REVIEW: If on a Christmas Night… is Cheerful and Charming, if a Little Remiss in its Understanding of Audience Consent
Kate Croome reviews If on a Christmas Night… by DopoLavoro Teatrale:
‘Twas two Tuesdays before Christmas when I took a snowy trek all the way up to Lawrence Avenue West, the North Pole of Toronto, to bear witness to the world premiere of If on a Christmas Night…, the newest creation by DopoLavoro Teatrale (DLT). When I arrive at the Columbus Centre, the central hub of Villa Charities, the Italian-Canadian serving not-for-profit and presenter of the show, it is strongly suggested to me that I relinquish my coat and bag to the coat check prior to the performance. I decline – the critic in me wants my notebook close at hand – but they really do insist. “You’ll want your arms free and uninhibited during the show,” I am told. “You’re going to be walking.”
I will preface by specifying that I am not Italian. My read of the play is firmly rooted in an Anglo-Saxon, Catholic-raised-but-very-much-no-longer-practicing point of view. Although I have a positive relationship with the holiday season, I find the unfortunate reality of late-stage capitalism is making me rather less merry with each passing year. It feels important to note this, as DLT specializes in a unique brand of immersive theatre that they refer to as “audience specific” – in this case, specific to an Italian-Canadian audience.
Florence-born, now Toronto-based, DLT is known for creating work that investigates the relationship between spectator and performer, between on-stage and real-life. Under Daniele Bartolini’s artistic direction, the company collectively creates complex and personal theatrical experiences, often for only one audience member at a time. Christmas Night is unique, in that rather than isolating a single participant, the goal here is to create a community through the unifying and singular spirit of Christmas. Not “holidays.” Christmas.
The show draws heavily on the experiences of the Italian-Canadian community it aims to represent. Besides Bartolini, the company is comprised of several others either Italian -born or -descendant, including core member Danya Buonastella and artist/chef Franco Berti, who shines in a segment featuring wall-to-wall chalkboards and pizza dough. The authenticity of lived experiences on stage enriches the piece to the fullest.
Thirty or so spectators, myself included, are corralled into the performance space, which is a medium-sized, windowless room with no audience seating. In the centre of the room sits a massive structure of sheets and chairs, perhaps not coincidently resembling the Nativity. We watch, still just spectators for the time being, as the company effortlessly deconstructs the object in under a minute, transforming one room into six: a bedroom; a living room; a kitchen; and, most humorously, a bathroom. Devised by the company, it’s a moment of theatrical wizardry not short of a Christmas miracle.
Very shortly afterwards, we become active participants. The group of thirty is quickly divided into smaller groups of six – I land in a group of five strangers. On rotation between rooms, we develop mini-communities, presumably bonded by a shared enthusiasm for Christmas traditions such as egg nog, carols, and reindeer. These traditions are situated by DLT to the participants with the implication that they are universal, which I would argue they may not be – but in the spirit of the season and with the intended audience in mind, I give it a pass. In my group, everyone seems game for whatever DLT has planned, and to my slight agitation, attempt to pierce my stone-cold critic’s stance with plucky cheer. For them, it may be a fun break from gift shopping; for a relative non-believer like myself, it is a deceptively simple social experiment.
It is fascinating to observe a community forming around me while attempting to maintain an objective critical viewpoint, and meanwhile being unintentionally alienated by those building the community. The show does not lend itself to objectivity. There is not much space for the non-believer to Grinch and, as far as I can tell from the audience on my particular night, that is exactly how the piece needs to play out in order to provide the maximum amount of Christmas cheer.
I find myself longing for a moment in which to be an outside-eye to the experience; the opportunity never presents itself, however. In this environment, the act of not taking part – of not falling headfirst into the magic of Christmas, of not conforming to the dominant viewpoint of the six – would detract from not only my own experience, but that of those around me. At no point do any of the activities feel optional. When it is not instructed but strongly suggested that I lie down on a bed amongst my (mostly male) group, a seed of doubt around the concept’s execution sprouts in my mind. If I feel a modicum of discomfort over this act, I can’t imagine that I’m the only one, or that my gut feeling of discomfort would be the most extreme or upsetting. I recommend a clearer understanding from the performers about consent in this piece – though I suspect that, generally speaking, discomfort is part of the game for DLT. It is not clear whether DLT has considered how discomfort may affect this particular piece of work – the assumption appears to be that all participants will be on board, and if they aren’t, they will be won over by the sheer magnitude of Christmas majesty. I wonder at the ramifications of this immersion-coercion, particularly when Christmas is deeply embedded in a dominant (capitalist) culture.
With that said: there is a woman in my group wearing a bright red sweater who shares her story of moving to Canada in 1952. Her only complaint about Christmas is that it is too short. At the end, I watch her laugh and cheers with those around her, and I have no doubt that for her – and indeed, for most of the participants that night – the experience had its best-intended effect. For her and not for me, this piece was incredibly personally specific – and for that, I allow myself to feel a touch of vicarious cheer.
Kate Croome is a Toronto-based writer, performer, administrator, and theatre-goer. She is a graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, where she developed her critical eye through a praxis-based curriculum. Her work has been previously featured in alt.theatre, Stratford Festival Reviews, and The Sound, Niagara’s Arts & Culture Paper.