By Adelina Fabiano
A Poignant Piece of Italian-Canadian history is revealed on a Toronto Stage
I sat in the audience as I watched Shadowpath’s production of Paradise by the River, written by Vittorio Rossi, shocked at my own ignorance that I had never before heard of this bit of Italian-Canadian history.
In this moving script, playwright Vittorio Rossi wholeheartedly dramatizes events that took place from 1940-1945 in Canada while war raged on in Europe. With its dramatic plot set in historical context, heartfelt performances and vivid setting, this production exposed a dark part of Italian-Canadian history that few have acknowledged.
Just as Germany invades Poland igniting World War II, the Canadian Government issues The Defence of Canada Regulations giving Canada’s Minister of Justice the power to arrest or suspend all rights of individuals suspected as dangerous.
Soon after, Italy declares war on France and Great Britain, and Canada in support of Great Britain, declares war on Italy. They begin rounding up thousands of Canadian men of Italian origin, most of whom are Canadian-born citizens, treating them with suspicion and classifying them as enemy aliens.
Of the thousands of men arrested, living in Montreal, Toronto and around the country, most were put in jail. After a month into war, many were released forced to report each month to the RCMP. The innocent men remaining were then interned at the army base of Petawawa, Ontario as prisoners of war.
Vittorio Rossi’s script tells the story of Romano Dicenzo (Chris Coculuzzi) a hardworking, well-established construction business owner and his seamstress wife Maria living in Montreal. As the story begins, the two receive a visit from Cenzo Dicenzo, played charmingly by Len Batta informing his brother Romano of the troubles to come.
Moments later, he is arrested without charge, torn away from his pregnant wife.
Batta and Coculuzzi share a sincere brotherly affection on stage, playing their roles honestly and passionately.
Many of the actors, some of which were of Italian descent, truly captured the essence of what it was like to be an Italian-Canadian during that volatile time. There were some very endearing moments from the character of Lorenzo Dicenzo, played by Frank Spezzano. His Italian dialogue, often in dialect, was engaging and humorous. Although the whole play was written and performed in English, there were times when some of the actors spoke in Italian dialect. For many of the Italians in the audience like myself and my guest, we were privileged to enjoy some of the Italian interaction and side jokes.
Johnny Martin as Calo Calabrese, the musician, performs a powerful monologue when he speaks about Fascist ideologies, trying to make sense out of his personal predicament.
Raffaele Ciampaglia was versatile in playing multiple roles, particularly in a pivotal moment of the show when we learn about a betrayal in the family.
Kaitlyn Riordan as Helen Beauchamp and Tim Welham as her brother Monseiur Beauchamp also shared some powerful stage moments. Riordan’s transformation from devoted sister to her disabled brother to a woman finally taking a stand was strongly executed. Welham’s characterization was a good contrast to the others.
The costumes and set design were also notable aspects of the show. Costume designer, Jessica Botelho captures the fashion of the 1940’s in a simple yet feminine way, particularly the costumes of Maria and Helen.
The dynamic set design was divided into three different sections by metal frames. It included the home of Beauchamp on a riser, the Dicenzo home down below, and the two levelled internment camp with cots. As dialogue took place in one corner of the stage, silent action took place in the other areas, giving it a film-like quality.
Detailed props like the life size rosary hanging in the Dicenzo home added a bit of nostalgia for many of us Italians. As my guest and I watched the show, reflecting on aspects of our Italian upbringing, we also noticed the faces of four Italian men sitting in front of us. They were clearly first generation immigrants, completely engaged by this story, perhaps taken back to their own memories of moving to Canada.
Director, Marianne McIssac beautifully brings the story to life. Although the production is almost three hours long, history is slowly unravelled, with just enough sentiment.
The script is not only well researched but takes us deeply into the spirit of the Italian immigrant. I loved the moment all the men in the internment camp sing “ Calabrisella Mia” an ageless song that still represents the old life for many southern Italians living abroad.
As an Italian-Canadian who has been very much immersed in the Italian culture, language and travels to Italy, I felt a profound kinship with Vittorio Rossi’s script. Although my parents immigrated decades after World War II, the immigrant story is universal, each culture experiencing its own hardship with many heartbreaking yet often empowering stories about strength and courage.
Paradise by the River is one of those stories.
–Paradise by the River produced by Shadowpath Productions will be playing at The City Playhouse Theatre from October 28-November 7, 2010 and as a Toronto Premiere at The Lower Ossington Theatre (100 Ossington Avenue) from November 25-December 7, 2010 at 8pm.
– Paradise by the River acknowledges the 70th anniversary of the internment of Italian-Canadians.
-For more information about this production go to www.shadowpaththeatre.ca
-The show costs $25.
Photograph of Frank Spezzano as ” Lorenzo Di Cenzo” taken by Aviva Armour-Ostroff