Wednesday, December 7, 2016

GREECE YEAR ZERO - REVIEW OF DANNIS KOROMILAS’S LOOK AT GREEK HISTORY

James Karas

Dannis Koromilas subtitles his film Greece Year Zero as A Cinematic Essay Exploring Greece’s Untold Century. In fact this moving and brilliant documentary touches on almost two centuries of Greek history from the outbreak of The Greek War of Independence to the current financial crisis that has brought Greeks to their knees.

In the eighty minutes of the film Koromilas zeroes in on a judiciously selected number of events in Greek history, provides narrative descriptions and some extraordinary footage that has rarely or never been seen before.
 There are paintings and photographs from the nineteenth century and film clips and still photographs from World War I and the following decades right up to the current financial debacle. Some of the footage is fascinating as an illustration of Greek history such as clips of the short and pudgy General Ioannis Metaxas, the dictator who gained heroic status when Greece was attacked by Mussolini and Churchill’s visit to Greece on Christmas Day 1944. We get heart-wrenching scenes of children and adults dying of hunger after the Nazi occupation, of mass graves and of executions and an astounding collection of archival material.

The film deserves immense kudos for its collection of illustrative material alone but it has a lot more than that. It gives a brief but synoptic view of Greece as it stumbled from crisis to crisis and survived successive governments that were all too frequently corrupt or inept.

A connecting theme is the borrowing of money abroad and the mounting national debt. From excessive borrowing in the 19th century that led to the national bankruptcy of 1893 to the borrowing binge of the last few decades, Greek politicians seem to have learned nothing from their history. In fact things got even worse than grotesque economic mismanagement. The Greek government simply cooked the books in order to get into the Eurozone. The word for that is fraud.

Koromilas tries to be scrupulously even-handed in his presentation of facts but there is no way he can avoid strident disagreements with his approach. Communist-led EAM/ELAS gets considerable coverage but there is hardly a mention of the right-wing EDES. He avoids mentioning that the resistance groups fought among each other as much if not more than they fought the enemy and his sympathies are clearly with the people as opposed to their leaders.

The film is narrated in English by Alex Karzis and it is easily transported to other countries by providing a voice-over in different languages. 

I will not try to argue about Koromilas’s approach or the events that he selected. When the film is generally distributed, there will no doubt be a storm of arguments about his choices. So be it. I will however comment about the visit of Winston Churchill after Greece’s liberation from the Nazis in 1944.. By mentioning the December Events (Dekemvriana) after covering the visit, the film gives the impression that Churchill visited Greece before the December 3, 1944 eruption of violence in Syntagma Square. In fact Churchill dropped in on Christmas Day 1944 because of the eruption of violence that resulted into war in the streets of Athens.   

Almost every scene in the film is worth a one-hour documentary. It is a signal indictment of where Greece has been brought to that there is no moony in Greece for Greek filmmakers to produce well-researched, even-handed and brilliant documentaries like Greece Year Zero. It is supremely ironic that this film was made by a man who was born and lives in Canada.

And if you want a quick, vociferous but pleasant argument note the date given for the start of The Greek War of Independence as stated at the beginning of the film. When do you think that War began?

The film is a major accomplishment. 
__________
Greece Year Zero, a film by Dannis Koromilas, was shown on December 4, 2016 at The Royal Theatre, 608 College Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.greeceyearzero.com.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

SLEEPING BEAUTY: THE DELIRIOUSLY DREAMY FAMILY MUSICAL! - REVIEW OF ANOTHER ROSS PETTY EXTRAVAGANZA

James Karas

Ross Petty is still at it. This time he fractures the story of Sleeping Beauty and evokes laughter and sheer joy from an audience that is infectiously enthusiastic. In fact there is a conspiracy between the stage and the youngsters in the auditorium that raises the level of fun to wonderful heights. Petty is listed as only the producer of Sleeping Beauty: The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical but one feels that the writer, director and the rest of the artistic crew and cast are working under his inspiration and style or there more than that?

Sleeping Beauty gives a wildly funny version of the fairy tale with marvelously comic characters, rousing music, athletic dancing, colourful costumes and stage effects that keep going at a relentless pace.
 

In the Kingdom of Torontonia whose skyline boasts a tower in the background a Princess is born and is named Rose (AJ Bridel). The Princess receives three blessings but also one curse from Malignicent (Hilary Farr). Boo! If she pricks her finger, she will go to sleep. Nothing is left in the Kingdom that could cause that except for the “turning table” which has a needle. Yikes. Thank goodness, I mean, how terrible, that CDs have not been invented.    

Let us meet the other important members of the story. A beautiful fairy princess needs a tall, blond and handsome fairy prince, here called Luke, and James Daly fits the bill even if singing is not his strongest asset.

What we need is broad comedy and we have two terrific comic talents. Eddie Glenn as EGG (and Jacob Grimm) and Paul Constable as Sparklebum provide inspired comedy. They can act, overact, goad the audience and do almost anything with a focused aim: laughter.

Jeremy Diamond who wrote the book does not hesitate to bring current events into the story. Donald Trump, Mike Pence, toll roads in Toronto and hydro are just some of the subjects captured in the dialogue.
 
Michael Gianfrancesco’s sets and costumes are extravagantly colourful and varied. Projection Designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson with Lighting Designer Kimberly Purtell have to deal with storms, thunder, lightning and numerous scene changes. They produce a kaleidoscope of wonders that keep young and others admiring and applauding their work.

Director Tracey Flye drilled as much as directed the comic and musical routines with meticulous care making everything look spontaneous.

Petty did not hesitate to include commercials during the show but those too were amusing. And he did appear as Captain Hook in a brief video. 

I brought Emily (“I’m going to be nine next March”), my Associate Reviewer with me in order to capture the more subtle points of the production. She was a most enthusiastic booer and cheerer with instant expressions of disapproval or approval of the bad and good characters. She found the show funny and the scenes in fairyland were her favourite. 

Her final comment: “When are we coming back?”     
_________


Sleeping Beauty: The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical continues until January 7, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.rosspetty.com

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE REALISTIC JONESES – REVIEW OF ENO’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter was once asked what his plays were about and he gave the pithy and unhelpful reply of "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet". That line came to mind while watching Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses now playing at the Tarragon Theatre.

I am afraid the famous reply did not spring to mind because of any inspired analysis of the play but the appearance of a dead squirrel under the coffee table in one of the Jones couple’s backyard. When the hostess sees the dead squirrel, she grabs a spatula from the barbecue and loads it on it while her neighbour asks if she intends to flip it. A very funny line.
 
Jenny Young, Patrick McManus, Tom Barnett, Susan Coyne in The Realistic Joneses.  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
The play opens in the backyard of Bob (Tom Barnett) and Jennifer (Susan Coyne) where the two are talking about talking and about paining the house. Between pauses and reactions to each other, they are very amusing and confusing. They are the Joneses.

John (Patrick McManus) and Pony (Jenny Young) pop in with a bottle of wine. They are Joneses too who rent a house down the street from Bob and Jennifer. It is the first time the two couples meet and the conversation continues in the same apparently banal but funny vein. The house that John and Pony are renting has an interesting history: someone lived there before. And look at those cute salt and pepper shakers.

The play moves form Bob and Jennifer’s yard to a supermarket to John and Pony’s kitchen a number of times. Charlotte Dean’s set design allows for quick scene changes with moveable panels. Well done.

You quickly realize that the Joneses are anything but “realistic.” They speak usually in short sentences with frequent pauses. There are non-sequitors, changes of subject and actions that make little sense. Nothing appears unusual but you know that nothing is happening on a particularly logical level. These people are nuts and yet they are completely normal. Well, they appear to be.

You can go to Pinter, to Samuel Becket, to Eugene Ionesco and find elements that may seem similar to what you are hearing in Eno’s play. But he has his own voice in presenting these (ab)normal couples somewhere in rural America. They touch on illnesses, mental and physical, real or imagined. They hint of infidelity and they speak in sensible, logical words that at close look are neither.

Director Richard Rose handles Eno’s intricate play with precision and sensitivity. In Barnett, Coyne, McManus and Young he has a cast that can handle the tricky dialogue and make it seem completely natural. The quick turns, the pauses, the constant subtle changes in tone and all the zigzags of the script, test the mettle of the director and the actors and they are all do a first-rate job.

You will get a few laughs, admire the performances and may come out scratching your head but you will get your money’s worth.
                                           ______


The Realistic Jones by Will Eno continues until December 18, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Friday, November 25, 2016

COME FROM AWAY – REVIEW OF CELEBRATORY MUSICAL AT THE ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE

James Karas

Come From Away is a hit.

Moving quickly away from that hackneyed phrase, Come From Away is a musical now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre and it has all the ingredients that make a successful musical and some additional elements that make it a joy to watch.

Come From Away is an illustration and celebration of spontaneous humanity and decency on a large scale. It does not shy away from our baser instincts of fear and racism but it shows humankind at its best. And it is based on facts.

Some background. All of us recall that on September 11, 2001 terrorists flew two airplanes into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre. All airplanes headed for the United States were ordered to land outside the U.S. Thirty eight planes landed in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland bringing about 7000 people and in effect doubling the local population. How do you provide accommodation, food and comfort for that many people who drop in from the sky, completely unexpectedly?

 Come From Away Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Irene Sankoff and David Hein interviewed some of the visitors and hosts and combined their stories with marvelous music and songs to create this robust and supremely entertaining musical, nay, celebration.

A cast of twelve actors/singers represent dozen of characters in quick succession as we start with a glimpse of life in the town before the visitors arrive – “Welcome to the Rock.” Then there is general mobilization (“38 Planes,” “Blankets and Bedding”) as the townspeople get into action to provide for the strangers at their door. There is a variety of them from the airplane crews to business people to Muslims, an Afro-American, and a gay couple. The town people are humane, charming and frequently funny.

The whole cast is on stage much of the time in an ensemble performance where there is almost no solo number. The music performed by an onstage band is vigorous, often foot-stomping and delightful.

There are numerous episodes culled from the four days’ stay that range from the humorous, to the touching, to the tragic. All the actors deserve unstinting praise but I will mention only a few. Joel Hatch plays, among other parts, Claude the Mayor who is decent and funny. Petrina Bromley plays Bonnie of the SPCA who must take care of the animals including the birth of a monkey and the manners of a feces-tossing member of that species. And there is Janice (Kendra Kassebaum) the TV reporter on her first day on the job!

Rodney Hicks plays a black American who expects to be robbed any minute as he accepts hospitality with some trepidation. Oz, the town constable, (Geno Carr) gives speeders a warnings with an expletive. The gay couple finds a tolerant society but the Muslim is not treated as kindly in the atmosphere of fear.

Come From Away Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
I give the names of the superb cast with the main role as listed in the program:  Petrina Bromley as Bonnie, Geno Carr as Oz, Jenn Colella as Beverley, Joel Hatch as Claude, Rodney Hicks as Bob, Kendra Kassebaum as Janice, Chad Kimball as Garth, Lee MacDougall as Doug, Caesar Samayda as Ali, Q. Smith as Hannah, Astrid van Wieren as Beulah and Sharon Wheatley as Diane.

Director Christopher Ashley maintains a brisk pace with the merry-go-round of characters and episodes. The revolving set by Beowulf Boritt helps on a single paneled set that gives the impression of small town once you know that you are in a small town in a corner of Canada. It works.

Come From Away is a hit, a celebration, a triumph.
 _____
Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (Book, Music and Lyrics) opened on November 23, 2016 and will run until January 8, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Friday, November 18, 2016

RIVERBANKS: REVIEW OF KARKANEVATOS’ ELEGY FOR ILLEGAL MIGRANTS

Reviewed by James Karas

Riverbanks (Όχθες) is a sensitive, moving and exquisite film about the fate of illegal migrants who are smuggled into Greece from Turkey. The film understates the inherent violence of transporting people across a river into a foreign country and it neither condemns nor praises the activity. In the end it is Panos Karkanevatos’s elegy for all those involved in the conveyance of children, adults and drugs from one bank to the other of a threatening river.

The central character is Yannis (Andreas Konstantinou), a young soldier, whose image dominates the film. He is a loner, an outsider, with an enigmatic facial expression that denotes a troubled mind or a lost soul in search of something. He is part of a small platoon of soldiers assigned to find and remove deadly mines in a grassy meadow beside the river. Yannis has a special instinct for locating mines and a spiritual side that drives him.
 
He meets Chryssa (Elena Mavridou), a single mother who is involved on the receiving side of the river where people and drugs land from the Turkish side. She is involved not so much in illegal trade as in the eternal task of simple survival.

In the opening scene, Yannis is driving on a side road with Chryssa and Myrto, a young child, in the back seat. Something happens and we next see Yannis in a hospital and then in a police station. The rest of the film is a flashback to Istanbul where smugglers arrange for the separate transportation of Kurdish children and adults across the river and the balance of the story. We will return back to the beginning near the end of the film.

In the tone set for the film, Karkanevatos presents the arrangement for the smuggling of the migrants in a low-keyed manner in we which we feel the undertones of danger, fear and emotional distress without any excessive dramatics on the part of the director.

The smuggling does not go well. There is loss of life and backpacks. One of the “lost” is a young boy who wanders across the countryside carrying his backpack. The fate of the boy is done simply and effectively by showing us his expressionless face as he discards his backpack and ends up in a gas station. Karkanevatos creates an emotional peak by just showing the young boy biting into a sandwich that is given to him by the gas station owner. The backpack of the boy and the other backpacks that are mentioned have some significance.

In the meantime Yannis and Chryssa fall in love as they engage in their dance of death. Yannis performs his dance with the unexploded mines while she engages with the smugglers. Yannis’s movements across the minefield may be taken to literally resemble the steps of a danse macabre while Chryssa participates in the equally moribund movements in her meetings with the smugglers.
Chryssa and Yannis consummate their love in a pool and it is a scene as much of passion as it is of baptism and spiritual union of the two. In a later scene, Yannis will bang his head against a concrete wall seeking a sign from Chryssa. I will not give more details lest I spoil the dramatic end of the film.

Karkanevatos, who wrote the script with Isidoros Zourgos and directed the film, uses the Greek countryside, a slow-moving but threatening River Evros and shots of Istanbul for the large exterior scenes. The grassy minefield, the hospital, the army barracks and the houses are adequate background for a story that is not about external drama. 

The film struck me as a symphonic poem composed almost entirely in a minor key. The stories of the smuggling of people and drugs, the relationship of Yannis and Chryssa, the dangerous river, the search for mines whirled in my mind as musical themes that could be developed, varied, and recapitulated in a stunning musical composition.

The final scene could provide a dissonant coda that dissolves into a heart-rending finale as we see that last tableau of the film: a single shoe washed on the shore of the river.

Exquisite.

Riverbanks was shown as part of the 12th Annual European Union Film Festival. All 28 members of the European Union show one film each. Many of the films are shown in Canada for the first time and some are world premieres. The Festival runs from November 10 to November 24, 2016 and all the films are shown at The Royal Theatre, 608 College Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.euffto.com and www.riverbanksmovie.gr.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

CONSTELLATIONS – REVIEW OF CANADIAN STAGE/CENTAUR THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Production:   CONSTELLATIONS
Author:          Nick Payne
Director:        Peter Hinton  
Cast:               Graham Cuthbertson, Cara Rickets and Jane Chan (cellist)
Company:      Canadian Stage and Centaur Theatre Company
Venue:            Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street                                        East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com
Run:               November 8 to 27, 2016


Playwright Nick Payne in Constellations asks the big question: what if there are many universes?

If you area like me and have difficulty understanding a single universe, the idea of many of them existing simultaneously is pretty daunting and mind-expanding. And if that is not enough, just imagine us existing in a number of universes at the same time.
                                           Cara Ricketts and Graham Cuthbertson. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Roland (Graham Cuthbertson) and Marianne (Cara Ricketts) are ordinary people whom we meet in “our” universe. He is a beehive keeper and she is a physicist who works at Cambridge. They meet at a barbecue party but their attraction to each other is cut short because his wife is there.

That meeting is replayed a number of times with certain permutations. Do they exist in different universes simultaneously but their lives differ in certain details?

Roland and Marianne will go through courtship, love, fidelity and infidelity, together and apart, illness and health and I suppose all the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But those experiences are never the same. The play is based on themes and variations and as in a musical composition the fascination lies in the inventiveness of the composer but in this case it is on a multiversal level.
Cara Ricketts and Graham Cuthbertson. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Cuthbertson and Rickets are on stage for all of the play’s 75 minutes and they have to deal with the big and small variations of the text with finesse and precision made more difficult by the fact that the text is identical or similar in each universe. They perform with expertise and true talent.

There is a cellist (Jane Chan) on stage throughout the performance providing an obbligato to the numerous lives of Roland and Marianne.

The set by Michael Gianfrancesco consists of a revolving circular platform which is mirrored behind the performers. There is a circular crown above. The world or universe or multiverse goes around in mysterious ways that is out of the scope of comprehension of most of us.

Peter Hinton directs the actors superbly though all the repetitions, variations and emotional upheavals in a play that can only be described as being out of this world.   


Sunday, November 13, 2016

RICHARD III – REVIEW OF SCREENING OF ALMEIDA THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Almeida Theatre’s Richard III directed by Rupert Goold is a powerful production that seethes with violence and gives us Shakespeare at his best.

In 2012 the bones of the murderous king were found in a parking lot in Leicester, England. Goold uses the grave where the bones were found as the central image in his production. The rectangular hole in the ground is visible throughout the performance and is a convenient place to dump some of Richard’s hapless victims.

The dominant colour of the production is black and there is scant scenery. The characters speak on a black background with some exceptions as when the throne is visible. The characters wear modern dress and occasionally use cell phones.
 Ralph Fiennes as Richard III. Photo: Marc Brenner 
Ralph Fiennes is a powerful, vicious and malevolent Richard. He speaks in measured tones that exude violence and imminent danger for anyone who dares disagree with the ambitious duke who must dispose his brother and his nephews and bludgeon his way to the throne of England. He does. Richard is also a liar and a consummate actor.

He proves the latter attributes in the opening scenes of the play where he pretends to support his brother while plotting to kill him and he seduces Lady Ann (Joanna Vanderham), the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, the son of King Henry VI both of whom Richard killed. She is following the coffin of Henry VI and Richard convinces her that he loves her.

Vanderham stands her ground and spews insults and curses at her husband’s killer in a superb performance but she does not stand a chance against the lewd Richard who grabs her Trump-style, marries her and subsequently discards her like a used piece of furniture.

Richard III has three other marvelous roles for woman. Vanessa Redgrave appears as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. The queen is an old and bitter woman whose husband was deposed by the House of York in the civil war and she curses Richard roundly.

The Duchess of York (Susan Engel) is the mother of Richard who kills her son Clarence and her grandchildren in order to gain the throne. The pain of a mother is written on Engel’s fine face in this moving performance.
 
Susan Engel and Vanessa Redgrave in Richard III. Photo: Marc Brenner 
The best part may well be that of Queen Elizabeth, the wife and later widow of King Edward IV. Her sons are heirs to the throne until their uncle Richard has them murdered and gains the crown. The ruthless Richard III suggests that he marry the Queen’s daughter, his niece and the sister of the murdered princes. In a superb performance, Aislin McGuckin as the Queen confronts Richard until he strikes back and rapes her in a scene of ultimate horror.

Finbar Lynch plays a masterful, greedy and ambitious Duke of Buckingham but his evil has limits and he ends up in the grave that occupies center-stage of the production.

Goold has dispensed with a number of characters of the play and made the plot more taut and dramatic. There are no crowd scenes and most of the action is done in close-ups. The actors speak in measured tones, pronouncing, indeed enunciating every syllable and they are a joy to hear.

Watching Richard III the day after the American presidential elections made comparisons between the fifteenth century king and Donald Trump inevitable. They are both consummate liars, treat women with contempt, handle their adversaries with unbridled viciousness and stop at nothing to gain their ends. Richard III actually kills while Trump engages in character assassination. They are narcissistic, manipulative and utterly ruthless.

They have their toadies and surrogates (Duke of Buckingham, Mayor of London, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich) who not so much support the moral swamp of their leader as add to it.

Richard III spread rumours that his brother, Edward IV was illegitimate as are the young princes and heirs to the throne. Trump insists that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and utters so many egregious lies that the truth becomes a questionable commodity.   

The similarities accumulate as we watch the triumph of misogyny, xenophobia, lying, and the lack of even a modicum of decency.
_____      

Richard III by William Shakespeare in a production from the Almeida Theatre, London, was shown at the Cineplex Cinema, Yonge-Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ontario and other Cineplex Cinemas on November 9, 2016. It will be shown again on December 4, 2016 in select venues. www.cineplex.com