Wednesday, September 28, 2016


By James Karas

*** (out of 5)

A couple of thoughts crossed my mind after watching Wajdi Mouawad’s Tideline now playing at Hart House Theatre. The first was T.S. Eliot’s famous dictum that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The second was the enthusiastic “hey, let’s put on a show” heard in the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals of the 1930s.  The “show” that the young actors under the direction of Ken Gass are putting on is a very serious play and not a pleasant musical. They try to express the inexpressible; they try to make us bear some reality through descriptions of startling images in a war-torn place.

The play opens with a young man named Wilfrid (Danny Ghantous) narrating how he found out that his father had died. The phone rang while he was having intercourse and he tautly repeats the conversation more than once as “Hello.” Come. “Your father is dead.”
Wilfrid sets out on a journey to find a place to bury his father. But this is not a narrative but a memory play where the young are making a film and go or want to go from village to village to tell their story. Wilfrid’s dead Father (Erik Mrakovcic) is a walking and talking corpse. Wilfrid is possessed by an Arthurian Knight of God played by an unknightly looking Angela Sun who also doubles as the Director of the film. I could not make sense of the casting decision but Wilfrid is free to imagine a Knight anyway he likes.

Tideline has a blind poet named Wazâân (Kwaku Okyere) who recites the opening lines of the Iliad where the goddess sings of the fatal anger of Achilles that sent the souls of many valiant warriors to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds. We will be reminded of that graphic image throughout the play.

The young people of the play remember unspeakable events in their lives and want to preserve the memory of acts too horrible to contemplate. Simone (Cassidy Sadler), Amé (Augusto Bitter) and Josephine (Madeleine Heaven) and Sabbé (Harrison Tanner) display enthusiasm (let’s put on a show) and stun us with events of obscene cruelty and bottomless inhumanity. All the young actors are given opportunities to spread their wings and showcase their talents. Madeleine Heaven even has what amounts to a mad scene.

The production is in association with Canadian Rep Theatre and ENSEMBLE: Canadian Youth Theatre/Théâtre Jeunesse Canadien. Most of the actors are university students or recent graduates. 

Tideline is an ambitious and poetic play. It reaches back to Homer for its images and distances us from the horrors and mutilations of war by having the young people remember events from the past and trying to recall and re-enact them for us. The walking and talking dead Father, the imaginary Knight, the making of a film are all devices used to make us bear the reality that Eliot said we cannot bear.

Ken Gass is reasonably successful in bringing out many of the qualities of the play with the young cast. All the characters wear every-day, ordinary clothes. The set, designed by Jung-Hye Kim consists of white painted chairs and benches with a ramp stage left.

Tideline  by Wajdi Mouawad in a translation by Shelley Tepperman  continues until October 1, 2016 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. Telephone (416) 978-8849

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

*** (out of 5)

If you want to produce a play by Ibsen, especially a weighty one, you should treat it like an attack on a well-fortified city. You better have the best generals, bring out your heavy artillery and siege machinery and aim carefully. John Gabriel Borkman, his 1896 play, demands nothing else but if you are successful, you will be richly rewarded.

Borkman is a grand play that deals with complex issues that are as numerous as they are difficult to unravel. Director Carey Perloff and her stellar cast illuminate most of the complexity of the play in a superb production at the Tom Patterson Theatre.
From left: Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna, Scott Wentworth. Photography by Don Dixon.
The play is aptly named after its central character. John Gabriel Borkman is a megalomaniac banker who committed moral and legal crimes on a grand scale. His greed had no bounds as he attempted to amass a great fortune while destroying the lives of people (it’s only money) including the lives of his friends and the woman who was in love with him. As with many such persons, he claimed to have a vision, a plan to do good for people. The vision was probably delusional or self-serving. The result was that he was convicted and incarcerated for five years. The play begins eight years after his release from prison.

Scott Wentworth as Borkman is completely egocentric and remorseless. He lives in the grand hall of his house alone and paces up and down most of the time. Vilhalm is his only friend (superbly played by Joseph Ziegler) and his daughter Frida (Natalie Francis) who visits and plays the violin for him. Borkman discards Vilhalm, a man of decency, forgiveness and understanding, who is unlike the delusional dreamer who hallucinates of making a comeback.

Lucy Peacock plays Borkman’s embittered wife who is full of hatred but just as delusional as her husband. She dreams of her son Erhart (Antoine Yared), in mythical heroic fashion, restoring her reputation. Her twin sister Ella (Seana McKenna) raised Erhart after the Borkmans lost everything (they are living in her house) but she too hates John Gabriel because he destroyed her ability to love. 

Peacock and McKenna have distinctive voices which can deliver tinges of bitterness, hatred and passion with individual intonation but at the same time sound like twin sisters which is what they are in the play. They fight for the soul of Erhart, the one because she needs a liberator and a restorer of her reputation, the other as the young man who will take her name and inherit her fortune. Peacock and McKenna are magnificent.
From left: Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman, Seana McKenna as Miss Ella Rentheim and Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Gunhild Borkman inJohn Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou. 

Erhart is a nice young man who is in love with Mrs Wilton (Sarah Afful) who happens to be seven years older than him and a widow. He asserts his independence by breaking away from his mother and aunt (really his stepmother) and their ambitions for him.

For the final act Ibsen takes the two sisters and Borkman out in the stormy weather where they must account for themselves in a heavily symbolic scene.

The theatre-in-the-round Tom Patterson restricts design to stage furniture and lighting. Designer Christina Poddubiuk decorates the stage with a few pieces of furniture and with judicious lighting design by Bonnie Beecher, we do get the claustrophobic and closed world of the play.

Director Perloff takes a heavy-handed approach to this dark play that demands that type of treatment. The last scene in the snow smacks of melodrama but this is a production that   Ibsen would have certainly approved of.

John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen in a translation by Paul Walsh continues in repertory until September 23, 2016 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Friday, September 9, 2016


James Karas

***** (out of five)

The Stratford Festival’s production of The Hypochondriac is a hilarious piece of theatre and you could hardly do anything better than to see it in the waning days of summer and laugh wholeheartedly. If you have to choose between reading this review and ordering tickets to see it, choose the latter. I have to write a few hundred words. It is part of the job, you see.

Moliere wrote some of the best comedies since Aristophanes. But with classics one always encounters the Wife of Bath’s conundrum about women which applies even more aptly to translations: is she is beautiful she will be unfaithful; if she is faithful, she will be ugly. With Moliere the choice is never that drastic (nor is it true with regard to women) because he is funny even in a mediocre translation. But in Richard Bean’s version director Antoni Cimolino has found a text that is faithful in spirit to Moliere’s play and resonates with modern audiences. Did I say it is hilarious?
Members of the company in The Hypochondriac. Photography by David Hou.
Bean’s new version with a commedia dell’arte show thrown in and much more, the result is a colourful and vibrant production.

When you have a comic star like Stephen Ouimette as Argan, the hypochondriac of the title, you mop up your forehead with relief about your lead actor and go to solve other problems. Argan suffers from every disease for which there is a Latin name but his specialty is ailments of the lower intestine. He is prescribed every medication that the doctors’ imagination can conceive and his rectum withstand.

Ouimette’s Argan is cranky, bilious, cheap, cantankerous and very funny as he gets enemas every day, is harassed by his housekeeper, disobeyed by his daughter and is a man near the end of his rope. He times his lines with precision, plays the would-be sick with marvellous effect and he does not miss a beat in his characterization of the foolish Argan.

He has good company to play against. His lippy no-nonsense maid Toinette (Brigit Wilson) gives more than she takes from him despite the fact that she has to clean the result of his cleansing clyster. When he asks if she will help him kill himself, she replies “sure, when?” A spirited and superb performance by Wilson

Argan’s avaricious wife Beline (Trish Lindstrom) wants him dead and refuses to let him touch her. Marital nastiness can be funny and Lindstrom is good at it.    

Ben Carlson plays the sensible Beralde who tries to bring some sanity into Argan’s life with no success. Carlson is pitch-perfect in the role.

Amid the chaos, the bodily fluids and the ugliness, we have the lovers: Argan’s daughter Angelique (the lovely Shannon Taylor) and the handsome Cleante (Luke Humphrey) who will defeat all the obstacles placed in front of them and love will triumph.

From left: Stephen Ouimette as Argan/Molière, Shannon Taylor as Angelique/Armand Bejart and Brigit Wilson as Toinette in The Hypochondriac. Photography by David Hou.
The Hypochondriac is, of course, a frontal attack on the medical profession which was more quackery than medicine in Moliere’s time. The best part is that it resonates with today’s conditions. A specialist is someone way above a doctor and just try getting an appointment with one. Monsieur Diafoirerhoea (Peter Hutt) and his son Thomas (Ian Lake) and all doctors are ridiculed mercilessly and the audience responded warmly.

Designer Teresa Przybylski, Choreographer Stephen Cota, Commedia dell’Arte Coach Perry Schneiderman and Juggling Coach Doug DeForrest deserve special praise. There are dancers, jugglers and singers in the production that give additional energy and colour. There is a tent on the set as if these were travelling players putting on a show to entertain everyone. They do.  

Cimolino directs the play with his usual attention to detail, timing and inventiveness. A seemingly innocuous line can bring a laugh. Just time it perfectly – a slight delay, a quicker reply, an aside, a change in intonation and you have evoked laughter, pleasure and a great night at the theatre.

The Hypochondriac by Moliere in a version by Richard Bean continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario until October 30, 2016. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016


James Karas

Arthur Miller subtitled Death of a Salesman “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.” In the Ashkenaz Festival production now playing at the Studio Theatre of the Toronto Centre for the Arts the conversations are not so much private as internal. Willy Loman, the pathetic travelling salesman and grandiose dreamer is talking to himself as he tries to come to terms with his utter failure as a husband, a father and a salesman.

Death of a Salesman is rightly seen as a parable of the American Dream, the idea and ideal of the constitutional right of the pursuit of happiness interpreted as entrepreneurial success and wealth. If the play resonated with America of 1949, it is far more relevant today than ever.

Avi Hoffman directs the production and takes on the role of Willy Loman. From the start Willy appears like an empty shell. His illusions of success, his bravado, his boasting and his dreams for his children are all lies. As we listen to Hoffman’s superb delivery of Willy’s lines, we realize that Willy may know in the depths of his soul the truth about himself but he makes Herculean efforts to hide it from himself and mask it in his useless sons. Hoffan gives us the quintessential common man who wants to be uncommon without the wherewithal. A great performance.

Death of a Salesman has a number of flashbacks and imagined occurrences such as Willy’s meetings with his brother Ben. They are Willy’s dreams and nightmares but those scenes are not substantially different from the scenes that take place in the present. In all of them Willy is mostly in his own world, in his private conversation, in his dream of success or nightmare of failure.
Suzanne Toren, Avi Hoffman, Mikey Samra and Ben Rosenblatt
This production brings another angle to the play. I always assumed that the Lomans are the all-American family. There is no hint that they are not Americans from their ambitions to rise above their station to Biff playing football and Willy wanting to eat only American cheese.

In this production Willy is clearly Jewish and he not only wants to succeed and be a somebody but he wants to belong. He wants to be American. He does not want to eat whipped cheese because it is not American and good Americans eat American cheese.   

Suzanne Toren plays Linda, the most sympathetic character in the play who sees and knows a great deal but fights off reality out of necessity. She sees what her husband is but pretends to joins in his illusions and delusions in order to save him from himself. A marvelous performance by Toren who displays both the depth of feeling and strength of Linda.

Daniel Kahn gives us a Biff who is a shallow wreck of a human being, a copy of his father in his search for easy success and wealth and a tragic man because he at last realizes what he is. A powerful portrait by Kahn. Mikey Samra plays the equally shallow Hap who also shares all the family traits but, unlike Willy and Biff, learns nothing.

The smaller roles are played equally capably by Sam Stein as the real mensch Charley, Ben Rosenblatt as his decent son Bernard, and Adam B. Shapiro as the odious Howard, the face of capitalism and the American success story.    

The set consists of a table and four chairs and almost nothing else. There are some video projections of the Loman house, a road and a car but it would be difficult to imagine a more barebones production. It is as if the play has been stripped of all paraphernalia and laid bare in all its searing drama. It is a stunning production.

One more point. The play is done in Yiddish and the title is Toyt Fun A Seylsman. If your Yiddish is meagre, there are English surtitles and you will hear the guttural and lyrical sounds of that language. I found the surtitles and the Spartan production concentrated my attention on the acting and the text. The result was a powerful production and a great night at the theatre.  
Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun A Seylsman) by Arthur Miller opened on August 31 and will play until September 10, 2016 in the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts 5040 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


James Karas

***** (out of 5)

The Stratford Festival offers a world premiere of a play that it commissioned for the small Studio Theatre. There are several stumbling blocks in that venture and the only safety cushion is the size of the venue. In the case of Hannah Moscovitch’s Bunny they need not have worried. Bunny is an intelligent, funny, literate and well-produced play that earns kudos for all concerned. To put it more bluntly, you mix sex, literature and laughter, you get a winner.

At least Moskovitch does. Sorrel (Maev Beaty) is a bright and attractive girl who does not mix well with other teenagers. Her parents are leftist, anti-capitalist college teachers. Sorrel is steeped in 19th century literature from a young age but she is a bit of a geek. She dresses badly. She discovers boys (kissing 19 of them in high school) and then sex. She moves from the captain of the football team, to a professor, and just maybe another young man.
 Maev Beaty as Sorrel and Emilio Vieira as Justin in Bunny. Photography by David Hou
Sorrel tells us her own story as she tries to make contact with people. Her nickname is Bunny because she seems always scared and on the lookout. Her best friend or perhaps only friend is Maggie (Krystin Pellerin), a woman who has a child from a casual affair but displays spunk and common sense. Maggie is perceptive and deeply human. She succeeds in becoming Sorrel’s friend only near the end of her own life in a moving and dramatic scene.

Maggie’s daughter Lola (Jessica B. Hill) has a boyfriend named Angel (David Patrick Flemming) who is attracted to Sorrel and will play a defining role in her, Sorrel’s, life.

Justin (Emilio Vieira), the captain of the football team, is a nice Catholic boy and his parents are a bit more than the bright Sorrel can take.

Ethan (Cyrus Lane) is her professor who happens to be married and has sex with Sorrel in cheap hotels and backrooms of the bar where she works while a student. It is a mutual arrangement and attraction and one cannot attach too much opprobrium on him.

Maggie’s brother Carol (Tim Campbell) is a wooden business man who would never understand her. It is hard to say why she marries him but perhaps what is lacking is not in him but in Sorrel herself. There is a resolution in the end but she and the audience must decide what and if it is a true resolution.
Krystin Pellerin (left) as Maggie and Maev Beaty as Sorrel in Bunny. Photography by David Hou.
Every character and every incident represents a different layer in Sorrel’s life. From her literary tastes and references to her various relationships, we see a complex woman growing up, developing and maturing.    

Maev Beaty carries most of the show with rest of the cast being almost satellites in her various encounters and growth. She is steeped in Victorian literature and is often seen with a hefty book by George Elliot in her hand. She becomes a professor of Victorian literature and like, say, Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice or Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch she has intelligence and wit but lacks their strength. Her sexual partners seem to haunt her long after she has left them behind. An impressive performance by Beaty.

The small playing area of the Studio is changed efficiently to focus on Sorrell and to change the scene from a bar to a motel to Maggie’s house and a cottage up north. Kudos to designer Michael Gianfrancesco.

Director Sarah Garton Stanley has a fine play to work with and an excellent cast and she puts them through their paces with expertise and high effectiveness.

A major achievement all around.
 Bunny by Hannah Moskovitch continues until September 24, 2006 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street East, Stratford. Ontario.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


James Karas

** (out of 5)

The body of a two-year old child is washed up on the beach: a small boy is rescued from a bombed building; hundreds of thousand risk their lives to cross thousands of miles of water in rickety boats; millions live in horrible conditions in refugee camps. That is the face of refugees today and a stunning condemnation of our inhumanity. It is a story that is impossible to describe or comprehend.

The Stratford Festival has decided to tackle the issue head on by producing a play called The Aeneid.
 Members of the company in The Aeneid. Photography by David Hou.
 Let’s look at the positive side. A title like The Aeneid has a lot of cachet. It connects us to Virgil’s great epic, the founding myth of the Roman Empire. Check. The play is written by Olivier Kemeid, a French-Canadian playwright and in a nation of two latitudes we need to pay attention to both of them. Check. The translation has been commissioned by the Stratford Festival (Check) and done by Maureen Labonteé. It deals with a current issue of world-wide importance. Double check and don’t say anything when you realize that it is somewhat stale dated.

Let’s look at the negative side. The play has almost nothing to do with Virgil’s epic. It borrows the title and a few names but any resemblance to The Aeneid is almost coincidental. Yes, you will recognize Queen Dido of Carthage and the trip to the Underworld but they won’t help you much.

Virgil’s Aeneid is about the founding of Rome and if Kemeid wants to pull himself up by his bootstraps and make it into a story of refugees relevant to today, he is whistling up the wrong tree not to say he is misleading us. Trying to graft a modern tragedy onto an ancient epic is bad enough but one should at least choose a story that can resonate with current history.

Troy, Romans, Greeks, Carthage – none of these names appear in the play. We have a burning city and people escaping from it. This is the Fire section of the play. Then we stop at a sandy beach (the Water Section) where a modern couple tells the refugees to go away. From there it is to the Earth section where the refugees try to get past an Immigration Officer.
Monice Peter as Creusa and Gareth Potter as Aeneas in The Aeneid. Photography by David Hou.
The penultimate stop is in the Underworld where Aeneas meets his father who tells him where to go – no, in the nice sense. The refugees finally reach their destination in the Blood section, a land of freedom and plenty where they will build something great described at some length.

Kemeid wrote his Aeneid in 2007 and at one point there is a lengthy catalogue of where refugees can be found. The only country not mentioned is Syria because there was no civil war in Syria in 2007.  

It does not work. From burning city to sandy beach, we have people with Roman names such as the familiar Aeneas (Gareth Potter) and Hector (Mike Nadajewski) to less familiar ones like Creusa (Monice Peter) Anchises (Michael Spencer-Davis), Ascanus (Malakai Magassouba), Coroebus (Andrew Robinson) and Achmaenidis (Josue Laboucane).

Some of the characters are mercifully listed simply by their jobs such as Hotel Manager (Tiffany Claire Martin), Immigration Officer (Karen Robinson), Scavenger (E.B. Smith) and Old Farmer (Laboucane).

Director Keira Loughran tries to give life to the dreary and confused play without success. If you go back to the check marks for the positive aspects of the play after seeing it, you will discover that there are almost none.

A bad night at the theatre.

The Aeneid by Olivier Kemeid will run until September 25, 2016 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, August 22, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

“Master Harold”…and the boys is a searing drama about racism in South Africa and it gets a masterly production at the Shaw Festival. It got a standing ovation at the end that was spontaneous and richly deserved.

The plot could hardly be simpler. Willie (Allan Louis) and Sam (André Sills) are black men who work in a tea room in Port Elizabeth. Hally (James Daly) is the son of the owner and looks like a troubled young man.

Willie calls the boss’s son Master Harold and his dream is to win a ballroom dancing contest. He is a decent man who knows his position in the racist society of South Africa in 1950.
André Sills as Sam, James Daly as Hally and Allan Louis as Willie in “Master Harold” …and the Boys. 
Photo by David Cooper.
Sam calls his “master” Hally and as the plot develops we realize that he is a friend of the young man and in fact a father figure. Hally’s father is a drunk and an invalid who is hospitalized and Hally harbors a great deal of hatred for him. The guidance and affection that Hally should have received from his father came from Sam.  

Between memories of good times, dreams of winning the dance contest by Willie, facing the pressures of his relationship with his father by Sam, the play builds up to an explosive climax that takes your breath away.

Friendship, respect, basic decency and gratitude are all swept away in several lines and a single gesture. Hally demands that Sam start calling him “Master Harold” and tells him that he is inferior to his hated father because he, the father, is a white man. He repeats a disgusting racist joke that is his and his father’s favourite. The gesture will freeze you in your tracks and I don’t want to spoil it for you. You should see the play.

The play lasts ninety minutes and all the action takes place in a tea room with a counter and some tables by Set Designer Peter Hartwell.

Philip Akin directs the three actors with impeccable touches. From simple gestures to facial expressions to vocal intonations, these are highly accomplished performances.    

The point of the play, I think, is not that racism, injustice, abuse and repulsive behaviour exist. They are almost run of the mill results of racial attitudes. Fugard illustrates that racism can rob people of their fundamental humanity as it does with Hally.

A great day at the theatre.

And a bonus.

If you want to see a performance that you can use the words “bravura performance” you must see The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God.  That is a long title for a 45-minute delight of an adaptation for the stage by Lisa Codrington from a short play by Bernard Shaw.
The cast of The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. Photo by David Cooper.
Here is a partial list of the people you will meet: The Almighty, The Lord of Hosts, Micah the Morasthite, King Solomon, The Conjurer and some mortals like a Mathematician, the Black Bearer, a Biologist, an Artist, a White Missionary and a Black Mumba Snake. I tried to list the characters in the play in order of descending importance from God to the Snake but I was not sure where to place GBS who also appears. Does he go before or after the Almighty?

What are these.., well we can’t call them “people”…let’s say characters (?) doing in “The Darkest Africa” and the Bible which happen to be the settings of the play? They have to contend with a Black Girl who is in search of God. She has an awful lot of questions about God and the Bible and a few other things. (Why did God take only five days for creation of everything?)

You want to see a bravura performance. Just watch Natasha Mumba as the Black Girl. She has energy, intelligence, a tongue that can outshoot a machine gun and a mesmerizing theatricality.       

Seven actors taking from one to several roles have to answer to and try to keep up with Mumba. They are enjoyable to say the least. I will simply list their names: Guy Bannerman, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders, Kiera Sangster, Andre Sills, Graeme Somerville, Jonathan Tan.

The Adventures starts at 11:30 and will not affect your lunch or the matinee performance that you no doubt came to see. But it will leave you with an unforgettable performance …did I say “bravura”?

And a disappointment.

Staging W.S. Gilbert’s Engaged is surely an intelligent choice. This Gilbert is more famous as the librettist of the Gilbert and Sullivan team of operetta creators but he wrote a lot of plays too. 

His 1877 farce is directed by Morris Panych with a cast that should have us guffawing if not rolling in the aisles but it did not work fro me. It is the sort of production where the actors try hard and for some reason most lines misfire.
(l to r) Nicole Underhay as Belinda Treherne, Diana Donnelly as Minnie Symperson and Gray Powell as Cheviot Hill in Engaged. Photo by David Cooper.
A taste of the plot. Cheviot Hill (Gray Powell) is well off and has a bad habit of proposing to every pretty girl that he meets. His friend Belvawney (Jeff Meadows gets £1000 per year from Cheviot’s father to make sure that Cheviot does not get married. If he gets married the annuity will go to Symperson (Shawn Wright) who is pushing his daughter Minnie (Diana Donnelly) to marry Cheviot.

And you should meet those colourful Scottish people, Angus (Martin Happer), Maggie (Julia Course) and Mrs. Macfarlane (Mary Haney), whose specialty is derailing trains for a profit. There is more, much more plot complications but all I can say is that I did not enjoy the production. You can’t win them all.

“Master Harold” …and the boys”  by Athol Fugard continues in repertory until September 10, 2016 at the Court House Theatre. Engaged by W.S. Gilbert continues until October 23, 2016 at the Royal George Theatre. The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God by Lisa Codrington from a short story by Bernard Shaw continues until September 11, 2016 at the Court House Theatre, all in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.