Friday, February 24, 2017

THE WHITE DEVIL – REVIEW SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION OF JOHN WEBSTER’S PLAY

James Karas

John Webster had his hand in a number of plays but he is best known for his two revenge tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. The Duchess is produced regularly but The White Devil seems to be almost completely ignored. Scholars refer to the two plays as masterpieces of the revenge tragedy genre but theatre produces don’t seem to agree about the box office value at least of The White Devil.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has been producing some pretty arcane plays in the small, indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and this year it gave us the chance to see the play which premiered in 1612 and was a flop.

Director Annie Ryan and dramaturg Michael West performed serious surgery on the text and tried to give thee play a comprehensible narrative and a dramatic structure to keep the audience in the loop.
 
One of the major decisions seems to have been to perform the play in semi-darkness. The lighting is provided mostly by candelabras and we rarely get to see well-lit faces. That is one way of emphasizing the murderous evil of just about all the characters but it does have a downside.

If you don’t have a sharp memory or an explanatory character list in front of you, you will be scrambling to figure out who wiped out whom. Staring from the top, we have the Dukes of Florence (Paul Bazely) and Bracciano (Jamie Ballard). Marcello (Jamael Westman) works for the Duke Florence and his brother Flamineo (Joseph Timms) works for the Duke Bracciano. The brothers are poor and their sister Vittoria (Kate Stanley-Brennan) is married to Camillo (Fergal McElherron) who is rich but old.

So far so good. But

The Duke of Bracciano (who is married) is in love with Vittoria and her brother Flamineo sees an opportunity. Why not get rid of Camillo and the Duchess, he suggests to the Duke, and Vittoria will be yours. Rest in peace Duchess and arrivederci Camillo.

But the dead duchess is the sister of the Duke of Florence and Camillo is the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso (Garry Cooper) who will soon get the big promotion to Pope. The brothers are arrested but beat the charges and Vittoria is sent to a House for Fallen Women. The Duke of Florence and the Pope swear revenge.

Bracciano is not about to give up the gorgeous Vittoria so he rescues her from The House and makes her a duchess in a palace and gives good jobs to her brothers and her mother. The Duke of Florence and a couple of friendly enforcers visit the palace in disguise and give a final sendoff to Bracciano, Flamineo murders his brother Marcello, And Vittoria and Flamineo and Zanche (Shanaya Rafaat), the lady-in-waiting are dispatched permanently. We are getting near the end. A new Duke, Giovanni (Mollie Lambert) takes over and he orders the murderers murdered.
 Who is Giovanni? He is Bracciano’s son and Florence’s nephew.

I give this summary because that is almost what I got from the performance and not without the aid of a summary.

The actors generate some energy and the play has some historical interest as an example of a popular genre in the early seventeenth century. But there is no moral centre, there is not even a decent character. Who is the white devil?

If you are a theatre lover, when you take your grandchildren to see The Duchess of Malfi, you will be able to tell them that you have in fact seen the other play by John Webster but you can’t remember anything about it except that it involved a lot of murders and it was acted in semi-darkness.        
__________

The White Devil by John Webster opened on February 1 and will play until April 16, 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com

Thursday, February 23, 2017

FIVE FACES FOR EVELYN FROST – REVIEW OF THÉÂTRE FRANÇAIS DE TORONTO PRODUCTION

James Karas

As you enter the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre for the performance of Five Faces for Evelyn Frost you see the stage covered with clothes. Three young women and two men walk on stage and greet the audience politely. They tell us things about themselves. When they were born, their taste in clothes, their motto and mundane bits like that.

They pick up the pace of their speaking until they speak so quickly you can barely understand what they are saying. They slow down and launch into a long segment of telling us what “I like,” what “I’ve seen,” what “I’ve read.” Everything about these people is me, me, me and they address the audience directly almost all the time. Their tastes and the breadth of their musical and literary knowledge is breathtaking and I admit that most of the names they dropped are unknown to me.

Most of them go to a bar and the same type of dialogue continues but the emphasis changes on social media postings. All of them describe what they did, the pictures they took and, it seems, the pictures they posted. This is today’s youth living on Facebook and Twitter?

Playwright Guillaume Corbeil skilfully constructs the narrative from the selfish and perhaps silly narrative of the young people telling us about the great time they are having and leads us into darker developments. What appear as minor chinks develop into serious issues as their lives begin to unravel or perhaps simply encounter reality? The mother who has Alzheimer’s disease, the sex, the drugs, the crimes, the degradation, all come to them. They lead to the ultimate tragedy for youth. I will not tell you what it is for fear of spoiling it for you.

Most of the dialogue consists of short sentences and as the play gains momentum the “I” and “me” style achieves poetic substance. By the end I felt that the play is a requiem for youth.

Evelyn Frost of the title only appears as the photograph of a young, beautiful black woman whom the characters see in the club that they go to. She seems to have everything until we are told she suffers from leukemia. There may be more to her and about her but in the speed at which the play moves I may well have missed it.

The five actors are Laurence Dauphinais, Steffi Didomenicantonio, Tara Nicodemo, Nico Racicot and Alex Weiner and they deserve special praise as does director Claude Poissant. The cast is on stage for the full seventy-five minutes’ duration and they must go through a large number of lines and a variety of emotions. Outstanding work. Kudos to Poissant for bringing out the best in a play that must look pretty bland on the page.

The set by Max-Otto Fauteux consists of the stage covered with clothes and a screen where photos of the characters in various poses as if on Facebook are projected.

This is a Canadian Stage and Théâtre Français de Toronto production which is being done in English and French by the same cast.

The whole thing is an amazing feat.    
______
Five Faces for Evelyn Frost by Guillaume Corbeil opened on February 16 and will run in English until March 5 2017. It will be performed in French (Cing Visages pour Evelyne Frost) from March 21 to 25, 2017 with English surtitles at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ont. www.canstage.com, http://theatrefrancais.com/

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

THE GLASS MENAGERIE - REVIEW OF AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE COMPANY PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

John Tiffany directs a disappointing production of The Glass Menagerie for the American Repertory Theater at The Duke of York’s Theatre in London. This production premiered in the United States in 2013 and has wound its way from Broadway to the Edinburgh Festival before its current showing in the West End.

In the opening scene, Tom (Michael Esper) tells us that this is a memory play and that he is not a magician but does have a few tricks up his sleeve. Tiffany seems to disagree with Tom and makes him a magician or at least lets him show us a few of his tricks. Tiffany makes sure that the play is not realistic and he gives us that message starting with the minimalist stage design. The set consists of a table and a sofa with only one glass figurine (the unicorn) to represent Laura’s (Kate O’Flynn) menagerie. There is also a gramophone which the play calls for.
 Michael Esper and Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson
The two striking design features are a fire escape that rises from the floor up into the ceiling of the stage and a pool of reflecting water in front of the playing area. Lights fill the pool and represent Laura’s menagerie when she is talking about it.

When Tom goes from his opening remarks on the fire escape he seems to stumble as he falls into the “reality” of the family apartment. Some of the action is mimed during the two dinners that take place during the play. Reality and unreality meet.

There are several magic tricks including one by The Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith). When he asks Laura to dance and she hesitates he tells he that her dancing card must be full. He reaches behind her ear and produces a card.

Reflecting pool, grand fire escape, magic tricks, mime – these are the elements that Tiffany brings to the play and they may work to some extent to give the production a distinctive and original approach. For me they did very little.

When Tom addresses the audience, he is a disappointed man looking back at the most momentous decision in his life. He abandons his crushed, invalid sister and goes off to join the merchant navy. I think he should speak in a type of reverie full of regret and guilt. Instead Tiffany has Michael Esper almost yell his lines. In the small Duke of York’s Theatre we could have heard him whisper. Esper almost consistently overdoes it and what we hear is his loud voice instead of his despair.

The apparently self-assured Gentleman Caller who takes public speaking lessons to boost his confidence but has been a miserable failure since his high-school glory days is a bit better but again Tiffany cannot resist adding more physicality to his performance than is necessary.
 Kate O'Flynn and Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson
Kate O’Flynn gains our sympathy as the pathetic Laura who is crushed by her deformed foot and her domineering and delusional mother.

In Amanda Wingfield (Cherry Jones), Williams created an unforgettable character. She is frustrating and infuriating to the nth degree to the audience let alone to her son and daughter. She lives in an imaginary past of life on a plantation, with wealth, servants, gentlemen callers and class. She is probably imagining all of it but she tortures her children by constantly telling them of her glorious past. She wants Tom to be a success and Laura to have gentlemen callers even if the electricity is shut off for non-payment.

Jones glories in the role as she talks non-stop at times and puts on a gown that she wore decades ago in order to capture the good old days when The Gentlemen Caller, a warehouse worker, visits without knowing the real purpose of the invitation. A bravura performance.

Tiffany wants to put his stamp on the play and eschews the more orthodox productions that follow Williams’ stage directions. That is understandable and indeed laudatory. But the bolder the vision, the riskier it is to bring it off. Tiffany simply does not bring it off as satisfactorily as I would have preferred. Nevertheless, the end of the play with the crushing of Laura’s world is simply shattering.  
_________

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams continues until April 29, 2017 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 45 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Monday, February 20, 2017

ROMÉO ET JULIETTE – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera is treating its world-wide audience in movie theatres with a new production of Roméo et Juliette directed by Bartlett Sher.

There are a number of things that did not fare well as they travelled from New York to us who sat in movie houses but the most important aspects of the production did. That is the singing from soprano Diana Damrau as Juliet and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo.

The silken-voiced Damrau makes an outstanding Juliet. She is vivacious, playful, deeply moving and sufficiently young-looking to be convincing. She is perfectly matched with tenor Vittorio Grigolo who displays the same physical attributes of youth and vivacity as her and has that marvelous voice that can scale the octaves with tonal beauty and assurance.
 
Mikhail Petrenko as Friar Laurence, Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo, and Diana Damrau as Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
In their duets and solo arias we see their ardour, their enthusiasm and, in the end, their tragedy with pleasure and tears.

They have fine help. The 29-year old Torontonian baritone Elliot Madore plays a firebrand Mercutio who delivers the Queen Mab aria, “Mab, la reine des mensonges.” He endows it with vigour, vivacity and marvelous touches.

Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko sang a sympathetic Friar Laurence and British mezzo-soprano Diana Montague made a splendid Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse.

This is a new production for the Met directed by Sher who is a man of the theatre with considerable experience in staging operas. He sets the opera in the 18th century. The ruffles, three-cornered hats, wigs for the men of rank, elegant gowns for the women bespeak a high society of wealth and class. All designed by Catherine Zuber.

The set designed by Michael Yeargan features the exterior/interior of an impressive three-story palazzo with monumental columns, balconies and large windows. It serves as the background for the entire performance. Before Juliet visits Friar Lawrence, he appears on stage dragging a cart and he sets up his chapel on a raised part of the stage. For the final scene in the crypt some large stands are placed on the stage on one of which Romeo and Juliet will act out their final tragic scene.

There is nothing wrong with this. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London performs plays on the same background with necessary props being brought in. The issue was that we in the movie theatre could hardly see the background much of the time. Everything happens during the night in the opera, it seems, and the lighting for the broadcast is simply inadequate. The audience in Lincoln Center may have seen something different than the rest of us but one cannot be sure.
 
 Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo and Elliot Madore as Mercutio in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. 
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
The main problem, as always it seems, in watching Live from the Met, is cinema director Gary Halvorson. Sher wants the production to be paced briskly and energetically. Good choice but with Halvorson changing camera shots as if he were playing a video game, brisk becomes frenetic and close-ups become embarrassing. If you do not want to see Grigolo’s larynx, close your eyes. Halvosron, sees nothing wrong with giving us a close-up of Damrau or Grigolo that covers the almost entire screen. The singing and the acting take place in context but that fact seems to have escaped Halvosron. He shows random and unbelievably numerous shots like a child with ADD. That is my rant about him for the day.

This production is new for the Met but it is in fact a La Scala production that was initially seen in Salzburg in 2008. A DVD of a live performance with Rolando Villazon as Romeo and Nino Machaidze as Juliet is available from Deutsche Grammophon. There is superlative singing and orchestral playing under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Seguin but the interesting point for this review is the handling of the recording by Brian Large. You can judge what a sensible director does with changing shots as compared to the unbearable treatment from Halvosron.  
________


Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod will be broadcast again at various theatres on February 27 and March 1, 2017. For information about future broadcasts visit www.metopera.org/hdlive or www.cineplex.com

Saturday, February 18, 2017

DIE GOTTERDAMMERUNG – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The second production offered by the Canadian Opera Company for its winter season is a revival of Tim Albery’s 2006 staging of Die Gotterdammerung.

The final scene of the opera as Wagner described it, can hardly be imagined let alone staged but the current production brings it home with outstanding splendour. In the closing moments, we hear (and imagine) Brünnhilde’s ecstatic leap into the fire, we see the immolation reflected in the faces of the chorus. The surging and spectacular music slowly recedes as does the fire and we see the Rhine flowing calmly, the Rhinemaidens regain the ring as the music becomes extraordinarily beautiful and sweet. When Conductor Johannes Debus lowered his baron for the final chord, the audience burst out into applause and a standing ovation.
 

 (l-r) Ain Anger as Hagen, Ileana Montalbetti as Gutrune, Andreas Schager as Siegfried and 
Martin Gantner as Gunther. Photo: Michael Cooper
In other words the star of the evening was the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Debus. They played Wagner’s incomparable score with all its grandeur, ecstatic beauty and serene splendor magnificently.

The singing was generally outstanding. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sang a heroic and vocally and physically impressive Siegfried. American soprano Christine Goerke sang a powerful Brünnhilde. She is a relatively recent arrival to Wagnerian roles but she dominated the performance with her Nilssonesque stamina and dramatic expression. She soared over the orchestra in a singularly impressive performance.

On the baddy side (the characters not the performers), Estonian bass Ain Anger carried the laurel wreath for his portrayal of the nasty Hagen. Anger brought out the manipulative, power-hungry character of the villain with superb panache. German baritone Martin Gantner provided comparison and contrast as Hagen’s half-brother Gunther in a well-delineated characterization of the Gibichung. Gunther is inadequate, envious, devious but incapable of going for the jugular and under the thumb of Hagen. 

Tim Albery’s production falls squarely into the modern-dress, unheroic trend of Wagnerian productions. Otto Schenk’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, with its grandiose sets and traditional costumes held sway for over twenty years at the Metropolitan Opera to be replaced by the quirky Robert Lepage version. Many productions at Bayreuth have attracted very loud boos and I know people who refuse to go to the Festival because they consider the productions “Eurotrash.” Last year, one production of the Ring was set in a motel on Route 66 and it was all about oil around the world.
 
Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Albery is somewhere in the middle. When the curtain opens we see cables running across the stage symbolizing The Ropes of Destiny spun by the none-too-exciting Norns. The next scene is the morning after the honeymoon night of Siegfried and Brünnhilde where our hero reveals that he had some performance anxiety during the night. The only prop is a bed and we will see it several times before the end of the opera. It is carried on stage even when Siegfried is assassinated. There are some lighting effects and hanging neon lights.  

The hall of the Gibichungs is furnished with Ikea furniture and in the later scene there is a huge boardroom table. Hagen and Gunter have a lot of staff (the whole Chorus, in fact) and they are all dressed in gray suits. When they are summoned to war-like behavior, they toss their jackets on the floor and jump on the large table.

Except for the scenes in the hall of the Gibichungs the back of the set is dark and the props are minimal. Siegfried wears a leather jacket over a T-shirt but he does dress up for his wedding. The women wear mostly gowns that do not draw attention to their attire.

The point here is that the costumes made very little difference after one noticed them. The music and the singing are so overwhelming that you are drawn into the drama completely and cease noticing or caring about the set or what anyone is wearing.

A great night at the opera.                     
________________
Die Gotterdammerung by Richard Wagner being performed seven times between February 2 and 25, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto. www.coc.ca

Friday, February 17, 2017

HEDDA GABLER – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

If you meet a Hedda Gabler as played by Ruth Wilson run as fast and as hard as you can no matter how tempted you are to stop and spend some time with her. Remember what Odysseus had to do to escape the beautiful Sirens with the long hair and lovely voices. His men’s ears were filled with wax so that they would not hear them and he was tied to a mast to make sure he stayed put. He got away and he was tempted with only physical and vocal beauty. If you do not run, you will probably be tempted with raw sexual magnetism and end up in Hades.

Where can you go to escape such a fate? The best place is the National Theatre in London to see the current production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. You will meet a woman who is conniving, bitchy, treacherous, sexually magnetic and lusts for the domination of men. In fact men get some very bad press in the play because all of them are the victims of women.
 
 KYLE SOLLER (Tesman), RUTH WILSON (Hedda Gabler). Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Director Ivo van Hove and Set and Lighting Designer Jan Versweyveld have the play done on a virtually empty stage without even doors for the characters to enter and exit. They get off the stage using steps leading to the auditorium. The walls are taped but not painted and there are a few scarps of furniture such as a piano, a couch and some flowers in the first act. That is all, except for a fire centre stage which is mandated by the plot. The costumes are modern.

Hedda’s husband Tesman (Kyle Soller) is frequently portrayed as a dry academic who bores his gorgeous new wife and no one can figure out why she married him. Soller’s Tesman is young, athletic, vigorous, ambitious and no push over. A very intelligent interpretation of the role. He could be a worthy husband and opponent, if necessary, for Hedda but she tires of him quickly and goes after the other men in the play. Judge Brack (Rafe Spall) was no fool to want to marry her. She exercised power over Lovborg but when he tried to impose himself, she dumped him.  Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) is a brilliant writer who degenerated into alcoholism and destroyed his career but he is on the rebound.
  
     Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler), Rafe Spall (Brack). Photo: Jan Versweyveld
After Hedda, Mrs. Elvstad (Sinead Matthews) entered Lovborg’s life and gained dominance over him. Hedda wants to destroy that relationship. When Lovborg loses the only manuscript of his new book and wants to commit suicide, she hands him a gun and commands him to do it beautifully. She believes in some kind of amoral, bacchanalian freedom where she must dominate or destroy everyone who stands in her way.

Ruth Wilson is a Hedda for the books. Her Hedda is sexually irresistible, emotionally conniving, intellectually cunning and usually able to get her way. There are few actresses that can combine all these characteristics of this odious woman.

The rational and conniving Brack figures her out and wants to have the upper hand in an affair with her. In a scene of extraordinary emotional power he throws her to the floor and gains absolute supremacy. I will not spoil the effect by giving you more details but if you see this production, it will stay with you forever.
   _____
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Patrick Marber continues until March 21, 2017 at the Lyttleton Stage, Nation Theatre, South Bank, London, England. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk. The production will be broadcast in movie theatres on March 9  and April 1, 2017. Go www.cineplex.com/Events/ for details.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST – REVIEW OF RSC PRODUCTION AT THEATRE ROYAL HAYMARKET

Reviewed by James Karas

When the Royal Shakespeare Company puts on a play by Shakespeare you pay attention and get tickets. When the performances are at the beautiful Theatre Royal Haymarket you run. The two comedies playing in repertory are Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won which makes for wonderful symmetry but falls short in veracity. The second play is in fact Much Ado About Nothing but Love’s Labour’s Won does serve as its subtitle.
 
 The Princess (Leah Whitaker) and her ladies in Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a tough play for modern audiences. It relies on ostentatious use of language. Rhyming couplets, wordplay, alliteration and a showing off of Shakespeare’s ability with English are the hallmarks of the play. At one point the aptly named police constable Dull (Chris McCalphy) is told by the schoolmaster Holofernes (Steven Pacey) that he did not speak a word, he replies “Nor understood none neither, sir.”

The plot itself is rather silly. The King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his companions decide to go monastic including having nothing to do with women for three years. Just at that time a French princess (Leah Whitaker) and three of her ladies arrive at the Navarre court. You have guessed the plot already.

Along with the King, the Princess and their retinues we need some other preferably comic characters to add to the merriment. The Spaniard Don Armando (John Hodgkinson) with his fractured pronunciation is there and he will help with things like pronouncing peace like piss. The pedantic Holofernes, the dim gardener Costard (Nick Haverson), the lovely maid Jaquennetta, the hall boy Moth (Peter McGovern) are all there and their names alone suggest comedy and they do provide it.
 
William Belchambers, Tunji Kasim, Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander. Photo: Alastair Muir
The King’s men, Berowne (Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim)  get together with the Princess’s ladies, Rosaline (Lisa Dillon), Katharine (Rebecca Collingwood) and Maria (Paige Carter) in high-end mating rituals but there are not enough complications to keep us entertained for two plus hours. The men decide to entertain the ladies by disguising themselves as Russians and putting on exotic dancing. The ladies disguise their identities so that their suitors address the wrong lady.

We need more. Shakespeare provides a show where people put on a show called the Nine Worthies, historical figures are satirized and caricatured to fine comic effect.
In a marvellous stroke, designer Simon Higlett set the play in an Elizabethan stately home. The gorgeous backdrop that we see is the façade of Charlecote Park, country home of the Lucy family. Shakespeare was caught poaching on its extensive grounds and was brought before a magistrate. It may be just a legend but it does make for a great connection between a 21st century production of two of his plays (Much Ado uses the same set) and Shakespeare’s youth.   

Director Christopher Luscombe knows the difficulty of staging Love’s Labour’s Lost and making it entirely approachable. And he takes no chances. The episodes with the Russians and the Worthies are turned into raucous musical numbers. Arcane language be damned – Love’s Labour’s Lost can be made hugely enjoyable. It may well be the funniest production of the play you will ever see.
_____
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until March 18, 2017 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, England. www.trh.co.uk