Review: The Public Servant (Common Boots Theatre and Nightwood Theatre)

The Public Servant brings comedic light to life in the public sector, on stage in Toronto

The Public Servant, a co-production between Common Boots Theatre and Nightwood Theatre, follows the career trajectory of Madge, a patriotic Canadian enthused (at first) about devoting her life to the Government of Canada. She is beset by colourful characters and bureaucratic obstacles that are all too familiar, and funny, for those of us making our living in such service.

Madge, played by Amy Keating, opens the show with what must be the most Canadian monologue ever written. She’s a farm girl from Saskatchewan who can name all the official provincial flowers, she loves Tim Horton’s and hockey, and she even understands Newfoundland. Her idealism is endearing, even though (or perhaps because) we know it will end in disillusionment.

On her first day, her coworker and unofficial supervisor Lois, played by Sarah McVie, takes her on a tour of the office. The two performers, Lois moving with deft confidence and Madge with meek confusion, manipulate the dividers that comprise most of the set to manifest the maze-like complexity of your standard cubicle warren. This, and much of the other humour, will relate not just to public servants but to anyone who works in a large corporate office.

Minor characters like Irena, played by Amy Rutherford, give texture to the first part of the play, embodying those commonplace coworkers who are subtly aggravating but at least you don’t have to interact with them much. Irena is dourly content with her job, and throws weight-shaming talk casually around the lunchroom.

Rutherford, however, primarily plays Cynthia, Madge and Lois’ boss, an uptight perfectionist who keeps forgetting her glasses are on top of her head. At one point she professes a past vocation for her position, a story dripping with the excesses of the 1970’s, which is lurid if not at all believable. But it serves the main thrust of the play: that people go into public service with vision, only to be dragged down over time.

Lois was the only character I found believable through-and-through, and perhaps that’s because we don’t see any grand ideals from her: she takes care of her kids, she counts her calories but cheats, she’s excited about dating a new man (we don’t get details of her divorce – we don’t need them, it’s 2016, we know what happens.) She’s entirely average, likable, and credible as a person any of us may know. She is constantly reminding Madge of the formatting requirements of the documents she creates, and that may have been the truest thing of all for me. Using the correct font is of paramount importance in the public service.

The production shows time passing via stylized movement set to a soundscape made up of standard office conversations that ultimately meld into a cacophony. During this, all three main characters work on an important initiative that is Madge’s first big research and analysis assignment, a pile of paper growing steadily taller in centre stage. This is a neat trick, and Keating has some excellent dance moves (which she also shows in a previous scene as she morphs into a standard-issue office clone) but it went on for far too long. The “punch line” was very obvious, and while stringing it out for a certain amount of time does build the tension, this scene went too far and the line of attention went slack for both my companion and myself.

The destiny of the project, and the preceding compromise of Madge’s values, are certainly recognizable. But, and I know I’m being nitpicky, where was the talk of funding? Everything comes down to taxpayer dollars/budget priorities/etc. Also, where were the little successes that do happen every now and again when you work for the common good? I know a completely downward trajectory may seem like the proper course for a comedy, but I feel like including the tiny wins, juxtaposed with the big disappointments, would be more authentic, give the show more substance, and could even provide more opportunities for humour.

That said, The Public Servant is, in my companion’s words, “a hoot.” The larger and more bureaucratic a company you work for, the more this will hit home in hilarious, if slightly saddening, ways for you.

Details

  • The Public Servant, produced by Common Boots Theatre and Nightwood Theatre, is onstage at the Berkeley Street (26 Berkeley Street) until April 3, 2016
  • Showtimes are Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday at 8 pm, Friday at 7 pm with matinees on Saturday & Sunday at 2 pm and Wednesday March 30th at 1 pm
  • Tickets are $35
  • Purchase tickets at 416.368.3110 or online

Photo of Amy Keating, Sarah McVie and Amy Rutherford by Neil Silcox