Thursday, July 28, 2011

Angela's Ashes Meets Lullabies for Little Criminals

Swinging on a Star: Growing Up in Montreal's East End
By Patricia Bissonnette

This is the story of a time when Montreal existed in black and white: The Catholic Church reigned supreme in Quebec, low income housing consisted of cold-water flats despite the harsh Canadian winters, poverty forced families to place their children in orphanages, horses plied the streets of Montreal, and grandfather made a comfortable living as a blacksmith.

The book is populated with extraordinary characters: The strict paternal grandfather who took in his daughter-in-law and her children repeatedly when his son failed to support his family. Aunt Martha, a devout and judgemental Catholic, a stingy housekeeper yet one who was free with the money of others and loved fine things, and who despite her apparently traditional morals, carried on with men in a way that was very liberated and even scandalous for the time. Duke, the deadbeat Dad, a man "not cut out to work" or be responsible for the children he fathered. Monica, the mother, whose love for her children was what kept the family together, despite repeated separations. Monica's siblings who, except for Aunt Rita, turned their backs on their sister, "expecting the boys to be no good, just like their father."

Above all this is a story of hardship, love and survival. A nod to all of those who helped the family through hard times --and sometimes that help came from unexpected corners-- and a snub for those who turned their backs. Monica, despite repeated hospitalizations for gout (hypothyroidism) is the pillar who holds the family together. Interspersed with the stories about the past, Bissonnette includes reflections written as a dialogue with her mother who is no longer with them. Throughout, the writing is vivid and poignant. Bissonnette captures the moments as they were lived by her younger self.

This book is a self-published biography and I read it as a work in progress. The book contains a wealth of remarkable details that need to be fleshed out, complementing the family story with additional historical information. Brief mention was is made about how her father made a living for a while as a Canadian rum runner during US prohibition, while simultaneously losing all the assets her mother had brought to the marriage, and somehow getting shot in New York under very unclear circumstances. There's a story dying to be told! Other details also beg for further elaboration. Who paid for Patricia's and her mother's hospitalizations for illness? Why did she become disillusioned with her Catholic faith? Why was the father's imprisonment seen as a positive thing?

I would love to see this book picked up by a major publisher to flesh out the stories and include more historical detail. As it stands, the book is not perfect but nonetheless it is a very good read. My criticism of it is that "it leaves you wanting more," which at the same time is the highest praise possible. This is an author who deserves a publisher and widespread distribution.

The Swinging on a Star website is:
and Patricia Bissonnette may be contacted at:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Adventure Bus Trip to Mompox, Colombia

Matt and William are on vacation with their father.

They left Bogota, bound for Mompox (Bolivar), by bus. Roads were closed because of landslides and a long detour via Ibagué (Tolima) was necessary. Around midnight the tractor-trailer in front of them braked suddenly and the bus on which they were traveling rear-ended it, breaking the windshield and the headlights. Fortunately no one was injured. The police authorized the bus to continue to the town of Barrancabermeja (Santander). I'd like to think that they had a police escort to accompany them, but more likely the bus was just sent on its way with no headlights, in the pitch black darkness of the rural roads. In Barrancabermeja the bus company (Copetran) was able to provide a replacement bus to continue on their journey which went on for several more hours before they arrived at the place where the river had washed the road away and there was a 10 m gap in the pavement where the river had broken through the road. There they had to disembark from the bus, collect their luggage and be ferried across the river. This service was provided at the cost of 1,000 pesos (about $0.60) per person by "two fat guys" (Matt's description) operating a makeshift raft of boards stretched between two punts. The bus companies are organized about these breaks: On the other side a series of jeeps (Willys, in the Colombian vernacular) were waiting to take the passengers to their final destinations. Before reaching Mompox, their Willys had a flat tire that needed to be changed, and it was necessary to cross the Magdalena River on a larger, more formal ferry boat because otherwise the roads were impassable. It took 20 hours for them to arrive.

From start to finish, there is nothing unusual about this story. The landslides, the damaged roads and detours, the vestiges of rainy season flooding and a couple of guys making a buck with their raft service, even ramming the back of another vehicle and then continuing on in the dark, are all part of what I have come to accept as "normal."

Mompox is a Unesco cultural heritage site and historically it is known for it fine filigree gold and silverwork. The boys report that the town is badly deteriorated. I was sorry to hear that. The town had suffered serious damage during the rainy season earlier this year but apparently it has been neglected for quite some time. There is a Unesco office in the town and a sign announces imminent improvements, but the work doesn't seem to be under way yet.

The boys and their father are now in Barranquilla. Their hotel offers 15 free minutes of long distance calls per day, so they have been calling every night, which is nice. Yesterday they visited the Museo del Caribe, a museum showcasing the cultures, ecosystems, and history of the Caribbean region. They were very impressed with it.

A todos mis amigos y familiares colombianos, les deseo muchos saludos en su día nacional: el 20 de julio.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Winter's Tale / Twelfth Night

The Winter's Tale

I saw the third night's performance of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale on June 30 in Toronto's High Park (Dream in the Park). Director Estelle Shook hit the comedic notes but the drama fell flat.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's "problematic plays" in the sense that it neither fits well with the tragedies nor the comedies. The first part of the play relies heavily on psychological drama like the tragedies, uses a narrated bridge to explain that 16 years have gone by, and resumes as a romance about how thwarted love prevails. As far as theatrical devices go, this is classic Shakespeare, but the text is more disjointed than most. The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's less frequently performed plays and it is apparent why.

Despite difficulties, there were some high notes. David Jansen as King Leontes gave a subtle and intimate performance. Nicole Robert playing Paulina is a powerful presence on the stage. She has some whopping long speeches, but she gets a handle on them and carries them off competently if not compellingly. Kelly McIntosh as Hermione was wonderful as the statue, which is probably not the highest praise that an actor could hope to receive for a performance. She looked awfully reminiscent of a Virgin Mary, in her body posture and draping white cloth, which was, no doubt, a directorial choice and not entirely her fault. Sean Dixon and George Masswohl as the shepherd son and father had great comedic rapport. It is too bad that the father and son appear to be the same age. The love story between Thomas Olajide (Florizel) and Perdita (Jasmine Chen) was not compelling; they established no sense of intimacy or connection between them.

The cheap and tatty Victorian costuming added nothing to the ambiance.

Overall, the play lacked dramatic tension and the ability to draw the audience into the story and get the public to care about the characters.

I had hoped for more from this production. Repercussion Theatre of Montreal put on an excellent performance of As You Like It in 2009, with the additional challenge that their shows are itinerant, performing in a different city park each night. That production proved that you don't need a big budget to bring Shakespeare to life with meaning and energy. Toronto's Canadian Stage company has been around for 24 years, performing Shakespeare on the permanent stage in High Park since 1987. The group might be small and low budget, but it is not inexperienced. This production, however, was strictly amateurish.

This Winter's Tale was still frozen and stilted. I am hoping it will have thawed and show some more signs of life by the time I come back and see it again with my boys in August.

Twelfth Night

I saw Twelfth Night at the Stratford (Ontario) main stage during the matinee performance on July 3. The show is in preview performances, with the official opening slated for July 15. This production, however, was far from half-baked.

Director Des McAnuff takes his cue from two themes in the text: music and making sport.

"If music be the food of love, play on!"
Music is the theme that holds this production together. With a nod to the vibrant Canadian folk rock scene, music is used to underscore the action, becoming a character in its own right in the way that Feste the fool serves as chorus or commentator on the action. Twelfth Night has a number of musical interludes written into the text. This production stays true to the spirit of the original, and pumps it up a notch –well, several notches– with no modification needed to the text with the exception of renaming the lute the Fender. The production is slick and sharp, with a light show, amped up sound, and glam costumes. The key question when you apply an off the wall interpretation to Shakespeare is: Does it work? It does. The cast and musicians pull it off beautifully. They rocked it!

Making sport was the other approach. Twelfth Night has a significant subplot in which Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian make sport of Malvolio. Director McAnuff taken the metaphor of making sport and made it literal. He incorporates golf (Osorio's calculating finesse and willingness to pick up the ball and walk with it if actually play seems too challenging), baseball (Osorio's strength and Viola's aim), tennis (Olivia find herself facing off against a Malviolio in his "madness," channelling McEnroe perhaps?), fencing (an unwilling Viola as Cesario is forced to duel with the equally terrified Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian plotting as they lounge in the sauna, the classic old boys' network. The metaphor works beautifully.

This production uses a mix of costuming styles. The costumes are predominantly lushly Victorian, but when Malvolio is instructed to appear in yellow stockings and cross gartered before his lady Olivia, he comes out in full Elizabethan regalia. Viola disguised as Cesario is in modern dress, specifically a white suit, looking the spitting image of Ellen. Her twin brother Sebastian was effeminately milquetoast in the exact same costume. The musicians, who also serve as the members of Duke Osorio's court, were bedecked in outfits that were both modern rock star, and reminiscent of court finery. The mix of styles defies expectations but it is harmonious rather than discordant.

Outstanding performances
The two characters to watch in this play are Sir Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy) and Feste the fool/jester (Ben Carlson). Each serve as commentators: Sir Toby representing the clash between the social classes and Feste commenting constantly on the ironies of human relations and what constitutes sensible/foolish behaviour, deception, and madness. Both delivered superb performances, with Feste appropriately also being the lead singer in the production.

As to the rest: sit back and enjoy.
Understudy Suzy Jane Hunt played the role of Viola/Cesario competently, although she could have used a bit more energy.
Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew Aguecheek was sweetly and poignantly pathetic. His timing was brilliant. He has raised the art of the pregnant pause to its highest form!
Tom Rooney as Malvolio was delightfully duped, but not as strong a portrayal as I have scene in other productions.
Mike Shara as Osorio was single-mindedly shallow in his rock star glitter and gold lame, dogged pursuit of Olivia, and indomitable conviction of the inferiority of the fairer sex.
Sara Topham as Olivia provided as suitable counterpart, proving his point as the woman sworn to mourning who fends off Osorio's advances, but who immediately embraces Cesario.

Director Des McAnuff nailed the characterizations, and has drawn very dynamic performances from the actors.

Was there any evidence of the fact that this show is still is dress rehearsals? We did have on onstage incident: Stephen Ouimette's towel slipped during the sauna scene, giving the audience a flash of Aguecheek's aged butt cheek.

Twelfth Night is a comedy: Comedy, music and sport all depend on timing, and this show didn't miss a beat. This is a production not to be missed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day and the Invisible Immigrant

Although I have come back to Canada for a visit every year, this year I am looking at the country with new eyes, as I consider what it would be like to live here when I return next year after having lived outside the country for 22 years.

The first thing that strikes me is just how multicultural the face of Canada has become. When I left it was still pretty white bread, at least it was in suburban Montreal. Now I go to the local YMCA and it is like working out at the United Nations. The local grocery store that I have been frequenting for years has gone from having half an aisle of ethnic food to having two whole aisles that cater to the new consumer base. I have become accustomed to cooking Colombian-style so I went looking for the beans I like to prepare. They were in the ethnic aisle. Apparently I'm an "ethnic immigrant" too

Colombians like to pride themselves on the diversity of their culture. They have very rich native cultural heritage. It is not a multicultural country in the sense of housing large communities of diverse national and ethnic origin. This means that I have been living in an insular and homogenous cultural environment. The contrast with Canada's social variety is shocking.

It amazes me is to watch the television news here. The newscasters span all the hues of the human race, but when you shut your eyes and just listen to them they all sound Canadian. Language and accent have become the great levellers.

All this diversity can be a bit intimidating. My sister works at a high school in Ottawa. The other day we were discussing the phenomenon of gangsta youth: teens from different ethnic backgrounds have adopted the clothing and attitudes, and embraced the angry music, of ghetto youth. Most of these kids haven't come from underprivileged environments and they have the opportunity to get a good education and decent jobs. So why would they want to marginalise themselves, is the question that begs to be asked.

Not all the youths who immigrate to Canada aspire to adopt a disenfranchised persona. I have a friend who moved back to Canada from Colombia almost two years ago. Her daughter has found the process of adapting to life in Canada to be challenging. Although she speaks fluent English and had visited every year, she felt a bit lost in the strange new environment. She phrased it best in saying, "Mom, I'm an immigrant here and nobody knows it."

My boys are going to have that experience too. They have expressed some concerns about their accents and somewhat halting English, but they will probably be no worse off than anyone else they encounter. Actually more of a concern for them is the fact that they don’t know how to skate. In fact I expect that their transition to life in Canada might be easier than mine because they don't have the same sort of notions about what to expect.

I may have been born here but I haven't lived here for a ling time. Even though I am clear about my reasons for wanting to come back, there are a lot of things that worry me: the relevance of my job skills, finding fulfilling work, being able to retire with some degree of security some day, how my children will adapt, making new friends, coping with the climate, finding a new relationship. There is a lot of uncertainty.

I am the invisible immigrant, learning to make her way in a world that is strange and unknown to me.