Thursday, April 26, 2018

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

James Karas

Opera Atelier has brought back its 2007 production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses and applause is due to its co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg.  The production is mostly well-sung, colourful, finely directed, and gorgeously danced as well as judiciously edited to keep the running time under three hours.

Librettist Giacomo Badoaro relied on a fairly conventional retelling of the second half of Homer’s Odyssey where the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus, to the purists), after many adventures, returns to Ithaca. He finds his kingdom in disarray with his wife being pursued by the local nobility who are eating him out of house and home, as they say.
 
Kevin Skelton (Jupiter) and Meghan Lindsay (Minerva).Photo: Bruce Zinger
We can assume that he will eventually get rid of the men who lust after his wife, reestablish his authority and find connubial bliss after a twenty year absence but with Neptune (bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus) and so much else against him, he has his work cut out.

Prologue, please.  With the stars shimmering in the firmament in the background, we see the personification of Human Frailty (tenor Isaiah Bell), Time (impressive bass-baritone Douglas Williams who also plays the aggressive Antinoo, an early version of Trump), Fortune (soprano Carla Huhtanen who also does fine work as the treacherous servant Melanto), and Love (soprano Meghan Lindsay who is even better as Minerva). The latter three deride Human Frailty and claim that they control the fate of people who are weak in any event. Pynkoski directs the scene intelligently by having the taunters be quite active rather than singing with their feet screwed to the stage floor. A good start.

The opera proper begins on a high note with Penelope’s (splendidly sung by mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel) passionate recitative lamenting her husband’s long absence. The statuesque Lebel gives us an outpouring of emotions and display of strength that entitle her to be called The Temple of Chastity.

The scene moves from the palace with its grand columns to the sea where we see the wild waves painted in the background. From there (to do justice to the sets) we move to the countryside where we find the faithful shepherd Eumete (tenor Aaron Sheehan who sings well and don’t tell me he looks too young for the role this is a myth, not CNN). The goddess Minerva descends from the sky in grand style as does Kevin Skelton as Jupiter. The sets by Gerard Gauci are colourful and appealing and are strictly seventeenth century impressions of Ithaca, the gods and the sea with no attempt, quite rightly, to strive for representations of mythical Greece. Marvelous work by Gauci.

Pynkoski uses twelve singers for the twenty characters that appear in the opera and that is achieved by doubling the roles taken by many of the singers. Tenor Krešimir Špicer gives us a well-sung Ulysses. Pynkoski opts for a human and unheroic take of the opera and it serves us well. We appreciate Ulysses’ cunning and there are no heroics even in the stringing of his bow or his execution of the suitors. Lajeunesse-Zingg choreographs the scene so that it runs smoothly without any unnecessary heroics. Špicer’s Ulysses is a subtle and human hero and we are most happy about his return.

With a large cast, some unevenness in the singing is inevitable. Some could not project as well as we would have liked and other were not at their best. But they were the exception to an otherwise superb cast.

Lajeunesse-Zingg has as usual choreographed dance sequences for The Artists of the Atelier Ballet in which the dancers perform with grace, agility, lightness and sheer beauty.

Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design was uneven. She seems to like darkness and shadows but we want to see everything all the time. Penelope should not walk in and out of shadows.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is conducted by David Fallis. The only score of the opera is unhelpful as to orchestration and Fallis has opted for a small orchestra. We may be attuned to larger ensembles but some authenticity is appreciated.

Final assessment: an exquisite production.       
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The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on April 19 and will run until April 28, 2018 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

FUN HOME - REVIEW OF MUSICAL STAGE PRODUCTION AT CAA THEATRE


By James Karas

Fun Home is anything but fun though it does tell a compelling story about coming of age, sexual awakening, concealment of homosexuality and the consequences of sex with underage boys. No, it is not about Catholic priests. It is well-acted, subtle and marvelous theatre. It is also an award-winning musical, a phrase that I hate but in this case it is appropriate what with accolades from the New York Drama Critics, an Obie, Tony awards and others.

Fun Home is written by Lisa Kron based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The story is told by Alison (Laura Condlin) as a mature woman looking back on her childhood as Small Alison (Hannah Levinson), as young woman in college, Medium Alison (Sara Farb) and life with her father Bruce (Evan Buliung) and her mother Helen (Cynthia Dale).   
 
Evan Buliung and Hannah Levinson in FUN HOME Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The story is told in a number of vignettes in non-chronological order that focus on events in the history of the Bechdel family. All is well, of course. Small Alison wants to play airplane with her father, the mother is playing the piano and the big house that has been restored and renovated by Bruce is becoming historical. The family runs a funeral business as well which is good fodder for some comedy.

Soon cracks appear in the happy family. Bruce is a closet homosexual who seduces a young student and goes cruising in the middle of the night. Disaster looms at every turn.

Medium Alison goes to college and slowly, painfully and joyously she discovers that she is a lesbian. She falls in love with Joan (Sabryn Rock) and finds sexual fulfillment. She tries to tell her father and there is biting sadness and irony in the attempted communication by one homosexual to another.

Helen, like most women, knows instinctively what is happening but she cannot say anything.

Buliung is very effective as the bisexual father who veers away from simple homosexuality and seeks sex with boys. He is arrested, goes to a psychiatrist and is basically destroyed by his sexual orientation. He does not need any music or singing to bring out his personal problems.

Which brings us to the “award winning musical.” Many people have expressed great admiration for the music and songs of Fun Home and I do not share it. No doubt it has its moments, but much of it is recitative that is eminently forgettable and, as I said, the play may be served better with dramatic prose.
 Laura Condlln, Cynthia Dale, Hannah Levinson and Evan Buliung. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Sara Farb as Medium Alison gives us an emotional and moving portrayal of a college student discovering that she is lesbian. Her agony and subsequent happiness are not helped by the music even if “Changing My Major” is supposed to describe her elation at discovering sexual pleasure.  

“It All Comes Back,” the opening number, is no more than an immediately forgettable recitative that rises to stentorian levels and all it conveys can be told in simple prose.

"Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," an ensemble piece with spoken words by Bruce and "Not Too Bad" sung by Medium Alison, are two songs I could have done without them.

"Come to the Fun Home" sung by John (Liam MacDonald),  Christian (Jasper Lincoln) and Small Alison as they jump in and out of a casket and dance generates considerable energy and fun as a parody of a commercial for a funeral home. That is one of the few exceptions.

Helen the mother is a secondary character and Cynthia Dale in the role gets only one big number, “Days and Days” and she does it well.  

The musical does have a dramatic end but you need to see it to find out what it is.
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Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori (music), Lisa Kron (book and lyrics, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) continues until May 28, 2018 at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Monday, April 23, 2018

MR. TRUTH – REVIEW OF LESTER TRIPS PRODUCTION AT THEATRE CENTRE


Reviewed by James Karas

Mr. Truth, created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton, is experimental theatre. That means what you see could be unusual, unexpected, bewildering, confusing or simply incomprehensible. Mr. Truth has all these attributes and perhaps more. I did say incomprehensible?

The show starts with some music and one of the performers running around the stage and among the audience in the tiny BMO Incubator rallying us to get involved. She repeats phrases like “Are you ready to have fun?” and tells a couple not particularly funny jokes which are received with ecstatic guffaws by some in the audience.

On a large screen we see some women running in a forest for a couple of minutes. Gillis and Hutton appear and we are treated to a lengthy illustrated lecture on masturbation.  We get an almost clinical description of clitoral stimulation by one of the performers while she is performing the act on the other one (Sorry, I don’t know who is who). The actual site being stimulated is judiciously hidden from the crowd but the description is quite vivid and detailed.

Sex dominates the play in various descriptive forms from dream sequences (which I did not get) to the sado-masochistic which I understood better. The two performers take on a large array of characters both male and female and they display highly developed acting techniques and an ability to jump from one characterization to the next. You may want to complain that the characters that they take on are neither developed nor understood and even in a seventy-minute show you are hard pressed to remember much of what is happening or who is who.

But the all-pervasive sex with suitable raunchy language does stay with you.

We see a tall person in a black cape with a white hoodie and hollow black face walk across the stage. I don’t know what provokes him or what his presence indicates. Presumably he is Mr. Truth and I have no idea why he is not Ms Truth or perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Truth.

The dream sequences are illustrated with what looks like an electrocardiograph on the screen and I am not sure what the squiggles on it meant, if anything.

As I said, a few members of the audience reacted enthusiastically and laughed with unalloyed exuberance at the beginning on lines that were devoid of comedy. That is pretty much expected from some people on opening night and you wait to see how much stamina they have to maintain their vigour. By the end of Mr. Truth even the most enthusiastic had petered out into almost complete (and blessed) silence.

After writing this I read the Creators’ Note in the programme which bears repeating:
If someone told you that this show was structured rhythmically and dramaturgically to resemble a female orgasm, or a woman’s orgasm, or a feminine orgasm, or any orgasm of the non-aristotelian variety, would that change your viewing experience?
I don’t know the differences among a female, a woman’s and feminine orgasm let alone the rhythm or dramaturgical structure of an orgasm. 

I stand by what I said in my first paragraph and wonder how many attributes I missed. That is the whole point of experimental theatre.

Mr. Truth is part of the 2018 Riser Project that includes Tell Me What It’s Called, Speaking of Sneaking and Everything I Couldn’t Tell You.
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Mr. Truth, created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton continues until November 24, 2018 at The Theatre Centre, BMO Incubator, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

TAKE D MILK, NAH? – REVIEW OF PARASRAM’S PLAY AT THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE


Reviewed by James Karas

Jivesh Parasram has identity issues and he tells you all about them at the Theatre Passe Muraille in a one-man show written and performed by him.

Identity issues are hardly a novelty in Canadian society and culture what with immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America – make that the whole world – but Parasram is a special case. He starts with Indian culture and Hindu religion which he transports to Trinidad and then transfers to Nova Scotia. He has to deal with the remnants of British imperialism (or is it colonialism?), Caribbean poverty and Canadian racism. And that’s just the beginning.
 Jivesh Parasram. Photo: Graham Isador 
Parasram blends music, personal stories, sharp commentary and singing into a 90 minute show that has much to offer. He is a prodigiously talented actor and performer with a show that is perfectly suited for a Toronto audience where there is a vast array of cultures and perhaps people with more significant identity issues than Parasram’s though I doubt it.

The problem I had is that my identity concerns are different from his and I did not understand many of the references to events, rituals, people or anxieties that he has lived through or is living with. He spoke at times as if he were addressing people who had similar backgrounds to his who could relate to what he was talking about and they were enjoying it but it went over my head. So much for knowing what our neighbours are all about and I am speaking only for myself.

Some of the humour is self-deprecating and his analysis of being marginalized is astute but verges on being an academic analysis. His story about calving a cow (the secret animal of the Hindus, remember) is a bravura piece of hilarious comedy combined with cultural commentary.

In the first half of the show Parasram tells his story in front of colourful curtains suggesting an Asiatic culture. In the second half he becomes almost a cabaret singer and performer.
  Jivesh Parasram. Photo: Graham Isador 
He relates with the audience superbly. There is a scene a scene where he wants to establish that we are all Jiv or somehow related but the scene is too long and ceases to be amusing. Parasram persists in asking the names of members of the audience until they all say they are Jiv. It’s not the best part of the show.

Tom Arthurs Davis directs the energetic performance and is credited with being the dramaturge of the piece. The show is created by Parasram, Davis and Graham Isador.

Immigrants go through phases of alienation and confusion followed by attempts at integration and assimilation and finally in self-assertion. During the journey they affect the “Canadians” whom they found on arrival and strive toward becoming unhyphenated Canadians where the quotation marks are removed for all. It is a long journey and we are a long way from achieving it. Parasram’s show helps us all on the way.   
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Take d Milk, Nah? by Jivesh Parasram in a production by Pandemic Theatre and b current will run until April 28, 2018 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.on.ca (416) 504-7529

Friday, April 20, 2018

CATEGORY E – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION


By James Karas

Category E is a play based on a great idea that has a strong beginning, an impressive and intriguing middle but unfortunately fails to find an equally powerful end.

Belinda Cornish’s play, now playing at the Coal Mine Theatre, opens with two people in hospital overalls in a cage. A third person, a perky young girl called Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives. She smiles nervously, tries to be friendly, seems apprehensive and we try to figure out what is going on.

The other occupants of the room are Corcoran (Robert Persichini) and Filigree played by Diana Bentley but referred to as “it” throughout the play. There are two cots in the cage and it has an open door leading to a corridor that the occupants use. In other words, the cage is real but it is not completely enclosed.
 Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini, Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Photo by Tim Leyes
Corcoran is serious, commanding, gruff and sometimes sensible but we are not sure about him. He has a patch over one eye and his other eye is bloodshot. We find out that he is a scientist and is doing an acrostic puzzle that is seventeen years old.    

Filigree fidgets, makes sudden moves and tries to strangle Millet for no compelling reason. We conclude that she is a psychopath. We are not sure what Millet is doing there as she goes between terror and attempts at friendly relations with the other occupants.

The three are ordered to go somewhere using codes and the numbers written on their backs instead of their names. At times they go to pick up their food, at other times they leave the cage for mysterious but unpleasant reasons.

This is not a mental hospital but some kind of research or testing centre of human behaviour and endurance. We follow the circuitous routine of life in the cage from storytelling, to listening to numerous commercials for health products, to spying on their neighbours through a grate in the wall. It is a frightful and mysterious existence.

Filigree has a large dressing on her back; Millet is fed disgusting food that Corcoran is trying to prevent her from eating; Corcoran’s other eye is removed. Filigree was raised without any parental love and she cannot make any connection with human beings although Corcoran does have some control over her. Is this a dehumanization centre or a testing lab of human endurance under barbaric conditions? Is this a different form of Dr Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz? For Christians, is this hell?

It may well be all of those things but who is the creator or controller of the place and its inhabitants? If it is hell, there is no Satan. Is it degraded human kind? Is this 1984 of Brave New World? Is it the world now or in the future? There is no answer that I could discern and that left me disconcerted. I wanted more information and more context. The people in the cage were left in a worse condition at the end of the play (I will not disclose more information) than at the beginning but I was left dissatisfied and in limbo.

I must recognize the superb performances of the three actors. Persichini’s Corcoran is mysterious and human. He is intelligent, strong and a victim but we do not realize his fate until the very end of the play. Bentley and Endicott-Douglas give highly impressive performances that convey the terror and mystery life in the cage. Rae Ellen Bodie gets full marks for outstanding direction. You can complain if you want but it is a play and performances that do not leave you.     
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Category E by Belinda Cornish continues until April 29, 2018 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Friday, April 6, 2018

JULIUS CAESAR – REVIEW OF LIVE NATIONAL THEATRE BROADCAST


Reviewed by James Karas

The National Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar that was broadcast live to cinemas presents an original reading of the play in a new theatre in London. Nicholas Hytner ran the National Theatre for 12 years and upon leaving it he founded, with Nick Star, the Bridge Theatre near Tower Bridge in London.

Julius Caesar is produced in a theatre-in-the-round with a stage in the middle and people standing around the stage. The production begins with a rock concert that lasts for about a quarter of an hour. The musician are wearing T-shirts that read JUST DO IT! JULIUS CAESAR and a very youthful crowd enjoys the loud music. The tribunes appear among the crowd and start castigating them for taking time off for no apparent reason. The concert crowd becomes the Roman mob attending the return of Caesar.
David Morrissey as Mark Anthony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
Caesar (David Calder) enters, a gray, overweight man in a suit wearing a red baseball cap with the Just Do It!! motto on it and looking very much like Donald Trump. The costumes are all modern casual wear. When Caesar faints from the falling sickness we see him being taken away in a wheel chair with an oxygen mask on. Nice touch to indicate that this man who perhaps wants to become king but pretends the opposite is past his best before date.

The play is set in a modern war zone with automatic weapons and pistols and a generous use of bullets. The actors are in the middle of the audience so that at about half of the spectators watch the back of the players. The audience in the movie house have no such restriction because there are camera on all sides and we have a full view of the action all the time.

All the action takes place during darkness and we see the small square platform and some members of the audience in the beginning. Once the war starts and there is broken furniture and wires all over to indicate a war zone. At least we get glimpses of it but rarely do we see the whole stage. When there are flashes of light and we get a long shot and we get some appreciation of the havoc that is in front of us but when the actors speak the camera usually focuses on them. When the camera focuses on the speakers we usually see only a dark background.

This produces an uneasy feeling. You know there is a great deal going on and at times all you see is faces of characters but no context. It’s like experiencing war scenes without really getting a good look at them.  

Ben Whishaw plays the honourable Brutus. Whishaw’s performance is distinguished by his ability to show intelligence, integrity and a fundamental weakness. Cassius has an instinctive understanding of his friend’s character and is able to manipulate him and convince him to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. A highly nuanced and effective performance by Whishaw.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Hytner has cast woman in some of the major roles. They are referred to by the feminine pronoun but aside from that they are men. Michelle Fairley is a clever, scheming and cunning Cassius able to control and pervert people to his wishes. She gives us a superb performance.

Kit Young’s Octavius is petulant, arrogant and dismissive of others and an emperor in the making. David Morrissey’s Mark Antony is a capable politician who is ambitious but lacks the unscrupulousness and instinct for going for the jugular.

Hytner is an old hand at directing Shakespeare and he has gathered a cast that delivers Shakespeare’s lines clearly, meticulously with attention to every syllable. It is no small achievement.

The production is meticulous and nuanced but it suffers by the way it is presented in the movie house. I felt that I missed as great deal of the bigger picture although I enjoyed the close-ups and the avoidance of having to watch actors’ backs.
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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare was shown in select Cineplex theatres on March 22, 2018. For more information visit  www.cineplex.com/events.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS – REVIEW OF STAGE VERSION OF GERSHWIN MUSICAL


Reviewed by James Karas

An American in Paris has such unbeatable, indeed aristocratic, provenance that it attracts attention, imitation and adaptation. With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin its position in the American musical pantheon is assured of a prime position. The 1951 musical with Genre Kelly and Leslie Caron directed by Vincent Minnelli is one of the best films in the genre.

The film has been adapted for the stage by Craig Lucas who was “Inspired by the Motion Picture,” according to the program and the musical has reached Toronto in the hands of a touring company.

It goes without saying that the Gershwins are the stars. “An American in Paris” is a brilliant concert piece that is used for the long ballet sequence. “I got rhythm,”  “’S Wonderful” and “shall we dance” are familiar and beautiful songs that are a pleasure to hear. In short, you will get some superb ballet sequences, some decent singing, some moronic comedy and Broadway glitz that add up to a highly entertaining night at the theatre.
 
                                  An American in Paris Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox) is an American soldier in Paris at the end of World War II. He tears up his return ticket to the U.S. and decides to stay in Paris to pursue his passion for painting. He sees a beautiful and mysterious woman and falls in love with her. Sure. Enough suspense. Her name is Lise (Allison Walsh) and she is a budding ballerina.

He meets Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott), an American musician who was wounded in the war and he will be useful for some comic relief. He describes himself as Oscar Levant who, for those old enough to remember him, was in fact a concert pianist, composer and colourful personality and played Adam in the movie.

We need a third man to get some symmetry in the love triangles and Henri (Ben Michael) fits the role. He is the son of the wealthy Monsieur Baurel (Scott Willis) and Madame Baurel (Teri Hansen) and he has a secret ambition to become a nightclub entertainer.

The woman who will fascinate the men is Lise and she is beautiful, poor, exceptionally talented and has a high moral obligation to marry Henri. Stay tuned because there is a touching story to be told.

The main cast is rounded off by Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), rich, blonde American who gets involved in the lives of the aforementioned.

McGee Maddox is a superb dancer and you wait for the ballet sequences. His athletic coordination and bravura dancing from beginning to end are worth the price of admission alone.  Simply marvellous. He is not too bad as a lover and somewhere in the same category as a singer. You can’t have everything but he does have a lot.
 
                                      McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Allison Walsh meets him step by step in their ballet sequences and she is good vocally as well. Kirsten Scott’s Milo is a classic in the genre of the rich and beautiful who almost get the prize hero. She manages some fine cadenzas and gets high marks for her overall performance.   

Craig Lucas’s book goes quite well until the beginning of the second act when the writing drops to silly sitcom comedy that provides few laughs. But the story eventually finds its rhythm and the dancing propels it to heights of absolute delight.

The set by Bob Crowley shows realistic and abstract views of Paris and a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. The costumes are impressive and you are left with an overall dazzling show. 
      
Director Christopher Wheeldon keeps up a balanced pace that ranges from the frenetic to the dramatic, to the romantic and in the end all is well and a bit of escapism comes to a rousing conclusion.
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An American in Paris by George Gershwin (music), Ira Gershwin (lyrics) and Craig Lucas (book) opened on March 29, and will play until April 29, 2018 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com/  416 872 1212