Andy McKim, the soft-spoken head honcho at Theatre Passe Muraille, asked Michael Healey once, and he said no.
Then McKim asked again, and Healey still said no.
But the third time, Healey said yes – and so, on Monday night, the Canadian playwright found himself reading publicly from his controversial play, Proud. You know, the one that's allegedly too hot for Tarragon Theatre.
The Proud reading was technically a fundraiser for Theatre Passe Muraille, which is about to eat a $60,000 loss due to the unexpected cancellation of Mary Walsh's show, Dancing with Rage. The Queen West theatre has cancellation insurance, but it does not cover solo shows, and so they're holding a series of alternate events and readings to try and soften the blow. (How can live performance lose money – let me count the ways…) But Monday's sold-out evening (with a 70-person waiting list) was also proof positive that Healey has made lemonade out of the sour taste left in his mouth when Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose told him he wasn't going to program Proud due to worries that it might libel Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (That's Healey's story; Rose will neither confirm nor deny.) Now that the dust has settled (a little), Healey has a hot property on his hands, a post-modern political Pygmalion that he plans to self-produce in the fall while the irony is hot.
Tarragon Theatre may not come out the other side of the ordeal as happily. The white-haired woman sitting next to me – who described herself as a "subscriber since day one" to Tarragon – isn't happy with how Rose has handled things with Healey, a playwright she admires. She's not sure if she'll renew next season. (The lady in question, who also frequently disagrees with my reviews, didn't want to give me her name.) Proud is still in a first draft, so consider the following a description rather than a review.
Healey's comedy takes place in a counterfactual Canada, where a Prime Minister very much like our Prime Minister won a much bigger majority – and even swept Quebec – in the 2011 election.
Harper, who here comes across as a Henry Higgins with a sixth sense for politics rather than phonetics, is not the only parliamentarian who gets the looking-glass treatment in Proud. His Eliza Doolittle is a newly elected Conservative MP named Jisbella Lith, a single mother who spent part of the campaign in Vegas. Sound familiar?
Healey seems to be wrestling with what Harper really believes, and trying to wrap his head around his control-freak tendencies. At a deeper level, however, the play is about all beliefs and how we form them, and how solid they really are. Are they developed through careful consideration, really?
At a shallower level, meanwhile, Proud is about breast jokes. Healey has added elements of sex farce to balance out the heady musings on Hayek – and among those name-dropped in semi-scandalous (and hilarious) ways are CBC host Evan Solomon and noted wetsuit wearer Stockwell Day.
In style, Proud is a cross between a Bernard Shaw talkfest, one of David Mamet's recent ribald political satires (like November), and one of David Hare's state-of-the-nation plays (Gethsemane, for instance). Maybe I should just say, it's very Healey.
The passage that received the most cheers, laughs and gasps was a monologue in which the Prime Minister lists all the political issues that he, secretly, does not care about one way or another. "I don't care about the CBC," was one that got a giggle. "I don't care about Israel" got a shocked ooh.
In terms of whether Proud is libellous, I'm no lawyer, but it is an unusual mix of fact and fiction. The past of the play is our actual past; the present is counter-factual; and the future is fictional. In short, it sits in a semi-real land that is a little scary, and therefore quite exciting.
You can see why a timid artistic director might avoid it – or simply just feel it's not a fit. And there are a lot of artistic directors just trying desperately not to rock the boat and keep afloat. There always have been, long before the Conservatives came to power.
In any case, Healey is producing Proud for himself – and will do so without any government funding, he announced at the reading. (The grant deadlines have passed anyway, he noted, wryly.) He's looking for donations from the public to cover $20,000 of the cost, and you can donate here. Only $19,450 to go, so far. I look forward to seeing how the play has shaped up next fall.