Political satire with extra bite in the hilarious, astutely observed 1979

Philip Riccio. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

The 1979 Group presents Michael Healey’s 1979, a razor-sharp, satirical look at Joe Clark’s brief tenure as Prime Minister, the budget vote that was the beginning of the end for his minority Progressive Conservative government, and the shift in Canadian Conservative politics—directed by Miles Potter and running at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs.

Set in the Prime Minister’s impressive wood-panelled office (set by Steve Lucas, with lighting by Nick Blais), 1979 imagines the events around December 11, 1979—the fateful day the new Progressive Conservative government presented its first budget. It’s a big day for fledgling PM Joe Clark—the “nobody” from Alberta who beat Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals in the June 1979 election (though it could easily be argued it was a rejection of Trudeau and the Liberals, as opposed to an outright win). Clark’s minority government is scrambling for numbers on the budget vote (which includes a widely hated gas tax) amidst a Liberal opposition coalition with the NDP, and assholes among its own ranks. And on top of that, Clark and his Minister of External Affairs Flora MacDonald are coordinating an extremely sensitive life and death mission with the CIA to sneak six Americans out of the Canadian embassy in Tehran and get them safely back home.

A hilarious, quick-paced distillation of events and the political climate of the time, 1979 both embraces and parodies its real-life characters. Philip Riccio gives a classic comic straight man performance as Clark, suitably outfitted in a bland light brown corduroy suit (costumes by Jennifer Lee Arsenault). There’s an exterior calm that belies the screaming frustration within, as he patiently endures constant interruptions from various Parliament Hill colleagues throughout, finally getting a brief moment of respite and privacy when his wife Maureen McTeer drops by. Determined to do good for everyone in Canada—and not just those who voted for him—he eschews political gamesmanship for doing what’s right. Undervalued, underestimated and ignored, Clark perseveres even at the risk of losing his job and his party’s re-election.

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Christopher Hunt as Pierre Trudeau. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak do a remarkable job playing the cast of characters (of both genders) who burst in and out of Clark’s office; brilliantly supported by Arsenault’s artful costuming, including some impressive quick changes. Most notably, Hunt gives hysterical performances as the bombastic, hyper-tense, sewer-mouthed John Crosby, bursting through the door like an angry bull, sweating over the budget; and a perfectly self-absorbed, flamboyant and arrogant Pierre Trudeau, as much in love with his own celebrity as he is with the acquisition of power (accompanied with hilarious groovy-ness by Thomas Geddes’ sound design). Konchak is a plucky delight as the warm, smart and savvy Flora MacDonald; as well as Clark’s lovely wife McTeer, who’s navigating bar exams while supporting him personally and professionally. Konchak also brings us shades of things to come for the Conservative Party, with her slick, shrewd leader-in-waiting Brian Mulroney; and a wide-eyed, awkward young Stephen Harper, included in a scene of artistic licence—a harbinger of the self-serving, politics-spewing Conservative Party of Canada on the horizon.

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Jamie Konchak as Stephen Harper & Philip Riccio as Joe Clark. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Even if you’re not up on Canadian political history, 1979 is an entertaining and eye-opening trip, supported by projected text (projection design by Scott Reid), as well as a timeline at the back of the program, that will keep you up to speed about who’s who and what’s what on Parliament Hill. Encapsulating the political climate of the time with irreverence and astute observation, the play serves as a chilling remembrance of the death of “Progressive” for the Conservative Party of Canada, and the fact that Clark—a man who seems to be too decent for a political career in this environment—was steamrollered by a system that values politics over policy, and a party that was veering right of centre.

1979 continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until January 27; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-368-3110.

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The impact of stories drawn from love & memory in TPM’s genuine, funny, haunting The Drawer Boy

Andrew Moodie, Craig Lauzon & Graham Conway. Set and costume design by Joanna Yu. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Cole Alvis, to a sold out house last night. Originally produced by TPM in 1999, Healey’s beloved hit returns to the TPM stage as the theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Set in the early 70s in Southern Ontario, The Drawer Boy hearkens back to another famous TPM production: The Farm Show, created by Paul Thompson and a collective of artists who went down to live and work with area farmers as they created a play about the place and its people. Miles (Graham Conway) is one of these young Toronto actors, and he nervously arrives on the doorstep of Morgan (Andrew Moodie) and Angus’s (Craig Lauzon) farm house, looking for a place to stay, work and learn about farming so he can contribute to the writing and performance of the play.

An odd yet complementary couple of middle-aged bachelors, Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood, serving together in WWII, finding wives in England and returning to their hometown to set up a farm together. The truly remarkable thing about their relationship is the organic dynamic of Morgan acting as Angus’s memory. Now living with an Acquired Brain Injury after surviving a shell explosion in London, Angus now lives entirely in the present, his memory a sieve; but he’s a wizard with numbers and takes care of the farm’s accounting. Morgan uses stories to remind Angus of their shared past: he is the Farmer and Angus is the Drawer Boy, and they met and fell in love with two tall English girls.

As hard as Miles struggles with farm work, including some hilarious mishaps with equipment and an eye-opening experience spending time with livestock (resulting in a gut-busting impression of a frightened cow), he struggles even harder to write stories for the play. Until he overhears Morgan telling Angus their life story—and he’s struck theatrical gold. When the two farmers attend an invited rehearsal, though, the reactions are markedly different: Angus is delighted and Morgan is infuriated.

Terrified of not having something good to contribute to the play and fearing he’ll be cut from the collective, Miles’ drive and ambition to get a good story puts him in the position of becoming the unwitting catalyst for, and witness to, emerging memories and revised storytelling for Morgan and Angus. Their shared story is not as fairy tale as Morgan originally painted. And the impact of the true story is both revelatory and devastating; highlighting how the choices we make as we create our own life stories touch the lives of others, particularly the ones we love the most, in positive and negative ways.

Lovely, nuanced work from these three actors in this moving, haunting and revealing tale of love, memory and the impact of the stories people tell. Lauzon brings a delightfully child-like sense of wonder to the star counting math wizard Angus; and yet there’s also a troubled, lost quality about Angus as he paces around the house, searching for something he can’t remember. Moodie is both lovable and intimidating as the gruff Morgan; a matter-of-fact man’s man who suffers no fools, there’s a broken-hearted, gentle soul beneath Morgan’s gruff exterior. Extremely patient and caring with Angus, a man of few words becomes a magical storytelling memory maker for his friend, who he clearly loves dearly. And while city boy actor Miles could easily become a clueless caricature, Conway gives him a sharp, desperate sense of ambition and a hilariously satirical edge. And though we may be skeptical about how genuine Miles is in his desire to connect with this world and these people, there’s no doubt that he comes to feel the full impact of the devastating truths he’s unleashed.

With big shouts to the design team, for their beautiful, evocative work: Joanna Yu, whose set combines realism and abstraction, with expressive charcoal drawing flats hanging above and around the vintage farmhouse kitchen and porch; and costume design perfectly suiting the working farm men and the clueless young city boy, who arrives to work in cut-offs, polo shirt and runners. And to Michelle Ramsay’s magical lighting design; and Michelle Bensimon’s timely and haunting sound design and composition.

The Drawer Boy continues in the TPM Mainspace until March 25; get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.