Monday, January 30, 2017


The Last Wife is Kate Hennig’s imaginary recreation of the relationship of Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, his last wife. But this is no period drama with 16th century costumes and English accents. There is a model of Hampton Court Palace hovering over the stage but the characters wear modern dress and speak in current colloquial English in their Ontario accent.

Hennig has grafted twenty-first century language, issues and attitudes onto early modern characters without much attempt at historical accuracy. But in many respects, she is faithful to the characters.

Jonah Q. Gribble, Maev Beaty, Joseph Ziegler and Bahia Watson, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The corpulent Henry VIII is played by slim Joseph Ziegler. The statuesque and passionate Katherine is played by Maev Beaty. Henry is an exemplar of the absolute monarch. Capricious, dictatorial, selfish, egotistical and amoral, he does not need any scruples and can and does order people killed almost on a whim. He feels he is entitled to do whatever he wants with very little in the way of legal or moral constraint.

Hennig tries to show a humane side to Henry but that only happens when one agrees with him.

Parr is an intelligent and beautiful woman. She must use all her wiles to survive in a patriarchal society run by men, especially one man. She is in love with her relative Thom (Gareth Potter) but when Henry “asks” her to marry him she has no choice but to dump him. Thom is dispatched out of the country. She shows genuine love for Henry but tries to be more than a pawn in his hands. She has some influence but in the end her only weapon seems to be her sexual attraction.

Hennig dramatizes Henry’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth as modern teenagers and his son Edward as a youngster. Mary shows characteristics that will gain her the moniker Bloody when she becomes queen and Elizabeth gets better press because she will become the great queen.

Beaty and Ziegler give superb performances representing somewhat fictionalized historical figures in a completely different milieu. Ziegler does not look, talk or dress like Henry VIII. He is a tyrant who issues a death warrant for his wife because he disagreed with her. The sixteenth century Henry did just that but there is a problem with Hennig’s setting of the play with that happening.

The fight for women’s rights was perhaps as cogent then as it has been in the past century but I doubt if it was expressed the way Parr does in the play. Elizabeth became queen eleven years after Henry’s death but in the mindset of the day one can hardly claim a big leap forward in women’s rights. Hennig imposes a different mindset on these people that if it existed, was in its nascent form and developed slowly over the next century. In Canada, the Supreme Court ruled in 1928 that a woman is not a person eligible to sit in the Senate.

My fascination with the historical context of the play and the issues were reduced by the context. Once past that, you will found a piece of theatre that is well acted, well directed and very much worth seeing.

The Last Wife premiered in the Studio Theatre as part of the 2015 Stratford Festival with the same cast.           

The Last Wife by Kate Hennig continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


James Karas

The Wedding Party credits Kristen Thomson as the playwright but we are informed that the play is based on characters created with Trish Lindstrom, Tony Nappo, Moya O’Connell, Tom Rooney and Bahia Watson. This could be described uncharitably as a play created by a committee or a marvelous venture into experimental character creation shaped into a play by Thompson.

A pretty woman with big breasts from a working class background is marrying a man from a wealthy family. We do not hear about his sexual organ presumably because if you have money size does not matter. We never see the young couple so the size I mentioned is straight from the play.
Kristen Thomson, Tom Rooney and Jason Cadieux in one of their many roles in The Wedding Party.
We have six actors (Jason Cadieux, Virgilia Griffith, Trish Lindström, Moya O'Connell, Tom Rooney and Kristen Thomson) represent what looks like a horde of characters that make up the guests of the wedding party. The action takes place in the reception area and in the dining room of the posh hall where the wedding takes place.

We have parents, grandparents, siblings and friends acted by the six actors with some very fast costume changes and with considerable demands on them to change demeanor and speech patterns for the vastly different characters and situation.

The bride’s mother is a low-life lush who gets progressively more soused until her condition causes the inevitable altercation. The groom’s father is an officious snob who does not approve of the bride because she is on a lower rung of the social ladder than his family. Grandma is nuts and there are some obnoxious loudmouths, an uncle who shows up dressed in gym clothes and a cousin of the groom who drinks too much and is dressed as if he were going to a ball game. And let’s not forget the family dog which is treated like a person and the magician Vlad.

How do people behave at a wedding?  This is a happy occasion and everybody has to be happy or act as if they are happy and let everyone know that they are happy. Happiness does not mean inner serenity and contentment but loudly expressed jollity and emotional expression that ranges from the maudlin to the ecstatically ebullient. Some of the happiness is expressed in bad jokes but we are supposed to join in the agony and the ecstasy if I may coin a phrase

Fissures in the family fabric appear. The father of the groom has an identical twin brother whom he has not seen for ten years appear with his son Tiger, the lout. The bride’s mother becomes more obnoxious with the consumption of alcohol until all hell breaks loose.

Is it enjoyable? Mostly. The characters and the situations that the group created are rendered so well that they appear all too real. If you saw these people at a real wedding you will sidle away from them and go for a drink at the free bar. You don’t want to watch them or listen to their idiocies.

The twin brothers are played by the same actor and they cannot be on stage at the same time.  Our credulity is stretched.  The Menaechmi Twins, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, among other plays, have covered much of the ground available for mistaken identity of twins and Thomson and Co. have very little to add to it.

The nippy speed of the actors and their innate comic talent in representing an array of characters at breakneck speed go some way in rescuing the production. Director Chris Abraham had his hands full orchestrating and directing the traffic alone of the six members of the cast.

The set by Julie Fox managed to suggest a posh hall with a few well-chosen pieces of furniture. Ming Wong’s costumes are just what you would expect to find at a wedding that is from the simple and fashionable to the gauche.

The production is by Crow’s Theatre and Talk is Free Theatre in the spanking new theatre at Carlaw and Dundas. This is the former factory district that has been revamped into spanking new condos. And it is in the east end of Toronto, an area where theatres are about as plentiful as oases in the desert. A great step forward.

The Wedding Party by Kristen Thomson continues until February 11, 2017 at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


James Karas

The Audience, Peter Morgan’s play about the weekly visits of the Prime Ministers of England with Queen Elizabeth II has been brought to Toronto for a Canadian production. It is a largely successful staging directed by Christopher Newton with Fiona Reid in the lead role.

What the Prime Minister and Her Majesty say during their visits is confidential but that has not deterred Morgan from writing a highly entertaining and intelligent play. The conversations may be fictitious but we are prepared to accept them as probable.

The play premiered in 2013 by which time Elizabeth had twelve Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, “The Dirty Dozen” as she calls them. The play dramatizes her audience with eight of them. The original play had Prime Minister James Callaghan make a very short appearance and did not include the wily Tony Blair. In this production, Callaghan is omitted and Blair (Kevin Klassen) is included.
 Evan Buliung and Fiona Reid in THE AUDIENCE ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
 Fiona Reid is one of our finest actors especially in comic roles and her performance is highly credible. She manages a good English accent and her Elizabeth is imperious, humble, witty, intelligent and touching. The Queen is sympathetic to Harold Wilson (Nigel Bennett), withstands the onslaught of Margaret Thatcher (Kate Hennig), tries to strike a deal with Winston Churchill (John B. Lowe) and defends her position as being consecrated by the grace of God and realizes that she may be no more than a postage stamp with a pulse. That is quite a range and if it is not accurate, so be it. We are watching a play and not a history lesson.

All of that is well and good but there was one inexplicable and annoying mannerism by Reid. She kept looking to her left while her visitors were sitting on her right. I could not figure out why she was doing it unless there was a script somewhere and she was checking her lines. Director Christopher Newton should take care of this.

The Prime Ministers would speak in posh and not so posh English accents except for Benedict Campbell who played the Scottish Gordon Brown. Campbell is a superb actor with a powerful voice but the Scottish brogue that he attempted did not sound very Scottish. In fairness some of the other actors were less than perfect but one should and we did make allowances.

The cast of THE AUDIENCE ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
We are led to believe that Harold Wilson, for whom the queen seems to have some affection as much as she is permitted to show in the circumstances, was a favourite of hers and of course Morgan draws a sympathetic picture of the Labour leader. He has risen from the lower classes but he and the Queen find some common ground that may seem unlikely between Her Majesty and her Prime Minister. Wilson admits to smoking a pipe in public to appear folksy and approachable while he really puffs cigars in private. During his second scene with the Queen he discloses to her that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A fine job by Nigel Bennett.
Hennig’s Thatcher is what all her detractors see her as: a pitiless woman who wanted to change society and make people self-reliant and richer, grasping individuals with no regard for anyone else. The Good Samaritan is remembered only because he had money, according to the Iron Lady.       

The set by Christina Poddubiuk is monumental without being posh, in the large reception room in Buckingham Palace and suitable in the scenes at Balmoral Palace.

Christopher Newton does a good job in directing what is to some extent a straightforward play of duets without failing to give us variations on the encounters. The royal families of England seem to provide an endless supply of plot for movies and plays and I found myself enjoying this one.

The Audience by Peter Morgan continues until February 26, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto, ON, M5V 1H9.

Friday, January 20, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is an intricate and intriguing play that has all the hallmarks of its creator’s work. There is the undercurrent of violence, the uncertainty about truth and fantasy, the pauses, the shifting quicksand where ambiguity is certainty.

We find two men in a large room that looks rather forbidding and has only two chairs and a well-stocked bar. They just met in a pub in Hampstead and the house belongs to Hirst (Patrick Stewart). He is smartly dressed and appears to be a man of means.

The guest Spooner (Ian McKellen) is an elderly man dressed in a frayed and cheap suit wearing an ill-becoming corduroy hat. The two men proceed to drink large quantities of scotch as we listen to them and try get to know them as much or as little as possible because we can never be sure of the veracity of what they are saying.

Damien Molony, Owen Teale, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen
Spooner is a garrulous, erudite and literate poet who collects the beer mugs from the table in a local pub. He is also obsequious towards Hirst, nervous and…well, he has a problem or many problems but we are not sure what they are. He keeps his coat on his arm and talks about leaving but never does.

Hirst is laconic, aristocratic and tolerant of Spooner. But he reacts violently at the mention of his wife and tosses a glass at Spooner. He then falls down on all fours and crawls out of the room.

We then meet Briggs (Owen Teale) and Foster (Damien Molony) a couple of thugs who refer to Hirst as their host and are not friendly towards Spooner. At one time Briggs produces a rope and appears ready to strangle Spooner.         

We pause at the end of the first act. We are watching masterful performances by outstanding actors. Stewart and McKellen can read the menu of a fast-food restaurant and arrest our attention with their resonant voices, their mellifluous intonation and their sheer handling of language.

Pinter’s poetic language and many of the flourishes that he gives the actors come out clearly, meticulously and captivatingly. 

By the end of the first act power seems to have shifted to the two servants, the thugs. When the lights go on for the second act, Spooner is alone and finds the door locked. He muses that he has known this before in a house of silence and strangers.

Now Spooner and Hirst seem to have known each other from their days at Oxford and they begin reminiscing about the good old days, about conquests and adulteries that may have happened or are total fantasies. They speak of dreams, of poetry (they are both poets), of successes.

No Man’s Land was first produced in 1975 with John Gielgud as Spooner and Ralph Richardson as Hirst, directed by Peter Hall. The current production, directed by Sean Mathias, showcases four superb actors, but especially Stewart and McKellen reading each other’s thoughts in unforgettable performances.

Seeing the play on the large screen with close-ups of the actors’ faces one can follow every eye and eyebrow movement and get a much better view of their reactions.

This is theatre at its best.

No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
will be shown again at various Cineplex Cinemas on January 21, 2017. For more information visit

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


James Karas

Sequence by Arun Lakra is a fascinating play that provides mental gymnastics, asks some head-scratching questions and has an interesting structure. You will be intrigued, entertained and made to think but you will not be moved very much.

We first meet Theo (Kevin Bundy) a lanky, self-assured man who considers himself the luckiest person in the world. He is extremely wealthy because he is lucky. He has even written a book about how to improve your luck. How lucky is he? Well, he has guessed the coin toss at Super Bowl games correctly some twenty times and made a tidy sum by betting on it. Most rational people would argue that you can guess a coin toss correctly about fifty per cent of the time. Well, Theo gets it right all the time. He is so lucky, he puts a gun to his head, Russian roulette style, and pulls the trigger. His luck holds. How is that possible?
 Nancy Palk, Ava Jane Markus, Kevin Bundy, Jesse LaVercombe in Sequence (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Mr. Adamson (Jesse LaVercombe) writes a multiple choice test administered by Dr. Guzman (Nancy Palk), a professor and stem cell researcher, and gets all 150 questions wrong. The chances of that happening are so remote as to be beyond rational explanation. Adamson is the antithesis of Theo – he has all the bad luck in the universe. What is the explanation?

Lakra is an ophthalmologist with literary talent. He wrote Sequence in 2013 and the play has been making the rounds since.

There are two plot strands that are developed sequentially on a single set. Theo is approached by Cynthia (Ava Jane Markus), a pregnant woman who has a serious hereditary illness and is afraid that her unborn child might inherit it. She tries to figure out if there is an explanation for Theo’s luck and his reckless conduct.
 Kevin Bundy, Ava Jane Markus in Sequence (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Dr. Guzman wonders if luck is part of our DNA makeup and wants to examine Adamson with a view to discovering the gene that can cause good or bad luck. Adamson prefers religion to scientific research. He believes that everything is God’s work and even if we do not understand why things happen, we must believe that God has his reasons for whatever He does.  

The two plot strands stop and go usually at critical junctures. Theo and Cynthia freeze and Dr. Guzman and Adamson take over and so on. This is interesting but it is also annoying when that plotline is suddenly stopped and we have to go back to the other storyline.

Lakra tries to inject emotion and humanity into the arguments. Cynthia has legitimate concerns and fears about the fate of her child. Dr. Guzman is going slowly blind and needs to find the gene that will stop the disease. Adamson believes in God and is reluctant to provide a blood sample for her research. Unfortunately, none of the four characters become fully sounded human beings. We enjoy the numerous examples of improbable and inexplicable occurrences. There is humour and drama in the play but most of the action is cerebral.

Director Andrea Donaldson keeps a very brisk pace and has the cast that can perform at such velocity. Bundy’s Theo is arrogant, self-possessed and brags about being the luckiest man in the world. Markus’s Cynthia is aggressive, self-assured and at the same time vulnerable. The same can be said of Palk’s and LaVercombe’s characters. 

The set by Jason Hand is a brightly lit room that looks like a pristine lab with an upright ladder to the side. You will also see an open umbrella indoors, hear of Macbeth and of the ancient Greek knucklebones known astragaloi. Good luck to you.

The two-story plotlines meet near the end of the play in an intriguing way and they underscore the arguments made throughout.


Sequence by Arun Lakra opened on January 11, 2017 and will play until February 12, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

A young scientist meets a young woman at a party. She is in the kitchen crying and they strike up a conversation. She is distraught because she broke up with her fiancé two days ago. In one of the fastest hops into bed, she promises him 15 minutes of sex and 45 minutes of crying and they go for it.

In Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre, there is a lot more than merely man-meets woman because the two people have concerns about time that go far beyond the chronological parameters of coitus and bawling.
 Amy Rutherford and Paul Braunstein. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Elliot (Paul Braunstein) is a theoretical physicist working on his doctorate on the question of time. Carmen (Amy Rutherford) is a composer/violinist and time plays a crucial role in her profession. The two marry and have a daughter, Sarah Jean (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) who is a brilliant mathematician but leads an emotionally troubled life.

The play has a fourth character, a violinist (Andrea Tyniec) who appears a number times on stage or behind a translucent  backdrop and plays music by Njo Kong Kie.    

Part of the play is a domestic drama. Carmen becomes pregnant, the couple argue, fight and separate. Sarah Jean in a series of monologues tells some funny and harrowing stories in very salty language about affairs with professors and other men. We see her as an eight-year old throwing a temper tantrum and arguing vociferously. Endicott-Douglas gives a superb performance in this fine role.

Elliot is consumed by his work and his theories about time and he neglects his wife. There are the inevitable arguments and separation. 

Andrea Tyniec. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 
That is only a part of the story. Moskovitch wants to examine a loftier theme and the question of time. Is time just an illusion? Does it exist at all? Is it something like a story from the Bible that we were taught and simply believe in it? Mr. Einstein?

Moscovitch does not take the issue lightly. She retained Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist (Yale, Penn State, Princeton and now The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterloo) as a consultant so we can be sure that what is said about time is mind-blowing if not entirely comprehensible to mere mortals.

Braunstein gives a nuanced performance as the brilliant scientist who is also very much human. Rutherford’s Carmen is more a dissatisfied wife than a brilliant musician. Is the violinist her alter ego on stage? The music no doubt keeps emphasizing the theme of time and structurally takes the play well beyond any idea that it is a domestic drama but I am not sure about its relationship to Carmen.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann 
The set by Teresa Przybylski consists of a white background with horizontal lines that covers the entire stage. Aside from that only a chair and a table are needed. It is very effective.

Ross Manson does a splendid job of directing this co-production of Volcano and Tarragon Theatre of a play that is both complex and approachable.

In the end we don’t learn if time is real or illusory. We are told the fine distinction between the scientific idea of infinity and the religious notion of the same that sees it as eternity. What catches up with Elliot is mortality and if some of us want to consider it illusory or real we can enjoy the real illusion that we have a choice between infinity and eternity.       

Infinity by Hannah Moscovitch continues until January 29, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


James Karas

The Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Theatre Festival presents plays that are innovative, push the boundaries of conventional drama and often are works in progress.

WESTERN, a play with music by Matthew Gorman (text) and Gordon Bolan (music) may have a portion of all those characteristics and faces all the pitfalls of such an  endeavor.

Jocelyn Adema on fiddle and Gordon Bolan on guitars and banjo play a number of songs from “Amazing Grace” to “Someday I will see you in heaven” and provide instrumental accompaniment to some of the action and some sound effects. That is the “with music” part of the title and it does provide a “Western” feel even if the play is set in that milieu only tangentially.

The cast of Western, a play with music.
The play is presented by four actors, two men (Sam Kalileh and Brendan Murray) and two women (Mairi Babb and Caroline Toal). The music, some of the accents, the sheriff with the Stetson and the set suggest that it is set in the West but as far as I could tell it was set in a fantasy world.

The plot and the dialogue are opaque and frequently confusing. There is a murder and a search. There is the story about the rabbit and the search for the murderer but all plot turns are uninteresting or completely forgettable. The fantasy world of the West that Gorman wants to create and portray simply does not come off.

The four characters involved seem to have names according to the programme, but I do not recall hearing them called by their name during the performance. That may be a sign of how much difficulty I had focusing on the action. According to the actors’ biographies part of the programme, Mairi Babb is “Nance”, Sam Kalileh is “Reach,” Brendan Murray is “Dirt” and Caroline Toal is “Jenet.” No doubt the names give clues to the characters but I missed them as I must have missed their names. The cast list in the programme does not indicate what parts the actors play which is annoying.    

WESTERN may well be a play in gestation. Gorman and Bolan no doubt have a vision of the world they want to create in their play and the dramatic effect of their creation. They need to do it more clearly and evocatively so that they share their vision with us.

 WESTERN, a play with music by Matthew Gorman (text) and Gordon Bolan (music), directed by Geoffrey Pounsett will run until January 15, 2017 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.