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Stephen Harper wittily skewered in "Proud" at Firehall Arts Centre

 Michael Healy’s "Proud" is a brilliant, no-punches-pulled, SNL skit that takes Canadian theatre to a whole new level.

Andrew Wheeler in PROUD at the Firehall Arts Centre
Courtesy of Pink Monkey Studios

Michael Healy’s "Proud" manages to be witty, hilarious, scathing and thought-provoking all at the same time. 

The setting is Stephen Harper’s office in 2011.  The Conservative party has just won a huge majority. Healy uses Harper’s name and his persona but that’s where reality ends. In Healy's piece, the Tories have also won big in Quebec (in the real world, the NDP took Quebec). After giving a pompous victory speech to the audience -- Harper demands, “I insist that your commitment to this party be greater than your commitment to your families” -- the PM encounters Jisbella Lyth, a newly elected Quebec MP from a fictional town in Quebec. She comes in as Harper is conferring with Cary Baines, his chief of staff.

She’s sexy, outspoken, emotional and blunt – in short, everything Harper is not. She wants to know if either Harper or Baines of staff has a condom. There is a handsome CBC journalist in her office, and she’d like to “christen” it by having sex with him.

After discovering he can’t fire her, the PM decides to use her to further his own political will. She is a single mother who has had two abortions. He wants her to present an anti-abortion bill to the house. It will have virtually no chance of passing, but will distract the press while he pursues his pet project -- reducing the size of the government. She decides to go along. Why not? She doesn’t take politics seriously. She assumes that all of Harper’s time spent training her is an extended come-on. He views her as just a pawn. She sees him for what he is – the most powerful man in Canada, a sexual turn-on. But at the same time, she refers to him as “the nerdiest prime minister in the history of Canada … mashed potatoes stuffed inside a suit.”

In one funny but very revealing scene, Jisbella is talking to her seven year old son on the phone. She’s explaining that it’s her fault the latkes he’s making didn’t turn out because she forgot to mention one of the ingredients. Harper grabs the phone from her and tells her son to forget about the latkes. He’s made something even better – hashed browns. “That’s what truckers eat. Now put that applesauce away and find some motherfreakin’ ketchup.“ 

In another hilarious scene after Jisbella has just presented her anti-abortion bill, she and Harper loudly pretend to argue about her presentation – all for the benefit of some reporters lurking in the hallway. Harper pointedly leaves the door cracked open.  The amazing thing is that Harper succeeds despite all of his personal drawbacks. Healy’s frequently brilliant writing leads you to understand what makes him tick and why he wins. Healy obviously admires his main character, even as he lampoons him.

There are similarities to Shaw’s Pygmalion here. Jisbella’s bill, much to Harper’s shock and surprise, looks as though it will pass. The pupil has outshined the master – at least in what she was taught. Now, the only way he can convince her to drop it so he won’t be publicly embarrassed is to have sex with her. So will he, or won’t he? You will have to see the play to find out.

Andrew Wheeler as Prime Minister Harper is simply amazing. It’s not just the physical similarities – the facial expressions, the stance, the mannerisms – it’s that feeling of suppressed emotional tension. He appears to be totally cut off from human feeling, but you can sense that tension underneath. It’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. You can’t help but feel for the guy.  

Emmelia Gordon as Jisbella does a superb job. She’s sexy, vulgar and profane, doing it all with flair, grace and hilarity. It would be very easy to dismiss this character as a flake. Gordon makes audiences laugh with her as often as they laugh at her. She is the soul of this play.

Craig Erickson does a standup job in a second-fiddle part. He plays the straight man for the other two, who get the lion’s share of the best lines. That said, he’s completely believable as Harper's Chief of Staff, playing the part with equal amounts of loyalty, cynicism and sleaze.

Scott Button plays Jake Lyth, Jisbella’s grown up son. He appears alone, giving an interview about his mother some years later. The interview is being conducted remotely and is a one-sided conversation. The camera is supposedly robotic. If this is meant to be Healy’s comment on the decline of the arts under the Conservatives, then he’s reaching. Button does the best job he can with what little he’s given, but I’m not sure everyone understood what he was doing there.

Director Donna Spencer has done a fine job with Proud. Her staging is excellent. Her actors deliver their lines with precise timing to extract every last ounce of humour. Pam Johnson’s set, supported by Alia Stephen’s lighting, places the viewer solidly in Conservative Ottawa.

Bottom line: this is like a brilliant, 90-minute, no-punches-pulled, SNL skit. I believe it takes Canadian theatre to whole new level and we should all be proud of "Proud".

"Proud" is at the Firehall Arts Centre  from April 5 to April 26.




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