Thursday, April 30, 2015


Jasper Britton (Barabas) and Catrin Stewart (Abigail). Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Reviewed by James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company has produced a vibrant and engaging production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Director Justin Audibert paces the performance well and Lucy Cullingford who is credited with movement has indeed choreographed part of the performance to the energetic music of Jonathan Girling.

Audibert directs with a light and at times enthusiastic touch and the production has the feel of an action-packed play with a plot of many twists.

The Jew of the title is Barabas (Jasper Britton), a rich merchant in Malta during the siege of the island by the Turks. His property is confiscated by the Christian Governor Ferneze (Steven Pacey) in order to bribe the Turks. This sets in motion a series of intrigues, murders, poisonings, treacheries and blackmails to make your head spin.

The most notable performance is given by Britton in the lead role. Barabas is unscrupulous, devious, tough and murderous to be sure but he has panache as well. This puts him in a different class of villainy. He is not only shameless and amoral; he enjoys what he does and you find yourself almost rejoicing in his vengefulness. Examples? He hatches a plot to eliminate the governor’s son Don Lodowick (Andy Apollo) and his daughter Abigail (Catrin Stewart), her suitor Don Mathias (Colin Ryan) and a bunch of nuns and more. A superb job by Barabas as an avenger and by Britton as an actor.

The Anti-Semitism of the play is blatant but Marlowe is true to the word of Machiavel (Simon Hedger) who in the prologue states that “I count religion as but a childish toy.” Childish but toxic and murderous. Friar Bernadine (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Friar Jacomo (Matthew Kelly) are venal, selfish and hypocritical under the cowl. The two actors do a fine job in illustrating Machiavel’s view of religion.

The Turks do not come out any better. Calymath (Marcus Griffiths) and Callapine (Nav Sidhu) are representatives of the Ottoman Sultan in the style of rapacious and arrogant conquerors.

Governor Ferneze and his retinue are no better and no worse than the other Christians, the Muslims and the Jews. Lanre Malaou has considerable latitude to show his acting talent as the slave Ithamore and he takes advantage of every opportunity.

With the men occupying the center of evil and immorality, the women have less scope. Catrin Stewart is lovely and sympathetic as Abigail, Barabas’s daughter, but converting to Christianity because of her father’s evil may not resonate as well today as it did in Elizabethan England. Beth Cordingly makes a fine Bellamira, the courtesan and Matthew Needham is pimp Pilla-Borza to be reckoned with.

The set designed by Lily Arnold consists of marble steps behind the open area of the stage. A clunky trap door is useful for throwing people in jail or getting rid of dead bodies and there is a small fountain for baptisms at the front of the stage.

The light-handed, fast-paced approach adopted by Audibert works well and serves the play with its numerous plot twists and rather sketchy attention to characterization nicely. It is not a play that is frequently produced and this production is well worth the effort.             

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe runs until September 8, 2015 at the Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Catrin Stewart and Matthew Needham. Photo: Helen Maybanks  

Reviewed by James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company has staged Love’s Sacrifice by John Ford in Stratford-upon-Avon. I venture to say that the likelihood of most of us having heard of John Ford or seen any of his plays is slim. The play was written in 1633 and falls in the genre of revenge tragedies. The RSC has a program of producing almost forgotten plays from that era and this is one of them.

The production is in the Swan Theatre directed by Matthew Dunster. It is done in Elizabethan costumes and Dunster generates considerable energy as he gives us a fine example of the bloody genre that the audience in the days of Charles I enjoyed.

The play is about love, uncontrollable passion, intrigue, treachery and, of course, revenge. Let’s take the subplot. The dashing courtier Ferentes (played by the appropriately named Andy Apollo) seduces three ladies of the court with extravagant expressions of love and promises of marriage and fidelity. He gets them all pregnant. During a masked ball they open their bodices and we see videos of babies projected on their stomachs. The three women gang up on Ferentes, tie him up and execute him in public. That is sweet revenge.

The main plot involves the Duke of Pavy (Matthew Needham) who marries a beautiful commoner named Bianca (Catrin Stewart)/. The Duke’s friend Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) falls in love with Bianca who initially rejects him but then falls in love with him. Fernando is troubled with his betrayal of his friend the duke. The affair is NOT consummated but the two are found out. What revenge will be taken on the two lovers? That is the question that holds you in your seat to the end.

Needham plays the Duke as an erratic, weak, dictatorial and perhaps psychotic man. Stewart as Bianca is lovely, strong and passionate. She is just the opposite of her foolish husband and a delight to watch. King as Fernando is just the type of heroic lover you want to see – passionate but moral.

Colin Ryan as Giacopo and Matthew Kelly as Mauricio. Photo: Helen Maybanks 

Matthew Kelly gets the juicy role of Mauricio, a foolish and conceited old courtier who is very funny in his idiotic conduct. Colin Ryan is his patient sidekick and is very entertaining.

D’Avolos, the secretary to the Duke, played expertly by Jonathan McGuinness, is a creepy schemer, the epitome of the evil man in revenge tragedy.

The nobleman Roseilli (Marcus Griffiths) is an interesting character. He is in love with the Duke’s sister Fiormonda (Beth Cordingly) and he disguises himself as a fool so he can be near her. He was banished from Pavy because of the advances he made to her. She is bad news and he is even worse in the end. A couple of interesting characters done well by the actors.       

There are many turns to the plot. There are seventeen characters in the play not including guards, friars and nuns. It is a pot boiler that is worth seeing for its own virtues as well as an example of the drama that flourished during the reign of Charles I until the theatres were closed.

Love’s Sacrifice by John Ford continues until June 24, 2015 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Ralph Fiennes (Don Juan) & Indira Varma (Ana). Photo: Johan Persson

Reviewed by James Karas

Only the bravest and best-funded theatre company would risk producing Bernard Shaw Man and Superman in its uncut version. Including the play-within-the play, Don Juan In Hell, you need a healthy three and a half hours on stage (more if you do at a less than brisk pace), not mention a stellar cast that can deliver Shaw’s arguments intelligently.

England’s National Theatre is decidedly one of those companies and its production of Man and Superman with Ralph Fiennes and a superb cast directed by Simon Godwin succeeds triumphantly.

Man and Superman is a brilliant play but its verbosity can get to even the most dedicated Shavian if the play is done by a merely competent cast without an outstanding director.

Shaw takes on English society to task with lengthy forays into morality, relations of the sexes, marriage and his overriding philosophy of the Life Force. All of it can be interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining and quite funny. But it can also feel like an endless discussion.

This production brings out all the virtues of the play and evades all its vices. The main ingredient is the cast. Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner and Don Juan in the scene in hell is a flamboyant actor who delivers his lines with flair, conviction and humour. He is a delight to watch and hear as he emits his astounding number of lines with such relish that you forget the length of the play.

Colin Haigh (Anarchist), Naomi Cranston (Sulky Social Democrat), Tim McMullan (Mendoza), Arthur Wilson (The Rowdy Social Democrat), Nicholas Bishop (The Frenchman). Photo: Johan Persson

He has good company. Indira Varma, as Ann Whitefield in the play and as Ana in Hell is a perfect antagonist and secret plotter for Fiennes’s Tanner. She is a self-assured, very intelligent, and conniving young woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. She can manipulate people as if she were moving rooks on a chessboard and induce her best-armed antagonist into matrimony. A marvelous performance.

No production of Man and Superman can succeed without a chief bandit who also doubles as the Devil in Hell. Tim McMullen delights in the role of Mendoza in the mountains and Mendoza the businessman and the Devil. He and Fiennes have carriage of the scene in hell with Ana playing a relatively minor role and Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas Le Prevost) providing contrast as a man condemned to heaven. McMullen’s performance is excellent in hell and on earth.

The sniveling Octavius Robinson is played splendidly by Ferdinand Kingsley and there are fine performances by Elliot Barnes-Worrell as Straker, Faye Castelow as Violet, Nick Hendrix as Hector Malone and Corey Johnson as Malone.

Godwin establishes a brisk pace and maintains it to the end. But this is not a race to blurt out the lines and get it over with. He gets outstanding performances from the cast and one never feels that he is rushing through the script.

Designer Christopher Oran opts for translucent walls lit from behind which look austere and metallic. The first scene has bookshelves and there is a mound for the scene in the Sierra Nevadas. There is bright red lighting to indicate the fires of hell but the scene is mostly lit by white lighting. The set left me indifferent but the production as a whole can only be described as a great night at the theatre.         ___________

Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw opened on February 25, 2015 and continues at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.  

Monday, April 27, 2015


Parth Thakerar – Amal, Vera Chok – Bo, Lucy Robinson – Ursula, Rosie Hilal – Julia, Olivia Vinall – Hilary, Damien Molony - Spike in The Hard Problem

Reviewed by James Karas

Tom Stoppard has provided more mental gymnastics and burned more cerebral calories than many playwrights put together. Since 1966 when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was produced, he has never failed to fascinate, entertain and intellectually challenge. The Hard Problem, his latest play, does all of those things and the mental exertions leave you exhausted, entertained and somewhat in the dark.

When the lights go on in the small Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre in London, you see a jumble of cables overhead. They are lit in various circular shapes and they look like the nerves of the human brain. There are also vertical wires which are lit in a kaleidoscope of colours.

The mental exertion required by the play reminded me of the physical demands on the body of a reasonably healthy individual who has not run a few kilometers on a treadmill or used machines that promise to change his glutes, biceps, triceps, abs and other parts of his anatomy that he does not know that he has into muscular bundles of Herculean proportions. 

A very attractive young woman named Hilary (Olivia Vinall) and a handsome young man named Spike (Daniel Molony) are discussing the subject of goodness or being good instead of hopping into the bed that is readily available.

She thinks that there is such a thing as good, altruism and doing an act of decency for its own sake. He argues that all of that is merely an evolutionary development that is simply self-serving. Good exists as a result of a cost-benefit analysis.

Now this is like getting on a treadmill and running at a leisurely pace. You understand and feel that it is doing something good for – all that panting and sweating – and your monthly donation to the gym seems justified.

Things get tougher. Hilary, the brilliant psychologist, prays to God and wants to do a study on something like Nature-Nurture Convergence in Egoistic and Altruistic something-or-other. What? You have gone to a machine that requires strength beyond your ability to muster and try to exercise something that you don’t even know you have and you move quickly away.

Hilary wants to be accepted by the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Spike describes what the Institute does and you only understand the part about organic vegetables and free Pilates. Spike throws even mother love into the utility bin. What is left, if you understood Spike’s high fallutin’ lingo, is just a bunch of nerves or wires or whatever the brain is made up of that work like a fancy machine!?

By now you are drenched in perspiration, your heart is pounding and you are not sure what benefit you are deriving from all those fancy and exhausting exercises. Nevertheless, you want to continue in the hopes that bulging muscles are within reach.

But as far as Stoppard is concerned that is just the beginning. The hard question of what we are is partly belief or faith - belief that we are creatures that have evolved over millions of years into what we are and partly faith that there may be more than evolution or at the very least more than we can explain. Oh God or goodness!

Stoppard does not dwell on intellectual arguments alone. Hilary gave up her daughter for adoption when she gave birth to her at age 15. She is haunted by her memory and her prayers for a miracle are connected to her child.

Stoppard takes a few shots at the financial industry which is obsessed with numbers and logarithms and the use of which made Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf), the financier of the Institute, a “squillionaire”. There are other scientists like Leo (Jonathan Cloy), Ursula (Lucy Robinson) and mathematicians Amal (Parth Takerar) and Bo (Vera Chok). The play is humanized by a domestic scene with Jerry and his daughter as well as the presence of Julia (Rosie Hilal) a school friend of Hilary’s and, unlike the intellectual superstars, a Pilates instructor.

Nicholas Hytner’s directing fits the tone of the play which is to say brilliant. Bob Crowley’s design is Spartan. A bed and a desk in the opening scene, a stark office, a kitchen table and a hotel bed make up the rest of the sets.

I saw The Hard Problem in a movie house in Toronto and it worked very well. The small stage transferred well onto the screen and we could have done even with fewer camera angles. The close-ups were of some utility but the Dorfman is such a small theatre that the benefit was limited.           

The benefits of going to the gym or seeing plays by Stoppard deserve further consideration. With the former, you risk injury but may get the concomitant benefit of better health and longer life. If so you should consider the mental gymnastics provided by Stoppard as a possible aide to improving the health of the uppermost segment of the anatomy which may rarely be doing vigorous pushups.

The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard opened on January 28, 2015 and continues at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. It was shown on April 16, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. It will be shown again on May 16, 2015 at various theatres.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


John Heffernan as Oppenheimer. Photo:Keith Pattison

Reviewed by James Karas

Tom Morton-Smith has written a very ambitious and engaging play about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the great physicist and one of the main creators of the atomic bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer is now playing at London’s Vaudeville Theatre in a superb production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Morton-Smith wants to capture the personal story of Oppenheimer, the political milieu of a communist-scared America at war and the work of some of the smartest people on earth on a massive project. It is a great story that is almost impossible to capture in less than three hours on stage but the playwright certainly tries.

The personal story is about a driven genius who must choose between his ambitions as a scientist and his social principles as a human being. As a scientist he must confront the incalculable difficulties of creating an atomic bomb and the fact that he is creating a weapon that can make him a hero but also a destroyer of worlds. He is an unfaithful husband, and must deny or hide his socialist beliefs and betray his friends. It is indeed a complex story.

Morton-Smith brings on a large number of characters who rush on and off the stage. There are parties, gatherings and bar scenes. Complex scientific data about fission, fusion and enriched uranium have to be explained to ordinary people, i.e. us, the audience. These things can get incomprehensible if not boring. Director Angus Jackson tries to solve the problem by making the actors hyperkinetic as if they were jumping up and down in a musical. It works most of the time and the rationale behind the method is understandable.

I found it difficult at times to follow who is who on stage but the main thrust of the story came out quite well. Oppenheimer cavorted with communists and was sympathetic to the Soviets. Even when the U.S. was an ally of the Soviet Union, that type of relationship was frowned upon to put it mildly. Oppenheimer gets the message but finds it impossible to have all his fellow travelers of the past disassociate themselves from leftist causes.

Things are not easier when Oppenheimer has to deal with his personal issues and the egos of military men and other scientists.

It is a riveting story told around the play’s main character. John Heffernan as Oppenheimer is lean, passionate, troubled, full of ambition and gives an outstanding performance. The other actors pale in comparison to him because Morton-Smith spends relatively little time in developing their characters. The ensemble acting under the direction of Jackson is worthy of high praise.

Morton-Smith seems to have run out of steam near the end of the play. The play finishes on a different tone. What looks like a chorus from Greek tragedy appears and a child pops his head up from a model atomic bomb. The little boy gives flash descriptions of what happened in Hiroshima. Oppenheimer becomes reflective and philosophical. He realizes that his great achievement has been to become Death.

The story is history on a grand scale with fundamental issues of morality, science and human behaviour. And it is superb theatre.

Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith continues until May 23, 2015 at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London, England.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Mireille Lebel (Orpheus), Peggy Kriha Dye (Eurydice) and Meghan Lindsay (Amour). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Reviewed James Karas

Opera Atelier delivers a largely successful and imaginative production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the gorgeous Elgin Theatre. Director Marshall Pynkoski has produced the Hector Berlioz version of the opera having already staged the earlier two versions of the work.

Orpheus is considered the first “reform” opera. It was premiered in Vienna in 1762 and contains the first hit song in opera, “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.”

Opera Atelier is in its element with this masterpiece and Pynkoski with Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Set Designer Gerard Gauci deliver an opera and a ballet with some splendid sets.

Most of the singing of the opera falls on the vocal chords of Orpheus who has a tough job indeed. The role has been sung by voices from castrato to tenor but for this production Pynkoski has chosen mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel. It is not an entirely happy choice. Lebel sings correctly and usually very prettily. But Orpheus goes through a gamut of emotions from deep grief at the death of his bride, to singing with such ravishing beauty that he convinces the Furies to let him go to the underworld, to elation and back to despair.

Lebel does not have a big voice and there were times when she came perilously close to not being heard. But the real issue is lack of coloration and emotional depth. We need to feel Orpheus’s anguish and elation. His appeal to the Furies must be like the Sirens’ song to Odysseus – unbearably alluring. Unfortunately Lebel’s emotional appeal on all those levels, though good, lacked the breadth that one hoped to find.
Mireille Lebel (Orpheus) with Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye sings an outstanding Eurydice. She has a full, lovely voice, expressive and impressive. When Orpheus and Eurydice sing together we hear the difference between the two singers quite dramatically.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay sings the relatively smaller role of Amour and she does a fine job.

Zingg does her usual best in providing ballet dancing throughout and an extended piece at the end. The opera can be static but Pynkoski and Zingg never allow it to become so.  Pynkoski adopts choreographic moves for the three characters and Zingg supplements those with the corps de ballet. The result is a colourful and splendidly paced production.

Gauci provides a colourful set with the scene in Hades being especially effective. Margaret Lamb’s costumes are colourful and delightful.

The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis do superior work.

Orpheus and Eurydice by C. W. Gluck opened on April 9 and will run until April 18, 2015 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario, M5B 1M4.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Photo of Pakamisa Zwedala and Masasa Mbangeni by Ruphin Coudyzer
Reviewed by James Karas

Canadian Stage has taken the bold step of bringing six South African plays for a three week festival called Spotlight on South Africa.

The first production is Athol Fugard’s 1959 play Nongogo in a production by Market Theatre and directed  by James Ngcobo.

The play is set in a shebeen, an unlicensed bar, in a township outside of the 1950s. The shebeen is owned by Queeny (Masasa Mbangeni) a former prostitute and a woman of strength. Blackie (Desmomd Dube), a hunchback who walks and acts like an ape, lives in the shebeen. Patrick (Hamilton Dhlamini) an alcoholic is a regular customer of the place. Sam (Pakamisa Zwedala), Queeny’s former pimp visits regularly and sells illegal liquor to her.

What we have are four misfits. A stranger comes into the shebeen in the person of a well-dressed and well-mannered table cloth salesman named Johnny (Nat Ramabulana). The energetic and ambitious Johnny acts as a catalyst to the plot. He develops a relationship with Queeny, the two establish a successful business but Sam becomes jealous. In the meantime Johnny insists on finding out Queeny’s background.

The play has some excellent performances. Mbangeni shows strength, determination and courage as she dreams of a better life with Johnny. But she is a woman with a past who had the fortitude to do what was necessary to survive and the resilience to get out of that profession when she could.

Ramabulana’s Johnny is a man with a troubled past as well who dream of a better life. He is imaginative, persistent and on the verge of having his entrepreneurial dreams bear fruit.

Zwedala’s Sam is tough, businesslike, jealous and in the end nothing more than the pimp he used to be. Dube is a very effective Blackie, the psychotic, deformed man who would make a fine enforcer anywhere.

Dhlamini’s Patrick is a pathetic drunkard whose wife is giving birth to his sixth child and he is so ineffectual that the only thing he can do is worry about the name he will give to his new son.

The plot of the play is somewhat obvious and doing the two acts in one hour and forty minutes without an intermission does not serve it well.

Set and costume designer Nadya Cohen makes use of the entire two-story stage of the Berkeley  Street Theatre Downstairs. The theatre has a forbidding brick wall at the back and the only props used are some tables and chairs as well as a cooking area. There is no sense that this is a small, unlicensed establishment selling liquor.  

There is a significant change in the set between the unadorned Act I and Act II where yellow curtains, a table cloth and flowers are called for in the play’s stage directions.. In this production a yellow banner is hung from the ceiling adding nothing to the scene. There are no doors, there is no window and all is left to the imagination and the context of the play. This is unsatisfactory because it does not give any impression of the place where the action takes place.  Ngcobo has taken Fugard’s realistic play and changed it into something else. The actors are seated on the stage most of the time and the knocks on the door are indicated by banging on furniture. The production would have gained considerably if the director followed Fugard’s instructions.

Nongogo by Athol Fugard opened on April 8 and will run until April 12, 2015 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ontario. 416 368-3110.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Diana Bentley as Isobel and Damon Runyan as Tony in Bull – Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

Bull is a new play by Mike Bartlett that provides the type of powerful examination of corporate morality with superb acting that one looks for in the theatre.

The play is produced by Coal Mine Theatre at The Coal Mine and if you have not heard of the company or the theatre it is because they are quite new. The theatre is in a basement on Danforth Avenue, in Toronto’s Greektown and this is the company’s second production.

As you enter the theatre, you see that the playing area is enclosed by a net. You expect to see a few bouts of the Ultimate Fighting Championship where brutality and bloodshed pass for a sport. Bull is the moral and office equivalent of a 55-minute UFC bout and the end is very similar to it.

The set is in fact an ordinary office where three employees are waiting for the boss to axe one of them. This is capitalism and to say it’s a dog-eat-dog world may be unduly offensive to canines. We have Tony (Damon Runyan), tall, handsome, arrogant, athletic, amoral and brutal. His partner in assassination is Isobel (Diana Bentley), tall, beautiful, confident, amoral and vicious.

These two UFC fighters have their victim in the arena and his demolition is inevitable. Tom who asks to be called Thomas (Ryan Rogerson) is short, chubby, ineffectual and a fighter who will eventually bang his hand on the boards to signal his utter surrender.   

Isobel and Tony take jabs at Tom, push him around, humiliate him and indeed have fun in the knowledge of their eventual triumph. Tom does try to resist but his fighting skills are pathetically limited and he is constantly thrown off his feet.

Carter, the boss, (Mark Caven) arrives to deliver the verdict on who will be eliminated and, of course, he chooses Tom after adding further humiliation. He cannot even remember Tom’s name.

Tom attempts to save some shreds of dignity by engaging or trying to engage Isobel in a physical fight. This is UFC come to the theatre. The fight ends in true UFC style with blood being shed. In keeping with the title of the play, the fight between Isobel and Tom is given the indicia of a bullfight. The atmosphere and violence of the play make bullfights look civilized and I prefer the UFC image. 

The cast gave some superlative acting. Caven as the superior boss, Runyan and Bentley as the astonishingly brutal fighters and Rogerson as the pathetic Tom make for fine theatre. David Ferry directs this marvelous production.

This is The Coal Mine’s second production. Their third production will be August Strindberg’s Creditors, adapted by David Grieg and directed by Rae Ellen Bodie. Creditors will run from April 17 to May 17, 2014 at the Coal Mine.

Bull by Mike Bartlett ran from March 17 to April 5, 2015 at The Coal Mine, 798 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. (416) 880-7693.