard to fathom.

German soprano Annette Dasch made a wholesome and pretty Eva with a sweet voice and even sweeter manner. The daughter of the wealthy goldsmith Pogner (done well by Hans-Peter König), she is a worthy objective for a knight or any man. Dasch knows when to look alluring and sing beautifully to give us an exemplary Eva.

Tenor Paul Appleby comes in for special praise. He is a young artist who performed the role of the apprentice David with delightful verve, energy, agility and just plain joy.  His supple voice stood him in good stead for a very good performance.

German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle got the juicy role of the foolish and nasty Beckmesser. He wants to beat all the mastersingers and get Eva but he makes a laughingstock of himself, gets his comeuppance and does not get the girl. Kränzle gives a superb performance.

Otto Schenk’s production can be classified as traditional with the additional phrase of “they don’t make them like they used to” attached to it. The production will be retired at the end of the year and we will have to wait for the next view of the opera.

Schenk is Franco Zeffirelli with restraint and common sense. The set is by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The opening scene in the nave of the church is grand without being ostentatious. The street scene and the interior of Sacks’s workshop are realistic and attractive, displaying a well-ordered and well-off city. The final scene is supposed to be in a meadow on the banks of a river but looks more like a wide street with rising steps.

Die Meistersinger has a demanding score and surely few conductors and orchestras can equal James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in performing it. The length of the opera is bound to get to you – concentrate on the orchestra when it does!

The Live in HD Director was Matthew Diamond who decided on exactly what we would see on the screen with sense, intelligence and taste. That is no small achievement when he is compared to some of his colleagues who think opera on the screen is a video game

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on December 13, 2014 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 7 and 23, 2015. For more information call (416)-752-4494 or visit

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Ilias Logothetis and Mirto Alikaki

By James Karas 

Near the end of Maria Douza’s first feature film A Place Called Home, Kyriakos walks up the stairs of his mansion for the last time. When he reaches the top we see a dimly visible poster of Constantine Cavafy, the quintessential poet of the Greek diaspora and the writer of Ithaca, the archetypal poem of the return of the native.

Douza’s marvelous film is very much about the uprooted Greek who finds himself in a foreign land, be it willingly or forcefully, and seeks his Ithaca.

Kyriakos (played superbly by Ilias Logothetis) owns a mansion and has been the mayor of his city for some twenty years. As a child he ended up in Serbia at the end of the Greek Civil War and spent his formative years there until he was repatriated in 1963.  

His daughter Eleni (Mirto Alikaki) studied in England and when the film begins she is appointed professor of cardiology at a university in London. Her elderly father asks her to go and see him and she arrives just before Easter with her young daughter Anna. Significantly, she has married an English banker who has been sent to Shanghai by his employer, a failed bank.

Eleni finds a Serbian woman named Nina (Mirjiana Karanovic) living in Kyriakos’s house and taking care of him. Nina’s sad eyes and expressive face encapsulate the fate of millions of people who were displaced by the political convulsions of the twentieth century. There is a moving story about Nina and her daughter and a satisfying conclusion. I am deliberately not giving many details about the plot. Douza has written a fine story that keeps our attention to the very end and I do not want to spoil it for people who have not seen the movie. 

The main plotline concerns Eleni. She has returned to her roots but she no longer belongs there. Her return becomes a journey to the past: her memory of her mother, her relations with her father, her association with her friend Markos (Nikos Orfanos) and all the spirits that she left behind when she went abroad.

The Greek title of the film is The Tree and the Swing, an apt image of the roots that bind us to the homeland and pleasant childhood memories of swinging on the swing that is tied to the tree. Not all the memories are pleasant and the tree will be felled by a chain saw, the swing will fall to the ground, the ties bind some people to Ithaca will be torn. As you will recall, Cavafy warned us that Ithaca may have nothing more to give us.   

Alikaki gives a splendid performance as the woman torn between obligations to husband, daughter, career, father and homeland. She returns to Greece with mixed emotions and matters become dramatically worse as she discovers what happened in the past and what her father wants her to do now.
Kyriakos is a successful politician at the end of his career. He wants to leave a legacy to his community and through him we get a glance at Greek politics. Logothetis broodingly characterizes him as patriarchal, somewhat domineering but in the end as a man who lived through Greece’s worst period and has retained his decency and even his patriotism.

Most of the film is shot in the rather dark interior of Kyriakos’s mansion but there are some marvelous exterior scenes by the sea. Douza dwells lovingly on the faces of her characters and lets their expressions tell their story. The mansion is a dwelling and a symbol but we never get a sustained view of the exterior of the house. I wish Douza had given us a more compelling image of the house the way she did of the faces of the characters.

A Place Called Home is a poignant, rather dour film that is meticulously plotted and judiciously directed. One of the last tableaux, carefully chosen no doubt, is of an Easter dinner, with all the symbols of reconciliation, redemption and resurrection. But Douza does not stoop to a soppy conclusion. Eleni does not stay in Ithaca; the Greek of the diaspora remains far away from the tree and the swing because they are no longer there. Unlike Kyriakos’s, Eleni’s journey has just begun and she will perhaps drop anchor in her homeland again when she is old, full of experiences and much wiser.

A Place Called Home was shown at the 10th European Union Film Festival held in Toronto between November 15 and 30, 2014.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Danielle Wade and Jeff Lillico. Photo Racheal McCaig Photography 

Reviewed by James Karas

Ross Petty’s Cinderella: The Gags to Riches Family Musical is a riot. It will play at the Elgin Theatre until January 4, 2015 and provides a theatrical experience where stage and audience are charged with energy and joy. It is something that performers dream of creating and audiences dream of seeing.

Petty’s forte is fracturing fairy tales, as he puts it, and this Cinderella is no different. Our heroine runs an organic vegetable booth at a Farmers Market in Toronto and she is just two weeks short of the age of majority. In those two weeks her evil stepmother wants to take way her business and turn it into a store selling Hypno Chips containing benzene!

Cinderella wants to participate in a reality show on CBC called EligiBall and meet Max Charming but her stepmother aptly named Revolta Bulldoza does all she can to prevent it. Her nasty Hypno Chips are effective but not as effective as the magic wand of Plumbum, the Fairy Godmother.

That is a bare outline of the fracturing of the fairy tale and Cinderella does go to a ball in a real horse-drawn carriage, meets Max, the evil stepsisters are put in their place, chips are vilified, healthy food is glorified and no doubt we all live happily ever after.

The fun is in between and the most important part of the glorious entertainment is the rambunctious audience, in this case made up of a lot of youngsters ranging from a few months to teens. When Ross Petty appears as Bulldoza, he goads the audience and the young people screech with laughter and express their disapproval with enthusiastic boos. These are no ordinary boos but heartfelt expressions of moral outrage that is simply hilarious. When the wholesome and pretty Cinderella (played beautifully by Danielle Wade) appears there is nothing but love emanating from the auditorium.

That is not all. When they sing on stage, the young sing along. I was accompanied by a bright-eyed and energetic six-year old who knew all the lyrics and expressed her approval and condemnation with the promptness and zeal of a most discerning and sensitive adult.

Cleopatra Williams,  Bryn McAuley and Ross Petty. Photo Racheal McCaig Photography 

There are contemporary references that most youngsters could not relate to. They did not concern them. Olivia Chow, Hazel McCallion, the Fords. Kathleen Wynne, John Tory and a host of others made their way into the show.        

Petty dominates the show with non-stop comic business and singing. The humour goes from high to low and the audience just loves to “hate” his Revolta Bulldoza.

Dan Chameroy is riotous as the Fairy Godmother falling down the stairs, bumping into things and having a magic wand that is out of juice. Jeff Lillico is a wholesome Max Charming, a pop star who wants to be loved for himself.

Petty has found a nifty if not terribly original way of financing the show – advertising. There are several commercials incorporated in the show that advertise the sponsors in the context of the fairy tale. The Toronto Star, CIBC, Hilton Hotel, PC Mobile are interspersed using characters from the show with humour and minimal interference.

The whole enterprise from gags , to dancing, to pratfalls, (not to mention horses on stage) is expertly directed by Tracey Flye.

I make no secret of the fact that I enjoyed the show immensely. On the stage, there is a riotous musical with great humour, marvelous dancing, kaleidoscopally colourful sets and sheer joy in telling a morality tale. In the audience, there was infectious enthusiasm, fists thrown up in the air in disproval and shrieks of appreciation. It was a symbiosis that may be taken as both a fine definition of theatre and a night at the theatre.         

CINDERELLA, The Gags to Riches Family Musical opened on November 27 and will play until January 4, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, November 28, 2014


James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lennie
Reviewed by James Karas

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, is a story about loneliness, abiding hope, enduring aspiration for security and above all friendship. The story of the friendship between the quick-witted George and the simpleton Lennie has a mythical quality to it that reaches back to Damon and Pythias, and Achilles and Patroclus. 
The defining words on friendship for the modern world perhaps belong to E. M. Forster: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Steinbeck’s dramatization of his book received an outstanding production from England’s National Theatre and a performance at New York’s Longacre Theatre was broadcast in movie theatres.

George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) are itinerant ranch workers in depression-era California. George is intelligent and a friend of the simple-minded Lennie. They are very different people but are joined in their dream for a piece of property where they can live off the fat of the land, as they say.

In the movie theatre, one has the advantage of looking into George’s intelligent, sharp eyes and tough demeanor. As for Lennie, his eyes express his simplicity, kindness and love of soft things. We also see his roughness as he pats mice and puppies to death. Eventually he will panic and break Curley’s Wife’s neck. Leighton Meester is excellent as the flirty, fragile, dreamy and lonely woman who wants to escape from the ranch.

The production’s success is based on the outstanding interplay between George and Lennie.  Lennie annoys and exasperates George but makes him laugh too. George knows that Lennie cannot survive without him but he dreams along with him of a better life.

There is only praise for the motley workers at the ranch.  Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones) is immensely moving as the black outcast who is left with nothing but still harbours a dream.

Leighton Meester is excellent as the flirty, fragile, dreamy and lonely wife of Curley. She is a pathetic woman who wants to escape.

Jim Norton is superb as the pathetic Candy. Old and crippled, he has a blind and stinking dog as his companion which is eventually killed. He too wants to join George and Lennie in their quest for a piece of land.

Anna D. Shapiro directs a masterly production from the happy daydreams of the opening act to the final tragedy. The close-ups in the movie theatre are a great advantage but there are drawbacks. The puppy that Lennie squeezes to death is obviously a puppet. In the theatre, we would not be able to notice it. But the details of the facial expressions, the dazed, dreamy look in Lennie’s eyes; the meanness in Curley’s look; the facial expressions in Curley’s Wife’s face are all extraordinary bonuses in an extraordinary production.

I have one compliant. In the final dramatic scene, when George is describing their dreamy future and asks Lennie to “see” their piece of land in front of him, he (George) steps back but stands on Lennie’s side. The scene would be more effective if he stood behind Lennie. I felt as if Lenie could see what George was about to do to him in his peripheral vision.

George and Lennie may well have been betrayed by their country and George may have betrayed his country’s  justice system but in the end he acted like a true friend.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck was shown on November 24, 2014 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  For more information:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Patrick Galligan, Ian D. Clark & Jessica Greenberg
Reviewed by James Karas

NSFW is a fast-paced satire by Lucy Kirkwood that is receiving its Canadian premiere at The Theatre Centre. It takes on several issues and the result is a entertaining and intriguing night at the theatre. The acronym stands for Not Safe for Work which is internet lingo for what to avoid watching during office hours and that is:  soft porn.

Aidan (Patrick Galligan) is the ruthless editor of a trashy magazine called Doghouse. He bullies his staff into going to the Arctic or writing sleazy articles about themselves and acts like an arrogant jerk. The cover of the latest issue has the photograph of a topless girl which was submitted by one of the magazine’s readers. Unfortunately the girl is only 14 and Sam (Aaron Stern), an editorial assistant, obtained her consent by fraud.

All hell breaks loose when the girl’s father, Mr. Bradshaw (Ian D. Clark), arrives threatening to ruin the magazine and the editor.

Aidan has two other employees, a straight-faced assistant, Charlotte (Jessica Greenberg) and a skittish writer named Rupert (James Graham). Most of the first half of the 90-minute play is taken up with the ferocious argument between Aidan and Mr. Bradshaw about the morality of publishing the photograph, the attempts to bribe the father and threats and counterthrusts between the two men.      

 James Graham, Susan Coyle & Aaron Stern

The second half of the play presents the obverse of the first. We are in the office of Electra, a trashy magazine for women run by Miranda (Susan Coyne). The magazine is ostensibly concerned with women’s beauty, perhaps perfection, however that may be achieved.  Sam lost his job at Doghouse many months ago and she is interviewing him for a job. She seems to be nuts if not a psychopath as she belittles, humiliates and plays games with the hapless Sam.

She has already hired and done the same thing to Rupert by having him try beauty enhancing products like Botox.

Galligan has to speak at breakneck speeds as he tries to put down Bradshaw. The argument teeter totters with Bradshaw and Aidan getting the upper hand in one turn and being bulldozed in the next. Galligan has the toughest role in the play. He has to go through a gamut of stages as he tries to crush Clark’s character who takes a high moral tone until he is reduced to bargaining about the size of the bribe. Very good work by the two actors.

Coyne establishes dominance over Stern’s Sam and has him wiggling like a small fish on a large hook. She is very good as the domineering, superficially classy, bitchy, funny and, as I said, perhaps psychotic editor. Stern is very credible as the squirming, unemployed wimp who tries to save some of his dignity until he is crushed.  

The play is set in England and it opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Canadian actors have a perennial problem in achieving an English accent and the problem persisted in this production. They all tried but the result was uneven.

Director Joel Greenberg wasted no time in setting a high-speed production in motion. The speed is modulated especially in the second act and we get the laughs, the satire, and the dark side of publishing. If watching certain sites on the internet during work is not safe, having a boss like Aidan or Miranda is nothing short of disastrous.

Go see the play.

NSFW (Not Safe for Work) by Lucy Kirkwood opened on November 7 and will play until November 30, 2014 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416 538-0988 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Jordan Pettle, Matthew Edison, Damien Atkins, Laura Condlin, Rebecca Northan, Bruce Dow. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas
Sextet is one of the wittiest plays that I have seen in a some time and that is not its greatest virtue. Morris Panych’s play that just premiered at the Tarragon Theatre is funny, highly intelligent, thoroughly entertaining and has the marvelous backdrop of music by Arnold Schoenberg and poetry by Richard Dehmel.

The title refers to a string sextet (four men, two women) stuck in a cheap motel in some small town while on a concert tour. The set consists of six identical beds under the sign MOTEL where the musicians are staying. They run form one room to another or jump from one bed to the next as we find out about their lives, loves, lusts and sexual predilections.

They are a colourful group. Otto (Jordan Pettle) is a test-tube baby (his mother was artificially inseminated), he is on love with Mavis (Rebecca Northan) who, he thinks, is pregnant by him.

Mavis is married to Gerard (Bruce Dow) who has low sperm count and cannot be the father of Mavis’s baby. Mavis cannot be pregnant by Otto because they had “missionary style” sex and she can only become pregnant if she squats during sex.

We have horny Sylvia (Laura Condlin), gay Harry (Damien Atkins), perhaps bisexual Dirk (Matthew Edison) and the interaction among the six, the sexual and musical jokes, witticisms and wide range of references come at breakneck speed and are simply delightful.

Panych, who also directs, has structured the play not only around quick dialogue but also around interchanges that begin with a character saying something in one room and someone else replying in another part of the stage/motel. It gives the play and the production great fluidity and keeps the audience’s attention riveted to the performance. It also resembles the performance by the sextet where one instrument picks up the melody followed the other players, individually, in different groups or all together.

We get some marvelous performances. Dow’s Gerard keeps reminding us that he is not wearing a dress as he grabs Harry’s behind. He is quite funny. Atkins is simply hilarious as the gay musician who insists this is his last tour. He is attracted to the macho Dirk who has his own problems. He can only masturbate with his feet above his head!

Condlin brings in a fine performance as the neurotic and permanently aroused Sylvia. Northan’s Mavis is more down to earth as she tries to get semen from someone so she can fool her husband into believing that he actually fathered her child.

The play has Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and German writer Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same title as its backdrop. Schoenberg was only 24 when he composed the sextet in a few weeks in 1899 when his love affair with his future wife Mathilde Zemlinsky was blossoming.

Parts of Dehmel’s poem echo in the play. In the poem two lovers meet in a cold grove on a moonlit night. She confesses to her lover that she is carrying another man’s child. He consoles her by saying that love will transfigure the strange man’s child and it will become theirs.

Love provides absolution of sins and transfiguration in Schoenberg’s sextet and Dehmel’s poem as well as in Panych’s play.

Kudos to Panych for writing and brilliant directing. The timing and delivery of the lines require precise timing and concise delivery to give the full extent of the hunour and the background of the play and high praise is due to the entire production.

An amazing night at the theatre.

Sextet  by Morris Panych opened on November 12 and will run until  December 14, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom, Gray Powell as Hodge, Sanjay Talwar as Captain Brice, RN, Andrew Bunker as Ezra Chater and Kate Besworth as Thomasina. Photo by David Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas

Where can you get a clear explanation of carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem in two simple sentences? You are probably ignorant of one of those functions but you have already learned that carnal embrace consists of throwing your arms around a side of beef so that your education is proceeding apace.

You find all that out and more in the first minute or so of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. This is a revival of last year’s production at the Shaw Festival and continues to be a play and a production to be savored.

Stay focused on carnal embraces or sexual congresses, if you will, because it is an entertaining part of the play amid some abstruse scientific, philosophical, mathematical, botanical, cosmological and other discussions. Not to mention that by the tenth line of the play you encountered references to Julius Caesar and Genesis that you quite likely missed.

The point to be made is that Arcadia is a brilliant play that has a vast array of references, some esoteric, some familiar, all adding up to dazzling dialogue, laughter and mental gymnastics.

With one small change, the cast is the same as in the Shae Festival production of 2013 directed brilliantly by Eda Holmes.

Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an aristocratic mansion in England, in 1809-1812 and during the present (the play was first produced in 1993). In the 19th century, Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) is tutoring Thomasina (Kate Besworth), a 13-year old genius who is arguing about sex, Fermat’s theorem, the Newtonian view of the universe, just to mention a few subjects that interest her. Hodge engages in those discussions as well as enjoying a vertical poke with Mrs. Chater, the wife of the poet Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker). There is also the mystery of Lord Byron’s visit to Sidley Park and killing Chater in a duel. And what about Hodge’s attraction to the lovely Lady Croom (Nicole Underhay)?

We have excellent performances from the cast. Besworth’s Thomasina is quick-witted, quick-talking and a brilliant arguer with the shrewd Hodge who has to tread a fine line between intellectual honesty and moral propriety while satisfying his hormonal needs.

Underhay as Lady Croom is sexy and haughty with just the right touch of the woman who has certain needs. Andrew Bunker is hilarious as the foolish poet who challenges people to duels in defense of his wife’s honour who is basically the local slut.   

The twentieth century cast is dominated by Patrick McManus as Bernard Nightingale, an ambitious academic researcher and Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis, a bestselling author whose last book Nightingale trashed. The two actors have a marvelous chemistry for antagonism and we are delighted to see Jarvis get the best of Nightingale, the loud-mouth braggart. Splendid performances.

Martin Happer is a treat as Valentine, a dour and eccentric twentieth century scientist.         
Arcadia is theatre at its best but it does require some effort to get the best out of it. You will laugh loudly, be intrigued by the mystery at the heart of the play and at times you will be confused and on occasion quite lost. This production brings out the play at its best even if the English accents are uneven. I saw the current revival twice. It is the sort of play that bears repeated viewing. You owe it to yourself to see it at least once.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard opened on November 9 and will run until December 14, 2014 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Peter Higginson as Prospero. Photo: Scott Gorman
Reviewed by James Karas

The Tempest is full of magic, music, enchantment and fairies set on a dream-like island ruled by a kindly (and at times tyrannical) Duke with supernatural powers. All productions of Shakespeare’s last complete play attempt to create that atmosphere but few are as successful as the current staging at Hart House Theatre.

Director Jeremy Hutton uses a number of techniques to create the magical world of The Tempest and maintain it from beginning to end.      

The production opens with a ship sailing in a calm sea with the sailors singing happily. There are spirits watching them and Prospero appears. He strikes his staff on the ground and then we hear the tempestuous thunder as the ship is battered and sunk by the storm.

The six spirits that Hutton has in this production resemble Ariel and they are present on stage throughout the play. They appear like statues hanging from parts of the set or come to life and dart around the stage. Their movements are carefully choreographed and they serve as a constant reminder that we are in a world of magic and enchantment. In the play, the spirits have a limited role singing a brief refrain in the first act and taking part in the masque.

In addition, Hutton makes use of Prospero’s magical powers by having him strike the ground with his staff frequently to excellent effect. When Prospero is telling his daughter Miranda about his usurping brother, he bangs his staff and we see Alonso as if projected on a screen at the back. This happens when the other people in the play are mentioned.

Hutton and Lighting Designer Joseph Patrick make judicious use of strobe lights and other uses of lighting to emphasize the other-worldliness of the island. The overall effect of these techniques is to create the marvelous world of the island that is so essential to any production. An amazing feat.

Peter Higginson makes a decent, kindly Prospero who seems to enjoy his supernatural powers. The exiled Duke of Milan has another, much less benign side in his treatment of the “natives” but Hutton prefers to deemphasize that part of Prospero’s character.

Amaka Umeh gives a nimble, well-articulated and superb performance as Ariel.

 William Foley as Caliban, Paolo Santalucia as Stephano, Peter Higginson s Prospero, Cameron Laurie as Trinculo. Photo: Scott Gorman

William Foley’s Caliban is not deformed at all but he is able to scream, roll on the stage and produce laughter. He also gives a sound indication of the possible injustice meted on him by the uninvited Duke. Caliban tries to violate Miranda and his punishment is enslavement following the conquest of his island by Prospero. On the comic side Foley, Paolo Santalucia as Stephnao and Cameron Laurie as Trinculo give hilarious performances.

Katherine Fogler is lovely and fetching as Miranda and Andrei Preda is an upstanding and handsome Ferdinand. They are just what lovers should be.

Of the lesser characters, Michael McLeister stands out as the decent if somewhat garrulous Gonzalo.

Some words were muffed, some lines were muffled but overall the delivery of the lines was very decent.

The single set was very effective. The white-washed boards of the ship in the opening scene became the door to Prospero’s cave and there was room for the spirits to dangle around the stage. The costumes were naval for most of the men.

Choreographer Ashleigh Powell deserves kudos for the movements that she created for the spirits and for the handing of the masque.  

Without taking anything away from the actors, the most impressive aspect of the production was the magical island that Hutton and his team were able to create. 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare opened on November 5 and will run until November 22, 2014 at the Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. M5S 3H3

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Mireille Asselin as Morgana, Wallis Giunta as Bradamante and Krešimir Špicer as Oronte. Photo: Bruce Zinger 

Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier’s production of Alcina is full of magic, illusion, enchantment, transformation and love. There is an underlying layer of danger, destruction and evil that all are combined in George Frideric Handel’s 1735 opera.

When the curtain opens, we see an expanse of sand dunes. As we listen to the overture, we notice a shifting of the sand and some of the dunes are transformed into a human body. It is as if the body had been fossilized or become sand and was struggling to escape from its imprisonment like an unfinished sculpture embedded in a slab of marble. It is a startling image created by a projected video and a fine metaphor for the opera. 

Alcina is a sorceress and she rules an island where she turns discarded lovers and other people into animals and vegetables. Think of Circe of Greek mythology who did pretty much the same thing but her specialty was turning men into swine.

Alcina has six characters and a plot that goes something like this: Alcina has the knight Ruggiero in her thrall on the island. Bradamante is in love with Ruggiero and she arrives on the island with Melisso, Ruggiero’s former tutor. Their mission: free Ruggiero and Alcina’s other captives. The means: a magic ring. Bradamante is disguised as her brother Ricciardo and Alcina’s sister Morgana falls in love with him/her. We are now thirty seconds into the opera.
Backdrop to Alcina. Photo Bruce Zinger.

Morgana dumps her lover Oronte who becomes very jealous and violent; Ruggiero is unaware of what is going on remains in his world; more jealousy as the da capo arias come pouring in. Are you still with me? Probably not, in which case, listen to the arias and forget the plot twists.
Director Marshall Pynkoski does a number of things to alleviate the creaky plot. He adds some humour and a number of beautiful ballet sequences choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg as well as some extraordinary video projections as mentioned at the beginning of this review. Film Director Ben Shirinian’s video and Gerard Gauci’s sets provide an extraordinary illustration of the text of the opera. Alcina’s palace, a view of people who have become embedded in the landscape, the transformation and liberation of imprisoned men, make up a stunning display of imaginative recreation of an opera.

All of that was not quite enough to free the opera from its complex and unsatisfactory plot but the music and arias in the hands of an excellent cast more than made up for it.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay as Alcina showed good voice even if her fury was not always convincing. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings Bradamante who is in love with Ruggiero but appears as her own brother Ricciardo. Giunta does a splendid job as a woman playing a man who lets her hair down to show us that she is beautiful and worthy of Ruggiero.
Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy handled beautifully the pants role of the hero Ruggiero who eventually comes out of his thrall and saves the day. Alcina’s sister Morgana was sung by soprano Mireille Asselin in a prime performance.     

Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre has the straight-man role of Melisso, Bradamante’s guardian. He is imposing vocally and physically.
Tenor Krešimir Špicer plays the somewhat buffoonish and jealous Oronte, the commander of Alcina’s troops.   

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was conducted by David Fallis to its usual high standards.

This Alcina has enormous production values combined with superior singing but suffers from its unsatisfactory plot. But you can’t blame Opera Atelier for that.

Alcina by George Frideric Handel opened on October 23 and will run until November 1, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Adam Lazarus in The Art of Building a Bunker at Factory Theatre. 

By James Karas

The Art of Building a Bunker, now playing at the Factory Theatre, has a promising beginning, a muddled middle and an editorializing end that add up to an interesting night at the theatre with a play that needs a dramaturge. Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia are listed as “creators” of the piece and I am not sure how that differs from writers. Lazarus is the sole performer and Verdecchia directs. 

The programme tells us that this is “a play about sensitivity training that is ANYTHING BUT SENSITIVE.” Lazarus appears as a number of characters including someone called Cam who has been ordered by his boss to run a sensitivity training class for a week and someone called Elvis who has been ordered to take one. Lazarus starts with the obnoxious jargon of such sessions including words like inclusivism, sensitivity etc. He interpolates what he really thinks of such drivel and is very amusing.

There are a number of people from very different backgrounds in the group and Lazarus imitates their accents and continues with the unctuous language of sensitivity training with trenchant asides. In addition to the characters, Lazarus manages several accents and delivers a performance that is difficult and superb. The problem is not the acting; it is the play.  

The play quickly runs out of material and it goes off into various tangents but concentrates mainly on Elvis. My mind started wandering and I had some difficulty concentrating and following what was going on. We have Elvis, probably a sociopath, who is building a bunker. He editorializes about most of the headlines in the current newspapers from Ebola in Texas to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to genetically modified foods to ISIS and you-name-it. But there is no real explanation about Elvis’s character or his actions. What is he and what is the bunker meant to protect him from?   

There is a sort of unifying metaphor of leaving the shore and paddling up a river in a canoe on a voyage of discovery. There is a canoe on top of the pipes that surround the stage but even the metaphor gets lost in the muddle. We need to know what Elvis has done and what problem he and we are trying to solve or resolve in out voyage of discovery.

Creator/Performer Lazarus works very hard to entertain us. He does some acrobatics, some physical comedy, manages a number of accents and creates different characters. But the script is so muddled that only he and Creator/Director Verdecchia could follow all its twists and turns that lead to ninety minutes of discovering that the play needs some editing, tightening up and more meat to make a good night at the theatre.

The Art of Building a Bunker by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia opened on October 21and will run until November 2,  2014 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San and Stefano Secco as Pinkerton. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has revived its 2003 production of Madama Butterfly in what can best be described as a mixed blessing. Brian Macdonald’s production was last seen at the Four Season Centre in 2009 and it has not fared well with the passage of time.

The best part of the production is soprano Patricia Racette’s performance as Cio-Cio San. It is a role that requires a huge emotional and a significant vocal range and Racette does a superb job as Butterfly, the 15-year old Japanese girl who marries, Pinkerton, a despicable American naval officer. She goes from blissful infatuation, to deep love, to desperation, to eternal hope, utter despair and finally suicide. Racette captures all those emotions in her bravura performance.

The most disappointing performance was that of tenor Stefano Secco as Pinkerton. His voice was not strident but it fell well short of the tone of the passionate lover of the first act. He was simply unconvincing either as a lover or a cad. To my great surprise, the audience did not take to him at all and a substantial number of usually polite Canadians booed him. An average performance does not deserve that kind of treatment.
 Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San. Photo: Michael Cooper

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was an affectionate and dramatic Suzuki and gave an impressive performance. Baritone Dwayne Croft was a sympathetic Sharpless, the humane American Consul. His resonant voice stood him in good stead and he provided fine contrast to Pinkerton.  

Macdonald’s and Set Designer Susan Benson’s conception seemed flat and indeed almost drab. Half a dozen screens on a raised platform were practically the sum total of the set. In the background we see a faded mountain presumably on the other side of Nagasaki Harbour. The sky is gray, the sides of the stage are gray and the costumes seem unimaginative. What was simple and even attractive a few years ago no longer satisfies and we need a more imaginative production but do keep Patricia Racette.

The directing seemed careless. The Pinkerton-Butterfly duet in Act I is an ardent expression of love but physically they almost never get even close to each other. “You are the centre of the universe,” “you are mine,” “yes, for life” they sing in passionate bliss. You can’t very well have them in each other’s arms for the duration of the duet singing into each other’s dental work but the staging was decidedly awkward. There has to be sexual electricity between the two even if they are apart because they are about to have their honeymoon.
Racette rises to the occasion in the final scene when she says farewell to her child and kills herself. The libretto calls for Pinkerton to sing “Butterfly! Butterfly! Butterfly” offstage and he and Sharpless rush onto the stage. Pinkerton is supposed to fall on his knees in a possible gesture of repentance. In this production, they are not seen at the end at all. They are not needed. Racette carries the scene all by herself.      

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini opened on October 10 and will be performed twelve times until October 31, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Amanda Majeski, Peter Mattei, Ildar Abdrazakov and Marlis Petersen. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera 

Reviewed by James Karas

The current production of Le Nozze de Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera that was broadcast from Lincoln Centre Live in HD may be one of the best ever as seen on the big screen. Director Richard Eyre and Set and Costume Designer Rob Howell have conceived and executed an extraordinary staging that is a delight to the ear, a pleasure to the eye and that is very funny as well.

As the breathless overture to the opera begins and the gold curtain opens, we see a young women wearing only a slip and clutching her bra to her chest running onto and then off the stage. A self-satisfied man in his shorts and robe saunters after her. He looks very happy for obvious reasons. The man is Count Almaviva (Peter Mattei).

The massive and ornate stage of the Met revolves and we see a woman in a large bed. She is not sleeping and she reaches over to the other side of her bed. It is empty. The woman is the Countess Almaviva (Amanda Majeski) and we know why her bed is empty.

The stage continues to revolve and we see the servants Figaro (Ildar Abdrazakov) and Susanna (Marlis Petersen) busily preparing for their wedding. The stage revolves some more and we see the servants of the Almaviva household preparing something.

All of this happens during the overture and we get a panoramic view of the plot of the opera and then some. We are aware that the Count is tired of his wife and has developed a roving eye but we never “see” him being unfaithful nor do we see the Countess in bed alone while he practicing the delicate art of infidelity. In this production we get a good glimpse.

What follows is even better. Eyre has set the production in the 1930’s. The revolving stage is made of ornately carved wood and gives the impression of wealth and elegance with gothic overtones. He directs the cast with meticulous care and in the movie theatre we are at a great advantage for a change. We see every gesture, grimace, double-take, slap and comic business that most people in the audience at Lincoln Centre will probably miss. This comic opera is actually very funny and I found myself laughing loudly far more frequently than I can recall.

The singing and the acting and hence the characterizations were simply outstanding. Take Abdrazakov as Figaro. He is attractive, agile, sings gorgeously and gives us a full-blooded Figaro. Marlis Petersen is a pretty, smart, quick-witted, lively and simply marvelous as Susanna.

Amanda Majeski, Marlis Petersen and Isabel Leonard. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Majeski’s Countess is icily pretty, past the blush of youth and one cans see (perhaps) why the Count has strayed. But she gains our sympathy with two great arias and the fact that she is, as she tells us, much kinder than the count. A superb performance.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard deserves special mention for her portrayal of hormonally overloaded Cherubino. In addition to her fine display of sexual excitement, Leonard has a rich array of facial expressions, physical movements and vocal intonations that add up to a delightful Cherubino.                
 Mattei’s Almaviva is irascible, jealous, and almost obnoxious but he redeems himself when he asks for forgiveness at the end of the opera. After the anger, commotion, threats and disarray, there is a momentary pause and his aria of repentance comes out like a hymn of grace.

James Levine celebrated the 75th time that he has conducted Figaro and it is unlikely that there is a conductor who knows the score more intimately. He and Eyre have created a production that may serve the Met for decades.

A word about Gary Halvorson. He is the Live in HD Director who decides on the shots and angles that we see in the movie theatres. I have had nothing but contempt for his work because he seems to think that the Met is broadcasting video games. For this production he allowed us to see and hear without constantly clicking on different shots. We saw the large stage only a few times and I am not sure what the production would like at Lincoln Centre. In the movie theatre, it looked great.

Le Nozze di Figaro by W A. Mozart was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 18, 2014 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on December 6 and 15, 2014. For more information: 416)-752-4494


Russell Braun as Ford and Gerald Finley as Falstaff. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company delivers a resoundingly successful Falstaff for its fall season. Gerald Finley dominates the production the way Herne’s Oak towers over Windsor Great Park (even if in this production the tree is left to our imagination).

The Canadian bass-baritone gives a defining performance as the exuberant, irreverent, lecherous fat knight in Robert Carsen’s brilliant imagining of Verdi’s last opera. There are times when he is the centerpiece of the opera around whom the other characters seem like simple satellites. He dominates vocally with his powerful chords and physically with his well-padded torso. He is funny and Carsen manages to keep him from becoming pathetic in the ends when the “fairies’ are supposed to basically torture him. The needling is ritualistic rather than realistic and the desired result is comic rather than cruel.

Canadian baritone Russell Braun gives a superb performance as Ford, the jealous, would-be-cuckolded husband of Alice. He disguises himself as a wealthy man in order to catch Falstaff, his supposed cuckolder and manages to be amusing in both guises. Braun sings with conviction and acts with panache. Soprano Lyne Fortin is an attractive, energetic and satisfying Alice.

French-Canadian Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave an impressive performance as Mistress Quickly, one of the merry wives of Windsor. She has a marvelously rich voice and a fine comic sense. Her Mistress Quickly was a delight to see and hear.

Tenor Michael Colvin did the best in the relatively minor role of Dr. Caius by being vocally expressive and quite funny. Tenor Frédéric Antoun was good as Fenton the young lover with Simone Osborne as Nannetta, the object of his affection.
 A scene from Falstaff. Photo: Michael Cooper

Much of the strength of the production lies in Carsen’s interpretation. The Garter Inn where the opera is set in 16th century England (i.e. Shakespearean’s The Merry Wives of Windsor) becomes a modern grand hotel. Falstaff is in a huge bed in a paneled room that is as big as the stage. With a few judicious rearrangements of the panels we move to the other scenes of the opera. The panels are removed for the scene in the kitchen in Ford’s house where Falstaff will be hidden in a huge laundry hamper and unceremoniously dumped into the Thames.

After being saved from drowning by the size of his belly, Falstaff ends up in the stable of the grand hotel where a horse is having dinner while our hero tries to deal with his humiliation.

Falstaff opens at a brisk speed and the tempo is maintained with necessary modulations in pace. Carsen brings out comic touches and gets the laughs and enjoyment inherent in the opera. The last scene in the park where Falstaff’s punishment could become disproportionate to his sins is handled with finesse. In the end his atonement rings false as it should. We want an irrepressible Falstaff who gets his comeuppance but is essentially unstoppable and immortal.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra performed energetically under the baton of Johannes debus.

This is a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, thr Teatro alla Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, New York and the Dutch National Opera. That may be a good indicator of the current state of opera.

Be that as it may, the audience gave this Falstaff an enthusiastic reception and Gerald Finley a standing ovation.

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi will be performed seven times between October 3 and November 1, 2014 at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Jeff Miller as Atticus Finch and Caroline Toal as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has attained iconic status as a novel, a film and a play. The 1960 novel and 1962 film starring Gregory Peck are known better than the 1990 theatrical adaptation by Christopher Sergel but all tell the powerful story of growing up in a small town in Alabama in the 1930’s and of racial inequality and injustice at the most despicable level.

Young People’s Theatre gives us an outstanding production of the play that captures the atmosphere of a town with deep racial bigotry and disregard for justice.

Director Allen MacInnis leads a fine cast who give very good performances that tell the two stories of the novel with effectiveness and emotional punch.

One plot strand is the domestic life of lawyer Atticus Finch (Jeff Miler), his two children, Scout (Caroline Toal) and Jem (Noah Spitzer), their friend Dill (Tal Shulman) and the maid Calpurnia (Lisa Berry). The children and Dill are intelligent, curious and have very active imaginations especially when it comes to their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley (Mark Crawford). Their curiosity leads them to harassing the poor man in order to see what he is doing and how he is living. It is a touching tale of childhood fears and of growing up.

The parallel story is about Tom Robinson (Matthew G. Brown), a Negro labourer charged with raping Mayella (Jessica Moss), a young woman who befriended him and made sexual advances. Her father Bob Ewell (Hume Baugh) saw the  incident and Tom was immediately arrested and charged with rape. Judge Taylor (Thomas Hauff) appoints Atticus to defend Tom and we have a memorable courtroom scene.

The two plot strands meet to very dramatic effect at the conclusion of the play. I am not disclosing the entire plot for those who may not be aware of it. Suffice it to see it is an extraordinary story that goes from the humour of childhood fears and domestic life to the depths and depravity of racist America and the perversion of justice.

The story is told from the point of view of the ten-year-old Scout but the central character is Atticus. He is the essence of decency in a society poisoned by racial hatred. His defense of a Negro transfers society’s hatred towards him when the disgusting Bob Ewell spits in his face. Atticus reacts calmly and expresses the wish that his attacker did not chew tobacco. That is the persona that Miller has to represent and he does so with terrific effectiveness.  

Toal does a very good job as Scout. The actor is understandably older than the 10-year old Scout but she is convincing in the role. She manages a decent Southern accent and my only small complaint is that at times she spoke a bit too quickly.

Shulman and Spitzer are in good form as the young boys as is Rudy Webb as the decent Reverend Sykes and Hauff as the fair-minded judge.

The obnoxious and evil Bob Ewell and the pathetic Tom Robinson represent the opposite poles of the emotional scale. Brown as Robinson delivers an emotionally draining performance while you want to strangle Baugh’s Ewell he is so hideous.
The theatre on the media opening performance of this production was full of students representing the racial mix of Toronto. They seemed enthralled by the play that is as much a lesson in morality as it is a thoroughly dramatic story. It was a delight to watch the stage and the audience. The show is recommended for ages 11 and up but there is no upper age limit! Go see it.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, dramatized by Christopher Sergel opened on October 9 and will play until November 2, 2014 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222.