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Undercurrents review

By Andrew Snowdon on February 9, 2013

Tuesday evening marked the beginning of Ottawa’s third annual undercurrents festival at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (1233 Wellington Street West). Festival Director Pat Gauthier’s  showcase of six theatre productions includes a mix of local and national creations that highlight some of the best cutting-edge theatre in the country. With each show lasting about an hour at the most, very reasonable ticket prices, multiple performances, and productions you might not normally get to see—or know about until after the fact — the festival is one of the most accessible theatre available.

In short, undercurrents is like a theatre mixtape. Here’s a peak at a few of the shows on offer:
SKIN (Deluxe Hot Sauce): If The National Film Board Did The Vagina Monologues…
There is perhaps no better means to express a woman’s alienation than German operatic vocals. Brecht knew it, and so does Deluxe Hot Sauce. The group was last seen clambering over church pews at sunset wearing slips as part of 2012’s SubDevisions festival. Deluxe Hot Sauce are still in their slips, but now have more members and a deeper thematic narrative.The musically-infused, movement-rich show is inspired by folk tales of the Selkies: seals that shed their skins to become beautiful women for a short time.  To piano (and other instrumental) accompaniment by Nick Carpenter, the six performers (Katie Bunting, Sarah Finn, Annie Lefebvre, Kelly Rigole, Doreen Taylor-Claxton, and Beverley Wolfe) take turns exploring different aspects of the feeling of “not being comfortable in one’s own skin”—of alienation, isolation, and the attendant loss of identity.  Their complex and fragmentary storytelling, appropriately enough, takes a variety of forms, including music (a bowed harp and a fiddle being among the instruments wielded by cast members) and physical movement bordering on dance. The cast is incredibly unified; it is sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the next one begins, so fluid are the transitions between character, mood, and method of conveying the story.
One could theorize that the central Selkie story, which probably sprang from the same root as The Little Mermaid, was thought up to explain someone’s wife “suddenly” running away—presumably from a life of intolerable oppression. The “abandonment” of a marriage and family by a wife and mother is still demonized in a very sex-specific way, with little regard to the reasons, circumstances, or underlying causes thereof.  The public exploration of this—or indeed any—individual experience from the female perspective is still rare enough that tackling the theme alone makes this a notable production.  But it’s the execution that makes it not only entertaining, but emotionally engaging. SKIN is a series of impressions that leaves the overall impression of a whole.  It is resistant to analysis, yet intensely provocative both intellectually and emotionally.  The effect is somewhat as though The Vagina Monologues were reimagined by the National Film Board—vignettes that shift rhythmically from one to the next, from light to darkness, music to speech, rolling like waves.

Photo courtesy of Jacqui Jensen-Roy

The Public Servant (Theatre Columbus): Staring Into The All-too-familiar Abyss
If you live in Ottawa, you either are (or were) a public servant, or you know at least one (if this is not the case, I want to hear from you to find out how you managed that).  An Ottawa audience, therefore, should be ideal for a show about life in the public service.  On the other hand, an Ottawa audience, being familiar with life in the public service (if only by proxy) should also be the harshest judge of the accuracy of such a show.
The Public Servant follows newly minted policy analyst Madge (Haley McGee) through her career in an unidentified department of the Canadian federal government (although I gather it’s supposed to be Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), where she encounters a colourful variety of other public servants (Sarah McVie and Amy Rutherford, in various roles) and a surprising amount of paperwork on her trajectory from wide-eyed idealism to crushing disillusionment.  It’s billed as tragi-comic; as hackneyed as that term may be, it’s apt in this case. Owing to chillingly true-to-life character work—particularly on the part of Rutherford—and a clearly researched understanding of the atmosphere of public service bureaucracy, what is essentially a sad mirror of many people’s everyday reality delivers a laugh a minute.  It doesn’t hurt that they make a delicious art out of perspective-bending transitions using cubicle dividers and desks.
Theatre Columbus has an intentionally slow, deliberate development process.  As a matter of fact, I first heard about this show at the 2011 Magnetic North Theatre Festival, when I bumped into Sarah McVie and Amy Rutherford (it may have even been director Jennifer Brewin; it was a party, two years ago, at night) in the lobby of SAW Gallery.  I asked if they were working on anything (a standard party question) and they told me they were: a piece on the life of the average public servant, and that they were using research techniques much like those used in the creation of verbatim theatre to get an idea of what it was about.
Have they hit their mark?  Never having worked in the public service myself, I can only say that what I saw matches the stories I’ve heard over the years pretty much perfectly. In at least two of the characters portrayed, I could swear I recognized current or former public servants I know personally.  The constant heartfelt laughter of the Ottawa audience is the best testament to The Public Servant’s veracity.
At times, The Public Servant is nothing more nor less than a high-quality generic office sketch (think the two Cathys from The Kids In The Hall), but it does highlight the particular idiosyncracies of the public service.  The narrative follows an arc from potential and hope to futility and despair.  At its climax, the scene portraying the dreaded job competition interview is so vividly accurate and so hilariously sad that I would see the show again for that alone. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the performance ended with what is perhaps my favourite underrated Canadian patriotic song, a relic of Expo 67, Canada’s centennial year, and the Golden Age of the Public Service.
If you work in the public service, worked in the public service, would pick a life of crime over working in the public service, or simply appreciate a good poke at contemporary Canadiana, you must see The Public Servant.
As a rule, early performances of undercurrents shows tend to sell out before the festival even opens on the basis of word-of-mouth alone (take it from someone who tried to get a second ticket to The Public Servant).  That being said, it’s always worth calling the box office in case seats become available.  For the full undercurrents line-up and schedule, and to book tickets, visit the GCTC website.