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Satirical play offers a fresh (and funny) look at Prime Minister Harper

By Alejandro Bustos on September 13, 2013

Canadian federal politics, we are repeatedly told, is becoming increasingly polarised.  The person that many people blame for this division is Prime Minister Harper.

A new comedy at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), however, offers a unique perspective on Canada’s federal leader, by presenting a witty story that challenges political partisans of all stripes.

Opening the GCTC’s 2013-14 season, Proud is the creation of Canadian playwright Michael Healey and is set right after the 2011 federal election.  But unlike the real vote two years ago, in which the NDP swept Quebec, it is the Conservatives who triumph in la belle province.  The result is one of the largest majority governments in Canadian history.

Set in this fictional – yet all too real – setting is Prime Minister Harper (played by Healey), who must deal with Jisbella Lyth (played by Jenny Young), a newly elected Quebec Tory MP who seems like a complete loon.  Trying to deal with this loose cannon is Chief of Staff Cary Baines (played by Tom Barnett), a master of realpolitik.

The Prime Minister is initially horrified by the single-mom from the fictional town of Cormier-Lac Poule, who worked as a manager at a St-Hubert restaurant before being elected to Parliament.  After getting over his shock, the PM begins to use the rookie MP to his own advantage – or is it the other way around?

As the play progresses, we are presented with a Prime Minister who is not a social conservative monster, neatly fitting the caricature drawn by his opponents.  Rather, the PM comes across as a man whose real political agenda is quite modest, and who can show moments of tenderness in private, even if he is a socially awkward, economics wonk.

Michael Healey and Jenny Young.  Photo by GCTC/Andrew Alexander.

Michael Healey and Jenny Young. Photo by GCTC/Andrew Alexander.

That being said, this straightforward agenda is obscured by cynical ploys.  For instance, the PM instructs Madame Lyth to introduce an anti-abortion bill into Parliament that will never pass, in order to distract the press gallery from planned cuts at the Privy Council.  Once the cuts have been implemented the proposed bill is withdrawn.

Healey is an artist who is not shy of courting controversy.  Last year, he ended a longstanding relationship with Tarragon Theatre in Toronto after it rejected  Proud, reportedly because it feared being sued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Undaunted by this setback, he moved the production to another Toronto theatre where it received generally positive reviews.  The show in Ottawa is the second full production of the play.

While not flawless, this is a really good work.  At its best, it’s a wonderfully entertaining look at politics, with funny jokes and deep insights.  The play’s explanation on why the Tories are masters at fundraising is brilliant, as is its comment that politics is, for many people, a purely emotional experience .

On the other hand, the work lacks an overarching dramatic conflict that ties the story together.  In addition, Jake Lyth (played by Ottawa Theatre School graduate Drew Moore) is a very underused character.  This role could have been a a pivotal part of the play, but unfortunately the script treats Jake as an afterthought.

Proud is at the GCTC at 1233 Wellington St. West until September 29.  Showtimes are at 8 pm, Tuesday-Friday, Saturday at 4 and 8:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm.  Regular tickets start are $30, while less expensive last minute tickets can be obtained at noon on the day of each performance.  The show this coming Sunday is pay-what-you-can.