Tuesday, October 17, 2017

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME – REVIEW

Reviewed by James Karas

At the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Christopher lists his accomplishments and asks if now he can do anything. The question is not answered as the lights go off.

Christopher, brilliantly played by Joshua Jenkins, is an autistic child and the protagonist in Mark Haddon’s 2004 novel which has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens and is now playing at The Princess of Wales Theatre. Haddon tries to enter into the mind of Christopher and tell us his story through his autistic eyes. We see the extraordinary behaviour caused by autism, we witness the workings of a brilliant mind in the domestic life of his parents and of the murder mystery that Christopher is trying to solve and about which he has written. It is an astonishing, moving, eye-opening glimpse into the fantasies, phantasmagoria, achievements and suffering of Christopher, of his treatment by the outside world and of the lives of his parents who must endure his irrational conduct.
 

 Joshua Jenkins (Christopher) and company - Curious Incident International Tour. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Christopher throws tantrums, does not want to be touched, is afraid of certain colours, cannot abide loud sounds or crowds, is obsessively literal-minded and, in short, he would test the patience of a saint, assuming that the latter can endure the unendurable.

In the opening scene we discover Christopher sitting beside a dog. It is Wellington, his neighbor Mrs. Shear’s (Amanda Posener) dog and someone killed it by sticking a pitchfork in its side. He is accused of killing the dog and arrested after attacking a policeman.        

Against his father’s orders, Christopher begins his detective work to find out who killed Wellington. He does some calculations and in the end does make the shocking discovery of who killed the poor creature.

But that is only a part of the story. Christopher has a friend and mentor called Siobhan (Julie Hales) who understands his behavior and shows him ways of dealing with his idiosyncrasies.  His father (David Michaels) is patient but has limited insight into his son’s behavior. His mother (Emma Beattie) could not endure it and she left her husband and her son and ran off with another man. There is a dramatic story about her death and Christopher’s discovery of the truth.

Intermingled with his irrational and ultra-rational behaviour, Christopher shows signs of brilliance. He has a great memory and a phenomenal aptitude for mathematics. He solves equations that would stump most mortals.
 
Joshua Jenkins (Christopher) and company. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The play, like the novel, is told in the first person by Christopher and he dominates the production. Jenkins gives a superb performance as a troubled youth, a type of performance that should find itself in the top list of awards for acting. The play has a considerable number of characters as the scene changes from Christopher’s house, to the neighborhood, to his school, the train station and the trip to London as well as life with his mother. Most of the actors play several parts and there are some very quick scene changes. The individual and ensemble performances are outstanding as is the work of director Marianne Elliott.

The set by designer Bunny Christie, the lighting by Paule Constable and the video designs by Finn Ross capture the inner world of Christopher and his relationship with reality as he sees it.      

Near the end of the play Christopher is given a dog, a real dog, and he establishes an emotional link with it. He then enumerates his achievements including going to London, solving the mystery of who killed Wellington, getting an A in an advanced mathematics test and writing the book on which this great night at the theatre is based.
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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Simon Stephens  based on the novel by Mark Haddon opened on October 15 and will play until November 19, 2017 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Sunday, October 15, 2017

BELLO – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Vern Thiessen’s Bello is a moving, scary and entertaining play playing at the Young People’s Theatre in a fine production directed by Mieko Ouchi. You get two sources of entertainment: the audience of mostly seven-year olds and the performers of the play. 

Thiessen weaves two stories into his play. The first is about a little boy named Bern whose parents die and he goes to live with an aunt and uncle who have a large family. They live on a farm before electricity or cars or telephones were discovered. The children have to walk five kilometers to school and they all have chores like watering the horses, milking the cows and feeding the chickens. Bern’s cousin Peter is nasty to him and he lives in fear.
 
Pictured (L-R): Gabriel Gagnon, Nicole St. Martin and Morgan Yamada; Production Design by Patrick Beagan 
 Photo by Ali Sultani.
On the way to school, they see an abandoned barn which is occupied by a mysterious person. Is it an old woman, a witch or what? She is very scary.

Three actors, Gabriel Gagnon, Nicole St. Martin and Morgan Yamada, represent all the characters in the play with consummate ability and speedy changes in roles. The actors are grownups but they manage to be convincing in all roles that they take on to the delight of the audience. Gagnon and Yamada play Bern and Peter respectively, the main characters, but they take other parts as well.

Bern gets lost in a blizzard on the way home from school and he runs into the mysterious and very scary person in the abandoned barn.

The play lasts about fifty minutes and it is done at a brisk pace perfectly apt for the youthful audience. The play is billed as being appropriate for ages 6 to 9 but I think that’s just a guideline.

Everything is done some sheets, several boxes and an active imagination. Patrick Beagan is the Production Designer.

The other source of entertainment, as I said, is the audience of youngsters who are following attentively and are instant theatre reviewers. No waiting for the end of the play for them. “That is funny,” “that is disgusting” and “that was weird” are just of the few comments that were shouted out for everyone to take heed of audience reactions.
Morgan Yamada, Nicole St. Martin and Gabriel Gagnon; Production Design by Patrick Beagan 
Photo by Ali Sultani.
 The story is touching with flashes of humour and of course a message about fear, intolerance and a mystery behind the person in the abandoned barn. We hear of Bello, a little boy after whom the play in named, we see reconciliation, tolerance and the establishment of order and the maturing of the young.

I had two Visiting Associate Reviewers with me and both gave the production very good reviews. Almost-8 Akeelah liked Bern best but Almost-6 Kiera preferred Peter. Even though Peter mistreated Bern, she felt that he deserved to be liked because he said “I’m sorry” to Bern. The only criticism was that the play was too short!

In other words, an all-around positive verdict for a very enjoyable albeit "short" afternoon at the theatre. 
Bello by Vern Thiessen translated by Brian Dooley n a co-production by Concrete Theatre and L’Unithéâtre, directed by Mieko Ouchi continues until October 20, 2017 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Thursday, October 12, 2017

ARABELLA – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has made two commendable choices for its 2017 fall season. One is Richard Strauss’s lyric comedy Arabella being produced for the first time by the COC and the other one is Donizetti’s perennial favourite, The Elixir of Love.

A fine cast led by Erin Wall in the name role, Tomas Konieczny as Mandryka and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Tim Albery’s production goes a long way in making the production highly commendable, but no one can save the creaky and silly plot from producing twitches near the end.

Much can be said and in fact has been written about the social and political milieu of Arabella, the year in which it is set (Vienna in 1860), the time in which it was written (late1920’s) and the date of its premiere in Dresden (July 1933). But it is essentially a simple love story that demands a serious suspension of disbelief.
 Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Arabella is a beautiful woman who is looking for Mr. Right. She saw a foreigner gazing at her in the street and she fell in love with him on the spot. Mr. Right has been found. Mandryka, Mr. Right that is, has the benefit of being loaded, is on his way to Arabella’s residence and he is smitten by her as well. He saw her picture.

Count Waldner, Arabella’s father, is a retired officer whose main occupation now is gambling while looking for a rich husband for Arabella. The word you are thinking of was not in current use at the time but the Count has an unassailable reason for what he is doing. He is broke.
 
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal adds complications and a sense of urgency to the consummation of instant love, with the consonant need to achieve the riddance of the misunderstandings, and the aversion of bankruptcy. Mr. Right has to be found today, the last day of the Carnival, because there can be no pursuit of marital ambitions after midnight. It is Lent and fasting is imperative.
Michael Brandenburg as Matteo and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Arabella. Photo: Michael Cooper 
In fairness, Hofmannsthal did not live to revise the libretto and he dies before Strauss had begun composing the music. Nevertheless, Strauss composed luscious, melting and radiant music for the creaky libretto that lifts the opera above the silly plot complications and common farcical elements.

Soprano Erin Wall raises Arabella above some of the traits that one would find objectionable in our heroine. She knows nothing about this man and she will live happily ever after in the forests of Croatia! Sure. Wall’s lustrous voice and assured bearing make us believe Arabella and enjoy a superb performance.

Polish bass-baritone Konieczny plays the rich Croatian landowner Mandryka, a bit of a country bumpkin, perhaps, who loves Arabella deeply even though he knows nothing about her. We accept him as he is, thanks to Konieczny’s resonant voice and his convincing expression of love and ignore the downside.

Soprano Jane Archibald turns in a highly commendable performance as Arabella’s sister Zdenka. Zdenka causes all the complications that take too long to unravel but she deserves our sympathy. She is raised as a boy because girls are high maintenance and she is desperately in love with Matteo (a miscast Michael Brandenburg) who is desperately in love with Arabella. You get the idea.

Baritone John Fanning plays the gambling Count Waldner straight. Perhaps it is the best way to present the foolish man who is pursued by creditors and his solution is to dispose of his daughter to a rich bidder without missing a card game. Very good work by Fanning.

Set and Costume Designer Tobias needs three sets. A hotel suite where Arabella’s family resides, a ballroom and the hotel lobby for the final act. The hotel suite is aggressively gray, with no wall decorations and a sofa and a chair for furniture. The semicircular panels are turned around to create a lighter gray scene for the ballroom. And similar work is done for the final scene which is lit more brightly for the happy conclusion. The sets are simple and functional and eschew extravagant opulence. Waldner is broke, after all.

Patrick Lange conducts the COC Orchestra in this musically rich opera with a flawed libretto.
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Arabella by Richard Strauss opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times until October 28, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Monday, October 9, 2017

NORMA – REVIEW OF 2017 LIVE FROM THE MET BROADCAST

James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera is back for its twelfth season of transmissions of operas from New York to the world. The broadcast of Norma is the 110th production that they have sent to people who may never visit (or afford a seat) at Lincoln Centre.

This season’s opener is a new production of Bellini’s masterpiece directed by David McVicar with an all-star cast conducted by Carlo Rizzi. The result is opera at its best.

The vocal centerpiece of the production is soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, a singer in her prime reprising a role that she has mastered. This Norma, like Radvanovsky, is a mature woman, facing major conflicts. She is a religious/political leader who must decide between war and peace with the occupying Roman army while dealing with fundamental betrayal - by her of all that she stands for with the Roman Officer Pollione and by him of her in favor of the younger priestess Adalgisa.
 Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini's "Norma." 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Radvanovsky rises to the vocal and dramatic demands of the role with superb mastery. Her rich and velvet voice conveys Norma’s conflicts, her maternal love, anger and pain in the face of treachery and, finally, redemption through self-sacrifice.  The apogee of Norma is no doubt “Casta diva” and Radvanovsky summons all her powers in her performance. But did she add an “e” between casta and diva? The “a” of casta does not flow into the “d” of diva smoothly without what sounded like an e in between.

The mellifluously-voice mezzo Joyce DiDonato portrays the young priestess Adalgisa. DiDonato is perfectly cast. Her Adalgisa is a youthful blonde who shows a bare shoulder that adds sexual allure to vocal splendor. It explains why Pollione is attracted to her (aside from the fact that he is a jerk) and abandons Norma, the mother of his children and a woman who has risked and betrayed all for him.

Tenor Joseph Calleja has a clarion voice and a heroic manner and he makes an ideal Pollione, a man who is interested in himself only.       

David McVicar’s new production deserves plaudits for originality, intelligence and brilliance. We start with the forest where the Druids meet by the scared oak tree to hear Norma’s decision on war and peace. But as the curtain goes up we see soldiers carrying corpses on stretchers. The peace treaty between the Romans and the conquered Druids is not holding up and we understand why the latter are eager for war.

When Norma ascends the platform to address the crowd, she reaches down and takes the hand of Adalgisa, her protégé, friend and, eventually, traitor. During “Casta diva” Adalgisa joins Norma on the platform. Marvelous touches all.
  A scene from Act I of Bellini's "Norma." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The scene changes to Norma’s dwelling. The set with the forest and sacred oak trees is raised and underneath it we find Norma’s residence made from the roots of the oak tree. There is a bed on which we see the children and this is Norma’s and Pollione’s lair. A simple but brilliant connection.

With the domestic scene and many other touches, McVicar directs our attention to and emphasizes the human drama as much as the political and religious issues between the Romans and the Druids. Radvanovsky and DiDonato portray flesh and blood women more than public figures in a barbaric age.

Give victory laurels to McVicar, Set Designer Robert Jones and Costume Designer Moritz Junge.

Carlo Rizzi conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a crisp and superb performance of Bellini’s music in an overall stunning production.
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Norma by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 7, 2017 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on November 4, 6 and 8, 2017 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events


Friday, October 6, 2017

UNDERCOVER – REVIEW OF ANOTHER NORTHAN CREATION AT TARRAGON

James Karas

***** (out of five)

Rebecca Northan is at it again. This is the spontaneous theatre specialist that gave us Blind Date a couple of years ago and now is back with Undercover, a murder mystery (maybe). It is an unwritten but strictly applied rule that the audience of a thriller shall never disclose “who done it.”

Well, I throw caution to the end, trample on the rule and loudly disclose that Rebecca Northan done it. Just look at the facts. She created the whole thing admittedly with the help of Bruce Horak. She directs the production and stars in it with the panache, timing and natural comedic talent of a master of comedy.
 
                                      Undercover ensemble with audience member (photo: Little Blue Lemon Inc.)
Undercover involves a Detective Sergeant named Roberta Collins. She sends an undercover rookie detective to a party in a posh house out in the country where she suspects some skullduggery. The house, as befits a thriller, is so far out in the country (I think they said Caledon), that the road is washed away during a storm that happens the very night of the suspected commission of some crime.

Enter the Northan Secret Weapon of Comedy. The rookie detective is none other than a member of the audience who goes on stage with no experience and no foreknowledge of the plot. The cast has no foreknowledge of what to expect from the rookie actor and they all need to improvise.

All six actors prove that they can make things up as they go along but none does it as well as Northan. A pause, a look, a good line, a movement, all are in Northan’s laughter producing artillery. Some of the six actors play two roles and all must adjust to the reality of the unexpected actions and dialogue of the evening’s guest performer.

After basic training, the rookie detective goes to the party. She pretends to know the hostess Goergie (Northan) who is about to sell a mysterious work of art. Her cousin Brook (Terra Hazelton), a pot smoker, is there as well as Lia Da Costa (Christy Bruce) and with a name like that you know she is suspicious.
 
Jamie Northan and audience member (photo: Little Blue Lemon Inc.).
Georgie’s husband Peter (Bruce Horak) is not above suspicious but we pay special attention to “the butler” Daniel (Jamie Northan).  We also have a politician, a future mayor in fact (played by Dennis Cahill) and we certainly cannot trust him. The lights go off during the storm and something terrible happens and I am not referring to the road that’s washed away. Back to the eternal question: who done it?

You will laugh so hard at the scripted and unscripted humour that emanates from the play that you may not care about the identity of the culprit or the motive for whatever happened to cause the commission of the crime and the subsequent highly competent investigation.

The six actors are able to react to the unscripted and unexpected actions of the guest performer with alacrity and the laughter gets louder when they appear almost stumped momentarily by what the guest says or does.

A play that you can see numerous times and never watch the same performance twice.

Go see it.   
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Undercover  created by Rebecca Northan and Bruce Horak opened on September 19 and continues until October 29, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontariowww.tarragontheatre.com

Friday, September 29, 2017

NORTH BY NORTHWEST – REVIEW OF PLAY BASED ON MOVIE AT ROYAL ALEX

Reviewed by James Karas

North By Northwest will inevitably get two distinct reactions from the people who see it at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The play is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint and it has at least one iconic scene that almost everyone has seen. Grant goes to an arid and desolate crossroads in Indiana to meet someone. There is no one there but a crop-dusting plane tries to kill him. We see him running as fast as he can for cover in a cornfield and the plane smashes into an oil tanker. Heady stuff.

Those who have seen the movie will be fascinated to watch how a plot that involves numerous scenes, a car chase, a colliding plane, a train ride and a scene atop Mount Rushmore can be adapted for the stage. They know the plot, of course, and the surprises will come in the method of transferring from screen to stage. 

North by North West - Theatre Royal Bath. Credit: Nobby Clark
These who have not seen the movie will follow the adventures of Roger Thornhill (Jonathan Watton), an advertising executive, who is mistaken for someone called Kaplan and is taken at gunpoint by a couple of thugs from the swanky Plaza Hotel in New York. He is forced to drink a bottle of bourbon, to drive while blotto drunk, be accused of a murder in the United Nations Building and escape with the assistance of the beautiful Eve (Olivia Fines.)

Eve “protects” Roger from the police, sends him to Indiana and is obviously trying to dispatch Roger to Hades or Elysium. He falls in love with her and she shoots him Gestapo-style. We are on Mount Rushmore and need to work things out.

The adaptation of the Hitchcock movie’s screenplay by Ernest Lehman is done by Carolyn Burns who is amazingly faithful to the original. The dialogue is almost identical with that in the film and aside from a few sequences being eliminated, we follow most steps of the movie. That necessitates numerous fast scene changes and the use of videos and theatrical tricks for us to follow the plot. There is considerable ingenuity and we know right from the start that we are watching a stage presentation of the movie.

For the scenes with cars, the passengers sit on a couch while stage hands push it to simulate driving. Projected videos are used for the planes and quick changed of props for changing locales. The main feature of the set is glass panels that resemble the exterior of those glass high rises that we see downtown.
 
Olivia Fines and Jonathan Watton in North by North West
Theatre Royal Bath. Credit: Nobby Clark
Watton and Fines are the only two actors that play one role while the others take on numerous parts. Gerald Kyd plays the villain Vandamm who, disguised as art dealer, engages international espionage. Abigail McKern plays Roger’s mother and several minor roles. Nick Sampson plays The Professor who is in fact an FBI/CIA man fighting for the good guys.

As in any good thriller, character development is of minor importance as we rush through the plot twists, the close calls, the unexpected turns until we get to the final resolutions. Director Simon Phillips carries us along for the ride with the international cast on hand. Watton is a Canadian and I am not sure why Phillips felt that he should speak in a New York accent. Don’t bother. The same applies to a number of characters for whom the accent does not come naturally.

Fines is English, Kyd is half Scottish and half Greek, McKern is Australian-English, Nick Sampson and Tom Davey, if I am not mistaken, are British. Trying to get a consistent accent of any kind would be tough.

In any event, the familiar plot for those who have seen the movie and the unfamiliar story of those who have not provides an evening (or afternoon) of light entertainment.  
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North by Northwest adapted by Carolyn Burns from the screenplay by Ernest Lehman for the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock opened on September 24 and will run until October 29, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Thursday, September 28, 2017

WAITING FOR GODOT – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION


The redoubtable Soulpepper company has mounted a superb production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot directed by Daniel Brooks. It features outstanding performances by Oliver Dennis as Estragon and Diego Matamoros as Vladimir.

Waiting for Godot has established itself as a classic in the almost seventy years since it was written but the same question has been asked since its first performance in 1953: What does it mean? Beckett gave a precise answer by asking another question: “What does it mean to you.”

That is perhaps the best answer. The play means whatever each viewer extracts from all the apparently pointless talking about nothing, trading of hats, playing of games, struggling with boots and waiting.
 Diego Matamoros, Rick Roberts and Oliver Dennis, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
There are many issues raised, of course, from the violence meted on Estragon who seems to be beaten regularly by thugs, to the cruel treatment of Lucky (Alex McCooeye) by his owner Pozzo (Rick Roberts). One can make much of the appearance of the Boy (Richie Lawrence) as well.

In the end the best explanation about the play may have been given by the great ballerina Anna Pavlova (who never saw the play) whose comment about the meaning of her dancing may be paraphrased to apply to what Beckett may have meant by his play: If he could say what the play meant, he wouldn’t have written it.

In other words, we are on our own about what the play means. What struck me while watching the Soulpepper production is the story of the two thieves that Vladimir tells Estragon near the beginning of the play. Two thieves who were crucified with “our Saviour” and according to one Evangelist only, one of them was saved. Vladimir and Estragon are tramps and I found an immediate relationship between them and the thieves of the New Testament.

Near the end of the play, Estragon says that he will go barefoot like Christ and that all his life he has compared himself to Christ. The tramps ask for God’s pity. Godot is of course referred to as their saviour if he ever comes and his name does contain the word God.

The most striking comment in this Christian line of references is Vladimir’s question to himself during his brief reverie near the end of the play: “Was I sleeping while the others suffered?”
 Oliver Dennis, Alex McCooeye and Diego Matamoros, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Matamoros and Dennis play with and against each other brilliantly as the two tramps who are lost in the universe. Roberts struck me as a bit too matter-of-fact in the first act but he showed his brilliant talent in the second act as the blind Pozzo. McCooeye has the thankless role of the abused slave and then has to recite a couple of pages of Beckettian “drivel” that must have tested his ability to memorize and deliver. Bravo.

Brooks has a sure feel for Beckett and the only observation I will make is that there is very little humour in the production. Vladimir and Estragon are aware of their circumstances and I think they are deliberately funny at times but Brooks decided not to play up that aspect in this production.

Waiting for Godot, like all great plays, creates its own universe and has an inexhaustible treasury of meanings and explanations. The only one that counts, however, is your own which of necessity will always be tentative.  See the play and find your own mileposts and meaning.
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Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett opened on September 14 and will run until October 7, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca