by Lynn on May 14, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Written and performed by Guillermo Verdecchia. Directed by Jim Warren. Set and lighting by Glenn Davidson. Costumes by Ken MacKenzie. Music and sound by Richard Feren. Projections by Jamie Nesbitt.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Writer-actor Guillermo Verdecchia first performed his autobiographical play, Fronteras Americanas, in 1992 at the Tarragon Extra Space. Since then it has been produced across the country and internationally. It won the Governor General’s Award. Verdecchia has gone on to act, write and direct, all to acclaim.

He revisits Fronteras Americanas, which he has updated with current references, with original director Jim Warren and set designer Glenn Davidson. Then as now Fronteras Americanas is a sprawling, introspective examination of belonging, finding ones roots, defining ‘the border’ and where one lives, stereotypes, displacement, identity and living with a hyphen that defines you—in Verdecchia’s case he is an Argentinean-Canadian. He was born in Argentina but moved with his family to Guelph, Ontario when he was two.

He relives those cringe-making times that define him. There is that embarrassing moment in public school when a well-meaning teacher tries and fails to pronounce his name correctly. The young Guillermo lowers his head in embarrassment as the woman mangles his name, but just as quickly tries to save himself and the teacher embarrassment by eagerly saying: “You can call me Willy.” He auditions, without complaint, for a part in a movie, of a stereotypical Latin character, complete with exaggerated accent speaking dumb dialogue.

He looks at the whole idea of being Latin from an historical, philosophical and geographical context. He cites gossip, movie and fashion magazines as they define ‘macho’ when describing the smoldering, macho looks of Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas among others.

Verdecchia uses two ‘speakers’ to get his message out. The first is himself; thoughtful, wry-humoured, gently self-deprecating; and the other refers to himself as “Wideload”, accented, cynical, smarmy, condescending and snide. he poses; one leg out in front of the other with the foot turned out, sexual, pelvis in your face. Taunting.

At times the discourse is so dense about belonging and borders, that one loses the thread. Fronteras Americanas is most effective when it deals with Verdecchia’s story and not the background to the story. But even now, eighteen years after I originally saw Verdecchia perform the piece, I feel the play is dated.

Toronto is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. Verdecchia’s story might resonate with newcomers. But it isn’t their story. And truth to tell there have been many more plays about displacement over the years that are more compelling, poignant and funny. And more than dated, I find the piece disingenuous. Verdecchia came to Canada when he was two. I want to know more about how a two year old develops a sense of not belonging and rootlessness. That embarrassed schoolboy, who told the teacher she could call him “Willy”, didn’t change his name to make it easier to pronounce. He proudly kept it. In the scene for the audition, he prepares by putting on makeup to make him look darker; this is done without reference or comment. Why? Did they not think he looked “ethnic” enough? Should that not have been mentioned in the play? He mentions that when he travels by subway the diversity of the people is all there in the subway train. Yet in the theatre the audiences are almost all white. To prove the point he asks that the houselights come up. And there we are. What’s his point here? Should we be embarrassed about our skin colour and where we are at that moment?

Fronteras Americanas is an odd choice for Soulpepper. Verdecchia is not part of the founding or supporting company, talented actor that he is. The play is not a classic. And I didn’t find it funny. Perhaps I found it informative and even moving when I originally saw it, but not now.

Fronteras Americanas plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until May 27.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Fio from the UK May 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

This is all very interesting to me—I teach Fronteras Americanas at the Uni of Nottingham in my “Canadian Culture, Film and Literature” course as an example of multiculturalism, interculturalism and border(land)s.

My (very white, very middle class) students in here have NO IDEA about any of this. They get really confused when they realise the Chicano character (Wideload in the original version), being Mexican, is actually North American; they seem unable to engage with the idea of borders (even if we are living between Wales and Scotland!); they also do not get the irony behind the stereotypes Verdecchia portrays and get really offended when the Chicano character speaks of “Saxons” (though these parts may have been removed from the updated version).

Perhaps Fronteras is incredibly outdated in a Canadian context, but not in a British one? I do think that the 1993 script was a very powerful one, but I can’t quite see WHY they would remount it 18 years later.

Fio (the PhD student you met about a month ago through Alisa)


2 Lynn May 14, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Fio, good to hear from you. Your students don’t see any irony? Oh dear. Saxons is still there. He has not removed it. What he updated were names of Latino movie stars of today. I guess the cultural divide of your students in Britain is a hindrance to understanding and looking at the play. That must be tough. I did correct the reference to Wideload–he is not Jorge. And I’m with you, I don’t know why they have revived the play.

I’m in Montreal for the weekend and saw a terrific production of A BEAUTIFUL VIEW, the play Alisa and I told you about. I think the play is a tease. It’s well and good for the characters to say they are not gay but then to have a relationship and pine for the other when they part and be jealous when one finds the other in bed with another woman, is just to teasing for words. Stuff to ponder. Good to hear from you.


3 S. Berntson May 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I saw the show last night.
While not objecting to your assessment (we disagree, but that’s fair), I did want to mention that “Jorge” is not, in fact, Guillermo Verdecchia’s alter-ego in the play — “Jorge” is a friend he describes encouraging him to consult El Brujo. His alter-ego is “Facundo”, who re-names himself “Wideload” in the Canadian context. Facundo/Wideload’s opening monologue about his name (“Facundo Morales Segundo”) seemed, to me, a very crucial part of understanding bifurcations in cultural identity in the beginning of the play. By contrast, Verdecchia’s painting of Jorge — his friend who we only meet secondhand — as “guide” to the border identity finally offered at play’s close presented a vulnerability that appealed to me, and I think also relates directly to some of your own feelings (which I’m deriving from your statement that the play ” is most effective when it deals with Verdecchia’s story and not the background to the story”). But they are different characters than you describe. Although, as you mention, the play is “dense”, the particularities of those different characters made Fronteras resonate with me, a white girl from North Toronto. For me, the show succeeded in begin deeply genuine through Verdecchia’s nuanced assessment of culture, place and identity displayed in precisely these various characters.
And for my part, I also found it incredibly funny.


4 S. Berntson May 14, 2011 at 5:35 pm

That “begin” in my penultimate sentence should read “being”. Whoops — typo alert!



5 Lynn May 14, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Much thanks for this. I have corrected Jorge to Wideload. Yes we disagree and that’s fine. Different opinions and both right from our points of view. I’m glad you liked the play.

All the best


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