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Kaitlyn Riordan in Maggie and Pierre.

Greg Wong/Tarragon Theatre

  • Title: Maggie and Pierre
  • Written by: Linda Griffiths with Paul Thompson
  • Directed by: Rob Kempson
  • Starring: Kaitlyn Riordan
  • Company: Timeshare
  • Venue: Tarragon Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Runs until: Saturday, May 19

rating

The current Prime Minister of Canada was eight years old when actress-playwright Linda Griffiths premiered her popular solo show about his parents. Maggie and Pierre opened, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day 1980 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille and went on to be a cross-country hit, capturing as it did one of the country’s most famous, fascinating and – for some – infuriating fairy-tale romances.

Almost four decades later, Griffiths’s one-woman, three-character play – now being performed by Kaitlyn Riordan at Tarragon Theatre’s Workspace – reminds us that there has never been another love story in Canadian public life to match this one for quirkiness. We’ve always been accustomed to peering over the border at this kind of juicy soap opera, be it the Kennedys or Kim and Kanye, but here it was, playing out in our own backyard.

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We also have perspective now on some of that quirk. Margaret Trudeau – who has since become a mental-health advocate – revealed in 2006 that she suffers from a bipolar mood disorder, which helps explain her outrageous behaviour during the time her marriage to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau hit the rocks. Besides, today more than ever we’re likely to sympathize with any frustrated, unfulfilled young mother, stuck at home with three kids while hubby is off running Parliament, who decides to lit out for Toronto and party with the Rolling Stones.

Griffiths certainly understood her. She was also a young woman in her twenties when she created Maggie and Pierre – her breakthrough play – and it was obviously Maggie that she identified with. She wasn’t quite able to see past Pierre’s charm or its reverse, his icy intellect – the fabled “arrogance.”

The play gains dimension as Maggie grows from the flighty flower child depicted in the media to a trapped woman and, finally, a self-aware martyr to hypocrisy.

Stephen Wild

At least that’s the impression you get from Riordan’s performance. It’s her giddy Maggie that fuels this uneven revival. The play gains dimension as she grows from the flighty flower child depicted in the media to a trapped woman and, finally, a self-aware martyr to hypocrisy, deliberating flaunting her shallowness to taunt her detractors.

Riordan’s Pierre, in contrast, never develops, even in a later semi-soul-baring scene, and she’s failed to find a satisfactory way of playing him. We don’t expect a full-on impersonation, but surely even the occasional shrug of the shoulders wouldn’t hurt. It makes you wistful for Mac Fyfe’s brilliant Pierre parody in VideoCabaret’s Trudeau and the FLQ and Trudeau and Lévesque a few seasons ago.

Maggie and Pierre follows the couple from their first, chance meeting in Tahiti in the 1960s, where 18-year-old Margaret Sinclair was vacationing with her parents and the 47-year-old, not-yet-PM Trudeau was showing off his aquatic skills. There ensues the surprise marriage in 1971, taking now-PM Trudeau off the eligible bachelor list; the media scrutiny as a free-speaking Maggie hobnobs with such heads of state as Mao and Nixon and quickly learns the meaning of diplomacy; and the Liberals’ 1974 re-election, when her candour, in contrast, proves an asset on the campaign trail.

Then it all goes south – to Toronto, that is – when Maggie shows up at the El Mocambo bar to get cozy with Mick and the boys. By the time Pierre loses the 1979 election to Joe Clark’s Conservatives, an AWOL Maggie is blithely disco dancing at New York’s Studio 54.

Maggie and Pierre follows the couple from their first chance meeting in Tahiti in the 1960s.

Greg Wong

I mentioned a third character and he’s Henry – a fedora-wearing, notepad-toting member of the press gallery, inspired by the late broadcast journalist Henry Champ (one of Griffiths’s sources for the play). As narrator, commentator and sometime-confidant to both Pierre and Maggie, he represents the average Canadian circa 1980 – sick to death of the couple’s over-publicized marital saga and yet helplessly drawn to it. Riordan is more comfortable in that down-to-earth role, admittedly stereotypical though it is, than she is with the elusive Trudeau.

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The young actress, best known for her work with Toronto’s Shakespeare in the Ruff troupe, previously performed Maggie and Pierre last summer at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont . This remount is staged in the Workspace, one of the Tarragon’s rehearsal halls repurposed as a 55-seat studio theatre. Rob Kempson has directed it in the round, on a set by Jung-Hye Kim with a few period furnishings and some iconic costume items representing the characters, notably a flowing scarf for Maggie and a jacket with that signature lapel rose for Pierre.

The sound design by Steve Lafond mixes vintage audio clips that may raise a smile of nostalgia in older audience members (remember CBC anchorman Knowlton Nash?) as well as the inevitable 1970s-era Stones songs.

Griffiths, who died too young of breast cancer in 2014 at the age of 60, seems to have packed away Maggie and Pierre after a 1998 revival. Had she lived, perhaps she might have unpacked it and updated it for the new Trudeau era. How could she have resisted, given that Justin Trudeau contains so many of the virtues and flaws found in his parents? The man has inherited his dad’s youthful good looks and charisma, certainly, but also his occasional belligerence in moments of frustration. (Remember when Justin pushed and shoved aside those NDP members to hurry up a vote in Parliament?) At the same time, he has the emotional openness of his mother, which can be touching – see his welcoming of Syrian refugees – but also her capacity to embarrass us on the world stage. Need we say more than “India”?

Riordan and Kempson can only do so much with the existing script to suggest Maggie and Pierre’s legacy. But their production’s well-chosen final sound bite – Justin Trudeau’s “Because its 2015” explanation for his half-female cabinet – does put the play in a contemporary context. Clearly, our PM owes some of his feminism to his mother.

Maggie and Pierre continues to May 19 (tarragontheatre.com).

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