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Proud: parsing a farce

February 7, 2013

Playwright: Michael Healey

Director: Glynis Leyshon

Belfry Theatre, Victoria

February 4-March 9

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Photo by David Cooper

When I emerged from the Belfry Theatre after seeing actor-playwright Michael Healy’s latest play, Proud, I felt confused. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Billed as “political satire” by its distinguished director, Glynis Leyshon, Proud was somehow unsatisfying despite “crackling” dialogue, fast pacing and polished acting by some of Canada’s finest, including Rick Roberts. Roberts, you may recall, played Jack Layton in the CBC biopic. In Proud, he shows his range by playing an unnamed Prime Minister modelled after our current Prime Minister. Now that’s versatility.

Proud proposes an alternative universe in which the Conservatives won Quebec in the last federal election and the Prime Minister has a massive majority including a feisty political neophyte named Jisbella Lyth, played assertively by Celine Stubel.

The Prime Minister, and his Chief of Staff, Cary, played by award winning actor Charlie Gallant, soon learn Jisbella has something in common with them: political amorality. Recognizing a kindred spirit, the PM concludes Jisbella is worth mentoring—and using. Having Jisbella author an anti-abortion (“pro-life”) bill to distract the press so the PM can slip through a change to government unnoticed seems like a fine idea to them all.

What’s the big change the PM wants to slip through on the QT? Muzzling government scientists? Ditching environmental laws? No, the PM wants to reduce the size of the Privy Council Office—a modest goal.

So where is the dramatic conflict in this play? There isn’t any, and, artistically, that’s this play’s main problem.

There are others. A fourth character, Jisbella’s grown-up son, played by UVic Theatre grad Kieran Wilson, talks about political morality from the vantage point of 2029, when the Prime Minister is still in power; but he’s too removed from the principal action of the play to matter. Finally, Proud is a “talky” play. During all the political yak, the Chief-of-Staff makes the point that “politics is fundamentally an emotional event.” Plays are also fundamentally emotional events, and a play that’s too talky can kill emotional response in the audience.

It might be argued that laughter is an emotional response, and it can’t be denied that Proud is humourous. But analyzing its humour reveals its genre confusion.

Although satire, like farce, is usually humourous, unlike farce, satire has a greater purpose: to draw attention to troubling social issues and offer constructive social criticism. Proud doesn’t do that. Since all the principal characters agree that political amorality is just fine, that issue isn’t examined; and since the PM’s goals are so modest and reasonable, no substantive issues are critiqued. Proud confused me because I expected satire; but what it offers isn’t satire: it’s only farce.

So if we can’t be proud of Proud as political satire, what can we be proud of?

We can be proud of Michael Healey for not giving up when Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, fearing a libel suit from the Prime Minister (the real one), nixed his play despite the fact he had been a playwright-in-residence there for more than a decade.

We can be proud that other theatre companies all across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver staged readings of Proud, both to raise money for its independent production and to support the principle of free artistic expression.

And we can be proud that the Canadian public rallied to the cause by contributing almost $18,000 in twenties and hundreds in response to a crowd-funding campaign to pay for its premiere in Toronto.

As a work of art, Proud may disappoint; but the circumstances surrounding its realization are cause for celebration.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.  

Cabaret: Alive and Well in Victoria


Book by Joe Masteroff; music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Roger Carr

Langham Court Theatre


January 15-February 1

 Reviewed by Joy Fisher

 Some plays grow stale over time while others retain their vitality, sparkling with relevance decades after their first production. Cabaret falls into the latter category.

Opening on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret was one of two plays inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, based on the author’s life in Berlin between 1930 and 1933. The other play, I Am a Camera, written by John Van Druten, preceded Cabaret by 15 years, and, while I Am a Camera was not without critical acclaim, its success was severely curtailed by the acerbic commentary of New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr. Kerr summed up his opinion with these words: “Me no Leica.” The play closed after 214 performances.

The original production of Cabaret, on the other hand, ran 1,165 performances. Furthermore, Cabaret has been revived every decade since, and its 1998 Broadway revival ran 2,377 performances, becoming the third longest-running revival in Broadway musical theatre history.

Why the difference? Kerr once wrote a book called How Not to Write a Play in which he asserted that plays will always be more successful if they are highly entertaining. He argued that entertainment can be at once enjoyable and artistically sophisticated.

The current Langham Court production, based on the 1998 Broadway revival, is both. While acknowledging the gay theme with a kiss between the main character, Cliff Bradshaw, played by Griffin Lea, and one of the Kit Kat nightclub’s “boys,” director Carr has chosen to emphasize the political theme inherent in the years of Hitler’s rise to power. It was an astute choice, for, while stories of gay history are quite rightly in vogue in these days of gay liberation, the theme of political oppression whispers daily in the ears of all of us.

In this charged atmosphere, the main story of the ill-fated romance between Cliff and Sally Bowles, played by Chelsea Kutyn, pales in comparison with that between Fraulein Schneider, touchingly acted by Susie Mullen, and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schulz, played, heart in hand, by Alf Small. Cliff and Sally, after all, are expatriates, free to leave whenever they want, while Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schulz have no such free choice: they must act out their doomed affair in the land of their birth.

The starkness of their situation is highlighted by the song and dance number “If You Could See Her,” in which the Emcee of the Kit-Kat Club, admirably played by Kyle Kushner, dances with a partner in a gorilla suit pleading for the right to love the person of his choice.  “If you could see her as I do,” he sings, “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

Kushner is in large part the reason this shocking narrative is entertaining. Projecting a guileless exterior, he nevertheless effectively conveys an inner knowledge of the evil of the world. When, at the end of the play, he rips away his cabaret costume to reveal himself in the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner, only the audience is startled.

It’s not surprising that the entire run of this production of Cabaret is sold old. If you are unable to slip into one of the remaining performances by hanging around the lobby begging, as I did with puppy dog eyes, for an unclaimed ticket, don’t despair. Another Broadway revival is scheduled for 2014.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.