Wednesday, July 31, 2019

CAKEWALK – REVIEW OF 2019 BLYTH FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

On the cover of its programme the Blyth Festival lets you know exactly what it offers: Live, Original, Canadian, Theatre. That is admirable truth in advertising. The Blyth Festival is in its 45th season and that alone is an admirable achievement.

This year the Festival offers seven productions, two of them world premieres. Colleen Curran’s Cakewalk is listed as an encore but the play had its premiere at the Festival in 1984 so it is very much a Blyth play.
   
Director Kelli Fox describes it as a “deliciously silly comedy” and she is spot on. The play takes place in a small town where the residents are having a festival to celebrate Canada Day. One of the events is a cake contest and the first prize is a trip to Paris. The play is set in the community hall where a few of the cake-making contestants are gathered. We hear the music, announcements and commotion of the festive activities outside.
       The cast of Cakewalk. Photo: Terry Manzo. 
The comedy is built around five contestants and the daughter of one of them who are interesting and just plain funny. Leigh (Rachel Jones) is an attractive and decent teacher who has a distinctive position in society that proves to be problematic – she is a nun. She will face conflicting situations that are awkward and amusing.

The snooty Augusta (Caroline Gillis) is the mother of the about-to-be-married Tiffany (Lucy Hill) and is putting the wedding cake in the contest. Tiffany is a tennis-playing spoiled bimbo who is getting married next day and she does not want her wedding cake in the contest. Lock up the cake, lock up Tiffany, lock up one of the other contestants in the handy closet.      

Martha (Rebecca Auerbach) plays baseball and she comes to the fair in her team uniform because the game was delayed. She gets barbs about her attire but she gives back as much as she takes. We also have the self-righteous, bitchy and nasty Girl Scout den mother Ruby (Catherine Fitch. She is scheming and dishonest, and will do anything to win.

On the nice side of the spectrum we have Taylor (Nathan Howe), an archeologist, a decent guy and a klutz. He is the only male contestant and he is entering the Tut Coconut Cake but he has other issues to contend with. He has a serious reaction to Leigh. He can’t make it up a few steps without stumbling or falling and he wants to tell Leigh how he feels about her but she does not want to hear it because she is already spoken for – to the convent.
 Rebecca Auerbach and Rachel Jones in Cakewalk.  Photo credit: Terry Manzo.
Howe is a master of physical comedy and he and Jones produce some wonderful comedy as we watch their romance blossom.
There are enough complications to keep the plot going in high and the higher gear as we wonder what will happen next and laughing heartily much of the time. Kelli Fox of Shaw and Stratford Festivals fame has changed gears herself and gone into directing and does a superb job of handling the cast and comedy with a light touch. The cast is wonderfully responsive to the comedy and the audience responded with appreciation.

The action takes place on a single set - a room in the community centre with several doors, a stairwell and a closet. Set Designer Laura Gardner gives us the flavour of every community center we have ever seen.

Oh, yes. The cake contest. Every contestant has a cogent reason and desire for wanting to win. In the end the contest is resolved quite satisfactorily. Tiffany probably marries what’s-his-name and we have no doubts about the future happiness of Leigh and Taylor.

The winning cake was made by …..go see the play.         
_________
Cakewalk by Collen Curran continues until August 10, 2019 at the Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth, Ontario, blythfestival.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Monday, July 29, 2019

MEASURE FOR MEASURE - REVIEW OF CANADIAN STAGE PRODUCTION IN HIGH PARK

Reviewed by James Karas

There is a grove in Toronto’s High Park, surrounded by trees and bounded by greenery where you can find a theatre. The semi-circles of concrete steps that you will sit on may remind you of an ancient Greek or Roman theatre that has seen better days. It may not be Epidaurus but it is Canadian and Canadian Stage has been producing Shakespeare there for decades.

This summer’s offerings are Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing. Measure has been redacted so that it can be performed in ninety minutes with no intermission. You get the core of the play without many details that will require twice as long to perform. Sitting on a thin cushion on a hard surface, it may be as long as you can endure. 
Can Konlekisz, Nora McLellan, Heath V. Salazar and Allan Louis. Photo: Dahlia Katz
Measure for Measure, directed by Severn Thompson, is amazingly well done. It is a fast-paced and well-acted production that makes for perfect theatre under the stars. Severn has little respect for the gender of some characters and has cast women in men’s roles for no apparent reason. It has become almost de rigueur to have transgender casting and I hope the fashion will soon disappear. Doing the play with about a dozen actors required some doubling up so the gender-blind casting may be simply for economic reasons.

The production opens with the cast coming down the aisle chanting a faltering “Kyrie eleison” and when they reach the stage we hear Angelo (Christopher Morris) orating about morality in words not written by Shakespeare. Why? Shakespeare’s play begins where the moral but ineffective Duke (Allan Louis) delegates his powers to tough Angelo who can be trusted to enforce the strict morality laws of Vienna.

The main serious plotline is the attempt by Isabella (Natasha Mumba) to persuade Angelo not to execute her brother Claudio (Richard Lam). He has been condemned to death for sleeping with his fiancée Juliet (Emma Ferreira). The stern and moral Angelo is intent on enforcing the law but he is sexually attracted to the novice nun Isabella and wants to bed her. Thompson has Isabella place her hand over Angelo’s heart during her pleas for clemency and one can see him getting aroused. A well done scene.

Measure for Measure has a large cast of colourful and comic characters from the debauched side of Vienna. They are pimps, prostitutes and brothel keepers, delightful low-lives who are worried about their professional turf. The brothel keeper Mistress Overdone (Nora McLellan), her pimp Pompey (Heath V. Salazar) the extravagant Lucio (Emilio Vieira) who has contacted syphilitic diseases galore, the convict Bernadine (McLellan) who is too drunk to be executed, make up the collection. And there is constable Elbow (Jamie Robinson), not too swift and able to butcher the English language uproariously. 
Christopher Morris and Natasha Mumba. Photo: Dahlia Katz 
The cast does superb work with this motley collection of characters. We are no doubt concerned with Isabella’s virtue, Claudio’s and Juliet’s fate and the course of justice in Vienna but the world of pimps and prostitutes is a lot more fun.

The single two-story set by Joanna Yu with an iron door and graffiti suggests the seedy side of Vienna and is quite appropriate.

Measure for Measure has been classified as a “problem comedy” and the final scene is a problem for me to watch. The Duke comes in and out of his disguise; Angelo is ordered to marry Mariana (his former fiancée who became the last minute switch for Isabella in his bed:  Lucio is ordered to marry a prostitute and the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. Yikes.

You may not want to worry about all those details and simply enjoy the production and the pizza or other food that you brought to the theatre.
__________
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, in a Canadian Stage production in collaboration with the Department of Theatre, School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design at York University, continues in repertory until September 1, 2019 in the High Park Amphitheatre, High Park, 1873 Bloor St W. Toronto, Ont. www.canadianstage.com

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

FOOL FOR LOVE – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION OF SHEPARD’S PLAY

Reviewed by James Karas

Sam Shepard’s 1983 play, Fool for Love, gets a full-throated production by Soulpepper directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell. The play is bursting with vocal, physical and emotional ferocity and has a cast that handle all.

The play is set in a motel room in the Mohave Desert where we meet May (Cara Gee) and Eddie (Eion Bailey). Within a couple of minutes loud and emotionally charged exchanges, Eddie reaches to May and kisses her. She appears to respond but quickly gives him a knee to his crotch and knocks him to the floor writhing in pain. That sets the emotional standard for much of the rest of the exchanges in the play.

Eddie and May have had a stormy on and off relationship for 15 years. He has travelled more than two thousand miles and is trying to reconcile with her. As the trajectory of her knee indicates, she is bitter, and angry and in no mood to reconcile.
 Cara Gee and Stuart Hughes. Photo: Dahlia Katz.
Eddie has done this a number of times. He is jealous, possessive and claims to be in love with May despite his frequent infidelities. In fact there is a countess driving a Mercedes outside the motel room who has pursued him all the way there.

May is understandably furious but she is so overwhelmingly in love with him that she knows that she cannot live without him even though rationally she does not want to be with him.

A third character named Martin (Alex McCooeye) arrives to take May out on a date and he acts as a catalyst for the expression of raging emotions between the couple.

Clearly there is more than meets the eye in the relations between Eddie and May. It unfolds slowly. There is a mysterious Old Man (Stuart Hughes) seated outside the motel room in some sand suggesting he is not real but what is he? He communicates with May and Eddie and speaks to audience and some awful details emerge. I will not disclose them all for those who have not seen or read the play.

He is related to both of them and wheat comes out in the background will throw your mind back to the Royal House of Thebes.

Bailey and Gee have to reach stratospheric emotional ranges and physical actions quickly and reduce the tension just as fast. Both of them perform with amazing agility. Bailey is quite athletic also and can easily stand on his head.
 Alex McCooeye and Eion Bailey. Photo: Dahlia Katz.
McCooeye’s Martin is an innocent man caught in a duel that he can hardly understand. The role can be quite funny and there are a few laughs bur Cox-O’Connell has chosen not to emphasize the comic possibilities of a man caught in the crossfire of raging emotions.

Stuart Hughes has relatively smaller involvement in the warfare but his past actions play a pivotal role in the unfolding of the drama. Hughes drinks whiskey in his rocking chair and does a fine job as the Old Man.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set consists of a bed and a chair in the motel room with a window showing the desert on one side and the motel parking lot on the other side. The Old Man, as I said, is seated just past the edge of the motel room, being a distant and indirect part of the action.

Fool for Love lasts just over an hour with no intermission. It contains a great deal of information about the current relationship of May and Eddie and, more importantly, about their background and the tragedies that precede the encounter in the motel room. That information, presented almost completely calmly in the denouement of the play is the crux of the drama.
_______________
Fool for Love by Sam Shepard continues until August 11, 2019 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture for The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Monday, July 22, 2019

WAITRESS – REVIEW OF BROADWAY MUSICAL AT THE ED MIRVISH THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

A waitress is not exactly on the upper rungs of the labour ladder. But Jenna Hunterson has it way worse than that. She is a waitress in a diner, married to an obnoxious and abusive husband and pregnant without wanting to be.

On the plus side, she has a talent to make pies that are “biblically good” and has some gumption. In other words, there is enough in her situation for a movie and then perhaps a musical. With music by Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, welcome Waitress to Broadway and around the world.

Pretty, sympathetic and pregnant, Jenna (played by Christine Dwyer in Toronto) has some good company in Joe’s Diner where she works. There is her blustering, oversized boss Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), her dippy co-worker Dawn (Ephie Aardema) and the lively Becky (Melody A. Betts). Also present is the crotchety owner Joe (Richard Kline) who does have a nice side.  
Ephie Aardema, Christine Dwyer and Melody A Betts in the National Touring
Production of WAITRESS - Photo Credit Daniel Lippitt
We need complications. Jenna’s husband Earl (Jeremy Woodard) is a violent and disgusting jerk who wants his wife to promise not to love their child more than she loves him. He is just a gem. A tip of the hat to Woodard but no more need be said about Earl.

Her obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), is handsome, neurotic and displays all the symptoms of television sitcom laughter generator. But he is attracted to the pretty Jenna and they have an affair even though it is “A Bad Idea”. Before you call the Discipline Committee of the Medical Association, take notice that the affair is Jenna’s idea first, that the good doctor is a reluctant participant and it is resolved satisfactorily. But for a while they could sing “You Matter to Me.”  

There is also a pie-making contest with a first prize of $20,000 that Jenna is encouraged to enter. Can she win the contest or marry Dr Pomatter or win a lottery to find happiness? Is there another path? I am not telling.

Dwyer performs very well in all aspects of her character from singer, to abused wife to a friend and a woman with aspirations caught in an awful situation.

Becky is unhappily married (she has to change hubby’s diapers three times a day) and she finds happiness with Cal. His wife is a lesbian. You see, we maintain high moral standards. Aardema gives a high-spirited performance and Dunkin as Cal proves that he is a decent human being even if he huffs and puffs as a boss.    
Steven Good and Christine Dwyer in the National Touring Production of WAITRESS -
Photo Credit Philicia Endelman
Dawn the misfit lands a bigger misfit in Ogie (Jeremy Morse) via internet dating and the two become the comic hub of the evening. They express their love in “I Love You Like a Table”. Marvelous performances by Betts and Morse.

Some of the songs reflect the guiding background product of the musical, the scrumptious pies and we hear “What Baking Can Do”, “It Only Takes a Taste.” But what is most important for the waitresses is sung in “A Soft Place to Land.”

The sets by Scott Pask from the diner, to the doctor’s office to Jenna’s home are good and the change of scene is done briskly to maintain a fine pace for the musical. Diane Paulus directs well.

The music and the dialogue were unacceptably loud during the first act but the volume was reduced to acceptable levels during the second act.
_________
Waitress by Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) continues until August 18, 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto, Ont.  M5B 1V8. 416.872.1212 or 1.800.461.3333. www.mirvish.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Sunday, July 21, 2019

THE LADY KILLERS – REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Lady Killers as a stage play has an impeccable pedigree and is presumably able to attract audiences to the theatre. And yet it has not been produced in North America. Tim Carroll, the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, has put an end to that omission by bringing the play to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Lady Killers started in 1955 as a movie from the famed Ealing Studios with Alec Guinness and has gained the status of a beloved classic. It was remade in 2004 into an American version with Tom Hanks and in 2011 William Rose’s original screenplay was adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan and it was a hit in London’s West End.

We have five loony misfits and petty criminals who want to achieve a major heist. They are led by the genius Professor Marcus (Damien Atkins) who wants to stage the robbery from the sinking house of an old lady, Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid). The colourful five will pretend to be a string quintet. The other members of the quintet One-Round (Martin Happer) a doltish boxer who used to knock out opponents in the first round but switched to being knocked out himself as quickly and for more money. He plays the cello which he thinks should go under his chin like a violin.         
The cast of The Lady Killers. Photo by David Cooper.
Major Courtney (Ric Reid) is nothing of the kind but he does have a peculiar attraction to dresses and a propensity to gaseous emissions. Louis (Steven Sutcliffe) is the quintet’s hit man and sadist but even he has his limits. Harry (Andrew Laurie) snorts drugs and pops pills not quite for headaches and has a great passion for cleanliness.

With the perfect alibi as musicians, the brilliant, fail-proof plan of “the professor” and a talented crew, success is guaranteed. And indeed they pull it off except for the escape from the wonderful, morally upright and ever so-kindly but not stupid at all Mrs. Wilberforce. There is only one way out: kill her.

Linehan has done a good adaptation of the movie script and left the rest to the director and cast. Tim Carroll has decided to turn the production into a farcical, slapstick comedy. Both those approaches require some tact and restraint. He has a fine cast but shows little restraint.

Professor Marcus wears a long scarf which drags on the floor. How many times can Mrs. Wilberforce step on it and have us find it funny? There is a blackboard in the room that the quintet is renting and it can be rolled around. It is and it hits Harry in the face very hard. You expect sadistic humour like that in a farce but, again, how many times can you whack the man in the face and still find it funny?

There are good lines and funny situations. Mrs. Wilberforce has invited her friends for tea and promised them a concert by the quintet. The poor chaps that can’t tell which side of the violin is up are forced to perform. They scratch and scrape their instruments and claim to have produced “modern music.”
Steven Sutcliffe as Louis, Ric Reid as Major Courtney and Andrew Lawrie as Harry
 in The Lady Killers. Photo by David Cooper.
There are good lines about the parakeet General Gordon who is ill and covered by a towel. Below him is an urn with the ashes of the late Mr. Wilberforce. All done well and producing genuine laughter.

The criminals have great difficulty remembering their assigned aliases especially One-Round who has been hit on the head far too many times and when a knife hits his skull it causes no brain damage. There is nothing to damage.

The cast from Chick Reid to all the criminals to the poor Constable Macdonald (Kristopher Bowman) who has to listen to Mrs. Wilberforce tell him that the local newsagent is a Nazi, do superb work. The problem is in the directing where Carroll goes overboard in the slapstick and farcical elements of the play.

Set Designer Judith Bowden scores a major success in her design of Mrs. Wilberforce’s house. On a revolving stage, we see a cross section of the house showing the rented room on the second floor, and the entrance way and kitchen on the main floor. The stage revolves and we see the front of the house and then the side. The house plays an important role in the play and the design is simply masterful. 
_____
The Ladykillers by Graham Linehan adapted from the screenplay by William Rose continues in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture at The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

THE GLASS MENAGERIE – REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has many strengths but there are choices made by director Laszlo Berczes that do not serve the play well. The production is in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre in a small playing area with spectators on all sides. There is an immediacy and intimacy that can bring the audience inside the drama. But it works only partially.

Before the lights go down we see Andre Sills talking to audience members and doing magic tricks. He is flamboyant and entertaining but then takes his cap off and starts with the monologue of Tom, one of the main characters of the play. His first words are indeed about tricks that he has up his sleeve but he tells us that he is the opposite of a magician. He is supposed to be dressed as a merchant marine which is what he becomes after abandoning his mother and sister. His tone is plangent, he expresses grief, sadness, perhaps guilt. Having him entertain the audience as a magician serves no purpose. We have started on the wrong foot.

We get to know him much better as the play progresses and Andre Sills is a sympathetic Tom, a man of dreams caught in the reality of a lousy job in a shoe factory and a miserable situation at home. 
 Allegra Fulton as Amanda and André Sills as Tom in The Glass Menagerie 
(Shaw Festival, 2019). Photo by David Cooper.
At home he has his mother Amanda, a complex character whose interpretation is pivotal to the play. Allegra Fulton does a fine job in the role as far as she is allowed. Amanda lives in an illusory world of the past. The world of wealth, servants, class, gentility and gentlemen callers in the South of her imagination.  It is pathetic, almost laughable but at the same time heart wrenching to see someone living in a world of illusion so vividly imagined.

There is another side to Amanda. In her illusions and ambitions for her children and in her struggle to control things and make ends meet, she goes seriously overboard and becomes at time simply ridiculous. Perhaps even laughable. Berczes does not allow Fulton’s Amanda to become ridiculous. He keeps a tight rein on Amanda and though we see her devotion to her children we do not see how unbearable she can be to the extent that she drives Tom to abandon her and his beloved sister.

Laura is a sad and at times pathetic person. Julia Course’s portrayal shows us only a part of this. Her body language is superb even if her deformity with a shorter leg is underplayed. The issue I have is with Course’s voice. She speaks in a ringing tone that bespeaks confidence and belies deformity, physical and psychological. She is crushed physically and psychologically and her only defence is her escape to the world of her glass figurines.  
Jim, the gentleman caller, was a high school hero on whom Laura had a crush. Dare I say that Jonathan Tan despite his fine delivery of his lines, does not convince one as a former hero who has not reached his potential but has lost none of his confidence?

The set by Balazs Cziegler is perfect for the compact playing area and the non-realistic tenor of the play. 
Julia Course as Laura and Jonathan Tan as Jim in The Glass Menagerie 
(Shaw Festival, 2019). Photo by David Cooper.
Tom and Laura have deep affection for each other and they know their mother’s idiosyncrasies and idiocies well enough to have developed ways of dealing with them. They roll their eyes and bump their shoulders when Amanda goes on one of her tirades. This is admirable sibling love but is also suggests a system of defence. If they could defend themselves against their mother, Tom may not have to abandon them. A nice touch but it is misleading about Laura who is defenseless in the real world.  

The Glass Menagerie is a powerful play but Berczes in his conservative and restrained approach has robbed it of some of its emotional power. Tom, Laura, Amanda and indeed Jim (despite his surface self-assurance) live on the edge of emotional collapse. There is no way out for them.

To be fair, Berczes has added a beautiful dream sequence in which Laura and Jim dance around the stage before reality lands on Laura and crushes her. It is a brilliant directorial stroke.
_________
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams continues in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

James Karas is Senior Editor - Culture at The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca 

Friday, July 19, 2019

THE RUSSIAN PLAY AND SEX – REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

Reviewed by James Karas

The Russian Play by Hannah Moscovitch is a jewel of a play that receives a gem of a production at the Shaw Festival. It is a 50-minute lunchtime performance and all it does is leave you hungry for more.

The play is set in a town somewhere in Russia in the era of Stalin sometime in the 1920’s.
Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh) narrates and acts in her own story.  She works in a flower shop near the town cemetery and is the mistress of Piotr (Peter Fernandes), the married gravedigger.  She is found out and driven out of town for her conduct. She goes to another town and becomes the mistress of the rich and married Kostya (Mike Nadajewski).

There is an ever-present violinist (Marie Mahabal) that accompanies Sonya in the telling of her story.
 
Peter Fernandes as Piotr and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Sonya in 
The Russian Play. Photo by David Cooper.
Singh gives a superb performance as Sonya, a woman used and abused but with enough spunk and humour to face life fearlessly. She faces the audience, draws them in, tells them that this is a love story and then asks the vital question: where do you hide a piece of bread?

Fernandes as the rootless gravedigger is digging room for young and old alike. For the rich Kostya Sonya is just another piece of meat who succumbs to him out of necessity but with little hesitation.

The violinist provides a moving obbligato to the play but I am not sure why she attacks Sonya sexually in the opening scene of the play. The mention of Putin is anachronistic and unnecessary.

This is a moving, funny, wonderful play about society and a strong woman that is done to perfection. A standing ovation for director Diana Donnelly and the cast. It may be lunchtime theatre but it is worth the trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see it alone.

Mae West still looms in the North American imagination as a sex symbol and perhaps more so for some of her bon mots: “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” Less well known may be the fact that she wrote some ten plays which are, to put it very politely, rarely performed.

The Shaw Festival has staged her 1926 play Sex. The theatrical palaeontologist who dug up the play deserves a tip of the hat largely because the story surrounding the play is much more interesting than the play itself.

It’s 2019 and as I am walking towards the Festival Theatre and a friendly usher asks if I am going to see “the play by Mae West because I am not allowed to say the title.”  We both laugh but he keeps his delightful vow of silence.  
 Diana Donnelly as Margy LaMont in Sex (Shaw Festival, 2019). Photo by David Cooper.
When the play was first produced many New Yorkers were freaked out by its immorality (hint: it deals with pimps and prostitutes). West was convicted and sentenced to 10 days in jail. She spent eight days in the clink not because she had to but because it was good publicity.

The Shaw Festival offers the following: (a) a play written, produced and directed by Mae West in 1926. (b) a Canadian premiere – the play has never been revived anywhere. (c) a play about S-E-X with hookers, pimps, drugs and fun stuff like that. What more do you want?

You may want to see a good play too but you can’t have everything.

A few words about the plot. Margy Lemont (Diana Donnelly) is a blonde hooker that, to use West’s words, has been in more laps than a napkin. And she looks it. Lieutenant Gregg (Andre Sills), an English naval officer with an atrocious English accent, is a customer who is in love with her. Really in love with her.

Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), a scion of a rich family is not a customer but is madly in love with her and wants to marry her. Why is Jimmy played so awkwardly by a woman? And why is hooker Agnes played by Jonathan Tan, a man?

Pimp Rocky (Christopher Bowman) drugs and robs Jimmy’s mother Clara (Fiona Byrne) who is the spitting image of Margy, whose life is saved by Margy who does not want her son to marry Margy but who has to keep her mouth shut because Margy knows what Clara was doing with the pimp. Clear?

The play has a considerable number of roles and many of the actors take two or more roles.

Why do Director Peter Hinton-Davis and Designer Eo Sharp think that piling suitcases and trunks in what is supposed to be Margy’s apartment appropriate set décor? The Stanton pad looks just fine in the last act.

New Yorkers loved the play in 1926 and to hell with bad reviews. Maybe hearing Mae West say “let me check what’s happening down in the English Channel” as she groped below Lieutenant Gregg’s belt was worth it.

We will have to settle for acquiring the right tell our heirs, executors, successors and whoever did not go to the Shaw Festival this season– after we scan our surroundings for possible moral turpitude – that we have seen Sex by Mae West.      
____________
The Russian Play by Hannah Moscovitch continues until October 12, 2019 on various dates at the Royal George Theatre. Sex by Mae West continues in repertory until October 13, 2019 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press www.greekpress.ca

Thursday, July 18, 2019

REQUIEM - REVIEW OF 2019 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

I don’t think anyone has considered Mozart’s Requiem – a mass for the dead – as an opera. It is his last composition and he left it seriously unfinished because, well, he died. Don’t tell conductor Raphael Pichon and director Romeo Castellucci that – they know he died, they think the Requiem can serve as an operatic work. They have taken Mozart’s unfinished work and by adding from his other compositions and works by other composers have fashioned a glorious evening at a mass for the dead, make that the opera.

There is plenty of choral music to be sure but there is also joyous singing and dancing, a review of some historical events and finally a wonderful and completely unexpected affirmation of life. 
Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
The evening begins with a bed on the stage and a woman smoking. We hear a beautiful voice singing a cappella an anonymous hymn about Christ being obedient unto death for us and exalted by God. The orchestra joins in with somber music and we hear male voices chant “he filled me with bitterness” from Mozart’s K 477B.

People come on stage dressed in black and carrying black flags. They drape the deathbed as we listen to the Introit, the first part of the Requiem proper. A Kyrie eleison sung by the chorus follows that is so splendidly done it rises to the ears of the Lord in heaven.

The Pygmalion Chorus with soprano Siobhan Stagg, alto Sara Mingardo, tenor Martin Mitterrutzner and bass Luca Tittoto provide the glorious, celestial splendour of the sacred music. The Pygmalion Orchestra conducted by Pichon provides the accompaniment.

We do the entire Requiem as put together but Pichon and Castellucci and see delightful, celebratory dances in colourful East European costume. Evelin Facchini is responsible for the gorgeous and spirited traditional choreographies.

Through generous use of projections, Pichon and Castellucci with dramaturge Piersandra Di Matteo also attempt to list and illustrate in part how we have evolved from vertebrates to homo sapiens. They also list all that we have lost, all that has died. The civilizations or cities that have disappeared from the Minoans, the Myceneans, the Etruscans, the  Lydians, the Phrygians, the Illyrians, the  Pelasgians and a host of others. 
Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
The number of categories of things from the past and the present that that they presented were so fascinating in themselves that they ran the danger of being distracting.

The last part of the requiem, Communion, sung by the entire chorus is an invocation to the merciful Lord to grant the dead eternal rest with the saints forever. The evening finishes with the beautiful traditional burial service mass for male voices “In Paradisum.”

An unforgettable evening.
___________
Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with additional chants by other composers as put together by Raphael Pichon, Romeo Castellucci and Piersandra Di Matteo is being performed eight times until July 19, 2019 on various dates at the Théâtre d l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press - www.greekpress.ca/


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

LES MILLES ENDORMIS - REVIEW OF 2019 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Les Mille Endormis (The Sleeping Thousand) is a one-act chamber opera by Adam Maor (music) and Yonatan Levy (libretto). Maor is Israeli, born in 1983, and Levy is Canadian, born in 1973, and Les Milles is their first foray into the creation of an opera. The work has been commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the theatres of the city of Luxemburg among others. It premiered in Aix on July 6, 2019.

The sleeping thousand of the title are Palestinian detainees of Israel who have gone on a hunger strike.  The result is a type of biblical plague. The earth will not grow food, the crops grow dead and there is a real crisis. The United Nations is considering a resolution to stop rainfall over Israel and the United States will not veto it Reality and unreality go hand in hand.

The opera is cast for four singers. The Prime Minister sung by Polish baritone Tomasz Kumiega is a classic politician beset by a problem that he is out of his depth to handle. He deteriorates in front of our eyes as he struggles with an unsolvable problem. 
                                              Festival of Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompre
Nourit is the Prime Minister’s assistant, sung by Israeli soprano Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod as the good and faithful servant.

S. is the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency and the man who thinks of deftly solving the problem of the hunger strikers. American bass David Salsbery Fry sings the role of S.

French baritone Benjamin Alunni takes on the roles of Minister of Agriculture, the Voice of the People, a protester and the Cantor.    

What do we do with the hunger strikers? They cannot be tried or set free or left to die or much of anything else. S. has a solution.  There is no choice but to put all of them to sleep. And we see them arrayed in the Prime Minister’s office on scaffolding all wearing orange overalls.

The plot is part biblical, part science fiction, part theatre of the absurd and with perhaps some expressionism in the heady mix.

Three years after putting the Palestinians to sleep, things seem to be better but not great. Five years later the problems are hallucinations, nightmares and inability to sleep. The Prime Minister, the main character in the opera is starting to lose it.

A Cantor enters and chants Plague of Firstborn Children, an apocalyptic description of pestilence. Jewish babies struck with epileptic fits babbling in Arabic. Blood comes out of a Jewish child’s mouth and it is attributed to tongue-biting caused by involuntary Arabic speech.

This may be satire but it is delivered by the Cantor in a somber monotone addressed directly to the audience. He is dressed in a white robe with a gold, shiny globe on his head that looks like something from a sci-fi show. What are we to make of it?

Seven years later the plague is still on. The Prime Minister has not slept for a long time and the Arabs are eating all Jews at the Khafia. The Prime Minister looks like a jackal. The thousand are not sleeping and Nourit will be sent to infiltrate the Arab world of dreams.

She does go and then Levy gives a quick and unsatisfactory end to the tale. He has only an hour and fifteen minutes and he has packed a great deal for the audience to absorb on a first hearing.  S’s last words are the ambiguous and intriguing “my whole life I have spoken only nonsense.” 
                                                Festival of Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompre
Elena Schwarz conducts the United Instruments of Lucilin, a small ensemble based in Luxemburg that specializes in contemporary music.  

The opera has elements of satire, even comedy as it focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It is sung in Hebrew as the creators look at the huge problem in the Middle East.  
Levy is not afraid to satirize the Israelis for jumping to conclusions that are not warranted by the facts and for being basically ridiculous in some aspects of their treatment of Palestinians.

The music is taut, sinuous and at times somewhat monotonous. This is a highly ambitious work that tackles a major political and human tragedy from a number of angles in a very short time. Are they trying to do too much very fast? Perhaps.
___________
Les Milles Endormis  by Adam Maor (music) and Yonatan Levy (libretto) opened on July 6, 2019 and is being performed five times at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Monday, July 15, 2019

TOSCA – REVIEW OF 2019 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival does not hesitate to stage original, often brilliant, sometimes touched by genius productions of operas.  For example, Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov turned Carmen into a psychiatric therapy session. He turned Don Giovanni into a family drama that takes place entirely in the library of the Commendatore’s house. Peter Sellars took Mozart’s mostly lost Zaide and turned it into a melodramatic anti-slavery tract to compete with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And Rigoletto found work in a circus.

This year we are invited to a rehearsal of Tosca. To be more precise, it is a performance that pretends to be a rehearsal that becomes a concert performance that ends up as a production touched by genius or a travesty.

We all know that the first act of Tosca takes place in the grand church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome where Mario Cavaradossi is painting and hiding the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Wrong.
                                    Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
This production directed by Christophe Honoré opens in the posh apartment of a diva who is listening to Vissi d’arte on a CD and on a projection screen we see the CD spinning. She is listed as the Prima Donna (Catherine Malfitano) in the program who speaks English to her son and he replies in French. They are getting ready for a crew to film a rehearsal of Tosca.

Puccini steps in and we see the Sacristan (Leonardo Galeazzi) doing his bit at a lectern, score in hand. We will see almost all the characters grab a score and check what they are supposed to be singing. It’s all a casual rehearsal as we see the diva roaming around the numerous people who are doing their job. Tosca (Angel Blue), Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja) and Angelotti (Simon Shibambu) are going through their roles. The nasty Scarpia (Alexey Markov) appears and proves that he can sing the role but there is no reason to get all worked up. It is just a casual rehearsal.

We get the joke and now can we get on with the performance in the second act? We are in Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese. There are several rooms and screens above them so we can see everything from a different angle or close up. The Prima Donna is everywhere and she will be with us almost uninterruptedly until the end of the opera. She does not sing.

Are we going to see the grotesque evil of Scarpia, hear Cavaradossi being tortured and witness Tosca kill the loathsome creep. Why bother during a rehearsal? Singers move around, they sing but not much else is required of them. We see Cavaradossi drinking and eating at the beginning of the act and lying on a bed with the Prima Donna sitting by him   while he is supposed to be tortured

                                    Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Tosca throws some ketchup on Scarpia when she is supposed to be murderously stabbing him but the whole atmosphere is laid back. Angel Blue does get to sing Vissi d’arte but why let her show off her vocal splendour? The projection screens are there so let’s show photos of other sopranos in the role. Photographs of Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontine Price and, you guessed it, Catherine Malfitano appear on the screen. Is there a point to this? Is Angel Blue joining the ranks of the erstwhile greats? Is she surpassing them? Is there a reason to spoil her singing by having us look at photographs of other singers?

By this time you figure it can’t possibly get worse. Wrong.

For the third act which takes place on the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the orchestra is brought on the stage leaving no room for much else. There is a miniature of the castle at the side of the stage and we get a close up of Ms Malfitano looking into it. She walks across the audience to the other side of the theater and sits on the stage. She will go and touch the conductor and walk through the orchestra during the scene and when Tosca and Cavaradossi are singing their incredibly moving duet she will be right there with them. When Tosca is supposed to be jumping off the parapet (she does not), Malfitano will be lying down on a terrace above the orchestra. 
                                         Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
That is not all. The third act switches from a rehearsal to a concert performance. Cavaradossi appears in a tux and sings “E lucevan le stele” and Tosca comes out dressed to kill. She gives instructions to Cavaradossi about how to act after the fake shooting while he is standing on the side of the stage near the model castle and she is centre-stage. He is not shot and she does not jump off anything but simply raises her hand.

This is only a partial list of the unbelievable things in this production. I can add many more and express my disbelief that they actually put on a production like that. Is this what we can expect from Pierre Audi, the new Artistic Director? Or is the production touched by such genius that I missed it?
__________
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini is being performed eight times between July 4 and 22, 2019 as part of the Aix-en-Provence Festival at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 26 Rue Gaston de Saporta, Aix-en-Provence, France. festival-aix.com/fr

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Sunday, July 14, 2019

JAKOB LENZ - REVIEW OF 2019 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is in its 71st season which shows admirable longevity and it has a new artistic director, Pierre Audi, which promises change and renewal. Audi has scheduled six operas for the season most of them never seen at the Festival in Aix before.

One of the new productions is Jakob Lenz, a one-act chamber opera composed by Wolfgang Rihm on a libretto by Michael Fröhling which premiered in Hamburg in 1979. It has been produced in cities across Europe but it has made only a couple of tentative steps in the United States with productions at the Julliard Theater in New York and in Bloomington. I can find nothing about it being produced in Canada.
 
 Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompress

The opera is based on a novella by Georg Buchner, the man who provided the material for the more famous Wozzeck. It tells the story of the poet Lenz (Georg Nigl) who has serious emotional and mental issues (probably schizophrenia) not the least of which is his mourning for his love Friederike. He roams the mountains, hears voices and ends up with his friend Pastor Oberlin (Wolfgang Bankl).

The closely written and intense novella which deals largely with internal turmoil would appear to be almost impossible to transfer into a libretto but Fröhling has managed to do it. It may be worth noting that Lenz, Oberlin and Kaufman are historical figures.

Lenz stays with Oberlin for a while but his emotional turmoil, the voices that he hears and the images of Friederike that haunt him drive him back to the mountains. He hears the voices again and despairs of finding Friederike.

Their friend Kaufman (John Daszak) joins them. He is a friend of both men, but Lenz’s mental illness makes it impossible for them to deal with him and they finally put him in a straitjacket, tie him up to a bed and leave him.

The emotional and even intellectual breadth of the opera takes your breath away and the performance of Austrian baritone Nigl is simply heroic. Austrian bass-baritone Bankl as Oberlin and British Tenor John Daszak as Kaufmann give impressive performances though the demands on them are not as strenuous.

The opera has 2 sopranos (Josefin Feiler and Olga Heikkila), two altos (Camille Merckx and Beth Taylor) and two basses (Dominic Grosse and Eric Ander). They provide the eerie atmosphere and stamp the mental hell in which Lenz agonizes.

The music is modern, dissonant, sometimes jarring, sometimes cacophonous and at times harmonious. It represents the violent emotional tempests that Lenz is going through as he hears his voices, jumps into pools of water (indicated only metaphorically in this production), tries to revive a young girl who he thinks is Friderike and bears a cross in unmistakable emulation of the suffering of Jesus. It is heavy-duty stuff. 
Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompress
It is a dark opera done in modern dress. The stage décor by Martin Zehetgruber represents metaphorically and economically the rocky mountains, Oberlin’s residence and the more bizarre states of mind of the half-naked and Christ-like Lenz. He is seen wedged on what looks like a shelf and in positions of pain as he wrestles with his voices, God and his own dementia.

Director Andrea Breth handles the intense and overwrought material with a skillful hand as she takes us through the complexities of the plot in an hour and a quarter with no intermission. 

Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Ensemble Modern orchestra through the permutations of what sounds like a very difficult score.
___________
Jakob Lenz by Wolfgang Rihm is being performed three times in reprise of the 2014 Stuttgart Staatsoper production. On July 5, 8 and 12, 2019 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

MOTHER’S DAUGHTER - REVIEW OF 2019 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Mary, Queen of England gets some good press. It comes from Kate Hennig in her play Mother’s Daughter now playing in the Studio Theatre in Stratford.

Hennig has given us The Last Wife about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth spouse and The Virgin Trial about the troubles of Elizabeth I before she succeeded to the throne. Mother’s Daughter is about Elizabeth’s half-sister and predecessor Queen Mary who has earned the unfortunate soubriquet of Bloody Mary. Do not confuse her with Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary’s mother was Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife and as the title suggests we get a double portrait of the two queens. Hennig gives us a largely positive portrait of Mary brilliantly acted by Shannon Taylor. Mary is intelligent, resolute, attractive, merciful, scrupulous and tolerant. Not all at once and not all the time but we do see these traits in her. Dressed in a long skirt and white blouse at the beginning and donning a military uniform and boots later in the play, Mary never veers from being independent, assertive and self-assured. 
From left: Irene Poole as Catalina, Shannon Taylor as Mary and Jessica B. Hill as Anne 
in Mother's Daughter. Photography by David Hou.
She must deal with her mother Katherine who tells her that she is a figment of her imagination. Queen Katherine was dumped by Henry after 23 years of marriage on the pretext that his marriage to her was unlawful. She had been married to Henry’s brother when both were young, and Henry found biblical support that the marriage was sinful. When he married her, he found biblical support that marrying his brother’s widow was fine because they had not consummated the marriage.

In the play Katherine also called Catalina (played by Irene Poole) is a vengeful, angry and ruthless woman who wants her daughter to restore Catholicism to England. Mary stands her ground for tolerance and reconciliation, at least in the beginning.   

Mary has two friends/advisors in Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis) who provide contradictory advice on what to do about rebellious subjects and competing claims to the crown. She also has Simon (Gordon Patrick White) a friend, diplomat and messenger about happenings in the outside world.

The immediate problem is what to do with Lady Jane (Andrea Rankin), a teenager who has been given the throne, and her relatives.

Then the major issue is dealing with Princess Elizabeth (Jessica B. Hill) and her mother Anne Boleyn who, like Katherine appears as a figment of the imagination or a ghost. Elizabeth and Anne are played by the same actor. We see the animosities and difficult relationships among the characters. Elizabeth wants the throne and Mary wants to circumvent that by getting pregnant and providing an heir. Alas, it does not work, and Mary is not ready to execute Elizabeth. 
From left: Beryl Bain as Bassett, Shannon Taylor as Mary and Maria Vacratsis 
as Susan in Mother's Daughter. Photography by David Hou.
The costumes are mostly modern or non-descript and the language of the play is completely modern, colloquial with frequent use of expletives. Expression like “gee, whiz” and “who is running the joint?’ give the dialogue a less than elevated flavour at times but the pacing of the arguments is brisk and often powerful. All handled well by director Alan Dilworth but you do have to get used to modern, colloquial and at times salty English spoken by 16th century characters in mostly modern dress.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini consists of a large table and chair with border lights in the back and on the stage in different colors designed by Kimberly Purtell.

Bloody Mary has been getting bad press for more than four centuries, but recently more sympathetic reviews have appeared. The fact remains that despite her self-described tolerance, she became a tyrant and burned a few hundred Protestants at the stake.

In the final scene we see Mary and Elizabeth standing posthumously in Westminster Abbey looking at the tomb that the two of them share. Elizabeth became Gloriana, poor Mary remains bloody while their cousin Mary, Queen of Scots is more famous than both largely because she had her head chopped off. Sic passit gloria mundi.

We get a fascinating and imaginative look at some English history mixed with some fiction but never failing to entertain.
______________
Mother’s Daughter by Kate Hennig continues in repertory until October 13, 2019 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca