“A Celebration of Spirit”
Review by Brian Morton of Charly’s Piano in View Magazine, December 14 2017
They say it takes thirty years to become a master at something. I can confirm then, that Charly Chiarelli, the Sicilian born, North End Hamilton native, whose newest play, Charly’s Piano, opened this week at Artword Artbar, certainly has the skills to hold an audience spellbound with a yarn.
It takes a great deal of artistry; as a songwriter, an actor, a dancer, and a musician, in order to bring these poignant memories of working at Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry circa 1972, as a patient observer, to life on stage. Chiarelli has long been compared to the late Spalding Gray, and his funny anecdotes are similar to humourist Mark Twain, in the essential humanity of his characters. I will suggest, that Canadian writer Stephen Leacock, is a more apt comparison, filtered through Charly’s experiences growing up in the rough and ready world of north end Hamilton, and the hippy ‘counter culture’ of the late 1960s.
Many years ago, while studying theatre, I learned, that the whole Canadian Theatre movement is a relatively new phenomenon, and that there was no long standing tradition of theatrical production in Canada, that does not originate from somewhere else. Early Canadian plays, were often indistinguishable from British or American plays of their era. That being said, Canada has a very long tradition of story tellers, guys at the local bar who could get everyone laughing by telling the story of what happened at work that day, and who could do a ‘dead on impression’ of the boss. We all have memories like this, but it takes someone like Chiarelli, with real performance skills as an actor and musician, to raise it to the level of high art.
Watching this production, felt as much like attending a folk music concert, as watching a play. Director Ron Weihs, does a double turn, providing live guitar accompaniment to the stories, tastefully underscoring emotional moments and playing along on a number of original songs firmly rooted in the folk revival of the 1970s. Of note to my ear, were “Something about Toronto” and “The Magic of Cats”.
It takes more then just performers, to make a theatre production work, and this show, is ably supported technically by Judith Sandiford, most tangibly in a wonderfully evocative slide show, that runs behind Chiarelli’s narratives. Mostly. they are black and white images of 1970s Toronto, including; Honest Ed’s discount store, street buskers, Kensington Market vendors, winter traffic, and iconic musicians, such as, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia, and Woody Gutherie, in the era of the Mariposa Folk festival. The images, provide a powerful commentary on the stage action, doing much to create the essential ‘nostalgia’ of the evening.
“There is no clear distinction, between sanity and insanity”, Charly learns in his first few months on the job. Doctor Rakoff, the director of the Clarke, takes him under his wing, and allows him to organize a Christmas Variety show called “Escape Hatch 11”, in order to raise the funds to purchase a piano for the patients to play.
This production is driven by Chiarelli’s recollections, of some very real people, and that gives the play much of its power. The stories are authentic, and conjure up some interesting individuals, such as, ‘Beatrice the Cat Lady’, and “The Duchess”, a wealthy matron who Charly brings with him when they travel to purchase the piano, that is at the heart of this story. “Charly you are made of pure spirit”, one character tells him.
And that is what I will take away, from me from watching this show. A celebration of spirit, of a time, now sadly gone. There is a certain “madness” in artistic creation, and ‘the blues’ and psychiatry, do indeed, have something in common. I urge you, to check out this wonderful production, in its final week of performances.
– Brian Morton