By David Fennario, directed by Gordon McCall
Centaur Theatre, October 4-30th
In April 2003, I helped campaign for David Fennario’s election campaign for the left-wing Union des forces progressistes in the riding of Westmount-St-Louis in downtown
. It was ironic that Fennario would run in Montreal , the cradle of the city’s Anglo-elite and the butt of two decades of jokes in his repertoire. We greeted the challenge by not setting foot in Westmount proper, choosing instead to campaign in the working-class fringes of the riding. One particularly cold night we stopped at a grungy coffee shop on Avenue du Parc to thaw our frozen hands. We were a conspicuous group, brandishing 2x4 election signs saying “People Before Profit” with a big picture of Fennario looking like he had something menacing to say to Bernard Landry and his gang in Quebec City. Beside us, a group of inebriated chess-players stood up to see what was going on. Westmount
“What the Hell is UFP?” blurted a scruffy middle-aged man.
“It’s a new party,” I told him. “The UFP is anti-corporate, anti-poverty…”
“Hey it’s Dave!” exclaimed another chess-player. “What’s he doing running for politics?”
During the campaign we met countless supporters like this in the unlikeliest of places. Many of them were cynical about politics and politicians, none looked like they’d fit in at an evening at the theatre and all of them seemed to be on a first name basis with Dave. These were the residents of Balconville.
Twenty-five years after Fennario’s play captured their world on stage his name remains a part of local folklore.
With Balconville, Fennario achieved what most left-wing artists only dream of: he not only put his community on stage, he brought them to see it as well. After 17 years of successful productions at
’s most established English theatre, the Centaur, he set off to found the Black Rock Theatre Collective, a company made up entirely of people from his working-class neighbourhood of Point St-Charles. After that followed a series of one-man shows that covered subjects as diverse as the Montreal of the Summit , the Irish republican movement and the secret history of Americas . Montreal
If this year’s return to the Centaur is making Fennario a hot commodity for the theatre’s owners, it isn’t making him popular among their
friends. Before Condoville’s opening last week, condo developer Peggy Hopkins showed up to a Question & Answer session at the theatre. “Don’t you think there’s anything positive about the development going on in Point St-Charles?” she asked. Without pause Dave replied, “No.” Westmount
Condoville, Balconville’s unexpected sequel, returns us to the back-yard balconies that made up the original set. We find the same characters living there, but twenty-five years have worn their wear on them. Claude Paquette’s (Michel Perron) lifetime in manual labour and diet of tourtière has rewarded his body with obesity and a bad leg. No longer useful to the system, he has to fight to get a pension barely above a welfare cheque. His wife, Cécile (Yolande Circé) braves ahead keeping the household full of plants, and food from Lac St-Jean. Johnny (Kent Allen), last seen as an unemployed and disillusioned rock enthusiast, has achieved his dream of being a professional guitarist, an accomplishment only slightly diminished by the fact that he plays in the metro.
His partner Irene (Patricia Yeatman)—still a waitress after all these years—has remained the backbone of the household. While the men of the two families regularly succumb to their oppression, retreating into alcohol, self-pity and fighting, the women grit their teeth and pull the others through. But if these two couples are reliving the same tensions they were twenty-five years ago, things aren’t quite as unchanged downstairs.
The newly repainted red brick, renovated windows, neatly trimmed lawn and security fence of the fourth apartment stand in stark contrast to the dilapidated exterior of the others. The new tenants turn out to be a trendy gay City Hall worker named Andrew (Neil Napier) and his partner Filipe (Quincy Armorer), an immigrant from the Congo who is studying at Concordia University. The addition of these two characters adds another layer of potential conflict, as racist and homophobic tensions simmer alongside linguistic ones. Fennario complicates the situation by giving the most unsympathetic role to Andrew, whose business values are trying to ensure him a place among the political elites he works for.
Stylistically, Condoville marks a return to the social realism of Fennario’s early work. The plays that followed Balconville displayed a growing interest in Brecht: characters would address the audience directly and narrate the action as if it happened in the past. With The Death of René Levesque and the gothic Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, Fennario not only used Brecht’s method to dramatize much more complicated political situations, but added a distinctly poetic voice to the mix. Although most of Condoville is presented in a realistic style, it is book-ended with an address to the audience from Thibault (reprised by original actor Jean Archambault), a bicycle-crashing wise-fool. Thibault’s addresses remind us that when we look at the characters on the stage we are looking at ourselves, and how our communities have changed in twenty-five years.
When we last saw these characters, it was three years into the first Parti Québécois mandate and a year before the first referendum. Language was the major dividing point in Montréal’s working class, and Balconville saw the characters at each others’ throats before uniting at the end to save their possessions from destruction in one of the Pointe’s infamous house fires. We learn that the building survived the fire and neighbours’ newfound spirit of cooperation led them one step further: the apartment has become a co-op, with government subsidized rent. However, some of those who earned their political stripes during these actions have gone on to other things. Willa Prescott-Sauvé has (like a surprisingly large number of Quebec’s current political establishment) gone from reciting Chairman Mao to ordering the police to break up demonstrations. Condo expansion in the Pointe is threatening the continued existence of the co-op. The characters’ struggle to rediscover their old spirit of solidarity is the essence of the plot. But the task is not as easy as it seems.
There is a cloud of oppression hanging over each of the characters that makes day-to-day living a struggle. When they see the cloud over the others they are able to act compassionately, but most of the time it blinds them from seeing beyond their own immediate needs. As Marx wrote, “human beings must first of all eat, drink, shelter and clothe themselves before they can turn their attention to politics.” But if the constant struggle to keep food on the table has led the characters away from politics, the threat of losing this status is bringing them back.
As they confront one aspect of the system—gentrification—the characters find themselves up against many aspects of it. One is ideological: the decline of mass social movements in the 1980s has made most of them cynical about the possibility of changing things. Another is material: the struggle to maintain employment has exhausted their energy. Furthermore, they are kept placid with various kinds of drugs: alcohol in Johnny’s case, medication in Paquette’s and something more sinister in the case of Bibi-diane (Madeline Péloquin). And this time the fight is less clean: their struggle is beset with betrayals by former comrades and the duplicitous manoeuvring of people like Andrew who should be on their side.
Just as Balconville offered a close look at the way the language question was lived out in Quebec, Condoville presents a detailed picture of the contradictions of life in Montreal today, told in the language (or languages) of the people who live here. One criticism I heard was that when the dialogue became too peppered with political jargon, this was evidence of the playwright speaking through the characters. But perhaps this is more symptomatic of how rare it is to hear working class voices expressing political opinions in today’s theatre. The characters do not step out of their roles when they debate political points; they are simply responding to events around them. In this sense, Condoville can be said to have been written dialectically: what we see is a clash of opinions that have risen organically out of the conflicts the characters find themselves in. This is why their stories are so relevant to those of us who are living through the same struggles.
That Fennario is able to take such a radical method into the hallowed halls of the bourgeois entertainment industry is testament to his skill as a writer, as someone who tells the truth in a way so familiar that it is impossible to ignore. The evidence so far is that Condoville has hit a little too close to home for the ruling class. Following its opening, the Montreal Gazette saw fit to devote an editorial to dismissing the play’s criticism of gentrification, saying that condo development in Montreal only happened on vacant lots. But this kind of apologism is unlikely to sway either playwright or audience. As Fennario said to Peggy Hopkins, “If a hurricane hit the Pointe, the condo owners would get out and we’d all be stuck here.”