Thursday, January 28, 2016


James Karas

Henrik Ibsen is generally accepted as one of the greatest and most revolutionary playwrights but his plays frequently appear dated or covered with some dust. Some people are reluctant to rush out and see them and the solution, aside from great actors and directors, has been to tweak the plot by going beyond a translation. In other words, adaptation.

The Old Vic has done that for The Master Builder by having playwright David Hare adapt the play to a modern tone in language that resonates with today’s audience. The result is Ibsen and perhaps Hare in a highly approachable production.

Ralph Fiennes and Sarah Snook in The Master Builder. Photo: Manuel Harlan
After Ibsen and Hare, the credit goes to director Matthew Warchus (also Artistic Director of the Old Vic) and Ralph Fiennes in the title role.

As usual, Ibsen piles numerous issues into the play but I look at it as a story of the lion in winter who refuses to accept the fact that it is no longer spring or summer in his chronological whereabouts. Halvard Solness is a master builder with some very unpleasant traits. He is arrogant, aggressive, rude and a user of people. He abuses his young protégé Ragnar (Martin Hutson) and his erstwhile employer Knut (James Laurenson). He maintains a (we assume) less than platonic relationship with his secretary Kaja (Charlie Cameron) who happens to be engaged to Ragnar. He keeps her on staff so she can keep Ragnar from resigning and pursuing his own career. His relationship with his wife is cold and guilt-ridden. Judged by middle class morality, Halvard is not a very nice man.

But he has another side. He is a talented builder, a commanding individual who exudes confidence, authority and genius in his field. He is also a dreamer whose relations with young women or at least Hilde Wangel go beyond sexual attraction. It is indeed a mythical attraction that transcends mere human desire. It is a search for youth, achievement and scaling the heights, in this case by the placing of a wreath on a vane on top of a building.

When he has accomplished that difficult feat, he will tell God that he has become a free man, a master in his own kingdom. In other words Halvard has become a god. The Greeks had a word for this: hubris. The dream of transcendental love with a young woman and supernatural ambition can only lead to utter destruction.

I write all of this about Solness as a way of describing the achievement of Ralph Fiennes. His Solness combines all the above characteristics. He may have defects but everything is bigger than life. It takes a great actor to portray a tragic hero like Solness and Fiennes does a great job.

The supporting cast is superb. Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel combines dreamy ambitions, admiration, adoration and hero-worship on a grand scale as she impels Solness towards impossible deeds. She looks like a nymph, a goddess, a troll who can make a god or a toy out of a man.      

Linda Emond as Solness’s wife Aline is a sad and tormented mortal who cannot understand her husband. She had two children who died and their nurseries are still kept as if they will return. Emond gives us a sympathetic and troubled Aline who is simply on a different wavelength from her husband however guilty he may feel about the state of his marriage.

Fiennes’ portrayal and this production of The Master Builder should go down as one of the major moments in the history of the great play.   

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen adapted by David Hare continues until March 19, 2016 at The Old Vic, London, England.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


James Karas

There is no play by D. H. Lawrence called Husbands and Sons but if go to the National Theatre in London you will see parts of three of his plays performed together on the same stage. Ben Power has taken A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd and adapted them so that each play can be performed in a different area of the stage. We jump from the story of one family to the other seamlessly and the three stories are told fully.

The result is riveting theatre as we get a terrifying picture of life in a coal mining community in northern England early in the twentieth century. It reflects on the roots of Lawrence himself whose father and grandfather were miners.
The Company of Husbands & Sons. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Lizzie Holroyd (Anne-Marie Duff) is married to Charlie (Martin Marquez) an abusive and foulmouthed drunkard who picks fights and comes home beaten up. He is unbearable. She has the electrician Blackmore (Philip McGinley) visiting and he says he is in love with her. She is torn between loyalty to her husband and attraction to Blackmore.

Walter Lambert (Lloyd Hutchinson) is another drunk. His wife Lydia (Julia Ford) must deal with him and her two children: her growing daughter Nellie (Tala Gouveia) and her son Ernest (Johnny Gibbon) who goes to college and is in love with Maggie (Cassie Bradley).

In the Gascoigne family, Minnie (Louise Brealey) despises her husband Luther (Joe Armstrong) because he is a gutless lump of coal. He is in trouble because he has left a woman pregnant and her mother wants to hush up the whole thing for a price.

These are the central conflicts that the three families face. Even though the title of the play is Husbands and Sons the most powerful and interesting characters are women. Anne-Marie Duff is outstanding as Mrs. Holroyd who has endured physical and emotional abuse and cannot tear herself away from her husband.
 Anne-Marie Duff. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Julia Ford as Mrs. Lambert is a woman that must endure the pain of separation from her son who confides in and wants to be with his girlfriend to the exclusion of his mother. Her husband feels left out and is accordingly bitter.

Louise Brealey gives a tough and snappy Minnie. She wants her husband to be a man and not a dishrag and goes to great efforts to change him. Mrs. Gascoigne (Susan Brown), Luther’s mother is another tower of strength who must deal with a rebellious daughter-in-law and her two sons.

The cast provides powerful, dramatic and moving performances. What at first blush appears like an impossible attempt to put the stories of the three families on stage at once and rotate the action among them, turns out to be a triumph of staging, directing and performance.

Director Marianne Elliott does a masterful job of creating the tense and dramatic atmosphere of the mining community, the love, the abuse, the fear, the pain and the struggle to survive.

Lawrence’s plays are rarely seen. This production should act as a sharp reminder to theater companies that they are denying us the chance to see some extraordinary drama.   

Husbands and Sons adapted by Ben Power from D. H. Lawrence’s A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd continues at the Dorfman Theatre in the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was first seen in 1965 and has become an entrenched classic of the British theatre. It has been revived for its 50th anniversary by Jamie Lloyd in a production that seeks to distance itself from previous stagings and yet retain the power and complexity of the play.

The result is largely favourable.

On the surface the play has the simplest of plots. Teddy and his wife Ruth are visiting his home in north London after an absence of six years. Teddy’s family consists of his father Max, his brothers Lenny and Joey as well as his uncle Sam. Teddy is teaching philosophy in America and the homecoming will reveal a number of plot complexities and character issues to keep one fascinated for hours.
 Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Gemma Chan in 'The Homecoming'. [Photo:Marc Brenner]
Max, played with subliminal and then actual viciousness by Ron Cook, is a retired butcher who molds the past to suit his present mood. He idolizes his late wife one moment and calls her a slut the next. His best friend Mac had an affair with her including encounters in the back seat of Sam’s limo. He seems to have doubts about the paternity of his children and was almost certainly sexually inadequate. Cook with his face looking red like a piece of meat gives an outstanding performance.

Lenny (John Slim) dresses in a three-piece suit and tries to speak in elevated tones. His real character emerges through the patina of politeness: he is a pimp and a murderer. Joey (John MacMillan) is a would-be-boxer who has been punched on the head far more times than his brain can withstand. He attempts to have sex with his brother’s wife and fails miserably.

The frightful family is rounded off by Max’s brother Sam (Keith Allen) who is a prissy limo driver and may have had sex with his sister-in-law. Pinter’s plot is always opaque and no one should forget that he is treading on quicksand.

Gary Kemp as Teddy looks older than his brothers and he is just as inept at establishing a relationship with his wife as the others are in establishing one among themselves.

The central figure of the play is Ruth (Gemma Chan). She is attractive, distant, fetching, available and mysterious. She is a woman from the neighborhood who seems to have come from another world.
Lenny starts dancing with and kissing her and Joey lies on top of her in front of everyone. Chan maintains her mystery and manages to establish complete dominance over the men in a repulsive manner. She becomes a prostitute-goddess as she starts ordering the men around as if they were her slaves. An astonishing and subtle performance by Chan.

The stage by designer Soutra Gilmour has a pitch-black background with a red floor and several pieces of furniture. The centre piece is Max’s easy chair which in the end is turned into Ruth’s throne for the vassals to adore and obey her. Very effective.

Sound Designer George Dennis has inserted loud and extremely annoying rock music at the beginning and several other spots in the production. No doubt he had his reasons for doing so and annoying the audience was not one of them. He should have controlled the impulse.          

The Homecoming deserves close attention to every line of dialogue, every pause and every gesture. It is an inexhaustible play. This production pays attention to and captures many of its subtleties.

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter continues until February 13, 2016 at the Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY

Monday, January 25, 2016


James Karas

Martin McDonagh has created quite a niche for himself as a playwright. His specialty is violence and black humour. Neither element is in short supply in the theatre but McDonagh reaches such heights in quantity and quality of both that you walk out of the theatre after seeing his latest play, Hangmen, saying such brilliant words like “wow” or can “can you believe that?”

Let’s look at the opening scene of Hangmen. A young man named Hennessy (Josef Davies) is in a prison cell and the hangman Harry (David Morrissey) and his assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) arrive where two guards are waiting with the prisoner. Harry is there to hang Hennessy who, not surprisingly, protests his innocence.

Harry tells the “lad” quite matter of factly that things will go easier if he does not make a fuss. Hennessy replies that of course he will make a fuss. The audience roars.
 Andy Nyman as Syd and David Morrissey as Harry. Photo Alastair Muir
As the guards try to subdue the victim, he complains about not getting the best one in the business but being assigned a rubbish hangman. Laughter again.

Harry tells him to relax and it will all be easier for him. It won’t be easier, retorts Hennessy, because he will be dead.

Harry whacks Hennessy across the head with his Billy club; a noose is put around his neck and the floorboards open letting him drop through.  Job done, the hanging crew goes for breakfast.

McDonagh maintains this juxtaposition of utter cruelty and blackest humour throughout the play.

The play is set in 1963 when capital punishment was nearing its end in Great Britain. But for Harry there is a far more important issue than losing his calling: he will have to settle for second-best hangman. Arthur (Simon Rouse) executed far more people and there is no way Harry can catch up with him and join the pantheon as numero uno.

Physical violence is only one tool in McDonagh’s panoply. The other tool is language. He uses a language that is virulent, scatological, threatening, funny, outrageous as if it were a sharp switchblade in the hands of an expert and remorseless criminal.

 The cast of Hangmen in the bar. Photo copyright Helen Maybanks 

Except for the first scene in the prison, the play takes place in a pub owned by Harry and his wife Alice (Sally Rogers). The discussions and perhaps celebrations about the last hanging and the regret about its abolition are disturbed by the arrival of Mooney (Johnny Flynn) a “stranger” to the region who knows a great deal about the last execution. To make things worse, Harry’s young daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James) goes missing, Mooney is implicated in her disappearance and if you thought the first scene was enjoyable, you are in for another treat.        

Hangmen, directed with great skill by Matthew Dunster, struck me not so much as a play about capital punishment, people of interesting, let’s say psychotic, moral fiber or appalling criminal injustice. All of those elements amount to very little compared to the impact of the performance. It may be something like a violent hurricane or a tsunami: a force hits you and you are left stunned.

The performances are pitch-perfect and the experience of seeing the play simply unforgettable.

A footnote: the play takes place in northern England and most of the characters are from there. They speak with an accent that is so thick and use words that even the Oxford English Dictionary may have missed, such that I found myself following the flow of what was said rather than having actual comprehension of some of the dialogue. Hennessy has the same problem with them. Just before he is bludgeoned and hanged, he complains that Harry can’t “talk normal” and yet he is hanging an innocent man.

If the play is ever produced in Canada, they may have to provide a glossary of unknown words if not simultaneous translation.  

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh continues at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, England. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016


James Karas

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, seems to have struck gold with Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata. It has been reviving it every other season since then with great success and every major soprano and tenor seem to have sung the leading roles. For the current season they have assembled three casts for the principal roles and the opera will be performed fourteen times.

Venera Gimadieva as Violetta in Richard Eyre's Royal Opera production of La Traviata, 2016. Photo by Tristram Kenton
Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva makes her debut at the Royal Opera House as Violetta and will sing most of the performances and perhaps rightly so. The night I saw her she brought the house down. Her voice is big enough to dominate the Royal Opera House with its lyrical beauty and passionate tones. When she cries, we weep as she goes from the exaltation of love to a devastating death scene where only false hope remains and it is followed by death.

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as her lover Alfredo Germont was a match and a foil for Gimadieva. He has a limber voice that scaled up easily with nice control and display of emotion. The final encounter and reconciliation with Violetta was splendidly moving.   

Luca Salsi made his Royal Opera debut as Giorgio Germont, the father who destroys Violetta’s and his son Alfredo’s love for the sake of his daughter’s happiness. He must exude sympathy and humanity to gain our grudging approval especially when he tells her that she can always find somebody else to love. Verdi steps in to help with “Purra siccome un angelo”, a poignant affirmation of paternal love and the even more moving “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” with which he tries to convince his son to leave Violetta for the sake of family love and duty. You need a singer with vocal resonance but also emotional conviction to persuade us of the rightness of his cause. Salsi does it all.   
The sets by Designer Bob Crowley consist of a gorgeous salon in Violetta’s house at the beginning and a stunning gambling table and sculptured ceiling in Flora’s house. The country house after Violetta’s salon and her bedroom in the final scene are of necessity threadbare. 

There have been innumerable productions of Traviata since the premiere of Eyre’s staging. From Zeffirelli’s over-the-top opulence, to Jean-Francois Sivadier’s dark, minimalist approach to Willy Decker’s dazzling “clock” staging, La Traviata has covered a lot of ground.

Eyre’s production can best be described as traditional and that is meant as a high compliment. Non-traditional approaches can vary from the brilliant approach to directorial self-indulgence. Eyre and the current cast with the brilliant playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Yves Abel and Royal Opera Chorus bring an outstanding night at the opera even after repeated viewings.
La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on January 16 and will be performed fourteen times until March 19, 2016 at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, U.K. It will be shown live in cinemas on February 4, 2016.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


James Karas

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first produced more than thirty years ago but the play has lost none of its bite and cruelty as evidenced by the current staging at the Donmar Warehouse. Christopher Hampton adapted Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel for the stage and gave us a frightful portrait of the French nobility before the French Revolution.

The 251-seat Donmar provides an intimacy that is impossible to achieve in a larger theatre and the audience gets to watch every grimace and facial expression of the actors. The cast, directed by Josie Rourke, is worth watching for every nuance that they bring to the performance.

Dominic West and Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Photograph: Johan Persson
The production has Janet McTeer in the lead role of La Marquise de Merteuil and the play is worth seeing for her performance alone. The statuesque McTeer (she is taller than everyone one else in the cast) is a complex Marquise who has thrown off the shackles of an 18th century woman and replaced them with personal freedom and assertiveness. She refuses to succumb to any man and uses men for her pleasure, for revenge and perhaps for the sake of cruelty. She is conniving, intelligent, deceitful and remorseless. McTeer gives a defining and brilliant performance as a woman who destroys several lives in the game of her life and after all that, intends to simply continue.

The opposite of La Marquise is Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy), a woman of religious faith, marital fidelity and moral principles. The Vicomte de Valmont, the Marquise’s partner, targets her for conquest because of her principles and does not relent until he seduces her and destroys her. Cassidy’s Madame de Tourvel is beautiful, reserved but sensual underneath her façade of propriety and in the end falls in love with Valmont.

Valmont is the tool that the Marquise uses for fun and vengeance (mostly against him) and Domenic West does a good job in the role. He has the braggadocio to seduce the 15-year old Cecile (the beautiful Morfydd Clark) and de Tourvel but he lacked the edge of cruelty that the character must display however subtly. He is a victim of the Marquise, of course, and he does fall in love with de Tourvel but neither his viciousness nor his love are well displayed.

Edward Holcroft plays the innocent, sexually clueless and dumb Chevalier Danceny who has to be shoved into intercourse with Cecile and becomes the Marquise’s toy boy. Unfortunately Holcroft did not look or act these characteristics. He is simply too mature for the role.
Clark’s Cecile was the epitome of beauty, innocence and blooming sexuality. The child that was educated in a convent is tutored to become another Marquise.

Adjoa Andon played Madame de Volanges, Cecile’s mother and did a fine job except for, on occasion, moving her head a bit too vigorously when speaking.     

The play moves from the city to rooms in the house in the country and requires quick set changes. The sets are kept to a minimum with a couple of couches, some paintings and a harpsichord. All are moved around quickly by the cast with minimal interruption to the development of the plot.

Despite some shortcomings, this is a marvelous production of a fascinating play.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton continues at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London, England.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

Pericles has had a rough ride since it was first produced around 1608 at the Globe Theatre. Its fate has swung from one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s (and collaborator George Wilkins’) plays to one of the most ignored. It has joined the repertoire for the time being and suffice it to say that it has its admirers and its detractors as a theatrical piece.

I confess that I have not been able to warm up to its episodic plot of storms at sea and the dead coming back to life. And who can keep a straight face about Marina’s escapades and Pericles’ adventures around the eastern Mediterranean.

James Garnon as Pericles with Jessica Baglow as Marina. Photo: Marc Brenner
Shakespeare’s Globe has fearlessly staged a production of the play in the small Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. It may be as good as one can get.

Pericles is introduced by the rather tiresome Gower, the Chorus. He appears at the beginning of each act and he is perhaps essential to keep us on route in the travelogue through the years. Gower is played by Sheila Reid who, I want to be polite, can be heard most of the time and perhaps that is enough for the role.

James Garmon makes a muscular, assertive and fine Pericles. By the end of the play he appears tired and after what he has been through, no wonder. Dorothea Myer-Bennett plays the appreciative Dionyza who later turns murderous, and the lovely Thaisa. Jessica Baglow plays the saintly goody two-shoes Marina, the daughter of Pericles, who is abducted by nasty pirates, ends up in a brothel and comes out virtuous and angelic.

After Pericles is washed up on the shore of Pentapolis and the waves bring in his armour, he goes to the court of King Simonides (Simon Armstrong). A number of knights contend for the hand of Thaisa and the notable part about the scene is the noise that Dromgoole generates. Clanging, screaming yelling. There are a number of loud noises like that throughout the evening.

The set of Designer Jonathan Fensum is minimal. The most outstanding feature is the use of chandeliers. The Playhouse has an Upper Level and many of the spectators were forced to find the actors and the action through the chandeliers. You had to bend backward, lean forward, and stretch sideways to see the action on the stage below. The theatre is supposed to represent a 17th century indoor playhouse but Dromgoole or someone else should have glanced at what it looks like from the upper level.

This was not a fortuitous situation for changing my opinion about the play. Too many ingredients did not work to make the evening at the theatre a success.

I should mention in fairness that most of the audience seemed to react more positively than I did but they probably did not have to contend with a chandelier.

Pericles Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins continues until April 24, 2016 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London.


James Karas

Polly Findlay has directed a bleak and darkly beautiful production of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s best comedies of love. As You Like It takes place in two distinct worlds: the city and the country. It starts with treachery and usurpation of power in the city and ends with the triumph of love and marriage in the Forest of Arden with some gray areas in between.
Patsy Ferran and Rosalie Craig. Photo:Jojann Persson 
The city for Findlay and Set Designer Lizzie Clachan is a large office full of desks and other furniture. Orlando (Joe Bannister), the younger son of an aristocrat, is mistreated by older brother Oliver (Philip Arditti), is denied his inheritance and is forced to clean the furniture with a sprayer. The same set serves as the scene in the house of Duke Frederick (Leo Wringer) who seized power from his brother Duke Senior (John Ramm) and exiled him in the forest. Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind was spared because she is a friend of the usurper’s daughter Celia. But Ferdinand changes his mind and throws her out as well. The two girls leave the evil palace for the forest together.

We all go to the Forest of Arden and Findlay has the engineers of the National hoist all the furniture above the playing area. All the pieces are tied together and the change from city to forest is quite dramatic.
The furniture hovering over the actors is black as is the rest of the stage. This forest is bleak, cold, forbidding and unpleasant. We hear the sounds of animals that may be natural to the forest and perhaps threatening. At one point the chorus comes out on all fours wearing woolen sweaters. The flock of sheep has arrived.

The desks and chairs of the city and the dreary forest perhaps tell us that people and life are the same everywhere? It may be but by the end of the play Oliver and Duke Frederick, the bad guys, will be transformed into decent people, order will be reestablished and the sun will shine.

Findlay assembled a first rate cast for her dramatic conception of the play for this production. Rosalie Craig as Rosalind and Patsy Ferran as Celia made a fine team of friends who interacted superbly with each other and the other characters. The delivery of Shakespeare’s language by them and the rest of the cast was outstanding. Clear, resonant, pitch-perfect.

Touchstone the clown (Mark Benton) and the melancholy Jaques (Paul Chahidi) are always interesting characters to watch. Benton with his generous physique was very funny and Chalidi gave us a sympathetic outsider with a fine delivery of the Seven Ages speech.

The country folk were entertaining. Siobhan McSweeney was a lively and randy Audrey, Gemina Lawrence, a spitfire Phoebe and Ken Nwosu made a bouncy Silvius.   

Findlay staged the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (a beefy Leon Annor) like something from the World Wrestling Entertainment. Charles wore a gold cape and his supporters were screaming and howling with excessive zeal. It did not quite match the mood of the rest of the production but it was fun.

Findlay has added a chorus which sings some songs (music by Orlando Gough) and it is all very pleasant.

The director delivers a well thought out production with a personal perspective that is interesting, successful and very much worth seeing.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare continues until March 5 2016 at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Monday, January 18, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

If one were to use the number of productions of an opera by the Metropolitan Opera, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers would have to be declared extinct. The last time the Met staged this work was 100 years ago. There were other opera companies that kept the opera on life support in some places and even alive in others.

The Met has spared no expense or expertise in its current production which was beamed to the world as if New York were doing penance for its century-long neglect.

When the orchestra strike the first chords of the score, the massive curtain of Lincoln Canter goes up revealing two divers underwater. Beams of sunlight stream into the blue sea in a stunning illusion of an underwater scene and a display of technical know-how.

A scene from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.         
The Pearl Fishers needs four singers and places much work on the shoulders of the chorus. The superb Diana Damrau sings the role of the beautiful, virginal priestess Leila who comes to the pearl fishers’ camp to pray and dispel the demons of the sea that may threaten their diving. Praying with such a gorgeous voice would attract the good demons who will guard against the nasty ones.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings the role Nadir with ease and assurance as if he were a crooner. Nadir is paired with Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) his childhood friend, with whom he swore to stay away from a beautiful priestess that they both fell in love with. Kwiecien has a fine voice but he does not quite have the presence that the role calls for. In the first minutes of the opera, he is seen handing out notes to the people and then calls for the election of a leader. He is “elected” unanimously. The bribery is no doubt a bit of humour inserted by director Penny Woolcock but that does not make Zurga look more than just one of the people. Not that important, of course, because his relationship with Leila and Nadir is the focal point of the opera.

And, yes, Polenzani and Kwiecien do a fine job in the deliciously melodic duet “Au fond du temple saint.”

Bass Nicolas Testé sings the role of the sombre Nourabad who catches Nadir and Leila breaking their vows. The Met chorus is at its best.

Costumes by Kevin Pollard vary from traditional Indian attire to saris, to baseball caps, sports shirts, turbans, Bermuda shorts, pants and probably other pieces that I did not notice. Two men go through the crowd wearing black suits and shirts and the only thig missing was the white collar to make them look like priests. The opera is set in the present, I guess, and we are somewhere in Asia.

The set by Dick Bird is a mass of steps, platforms and scaffolds that on the big screen seemed almost impassable.

The entire production takes place at night and we see the singers when the light zeroes in on them. There is singing and dancing and moments of happiness and I am not sure why Woolcock has decided that darkness serves the opera best.

In addition to the striking opening scene of the divers, there are projections of violent waves which perhaps justify the fishers’ fear of the sea and the elements.

Nadir and Leila are condemned to death and the crowd is pleased at the prospect of a double execution. But Zurga finds a way of distracting the people by setting their camp on fire.  Don’t pay attention to details but Zurga starts with bribery and ends with arson. On the bright side, the distraction allows the lovers to escape and we will never know Zurga’s fate.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Gianandrea Noseda are at their best in delivering Bizet’s lush and highly approachable melodies.

Musically and vocally, a superb production. The set and lighting may look better in the opera house than on the screen where you see details but not the full picture. The real question is: what took the Met so long to bring back a highly viable opera in a highly enjoyable production.

The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet was transmitted Live in HD on January 16, 2016 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, Ontario and other theatres across Canada.  It will be shown again at select theatres on February 20, 22 and 24, 2016. For more information:

Thursday, January 14, 2016


James Karas

Within the Glass, Anna Chatterton’s new play is roller coaster of emotional outbursts dealing with the highly sensitive issue of in vitro fertilization. An egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body and the resulting embryo is transferred into the uterus of the mother or a surrogate

The procedure is fraught with emotional and legal issues especially if the embryo is transferred to a woman who will carry the embryo to term. 
 Rick Roberts, Philippa Domville, Nicola Correia-Damude and Paul Braunstein. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
Michael (Rick Roberts) and Darah (Philippa Domville) are a successful couple who live in a well-appointed house. She has been unable to conceive a child naturally and they have resorted to in vitro fertilization without success.

In their last effort, the clinic mixed up their embryo with that of Scott (Paul Braunstein) and his wife Linda (Nicola Correia-Damude). Darah’s pregnanacy was unsuccessful but Linda is carrying Darah’s and Scott’s fetus. (They make a great distinction between “child” and “fetus”.                     

When the play opens the two couples are about to meet for the first time to sort things out. Michael and Darah’s emotions are stretched to the breaking point as they rush around in extremis while expecting Linda and Scott. There is “a problem” to put it very mildly, indeed there are many problems. Linda, as the carrier of the embryo” has become attached to it and wants to keep the child. The words “abortion” and “adoption” are mentioned as the two couples engage in vehement and volatile arguments.   

The emotional extremes are pushed even further with Michal becoming attracted to Linda while her husband is fuming and wants nothing to do with the fetus or the situation. He is an outsider to the whole situation with his wife becoming attached to someone else’s fetus/child.

The complex and raw emotions involved in IVF and surrogacy may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Add to that the grotesque error of placing the embryo in another woman’s uterus and the situation becomes monumentally explosive.

Within the Glass has numerous emotional spikes where the actors perform at fever pitch. Chatterton has to somewhat stretch her material to fill the ninety minutes that the play lasts. There is some well-placed humour but I would have preferred a slower build up to fewer climactic scenes.

Rick Roberts and Philippa Domville are nervous wrecks as they rush around trying to survive an awkward and frightful situation for them. They want a child and after a few miscarriages they are near the end of their endurance.

Correia-Damude’s Linda has her own issues with the sanctity of life, her emotional attachment to the fetus and her legal rights. Scott seems to be a misconstrued character. He is supposed to be a poet which should indicate emotional sensitivity and verbal skills. He comes out like a duffus who should be driving a truck.

Andrea Donaldson directs the play at a brisk speed and she does not understate any emotional reaction.  The production may have gained if more restraint were shown but the issues addressed are so devastatingly emotional for the people involved in real life and the characters of the play, that some of us may simply be unable to appreciate.

Go see the play.    

Within the Glass by Anna Chatterton opened on January 13 and will play until February 14, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


James Karas

Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and titular victor of the Trojan War is back. In fact he has never really left us since Homer sang of him in The Iliad and Aeschylus put him on stage in his famous Oresteia trilogy in 458 B.C.

Nicolas Billon gives us a modern version of the story in his play Agamemnon now playing at the Factory Theatre in a staging by Theatreworks Production and the Agamemnon Collective as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival.
Clytemnestra ready for her Agamemnon. Photo: Tanja Tiziana
Billon is reasonably faithful to the myth while providing some marvelous and often very funny twists. Agamemnon’s family is utterly dysfunctional. Aside from Agamemnon, the central figure of the play is his wife Clytemnestra (Brigit Wilson). She is a put-upon mother with troubled and troublesome children who kept a goofy lover in the house while her husband was away for ten years killing Trojans. Beneath the ditzy surface she is a bitter woman whose daughter Iphigenia was sacrificed by her husband. She has an axe to grind.

Wilson gives a fine performance bringing out the funny, ridiculous and in the end murderous aspect of one of the most infamous characters in drama.

Nigel Shawn Williams as Agamemnon is regular army. Back straight, impeccably pressed uniform, he is the victor who comes home from the war bringing Cassandra (Samantha Brown), an orphan Trojan girl. He may have done an act of chivalry or more likely brought home a war trophy.   

Clytemnestra’s other daughter, Chrysothemis (Susanna Fournier), is a spoiled brat who does whatever she wants. A good, bitchy part in which Fournier does excellent work.

Billon brings the ghost of Iphigenia (Zita Nyarady) into the play. She is a silent character on stilts who hovers over the action unseen by the other people. We will see more of the ghosts that haunt the house of Atreus.

Ron Kennell is hilarious as the prancing Aegisthus. He is Clytemnestra’s lover who searches for his dildo and finds it under the cushion of the couch. There is quite a hilarious contrast between him and the mighty Agamemnon.

Daughter Electra (Amy Keating) is retarded and she sits in front of a TV playing video games throughout. She is a pathetic sight and we do not know the reason for her condition.

There is a gentle Old Man (Earl Pastko) who dozes off in an easy chair. He is a former aide de camp of Agamemnon and perhaps what is left of the old order. In Aeschylus’s play the Chorus is made up of the city elders and the Old Man is perhaps a remnant of that.

The set by Shannon Lea Doyle is a simple living room with a large couch and some other pieces of furniture. The lighting is varied and there are projections to suggest the supernatural in the hovering of the ghost.

The performance lasts less than an hour as director Sarah Kitz imposes a brisk pace. That is a very quick retelling of the famous myth which leaves much room for more depth and complexity. It is nevertheless a welcome and interesting version of a classic tale that takes us back to the fountainhead of Western literature and drama.

As to what happened to Agamemnon and Cassandra, you may want to recall the famous poem about what Lizzie Borden did to her father and stepmother.  

Agamemnon  by Nicolas Billon will run until January 17, 2016 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.