There is a strange pattern to the reviews of Condoville, David Fennario'shit play which was held over at Montreal's Centaur Theatre. Reviewers have described the play as being witty and entertaining, thehighlight of Montreal's theatre season, a hilarious look at inner citylife. The play has been described as a triumph, the hottest theatreticket in town, a must.
And all this it surely is.
But Condoville is also much more. While the play is at times funny, mostcommentators have ignored the ways in which it is also a tragedy; whilethe play is entertaining, few have spoken about how it is also disturbing.
Set in Montreal's traditionally poverty-stricken Pointe St.-Charles (thePointe), the play features comical scenes in which established residentsof a co-op attempt to come to terms with their new cosmopolitan yuppieneighbours. True, we do laugh at the absurdity of life in the Pointe, butwe also come to feel pain and sympathy with the Pointe's residents who areslowly pushed out of their own neighbourhood by gentrification and risingrents.
Condoville is the sequel to Fennario's enormously successful Balconville,first produced more than 25 years ago. In the new play, we arefaced with a neighbourhood in which much has changed, although theessentials remain. The Pointe's residents are still living with the dailyhumiliation and disenfranchisement of living on the margins of one of theworld's most wealthy societies.
We cringe as we see Claude Paquette, hisknees crippled with arthritis, struggling when descending the stairs ofhis second-floor apartment so that he can fight to receive a $600/monthdisability pension. And tears come to our eyes as Claude's wife CÃ©lineweeps when thinking of their daughter Dianne, who overcome by the forcesof poverty and substance abuse took her own life.
After all of these years, the national question also still hovers overthe horizon of the Pointe, although Fennario portrays the debate as staleand tired, with the same old accusations and denunciations repeatingthemselves like a broken record. Johnny blames the separatists for takingjobs away from the English; Claude tells Johnny to hit the road forToronto.
But Johnny and Claude are not without glaring contradictions. Johnnywants to blame all of society's troubles on the separatists, but he cannever seem to remember which party or representative was responsible forwhich set of cuts; for those in the Pointe, Fennario shows, it hasmattered little which party happens to be in power.
And, in the finestsingle moment of the play, Claude unleashes a vicious tirade againstJohnny, accusing him of wanting to go back to the time when the Frenchwere poor and the English rich that time, he screams, is never comingback again. But his words, chilling in their intensity, are tragicallyundercut as he himself embodies the very destitution that he claims to bea thing of the past.
While Fennario makes it clear that the residents of the Pointe arefighting a losing battle, he does not portray them as mere victims. Thestory comes to a climax when, remembering how they fought in the 1970s,the residents join together to stage an occupation. Even Filipe, aCongolese immigrant and one of the new yuppie residents, joins in thefight. Having connected the effects of neo-liberalism upon his homecountry with the decimation of poor communities in the west, he risksdeportation to protest against evictions, the end of co-op subsidies, andskyrocketing rents.
But the story does not, and cannot, have a happy ending. Much has changedsince the residents of the Pointe first won their co-op in the 1970s, andtheir new occupation ends not in victory but with the blows of riotpolice. The co-op becomes condos; the residents thrown out into the cold.
These are not good times for democracy, and Fennario refuses us thecomfort of a happy ending. He leaves us mad and angry, but with theknowledge that, someday, the Pointe's residents may return.
Condoville is a play which leads us to both laugh and cry, a play whichexposes the inhumanity of a brutal system that creates misery all aroundus, and one which brings the humanity of the marginalized to the centralstage. In short, it is theatre at its best; it entertains, shocks,provokes and disturbs. And it does not leave us indifferent.
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