broadcast reviews: NEEDLES AND OPIUM and GOD OF CARNAGE

by Lynn on November 29, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, November 29, 2013, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. Needles and Opium at the Bluma Appel Theatre until Dec. 1; God of Carnage at the Panasonic Theatre until December 15.

The guest host was Phil Taylor.


Good Friday morning. It’s time for a jolt of theatre with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. Hi Lynn


Hi Phil


I assume you’ve got two shows to tell us about. What are they?


They are two really provocatively titled shows. The first is Needles and Opium written and directed by Robert Lepage, and plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until Sunday. Canadian Stage produces it.

And then God of Carnage by Yazmina Reza and it plays at the Panasonic Theatre until Dec. 15. Produced by Studio 180 as part of the Off-Mirvish season.


Let’s start with Needles and Opium. What are the details.


Needles and Opium is about loneliness because of loss of love, creativity, addiction, and displacement. It takes place in 1949 and 1989. In 1949 French intellectual poet-playwright Jean Cocteau is in New York for the first time which resulted in his writing Lettre aux Américains, “A Letter to Americans.”

At the same time Miles Davis, American jazz musician par excellence, is in Paris for the first time to score a film, or rather just extemporize the music while he watches the film. Davis was addicted to heroin. Cocteau was addicted to opium. Hence the title.

Davis met and fell in love with French chanteuse, Juliette Greco, and she with him. Marriage was planned but Davis didn’t feel they would have a chance since mixed marriages were frowned upon then in America. So they parted.

In 1989, a Quebecois actor name Robert has come to Paris to narrate a film in English, on Juliette Greco. Robert has recently broken up with his lover and his sense of loss and despair is palpable. He is having trouble with the director of the film. He can’t sleep because of the moaning and groaning of the incessant love-making in the hotel room next door. And when he calls his ex-lover in New York he is rebuffed. Needles to say all the participants are going through their own angst-ridden times.


Robert Lepage is celebrated for his striking visuals. How does that play out with Needles and Opium?


Robert Lepage has created a stunning new production of Needles and Opium, which he originally produced in 1991. With this new production he has re-imagined a death-defying set which is realized by designer Carl Fillion. Lepage’s images; use of projections; overlapping stories and sheer theatrical brilliance confirm Lepage is one of the theatre’s leading creators. Lepage has envisioned a world off balance. All the action takes place inside a cube that seems in constant motion. The characters balance inside it while it turns on its axis. Sometimes a safety cord is needed. Sometimes a character is suspended in mid-air from the flies. Images are bombarded inside and around the cube.

For example there is a soundtrack of Greco singing in a club, with a projection through a window of a woman singing, while outside, is Davis, having a smoke, then adding his own trumpet playing to accompany here.

At another time, Jean Cocteau is suspended in mid air inside the cube, discoursing on art and poetry. The visuals are never short of arresting.

Marc Labrèche plays Cocteau with a high-pitched affected voice. At times the sound sounds muffled and it is hard to make out the dialogue. He plays Robert with a normal, calm voice. He is lively, animated and a rather compelling performer and certainly when he’s suspended.

As Miles Davis, Wellesley Robertson III has that comfortable sway of a confident man. He doesn’t speak except with the trumpet. He looks like he’s playing the recorded music. This isn’t just mime…this is a haunted man.

Much as the work grabs you, I do have a few concerns.


What are they?


Lepage is always in need of an editor. He over writes and doesn’t know what to cut. And much as Lepage’s productions just grab you, sometimes the technology gets in the way, impressive though it is. You watch as either actor tries to navigate a steep incline inside the cube as it turns dangerously on its axis. That takes us out of the play.

But it is Robert Lepage and that outweighs any minging on my part. Just go!


And now God of Carnage which has a title that is equally provocative. What’s the story there.


It’s written by Yazmina Reza a French-Iranian playwright who writes provocative plays that seem complex, but really deal with simple themes.

She wrote the play Art about what is art and is a pure white painting art?

With God of Carnage two couples meet to discuss what do to about an altercation their two 11 year-old sons had. The son of Alan and Annette hit the son of Veronica and Michael in the mouth with a branch causing the kid’s two front teeth to be bashed out—swelling, damage; orthodontistry. He apparently did it because the victim called him a snitch.

The couples meet at Veronica and Michael’s house as accommodating, respectful adults who want a fair outcome. Coffee and clafouti are served. Alan calls his son a thug and a savage and appreciates the laws of the jungle….and the God of Carnage who seems to work with no mercy. Alan, a lawyer, is also pre-occupied with a client and constantly interrupts the conversation to answer his vibrating cell phone.

His wife Annette is not that harsh but is remorseful. As the play goes on she becomes more hardnosed and infuriated with her husband’s phone calls. But the situation is unsettling and it manifests itself in a rather impressive theatrical way.

Michael is the wounded boy’s father. He’s mild-mannered initially. He wants the whole matter solved so he can go back to his life.  His wife Veronica is the protective mother who is fierce with anyone she perceives as doing her family harm.  She even rails at Michael. She wants an apology from her son’s attacker. She wants her husband to stand-up for their kid.

So gradually we see the subtle shifts in the relationships and how easily something that is polite and balanced can turn ugly and totally off kilter.


Can we easily see that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?


Sure. Alan is a killer lawyer who will bull-doze his way into any situation to protect his client. For all his yammering about how his kid is a thug, I think he thinks that’s fine because a fight between kids is nothing compared to his fights in ‘real life’ with his clients. His wife snipes with the best of them both at her husband and at anyone she thinks is insulting her. And eventually she thinks Veronica is being condescending. And when she blows up at her husband, it’s pretty impressive.

Veronica will support her wounded kid to the ends of the earth. She harangues her husband Michael to do the same, and he just wants to be left alone.


Is the play predictable?


Sure—you don’t get branch-wielding 11 year old’s from nowhere. You get him from combative parents like Alan and Annette. You get victims like Veronica and Michael’s kid because the relationship of his parents seems like that.

But the beauty of the play is the subtle way that Reza pulls back the layers protecting these people, and exposes them as phonies, bullies and bullied in their own homes. And that subtlety carries over into the production


So the production serves the play.


The production serves the play beautifully. It’s directed with a firm, yet delicate hand, by Joel Greenberg.

There is just the right amount of tongue biting between characters to keep the pace of the revelations slow and steady. Until when all hell breaks loose we expect it but still grip the arm rests, as you would with any roller coaster ride of a production.

The cast of four is exemplary. As Alan, John Bourgeois is at first respectful, apologetic for the phone calls he has to take; appreciative of the Clafoutis (he didn’t eat lunch). And then BANG, as his calls get more and more agitated you see what kind of bully he is. As Annette his wife, Sarah Orenstein is elegant, careful, a bit imperious. As the other couple, Veronica is played by Linda Kash, the raging lioness come to pounce on anyone who does her kid harm.  Kash is appropriately high strung with a perfect aim for the barbs she shoots out to the other couple.

And as Michael her husband, Tony Nappo is fascinating as he segues from the accommodating husband and father, to the exasperated man who is sick of being put down by everybody. Michael is not just a common man; he’s complex and Nappo plays all his layers of complexity.

The production begins with a wonderful percussion riff.

By the end of the play we realize those are the drums of the jungle. Terrific production.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can check Lynn’s Blog at

Needles and Opium plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until Sunday, Dec. 1.

God of Carnage plays at the Panasonic Theatre until Dec. 15.


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