Tuesday, November 24, 2015


By James Karas

August Strindberg’s 1888 one–act tragedy Miss Julie has inspired numerous adaptations and productions including several operas. Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans composed a one-act chamber opera in 2005 based on a libretto by Swiss director Luc Bondy and director and playwright Marie-Louise Bischofberger which was produced in a number of European cities with considerable success.

That did not put it on the radar of any North American opera or theatre company except for Matthew Jocelyn, Canadian Stage’s Artistic and General Director. Jocelyn has made it his mission to expand Torontonians’ theatrical horizons, come hell or high water and he has seen both over the last five years. But he has not lost his nerve and is forging full speed ahead.

Lucia Cervoni and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Julie, as the opera is called, has now received its North American premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre in a production by Canadian Stage in association with Soundstreams, a major presenter of new Canadian music.  

The interaction among the three characters of the play has many layers and complex motivations but the central issue is sexual attraction. Julie (Lucia Cervoni) is the daughter of a Count and she is sexually attracted to Jean (Clarence Frazer), the valet. Jean has a relationship with the servant Christine (Sharleen Joynt) and we have a ménage á trois with a difference.

Boesmans’ avant-garde music shapes and punctuates the dialogue of the three characters and it is shaped by it. There is obviously a large variety of musical phrases but the diction of the dialogue is maintained. Mezzo soprano Cervoni, baritone Frazer and soprano Joynt handle their roles vocally with ease and their characterization is sound.

Jean and Julie consummate their relationship with utter good taste without allowing their lust to shock the censors and cause them to forbid public performances as it did when the play was first produced. As may be expected, the relationship does not work out, and in the play Jean gives Julie a straight razor and she goes off the stage with it in her hand. In the opera he gives her an extension cord and in the final tableau we see her in silhouette wrapping the cord around her neck. Very effective.
 Sharleen Joynt and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Musical Director Leslie Dala conducts the 18-piece chamber ensemble adroitly through Boesmans’ largely unfamiliar musical style where what we associate with traditional opera is left out completely. Don’t look for Puccini or Verdi, in other words.

Set Designer Alain Lagarde provides a black curtain for background which acts as a mirror as well. The kitchen set is good and it provides the “naturalism” that Strindberg wanted without being slavishly realistic.

The driving force behind the production is Matthew Jocelyn for bringing a work that has the familiarity and approachability of a play that was written in 1888 with the unknownness of a recent, avant-garde work that is being produced here for the first time. 
Do you want to compliment or criticise him for this or just leave it hanging? 
Julie by Philippe Boesmans (music), Luc Bond and Marie-Louise Bischofberger (libretto) adapted from August Strindberg play, opened on November 17 and will run until November 29, 2015 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canstage.com

Monday, November 23, 2015


By James Karas

As the whole world knows, Jacob Two-Two is 2+2+2 years old, he has two eyes, two hands, two feet etc. and he says everything twice.

Young People’s Theatre has produced the wonderful musical, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang 2+2+2+2 times to the delight of young and not so young alike. This year is the, well, let’s economize, 2 x 20 anniversary of the publication of Mordecai Richler’s book and I am allowed to say it again this is a wonderful musical based on the novel.

L-R: Matthew G. Brown, David G. Black and Damien Atkins. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
I attended opening night of the current revival with my Associate Reviewer, a highly precocious and perceptive seven-year old (“I’m going to be eight in March!”) to make sure I did not miss any of the nuances of the production.

The play has new music and lyrics by Britta and Anika Johnson that are tuneful and enjoyable. The production is fast-paced and starts with some amusing scenes with Jacob’s family and I get an early review.

Associate Reviewer: This is funny.

Jacob is sent to the grocery store to buy some tomatoes and he is arrested for offending an adult. He is represented by lawyer Louie Loser (Darrin Baker) in front of Judge Rough (Saccha Dennis) and an even rougher jury. He is found guilty and thrown in prison. The justice system a drubbing with all the bad stereotypes of the incompetent lawyer, the bad judge and the abusive treatment of Jacob but my Associate did not seem to mind. She just found Louie Loser funny.

L-R: Jeigh Madjus, Drew Davis, Sarah Gibbons and Ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Jacob goes through some hair-raising experiences as he meets many very colourful and some scary characters. Master Fish (Matthew G. Brown) and Mistress Fowl (Kira Guloien), Artie Octopus (Jacob McInnis) and of course, the terrifying Hooded Fang (Damien Atkins). This is frightening and my Associate leaned over.

Associate Reviewer: “Is this a real story?”

Note; My Associate Reviewer saw Hanna’s Suitcase and I told her that it is “a real story” and Hana’s fate clearly made an impression on her. I assured her that it is not a real story and that Jacob was dreaming the whole thing. 

David Gregory Black is a lively, funny and just superb Jacob. (He alternates in the role with Drew Davis.) The rest of the cast take on a couple of roles or play in the ensemble. It is a fast-moving acting and singing ensemble.

Co-directors Allen MacInnis and Jen Shuber with Set designer Dana Osborne and Costume Designer provide some 2 x 35 minutes of fast-paced, colourful, funny, scary and delightful entertainment. The last words belong to my Associate:

“When are we coming back?”

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang  by Mordecai Richler opened on November 19, 2015 and will play until January 3, 2016 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Saturday, November 21, 2015


By James Karas

Wormwood is a new play by Andrew Kushnir that is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre. The playwright is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent and he wants to comment on the sorry state of Ukraine and then some. It is a noble attempt but the result is a not always focused and as such success is limited.

When the lights go on Scott Wentworth wearing sunglasses is led on the stage by a young man dressed in a traditional East European costume. Wentworth is supposed to be a kobzar, a traditional blind bard who sings epic songs. Wentworth tries to tell some banal jokes and he looks straight at the audience. This is simple carelessness but Kushnir’s intention is to bring a deeply rooted Ukrainian tradition that seems akin to the Homeric bards. 

Nancy Palk, Amy Keating, Luke Humphrey and Ben Campbell. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

The kobzar, the bandurist (Victor Mishalow) who plays a traditional stringed instrument and a Cossack (Ken James Stewart) do very little for the play aside from adding a bit of colour and perhaps pointing to the rich cultural past of Ukraine. We need more.

The main story centers on Ivan (Luke Humphrey), a young Ukrainian-Canadian TV salesman who has gone to the land of his fathers to monitor the presidential elections. Naïve is the politest word one can use for Ivan. We never learn who sent him or how he is supposed to monitor the elections. He never does, in any event. He ends up in a house instead of a hotel, his passport is stolen and he is unable to communicate with most people because they speak Russian and he speaks Ukrainian. Humphrey is a highly energetic performer and he can be very amusing but he needs a different role.

There is a great deal of dialogue in Russian or Ukrainian which may be unimportant because we do not understand what they are saying or we are to get the gist of it from the context which is even worse. Let’s just say that lengthy stretches of dialogue in a language that most of the audience does not understand is, to put it politely, annoying.

Luke Humphrey, Chala Hunter. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Ivan ends up in the house of The Professor (a very loud Ben Campbell) who has an even louder Housekeeper (Nancy Palk) and a Daughter (Amy Keating.) The Housekeeper does not speak English during the first half but she becomes very fluent after the intermission.

The play moves into surreal territory when Ivan enters a garden adjoining the house of The Professor. He meets the beautiful Artemisia (Chala Hunter), the daughter of the Doctor (Scott Wentworth). She does not speak but Ivan and she eventually establish rapport and fall in love. She finds her tongue in the second act.

The play does have a climactic scene which is indeed dramatic provided your attention has not wandered off by then. The mysterious garden and the isolation of Artemisia are explained by the radioactive poisoning caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The window adjoining the Professor’s house to the garden is locked because the garden is contaminated. The Doctor’s wife was near Chernobyl when the accident happened and she died a horrible death as a result of radioactive poisoning.

The foolish young Canadian who is to monitor elections that he knows nothing about; the Professor’s dysfunctional and ludicrous family and the overprotective doctor and his outlandish daughter are neither representative of a country in crisis nor even an intelligent comment on it.

Most of them attempt Russian or Ukrainian accents with varying success. The play, however hard director Richard Rose, tried to make it entertaining, lacks focus. Kushnir tries to cover too much ground. Bring in the dramaturge.  

Wormwood by Andrew Kushnir opened on November 18 and  continues until December 20, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontariowww.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, November 16, 2015


By James Karas

Sarah Thorpe’s retelling of the story of Joan of Arc opens with a woman on her knees being asked to confess. She replies in a steady voice that is neither sanctimonious nor fearful that she has done nothing wrong. The words are spoken at the opening and closing of the play, moments before Joan, age 19, is executed. 

Thorpe’s curiosity about the young girl who at age 13 claimed to hear divine voices and became a French military hero has driven her to look for the young woman behind the saint and retell the story of Joan in her own way.

Sarah Thorpe. Photo: Laura Dittman (LD Photo & Video)

Thorpe is a tall woman who presents a Joan that has courage, persistence, fearlessness and faith. She is neither overly pious nor particularly deferential but gets her way by strength of character.

We are given some historical background and follow Joan’s story from a rebellious 13-year old that is flogged by her father to her confrontations with French clergy and nobility. We hear the story from a modern standpoint and Thorpe/Joan admits that she was not perfect and that she made mistakes.

Thorpe acts some of the parts of the people that Joan encounters with voice changes for some and prerecorded voices for others.

The show is all Sarah Thorpe. She makes good use of the stage; there is some humour and she is able to modulate her voice to marvelous effect. Joan of Arc is probably beyond comprehension but Thorpe’s version is a refreshing change from the usual image we get of the girl and young woman who was executed by the Catholic Church and then made a saint by the same institution. 

Heretic by Sarah Thorpe, produced by Soup Can Theatre, will run until November 22, 2015 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. http://soupcantheatre.com/ Tickets: www.artsboxoffice.ca/

Friday, November 13, 2015


By James Karas

The Trouble with Mr. Adams is a new play by Gord Rand that examines the relationship between a high school teacher and volleyball coach, and his star player, a pretty (almost) sixteen-year old girl.

There is plenty of material for a play in that situation and Rand attacks it head on but with limited success.

The 45-year old Mr. Adams (a passionate Chris Earle), feels that Cupid’s arrow has struck him and he has fallen in love with Mercedes (Sydney Owchar). Those are his words. Mr. Adams does have a few issues that should cause him to yank the arrow out of his heart, to wit: he is married, has two children, he is in a position of trust vis-à-vis the object of his passion, and the Board of Education, the Criminal Code, her parents and society in general, may, to put it very politely, take a dim view of his actions.
 Sydney Owchar and Chris Earle. Photo: Cylla vo Tiedemann 

None of which register on the self-righteous, blind (by love?) and perhaps fundamentally stupid Mr. Adams. After spending three hours with Mercedes in his car during a snowstorm (she missed the bus after a tournament) he announces to his wife Peggy (Philippa Domville) that he is leaving her.

That is the first of the three confrontations in the play. His wife is furious and demands to know what happened during those three hours in the car and his answer is: nothing. The argument takes a strange turn when Peggy seduces him into a rather graphic sex act which I guess is supposed to convince him that what he has at home is damn good and it is not worth being branded a pedophile. Perhaps but Mr. Adams is adamant.

The next confrontation is with Barbara (Allegra Fulton), the union’s tough lawyer who is also sexually attractive. She takes a prosecutorial attitude and he acts like a juvenile until he finally gets the message that the only way he can save his neck is by blackening Mercedes. Paint her as a tart and put a saintly tint on yourself. We are not sure how well the approach works because in the next scene, two years later, we find Mr. Adams teaching part time in St. Catharines, living in a basement apartment and not permitted to coach a girls’ team. Sounds like a split decision at discipline committee level without criminal prosecution.

In the final scene Mercedes, who is now 18 years old, and Mr. Adams meet in a motel room where she is staying during a tournament. He still has idiotic ideas about living with her and dreams of promoting her career as a volleyball player. She stays for too long talking with him and finally leaves to bring the play to an end.
 Philippa Domville and Chris Earle. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I have given a summary of the plot to point out the dramatic possibilities and some of the creaky aspects of the plot. Rand does not find enough substance in the relationship or in the characters to make for a satisfying drama. Whatever Mercedes’s attraction to her teacher, it is all too easy to file it, if not dismiss it, as a teenage crush or puppy love, if you will.    

Mr. Adams, however hard he tries to take the high ground by invoking the intervention of Fate through the offices of Cupid, comes out as no more than a horny, middle aged man who breaks the rules rather stupidly. Rand failed to find substance to create a convincing, fully-rounded if flawed human who attracts and repels us.

The performances within the confines of the play are very good. Philippa Domvilles’ furious and hurt wife comes through; Fulton’s Allegra is officious and finally helpful in suggesting how Mr. Adams can approach his problem; Owcher is good as the undeveloped character of Mercedes. She has outgrown Adams but she is still somewhat confused. We do not see her as the sixteen-year old who “fell in love” with her coach but Owcher’s performance cannot be faulted for that. Earle is full of passionate intensity like a teenager who has just discovered love but not common sense.

The same applies to Director Lisa Peterson who puts the best face on a flawed play.

The Trouble with Mr. Adams by Gord Rand runs until November 29, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, November 9, 2015


By James Karas

Banana Boys is a complex play about Canadians of Asian origin who are neither assimilated nor  outsiders to the dominant culture of Canada. The play’s five characters are smart, articulate young men who speak perfect English and find themselves in a culture laden with prejudices and preconceptions about them and their forebears. As the title suggests derisively, these men are yellow on the outside but white inside. Are they Chinese or are they “Canadian.” In Canada, the answer should be a resounding “yes” but that may be is more easily said than practiced.
 The Banana Boys. Photo: Joseph Michael Photography
The play is based on Terry Woo’s novel which has been adapted by Leon Aureus. It covers a dazzling number of subjects from the obvious concern with stereotyping immigrants and people of a “different colour” to love, loss, ambitions, drugs, alcohol, identity and a number of other issues.

The five actors who play an array of characters are Darrel Gamotin, Matthew Gin, Oliver Koomsatira, Simu Liu and Philip Nozuka. They are an amazing group of performers. While covering a frequently changing array of topics and people, they showed astounding versatility and talent. They are almost acrobatic in their physical agility and their performances are more memorable than the play.

The set consists of a large table with an opening in the middle. The action takes place mostly on and around the table, in the square opening with judicious use of the steps in the auditorium. Director Nina Lee Aquino maintains a pace and discipline as if this were an Olympic event. Well done.

The word complex may be complimentary but can also mean confusing and both meanings are applicable to the play. It has a beginning, a middle and an end somewhere but you would be hard put to find it. Some of the anxieties, torments and turmoil, be they cultural or personal of the young men, are illustrated quite well. But there is so much going on, so fast and in such a disarray that your interest starts fading and you are just as likely to look at your watch as to try and follow every nuance of the performance.

The play and the novel have achieved success because they deal with Asian Canadians, a subject largely ignored on the cultural stage. The idea of the Canadian mosaic, multiculturalism and the avoidance of the American melting-pot approach to immigrants in favour of an inclusive Canadian ideal are all commendable if not always achieved or achievable. They are certainly a great subject for the theatre to explore.

How many plays have you seen recently about different ethnic groups in Canada? Not many. Now there is a startup that has endless possibilities. Banana Boys and a handful of other plays that are already around are a damn good start.       

Banana Boys by Leon Aureus adapted from the novel by Terry Woo will run until November 22, 2015 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca

Saturday, November 7, 2015


By James Karas

Hart House Theatre produces one of Shakespeare’s plays every year and for the current season it has tackled the big one: Hamlet. The play tests the mettle of most professional companies and one is not surprised that it gives a tough time to the mostly young and largely recent acting graduates.

Everyone has his own Hamlet and director Paolo Santalucia is no different. He has opted for a modern dress production right down to the iPhone. There is nothing to indicate royalty or a palace. In fact Santalucia and Set Designer Nancy Perrin go to great lengths to place the play in a down market milieu. 

Dan Mousseau as Hamlet. Photo: Scott Gorman 
The most prominent feature of the set is a pile of wooden chairs that dominate the right side of the stage. There are plastic curtains hanging on the left side with some scaffolding. Claudius (Cameron Johnston) sits on a wooden chair in his opening scene. The set looks like a basement storage room and one is hard put to understand what it is supposed to mean. A chair leg came in handy, however, for Hamlet to bludgeon Polonius with in Gertrude’s bedroom.

Musical Director Kristen Zara has inserted short pieces of music and songs and they were no doubt intended to enhance the action. I could not follow the modern music and could not figure out what a snippet from “Tales of the Vienna Woods” was supposed to add.

There were some dramatic scenes but most of the actors were clearly out of their depth. Shakespeare’s language is difficult at the best of times but a desire to deliver it at a fast speed without sufficient enunciation resulted in many syllables simply disappearing.

Hamlet is a very long play and judicious cuts are the norm rather than the exception. Dramaturge Susan Bond should have perhaps considered more aggressive deletions to keep the performance well under three hours and give the actors the luxury of delivering their line at slower speeds.

Hamlet has plenty of humour but much of it misfired or the audience laughed at scenes that were not particularly funny. Rosencrantz (Alan Shonfield) and Guildenstern (Dylan Evans) are usually good for a few laughs but this time they barely generated a twitter.

Dan Mousseau played a youthful Hamlet and he registered some dramatic effects. Unfortunately he has no poetry in him and we got no vocal modulation for Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters. It was all ordinary prose.

Johnston’s Claudius came out as a pretty ordinary fellow and, with a wig and a long shirt the Ghost (played by Johnstone) looked pretty ridiculous. They showed a large portrait of King Hamlet in the bedroom scene and he was a long way from looking like Hyperion.

One can quibble, criticize and argue about many aspects of every production of Hamlet. However it behooves us to keep in mind that these are young actors who got the chance to sink their teeth into one of the greatest plays in the world.

The audience sensed that and gave the production an enthusiastic approval.  

Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on November 4 and will play until November 21, 2015 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Otto Schenk’s production of Tannhäuser for The Metropolitan Opera is 38 years old and it may be a throwback to a style that is more derided than emulated these days. It may be called loosely “realistic” but it is opera on a grand scale and a production that is a thrill to watch.

Wagner’s fifth opera opens in Venusberg, the abode of the goddess of love where the knight Tannhäuser has spent a year having the time of his life. Set Designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen provides a grandiose grotto with rising bluffs in the background. The lighting was not perfect and we missed the full effect of the set in the movie house. This is a place for carnal pleasure and perhaps even orgies.
 Peter Mattei as Wolfram, Johan Botha in the title role, Günther Groissböck as Landgraf Hermann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Choreographer Norbert Vesak gives a sensuous ballet sequence that is erotic to the point of decadence. Muscular men and gorgeous women dance with erotic wildness and Dionysian abandon.

The scene in the valley near Wartburg castle is equally grandiose. Mountains can be seen in the distance and there is a dirt road leading upward into the mountains and down into the valley. The castle of the next act is drawn on a similar scale. This is grand opera on a grand budget.

The singing is generally outstanding. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has a mellifluous voice and her Elisabeth shows passion and compassion. She scales the Wagnerian heights and appears to sing quite effortlessly.

Tenor Johan Botha has a fine voice but his Tannhäuser is problematic. Botha’s acting skills can charitably be described as limited. His facial expression remains practically unchanged through most of his performance. He does break into a mirthless smile on occasion and he attempts some emotional expression near the end of the opera with very little success.  His body language is almost non-existent and he barely moves his arms when singing. In other words he looks like a lump that can sing.

Botha suffers in comparison to baritone Peter Mattei in the role Wolfram. Mattei has an impressive and expressive voice but he is also an effective actor. He sings and moves with ease. His face and body movements express what he is singing and he gives us a sympathetic characterization. On the other hand, Botha’s Tannhäuser never gains our sympathy.     
Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung made a visually and vocally stunning Venus. The goddess dominates the first act of the opera and the singer must do some impressive vocal somersaults that require unerring agility and amplitude.

Wagner composed some stunning and some loud choruses for Tannhäuser and the Met chorus does quite a stupendous job.

The Met Opera Orchestra under James Levine deserves to be described as mighty. Hearing the overture to Tannhäuser alone is almost worth the price of admission. Well, I exaggerate but not by much.

Tannhäuser has some unpleasant aspects. The knight’s trip from a life of carnal pleasure in it to practically a brothel to severe piety is unconvincing not to say nauseating. Then there is Elizabeth’s faith in him and let’s not forget his pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope and coming home empty-handed! Are we supposed to take these things seriously?

Schenk’s production, the outstanding singing and the mostly fine performances of the singers and the great Met Orchestra iron out many of the problems and you end up enjoying the opera despite some of its shortcomings.

Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner was transmitted Live in HD on October 31, 2015 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  There will be encore broadcasts on January 9, 11 and 13, 2016. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events