Sunday, August 30, 2015


James Karas

A COMPLIMENT: The Stratford Festival gives us a robust, superbly acted and splendidly directed production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

A COMPLAINT: Well, let’s leave that for later.

The Alchemist was first produced in 1610 and is invariably accepted as one of the masterpieces of English drama. It is set in 17th century London and has a wide range of references and language and jargon pertaining to the fake science of alchemy that are not always easy to follow by a modern audience. But Director Antoni Cimolino drives a truck through all of that with a first-rate cast that generates energy and humour from start to finish.
 From left: Stephen Ouimette as Subtle, Brigit Wilson as Dol Common and Jonathan Goad as Face. Photography by David Hou.

The world of The Alchemist is divided into two types of people: the swindlers and the swindled. In the absence of the owner, a servant and his two partners take over a house and turn it into a fraudsters’ paradise. Subtle (Stephen Ouimette) is the alchemist who can instruct on how to establish a successful business, quarrel like a slick gentleman, make a fortune in gambling, marry a wealthy widow and become wildly wealthy by having all your pots and pans turned into gold. And much more. Jeremy, the servant who provides the house and names himself Face (Jonathan Goad), is the rainmaker/businessman who is quick of mind, tongue and foot. Dol Common (Brigit Wilson) is the peace maker and piece provider who completes the trio of scammers supreme.        

Ouimette, Goad and Wilson give excellent performances. They exude energy and feed off each other as the characters they play go through various transformations to keep up with the demands of their customers and one step ahead of being discovered. Ouimette deserves extra kudos because he has the biggest and toughest role to play.

They are ready for the dupes. Scott Wentworth plays Epicure Mammon, the greediest and the funniest of them all. His puffed up costume makes him look as if he could fly away if he were not full of blubber. Mammon’s greed has no bounds. He fantasizes that the philosopher’s stone of the alchemist will give him wealth, love, honour, long life and victory. With it he will be able to turn an old man into a child. Wentworth’s performance was equal to Mammon’s exuberant fantasies with one minor glitch. As the audience was enjoying his performance, Wentworth momentarily slipped out of character for a cheap laugh.
 Jonathan Goad (left) as Face and Scott Wentworth as Epicure Mammon. Photography by David Hou
Randy Hughson, with his gravelly voice, was highly entertaining as pastor Tribulation. Antoine Yared, dressed in a barrister’s gown and wig, played the greasy law clerk Dapper who wants to get lucky in gambling, so lucky in fact that the other gamblers won’t have enough money left to buy dinner.         

Steve Ross plays the innocent and not-too-bright Drugger who wants business advice about his new tobacconist shop. He gets nothing and loses a lot but Ross’s acting gives a great deal of pleasure to the audience.

Give kudos to Wayne Best as Surly, Mammon’s sidekick, who is smart enough to want to catch the fraudsters. He disguises himself as a Spaniard, falls for the dumb Dame Pliant (Jessica B. Hill) and in the ends gets nothing.   

Antoni Cimolino deserves the greatest credit for the success of the production. The play opens on a high note as Subtle and Face argue vigorously about billing, one could say. Subtle is on the toilet and he grabs the pot wherein he did his job and threatens to toss it on Face. Hilarious invention by Cimolino.

Then the dupes start arriving, first singly and later in pairs or more. Cimolino sets the pace and there is a build-up of energy and laughter as the plot thickens and eventually explodes.  

THE COMPLAINT: Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare and is usually considered only second to him in the quality of his output. Take a guess and count on your fingers how many productions of his plays the Stratford Festival has offered since 1953. One hand will do.

We had to wait until Jean Gascon became Artistic Director in 1969 for the first production of a play by Jonson in Stratford. We got The Alchemist and two years later Gascon gave us Volpone with William Hutt.

The next coffee break lasted until 1999 (count fingers, toes and other appendages for numerical precision) for another Jonson play and got The Alchemist and a mere ten years later we saw Bartholomew Fair directed by Cimolino. Two plays by Jonson in six years may seem like a feast when in fact it is a disgrace. The same holds true of productions of the plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries but that’s another subject.

See Cimolino’s The Alchemist and you will realize what we are deprived of.

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson opened on August 15 and will run in repertory until September 19, 2015 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


James Karas

The Stratford Festival has taken some strong antihistamines to control its allergy to Greek Drama and produced Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex at The Tom Patterson Theatre. More about allergies below.

The production is directed by Daniel Brooks and it has some fine performances and makes a few points. However grateful one may be for the opportunity to see one of the great plays of the world, one is reminded of Richard Bentley’s comment about a translation by Alexander Pope: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer."
Gord Rand as Oedipus and Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta with members of the company in Oedipus Rex. 
Photography by David Hou.
 Brooks’ production of Oedipus Rex may have some dramatic moments but it must not be called Sophoclean tragedy.

This is a modern-dress production done on a bare stage where the only props are a steel desk, an office chair and some folding chairs.

Gordon Rand’s Oedipus is an intense youngish man who is eager to find the truth. He seems sincere but he has a temper and when pressure gets to him he throws a temper tantrum. 

As King of Thebes, he is a hero to his people because he saved the city from the Sphinx, a horrible monster. However on his way to Thebes from Corinth where he was raised, he killed a man called Laius. That man was his father who had left the child Oedipus on a mountain to die in order to avoid the oracle that said Laius’s son would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was saved by a shepherd and unknowingly fulfilled the oracle.

When the play opens, Thebes is devastated by a plague and the people and Oedipus try to find out the reason for it. The play slowly leads to the tragic truth about whom Oedipus killed and whom he married.

Oedipus is a heroic figure, a saviour of his city who seeks the truth without flinching and   who punishes himself appropriately for his crimes however innocently committed. He gouges his own eyes out. In other words he is a man of high seriousness, of great integrity, of gravitas, if you will. That is missing from this production. The final scene when he appears with blood streaming down his face (and gratuitously naked) Rand is indeed dramatic and effective but for the rest of the performance he is the rather shallow dramatic figure of Daniel Brooks’ imagination.
 Nigel Bennett (left) as Teiresias and Gord Rand as Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. Photography by David Hou.

A Greek tragedy is operatic in its use of the Chorus. There was music, singing and dancing but we know almost nothing about how they were done. That may be so, but a production cannot simply ignore the Chorus. It would be like listening to the Hallelujah Chorus without music or singing.

Brooks gives the choral lines to three choristers who step up to a microphone and speak as if they are televangelists. The rest of the one dozen choristers do almost nothing except move around the stage, whisper among themselves and repeat a few words. It simply does not work.

Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo who reveals what Oedipus has done unwittingly is played effectively by Nigel Bennett. Tiresias was a man who became a woman (or was he simultaneously male and female?) and Brooks makes the point by having Bennett wear earrings and turquoise shoes with high heels.   

The rest of the cast act as effectively as if they were speaking ordinary prose in a modern drama. Christopher Morris as Kreon and Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta stand out. Shannon Taylor plays the priest of Apollo wearing a striking red costume that looks like the vestment of an Eastern Orthodox prelate, except for the colour.

Oedipus Rex has quite a pedigree at Stratford. It was produced in the second and third seasons of the Festival under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie. James Mason was Oedipus in 1954 and Douglas Campbell in 1955. That’s what you call “the good old days” I suppose.

There was a truncated version of Oedipus Rex as part of a double bill by The Young Company in 1988 and the 1954-55 production was revived in 1997.

One is grateful for any opportunity to visit the fountainhead of Western drama but our gratitude would be exponentially greater if we could say that the production had a closer relationship to Sophocles.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles in a translation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay continues in repertory until September 18, 2015 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


James Karas

The final Shakespearean play offered by The Stratford Festival this season is Love’s Labour’s Lost directed by John Caird. Love’s is an intricate play full of verbal tricks and esoteric allusions that are lost on a modern audience. The lyrical music carries one through and in the hands of a good director there is plenty of humour to be mined.

Caird does not miss a trick and even though we are caught short trying to follow every word the overall result is enjoyable theatre.
From left: Andrew Robinson, Mike Shara, Sanjay Talwar and Thomas Olajide.  Photography by David Hou.

The plot can sound like a yawner. The King of Navarre (Sanjay Talwar) and three of his lords, Berowne (Mike Shara), Longaville (Andrew Robinson) and Dumaine (Thomas Olajide) have decided to shun the company of women and devote their time to studying for three years.

No sooner have they signed the pact to do that than The Princess of France (Ruby Joy) and her three attending ladies, Rosaline (Sarah Afful), Maria (Ijeoma Emesowum) and Katherine (Tiffany Claire Martin), arrive and the arrows of Eros shatter the idea of shunning women.

Mike Shara displayed real comic talent as Berowne, the reluctant participant in the no-women pact who falls in love and sees what the others are doing. He comments on their follies and is the source of much laughter. Shara plays off the audience, does double takes and gives us a highly entertaining portrait of probably the most important character of the play.

Caird milks every character for every laugh, lyrical line or ridiculous act. He is successful even if at times the oversupply of fancy language gets in the way. The main characters do excellent work but much of the fun comes from the minor characters.  Gabriel Long as Moth, the servant of Don Adriano de Armado, the “Spanish braggart” is simply hilarious. The pint-sized and aptly named Moth has a squeaky voice an irreverent attitude and he buzzes around to uproarious effect.

Josue Laboucane gets the plum role of Costard, the clown of the play. He miss-sends love notes, butchers the English language, does physical pranks and along with Moth is a great source of laughter.
 Members of the company in Love's Labour's Lost. Photography by David Hou.

Shakespeare provides a pedantic schoolmaster in Holofernes (played well by Tom Rooney) and a prudish curate in Sir Nathaniel (a funny Brian Tree), who are perfect and almost too easy targets for ridicule. Add a constable called Dull (Brad Rudy) and a dairymaid called Jaquennetta (Jennifer Mogbock) and you have a top ranking laughter-producing team.

Juan Chioran, hair combed straight up, is the perfect braggart Spaniard – a Don Quixote who made a wrong turn and ended up in a play by Shakespeare..

Much of the credit goes to Caird. He micromanages every move, voice intonation, arm gesture, double take, body language and reaction to best effect. Without these details the play can easily be bogged down in its often dense language and become a snoozer.

At the end there is a masque of the Nine Worthies (think of the Pyramus and Thisbe production by the artisans in A Midsummer Night). Here Shakespeare and Caird pull out all the comic stops. Costard enters as an unstoppably funny Pompey. Nathaniel comes in as Alexander the Great, Holofernes as Judas Maccabeus and Moth as Hercules. Armando tries to top the troupe as Hector but he is cut short by Costard who tells him that Jaquennetta is pregnant – by Armando!

Well-directed, well-played, well-designed, well done. 
Love’s Labour’s Lost  by William Shakespeare opened on August 14 and will run in repertory until October 9, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, August 10, 2015


James Karas

Antonio Vivaldi composed Cato in Utica in 1737 and it had its America premiere this summer at the Glimmerglass Festival. The problem is not with the quality of the opera rather than with the fact that the music for Act I is missing. There is a way of getting around it by adding some music from other Vivaldi compositions and some explanatory notes. The effort is worth it.

Cato in Utica is the loosely based story of the Roman senator who tried to stand up to the dictatorial Julius Caesar on republican principles. Cato went to Utica, Numidia in North Africa with his daughter Marzia and Emilia, the widow of Pompey whom Caesar murdered.   
John Holiday as Caesar and Megan Samarin as Marzia in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of Vivaldi's "Cato in Utica." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As creaky plots go, this one can use an extra dose of lubricant. You can draw a diagram of who loves or does not love whom. Cato wants his daughter to marry Arbace, the Prince of Numidia. Arbace wants to marry Marzia but she loves her father’s enemy Caesar. Caesar’s lieutenant Fulvio is in love with Emilia who wants to kill Caesar. 

The opera consists of a string of solo arias connected by recitatives. There is no chorus, no ensemble singing not even a duet. The enemies and lovers walk on and off the stage without much sense of why they are there. They sing, walk off and return for their next big aria.

There are some beautiful arias and the production has a marvelous roster of singers with an unfortunate exception. I was most impressed with the performance of mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko as the aggrieved and vengeful widow of Pompey. She wants to get Caesar. She has a velvety voice that combines flexibility, beauty and strength. She has a good stage presence and seems to be at the early stages of her career. We want to hear her again.

Countertenor John Holiday Jr. sang an outstanding Caesar after the initial surprise at his appearance. He is a muscle-bound African-American and on first sight I expected him to have a deep voice like, say, Eric Owens, whom I heard the night before. A high-pitched countertenor voice seemed incongruous but you get over the incongruity after listening to a few bars. He has a number of long arias where he expresses his love for Marzia and his disagreements with Cato. He was outstanding.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin played what we would call the conflicted Marzia who is damned by her father for loving his enemy. Samarin showed great vocal and physical agility. She is one Glimmerglass’s Young Artists with a lovely voice that holds much promise.

Thomas Michael Allen as Cato, Eric Jurenas as Arbace and Megan Samarin as Marzia in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of Vivaldi's "Cato in Utica." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita as Fulvio and countertenor Eric Jurenas as Arbace are Young Artists as well that performed well. Both are getting early exposure that stands them and the Festival in good stead.

Tenor Thomas Michael Allen was a disappointing Cato. Baroque opera does not appear to be his forte and he seemed uncomfortable in the role and the arias assigned him came out unsatisfactorily.

The set by John Conklin consisted of what looked like a Roman ruin with an archway opening to the back. The opening provided a space for variations in lighting and vignettes of open sky and monuments.

The opera can be almost completely static with the singers stepping up to the lights, as they used to say, and singing their arias between recitatives. Director Tazewell Thompson reduces the static effect by making the singers move around the stage and interact with each other. It works.

The fine performance of the Glimmerglass Orchestra conducted by Ryan Brown was an essential ingredient in bringing to a full run an opera with a missing limb.

Cato in Utica by Antonio Vivaldi opened on July18 and will be performed  nine times until August 22, 2015 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of The Magic Flute uses a bold if not always successful adaptation of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto by Kelley Rourke and is directed by Madeline Sayet.     

Tamino, the prince in the original opera, is a harried office worker in a large city who escapes from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle and goes to live in the forest. He wears a modern suit and most of the other characters are dressed in modern attire.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino and So Young Park as Queen of the Night. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Tamino runs into some unusually large and annoying insects and faints. The frightful monster of the original libretto is dispensed with. He is rescued by Three Ladies who serve the Queen of the Night. The bird catcher Papageno comes out but looks more like an employee of the Forestry Department than a wild man who is also funny.

The same changes are made throughout the production and the result is not always happy. Rourke brings in modern references and the production tries to make The Magic Flute more approachable and modern at the cost of the magic which is the whole point of the opera. There may be some who prefer modernity, of course.

The production is sung in English and that has the advantage of being understandable and the drawback of the lyrics not always fitting the music. Mozart composed music for specific words and if you cannot find an English word with the same number of syllables and accent the result is awkward. The singer is forced to rush over the extra syllable of the English word and the listener cringes. The best solution is the compromise: spoken words in English, arias in German.

Tenor Sean Panikkar made a good Tamino. He sang well but without as much passion as one would expect. Are office workers less effusive than mythical princes?

Sean Panikkar as Tamino, Soloman Howard as Sarastro and Jacqueline Echols as Pamina. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Baritone Ben Edquist as Papageno has a fine voice and natural comic talent which seemed not to be put to best use. Papageno has many opportunities for comic business and double-takes and for some reason Sayet made little use of them.

Soprano So Young Park gives a dramatic and vocally accomplished performance as The Queen of the Night. The production hampers her into singing like an irate mother rather than an exemplar of regal wrath on a grand scale.

Monostatos is an interesting character who can be played as ridiculous or pretty nasty as a potential molester. In this production he registers as a minor nuisance and tenor Nicholas Nestorak was not given much chance to show what he can do with a character like that.

Bass Soloman Howard sang an exceptional Sarastro. He has a commanding voice with stupendous low notes to give us an impressive High Priest of Isis and Osiris. Rourke calls him a guide, if memory serves me correctly, which is a significant demotion.

The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus was placed on the balcony on each side of the stage. They sang magnificently and their position just above us gave the feeling that their voices embraced us. Marvelous.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra was conducted by Carolyn Kuan and there can be no complaints about their performance.     

The conductor, the director and the libretto adapter of this Magic Flute are all women. There will come a time, we hope soon, when the gender of these people in an opera production will be unnoticeable and unimportant. No doubt there are operas that are directed, conducted and the libretto adapted by women but I am not aware of any. I need hardly add that the Artistic and General Director of the Festival is Francesca Zambello.

Let’s hear it for the Glimmerglass Festival!

The Magic Flute  by W. A. Mozart (music) and Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto adapted by Kelley Rourke) opened on July10 and will be performed  twelve times until August 23, 2015 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival, on the shores of Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown, New York, is delivering four major opera productions for its fortieth season. They are Verdi’s Macbeth, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
 The Women in "Macbeth." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Director Anne Bogart shows what a fertile imagination and intelligence can do with an old chestnut and not one of Verdi’s best operas, Macbeth. As the orchestra starts playing the overture, we see some women near the stage as other women go down the aisles greeting each other. They are working class women, wearing hats and carrying bags. All twelve get on the stage and we realize that they are the witches.

In the first scene in Macbeth’s castle, they emerge wearing servants’ clothes. They are the maids in the Macbeth household. No wonder they know so much about the Macbeths. When Lady Macbeth finishes reading the letter from her husband she hands it over to one of the maids/witches. Almost the last word in the opera is sung by the same dozen witches, lined up on the stage as at the beginning. They sing a hymn of praise and love to God. Now that is irony. Brilliant.

Soprano Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth dominates the singing of the production. She is domineering, powerful and vocally superb. She belts out her notes like stingrays with authority and evil splendour. The only problem I had with her was during the sleepwalking scene. The horn that punctuates her singing was a bit louder than her voice and I found it slightly disconcerting.

Bass baritone Eric Owens as Macbeth made a fine contrast to Lady Macbeth. He is supposed to be bloody, bold and resolute but, to use an รก propos term from the world’s baseball capital, he was 0 for 3. Owens’ Macbeth has ambition but not the stomach for it. He stoops, he crouches and goes down on his knees like a tyrant who lacks the total evil and bearing displayed by his wife. Owens’ rumbling voice served him well in a fine performance.

Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth and Eric Owens. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Bass Soloman Howard provides another example of contrast. Unlike Macbeth, he is straight-backed with a martial bearing and commanding vocal performance.  He sings his great aria Come dal ciel precipita” (How the shade falls from heaven) with sterling resonance.  

The production is done in modern dress circa 1940s and the supernatural is eschewed. The witches, as I said, are “ordinary” women with a huge streak of nastiness. They know how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth think and they can predict the future by reading their employers’ minds. When Verdi said that Macbeth has only three characters, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the Witches he was pointing to the psychological truths represented by the latter rather than any supernatural powers they may be deemed to possess. Bogart has capitalized on this idea with marvelous results.
The scenery by James Schuette is minimalist. The walls of the stage have black panels with red roses painted on them for most of the production. There is a large, revolving panel in the centre of the stage with three doors on it. It is dark on one side for outdoor scenes and is turned around to show brighter colours and lights for interior scenes. Nothing lavish but it does the job.

The emphasis in costumes, lighting and sets is on the somber and black except for the painted roses which clearly represent blood.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus come in for special praise for their brilliant performance. Huge ovations for conductor Joseph Colaneri and Chorus Master David Moody.

The final assessment is that this is a well-sung and well thought out production with some original and obviously unexpected twists that make for a terrific night at the opera.     

Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July11 and will be performed ten times until August 22, 2015 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

**** (out of five)

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is the long title of Tony Kushner’s long play at the Shaw Festival’s Studio Theatre. The title is a throwback to Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and the rest comes from Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The references to the two texts are of some interest but they are not essential to enjoying the play.
The cast of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.                        Photo by David Cooper.
Intelligent is the saga of the Marcantonio family that deals with events in 2007 but reaches back to 1892 when the first of its members emigrated from Italy to New Jersey. Gus Marcantonio (Jim Mezon) is the head of the family and, fearing the onset of Alzheimer’s, he attempts to commit suicide. Gus is a dedicated communist and a former longshoreman. His union negotiated a guaranteed income for him and other senior members which means he has been paid without working as a longshoreman for decades.

The Marcantonios are a smart and eccentric family. Gus’s sister Clio (Fiona Reid) is a former nun who became a Maoist. His son Pill (Steven Sutcliffe) is a history teacher working on his dissertation. He is also a homosexual addicted to paid sex. He spends a lot of money paying Eli (a prostitute) for sex. His regular partner is Paul (Andre Sills), a Harvard man.

Gus’s daughter Empty (Kelli Fox) was married to Adam (Thom Marriott) but divorced him and now is in love with Maeve (Diana Donnelly). Maeve wants a child and she is impregnated by Empty’s brother Vito (Gray Powell), a construction worker.

We also have Michelle (Julie Martell), a friend of Gus and a suicide consultant.

This colourful group deals with a number of subjects both personal and socio-political. Kushner combines the two to avoid the danger of writing a melodrama about a family only or a political essay. The socio-political arguments touch on American politics, the Communist Party, the place of unions and the state of the world, if you will. On the personal level the most pressing issue is Gus’s attempt to kill himself  but Pill’s relations with Paul and Eli are troubled not least by the fact that he spent Empty's savings which were meant for Maeve to get artificial insemination on a prostitute.

Adam is a real estate lawyer trying to sell Gus’s house. He is unscrupulous and lives in Gus’s house.

The language is salty, the family gatherings are loud and there is one segment where six people talk/yell simultaneously for a very long time. There is graphic simulated sex and homosexual kissing.
 Jim Mezon as Gus Marcantonio. Photo by David Cooper.
Despite its length of almost four hours, the plot moves quite well. The characters are interesting and the acting superb. Mezon has the toughest role. He is a man at the end of his rope and he sees darkness ahead but also darkness behind. His involvement with the longshoremen resulted in him getting a guaranteed income while the less senior members eventually lost their jobs. Is that what a union is about?

Sutcliffe, head shaved and marvelously expressive voice, is superb as the troubled teacher with a ravenous sexual appetite. Diana Donnelly is quite funny as the somewhat crazy and pregnant partner of Empty who succumbed to sex with Vito rather than follows the orthodox way of artificial insemination.

Fiona Reid is in her own world as a Maoist who was in Peru and is on her way to who-knows-where. Reid gives a fine performance of detachment and concern.     

The play takes place between June 12 and 14, 2007. Kushner is very detailed in many respects including providing a lengthy chronology of the family history from the first arrivals in the United States in 1892 to Gus’s attempted suicide on June 10, 2007.

The setting by Peter Hartwell is the Marcantonio home consisting of a table and chairs and bits of furniture as well as a second floor bedroom. The set for the City Hall Park consists of a panel and a railing and the set of Eli’s apartment is non-descript..

Director Eda Holmes directs the docudrama with a superb and knowing hand. The pacing is excellent and in the end we are all carried along by the twists and turns of the story of this amazing family.

A very good night at the theatre.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner runs until October 10, 2015 in the Studio Theatre of the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival commissioned a play by Michel Marc Bouchard and it premiered at the Royal George Theatre with considerable fanfare. The play is called The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt. The blurb in the Festival’s brochure promises a play about “the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt and her controversial performances in Quebec City at the turn of the 20th century.”
 Ric Reid, Darcy Gerhart, Fiona Reid, Andrew Bunker and Ben Sanders. Photo by David Cooper.
Truth in advertising is a highly lauded and frequently breached virtue. In this case the Shaw Festival has taken us for a small ride on one of those smelly horse drawn carriages, perhaps. The Divine does have a Bernhardt character but the play is decidedly not about the actress but about and an indictment of the Catholic Church and working conditions in Quebec about a hundred years ago.

In fairness, I should note that the title refers to a play for Sarah Bernhard (which is what one of the characters in the play wants to write) but telling us that the play is about her is simply misleading. The play’s title in French is La Divine Illusion.

Bouchard uses Bernhardt’s visit to Quebec City as a plot device to describe a corrupt church and a society where children are sexually abused, workers are treated like slaves and the Church dominates all aspects of life including what plays people are allowed to see.

Michaud (Ben Sanders) and Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) are seminarians in Quebec’s Grand Seminary. They are from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Michaud is the son of the minister of finance; Talbot comes from a desperately poor family where his 12-year old brother and his mother work in a shoe factory to pay for his education.

Michaud loves the theatre. Bernhardt is visiting Quebec City and, ironically enough, the Archbishop orders Michaud and Talbot to deliver a letter forbidding her to appear on stage. The Archbishop objects to the play.

Bernhardt is played by Fiona Reid, a superb comic actress. She has a marvelous lilt in her voice and her body language, from shaking her arms to moving her hips are the work of an outstanding talent. Bernhardt’s lines in the play indicate the actions of a star, a “divine” who is imperious and full of herself. That is not the type of Bernhardt that Reid gives us and she is miscast or misdirected for the role.
 Wade Bogert-O’Brien and Ben Sanders. Photo by David Cooper.

Ben Sanders is full of enthusiasm and passions, especially about the theatre and writing a play about the poor for Bernhardt. Bogert-O’Brien is the poor boy who wants to break away from his class and become a priest. In the middle is Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer), the straight-laced keeper of the faith and defender of the Church.

The story of horrific abuse of a child by a pedophile is revealed. The brutal conditions in a shoe factory where Talbot’s 12-year old brother Leo (Kyle Orzech) and mother (Mary Haney) work is disclosed. Ric Reid as the Boss trains his workers to say they are happy and defends his abuse with alacrity. Only two workers have died in recent memory from their hair being caught in the machinery!    

Although there are flashes of humour in the play, Bouchard cannot restrain himself from making the story melodramatic, preachy and simply over-the-top. It is positively Dickensian in its plucking at the heartstrings.   

Jackie Maxwell, the Festival’s Artistic Director, commissioned, directed and dramaturged the play in Linda Gaboriau’s translation. She deserves great praise for promoting a Canadian playwright writing on a Canadian subject of very significant historical and current importance. The abuse of children by clerics is a continuing problem and an issue that the Catholic Church has barely begun to address.

It’s too bad that Bouchard uses such a heavy hand to tell a great story of inhumanity and injustice.          ______

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt  by Michel Marc Bouchard opened on July 24 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2015 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.