Over a year ago, the Globe and Mail‘s theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck wrote about the death of the standing ovation in Canada. “The gesture is no longer exceptional,” he argued, explaining it’s become an obligatory nicety in theatres across the country. Well, he wasn’t wrong. And while it’s not entirely a terrible trend, it’s downright depressing to think that audiences are simply trying to convince themselves they’ve had a good time no matter what’s happened onstage.
But this past Tuesday night, at the curtain call for World Stage’s current offering (which has only two shows remaining, on Friday and Saturday nights), Conte d’amour, there was no obligatory Standing O. Though a good portion of the audience did leap to their feet—a few even yelling, “Bravo!”—many others remained seated. Some clapped; some didn’t. There were even two boos, which came from Nestruck himself. By now, this is common knowledge to anyone following the debate surrounding the most controversial and talked-about show to hit Toronto for some time.
Created by Swedish film artist Markus Öhrn in collaboration with Germany’s Institutet and Finland’s Nya Rampen companies, Conte D’amour (“Love Story”) is inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in his basement for 24 years and fathered seven children by her (four lived downstairs, and three upstairs with Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie). In Conte D’amour, a similar story is played out on a two-level structure: the top is inhabited only by the father and floppy child-sized dolls, and the bottom features the man’s daughter and two younger (grand)sons, who are mostly obscured by an opaque plastic sheet. Above the two floors are two video screens that reveal the action in the basement: one feed is stationary, and one is operated by the performers. As the play opens, we find the father shoving potato chips and coke into the mouths of his cloth companions, covering them and the floor in junk-food waste, before descending into the pitch-black underworld while an infant child giggles softly and a head-mounted flashlight reveals the silhouettes of his captives. The tension is in the pacing—the father slowly feeds bags of McDonald’s to his family members (all played by grown men), relishing the role of caretaker and provider (even if he is providing the cheapest, unhealthiest provisions possible). It’s a haunting beginning. But over the next three hours, during which there is no intermission, it’s the audience that often finds itself in the dark— watching the foursome transition from the absurd role-playing of racial stereotypes, to karaoke-like versions of songs such as Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” to religious ranting and the leaving of lots of mushy half-eaten chips on the floor.
Underneath all the absurdity, though, is an exploration of patriarchal families and the implications of equating love with physical survival. The father is the connection with the outside world, and his depravity and feelings of insecurity and guilt contaminate his family and result in the sickening behaviour of his sons and daughter/mother. ConteD’amour also extends its critique to other issues, such as international aid (through the caricaturization of a Doctors Without Borders worker), and media coverage (the daughter/mother looks into the camera and yells “I am a victim” before giving us the middle finger). The underlying goal here is apparently to force us to find ourselves in the Frtizl-inspired story, to re-examine and interrogate our definition of love—though it’s painful and appalling to be asked to view this story as representative of any kind of romance or love. So, no, we didn’t enjoy watching it.
But we’ve found the conversation around Conte D’amour since its opening on Tuesday to be infinitely more interesting. Nestruck gave it zero stars, and another critic walked out partway through, sparking an unexpectedly passionate, fervent discussion about theatre criticism. And Toronto theatre-goers finally have the chance to be disgusted by something on its stages, instead of passively standing and clapping. We’ll take a curtain call with a few boos over a half-hearted standing ovation any day.