- Title: Behaviour
- Written by: Darrah Teitel
- Director: Michael Wheeler
- Actors: Zoë Sweet, Sarah Kitz, Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard
- Company: Great Canadian Theatre Company in partnership with SpiderWebShow
- Venue: Great Canadian Theatre Company
- City: Ottawa
- Year: Runs to March 31, 2019
Behaviour – a new play by Darrah Teitel now on at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, and soon to be broadcast online across the country – is one of the smartest plays to respond to the #MeToo movement to date.
It’s challenging in form and content and, if too emotionally aloof to really rock you, nevertheless revives an important ancient idea about drama at just the right moment.
Mara (Zoë Sweet) is Behaviour’s protagonist, a staffer on Parliament Hill, working for an MP who is the shadow critic on gender equity for a progressive party.
She’s the type of young woman who apologizes a lot – and even apologizes for apologizing. She constantly diminishes her accomplishments, describing her PhD, for instance, as a result of her fear of leaving school. She tries to calm her social anxiety with a meditation app.
For the first section of the play, we watch Mara in short scenes as she almost seems to sleepwalk through life at home and work. She accidentally becomes pregnant by her boyfriend Evan (Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard), an entitled artist (a little too caricatured by Teitel) whom she financially supports.
Meanwhile, on the hill, Mara begins to be mentored by Jordan (the very charismatic Sarah Kitz), chief of staff, a queer woman and recovering alcoholic with extraordinary confidence who talks frankly about what’s hidden in the open in the corridors of power. Slowly, however, Jordan’s interest in Mara begins to intensify.
After two interns report sexual harassment by an MP, Mara, now a new mom, snaps out of her trancelike state – exemplified to this point in director Michael Wheeler’s production by echoing eighties music and just the barest of an outline of a set designed by Shannon Lea Doyle. And that’s when the play’s surprises begin.
Behaviour changes shape radically. A curtain descends and Mara begins monologuing to an unseen interlocutor – and describes, in discomfiting detail, her theory that there are seven kinds of rape. As she speaks, we begin to re-evaluate what we’ve just watched in a new light.
#MeToo can seem like a difficult subject for drama because much of what has gone on over the past 2½ years hasn’t involved rising action but a shift in consciousness, internal reassessments by women and men on events in their pasts.
On the other hand, that is an important element of classic tragedy – what Aristotle identified as anagnorisis, the Greek word for recognition. The ancient tragedians didn’t have hashtags but they understood that there is great power in a character recognizing a truth.
Anagnorisis is a useful theatrical term to understand, for instance, the power of the documentary Leaving Neverland on HBO. Is anyone really discovering anything new about Michael Jackson over the course of it? No, but you may recognize what’s been in front of you for a long, long time – and, like Oedipus, be tempted to blind yourself.
Behaviour is not a tragedy, however, or does not want to be one, anyway. And so, following Mara’s scene of recognition, Teitel shifts us over to Mara’s grandmother’s house and a jarringly comic tone. Now the designer Doyle gives us a realistic living-room set out of a sitcom.
Lydia (Deena Aziz), the grandmother, is not who you expect to encounter at this point: Her gender politics and views are decidedly old-fashioned; she smokes and even blows smoke in her grandson’s face to soothe him; and her ethics are slippery. She represents survival, pure and simple.
As in her best-known play, The Apology, Teitel seems interested in examining what might be considered unchanging human behaviour in the context of political and societal change.
The Parliament Hill backdrop is painted well by the playwright, a former political staffer herself, as a place where animal urges rarely lurk far below the surface. There’s preying on interns, an adulterous affair – and consensual sexual activity that you might nevertheless file under “potentially problematic.”
The picture she gives us of Mara is a sophisticated one: She is in no way a perfect victim (as no victim is). There are elements of her speech about rape that many, if not most, audience members will disagree with, or feel frustrated about. Likewise, a final brief coda to the play complicates ideas about perpetrators and what to do about them.
But Behaviour’s third scene will be the most controversial. It is a tough tonal shift Teitel tries to land – yet you can’t help but admire her refusal to play it safe or tell an unshifting story.
In addition to its Ottawa run, Behaviour will be filmed live by three cameras and broadcast online at behaviourplay.ca on March 27 at 8 p.m. ET.