Friday, December 8, 2017

MY SON THE WAITER, A JEWISH TRAGEDY! – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy! is an enjoyable one-man show written by and starring Brad Zimmerman. He has a fine selection of one-liners, Jewish jokes, touching and humorous stories that make for an integrated ninety minutes of entertainment.

Zimmerman builds the show around autobiographical material (some of it no doubt imaginary), his relationship with his parents, growing up in New Jersey and becoming a stand-up comic.   

He tells us that in high school he was voted the one most likely to work for his father. This in a community where life begins after one gets a medical degree. He applies to three colleges and chooses the only one that accepted hm. He indeed does become a waiter for some 29 years. That provides fodder for observing the silly foibles of the way people order, taste wine and generally behave in a restaurant. When a customer asks him what he does when “you are not here” he replies that “I have other tables.” Like many of his jokes, the laugh comes from the unexpected reply to a simple question.
 The Jewish jokes, some fresh, some classic, are always hilarious. His mother (she is a mainstay of his routines) tells him that he will be well-taken care of when she goes, he asks her to give him a time frame. He brings three girls home for his mother to choose which one he should marry. She chooses the red-haired one and he asks her why she chose that one. The mother chose her because it is the one she does not like and knows that that is the one her son will marry.

After he became a stand-up comic, Zimmerman got jobs as the warm-up comedian for stars like Gabe Kaplan, Joan Rivers and George Carlin. He got recognition as the best comedian for the money. In 2005 he started working on My Son the Waiter and opened Off Broadway in 2004. He got good reviews and the show stayed for 15 months. He is now taking it on tour and Toronto, with a vibrant theatrical and Jewish community seems like an excellent pit stop.

The title is no doubt meant to be ironic but there is some truth in it. Once a Jewish son, always a Jewish son and the mother is usually a great source of material. When Zimmerman told his mother that, she asked him what will he do when she dies. But his failure to make it as a big star does give some justification for his self-assessment of his life as Jewish tragedy. When it comes to being Jewish, Zimmerman confesses to not being a conscientious practitioner of his faith he considers himself just a notch above a Muslim.
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My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy!  by Brad Zimmerman in a production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company continues until December 10, 2017 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Thursday, November 30, 2017

OLEANNA – REVIEW OF THEATRE PENUMBRA PRODUCTION OF MAMET’S PLAY

James Karas

Donald Trump, Howard Weinstein, Roy Moore, John Conyers, Bill Cosby Al Franken, numerous armed forces and RCMP officers and countless others who dominate the daily news have one thing in common: they are powerful men who have molested women. The practice is hardly new but a large number of cases have come to light and with a slime ball as president the issue is hotly debated.

Flashback to 1991. President George Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court based on two significant qualifications: he is conservative and he is black. Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual harassment against her by Thomas surfaces and the Senate confirms him anyway. Thomas invents or at least uses the currently favourite defence: deny, deny, deny. There are times when evidence meets denial and facts collide with convictions, lies trump the truth. 

In 1992. David Mamet wrote Oleanna, an extraordinary play about sexual warfare that has not lost its power 25 years later. Theatre Penumbra gives us a powerful, indeed spellbinding, production with five-star performances by Grace Gordon as Carol and James McGowan as John.
 
James McGowan in Oleanna. Photo by Neil Silcox
The play is full of twists and traps that lead to unexpected developments as John the professor meets and then is confronted by his student Carol. The poster for the play shows half the face of each actor forming a single person separated by slit. In other words, John and Carol may seem to be completely at odds but are they almost the same? Perhaps.

John is a highly stressed man, almost at the end of his rope. He is buying a house and everything is going wrong in consummating the transaction. He is driven up the wall by his wife and the real estate agent. He has been approved for tenure, a highly sought-after promotion, but the tenure committee has not yet signed the paperwork for his promotion. He is on tenterhooks.         

Carol is in his office seeking help to pass an essential course and he seems to go out of his way to help her. She feels that she is stupid and simply does not understand his book or his views. She comes from a different socio-economic group than John.
  
He appears to make heroic attempts to help her including an offer to teach the entire course to her all over.
 
The poster for Oleanna
Carol turns everything that he said to her on its head and reports him to the tenure committee for behaviour that she characterizes as vile, manipulative and pornographic. He is not a dedicated teacher who has human problems and is trying to help a student. He is a monster. But Carols is not alone in her attack on him. She represents a group and they were represented by a lawyer at the hearing. The tenure committee believed her evidence and the allegations have become facts.

McGowan as John goes from the assured, brilliant teacher trying desperately to communicate his ideas to a student to a man at bay who slowly realizes his defeat and consequence destruction. McGowan gives us the vocal and physical changes in a man who goes from the triumph of promotion to catastrophe.

Gordon has a similar emotional and physical voyage from the pleading student to an avenging fury. It is a terrifying transformation.

Fulton pays attention to every movement and nuance in the play. Mamet’s play glories in chopped up dialogue where the speakers interrupt each other in mid-word and mid-sentence. It takes discipline and talent to achieve the speed and accuracy demanded by Mamet. Fulton has imposed discipline on delivery of dialogue and certainty in the emotional development that, I repeat, result in spellbinding performances. You leave the theatre emotionally drained and enthralled by the events it described

This is not a play about a sleazebag harassing and molesting an innocent woman. There is no evidence at all that John shows any sexual interest in Carol. Is he simply set up or is his apparently decent conduct and fervent desire to help this troubled student meant to be interpreted as the exercise of male power? I have my own opinion. You go and decide for yourself.
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Oleanna by David Mamet, in a production by Theatre Penumbra, continues until December 3, 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. East), Toronto, Ontario. http://redsandcastletheatre.com/

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MY NAME IS ASHER LEV – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Asher Lev is a young man living in Brooklyn who repeatedly reminds us that his name is Asher Lev and that he is a faithful Jew. He feels the need to remind us and himself of that because Asher Lev has an extraordinary gift that some people, especially his parents, consider unJewish. He is a painter.

As a child, Lev paints scenes of the Crucifixion to his mother’s shock. He can paint birds or flowers, she tells him, and reminds him what the Jews have suffered at the hands of the followers of Christ in the last two thousand years.

Thus the battle lines are drawn in this brilliant, moving and highly dramatic play about the need for an artist to express his personal vision of the world and Jewish traditions including piety and respect for one’s parents (honour thy father).
 
Jonas Chernick, Ron Lea, Sarah Orenstein. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz
My Name Is Asher Lev is an adaptation by Aaron Posner of Chaim Potok’s novel. Jonas Chernick plays Lev as an almost meek child and young man. His head is usually slightly tilted and he looks downward. He wants to be a good Jew and show respect for his parents but he has a gift, which may be divine or demonic, for painting. The two poles are inimical and he tries desperately to explain his gift and not alienate his parents.

There are a number of other characters in the play with Roan Lea playing all the men and Sarah Orenstein playing all the women. Lea gives superb performances as Asher’s father, uncle, the artist Kahn and the Rabbi. All of these people are intelligent, perceptive and hold defensible positions. The father is highly educated and spends much time in Europe establishing yeshivas. He no tyrannical father of fiction. It is difficult to bridge the gap between educating the young to be good Jews and having a son painting the Crucifixion.

Asher’s uncle is open-minded and admires the youngster’s work. Kahn is a free-spirited Jew who admires genius and mentors Asher. The Rabbi shows deep understanding of Asher’s conflict.

Sarah Orenstein is the eternal mother who loves, cares and is in the middle of a father-son conflict. We see Orenstein as a savvy gallery owner who has nothing in common with the mother. Wonderful acting.        

The brilliant discussion of the play about art and faith are utterly absorbing because they involve a community of traditions and faith on one hand and the individual who cannot comply with those demands completely. The supreme moment of the play I think comes when Asher sees Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is an expression in marble of indescribable pain and serenity as the Virgin Mary hold her son’s body after he is taken down from the cross. Asher is overwhelmed because he does not see any doctrine or religion but only supreme art. It is a compelling moment for Asher the artist and for the audience watching the play.

Director Joel Greenberg handles the play with a sure and delicate touch. There is considerable wit in the play as well but for some reason the audience underreacted to it on the night that I saw it.

The set by Brandon Kleiman consists of an ordinary room in 1950’s Brooklyn that serves as the house of the Levs, an art gallery and Kahn’s studio with minor touches.

This is ninety minutes of riveting theatre.
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My Name Is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner in a coproduction by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Studio 180 Theatre continues until November 26, 2017 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast has been around for almost three hundred years in various forms. But Disney has generated a whole industry with its musical transformation of the tale as a cartoon on film and live on Broadway and around the world.

It is such a wonderful story one can hardly blame the Disney Corporation and others for relying on the tale for entertainment and moral instruction for young and old. Young People’s Theatre is offering the musical during November and December and if the matinee that I saw is an indication to full and enthusiastic audiences mostly of pre-teens.

The production has the virtues of a fine cast that can sing, dance, take care of comic business and get dramatic and scary as necessary. We follow the story enraptured in its telling as if we have never heard it or seen or before. But that is not all.
 
(L-R): Stewart Adam McKensy, Andrew Prashad, Emma Rudy and Celine Tsai, 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
This is brilliant entertainment wrapped with easy-to digest morality lessons. Beauty (Celine Tsai) loves her father Maurice (Neil Foster) who is an outcast in the village; she rejects the empty-headed, egotistical and boorish Gaston (Aaron Ferguson) and she makes reading books and thinking appear attractive. She may be considered odd herself but she is a strong character who can stand up for herself. Count the number of virtues this young lady displays (if you need the fingers of only one hand, you better examine your values) and have a chat with your children

Examine the actions of the handsome Prince (Stewart Adam McKensy) who throws out an old beggar woman (Claire Rouleau) and is cursed by a spell becoming a Beast. There is a period of self-realization and transformation, a personal change that results in his  humanization. And McKensy has a marvelous voice – another virtue, no dount.

Damien Atkins as Lumiere and Andrew Prashad as Cogsworth are very funny and Mrs. Potts (Susan Henley) and Chip (Phoebe Hu) are both funny and charming.  

This is a fairy tale about change, growth, transformation and cogent lessons about tolerance, understanding and decency.

Who better to judge the quality of the production and the attendant issues of the fairy tale than my two Assistant Reviewers? Jordana (I am going to be 11 in January) and Emily, bright red lipstick applied with surgical precision, (I am going to be 10 in March).

Jordana liked and complimented the singing and as the daughter of a singer and participant in musicals herself, her opinion can hardly be gainsaid. Her assessment was that “Over all, it is a very good production” [sic]. She knew the story well enough to have drawn her own conclusions about its morality.
 
(L-R): Emma Rudy, Zorana Sadiq, Dale R. Miller, Damien Atkins, Aaron Ferguson, Claire Rouleau, 
Celine Tsai, Joel Schaefer and Jacob MacInnis, Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Asked about what she learned, Emily said tersely “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Her favourite scene was when Beauty and Beast kissed.

But Emily had second thoughts about some things. “Would you have let the old beggar woman in your house if she knocked on your door?” she asked me.

“Of course” I replied a bit too quickly.
 
“But mommy tells me not to talk to strangers and never to let anyone in our house” she observed. Ah!

The YPT production is an edited version of the Broadway musical and runs for about 85 minutes that seems to be the right amount of time before the kids start getting restless. The set by Sue LePage consists of moveable panels that enable quick and efficient scene change.

The fact that I enjoyed the production is of secondary importance. Listen to the infallible and totally reliable opinions of my Associate Reviewers and take your children to see the show.              
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Beauty and the Beast  by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics), Linda Woolverton (book) directed by Allen MacInnis, continues until Dec. 31 at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca


Sunday, November 19, 2017

POISON – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Poison is a play by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans that is based on the simplest of plots and consisting almost entirely on the recollections of a couple that has been separated for nine years. Yet it is a moving, elegiac play in which most of the deep emotions, the grief and the pain that it expresses form an almost invisible undercurrent. We share the expressed and especially unexpressed pain of the couple in this superbly done production of a marvellous play.

Vekemans calls the two characters of her play He and She and they meet in a cemetery in Holland for a meeting with other people about what should be done with the people buried there because their remains may be poisoning the waterbed.

There is no meeting and He and She stay to talk to each other haltingly, with numerous pauses and embarrassment. There is considerable emotional tension, anger and attempts to conceal their true feelings. But the facts do come out, slowly and judiciously controlled by the playwright and in turn by the actors.
Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra in Poison. Photo: DAHLIA KATZ  
He left her on New Year’s Eve 1999, the eve of the millennium at a precise hour and drove away. He is now living in France and went back to Holland for the meeting. Spoiler alert. The pain that joins them is the death of their son who was killed in an accident, right in front of his mother’s eyes. The pain is unbearable.

There are recriminations, attempts to understand why he left her and why she did nothing to stop him. Attempts and some success at sharing the grief and the pain, and attempts at reconciliation or at bridging the emotional gap are made but nothing really works.

Ted Dykstra plays He and Fiona Highet is She. Highet is a tall woman with expressive eyes and a voice that intones her complex emotions about her child, her separation, her anger and her loneliness. It is a beautiful performances that draws us into her beauty and agony.

Dykstra, with his tousled hair looks more like a kid than an adult. He stands accused of abandoning his wife, of not having the depth of feeling and sorrow that she feels and of moving on with his life. It is not true but he in fact has moved on with his life. He reaches out to her and she is almost ready to reach back until she is crushed by him again. He is married and expecting a child.

This beautifully moving play is done in the small playing area of the Coal Mine Theatre, in front of a bare white wall, some white plastic chairs and a water cooler designed by Patrick Lavender. Director Peter Pasyk controls the revelations and the emotional levels of the play to almost subliminal levels. The audience feels them more acutely that way.
A moving and splendid night at the theatre.              
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Poison by Lot Vekemans translated by Rina Vergano continues until December 3, 2017 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Friday, November 17, 2017

DAUGHTER – REVIEW OF ADAM LAZARUS’ PERFORMANCE AT THEATRE CENTRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Adam Lazarus, for those who don’t know him, is a talented man of the theatre including an outstanding stand-up comic. His comedy is witty, physical, raunchy, scatological and moving. He brings all those traits to his one-man show Daughter that he wrote and co-created with Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino. Kerr directs the performance.

For Daughter, Lazarus adopts the character of a lower class Jew and starts with a description of playing with his six-year old daughter. He dances and she “dances” with him; she is clever, delightful and wonderful. Then he pushes her hard into her bed and we start with his neuroses, doubts and other incidents of his life.

He covers a lot of ground. He describes incidents like losing his virginity, drinking urine. Eating (sort of) feces, playing an injurious and mean-spirited prank on an unattractive girl, having affairs, having sex with hookers and contracting gonorrhea and protecting his daughter.

The longest segment is his description of preparing for the birth of his daughter, the endless labour and her actual birth.

Like some chic and modern parents, Adam and his wife decide to deliver their child using the system of hypno-birthing. The system as described by Lazarus uses a lot of very funny psychobabble and he as the nervous father with his camping equipment lives through it and entertains us.
 

 Adam Lazarus. Photo: John Lauener

His daughter refuses to exit and the doctors recommend Caesarian delivery. His wife starts doing yoga exercises between labour pains (which Lazarus describes quite graphically) and between her pains and fainting, the child is turned around. No need for C section.

The urine in the cup marked juice and the feces placed in a bowl using an ice cream scooper and then throwing chocolate sprinkles in top is quite hilarious.

The story of the unattractive girl who is supposed to be frightened out her wits as someone jumps out of a freezer in her basement has unpleasant consequences as she ends up in the hospital for a week with an asthma attack.

You get about seventy minutes of varied routines with his daughter as the unifying theme. It is all done on an empty stage with a stool and a couple of minor props.

Lazarus had the youthful audience in the palm of his hand throughout the performance. He could evoke a laugh by a look, a movement or a line in a way that most performers must dream about.
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Daughter, written and performed by Adam Lazarus in a coproduction by The Theatre Centre, Quip Take with Pandemic Theatre, continues until November 19, 2017 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org. 416 538-0988


Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA – REVIEW OF SOULPEPEPR PRODUCTION OF ALBEE’S PLAY

James Karas

Happy families are all alike, according to Leo Tolstoy, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Take the Gray family. At age 50, Martin is a successful architect who has won the Nobel Prize equivalent in his field and has been chosen to design The World City, a two-hundred billion project in the wheat fields of the Middle West. His world success is matched by his happy home life. He is married to Stevie who is beautiful, articulate and in short a dream wife. They are deeply in love with each other and completely faithful. They have a gay son which may or may not be an issue for them but everything about the Grays’ success is practically mythical.

But there is a flaw in the ointment. A flaw that Albee wants us to know goes beyond a passing mortal sin like infidelity or one of the frequently encountered problems in a marriage. The parenthetical subtitle of the play is “Notes towards the definition of tragedy.” Early in the play Martin refers to the Eumenides as pursuing someone relentlessly. They are the furies of vengeance in Greek tragedy who pursue most famously Orestes for the killing his father.
 

  Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

The flaw in the ideal marriage of the Grays is that Martin is in love with a goat. Albee raises the admittedly carnal relationship to something spiritual and out of the control of Martin. If you want to be grandiloquent, it may refer to Aristotle’s idea hamartia, a fatal flaw or an error in a character that leads to a reversal of fortune and a tragic end.

Alan Dilworth directs the current Soulpepper production which has some issues but brings much of the drama out. Rquel Duffy gives a bravura performance as Stevie, Martin’s wife who understandably freaks out when he gives her a detailed description of his physical and spiritual relationship with the goat Sylvia. Stevie, always articulate, frequently witty, goes from shock to rage to avenging fury punctuated with agony at the incomprehensible treachery that she faces. It is a tremendous range for an actress to cover and Duffy does it all. From disbelief, to sarcastic remarks to a heart-wrenching howl, Duffy gives a stunning performance.
 Albert Schultz and Derek Boyes, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Albert Schultz as Martin is fine in the lighter portions of the play but he fails to rise to the tragic dimension demanded of the character. His reaction and his howl as he is destroyed by the avenging fury fails to reach the heights that we hope to see.

Derek Boyes plays Ross, the friend of the family who tells Stevie what her husband has done. Paolo Santalucia plays Billy, the Grays’ teenage son who has his own sexual problems but with his father madly in love with a goat there is not much room to examine them. Boyes and Santatlucia give good performances in their respective roles.
Dilworth does a good job in directing a difficult play but there seems to be a lack of disciplined acting in some of the scenes. Some more intonation in some scenes, a slower pace in others may be of minor nature but it would be nice to have them.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini shows a brightly lit sitting room with a couch, a coffee table and some furniture pieces that evoke the home of a well-off modern house.       
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The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee continues until November 18, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca