Review: Proud a new play by Michael Healey

Proud, Michael Healey’s brilliant satirical play finally gets its day in the sun at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre

I’m originally from Ottawa so I’m obviously a political junkie. Growing up in the shadow of the Hill you can’t help but become engrossed in the machinations of the federal government. Ottawa is a small, insular town and politics is something of a spectator sport there.

I’ve been a particularly virulent armchair MP since Stephen Harper first took office as Prime Minster. The Harper government is notorious for operating in secrecy, blocking out the media and finding increasingly clever ways to silence its critics whether they be high-level managers in the public service speaking out in the best interest of Canadians or activists who encourage thoughtful discussion of the government’s misguided policies.

The Harper government’s rigid dogmatism has had a chilling effect on open public discourse. Last year, the SummerWorks festival saw its Heritage Canada funding cut, likely as a result of producing the show Homegrown by Catherine Frid which Sun Media, the great Conservative echo chamber, deemed to “glorify terrorism.” Having seen it, I assure you it does nothing of the sort. The chill has potentially caused some arts administrators to self-censor for fear of government reprisals.

Dora Award-winning playwright Michael Healey’s play Proud has also courted controversy throughout its history. The Tarragon Theatre originally refused to program the work into its season after Artistic Director Richard Rose raised concerns, expressed by Tarragon Board members, that the play was potentially libelous even though a legal opinion stated it was clearly satire. The rift lead Healey to split with the Tarragon Theatre after 11 years as playwright-in-residence.

In the aftermath of the controversy, several theatre companies around the country held staged readings of Proud as a fundraiser for this Toronto production now on stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Proud is a satirical look at the current Harper government and exposes the dark underbelly of the politics in the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s a Wag the Dog for the Canadian parliament, a Canuck Ides of March sans the magnetism of the Gosling/Clooney duo (although Michael Healey is quite winsome in his own right).

Healey plays the current Conservative Prime Minister of Canada; a satirical riff on Harper. Healey’s portrayal is remarkably balanced, measured and humanizing. His isn’t the crude Craig Lauzon caricature of Harper from The Royal Canadian Air Farce. Indeed, Healey’s take on Harper comes off as a more sympathetic character and a more complete person than the real-life Prime Minister.

In the alternate reality of the play, the Conservatives have won an overwhelming majority in the October 2011 election. Proud opens with the Prime Minister addressing his new MPs.

Maev Beaty plays Jisbella Lyth, a rookie MP from the fictional Quebec riding of Cormier-Lac Poule, a single mom and manager of a St. Hubert franchise until her recent foray into federal politics. The moment she bursts on stage in her hilariously brash entrance she is instantly likeable. The character is the perfect counterpoint to the dour, stuffy and rigid Prime Minister.

This is the third or fourth show I’ve seen Maev Beaty in recently and she is consistently brilliant. The scenes between the Prime Minister and Lyth are scintillating; Healey and Beaty have a great rapport.

Proud is thought-provoking, intelligent and layered with wit and subtle political humour. It’s also challenging, and I don’t mean challenging in that it’s difficult to understand, I mean challenging in the way it challenges you to examine your political assumptions and forces you to see things from the other perspective.

To be clear, the Prime Minister isn’t let off the hook and the play goes to great lengths to detail his Machiavellian actions but Healey’s script isn’t a political salvo from the left. I’m a dyed in the wool small-L-liberal and the show had me questioning my own beliefs and at times even sympathizing and agreeing with Harper; a man I was convinced I utterly and thoroughly disagreed with.

The play does require some existing familiarity with recent Canadian federal politics, but if you read the paper or watch the national news broadcast on CBC or CTV you should have all the grounding you need to understand the text and appreciate the humour.

Lastly, this show needs to be re-mounted at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and every MP, staffer and political hanger-on needs to see it. However, our “national theatre” is a federally funded institution that knows where its bread is buttered so that isn’t a very likely scenario and that’s a shame.

The play is brilliant, while it is thoroughly political it also transcends politics. If you’re in any way engaged in political discourse in this country you must see Proud.

Details:

  • Proud – A New Play by Michael Healey is playing from September 20 to October 6, 2012 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street in Toronto.
  • Shows run Monday to Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Tickets $25 – $40, Mondays PWYC
  • Tickets are available in person at the Canadian Stage Box Office at 26 Berkeley Street, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online. For more information visit proudtheplay.com.

Photo credit:

  • Photo of Michael Healey by Amanda Lynne Ballard