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Tony Nardi is about to make himself very unpopular.

Certainly, what he's about to do is unprecedented in Canadian theatre and requires no small amount of courage. Or chutzpah. Or foolishness. Or all of the above, perhaps.

Starting tonight, Nardi -- one of the country's finest actors, winner of two Genies and a Gemini nomination this year for his work in the miniseries Il Duce Canadese -- is taking to the stage in what amounts to an Émile Zola style J'accuse, a one-man show that constitutes an indictment of Canada's performing arts, or at least those aspects of it that Nardi knows best.

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He's calling the production Two Letters, delivered on consecutive evenings. Each show runs about two hours, followed by questions and answers.

Letter One, focusing on film and television, emerged from a 17-page missive Nardi wrote last year to the producers of the sitcom Rent-A-Goalie. He'd been asked to audition, but was so offended by the Italian stereotype of the character in the script that he sat down and unburdened himself of opinions that had been on his mind for some time. There was no reply.

Letter Two evolved from a 75,000-word essay that Nardi sent to two Toronto theatre critics, The Globe and Mail's Kamal Al-Solaylee and the Toronto Star's Richard Ouzounian, after reading their reviews of Pleiades Theatre's production of Carlo Goldoni's 1752 play, The Amorous Servant in November, 2005. Nardi had seen the show and felt that nobody had properly understood it -- neither the director, nor the critics. It thus became the pretext for exploring what Nardi calls our "actor-less culture." The piece is set in Hell.

In preparation for his readings, Nardi held about 30 workshop sessions with small invited audiences, then incorporated some of their responses into the Letters.

At the heart of his broad critique is the claim that Canada's English-language theatre is largely irrelevant -- populated by mediocre directors and a talented but cowed pool of actors who have become compliant pawns, afraid to challenge the system for fear of losing work. Everyone knows the theatrical emperor wears no clothes, Nardi says. Artistic directors know it, their boards know it, actors know it, but check their reservations at the door, even audiences know it. But everyone pretends otherwise, pretends that they are mounting or seeing work of quality. "The audience goes to the theatre ready to play its role."

In an authentic culture, Nardi insists, theatre is a vital need, not an excuse for an evening out. "We don't need theatre to survive in English Canada, as [the late]Nathan Cohen warned us. People use numbers to justify quality, but that's nonsense. McDonald's sells a lot of hamburgers. It's still junk."

Although English Canadians often pride themselves on being the world's third-largest centre of English-language theatre, it's a meaningless distinction, Nardi says. "We have nothing to show for it. We are self-congratulatory about appreciating theatre, but we don't really care for the act of theatre itself. It has no authenticity or rather, we are authentic only in our inauthenticity. Our major festivals celebrate Shaw and Shakespeare. You don't see Quebec mounting festivals for Racine and Molière. I'm not a separatist, but that's a genuine culture. English Canadians live in a country of perceptions, as opposed to seeing what's really there."

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He decries attempts to contemporize classic plays -- like a National Arts Centre production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People adapted a few years ago to reflect the Walkerton, Ont., E.coli tragedy. "No," says Nardi. "It's a play about confronting the status quo. But if you replace the work with a PR concept, you miss the central relevance of the work. And where's the actor in that? Nowhere. A prop."

Nardi concedes that there is a handful of able directors in the country, "and they know who they are." But most, he contends, simply aren't up to the task. He endorses the view expressed by Britain's Simon Callow in his 1984 book, Being an Actor, that unless a director can enhance the relationship between actor and writer, he or she should get out of the way. He cites a remark said to have been made by legendary British director Peter Brook, after seeing a number of shows across the country. Asked for his view of English Canadian theatre, Brook simply said: "Poor them."

In addition to his recent film work ( Il Duce Canadese and Indian Summer: The Oka Crisis), Nardi, born in Calabria, Italy, and raised in Montreal, has been writing movie scripts of his own, including one set during Prohibition. He says that he and his colleague, Montreal director Paul Tana, have pulled out of a couple of production agreements because of creative differences. "You get to the point where they think it should be done their way. We've tried that in Canada. It's not working. We've tried making sitcoms like Americans. We should do our own thing."

In one meeting with Telefilm Canada, he recalls, an official said, "We have to like the central character."

"I said, 'Who says?' So he says, 'Well, don't we?' I said, 'Well, let's talk about it. Do you know the film Raging Bull? How about La Dolce Vita?' " Nardi won a final round of development money.

Nardi has never been reluctant to challenge entrenched interests. At 21, he mounted a play in Montreal that explored the city's Italian community and was warned to cease and desist. He refused. A few years ago, objecting to another poorly written Italian stereotype, he told his then-agent he would not audition for the film. The casting agent, Jon Comerford, then threatened to blackball the agency's roster of clients unless Nardi read for the part. His agent begged him to read. He declined and fired the agent.

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"I am not a professional Italian," he later wrote in a letter to ACTRA. "I'm a professional actor. . . . I'm not ashamed to be Italian. On the contrary. It's playing a cultural [negative]stereotype I have a problem with."

Two Letters, Nardi says, effectively constitutes an artist's statement about the world. "We have no time left to waste words, in print or on stage, but we act as if we had all the time in the world. We have to speak the truth. Can't we discuss these things? What does it say about us that in a Toronto Life article about Richard Ouzounian, only one person was willing to comment on the record? We have to start the process of coming out of the grave."

What does Nardi expect from this exercise? Provoking a lively debate would satisfy him, but he says the performing arts in Canada will remain largely a sham until the actor gains more centrality. "The actor is theatre. It helps if you have a great play. But the theatre is in those living figures on stage. It's not about a director's concept or the costumes or the lighting designer. It's about an actor making you laugh or cry."

Performance schedule

Nov. 6 Letter One

(8 p.m., U of T Scarborough, Room HW 216,

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1265 Military Trail)

Nov. 7 Letter Two

(8 p.m., U of T Scarborough, Room SW 128,

1265 Military Trail)

Nov. 13 Letter One

Nov. 14 Letter Two

(both 8 p.m., Annex Theatre,

736 Bathurst St.)

Nov. 18 Letter One

Nov. 19 Letter Two

(both 2 p.m., National Film Board Screening Room, 150 John St.)

Nov. 20 Letter One

Nov. 21 Letter Two

(both 8 p.m., Canadian Film Centre, Garden Room,

2489 Bayview Ave.)

Nov. 24 Letter One

Nov. 25 Letter Two

(both 8 p.m., Robert Gill Theatre, 214 College St., 3rd floor)

Nov. 27 Letter One

Nov. 28 Letter Two

(both 8 p.m., Factory Theatre

Rehearsal Hall, 125 Bathurst St.)

Dec. 1 Letter One

Dec. 2 Letter Two

(both 8 p.m., Columbus Centre, 901 Lawrence Ave. W.)

Dec. 3 Letter One

Dec. 4 Letter Two

(both 8 p.m., Grano Ristorante, 2035 Yonge St.)

Tickets: $15, at the door

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