THEATRE

THE ITALIAN HELLION

Montreal playwright Vittorio Rossi stirs love and hate with streetwise characters

ALASTAIR SUTHERLAND January 17 1994
THEATRE

THE ITALIAN HELLION

Montreal playwright Vittorio Rossi stirs love and hate with streetwise characters

ALASTAIR SUTHERLAND January 17 1994

THE ITALIAN HELLION

THEATRE

Montreal playwright Vittorio Rossi stirs love and hate with streetwise characters

Early in Vittorio Rossi’s new play, The Last Adam, the black sheep of the Leone family sits talking at the dining-room table with his brother and sister. Salvatore has just returned from a restaurant where the waiter refused to speak English but repeatedly made fun of the young man’s accented French. As older brother Marco smiles and nods his approval, Sal recounts how he bit his tongue, paid his bill, even left a tip—and then took the waiter outside and “popped him one.” Sal continues: “He goes down like a f—king fairy. The manager comes running out and I say, ‘You just remember who my forefathers were. I’m a connected guy. I’ll have you shut down in a minute.’ ”

That scene, which was being rehearsed at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre last week, epitomizes what people love—and hate—about Rossi. In his brief but successful career, the 32-yearold writer has thrilled audiences with his spicy dialogue and vivid evocations of Italian-Canadian life. Yet some theatregoers and critics have complained that his plays perpetuate a damaging ethnic stereotype—that of the hustling, streetwise Italian who is quick with his fists and loves his car more than his wife. Montrealer Rossi, a first-generation Canadian who drives a white 1990 Honda Civic and has not been in a fight since high school, admits that such accusations used to make him irate. Now, he says, he finds them laughable. “The people who say that, what do they know about Italian stereotypes? I prefer what a teacher of mine once said—that I’m not working with stereotypes, I’m working with prototypes.” Richard Zeppieri, the Toronto-based actor who plays Sal and has acted in three other Rossi plays, agrees. “I’m first-generation Italian, too,” he

says. “And the words of the characters come easily out of my mouth. It’s almost as if I’d written them myself.”

Rossi’s sharp ear and skill at characterization won him acclaim at the outset of his career. His earliest works, the one-act plays Little Blood Brother and Backstreets, received the top prizes at the Quebec Drama Festival in 1986 and 1987. His first full-length work, The Chain (1988), was a box-office hit—despite the fact that the director and a lead ac-

tor quit two weeks before the opening in a conflict over script revisions. ‘The bottom line with Vittorio is that his plays are very entertaining,” says Centaur artistic director Maurice Podbrey. “He knows which buttons to press, and the audiences always respond.” Like Rossi’s earlier works, The Last Adam (which opens on Jan. 13) bristles with humor and raw emotion. The only new Canadian play at the Centaur this season, it starts out as a slow-paced family drama, then evolves

into a mystery and concludes with a bang: Sal learns the truth about the childhood death of his twin, Adam, and that discovery has tragic consequences. Montreal playwright-actor Harry Standjofski, who appeared in The Chain, notes that Rossi is “not afraid to send his characters right to the brink, to put them at high emotional risk. He’s funny, and he’s dangerous.”

The Last Adam is set in Ville Emard, a working-class Italian district in south Montreal. It is where Rossi was born, and where he has lived for most of his life. Like fellow Montreal playwright David Fennario, who seized upon Point St-Charles as his point of reference, Rossi has found inspiration in what he knows best: the rhythms of the streets and the daily conversations and crises of his friends and family. Little Blood Brother, Backstreets and The Chain are all set in Ville Emard. Scarpone (1990) takes place in a downtown shoe store, but the principal characters, two conniving shoe salesmen, are Italians who Rossi says are “from the neighborhood in my mind.” And Rossi was writing about a subject with which he had firsthand experience: for six years he was a shoe salesman at the downtown Bay, quitting only when he became the Centaur’s playwright-in-residence in 1987.

To Rossi’s alarm, Scarpone was criticized in some circles as sexist. Sitting in an Italian restaurant near the Centaur, sprinkling extra cheese on his pasta, Rossi shakes his head when he remembers the controversy. “They said the two characters [Dino and Giancarlo] were offensive, thus Vittorio must be offensive,” he sighs. ‘To me that’s faulty thinking, assuming the playwright is the same as his

characters. Anyway, I toned down those characters. A guy who I worked with in the shoe store came to see the show, and afterward he said, ‘Good job, Vittorio, but, you know, we were much worse than that.’ And he was right.”

Still, Rossi’s next play, In Pursuit of a Cow (1992), was in some ways a reaction to the criticism. Inspired by the 1989 massacre of 14 women at the University of Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique (and specifically by the fate of student Sarto Blais, who was in the classroom when the killings occurred and later committed suicide), Cow takes place in an unnamed bar in an unnamed city. It was a thematic departure for Rossi, as well as a geographical one. He describes the work as “an attempt to understand what attracted and possessed a man to do such a thing.” Some critics, however, regarded it as an awkward expression of feminism from a playwright more comfortable exploring the world of macho men.

With The Last Adam, Rossi is returning to the familiar ground of the Italian-Canadian community. The playwright says that his own family, while lacking the sort of dark secret that dooms the Leones, is nonetheless “the source of all my best material.” Rossi’s carpenter father, Silvio, came to Canada from Isernia in central Italy in 1956; his mother, Carmela, a seamstress, came over a year later with Vittorio’s three older sisters and brother. Vittorio, the only child born in Canada, was painfully shy as a teenager, yet always yearned to work in the theatre. He was the only child to go to university, and felt strong family pressure to succeed in more traditional professions such as engineering, law or business. So when he enrolled in the

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in Montreal

theatre program at Concordia University, he felt obliged to support himself and began his long shoe-store career. But Rossi is still extremely close to his parents and siblings. And although the playwright, who is single, finally moved from his parents’ house to a downtown apartment last year, he says he constantly visits them in Ville Emard. “When I first enrolled in theatre school,” recalls Rossi, “my father said, ‘You’re so shy, what do you want to get involved with acting for?’ But when I gained some success, won a few awards, he got on my side. Now he does nothing but brag.”

Rossi also has branched out into acting and writing for other media. He played Dino Marrone in the 1991-1992 CBC series Urban Angel and is developing a TV mini-series on Italian immigrants with Claude Luca, one of the producers of The Boys of St. Vincent. Meanwhile, his plays have been finding audiences beyond Montreal. Two years ago, Little Blood Brother and Backstreets were produced in a small, OffBroadway theatre in New York City. And with the successful staging of those plays in Toronto three months ago, he has started to crack the scene in that city.

The playwright sometimes worries that many of the Italian traditions that figure in his plays—buying bushels of tomatoes in the fall, tending gardens, pressing grapes, meeting in the local cafés for espresso coffee—will die when the older generation passes on. But at the same time, he says he finds it “beautiful” that Ville Emard is changing, that all the Italian kids speak French, that a large number of Asian immigrants call the neighborhood home.

For Rossi, that kind of cultural intermingling is what makes his city, and his country, fascinating—and belies the stereotype of Canada the dull. The playwright bemoans the pervasiveness of that image. “How many other countries do you know that, in the field of theatre and film, their name actually designates something negative, something cheap, something poor and boring?” he says. “You can’t think of any. You say, ‘France,’ you say, ‘Oh, must be sexy.’ Italian? ‘Oh, must be passionate and romantic.’ English? ‘Oh, must be articulate and funny and intelligent.’ American? ‘Oh, must be energized and action-packed.’ German? ‘Oh, it must be experimental and way-out-there.’ Canadian? ‘Oh, well, let’s go have dinner.’ It’s like that with nearly everything in this country except hockey. And it’s something I would like to try to help change.”