Monday, June 22, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

As the lights go on the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe to indicate the beginning of the performance of Romeo and Juliet, a group of rowdy musicians appear. They play various instruments, sing, dance and are quite delightful. One of them announces that this is a touring company production! Yikes. The musicians take off some of their costumes and the play begins. The musicians, you quickly realize, are the entire cast.

A touring production at Shakespeare’s Globe?  A touring production is what you get in the “provinces”, as they so rudely say, and not in the capital. You expect a pared down production, actors playing many roles and the exercise of great economy in costumes and props. Not to mention that the actors are probably not of the first rank, quite often.

Surprisingly most of these attributes applied to this production of Romeo and Juliet. Eight actors play eighteen roles. Only Cassie Layton as Juliet and Samuel Valentine as Romeo do not take multiple roles. All of them appear quite young and most seem to have limited experience. Perhaps to indicate youth, almost all of them sport prominent tattoos.

Talented young actors can do wonders for a production but Director Dominic Dromgoole’s take on the play almost guarantees a failing grade and an annoying night at the theatre.

Dromgoole chooses speed over fidelity to the text. He cuts scenes in the middle or anywhere he feels like it and characters from the next scene appear before the one in progress is finished. There are minor changes in costume and if people who do not know the play well are confused about what is going on, well, that’s their problem.

Cassie Layton is a waif of a girl and looks like she is about fourteen years old as Shakespeare suggests. She fits the part of the infatuated young girl. Valentine as Romeo looks more mature but his idea of depth of feeling is limited. In the final scene he delivers some of the most deeply moving lines with almost no emotional impact. He looks at his beautiful but dead Juliet and says or is supposed to say “Ah, Juliet, why art thou yet so fair?” Did he say the line and it was so muffled that I did not hear it or did he skip it completely?

He continues: “Shall I believe/ That unsubstantial death is amorous,/And that the lean abhorrèd monster keeps/Thee here in dark to be his paramour? In other words, even Death is in love with Juliet.

It is a heart-breaking scene and Romeo should be looking at his love with searing intensity. Valentine is not and the scene is robbed of most of its emotional power.

The Nurse (Sarah Higgins) with her thick Scottish accent is appropriately garrulous and quite amusing. She also handles the roles Lady Montague and Balthazar.

The rest of the cast is at least competent but with the revolving door changes of roles and the gerrymandering of the play you lose all perspective and just wait for the evening to be over.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare played at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London, England and is now touring the provinces. Details of their tour can be found here:

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Mies Julie is a remarkable reworking of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Yaël Farber for South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre and it received an outstanding production at the Athens Festival.

Farber takes the basic plot of Miss Julie and transfers it to post-apartheid South Africa. He adapts and enriches the play while keeping the basic plot outline of a rich woman’s relationship with someone who is racially different and socially inferior. 

John (Bongile Mantsai) is a muscular young farm labourer who is almost a slave on a farm owned by the father of Julie (Hilda Cronjé). The two have a complex relationship which involves at the very least passionate carnal attraction and deep-rooted resentment.

The play takes place in a kitchen where John’s mother Christine (Zoleka Helesi) is the cook. She is dependent on the white farmer for her living but she is also the only person who showed any affection to Julie while she was a child. There is a rack of boots in the kitchen and John’s job is to polish them.

The situation is made even more intense and explosive by the issue of the ownership of the land. The whites own the land and they have deeds to prove it but where is their moral authority to use the land and to keep the blacks as their servants? We are reminded several times that the play takes place during the celebrations of Freedom Day.

This is a richly-textured and highly dramatic plot but Farber who also directs the production eschews the melodramatic aspects of the story by using the Brechtian epic theatre method of distancing the audience. He has a saxophonist and a recorder player on the stage as well a black woman playing a stringed instrument on stage. The baritone notes of the saxophone and the low foreboding music of the string instrument are an almost continuing obbligato to the action.

Cronjé as Mies Julie is a restless woman, dressed provocatively, as she walks around the kitchen, lies languidly on the kitchen table, performs several pirouettes and engages in a sexually incendiary dance with John. She is a complex woman, full of passion, aware of her class superiority, knowing that Christine was the only person who showed her any affection in her childhood and inexorably drawn to John.

John faces similar conflicts but he is at the other end of the social scale. She orders him to kiss her foot as she deals with her attraction and repulsion. He is equally attracted and repulsed by her. The sexual encounter between the two is an extraordinary piece of emotional expulsion and violence. The simulated sex is only a shade away from real. There is no Brechtian distancing in that scene.

Tandiwe “Nofirst” Lungisa plays the string instrument and is a type of ancestral spirit that hovers over the play. Helesi is the classic mother who sees and knows a great deal but is unable to control the situation.

This is a powerful production with outstanding acting and directing. The sexual encounter between John and Julie is not the most violent scene in the production. The final act of Mies Julie is about as gory and shocking as you want to see. It is staged brilliantly.

A word about the Athens Festival. If all you hear about Greece is financial gloom and doom, you are reading the wrong papers. During June and July there are over thirty theatrical productions in theatres around Athens and in Epidaurus. In addition to classical Greek plays, you can see theater companies from across Europe. There are concerts, dance groups, film festivals even Vietnamese circus.   

If that sound too arcane, you can see Kiss Me, Kate, Tosca and even Arden of Faversham. How’s that for wide ranging choices! 

Mies Julie by Yaël Farber based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie was performed om June 11-13, 2015 at Peiraios 260, Athens, Greece.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Give this Taming of the Shrew a standing ovation.

The Taming of the Shrew, as its title suggests, involves the humiliation, degradation and abuse of a woman until she is debased to the point of calling her husband her lord, her king and her governor. She is prepared to place her hand under his boot in token of her obedience. That should make even the most dedicated male chauvinist pig cringe.

 Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina with members of the company. Photography by David Hou.

Director Chris Abraham has achieved the almost impossible. He manages to turn the taming of the shrew Katherine (an outstanding Deborah Hay) into the taming of her asshole husband Petruchio (Ben Carlson). 

First, the funny part.  Abraham turns the not-particularly amusing Induction involving  the joke played on the drunken Christopher Sly into something hilarious. As the lights go down in the theatre, we see a rack of costumes on stage and some actors address the audience. An obnoxious patron appears in a corner aisle of the auditorium and becomes abusive to the ushers. He is a blogger from Kitchener and becomes so obnoxious that he is knocked down on the stage as the audience roars with laughter.

The play starts and we realize that unmannerly patron is in fact Sly (Ben Carlson) who will be treated like a lord and a play will be put on for him. A brilliant move by Abraham and that’s just the beginning.

How does one deal with the abuse and humiliation that Petruchio heaps on Katherine in order to bring her to the point where she will agree to anything he says? Abraham gives us a strong Katherine (in an excellent performance by Hay) who knows her own strength. She puts up with his shenanigans because she knows she is right and she will eventually get her way while letting her husband think he rules the roost.

Carlson’s Petruchio manages to appear more abusive than he really is. He clearly wants the cursed, ill-tempered and abusive toward everyone Katherine “tamed” but somehow there seems to be no out and out cruelty in what he does. That is superior acting and directing. By the end of the production all is dispelled by love. 

This Katherine endures but never succumbs. When she says that a woman should kneel for peace and that she is bound to serve, love and obey her husband, she speaks with the strength and knowledge of a woman who knows how to control her situation.

The real solution is love. When Petruchio near the end of the play, tells her  “kiss me. Kate” the two embrace is a passionate kiss that dispels everything that happened before. This is love and passion between a  couple. Petruchio sums up the situation by saying that he and Kate are truly married while Hortensio (Mike Shara) who got the Widow (Sarah Orenstein) and Lucentio who married Bianca (Sara Afful) are done for. 

The rest is boisterous comedy; inventive, imaginative and simply delightful. Abraham never misses an opportunity for rough housing and physical comedy. Much of the comedy depends on the activities of the servants. Tom Rooney as Tranio, Gordon S. Miller as Biondello, Brian Tree as Grumio and Petruchio’s half dozen servants are put to excellent laughter-producing use by Abraham.

Peter Hutt does excellent work as Baptista and Michael Spencer-Davis is hilarious as the rich old fool Gremio.  

Stand up and clap for a wonderful night at the theatre.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare opened on June 5  and will run in repertory until October 10, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, June 8, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

She Stoops to Conquer receives a decent production directed by Martha Henry at the Stratford Festival.

The plot involves the old and highly reliable stunt of mistaken identity. Two young men arrive in a country house and believe that they are in an inn. The owners of the house are expecting visitors and treat the two men as guests.

Members of the company in She Stoops to Conquer. Photography by David Hou.
Oliver Goldsmith has woven some highly entertaining incidents around the mistaken identities including romantic engagements and broadly humorous scenes. All of this is set in 18th century England, in the country which means in a different world from the sophisticated society of London.

Richard Hardcastle (Joseph Ziegler) and his wife Dorothy (Lucy Peacock) are well-off country folk who clearly lack the polish and sophistication of Londoners. They are hoping that Charles Marlowe (Brad Hodder), one of the visitors from London, will marry their daughter Kate (Maev Beaty).

The other visitor is Marlowe’s friend George Hastings (Tyrone Savage) and he is enamoured of Kate’s cousin Constance (Sara Farb). The other family relative who lives in the Hardcastle mansion is Tony Lumpkin (Karack Osborne), an oaf and a practical joker.

Aside from the humour produced by Marlowe and Hastings acting like guests at an inn and the Hardcastles being quite befuddled by such unbecoming conduct, young Marlow is painfully shy with upper class ladies. He has no problem approaching the lower orders and he does so by accosting Kate Hardcastle, posing as a bar maid, with audacity and impudence.

There is no lack of talent in the director and the cast. But there is a problem. The play is set in the 18th century, in a country house which compares comically with London society. The Hardcastles are country bumpkins with a distinct accent. Ziegler and Peacock are no country bumpkins and the Ontario accent does not classify them as boorish and comical.

Lumpkin is the most boorish of all and he should be hilarious but in this production he is merely funny. Beaty makes an attractive and enjoyable Kate as she stoops to being a barmaid in order to snag Marlow.

Savage and Hodder, dressed smartly like true gentlemen, cut fine figures as the two suitors and Farb is an attractive and delightful Constance.  

The numerous servants are nicely exaggerated to produce laughter and they do.

The set by Douglas Paraschuk revolves to show the interiors and exterior of the Hardcastle mansion as well as the interior of the pub. A Beautifully done and impressive design. The costumes by Charlotte Dean are high class 18th century attire and, again, quite beautiful.

The fundamental problem is that many Canadian actors cannot master an English accent and even more so when a differentiation between country and city is required. Henry chose the easy route of letting the cast speak in their native accent rather than trying to produce English regional accents with probably disastrous results.

There were laughs but this is not the production of She Stoops that one would kill for. That is clearly the approach of a purist and if you don’t care about details like that you will enjoy a very fine comedy. It is an exaggeration to say that watching this production was like kissing through a fence – you get the message but not all the fun – but it is not far from the truth.      

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith opened on June 4 and will run in repertory until October 10, 2015 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

“Hark you, sir, do you know where ye are?”

That is a question put to Pericles, who has just been tossed on shore after a storm, by a fisherman but it could just as easily be addressed to the audience. The Adventures of Pericles as the Stratford Festival calls the play otherwise known as Pericles, Prince of Tyre takes you all over the eastern Mediterranean basin with an episodic plot that keeps your head spinning.  
 Evan Buliung (centre) as Pericles with members of the company. Photography by David Hou.

Scott Wentworth directs the sprawling work with good results but there is no getting around the fact that it is a lousy play even if Shakespeare wrote some or most of it. The Stratford Festival acknowledges that George Wilkins was Shakespeare’s probable collaborator.

The production opens arrestingly enough with a bride walking across the stage. We then see six Maiden Priests, dressed like Greek Orthodox bishops only in white. They replace Gower of the text and sing his Prologue. It is a wise choice. We see the Maiden Priests a number of times throughout the play.

Pericles (Evan Buliung) starts in Antioch where he w
ants to marry the incomparable daughter of King Antiochus (Wayne Best) but there is a catch. He must solve a riddle first and, as usual in riddle solving, he will lose his life if he fails. Pericles realizes that Antiochus is involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. If he reveals what he knows, Pericles is dead. If he does not solve the riddle, his is dead.

Our hero escapes and we follow him to Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene in a tour full of adventures.

Deborah Hay as Thaisa in The Adventures of Pericles. Photography by David Hou.

Buliung as Pericles takes the middle road between histrionics and understatement in a fine performance. He is a Pericles who has a larger share of troubles than most people can imagine

The play has over forty characters and most of the actors take two or more roles. The characters range from the honourable Lysimachus (Antoine Yared) to the murderous Dionyza (Claire Lautier.) 

Deborah Hay plays Thaisa, Pericles’s wife as well as Marina, his daughter. She invests her performance with beauty and innocence as well as guile and spunk as she survives her tenure in a brothel.           

Randy Hughson with his distinctive voice plays Bolt the brothel keeper and Brigit Wilson is quite a Bawd.

Wentworth and designer Patrick Clark give the production a Dickensian flavour with top hats, boots and long coats reminiscent of Victorian England. The most prominent prop is a large four-poser bed on which we see the incestuous Antiochus and his daughter at the beginning, the bawds of the brothel and the catatonically depressed Pericles near the end.

The production is an intelligent retelling of a long and unfocused story. In other words, you can have a good production of a lousy play and, yes, you will eventually figure out where you are.

The Adventures of Pericles by William Shakespeare and his collaborator opened on May 30 and will run in repertory until September 19, 2015 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

“June is bustin’ out all over” is one of the robust songs of Carousel that grabs you by the collar and keeps you enthralled from first note to last. That is a good summary of the current production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical at the Stratford Festival.

Carousel has an amusement park on the New England coast as its backdrop but it examines domestic violence, abuse of power and redemption in its foreground. It reaches from a clambake on earth to “up there” and “down here” again with brilliant music, outstanding songs, and dance routines worthy of a first rate ballet.

Director Susan H. Schulman, Choreographer Michael Lichtefield and Set Designer Douglas Paraschuk have brought out the carnival atmosphere well as well as the darker side of the play superbly in this outstanding production.
 Members of the company in Carousel. Photography by David Hou.

The play’s prelude is set in the amusement park and during the overture we see a pantomime acted out. There is a carousel, clowns, jugglers, a bear and other people milling around in general mayhem. We meet some of the characters of the play as the scene is set for the encounter of Billy Bigelow (Jonathan Winsby) and Julie Jordan (Alexis Gordon). He is a carousel barker and she is a factory worker. They fall in love and they both lose their jobs.

Winsby has a big, expressive voice perfectly suited for the arrogant and abusive Bigelow. A petty criminal, Billy is a man full of anger and resentment and he goes as far as hitting his loving and submissive Julie. He eventually commits suicide after an unsuccessful attempt at robbery and murder. Winsby delivers Billy in all his complexity in a superb performance. Just listen to his “Soliloquy.”

Gordon’s Julie is a small woman, inexplicably in love with the brute. She understands the cause of his abusiveness and forgives him. Gordon’s Julie may be the classic victim of domestic abuse but Gordon’s singing is exceptional.

The ensemble of dancers and singers deserve enormous credit. There are a number of rousing ensemble pieces in addition to “June is bustin’” that carry you along as if you were on a high speed carousel.

Billy’s daughter Louise (Jacqueline Burtney), the Carnival Boy (Alex Black) and the company perform a ballet sequence of extraordinary beauty. This is no ordinary Broadway musical.

Alana Hibbert deserves special praise for her solo “You will never walk alone” and for leading in “A real nice clambake” as well as “June is bustin’.”  Robin Hutton as Mrs. Mullin and Robin Evan Willis as Carrie are the nasty and nice blondes respectively. Evan Buliung plays Jigger, the heavy of the play.

Abuse is a key element in Carousel. Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the carousel, tries to blackmail Billy into going with her. Julie’s employer keeps the women in his mill working as if they are slaves – if you are late to bed, you are fired. The policeman wants to throw Billy in jail if only he could find a reason. Billy is seething with violence and anger from his youth when he was a social reject and was convicted in magistrate’s court to his angry adulthood where he hits his wife and his daughter.      

The production is successful on all counts as a brilliant presentation of a complex play and a great night at the theatre.

Carousel, with music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, opened on May 29 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2015 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, June 1, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality” wrote T. S. Eliot and the statement holds true about many situations and most forcefully perhaps about the Holocaust. It is not just unbearable; it is simply beyond comprehension.

The Stratford Festival is not shying away from the subject and has produced the harrowing story of Anne Frank in a production presumably aimed at children. The Diary of Anne Frank is part of the Schulich Children’s Plays. No one can doubt, however, that the powerful story about the young girl who kept a diary while hiding from the Nazis and perished in one of the Third Reich’s concentration camps is a play for everyone.

 Members of the company in The Diary of Anne Frank. Photography by David Hou.
The play begins with seventeen actors lined up across the stage at the Avon Theatre. Each introduces himself/herself and tells a pointed or humorous story. Some of them represent the characters in the play while others form the “Chorus”, the actors who read brief entries of the diary.

All the actors wear beige, almost identical clothes. The set is panelled with light brown panes and looks like a box. In this attic eight people are hidden and they live in terror of being discovered. For example, they must be deathly quiet during the day when a business is operating below. There is also shortage of food, tension and hope, hope that the war will be over and they can return home.

Anne (Sara Farb) is lively teenager who argues with her mother, adores her father and is growing up emotionally and physically. Farb gives us a highly sympathetic young girl who is full of life and ambition and lives in a nightmarish situation.

Her father Otto is a man of wisdom, patience and love as he tries to maintain peace and tolerance in an almost impossible situation. Joseph Ziegler does an outstanding job in the role.

His wife (played by Lucy Peacock) is a decent woman who has her limitations. She has to deal with Anne and her older daughter Margot (Shannon Taylor) as well as the van Daans, (Kevin Bundy and Yanna McIntosh). Mrs. van Daan is attached to her fur coat and Mr. van Daan resorts to stealing bread.

The diary is a simple story. Eight people hiding and facing their virtues and vices in the face of serious deprivations. But that is just the surface, we know that they are all facing ultimate evil and want desperately to escape from it. We know that they will not and near the end we get a passing description of their fate. Otto Frank survived the concentration camp and later found Anne’s diary.

The ultimate evil that they faced is beyond comprehension and it is the type of reality that Eliot had in mind when he penned the above-noted words.

Director Jillian Keiley gives an understated and sensitive production of a situation that screams with implicit horror. The actors who speak directly to the audience at the beginning of the performance and the actors who read from the diary, the Chorus, are a way of giving us some distance from the story. This is the Brechtian idea of epic theatre where we are told a story rather than being led to believe that we are watching an enactment of reality.

A painful encounter with reality and a great night at the theatre.

The Diary of Anne Frank  by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselmam, opened on May 28 and will run in repertory until October 10, 2015 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.