Review: If on a Christmas Night (DopoLavoro Teatrale/Villa Charities/The Columbus Centre)

Photo of Vincent Leblanc-Beaudoin, Rory de Brouwer, Raylene Turner, Danya Buonastella, and Franco Berti provided by the companyExperience an immersive theatre celebration of Christmas through the lens of Italian culture in Toronto

For the second year in a row DopoLavoro Teatrale (DLT), one of Toronto’s leading immersive theatre companies, has created a Christmas-themed show. Following last year’s An Italian Christmas Carol, a reimagining of the Dickens story performed for a solo audience member, the company is presenting If on a Christmas Night, an immersive theatre experience designed for a larger audience, written and directed by DLT’s Artistic Director, Daniele Bartolini.

If you’ve experienced one of DLT’s shows before, this one is a bit of a departure in style for the company. Noticeably absent is the air of mystery and sense of adventure that permeated their previous shows; you’re not given cryptic instructions, don’t receive mysterious phone calls, nor are you told to rendezvous with strangers at secret locations. 

Instead, the show takes place in a large hall at the Columbus Centre in North York, and is staged as a Christmas gathering among a group of friends to which you’re invited. This time, what you see is what you get. But even if this show is decidedly more low-key, it’s nonetheless filled with wonderful little moments for those who are open to experiencing them.

At the top of the show, the audience is led into the darkened hall where we watch an old 8mm film of a family opening presents on Christmas morning. When the film ends, the cast emerges and the hall is transformed before our eyes into a family home complete with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and dining room. The transformation of the space is dazzling.

The audience is split up into smaller groups and led through a series of immersive environments in each of the rooms of the house. Since this is immersive theatre, you’re an audience member but you’re also part of the performance. Throughout the show you’re prompted to interact with the performers and your fellow audience members.

This isn’t a traditional Christmas show per se, but rather a meditation on Christmas and what it means to celebrate it today. There are some recurrent themes including memory, journey, migration and the concept of home, that the show subtly explores in various ways through a series of delightful interactions. The scenes vary in style and tone but there’s often a wistful air of nostalgia underlying all of the playfulness.

One particularly poignant moment came during an intimate conversation with performer Danya Buonastella where she tells us a deeply personal story about her grandfather, how her family came to Canada and the reasons for her wanting to visit her family’s ancestral home. I was moved to the verge of tears and I couldn’t help but think of my own origin story and my own family’s migration. The specifics of our stories differ but there’s something universal about the experience of being a second-generation immigrant and wanting to reconnect with your cultural roots that really resonated with me.

The rest of the show isn’t always so hard-hitting or as seamlessly executed and since parts of the show are reliant on you and your fellow audience members to contribute to the conversation, the degree to which you’re willing to do that will affect your overall experience and enjoyment of it. But that’s definitely part of the show’s charm.

The holiday season is a bittersweet time for many people for a variety of reasons. Once again, DLT has created a beautiful piece of theatre full of warmth and charm that allows its audience to move away from the excessive sentimentality of Christmas and affords them that space to be contemplative while still having a great time. I encourage you to check it out.

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Photo of Vincent Leblanc-Beaudoin, Rory de Brouwer, Raylene Turner, Danya Buonastella, and Franco Berti provided by the company

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