Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Toronto, 1972. Charly Chiarelli, born in Sicily and raised in Hamilton’s North End, comes to Toronto after university and finds a job as a “psychiatric assistant” at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry – the “Inn on the Clarke,” as he describes it, a mental hospital for the elite, with progressive policies. With his Hamilton/Sicilian directness and his interest in people and their stories, he soon feels at home on the Eleventh Floor Ward. He is liked by patients and by staff, including hospital director Dr. Vivian Rakoff. While playing his harmonica for the patients, he learns that many of them also love music.
What could be better than getting a piano for the lounge? But there’s no money in the budget. What to do? A fund-raising concert, of course, with songs and skits by the patients themselves. The story unfolds in the play Charly’s Piano, at Artword Artbar, a few blocks from where Chiarelli grew up. Go see it!
Chiarelli, known to many Hamiltonians through his earlier one-man shows, including Cu Fu?, has turned this key experience from his youth into a one-man play, co-written with Ronald Weihs, Artistic Director of Artword. Weihs also directed the show, which works beautifully on the small stage. Judith Sandiford, Artword’s Managing Director, is stage manager and designed the lighting; she assembled and runs the projections which appear on a screen at the back of the stage. These projections, showing scenes of Toronto during the 70’s as well as other photographs and graphics, create an effective atmosphere, giving us a sense of “being there.”
Charly Chiarelli is an excellent, enthusiastic story-teller, as people know who have seen his previous shows. He skillfully combines his harmonica playing and songs he has written with the spoken word. Ronald Weihs accompanies Chiarelli on guitar; his guitar playing enhances the songs without taking over, and Ron’s facial expressions – a smile, a wistful glance – add a silent, empathic commentary. Although the play may seem “impromptu,” it is definitely scripted, with a clear narrative arc.
He talks about his own experiences at the Clarke and in Toronto, and also depicts the various patients and staff members. Especially moving is his portrayal of a shy, artistic 19-year-old patient named Beatrice, who finds the courage to perform a song she wrote, “When the Well Runs Dry,” at the concert. He also gives good impressions of a self-styled Duchess, a Sicilian wife, the head nurse, and Dr. Rakoff himself. Humour, deep feelings, and a touch of street-smarts and North-End ability to see through bureaucracy and cut through red tape all combine to give authenticity to the play.
Chiarelli later became a social worker and an addiction/mental health consultant, as well as a musician and story-teller. Since I have worked in the mental health field myself and facilitated writing groups for people with mental-health challenges, I particularly admire the way Chiarelli shows that is essential to see “patients” as people. Although they have problems, they also have stories, feelings, human needs – to go for a walk, hear music, enjoy treats. His concert not only raised funds for a piano, it raised people’s spirits and good will – patients and staff alike. Toward the end of the show, through the magic of theatre, we the Artbar audience become the audience at that long-ago concert at the Clarke, joining in a sing-along of Christmas carols.
Artword Artbar has recently initiated a publishing project: the first two books, on sale at the venue, are handsome paperback editions of Cu Fu? and Charly’s Piano. Especially after seeing the show, you may enjoy reading the text and hearing Chiarelli’s voice and music in your “mind’s ear.”
* Full disclosure: I have known Chiarelli for over ten years, and he played harmonica at the 2006 launch of my book, Feast of Lights, in which a Yiddish father plays the instrument. The music livened up my reading.
Charly’s Piano runs at the Artword Artbar, 15 Colbourne Street, Hamilton, through December 16. (905) 543-8512; www.artword.net/artbar