Photo: Andrew Alexander
Madge is young, idealistic, and beams with enthusiasm as she arrives to her first day of work for the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. She is an Analyst, and is ready to take the department by storm. She is driven by the perennial motto of the public service: “Fearlessly advise, loyally implement.” However, the world that she arrives into is not as she imagined.
The Public Servant, created by Theatre Columbus, is smart, relevant, and expertly imagined. Director and co-writer Jennifer Brewin has welded together two seemingly disparate ideas: The public service and entertainment. And it works. The play juxtaposes the mundanities of the life of the public service with physical comedy in a performance that is funny, ironic, and relevant.
The characters in The Public Servant were imagined through a collaborative, collective creation and based on interviews with many public servants, current and retired. The three characters that emerged from this process come across as extremely familiar, and this familiarity is what makes the play so appealing. Madge (Haley McGee) is an idealistic 20-something at the beginning of her career, Lois (Sarah McVie) is mid-career with 12 years in public service under her belt and has a keen eye for adherence to process, while Cynthia (Amy Rutherford) is a cantankerous and rigid having spent over 30 years working under increasingly oppressive circumstances.
While the plot is structured around Madge’s descent into disillusionment, the performance is truly about the three characters navigating bureaucracy. This leads to a sequence of comedic sketches through which these talented actresses show great sense of comedic timing, and deliver humour that feels fresh and expected. During one scene, we witness the creation of a memo. The three actresses enter a robotic sequence wherein the memo slowly becomes larger and larger until Cynthia is all but hidden behind a stack of papers so tall we can only see the top of her hair. While the choreography of these sequences can tend to drag, McGee, McVie and Rutherford are a great ensemble and particularly when all three are together on stage.
Anna Treusch set comprises various drab cubicle dividers, desks and filing cabinets on castors, which the actors move around on stage in various arrangements. The shifting pieces lead way to many comedic moments, for example, as Madge and Lois rearrange two dividers over and over to represent the labyrinthine halls of a government office.
But the play resonates because there is substance beyond the humour. It is timely and relevant to the Ottawa audience, and this is why this performance resonates so strongly. From massive job cuts that lead to internal tension, to codes of silence, to deteriorated public opinion, the public service is eroding from the inside. Theatre Columbus meets this fact head-on in their production.
Here, the character of Cynthia leaves a lasting impression on the audience: She has lived through the heyday of the public service in the 70s, with Pierre Trudeau at its helm. Idealism and action fueled the creation of new policies that aimed at improving life for Canadians. That long-gone era of public service can be credited for the creation of the mandatory long-form census, for example, and work that led to affirmative action.
But it’s a different ball-game today. Cynthia, within a year from her retirement, tells the audience in an unexpectedly candid moment, “I have 240 days left, and I can’t do it.” We discover that Cynthia’s character, which may have seemed the most clown-like of the three, has more depth than we had imagine. She is simply disenchanted to work under directives that muzzle the public service.
The humdrum work-life of the public service is the perfect target for comedy, and Theatre Columbus has hit the nail on the head. The Public Servant is playing until June 21 at the GCTC, but if you’re looking for tickets you’ll have to scour your own network because it is sold out for the rest of the run. Theatre Columbus has a smash-hit on their hands, and it’s well deserved.