Wednesday, April 30, 2014


The Last Confession
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas

On April 27, 2014, Karol Wojtyla was elevated by the Catholic Church to the status of a saint. His former name and position was that of Pope John Paul II and one is at a loss to find a suitable simile for the transformation from a former mortal to a saint. All other accolades from Nobel Prize, to Pulitzer to Oscar shrivel into insignificance compared to canonization.

Pope John Paul II (as he then was) appears as a character in The Last Confession, a play by Roger Crane, which is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The play is about the election to the papacy of Cardinal Albino Luciani who died under mysterious circumstances in the 33rd day of his tenure as Pope John Paul I in 1978. He was succeeded by John Paul II and I can safely reveal that the latter does not get a good review in the play. The Last Confession is a ripping play and a thriller and one must not reveal too much.

The play opened om April 27, 2014.

David Suchet plays Cardinal Benelli, the central character of the play. You will have to forget Suchet as the prissy Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie mysteries. His Cardinal Benelli is a tough-minded, ambitious and principled cleric who wants to eradicate corruption form the Catholic Church. He is not beyond political machinations.

He is responsible for the election of Cardinal Luciani as pope who tries to clean out the Augean stables of the Catholic Church but is found dead in his bed. Richard O’Callaghan plays John Paul I as a simple, decent and likable man who shows unexpected toughness and determination as pontiff.   

John Paul I is surrounded by Cardinals, princes of the church, and Archbishops who are tough, power-hungry, conservative and often corrupt. They want to preserve the Church with all its power, majesty, traditions and ossified rituals and will brook no disagreement. Not even from the Pope. Cardinal and secretary of State Jean Villot (Nigel Bennett), Archbishop and Vatican banker Paul Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan), Cardinal Felici (John O’May), Cardinal Baggio (Kevin Colson) sabotaged the new Pope’s every step. The fine cast gave strong performances.

The play is structured around the confession of Benelli to a Confessor (Philip Craig). Benelli discloses his role in the election of Luciani and his own attempt to become pope. The revelations are, needless to say, quite shocking and the play and the superb production make for riveting theatre.

The play has a large and well-orchestrated cast of some twenty name roles plus some extras. The scene is set mostly in offices in the Vatican and the sets by William Dudley are effective easily movable for scene change.

Director Jonathan Church does excellent work keeping the pace and building up to the climactic revelations near the end of the play.

Crane is a lawyer and this is his first play. He includes some astute cross-examinations of the people who knew about the pope’s sudden death and we relish the disclosures that they make.

The Catholic Church has not been getting very good reviews lately and The Last Confession is another savage comment on the conduct of some of its top leaders.  The Toronto run of the play is the start of a delivery of that comment to Los Angeles and five cities in Australia.

It may be worth mentioning that Pope John Paul I was not canonized.   

The Last Confession  by Roger Crane opened on April 27 and will run until June 1, 2014 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham’s massive and moving novel was published one hundred years ago and it has never been out of print. Soulpepper Theatre Company has scored a first in dramatizing the novel for the stage in a version by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen.

Of Human Bondage is centered on the story of Philip Carey, a young man with a club foot who tries to become an artist in Paris but realizes that he has little talent for art and returns to London at the turn of the twentieth century to study medicine.

He falls in love and becomes obsessed with Mildred Rogers and much of the story is concerned with that relationship. She is a waitress in a tea shop and, aside from her physical attractiveness, is one of the most repellent persons imaginable. She uses and abuses Phillip and he repeatedly takes her back. She runs off with one man and returns pregnant. Phillip pays for her confinement and forgives her. She goes away with Philip’s  friend and he forgives her again.

By that time, our sympathy for Philip is strained to the breaking point. How stupid is this man to be risking his career (he can’t pay his medical school fees or his rent) for this odious creature who offers him absolutely nothing?

The adaptation and the staging are quite superb. Thiessen has extracted a great deal of the novel for the stage and this is made possible by the brilliant staging. The method used is quick and seamless change of scenes and entrances of characters. The scene changes are accomplished by pushing a couple of pieces of furniture on or off the stage and characters played by the same actors appear with extraordinary speed.

The programme lists eleven actors and nine of them play so many roles that they are not even listed.

Gregory Prest plays Philip, a man scarred by his club foot who is decent and sympathetic except when he goes overboard with his obsession with Mildred. Michelle Monteith plays the flakey, pretentious and emotionally abusive Mildred. Fine performances.

Dan Chameroy plays the unsuccessful and addicted poet Cronshaw and like the rest of the cast handles several other roles.

Notable performances are turned in by Jeff Lillico as the playboy doctor who becomes addicted to drugs and wastes his life. Sarah Wilson as Norah provides a contrasting character to Mildred. She is an attractive and successful writer whom Philip rejects. Oliver Dennis handles several roles with his usual ability.

The play, like the novel, has elements of sentimentality and melodrama, but director Albert Schultz never allows it to get mawkish. Much credit belongs to Set and Lighting Designer Lorenzo Savoini who makes it possible to put so many people on stage quickly.

I have a prejudice against adaptions of novels for the stage and many of them have done nothing to disturb that attitude. Thiessen’s adaptation did not change my mind but I was moved and enjoyed the production almost in spite of myself.

Of Human Bondage  by W. Somerset Maugham adapted by Vern Thiessen opened on April 24  and will run in repertory until May 17, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.  416 866-8666

Friday, April 25, 2014


Dan Watson and Christina Serra in Ralph & Lina 

Reviewed by James Karas

Toronto’s Theatre Centre makes up in ambition what it may lack in space. It has Three World Premieres, in title and in fact, playing now in its BMO Incubator Space. Success and quality are divided in the black playing area that holds not much more than a couple of dozen spectators.

The first offering is a one-act play that has three creators and three performers (the same people) and one of them, Victor Lukawski, also directs. In addition, Lukawski is the Artistic Director of ZOU Theatre Company, the producer of the play. The other performers/co-creators are Nicolas Di Gaetano and Adam Paolozza. They are not identified by the characters that they portray.

The three actors perform mime, monologues and dialogues in the fast-paced and ruthless world of business. Several people jump out of windows on the 187th floor and there is some Chaplinesque mime. The men in well-pressed shirts and ties are seen in the office, the gym, the elevator and a club in scenes that are not particularly memorable.

There is one scene with a difference. A loud-mouthed executive is haranguing two of his juniors and we hear a bodily noise. The executive announces that he defecated and the other two men unzip his pants, hold up, smell and pass around a large turd. 

In another scene, we see a man sitting at his desk. He puts on rubber gloves and wraps his head in pantyhose. He then starts manipulating two desk lamps for several minutes. This may be a modern illustration of the Myth of Sisyphus, as announced in the programme, but it is neither effective nor convincing.

The play may be suffering from two too many “creators” and may have been much better with a single writer. As a satire on the modern business ethos or a commentary on bankers who jump out of windows, most of it was lost on me.

The actors have tough roles to act and they must switch characters swiftly and the play is is a terrific training ground for that.
The second one-acter is Ralph & Lina written by Michele Smith, Dan Watson and Christina Serra. Michele Smith directs Watson and Serra in a production by Ahuri Theatre.

Ralph and Lina are an Italian couple and we see their story from their first meeting in Italy before World War II and into their old age in Canada. It is a story about immigrants, told unconventionally, sometimes poetically and quite entertainingly. We first see Ralph and Lina in old age arguing about breakfast, taking their pills and after some nice theatrical tricks (like raising her into her dress) take us to their youth in Italy.

There are times when the four writers can’t let go of a good joke even if it is past before its best before date. Ralph and Lina are having lunch and she grabs his sandwich and starts eating it voraciously. That is cute and funny but it goes on for simply too long. But it is an entertaining piece that tells its story imaginatively.

Death Married My Daughter boasts four writers, (Michele Smith, Dean Gilmour, Danya Buonastella and Nina Gilmour), two directors (Dean and Michele) and two performers (Nina and Danya). The latter two portray Ophelia and Desdemona and the play speculates about Shakespeare’s famous victims of males would say about men if they came back from the dead.

The play, produced by Play It Again Productions, attempts to mimic the bouffon style of wild, mocking, exaggerated comic acting popularized by Jacques Lecoq. (Both Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith studied at Lecoq’s school in the 1970s).

True to bouffon style, Nina and Danya, have excessive amounts of make-up, wild hairdos and engage in physical comedy and mockery of men. They look as if they escaped from a lunatic asylum. They make snappy and snarky remarks about a large number of world leaders, engage in feminist arguments and in the end have the heads of men skewered and raised in revenge.

There are scenes from several operas including The Ride of the Valkyries, excerpts from Othello and Hamlet together with a sarcastic recitation of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Nina Gilmour and Buonastella show great resilience, energy and joy in their acting. The problem is that the play simply does not work as well as we would like. The play mocks Desdemona and Ophelia the most and that makes their attempted mockery of men and everything else ring hollow.

The writers, creators and directors involved in the three plays are not the only collaborators. The three production companies list Theatre Smith Gilmour and Why Not Theatre as supporters. To its great credit, the Theatre Centre seems to inspire cooperation and collaboration to an extraordinary extent. The appropriately named Incubator Space will no doubt provide us with more and better theatre.

This is fresh, young, ambitious, inventive, innovative and energetic theatre. If it does not always work, so be it. The sum of its virtues is greater than its shortcomings.   

THREE WORLD PREMIERES: Business as Usual, Ralph & Lina and Death Married My Daughter opened on April 17 and will play until May 18, 2014 at the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto. Tel: 416 538-0988

Monday, April 21, 2014


Allan Hawco and Christine Horne in the bathtub in Belleville

Reviewed by James Karas

The programme cover for Amy Herzog’s Belleville shows a man and a woman huddling in a bathtub. The play is described as Hitchcockian and you know that two clothed people in an empty bathtub is definitely a clue. You will have to go to the Berkeley Street Theatre to decipher the clue in this Company Theatre production.

That is assuming that you are still interested in the fate of some of the characters in the pay or you have not figured things out before the lights go out.  You may well consider the outcome as self-imposed and well-deserved social cleanup but that may disclose a nasty streak in your character.

Zack (Allan Hawco) is a doctor and his wife Abby (Christine Horne) is a yoga teacher. They are Americans who live in a nice apartment in Paris.

And now for the bad news. We quickly realize that all is not well in the city of light and love (their description). Zack likes watching porn on his computer and he is addicted to drugs. Abby is a basket case who is suffering from depression, is trying to get off her medication,  has a strange relationship with her father and has not overcome the death of her mother which happened five years ago. This is just a partial list of the ailments of this unpleasant loony bin.

Alioune (Dalmar Abuzeid) is Zack’s friend, neighbour and landlord. Friend means they smoke weed together; neighbour means he lives in the apartment below; landlord means Zack has not paid rent for four months and Alioune will throw him out. Alioune’s wife Amina (Marsha Regis), a woman with some sense makes a couple of brief appearances.

Allan Hawco and Christine Horne in Belleville 

Director Jason Byrne has all the characters, except Amina, act as if they are uncomfortable in their own skin. Amina is angry and she too is finds out some unpleasant information about her husband. Zack and Abby fidge,t talk nervously and behave like people who have a great deal to hide including their psychoses which are quite obvious.

We are left with the flake that married the fraud and they are not sufficiently interesting to keep us concerned about them even for the ninety minutes that the play lasts. I think the audience should be fascinated by the people in the play, relate to them, like, them, admire them, despise them – some or all of the above. None of these reactions apply to the characters in Belleville.

Byrne and the cast strive to keep our attention to the plot but a play needs more than just a question mark about how the story will end. Herzog’s play has precious little more than a question mark. A good dose of humour would have helped but these people are too far gone even to be funny.

A flawed play with characters one cannot give a hoot about can have good acting and Hawco and Horne do get good marks for their portrayals of their respective losers.   

Belleville by Amy Herzog in a production by Company Theatre in association with Canadian Stage runs from April 6 to May 4, 2014 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Miriam Fernandes and Derek Boyes. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

Child prostitution, especially in developing countries, has reached such levels that many countries have made it a criminal offence in the place of origin of the offender. Stories about men going on “sex holidays” in the Far East are common and prosecutions may be increasing but their effectiveness is doubtful.

Playwright Erin Shields has tackled the subject from an angle all her own in Soliciting Temptation which is playing at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until May 4, 2014.

A Canadian on a business trip to an unnamed country has made arrangements to meet a young girl in a cheap and sweltering hotel room. A shy, pretty girl arrives, wrapped in a see-through sari and wearing only panties and a top underneath. She says nothing and proceeds to unwind the sari from her body in a sexually suggestive manner. The man takes the first steps towards sexual contact and the girl explodes in his face like a hidden hand grenade.

She is no child prostitute but an intelligent, well-educated, self-assured and articulate young woman (we never find out her age) who was raised in Canada and has returned to her country of origin to fight child prostitution.

The positions of power are reversed and the man becomes a blubbering idiot begging for mercy. She shows none as she displays her own power. She knows his phone numbers and can inform his wife and daughter; she knows his employer; there are pimps protecting her and she can call the police.

The uneven battle stops when the girl is bitten by something and goes into anaphylactic shock. The man saves her life with a shot of adrenalin but the battle between them resumes. She goes on the offensive again and has him take off his puts and shirt. She puts them on, leaving him in his underwear. The man’s humiliation is complete.

The power struggle takes a turn when she admits that she is a virgin and somehow that provides an opening for the man to take the upper hand for a while.

The two actors, Derek Boyes as the man and Miriam Fernandes as the girl, are on stage throughout the eighty minutes of the play and they have their work cut out. They engage in highly emotional scenes, nasty arguments and some lyrical exchanges. They never falter and give superb performances. Director Andrea Donaldson does a fine job except for allowing both the man and the girl to reach dramatic heights a bit too quickly. 

I have problems with the play. The situation is a set up to get a man who is by no means the worst sex tourist that one reads about. The plot is reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleana where a hapless professor is set up in a power struggle by a student and is destroyed. I am not looking for another play by Mamet but Soliciting Temptation lacks inner coherence and convincing dramatic development. It reaches a climax quickly when the man is brought to his knees begging for mercy and the reversal of the girl’s behaviour is not convincing. There are times when the play simply creaks.

Soliciting Temptation is a good example of bringing a current issue on the stage but the play needs a few sessions with a talented dramaturge to be completely credible.

Soliciting Temptation by Erin Shields opened on April 9 and will run until May 4, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

The garret that Franco Zeffirelli built in 1981 for those starving artists seems to have been made of sturdy stuff. Thirty four years later The Met has revived his production of La Bohème yet once more and one can say with some assurance that there was not a dry eye at Lincoln Centre and in the theatres around the world where it was beamed.  

Opera thrives on legends and marvelous statistics and the April 5, 2014 broadcast added yet another tale. Soprano Anita Hartig was scheduled to sing Mimi but she became indisposed on the morning of the performance. Kristine Opalais had sung Madam Butterfly the night before and had gone to bed at 5:00 a.m. (Precision is important in these cases) and was called at 8:00 in the morning (if I recall correctly) to replace Ms Hartig. She wanted to say no but she said yes and the rest is history, and let’s get on with the review.

Opalais is a young but experienced singer who knows the role of Mimi (the legend would be juicier if a young and inexperienced soprano stepped in and a Maria Callas was born … sorry, I stray) and she had no problems vocally.

With Opalais you will not get a petite, fragile and ill-nourished Mimi but that is not crucial. My issue with Opalais is that she almost never looked anyone in the eye. This may have been nerves or concentration on the singing after being ushered to do the performance rather unceremoniously but I would have liked her to look at Rodolfo or his friends. She looked down, sideways or nowhere in particular and not on her lover or anyone else that she was interacting with. When she separates from Rodolfo in Act III, she shows more emotion to the bannister than to Rodolfo.

Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo is a superb Rodolfo. He strikes the perfect note of youthful innocence, passion and idealism. When he takes Mimi’s cold hand and tells her his dreams in “Che gelida manina” we are convinced of his rising passion even before she tells us her sad story in “Me chiamano Mimi” and the ardent duet that follows, full of emotional intensity and vocal splendour, is payment in full for tears that we will shed at the end.

American soprano Susanna Philips attacked the juicy role of Musetta with relish and aplomb. The vocal part is all her own but she has plenty of help otherwise. Dressed in a striking red velvet gown, she arrives on a horse-drawn carriage amid a large, cheering crowd. That is a grand entrance to make the Queen of Sheba jealous.

Rodolfo’s garret-mates are a well-defined individually and are a marvelous set as well. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello sang with touching resonance and presented the artist as a real mensch. Bass Oren Gradus as the philosopher Colline gave a moving rendition of “Vecchia zimarra,” his farewell to his old coat, an act of touching generosity.

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the musician Schaunard completed the quartet of friends who engaged in tomfoolery and poignant humanity.

Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production has been the subject of endless comment. The garret of the first act gives way to the Café Momus. In fact, Zeffirelli creates a whole neighbourhood. There are crowds of people on two levels, a toy vendor, a donkey-drawn cart and Musetta’s entrance. I have seen the production a number of times and it still makes an impression on me. Seeing it for the first time, may make your jaw drop and give you a slanted view of opera.

Stefano Ranzani conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

What we saw in the movie theatres was decided by Barbara Willis Sweete. Her enthusiasm for close-ups and constant camera changes is not as pronounced as Gary Halvorson’s (and that’s not much of a compliment) but it is bad enough. There were a number of bad shots, unnecessary and annoying close-ups. In the final scene, when Marcello is singing about his brush, Sweete focuses on Rodolfo. The obvious shot of showing the two men on the screen and sitting on her hands probably did not occur to her. Just keep clicking.

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini was transmitted Live in HD on April 5, 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:        

Monday, April 7, 2014


Stuart Hughes and Diego Matamoros. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed James Karas

The Gigli Concert is a fascinating play whose characters live in a truly bizarre world. They exist between reality and their fantasies (with the latter predominating), between psychoses and sanity, and between alcoholic stupor and bouts of sobriety. Yet it is a world of intelligence, philosophical musing, religious references and some mundane concerns. And don’t forget the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli.  

Soulpepper gives Tom Murphy’s 1983 play a creditable production directed by Nancy Palk with Diego Matamoros, Stuart Hughes and Irene Poole.

Matamoros takes on the tough role (he never leaves the stage) of JPW King – Dynamatologist. The word means nothing, of course, but it is supposed to describe some kind of movement or idea. JPW lives and works out of a dingy room that has a desk and a convertible couch. He is frequently drunk and is described as a quack and a charlatan. He admits that he has not achieved anything in his life but when an Irish Man walks in his office, JPW undertakes to makes him sing like Gigli in six sessions.

Matamoros has no difficulty bringing out the absurdity, irrationality and ridiculousness of JPW as well as of his thinking and philosophical side. But there is another side to JPW that does not come out very well. He is an upper-class Englishman living in Ireland and trying to imitate an Irish accent. He is a man who does not belong where he is in many ways, including as an Englishman in Ireland. Accents are not Matamoros’s strong point and you could not place him anywhere especially as a displaced Englishman in Ireland.

The Irish Man is a successful builder, well-dressed and just as looney as JPW. He wants to sing like Gigli and thinks that JPW can make him do it. His appearance of normality is superficial and the man belongs on a psychiatrist’s couch but he has no use for psychiatrists. Stuart Hughes has a gruff voice and his Irish Man is in turn aggressive, pathetic, wistful and just plain nuts.

Irene Poole has the smaller role of Mona. She is JPW’s mistress, a woman who seeks sex with men but who also lives in her world of fantasy. After giving birth to a child while still in her teens and having to give it up for adoption, she dreams of having another one. The three characters face reality in different ways but Mona’s encounter with it comes in the form of cancer.

Gigli’s voice provides a unifying theme to the bizarre world of the characters and we hear a number of arias. The Irish Man does not do a concert but JPW does get to perform as if he were Gigli even if it is in his dream.

Palk has a tendency of leaving her characters to stand in one place as if nailed to the floor for too long. Pacing up and down may not be the solution but some kind of stage business is preferable to standing in one place. That and the failure to establish the Irish-English milieu and tension are the main complaints about the production. Otherwise, Murphy avalanche of ideas in extraordinarily rich language and verbal dexterity is a treat not to be missed. As for Gigli, you will probably  end up on YouTube listening to his recordings.

Ken MacKenzie’s single set and costumes are very good.

The Gigli Concert by Tom Murphy opened on April 2 and continues until May 16, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery District, Toronto, Ontario. 416 944-1740