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Is there any doubt that we Canadians are living in a golden age for political satire? Take Rob Ford--please!
Toronto's gift that keeps on giving has provided late night talk show hosts and Saturday Night Live with endless comic material. The jokes practically write themselves. Their only difficulty is finding ways to make the satire funnier and weirder than the man himself.
And the Ford saga has almost made us forget the outrageous goings-on in the Senate and PMO. Where's SCTV when we need it? Imagine what that crew would have made of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Stephen ("I knew nothing about it") Harper and the rest of the pompous, self-serving cast of fibbers. It's an embarrassment of riches.
Trouble is these people have genuine political power. We're talking about the mayor of Canada's largest city and the prime minister of our country. The things they do have real consequences, even as we look on in amazement and amusement. It's only funny until someone loses an eye.
The best political satire makes us laugh at the characters who run things, ridiculing them and their behaviour, reducing them to our own size, symbolically draining them of power and authority while at the same time reminding us of the frightening reality: our lives are in their hands, and our own hands aren't clean. We're complicit because we vote for them, support them or just let them get away with it.
Which brings me to Sean Devine's new play at the Roundhouse, Except in the Unlikely Event of War, promoted by co-producers Pi Theatre and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre as "an unflinching satire of politics gone wrong in the Great White North." What's gone wrong here is the political satire itself. As Rob Ford might say: Gone Very. Very. Very. Wrong.
Devine's confusing play takes place in at least three different dimensions on Yvan Morissette's handsome futuristic set, parts of which serve as screens for Candelario Andrade's video. What seems like it should be the main plot is set in the Canadian Arctic port of Resolute in the near-future, just before the tightly contested 2015 federal election. When a right-wing blogger (Josette Jorge) gets a photo of an apparent Chinese nuclear attack submarine just offshore and brings it to a ranting talk-radio host (Robert Moloney), broadcasting for some strange reason from a studio in Resolute, a fixer from the Prime Minister's office (Sean Devine) arrives to put a lid on things. If the story goes public it could foil Harper's re-election.
Intercut with this is a plot involving a mysterious "special study group" meeting in Resolute in 1965, run by a couple of humorless technocrats (Lucia Frangione and Jorge again). Their agenda is to "objectively" examine what would happen in the event of "permanent peace." Moloney plays a scientist invited to attend. Appalled by the terrifying political implications of the group's conclusions, he hands over a copy of their secret report to a character played by Devine. The only part of this that registered with me was a reference to once infamous (now long forgotten) American Cold Warrior Herman Kahn, who argued that after a nuclear war, food spoiled by radioactivity should be fed to elderly people because they would die of other causes anyway.
The relationship between these two time frames is unclear. Except for their ugly clothes, the 1965 characters appear to have access to the same high-tech systems as the 2015 characters, and director Richard Wolfe's fuzzy transitions don't help.
But no matter, because the play's real interest is a series of live and videotaped scenes of the actors and director playing themselves, rehearsing and discussing Except in the Unlikely Event of War. These segments feature self-consciously arch acting and a plot of sorts involving Robert Moloney's apparent celebrity. Moloney plays himself as a self-important prima donna actor who has given up thousands of dollars of TV salary to do Sean Devine's play, which he doesn't really understand. As he says in a particularly frustrated moment, "What the fuck is the point of theatre if nobody even knows what it's about?!"
That's a good question. There's another that I'd address to the playwright and director: what's the point of doing political satire if you're only going to turn it into a long, unfunny, self-referential joke about yourself and your friends? Somewhere in here is a potentially sharp, funny play about the kinds of political deception and manipulation Harper and company have turned into an art form.
Moloney is very good as all three of his characters but Jorge's most interesting role, as the blogger, is barely developed. Frangione, an excellent actor, is practically invisible. The fact that she gets to complain about her small part on video doesn't make it any better.
Devine appears in about every second scene and overacts like crazy.