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Take two beloved Italian grandmothers, add a variety show and you have ‘The Nonna Monologues’

Take two beloved Italian grandmothers, add a variety show and you have ‘The Nonna Monologues’
Entertainment
For Italian families, Christmastime revolves around one person, a larger-than-life character who has transcended from the everyday into a cultural figure around the world: the Nonna.

“At Christmas, our nonnas are the most important figures. They organize everything, they are at the centre,” says actor Danya Buonastella, one of two performers in a brand new holiday-themed play called “The Nonna Monologues.”

It begins performances Wednesday at the Columbus Centre at Lawrence Avenue West and Dufferin Street.

Director Daniele Bartolini was inspired to create a holiday show around the Nonna when his own died around this time last year. And according to Buonastella, who is married to Bartolini, the impact of his grandmother in his life didn’t become clear until time passed after her death.

“He’s now realizing everything she left within him,” she says.

But “The Nonna Monologues” focuses on the real-life nonnas of Buonastella and her co-star, Maddalena Vallecchi Williams. It also pays tribute to another cherished holiday tradition in Italian culture, the variety show or “La Varieta.”

Within this format, Buonastella and Williams are locked into a nonna competition: who has the best nonna song? Who has the best nonna recipe? And most importantly, who has the best nonna story? The competition is done with a wink — mostly. So when do things get personal?

“Let’s just say lasagna,” says Buonastella. “It’s our biggest battle.”

Bartolini knew there was a show there when Williams and Buonastella started trading nonna anecdotes for the first time, representing two very different women and Italian experiences.

“We discovered they come from opposite stories,” says Williams.

The Toronto-born Buonastella’s grandmother came from poverty, moved to Canada, lived 15 minutes away from her family and would often drop by unannounced, using her own key. The Canadian-born, Rome-raised Williams has a different relationship with her grandmother, who grew up in a wealthy family in Florence, where she still lives now at 88 years old.

“I love her, but I can only see her for a certain period of time before I’m like, OK, it’s time that we go our separate ways … She has a very exuberant personality and she takes up a lot of space, which is great. But sometimes it can get a little overwhelming,” Williams says.

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Both Williams and Buonastella have memories of hearing their nonnas tell stories of their lives around a kitchen table.

“It’s not research … I didn’t want to turn my nonna into a research project,” Buonastella says. “It’s our memories of these stories that we grew up with, because we spoke to our nonnas and they tell us everything.”

“Everything,” Williams emphasizes.

There are two main stories shared in “The Nonna Monologues,” each representative of a significant period in Italian history and a challenge each woman has overcome.

For Buonastella’s nonna, it was uprooting her life and starting over twice, once in the 1940s when she moved from southern to northern Italy; once in the ’60s when she joined the rest of her family in Canada after a massive wave of migration. Williams tells a story set during her nonna’s childhood and “La Resistenza” against German occupation in 1943, when she saved her family from two Nazi soldiers.

But this is not journalistic recounting: it’s a celebration of the oral tradition of passing stories from grandparent to grandchild.

“It’s a mix of biographical things and fictional things. We wanted to keep that intergenerational conversation,” says Williams. “If my nonna can’t be here physically, they’re in us, and this is our perspective of who they are.”

In a larger sense, “The Nonna Monologues” is a celebration of all strong Italian women, and the show incorporates a love letter to Italian divas like Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti in its variety show format.

“These women who said no for the first time, it was revolutionary,” says Buonastella. “They were these incredibly strong women who then started to say ‘no’ onscreen. Saying you cannot judge me, you cannot make me stay at home and have your children. And guess what? I’m going to work. I’m going to be an independent woman.”

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With an all-Italian creative team, including production designer Franco Berti, the rehearsal process has been bilingual and full of Italian references. And outside the world of “The Nonna Monologues,” their nonnas still remain the centre of the holidays; when the show closes on Dec. 22, everyone is boarding planes and flying back to Italy the next day to see their families.

“It’s kind of a betrayal if you don’t go,” says Williams.

But, in the meantime, those without a nonna of their own can borrow Buonastella’s and Williams’ this month, without a plane ticket.

“The Nonna Monologues,” by DopoLavoro Teatrale presented by Villa Charities and Istituto Italiano di Cultura, is at Columbus Centre, 901 Lawrence Ave. W., Dec. 4 to 22. See villacharities.com for information.
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