Dancing the agony of Anna Karenina

Any North American today attempting to read Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina, published in 1878, would need help understanding the class distinctions, the political milieu and most of all the family relations among Anna and her brother, her in-laws and her husband Alexei Karenin, in thrall to his political career.

No surprise then, that John Neumeier’s reimagining of the book as a contemporary ballet, set in the present day, is fraught with difficulties for the audience.

The choreography and the cast who performed Anna Karenina on opening night in Toronto can’t be faulted. Neumeier, long-time artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, has created a dramatic spectacle with very emotive dancing, beautifully executed by the National Ballet of Canada.

Svetlana Lunkina takes on the challenge of the title role with style and precision. (For other performances Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriguez will perform Anna Arkadyevna Karenina.) Her situation as the unhappy, neglected wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is clear from the opening scene in which Piotr Stanczyk is seen as Karenin at a political rally in St. Petersburg. In navy suit before waving signs and supporters, Alexei is oblivious of Anna while at the podium and remains so in the spacious living-room of their home.

Stanczyk masters the choreography, set to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, but this angular, violent, contemporary movement sits at odds with the 19th-century music and the dance steps are arresting or jarring, depending on how you read them. When Stanczyk’s pas de deux with Lunkina involves a lift that has her upside down, head to the floor, the idea of a marriage in trouble is pretty clear. Tanya Howard has an ambiguous role as Karenin’s assistant Countess Lidia Ivanovna. Howard’s erect stature makes her a steady beacon in a storm of events.

Anna’s sole consolation in the marriage is her son Seryozha, performed by Spencer Hack in a role that has him in short pants carrying a teddy bear or playing with toy trains, looking like an adolescent case of arrested development.

The Karenins are not the only couple in a failing marriage. Anna gets summoned to Moscow by her brother Stiva (Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky), performed with aplomb by Naoya Ebe. Stiva wants Anna to help him recover his wife Dolly (the incomparable Xiao Nan Yu), who has caught Stiva cheating on her with the governess Miss Hull (Kathryn Hosier).

This is where things get tricky for an audience, because the dance is occurring in real time while depicting events that may be in the past, in the imagination or in the telling. So we see Anna on stage while in a chamber created by one of scenic designer Heinrich Tröger’s shifting rectangular boxes with doors in them, Dolly catches Stiva in bed with Miss Hull.

Neuemeier’s interpretation of Levin, the aristocratic landowner in pursuit of Dolly’s sister Kitty (a spritely, charming Antonella Martinelli) is puzzling. Félix Paquet dominates the stage as Levin, a strong-like-bull farmer in a red plaid flannel shirt and shiny vinyl skin-tight pants. If the idea is to show how off-the-mark lunky Levin is in imagining Kitty as his bride, then we can understand.

For Kitty, back in Moscow now–the trips are signalled with a toy train chugging across the front of the stage–is betrothed to Count Vronsky. And it’s at their engagement party that Anna and Vronsky discover their mutual, fatal attraction. It must be noted that a series of flowing, boldly coloured dresses created by AKRIS designer Albert Kriemler have a lot to do with Anna’s characterization.

Harrison James, always dressed in white or ivory, makes a distinguished Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a colonel in the Russian army. His and Anna’s passion, in secret and in exile, is played out in some pas de deux of an extravagant nature. Anna’s passion always seems more intense, which is as it should be for her demise to make sense. Anna throws herself under a train, a scene depicted quite abstractly before Lunkina disappears through a trap door in the stage that becomes the grave where Vronksy mourns her.

Along the way some briefer scenes, such as Kitty enjoying a day in the country with Levin, are set to the music of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, catchy tunes such as “Morning Has Broken”. Elsewhere, when inner lives are in turmoil or a lacrosse game is underway, the choreography is accompanied by the 20th-century, often dissonant, compositions of Alfred Schnittke.

It would take repeat viewings to get a grasp of Neumeier’s three-hour-long Anna Karenina, which premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 2017, and is a cooperative production with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi Ballet. And if that means more tickets sold, then the show has to be counted a success.

Anna Karenina

Choreography, sets, costumes and lighting concept by John Neumeier

Inspired by the Leo Tolstoy novel

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 18

Photo of Piotr Stanczyk and Svetlana Lunkina in Anna Karenina by Kiran West

Now you see it, now you don’t

“Poetry in the flesh,” said my seatmate at the end of Humans, an artful act from Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus, performed for one night, November 9, at Toronto’s Sony Centre.

Under the artistic direction of Yaron Lifschitz, Circa is a Brisbane-based company established in 2004. That its 10 performers are Olympic-level gymnasts and skilled acrobats, tumblers, trapeze artists and contortionists is a given.

But Humans is no mere circus act. It’s a 70-minute highly choreographed show with no props, other than a swing and ropes, no scenery, no costumes: just briefs and tee-shirts or bras.

These sturdy men and women are not what we’ve come to expect from champions of the mat or dancers at the barre. Built like discus throwers, they are nevertheless lithe, agile and move like quicksilver.

Never mind the contemplative description of the show: “what it means to be human and how our bodies, our connections and our aspirations all form part of who we are.” Humans is sheer joy from beginning to end.

As we take our seats in the theatre, we see the acrobats getting out of street clothes and into skimpy dance gear; one woman hunched under her coat and trousers like a land tortoise, extricates herself in a funny bit of contortionism.

Soon they are coming and going, each on her own path, entering the stage and exiting and entering again, in a musical and yes, poetic, flow set to tunes as disparate as Blixa Bargeld’s “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground,” Astor Piazzolla’s “Ave Maria,” Andy Williams’s “The Impossible Dream” and a nostalgic accordion tune, “Waltz for Jb.”

Moving, leaping, tumbling, erecting themselves as human totem poles, spreading across the stage in weird poses that would stymie any yoga expert, Circa calls for maximum attention spans. Stunning highlights stick in memory: one man shouldering five men and women joined in a chain. Bridges made of standing acrobats are walked over, as if heads were river stones. Bodies are wrapped around torsos like so much dead, pliable weight. It may be called “extreme acrobatics,” but Humans, to this watcher, was everything a dance can be, to lift the spirits and take us beyond the flesh.

 

El Médico cures what ails you

The musical running at Teatro Nuevo Apolo in Madrid’s theatre district makes quite a contrast to West Side Story just up the hill from it. That’s because El Médico El Musical is totally home-grown. Iván Macías composed the tremendous score. Félix Amador wrote the libretto. José Luis Sixto directs.

The show is adapted from the American novel The Physician, by Noah Gordon. The book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and is particularly popular in Spain, where in 1999 booksellers voted it one of the 10 most beloved books of all time. Noah Gordon’s son Michael Gordon, a Barcelona-based literary agent, acted as consultant to the project.

El Médico El Musical has been running to full houses and standing ovations (rare in Madrid) since it opened on October 17. No surprise: this is a good, old-fashioned musical, in which the music and voices dominate, stage technology notwithstanding.

The hero of this quest story, Rob J. (Cole), grows up poor and orphaned in 11th-century London—the Dark Ages by any measure. Rob apprentices to a barber-surgeon, called simply Barber. (Barbers at that time treated the poor and were snake-oil salesmen. Physicians, with a little more medical knowledge, served only the rich.) Rob has an edge on others: he’s always had a strange ability to feel impending death in the sick or injured. When he is 19, he learns from a Jewish physician about Avicena, an advanced doctor in Isfahán, Persia, who heads up a teaching facility called the Madrasa. Rob becomes a wanderer, leaving the British Isles to cross Europe and travel to the Middle East. Along the way he meets a Scottish lass, Mary, in a caravan crossing the desert. Travelling with Jews, Rob takes on their identity, because the Madrasa would not admit Christians, and upon reaching Isfahán, is befriended by the Shah.

Rob eventually meets and studies with Avicena, but not before enduring war, plagues and other obstacles to love and happiness.

El Médico’s 33 performers, accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra under composer and conductor Iván Macías, are a treat to watch and hear in Teatro Nuevo Apolo, a 1,160-seat opera house—intimate by North American standards. Everything in El Médico devolves from Macías’ composition. Drawing on traditions from classical opera to show tunes to popular and Arabic music, his score dictates the direction of the play.

A rotating series of young male and female singer/actors take on the role of the young Rob J. The one I saw was a lively boy with a quick step and a hearty voice. Barber is a lusty, crafty character, embodied wonderfully by Spanish singer/actor Joseán Moreno, singing the first scene’s “El barbero ya llegó” (the barber has arrived), in which Barber and his apprentice pull teeth and charm and cheat the local yokels. It’s odd to see these medieval characters in choreographer Francesc Abós’ kick line, but the scene works.

Madrid-born Adrián Salzedo is the grown-up Rob J. He’s a musical artist who’s appeared in Spanish productions of Beauty and the Beast, Dirty Dancing, Aladdin and Madagascar. He makes a terrific match with Mary, played by Sofía Escobar, who toured in the international production of West Side Story and was Christine in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera over multiple seasons.

These two bring home the romance in some lovely harmonizing in Act II. The Shah is a multi-tasking Alain Damas, a Venezuelan who performed in Madrid productions of the operas La Celestina and Lady Macbeth. Andalusian-born TV, stage and film actor Ricardo Truchado projects gravitas as Avicena, the Persian physician.

The show boasts a terrific ensemble of singer/actors on a minimalist stage that rotates and is re-set to depict desert dunes or the shah’s palace thanks to the stage designs of Alfons Flores and the sound creations of Olly Steel.

El Medico makes for a great night in the theatre. Would that an English translation is in the works, so that Noah Gordon’s North American readership can see it.

El Médico, El Musical

Based on The Physician by Noah Gordon

Music composed by Iván Macias

Libretto by Félix Amador

At Teatro Nuevo Apolo, Madrid

Photo with Victoria Galán as young Rob J and Joseán Moreno as Barber by Nacho Arias

The Royale gets you with a one-two punch

“This is the time for this fight,” says Max, boxing match promoter, to Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a fictionalized Jack Johnson. And this is the time to put on this play, for the issues explored in The Royale, set in the early 20th century, are as urgent as ever. The Royale is a story of black pride and white prejudice.

American playwright Marco Ramirez, who has written for TV series Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy, based his play, premiered at Lincoln Center Theater two years ago, on the story of Jack Johnson. In 1908, Johnson was the first African American to earn the heavyweight boxing title. He beat a Canadian named Tommy Burns. Caucasian Americans were outraged and the search went out for a “great white hope,” to recover the heavyweight title. In 1910 James Jackson Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson before a crowd of 25,000.

Ramirez’ play is about much more than a fight. Under the excellent direction of Guillermo Verdecchia, The Royale takes on multiple meanings and is nimbly choreographed to run us through six rounds that recount the lives and the struggles of the different characters, including Jay’s sister Nina. All of it takes place in a boxing ring. (Soulpepper is selling tickets to patrons who wish to sit ringside.)

Dion Johnstone is a heavyweight in size and acting ability. He plays Jay. Christef Desir, equally fit, plays Fish, Jay’s sparring partner. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design has them move to the clap-clap-clap or stomp-stomp-stomp rhythms of hands and feet, urged on like flamenco dancers. They don’t actually box each other.

We see them, punching and gripping each other, but separated, facing the audience, it’s as if they’re shadow-boxing. One is thrown against the ropes; the other places a deadly punch and we hear their inner thoughts, as in Fish’s utterance, “watch out for that hook.”

Verdecchia deftly manoeuvres the characters and the narrative, signalling round’s end with a blackout. Michelle Ramsey’s lighting design includes a double row of klieg lights that flash at us, as if to alert us to something alarming.

And Nina and her story are certainly that. Sabryn Rock as Nina wears a stern look to go with her prim outfit of high-necked blouse and long skirt, her straightened hair wrapped up on her head. Nina enters the ring to surprise Jay, who hasn’t seen her for a while. She brings with her memories of the past, both his and hers. Rock’s performance is open to several interpretations; there’s a possibility that Jay was her protector and laid out Nina’s husband.

Diego Matamoros as Max the fight promoter is often our story guide. He operates as a referee, as Jay’s manager; he’s also a carny, gathering an audience for the big fight. Max wants Jay to fight a retired heavyweight champ named Bixby. But Max opposes the deal Bixby offers: he wants 90 percent of the box office. Jay has no problem with that. Wynton, Jay’s coach (powerful performer Alexander Thomas) lets us know that Jay might have confronted Bixby for free.

Wynton also gives us the reason for the play’s title. The Royale was a bar where a brutal fight took place; Wynton was part of it.

True to the dreamy flow of The Royale, Bixby is boxed but not seen. He’s a ghost. The outcome of the fight is unclear. All this occurs in a very short 90 minutes.

The Royale gives us theatre as it should be: poetry in motion, demanding all that our imaginations can embrace.

The Royale

By Marco Ramirez

Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 11

Photo of Diego Matamoros as Max and Dion Johnstone as Jay by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Men in White bowls us over

Cricket is a hard sell in Toronto – that much was evident in all the empty seats at Factory Theatre for last night’s performance of The Men in White. But you don’t need to care about cricket – God knows most of us will never understand the rules of the game – to like this play. Philip Akin directs the Factory production of  The Men in White, written by novelist Anosh Irani, who had it first produced in Vancouver, where lots of people care about cricket. The outstanding cast of eight actors – several of them with comedy backgrounds  ̶  give authenticity to a show that earns lots of laughs from lines that are meant to contrast with, but not obscure, some very dark truths.

Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) is a poor, uneducated chicken cutter in Dongri, a Muslim neighbourhood of Mumbai (Bombay). He’s employed by an older man called Baba (Huse Madhavji), who is a surrogate father to the young orphaned man as well as his boss in the chicken store. When the lights come up on the Dongri half of the stage, Hasan is trying to make a case for a fan because he can’t bear the flies that surround him on the butcher block. Baba looks up from his newspaper long enough to argue with him. Their repartee is rapid and at first it’s hard to catch every word – dialect coach Isaac Thomas has done his job well – but it’s along the lines of this:

Baba: You want but you don’t know what you need. You need a girl.

Hasan: You’re just an old man who doesn’t want me to succeed.

Baba represents the traditional ways. Why, when he was a young man it was understood, “We did our work; we ate; and then we died.” Hasan in love is very awkward and the running gag about him is his failure to charm the young Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani), whom he adores from a distance. Baba has to nudge him in the right direction, but every time Haseena appears at the shop, Hasan puts his foot in it. Explaining his need for a fan, Hasan says to Haseena, “I wasn’t complaining. Only girls complain.” He’s mortified by his own clumsiness, but can’t seem to get out of his own way.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver – the other half of the stage is the locker room of an amateur cricket team – Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh) is offering a solution to the team’s losing streak. He will bring Hasan, a fantastic player, over from Dongri and they will start winning. Randy (Sugith Varughese) is open to the idea. That’s why he’s called a meeting, attended by Doc (Cyrus Faird), an immigrant who self-identifies as a Zoroastrian, Ram (Farid Yazdani) and Sam (John Chou), the incongruous Chinese member of the team. The repartee between Ram and Sam has the same quality as the Hasan/Baba exchanges. Ram says to Sam, who is nervously banging his shin pads with his cricket bat. “Why are you even playing? You’re Chinese.” Sam, who is better integrated into North American society than some of his teammates, claims to love the game. “That’s not love, that’s fear,” Ram retorts.

Two subplots are carefully integrated into each side of the drama. In Dongri, a menacing biker named Mendi (never actually seen) guns his Harley outside the chicken shop, apparently in pursuit of Haseena. While in Vancouver, Doc gets really nasty with Abdul because Doc hates Muslims. Randy tries to show Doc that his bigotry has no place on this team, a microcosm of multicultural Vancouver.

It’s in the progression of the main plot and the merging of the subplots that a truly shocking denouement occurs at the climax of the play.

Akin has staged The Men in White with aplomb, and the actors infuse their characters with very credible personalities. It’s too bad as good an actor as Huse Madhavji has to be made up to look old, which he isn’t, because he’s otherwise a very credible Baba. He and Randy act like the consciences of the other characters. Steve Lucas’s set and lighting are effective as is Waleed Abdulhamid’s sound design.

You won’t know anything more about cricket than you did when came to see
The Men in White, but you’ll have learned a lesson in the complexities of exile and adopting a new homeland.

The Men in White

By Anosh Irani

Directed by Philip Akin

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until November 4

Photo by Joseph Michael. From left, Huse Madhavji as Baba, Tahirih Vejdani as Haseena and Chanakya Mukherjee as Hasan

A recognition and a resurrection

The man who sits tied to a wooden chair under a harsh light speaks the words of the doomed, the cocksure talk of one who boasts of his crimes to suppress his own fear. He sits on the third tier of a wooden platform, presented to us, like a sacrifice. He is surrounded by 23 thickly braided ropes hanging in the darkness. “I raped 23 girls. . .I don’t care for the world much . . . I didn’t mind killing . . . I don’t know why.”

This is Stetko. In the original productions of Colleen Wagner’s 1995 play The Monument, he was a universal soldier-rapist, inspired by the playwright’s shock and outrage at the many civil wars, the ethnic-cleansing and the rape and killing of women and girls at the hands of armed combatants.

Restaged by director Jani Lauzon in the context of the thousands of Canadian missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, The Monument takes on a new immediacy and urgency and opens up a space for accountability, a resurrection of the forgotten and nameless victims and an opportunity for reconciliation.

In this production Stetko refers to himself as a gang member. After a few minutes of his manic confessional, a figure emerges from the shadows. This is Merja, dressed like the female prison camp commandant in Lina Wertmueller’s Seven Beauties. Stetko takes her for his executioner. But, Merja announces, “I’m your saviour. You have to do everything I say, you must obey me for the rest of your life.”

From this point on the two characters inhabit a conceptual space, in which both must travel to a new understanding of what kind of healing, if any, is possible. Tamara Podemski’s Merja is fierce; she seeks revenge, harm, power over Stetko, who becomes her slave and is treated like a dog, humiliated and tortured with reports of his own girlfriend’s rape and murder. Augusto Bitter’s Stetko learns abasement, is offered a rabbit to give him something to care for until it is cruelly removed. He faces his own crimes: “It’s easy to hate and it’s easy to kill if you hate enough,” he says

Merja finds that none of this assuages her pain; she takes Stetko, whom she calls Stinko, to the forest to unearth his victims, the ropes are lowered, festooned with red ribbons to represent the brutality of their deaths.

The language of the play is not profound and Stetko’s repeated references to obeying a soldier’s orders don’t make sense in the new context, but it is not the text that makes Monument worth seeing. The play works on a symbolic level, asking the question if these missing and murdered women could speak what would they say? Podemski’s powerful performance gives the answer: demand their humanity and be recognized for the daughters, mothers, sisters that they were — loved and cherished and put in harm’s way through no fault of their own.

The Monument

By Colleen Wagner

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set designed by Elahe Marjovi

Lighting design by Louise Guinand

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until April 1

Photo of Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter by Joseph Michael

A dancey, entrancing Dream

A barefoot Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Chekhov Collective is more akin to dance and performance art than to conventional theatre. But this show’s cast, adept at physical expression, are also well-trained in Elizabethan utterance and wring new meaning from the comedy’s lines.

What they achieve is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud funny version of the play that exploits the sly humour in Shakespeare’s spoof of the acting world and the mix of magic, make-believe and nonsense that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lines drawn from a speech by Theseus, the Athenian duke, about lovers, fantasies and madmen are given to actor Natasha Greenblatt to introduce the play: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” In other words, we’re going to see where our imaginations can take us in mounting a play with the barest of props, costumes and set design amid a soundscape of vaguely Celtic period music.

Director Richard Sheridan Willis makes a comic virtue of the necessity to double up on roles, with a cross-dressing cast of seven making a multitude. Only Zach Counsil, a scenery-chewing Bottom, gets a single role, and he has three parts to play in it.

Welsh-born actor Paul Amos is Theseus, affianced to the noblewoman Hippolyta, performed by Rena Polley. As the play opens, he is trying to sort out a trio of lovers, to the satisfaction of Egeus, another nobleman, who is asking the duke to intervene in the matter of his daughter Hermia, who is smitten with Lysander. Egeus, played by Elizabeth Saunders wearing a man’s overcoat, is determined that Hermia should marry Demetrius, whom Hermia loathes. Greenblatt’s Hermia, looking teenaged in jeans and white blouse, is feisty in love; she conspires with Lysander (Jesse Nerenberg in a young professional’s white shirt and blue/green tie) to meet at night in the forest, from whence they will run off to his dowager aunt’s and marry.

Demetrius (Michael Man) is meanwhile the object of unwanted affection from Helena, played by Christina Fox, an obvious beauty in a lacy, frumpy dress who speaks oxymoronically of her own lack of appeal. Helena overhears Lysander and Hermia’s plans and vows revenge by sending Demetrius into the wood to chase down Hermia before she makes off with Lysander.

Enter Peter Quince and his band of players, tradesmen who will perform the story of “Pyramus and Thisby” as entertainment for the Theseus/Hippolyta nuptials. Michael Man, the benighted Demetrius, is now the smug, smiling Quince, with his satchel primly held by a strap across his chest – reducing one to helpless giggles every time he comes on with his scruffy band. Greenblatt is Snug, the tinker. Quince is constantly interrupted by Nick Bottom, the weaver, who feels he’s the last word in showmanship. “If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some measure,” he says of his intentions for playing Pyramus. Remaining quick-change artists are Nerenberg as Francis Flute, the bellows mender who will be Thisby; Fox as Robin Starveling, who gets to be the wall, holding up too fingers as the chink between which the lovers whisper to each other.

Much brisk stage business takes place as players under bobbing lights like stars or fireflies  move in and out through gauzy curtains that make a scrim.

A long green patchwork, velvety throw with pillowy knolls rolls out from behind the curtains to serve as the wood where the fairy king Oberon (Amos with a mossy stole over his black suit jacket) rules with Titania (Polley in a spangled gown). A nimble, shape-shifting Saunders is Oberon’s eager fairy assistant Puck, charged with bewitching, by herbal means, Titania to fall in love with Bottom, now transformed into a braying ass. Puck is assigned too to drug Demetrius so he falls in love with Helena, but gets it wrong, so that both Athenians are now entranced with Helena and Hermia becomes the rejected one. All this is accomplished with a sleight-of-hand tossing about of miniature red lights that spring from their fingers.

The minutes whiz past in this Shakespearean, clownish romp. Minimalist in its set design, but rococo in its acting and physical comedy, this Dream is a dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Richard Sheridan Willis

Sound design by Rob Bertola; set and costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle; lighting by Noah Feaver; magic design by Zach Counsil; movement by Melinda Little

Presented by The Chekhov Collective

At The Citadel, Toronto, through March 11

Photo of Zach Counsil, Natasha Greenblatt, Michael Man, Jesse Nerenberg and Christina Fox by Racheal McCaig