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Theatre Preview: Playwright Michael Healey Takes on Stephen Harper in <i>Proud</i>

09/06/2013 12:40 EDT | Updated 11/06/2013 05:12 EST

I grew up in Ottawa so I'm obviously a political junkie. Living in the shadow of the Hill you can't help but become engrossed in the machinations of federal politics. Ottawa is a small, insular town where politics is something of a spectator sport.

I've been a particularly vocal armchair politician since Prime Minster Stephen Harper first took office. Harper is notorious for proroguing parliament on a whim, operating in secrecy, blocking out the media and finding increasingly clever ways to silence his 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 his government's misguided policies.

The Harper government's rigid dogmatism has had a chilling effect on open public discourse across civil society including the arts. In 2011, Toronto's SummerWorks theatre 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 the play, I assure you it does nothing of the sort. The chill that decision created has potentially caused some arts administrators to self-censor for fear of government reprisals.

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Dora Award-winning playwright Michael Healey's play Proud has also courted controversy throughout its history. Toronto's Tarragon Theatre originally refused to program the work into its season after Artistic Director Richard Rose raised concerns, also expressed by Tarragon board members, that the play was potentially libelous to Prime Minister Harper 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 across the country held staged readings of Proud as a fundraiser culminating in a fully-staged independent production last September in Toronto at the Berkeley Street Theatre. This September, the Great Canadian Theatre Company is opening its new season by presenting Proud in its natural setting; the nation's capital.

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).

For the Ottawa production Healey will reprise his role as the current Conservative Prime Minister of Canada; a satirical riff on Harper. Having seen him perform the role in last year's production in Toronto I can say that 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 rigid 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.

Enter 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 likable. The character is the perfect counterpoint to the dour, stuffy and rigid Prime Minister.

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 with and agreeing with Harper.

The play does require some existing familiarity with recent Canadian federal politics but if you read about national news fairly regularly you should have all the grounding you need to understand the script and appreciate the humour.

The play is thoroughly political but it also transcends politics. If you're in any way engaged in political discourse in this country you owe it to yourself to see Proud.

Details:

  • Proud is playing from September 10 - 29, 2013 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company's Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, 1233 Wellington Street West. in Ottawa.
  • For more information and tickets visit gctc.ca.

Photo of Michael Healey by Amanda Lynne Ballard

By Wayne Leung, Managing Editor of Mooney on Theatre