Sizzling Italian poetics

CIAO, BABY adapted by Paula Wing from the poetry of Gianna Patriarca, directed by Sue Miner, with Charly Chiarelli, Toni.

CIAO, BABY adapted by Paula Wing from the poetry of Gianna Patriarca, directed by Sue Miner, with Charly Chiarelli, Toni Ellwand, Lucy Filippone and Wing. Presented by Matriarca Theatre in association with the Italian Women Project at Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Previews Wednesday (November 28), opens November 29 and runs to December 15, Monday-Friday 8 pm, Saturday 8:30 pm, matinee Saturday 3:30 pm. $20-$25, Monday pwyc, stu/srs discount. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN

paula wing’s adaptation of the writings of Italian Canadian Gianna Patriarca powerfully conveys the Italian immigrant experience in Toronto even to those people who haven’t lived it.Director Sue Miner describes the stage piece as both sexy and funny. Thing is, Patriarca is a poet, and sexy and funny aren’t words that most people associate with poetry.

“And I’d like to add to that mix Gianna’s open admission of longing,” says Wing, warming up with a cup of lemon tea. “It’s taken to this point in my life for me to understand how longing for something can inform and even lift your existence.”

Writer, actor and teacher, Wing works both as playwright-in-residence at Applewood High School in Mississauga and with younger children in a program called Learning Through the Arts.

“I’m from an assimilated generation, but I understand Patriarca’s characters, especially the daughters who have a foot in both cultures. They’re like many of the kids I work with in school who are caught between the solidarity of their immigrant parents’ community and a very different Canadian culture.”

Wing is also writing like crazy, premiering a comedy called The Begats in Ottawa, adapting a Dario Fo play for a Regina production and collaborating with Ted Dykstra and Steven Mayoff on a version of Measure For Measure for Soulpepper.

She’s a hugely entertaining interview. As we range from Montreal delis to CNN newscasts to The Begats — whose central figure is Canada’s foremost expert on swallowing — she shifts vocally and almost physically into different characters, punching a line here, stretching an accent there, tears brimming in the corners of her eyes when she’s moved by someone else’s story.

“Gianna’s poetry is deeply personal, something that’s been missing in my own work. I don’t mean the autobiographical or graphically confessional. Young writers can mistake the ugly from their own past for something worth telling.

“Instead, Gianna taps into the past and relates it in a way that connects to me. She reveals a bravery but expresses it through art. And at one level, this play — it’s a theatrical piece about a family, not a regurgitation of her poems — is about the creation of an artist in a community that is loving and life-embracing but also proud, conservative and secretive.

“As Gianna says, “Middle-aged poets are not respected in my community.'”

Wing has not only given Patriarca’s verse a stage life, but also performs in the play with three others. She finds doing both can be daunting.

“”What the hell was the writer thinking here?’ the actor in me wonders. And then,” Wing laughs engagingly, “I usually miss my entrance as I try to shift hats back again.”

But it’s Patriarca’s writing, not Wing’s, that’s the backbone of the show.

“There’s hardly a scene that doesn’t originate from her poetry, and from that verse I wove the story. I felt enormously free to break up poems and use the material in a dramatic context, and Gianna was open and generous with her words. The whole play comes from her lines.”

And then there’s that infectious laugh again.

“Some of the cheap jokes, I have to admit it, are mine.”

jonkap@nowtoronto.comtheatre preview

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