Sunday, 13 April 2014

Redux : Proud spoofs boring ol' Canadian politics

Below is the review from BLR published on April 13, 2014. In light of the major characters doing a reprise of their roles in 2015 -- commencing the very day the Sen. Mike Duffy court case puts the Conservative ethos directly in the spotlight -- I thought it appropriate to re-circulate the 2014 review as I will be unable to take in this year's performance. 

An unlikely premise behind it all :  Actor/playwright Michael Healey's Proud is a turn at what American comedian Stephen Colbert might call "Stephen Harper spoofiness". No wonder. Harper set himself up perfectly as Canada's satiric alter ego to Richard Nixon when in 2006 he delivered 10-year-old son Ben and 7-year-old daughter Rachel to their Ottawa school and promptly shook each of their hands (!) to the amazement and joy of the omnipresent paparazzi. Viewed as aloof and calculating, Harper's way of saying "Have a nice day, kids!" became as trademark as Nixon famously flashing his fake-double-V finger salutes while chirping "I am not a crook!"

But Proud is more than tittle and tattle about SH's time in Ottawa. And the Healey script is more than the kind of one-dimensional hoo-hah that comedian Rich Little mastered in eviscerating the perpetual 5-o'clock-shadow-and-over-eyebrow'd Nixon. Healey insists his purpose, believe it or not, is to engage Canadians in just what it is they want and expect from the solons running the country in far-fetched Ottawa. And so his depiction of SH, delivered engagingly by Andrew Wheeler, is broader and richer and subtler and more nuanced than Handshake Dad has shown himself publicly to be capable of.

The set-up :  The storyline is built on "truthiness" as well as "spoofiness". It's 2011. SH has commandeered victory not only in ROC, he's also taken the Quebec seats actually won in 2011 by Jack Layton's Orange Horde. No longer required to seek the consensus he needed when he was a minority PM, Harper now has free rein. The play's set-up is how he tries to manipulate a pup of an MP from small-town Quebec, one Jisbella Lyth (Emmelia Gordon) and how she outmaneuvers and outwits him due to his overweening hubris. The other primary character in the piece is Harper's Chief of Staff Cary (Craig Erickson) who clearly is not based on the real life uber-confident but fatally flawed Nigel Wright -- he who paid off Senator Mike Duffus's $90,000 phony expenses and got fired once exposed. 

Script's notorious history :  From Y2K forward, Healey was playwright in residence for Toronto's Tarragon Theatre that prides itself as being "a leading Canadian company for the development, creation and encouragement of new work" (sic). From the get-go Healey had planned a trilogy of plays, two of which Tarragon in fact did produce : Generous (2007) and Courageous (2009), which explored those two themes of human conduct. Then came the rough draft of Proud. Hold on a minute here, cautioned Tarragon's artistic director Richard Rose. After reading it he forsook both of those qualities -- generous and courageous -- and, ironically, donned the proud masque instead. Seems a nervous and silly board member had warned Rose : "Handshake Harper might sue us for libel!" Rose refused to mount the show. "Bollix!" bellowed Healey. He promptly resigned his playwright commission. 

With his wife's encouragement they borrowed against their household line of credit to mount the show themselves. Then they and friends staged a series of readings across the land to fund-raise and pay the Healeys' LOC back, which they did. A Toronto competitor, the Berkeley Street Theatre, mounted the show. Guess what. No libel suit from 24 Sussex Drive.

Plot quicky :  SH wants to consolidate power after all those years as a minority PM. How to do that? First give your grasp at power the tumescent title The Harper Government. Then move to distract the press. Frosh MP Lyth stumbles into Chief Cary and PM Steve plotting the day's next moves. She's hot for a condom because she wants to "do" CBC's Evan Solomon who's on The Hill to interview her in her new office. Neither Steve nor Cary has one in their wallet, nor act as if they know what one is, even. But let's use this sexy ditz, Steve muses, to propose a bill criminalizing abortion after 20 weeks. That'll get the progressive rabble rabbling. And while the chattering classes are distracted by her anti-abortion proposal, hey, we can gut the Liberal-leaning Privy Council and the press won't even notice. And meanwhile we won't support her bill in any event -- being both practical and cynical -- but it'll keep the rednecks in our base quiet at least. 

Everyone goes through the motions, but Lyth finds eagerness and power from her proposal as it progresses through the House and gathers unexpected momentum. And now the antics between the PMO and the upstart MP can proceed apace. But all the while infused with comic flashes and flushes that drive the endless political monologues forward. (Bias : Based on my 40 years' experience as a B.C. public servant, all too seldom are politics "dialogue" -- more often just "serial monologues" between entrenched adversaries. Ever notice how the word "ideology" appears to stem from "idiot"...?)

Playwright's cut at it : In an Artsmania interview 18 months back, Healey revealed his modus operandi : "This was never intended to be a documentary or a straight-up biography. It's a heavily fictionalized depiction, but the aspects of (Harper's) personality that I've seized on are the ones that create the engines in the play that ask the questions that I want to ask about our politics... [T]here's an enormous amount of comedy available when you explore politics because what's said and what people intend are often two very different things, there are secrets galore, there are enormous power differences among people. All of these things contribute to comedy and make for a fun night in the theatre."

Firehall performance values :  No question the 43 souls who witnessed Sunday's matinee -- and in doing so sacrificed a delicious sunny playday outside -- found much to chortle at in this Donna Spencer-directed effort. 

It helps to have even a vague notion of Canadian national politics and current events. If like the silent majority you'd be even more apathetic if only you could bother, this clever but flawed script ain't for you. Here's what it's not : it's not a critique of The Harper Government. SH is just the excuse, the vehicle, the means to Healey's end of talking up political ideas both macro and micro. More than once the SH character talks of what "ideal" Canadian government looks like : long-term boring stability and security. Sort of like the 2006-2011 Harper minority rule when sleeping with the enemy whether PQ, Liberal or NDP at any given moment made sense to Harper to prevent a non-confidence vote.

As Steve, Andrew Wheeler turns in a steady performance : at various times bombastic, blustery, babbling, awkward, forceful and/or bemused. His endless buttoning/unbuttoning of his blue serge suit jacket as he blathered forth was bang on. But it is Emmelia Gordon as the Frosh MP Jisbella who is the most rounded and engaging player in the piece. Her bubbly stream of f-word utterances and coquettish power-sluttery -- completely stereotyped, not one iota of p.c. here at all -- nevertheless make the viewer want to have a beer and a giggle with her. Craig Erickson's Chief of Staff Cory struck me as not edgy enough -- I wanted more of Nixon's Bob Haldeman than Obama's schmoozy flakmeister Jay Carney. Oddest character was Jisbella's grown-up son Jake (Scott Button). He provides a soliloquy of Healey's last words about politics in a superfluous (and pedantic) anti-climax to end the play. Odd business, this.

Theme-ish stuff : The script's attempts to discuss "beliefs"-vs-"feelings" and "strategies"-vs-"tactics" on The Hill serve mostly to advance the plotline, not provoke us to think overly hard. SH sums up the thrust of the play when he notes, slightly off-key, that "Political inconsistencies are situational : integrity is the last thing Canadians want in their politicians." Hmnnn. Tell that to Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy, eh? 

Or possibly the best comment on politics occurs during a discussion of nihilism : Jisbella blurts out at SH, "Fuck, all this shit is fucked!" Or, how not to lol at Jisbella's summation of her anti-abortion bill. She confesses it won't solve what has become a non-existent social problem. But, she acknowledges, it will satisfy the PC base : "It's pointless, it's stupid. It works because it's meaningless -- it's perfect politics!" Healey must have been channeling ex-PM Jean Chretien when he wrote that line, Chretien who once observed : "Canada is a country that works in practice, just not in theory.

Postscript : Healey's ideal government :  At the conclusion of his Artsmania interview with Anita Malhotra, Healey responded to her ultimate question "What, in your view, would be a perfect Canadian government?" Healey gave a succinct (but probably naif) everyman response i.m.o. : "I think government that isn't worried about scoring points would be a perfect government. A government that's willing to admits its mistakes, a government that is willing to listen to evidence and change its view if the evidence convinces them they need to change their view, a government that projects a kind of centredness to the world -- a kind of calm conscience to the world. A government that's fiscally responsible, a government that takes my tax dollars very, very seriously and a government that is less interested in marketing than it is in policy." 

No question. A 1st-world dream like this is better than real life in many of the world's 2nd and 3rd-world zip codes. Think about it. How utterly decadent to be able to go watch good acting and giggle about politics. Conjure life in Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, Central African Republic et al. Healey reminds us we in Canada -- whether proud about it or not -- are life's luckiest folks indeed. 

P.S. Quite coincidentally to-day (140414) I downloaded the April 21st e-version of Maclean's onto my iPad to browse on Canada Line. And in it was the following interview with Tom Flanagan, a long-time Alberta Conservative / Wildrose operative. His cautionary tale about cyber-world media instantaneity is worthwhile. But specifically I dedicate its reading to Richard Rose of Tarragon Theatre. If he and his squeamish board member really thought Michael Healey's SH character was the "true" Stephen Harper whom Healey was libeling, they need only read this for proof Healey's SH is a pastiche, a satirical and artistic and whimsical caricature based on the the guy -- not, not by a long shot, the actual Handshake Dad whom Flanagan used to advise. To make such a profound error in judgment in the arts realm where freedom of expression is foremost is not just gutless but unforgivable.'s%20Magazine/e5d3693b3f95480a8a76987efdc3a82d/MME_20140421/03h_interview.html


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