Tony Nardi’s Letters

November 14, 2006 by  
Filed under Film / Television

Last night I saw the first of actor Tony Nardi’s Two Letters, which is a one-man show currently running in a number of Toronto venues on successive nights until December 4th.

I went primarily out of a sense of duty. Nardi hangs out at Dooneys, and I’ve gotten to know him fairly well over the past several years. I like and respect his intelligence and enjoy his wit and his quick and quirky sense of humour. I also think he’s a good actor, not that I really know anything about acting. But I have seen him in a number of television movies and short series, and each time out his characterizations were convincing enough to make me forget that he’s actually a guy I know. Most people can’t convince me that they’re for real in ordinary life, so this is a serious skill Nardi has.

I always thought, by the way, that actors were self-involved airheads who had to inhabit other people’s lives because there was no one home where they were coming from. Last night convinced me that I’m either wrong about this—or that Tony Nardi is quite a bit more than an actor. I suspect it has to be both, because Nardi is, by his own definition, an actor.

At the moment, Nardi is an angry actor. What made him angry enough to write the first of the two letters was an offer from (I think) a television producer to play the role of an Italian character in a way that demeaned—and here is where Nardi gets interesting—both Italians, actors, and human beings in general. Nardi turned down the role, which I gather isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence in this country. And then he began to stew about it, and about the larger implications it carried.

The contents of the letter—which is aimed, ostensibly, at a real-world female casting director named Sarah who couldn’t fathom why Nardi was so annoyed by being asked to embody a demeaning ethnic cliché—will surprise you. Only a small part of his anger is the usual ethnic nationalism that has turned multiculturalism into a social and political stinkbomb. This isn’t to say Nardi isn’t proudly Italian. He just isn’t the vulgar stereotype of the ball-scratching, leering patriarchal mafioso. Neither, he argues, is any other Italian.

What he’s really angry about is that contemporary film and television in Canada increasingly operates by this kind of stereotyping, and that it, among other things, contributes to making our characterizations of reality smaller and slower than we know they actually are. He wants to know why this has happened, and what’s going to happen to us if we continue to let it happen. These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way, and aren’t presented as such.

The two letters he’s written and is now performing—the second letter concerns the conditions of live theatre in Canada—are quite a lot more than angry rants by an actor who doesn’t want to play cartoon characterizations of human beings. Nardi presents his subject matter with an élan that echoes, alternately, the great Italian playwright and puzzle-maker Luigi Pirandello and, more oddly, Sam Coleridge sitting on the cliffs of Dover in 1798 wondering what, exactly, the French Revolution was about to rain down on the English.

That may sound like heady stuff, and in all the good ways, it is. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s sententious or boring. Nardi delivers his materials without trying to overpower his audiences by monumentalizing the subject matter or making himself the focus of attention. He’s going to make you laugh out loud any number of times because, did I mention this? Nardi is a very, very funny man when he wants to be. And he tells, as Coleridge once did, “most bitter truth, but without bitterness.”

He certainly got me thinking, and judging from the discussion forum that went on more than a half-hour after the two hour performance ended, I wasn’t the only one he woke up.

Most of the conversation circled around the fear that everyone seems to feel now that culture has been delivered into the hands of the market. The general consensus hovered around the notion that “marketization” has reduced both our cultural options and our collective artistic courage by making issues of profitability the primary concern. Canada may have 30 million people, but as “cultural markets” go, it feels like pretty small potatoes considering the 800 pound American cultural gorilla. Accurate or not, Canadian filmmakers and television producers seem to feel like they’re trying to operate a lemonade stand outside the front doors of Wal-Mart.

 Certainly I could have testified to the effect marketization has had on Canadian writers and book publishers, who are now tailoring (at least) mainstream publishing to fit the marketing purposes of Chapters Indigo, where a half-dozen or less marketeers control the purchase (and therefore the editorial choices) of 70 percent of the book trade in Canada.

No one in the audience at the performance I attended seemed interested in making the logical step of focusing on who actually gets the benefits of the marketization of culture, maybe because it seems too simple to merely point the finger at the corporations.

The reality is doing that it is too simple. Marketization couldn’t have been achieved as easily as it has if we hadn’t all chosen identity over citizenship thirty years ago, and then broken down identity into a thousand ethnic and preferential banana republics we’re not willing to bring into public discourse because it might affect our self-esteem.

Tony Nardi, to his credit, has opened that discourse. Let’s hope it goes somewhere before we’re all making cartoons for the tourist industry.

There six sets of performances left: Saturday November 18 and Sunday November 19 afternoons at 2:00 P.M. at the National Film Board Screening Room at 150 John Street; Monday November 20th and 21st at the Canadian Film Centre, Garden Room, 2489 Bayview Avenue at 8:00 P,M.; November 24th and 25th at the Robert Gill Theatre, 214 College Street, (3rd Floor) 8:00 P.M.; November 27th and 28th, Factory Theatre Rehearsal Hall, 125 Bathhurst, 8:00 P.M.; December 1st and 2nd , Columbus Centre, 901 Lawrence Avenue West at 8:00 P.M.; December 3rd and 4th , Grano Restorante, 2035 Yonge Street, 8;00 P.M., Tickets are $15 at the door.

Call 416-686-3597 for additional information.

900 words. November 14th, 2006

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.