Sunday, June 25, 2017

THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA? – REVIEW OF ALBEE’S PLAY AT THEATRE ROYAL HAYMARKET

James Karas

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, Edward Albee’s play, refers to the animal that plays a crucial part in the play but also looks back to the roots of tragedy. The word tragedy means goat song and no one really knows what the Greeks were referring to when they assigned that word to the creation of that great dramatic genre.

The Goat is a tragedy about a man who falls in love with, yes, a goat. There is nothing comic about the intense relationship between Martin (Damien Lewis), a successful architect and a good father and husband, and the goat that he names Sylvia. He is deeply and genuinely in love with her.
Sophie Okonedo and Damian Lewis star in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Johan Persson
Martin’s wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) finds out about the relationship and, not surprisingly, freaks out. The couple has a son, Billy (Archie Madekwe) who is a student at an upscale private school and he is gay. This is a highly intelligent, articulate and loving family and Martin’s affair with a goat falls like a bomb on a peaceful meadow. A family friend named Ross (Jason Hughes) finds out about the affair and his reaction may be taken to represent society’s attitude in general.

The production is outstanding in every respect but the performance of the cast as directed by Ian Rickson is an exceptional achievement. Lewis as Martin has to maneuver between explaining his unorthodox behaviour to defending his passion for a goat. Lewis pleads, reasons, yells, becomes angry and impassioned in a superb performance.
Archie Madekwe. Photo: Johan Persson
Okonedo as the gifted wife has great cause for rage and incomprehension. When her anger boils over she starts breaking furniture, furnishings and everything she can get her hands on. We see physical and emotional destruction in a powerful performance that leaves nothing standing.

Madekwe makes his professional debut as the son, a bright boy who loves his parents and is caught in the crossfire in a situation that is beyond comprehension. In the middle of the excruciating emotional turmoil he displays a brief sexual attraction to his father and kisses him on the lips. It is another layer in the complex psychology of the play that is indeed difficult to comprehend. Madekwe’s performance is brilliant.

Hughes does a good job as the family friend and foil for Martin.  
The set by Rae Smith consists of a nice apartment with bare brick walls, modern furniture and plenty of bric-a-bracs for Stevie to break when she wreaks physical and emotional havoc.

A stunning production of a stunning play and a great night at the theatre.  
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The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee ran until June 24, 2017 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18 Suffolk Street London SW1Y 4HT London, England. www.trh.co.uk


Saturday, June 24, 2017

LA STRADA – REVIEW OF OTHER PALACE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

How about a play based on a movie, to wit, Federico Fellini’s La Strada?

Thanks, but….

Director Sally Cookson has done just that and a play based on the 1954 film is now playing at The Other Palace, a small theatre around the corner from the more famous Victoria Palace which is being refurbished.

La Strada is based on a moving story that is part myth and part ugly reality. The myth is about Gelsomina, a waif, who is sold by her mother to a brute. She goes through endurance, transformation, death and transfiguration. The reality is about post World War II Italy, devastated by the Fascists, the Nazis and the allies, with its people left with poverty and starvation.
 Audrey Brisson and the cast of La Strada. Photo: Robert Day
A mother with five children sells her oldest child to Zampano, the strongest man in the world who can break a steel chain by expanding his chest. He is a brute who flogs and criminally mistreats the young girl who is prepared to do anything to please him because she wants to send money to her mother.    

Cookson, herwriter in the roomMike Akers and Set and Costume Designer Katie Sykes are exceptionally successful in creating the world of circuses, magic and popular entertainment that Gelsomina and Zampano travel through. They travel on a motorcycle and a few rearranged boxes on the stage create the illusion of a motorcycle in a matter of seconds. The circus, a chapel, a wedding and the empty countryside are created just as quickly. The real and the magical travel together.

Gelsomina meets a clown who gives her confidence and a trumpet to play. She learns, she is transformed and stands up to her owner.

Audrey Brisson gives a moving and splendid performance as an abused child who tries and endures everything because she has no choice and wants to help her family. We follow her every step with our hearts going out to her and ready to pounce on the creepy Zampano.

Bart Soroczynski and the cast of La Strada Photo:Robert Day
Stuart Goodwin is outstanding as Zampano – we would not hate him if he were anything less. He imposes his physical strength and is ready to annihilate anyone who stands in his way.

Canadian Bart Soroczynski plays the clown who is the opposite of Zampano. He is funny, agile and a fine circus performer on the monocycle. He befriends Gelsomina and helps bring about her transformation.

There is an ensemble of actors who play various roles as Gelsomina and Zampano move from place to place, from the countryside, to bars, to places where they perform, to the seashore, to a chapel in a monastery.

Benji Bower has composed original music for the play consisting of Italianate folk melodies that are pleasant and fitting. A band of musicians is on stage to play but they are also part of the highly mobile ensemble.

Do you want to see a play based on a movie?

Yes. Thank you.
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La Strada created by Sally Cookson with music by Benji Bower, written by Mike Akers, based on the screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli continues until July 8, 2017 at The Other Palace, 12 Palace Street, London, England. www.TheOtherPalace.co.uk

Friday, June 23, 2017

ROMEO AND JULIET – REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION

James Karas

This is a production of Romeo and Juliet the likes of which you probably never saw before and with any luck you will never see again. Director Daniel Kramer tries to combine commedia dell’arte with modernism and the result is a burlesque of Shakespeare’s play that is painful to watch. A few points and examples will have to suffice.

In the opening scene two stretchers are pushed onto the stage with two people covered in black who turn out to be clutching miniature coffins. The prologue and the words of the Prince are heard over loud speakers. The stretchers will come in handy during the play and in the Capulet crypt.
 Golda Rosheuvel,,Kirsty Bushell, Harish Patel, Edward Hogg and Ricky Champ
Most of the characters have white masks painted on their faces and some have red noses as if they are clowns. These are commedia dell’arte types of characters with their stock characteristics, pantomime and acting style.

The function at the Capulet mansion where Romeo (Edward Hogg with his face painted white) meets Juliet (Kirsty Bushell) is a masked ball which would be appropriate. But the attendees make a pretty strange crowd. We have medieval armour, an assortment of Disney characters and brisk movement. At times the production looks like Romeo and Juliet on steroids. Is it intended to please teenagers?
Kirsty Bushell and Edward Hogg in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Alistair Muir 
The scene where Mercutio (Golda Rosheuvel) and Tybalt (Ricky Champ) are killed is presented as a party/dance scene rumble with very loud music. A mattress is brought on the stage and Juliet dances on it in anticipation of Romeo’s arrival. Romeo kills Tybalt on the mattress with Juliet jumping up and down obviously unaware of what is happening.

Kramer makes Friar Lawrence (Harish Patel) into a Muslim who speaks with a Pakistani accent. I am sure there was a reason for this that simply escapes me. Mercutio is played by a woman, Golda Rosheuvel. Reason? The bearer of the poison is a FedEx courier.

Lady Capulet (Martina Laird) looks like Mickey Mouse who has a lot of trouble keeping the hair pieces that make up her ears in place. The Nurse (Blythe Duff), with her thick Scottish accent shows spunk but has a hairdo that makes her look like a recent escapee from a lunatic asylum. Lord Capulet (Gareth Snook), with a black clown’s hat and red nose, sings “YMCA.”

When Juliet is in bed (on the mattress) talking with the Nurse, Romeo is there too. Then Friar Lawrence walks in on the same scene.

Kramer gerrymanders and combines scenes so that it seems that you are watching the play on a split screen on your computer with people being able to jump from one screen to another. It looks as if no cockamamie idea came to Kramer that he considered too inane to incorporate into the production. Shakespeare’s play is used as a clothes line for Kramer’s ideas to be hung to dry.

The result is a travesty.
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Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until July 9, 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

L’ELISIR D’AMORE - REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE 2017 REVIVAL

Reviewed by James Karas

You may recall Lady Bracknell’s admonition to Mr. Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest upon being told he has lost both his parents: ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

The Royal Opera House can hardly be accused of carelessness but it did lose the soprano and the tenor in one day of the performance of L’Elisir d’Amore.

Lady Bracknell further demanded that he ‘make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.’ The ROH did not have such luxury and in fact had to find a soprano on the day of the performance and a tenor between scenes.
 Photo of scene from L'Elisir d'Amore with different principals. Photo: Bill Cooper
During the day an email message advised that soprano Aleksandra Kurzak had withdrawn from singing the role of Adina due to illness and the role was to be taken by Jennifer Davis. At the end of the first scene after the performance began, we were informed that tenor Roberto Alagna could not finish it and that he would be replaced by tenor Ioan Hotea.

This production of Donizetti’s masterpiece of love, innocence and quackery was first directed by Laurent Pelly in 2006 and it has been revived numerous times since then. The current revival director is Daniel Dooner. Pelly set the opera in an agrarian Italian village in the 1950s. There are bales of hay, a tractor, a harvester and the ambience of a peaceful village. The men drive Vespas and the main concern is love and the promises of the quack Doctor Dulcamara.

We were not short changed at all by the replacement of Alagna by the Romanian tenor Hotea. Hotea may lack Alagna’s darker shades but he gave us a youthful and energetic Nemorino that was a  delight.  He has a marvelous, light voice in the style of Juan Diego Flores that showed beauty and agility. This Nemorino is pure innocence, love and vulnerability and deserves to get the girl.

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Adina wowed us with her tonal beauty and tenderness. Her Adina showed innocence and cunning and we enjoyed every note of Donizetti’s incomparable melodies.

Italian bass baritone Alex Esposito sang the role of the mountebank Doctor Dulcamara, a quack, a fast buck artist who is crooked but likable, sleazy but not evil. Esposito does it all with a glint in his eye and a sonorous voice in his larynx.
Nemorino’s competition for Adina is Sergeant Belcore, an arrogant martinet sung by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka. No complaints about Plachetka’s vocal and acting performance but we are glad he does not get the girl. 

Donizetti provides a wealth of choral music and the Royal Opera Chorus is shown at its best. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Bertrand de Billy is superb.
  
L’Elisir d’Amore is a delightful opera, a comedy that produces laughter even through surtitles. Pelly’s conception and its execution by an outstanding cast, orchestra and chorus makes for a wonderful evening at the opera.

You disagree with Lady Bracknell at your peril but on this occasion you may risk it. To lose…a soprano and a tenor…was neither tragic nor careless and it did not detract from the performance.
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L’Elisir d’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Felice Romani (libretto) played from  May 27 to June 22, 2017 on various dates with cast changes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England. www.roh.org.uk


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

THE CHANGELING – REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has hit a home run with its production of The Changeling. It gets to first base by simply producing this 1622 thriller which has been seen in Stratford only once before, in 1989. It gets to second base for producing a play for which it almost needs to create an audience. The Festival deserves to be criticized for ignoring much unfamiliar Renaissance drama. It gets to home base with a fine cast under the expert direction of Jackie Maxwell.

The Changeling was a big hit in the 1620’s it was popular entertainment and gave Londoners the works: love, lust, murder, madness, a fail-proof test of virginity, comedy and tragedy. After a few more productions, the play was ignored for almost 250 years until it was “rediscovered” in the latter part of the twentieth century.
 Members of the company in The Changeling. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
Jackie Maxwell sets the production in Spain in 1938 at the end of the Civil War when Franco had seized power. As with any placement of an almost 400 year old play in a modern era there are some things that do not fit but you can easily ignore them.

The plot is not as complicated as it looks but a quick read of a summary before going to the theatre may help. There are two plots, in fact, a tragic and a comic both dealing with, you guessed it, love, lust, feigned madness, real lunatics, the changing of the bride and, of course, homicide.

The central character is Beatrice-Joanna (Mikaela Davies), the daughter of Vermandero (David Collins), a local governor and owner of a castle where most of the action takes place. Vermandero orders Beatrice to marry Alonso (Qasim Khan) but she loves Alsemero (Cyrus Lane). The ugly and disgusting De Flores (Ben Carlson) lusts for Beatrice, he lends a hand and takes a finger from Alonso and he has, to put it politely, his way with her.

In the comic plot, Alibius (Michael Spencer-Davis), the priapically challenged owner of a lunatic asylum, appoints his assistant Lollio (Tim Campbell) to protect his beautiful wife Isabella (Jessica B. Hill) from intruders to her virtue. Welcome Antonio (Gareth Potter), who pretends to be a lunatic and gets admitted to the asylum with that very object in mind. Lollio has the same thing in mind and the question is who will succeed?
Cyrus Lane as Alsemero and Mikaela Davies as Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling. 
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Mikaela Davies gives us a Beatrice who is sexually magnetic, ruthless, assertive, cunning and dangerous. Her sleek gown by Costume Designer Judith Bowden doesn’t just reveal, it entices and provokes. Quite a performance. Her waiting woman Diaphanta (Ijeoma Emesowum) has the same sexual propensities as her employer which come in handy in fulfilling the title of the play. Ben Carlson turns in a fine performance as the evil De Flores but there was little attempt to make him revolting except for a blotch of purple skin on his face.

Cyrus Lane’s Alsemero is upright and gentlemanly and he wants us to know that he used sound judgment and not just hormones in falling in love with Beatrice. Khan as Alonso is simply besotted by her and he does not want to hear any arguments.

Potter as Antonio must act the fool and the lover to get to Isabella and he provides some laughter. Campbell as Lollio, with his impressive bearing and booming voice, can be a jail guard or a warden in a movie. The gravelly-voiced David Collins makes a fine Vermandero.

The theatre-in-the-round stage of the Tom Patterson has four arches with brick and mortar on the top. They represent the outside of a church, the madhouse and the castle. A single set by Camellia Koo that does the job. The men wear mostly three-piece suits with the lunatics and others being more modestly attired.

In short, Jackie Maxwell and a fine cast deliver an excellent production of a play that has been ignored for too long.
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The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley opened on June 15 and will run until September 23, 2017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, June 19, 2017

1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

A play about Canada is not as rare as it used to be but it is hardly an everyday occurrence. It is not surprising that we know more about American and British history than we know about Canada and that is pretty sad.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is precisely the type of play we need more of. It is highly entertaining and intelligent, it highlights an important historical event and, if I can say it without frightening some people off, it is educational. Rick Salutin wrote the play that started life in 1973 as 1837 as a collaborative effort with Theatre Passe Muraille, so much so in fact that the theatre is listed as co-author.
 The cast of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt. Photo by Emily Cooper
One hundred and eighty years after the rebellion and on the 150th anniversary of Canada, the play is the perfect choice to salute both events.

The play tells the story of the 1837 rebellion through a number of events during and around the time of the uprising. Eight actors represent a large number of characters including farmers, artisans, politicians, officers, soldiers and others involved in the events of December 1837. There are a number of historical figures but the most important and best known is William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the revolt.

Salutin wants us to see the two extremes of the social and political spectrum. The well-heeled ruling class of conservatives who are a compact unit of corrupt and rapacious families. At the other extreme are the poor farmers who try to get some land to eke out a living.

The poor squatter who has cleared dozens of acres but is turned out by the unscrupulous owner. The imperious lady who is on her way from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake by coach that gets stuck in the mud and treats the driver like dirt. The Tory politicians who beats up people who want to vote for reform. This is life in Upper Canada as represented in Salutin’s play.
 The cast of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt. Photo by David Cooper.
We have highly flattering scenes of American freedom, ingenuity and industry that is compared to the detriment of life in Canada. Americans can disagree but they are free to vote as they wish. In Canada, voting Reform invites fists and missing teeth for those who dare not to vote Tory. The Americans tell you how to get land without blushing: get rid of the Indians. It will take some time to give that attitude its proper name, but I digress.

There is a firebrand journalist who wants to lead a rebellion and change all of that. Mackenzie played by Ric Reid is ambitious and visionary but not necessarily astute in military procedures and strategy. The play that begins with songs ends up with ropes around some people’s necks and the sad end of the rebellion.

There are songs (sung a cappella), mime in cutting trees, fighting and warring in relating the episodes of the play. All eight actors play numerous roles with the three women taking on some male roles. I list them alphabetically: Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo and Jeremiah Sparks. I applaud them together vigorously.

The casting is color-blind as it should be but I could not help thinking that the characters played by the black and oriental actors would have had no rights at all if in fact they were of a different colour. It was bad enough for the poor whites; it was indescribably worse for non-whites.

The set designed by Rachel Forbes consists of a brightly coloured backdrop representing trees and logs. The stage has logs in a circular arrangement leading upwards. Perhaps it is an expression of hope and optimism in a corrupt world in which there should have been very little of either.

Director Philip Akin does a highly commendable job in bringing this Canadian classic to life. It is unfortunate and perhaps ironic that the theatre had many empty seats, at least on the date that I saw the play. Canadian plays of high quality in excellent productions deserve better.
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1837; The Farmers’ Revolt by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille continues in repertory until October 8, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Madness of George III, Alan Bennett’s 1991 play, has some 27 characters not including footmen, courtiers, Members of Parliament and assistants. The mentally ill King George III dominates the play and the horde of other characters go on and off the stage in quick succession that at times makes it difficult to follow the plot in detail.

Director Kevin Bennett has reduced the number of roles to 23, excluding footmen and walk-on parts and has a dozen actors play all the parts. It does not help in following the fast paced action. Bennett has made a few other unhelpful changes. The role of Greville, the King’s male equerry is assigned to Rebecca Gibian. The roles of Edward Thurlow and Sir Lucas Pepys are given to Marci T. House. Burke and Braun, both male roles, are given to Lisa Berry who also plays Lady Pembroke. Most of the other actors take two or three roles which does not add to clarity.
 
Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.
Ken MacDonald has designed a pretty set in the small Royal George Theatre. It looks almost like a miniature set with two tiers of seats for members of the audience on each side. I am not sure why Kevin Bennett decided to put audience members on stage and even less so when  the actors interact with them.

As I said, the play is dominated by King George III and Tom McCamus gives a bravura performance in the role. He goes from incredible arrogance to being tied up in a chair and humiliated by his doctors. Both ends of the spectrum are shocking. The King considers himself as only short of divine and his treatment of others is utterly contemptuous. No one is allowed to address him directly and they must walk backwards when leaving his presence. It is a pretty disgusting picture of unrestrained arrogance.

As his mental illness deteriorates, the King comes under the mercy of a number of quacks who proceed to treat him with the best medical care of the era. Bleeding, examining his stool and pulse for reliable indicators of his health, restraining with an iron crown around his head and tying him up with belts around his wrists and legs are a few examples of first rate medical care of the day. Emetics, purgation, blistering and no doubt some remedies that I did not catch are also included. It is all a horrific sight.

All of this is handled by McCamus with consummate skill. He blusters, he babbles, he screams in agony and yells in arrogance and he is tortured to the point of appearing like a Christ figure but without any humility.

Martin Happer is the foppish, hateful and scheming Prince of Wales who wants to push his father aside and be appointed Regent. André Sills is the self-assured Pitt and the foolish Dr. Warren.
 
Chick Reid as Queen Charlotte and Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of 
The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.
Chick Reid plays the loving but equally arrogant Queen Charlotte with Jim Mezon turning in a fine performance as Charles Fox and Dr. Baker.

The political forces are those of the government of Pitt poised against the opposition led by Charles Fox with the Prince of Wales as a catalyst.

Even more important in the play is the roles of the doctors, Willis and Nicholson played by Patrick McManus, Mezon as Dr. Baker and Sills as Dr. Warren. You can disagree and argue with politicians, but you cannot disagree with royalty or doctors. In The Madness of George III, doctors gain the upper hand and their treatment is so atrocious they almost humanize George III.

Unfortunately Kevin Bennett tried several ways to bring his view of the play but he met with very little success. The production needs more clarity and easier pacing so that we can keep up with action and less doubling up of roles.          
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The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett continues in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.