During his time in power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did accomplish one thing that many, if not most, Canadians had long thought impossible. He somehow made millions of people across the country sympathetic to the public service, and, heck, even leap to its defence.
Whether it was the chief statistician resigning over the end of the mandatory long-form census, or the stream of stories about muzzled government scientists, the bureaucracy was suddenly, unexpectedly, a hot topic in the Harper decade.
The Public Servant, which had its Toronto premiere on Wednesday night, is a play that would not likely have been created at any other time – a look at public servants that paints them as heroines, albeit clownish ones.
Consider it a minor cousin to the major political dramatic works that emerged over the past decade, to be shelved between Michael Healey’s Proud and Annabel Soutar’s The Watershed.
Straight out of her MA, Madge (Amy Keating) lands a job as an entry-level analyst at a government agency in Ottawa. She arrives in YOW filled with an eager-beaver love for Canada that she demonstrates in the tour-de-force monologue that opens this collectively created play, reciting every provincial flower from pacific dogwood (British Columbia) to the purple pitcher plant (Newfoundland and Labrador).
Madge is ready and eager to “fearlessly advise and loyally implement,” no matter what government happens to be in power.
Soon enough, however, her dream job starts to seem more like a nightmare.
At first, The Public Servant is, purely, a burlesque of bureaucracy. Lois (Sarah McVie, sweet and seriously funny) leads the new recruit on an endless tour of an Ottawa office building, created on the fly in Jennifer Brewin’s simple staging by actors rolling desks and swivelling cubicle walls. (The set is by Anna Treusch.)
Amy Rutherford, in a variety of wigs, plays all the eccentrics that are encountered along the way – a near-retirement engineer who offers unwanted shoulder massages; a scientist with an Eastern European accent who is blindingly ambivalent of her surroundings; and a supervisor named Cynthia who seems to sharply disapprove of everyone and everything.
If you’ve ever worked in an office, even in the private sector, the stereotypes on parade will ring true and provoke laughter of recognition.
But there’s also a specificity here inspired by interviews the director and actors (and original cast member Haley McGee, seamlessly replaced here by Keating) conducted with 40 federal, provincial and municipal bureaucrats.
Obviously, the creative team did their research well as the many public servants invited to the opening nights kept getting the giggles over what must have been inside jokes. (Who knew a reference to Reitmans could get such a big laugh?)
Despite having somehow avoided a government paycheque all my life, I had almost as good a time. Rutherford killed me with her dead-on impression of an older employee struggling with the basics of computer operating systems and asking for paper copies of memos. “I don’t read the CCs, I read the TOs,” she says at one point. “The BCCs go straight to the trash.”
Meanwhile, Keating captures the at-times irritating Millennial zeal of Madge brilliantly, then depicts her idealism slowly being crushed with depressing accuracy.
It’s the deadpan performance of McVie that impresses the most, though. She leavens the broad comedy of Brewin’s production with doses of heartbreaking humanity as a middle-aged civil servant with a couple of kids who is just trying to get through the day without going over her Weight Watchers points.
In the last third, The Public Servant gets more pointed – as the tension between fiercely advising and loyally implementing is illustrated. Then a “notice of competition” lands in Madge’s inbox, and the humour turns bleak.
The Public Servant hit many of the same speed bumps collective creations often do – the lack of a crafted structure, and surprises, means it loses its momentum at a certain point. To be fair, when the play gets tedious for a short stretch, it’s because the creators wanted to try and show the tedium of the work. So, mission accomplished.
The Public Servant was a sell-out success when it was staged in Ottawa last spring at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
The satire is dulled now by the fact that its main target sits in the penalty box, for four years at least.
The Common Boots production presented by Nightwood Theatre certainly hasn’t gone bad yet, but it is slightly past its best-before date.
Remember those scenes of bureaucrats greeting Justin Trudeau as a liberator last fall? Now, thankfully, we can all go back to hating them and their gold-plated pensions as we wait on hold with the Canada Revenue Agency.
The Public Servant (commonbootstehatre.ca) continues to April 3.Report Typo/Error