by Lynn on March 17, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Jennifer Brewin, Haley McGee, Sarah McVie and Amy Rutherford.
Directed by Jennifer Brewin
Set and costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Martin Conboy
Sound by Michael Rinaldi
Choreography by Kate Alton
Cast: Amy Keating
Sarah McVie
Amy Rutherford

A deeply perceptive, funny and realistic look inside the tangled world of the public servant. The production is dandy.

The Story. The show is a distillation of hours of interviews the creators of the show did with actual public servants in Ottawa. It is a glimpse into what these public servants do; why they do it; how they cope or not; how idealism and realism are both at play; the many and various personalities they have to deal with in order to get their work done; and the soul-crushing bureaucracy they have to contend with to do their jobs.

Madge is an, enthusiastic, eager young woman who loves everything about Canada; has travelled the country from coast to coast; knows the flowers representing each province; has two degrees in science and wants nothing more than to work as a public servant.

Lois is a middle aged woman working in the same department that Madge does. She has a life outside the department. She is dating a man named Roger and seems to pin many hopes on the relationship. She is also a member of Weight Watchers but her determination to lose weight is lapsing. Lois is the woman who shows Madge around the department and introduces her to the many and various characters who work there.

Cynthia is the senior public servant in the department. She’s worked there many years, has seen it all and it’s left its mark. Cynthia can never find her glasses, whether they are on the top of her head or she is wearing them. She is confused about what memos she should have and which ones are out of date. She follows the directives from on high, no matter how changeable, without rancour until she can’t stand it any longer.

The Production. Director Jennifer Brewin and her sterling cast of actresses have captured the frenzied pace of the public servant’s job: researching, investigating, analyzing, making recommendations in their written reports and shredding. Information is needed immediately. The public servants spring into action, serving. They agonize over every word they write in memos and reports that are meant for the higher ups who make the decisions and have to sign off on a document. They wait anxiously to see if the memo or report will be accepted and are resigned when their work is edited beyond recognition and their recommendations ignored.

The many and various locations are established quickly and efficiently by a series of moveable sturdy office partitions manoeuvred by the cast. Positioned one way and the partitions represent the maze of corridors in the department; positioned another way and they become offices with a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet and a keyboard representing the computer.

Madge adds a tiny cactus to her spartan office. Lois has candy for the department to share, although she probably finishes it off before anyone has a chance to partake. Cynthia peers around her partition to see what everyone is doing.

Each actress illuminates the essence of their characters. As Madge, Amy Keating is a bundle of enthusiastic, eager energy. She reports to work with optimism, to begin her new job as an analyst public servant. As she follows Lois around the long and winding corridors, you can see the concern on Madge’s face—will she ever remember the way back on her own?

Madge is given an assignment which she attacks with gusto. She is curious about what her research will be for, but is told she can’t be told. She works furiously on her keyboard, researching, thinking, and coming up with a pristine document. When the analysis and suggestions are cut she fights for her points. She is concerned for the public that ignoring the research will have a detrimental effect in the long run. The higher ups don’t care. Saving money is more important. Madge quickly learns the nature of her job—it isn’t service to the public; it’s service to people in authority in the department who change their mind on a project as quickly as reams of reports are being produced on the project. Keating gives a buoyant performance of a woman who tackles everything with gusto and enthusiasm but soon realizes her aims and the job’s reality are two entirely different things.

Lois is a woman who has a certain amount of authority and is almost confident with it. She knows there is always someone over her with more authority. Madge has to go through Lois for any directive. Sarah McVie plays Lois with a smile and easy manner. The smile gets tighter and more revealing as she talks about the man she’s dating—you feel her need that this must work out. And you know her slavish devotion to adding up the points of the food she eats (hello Weight Watchers) will end in weight-gaining frustration. Lois is a woman who doesn’t live for her job but through McVie’s subtle performance we realize there isn’t much else going for Lois. McVie also plays a cold, unkind, insensitive bureaucrat giving Madge some bad news. McVie plays this with laser-beam accuracy.

Amy Rutherford plays Cynthia the senior officer in the office and many other cameo performances as well. Vic is a civil servant well past his ‘best by’ date. He’s stooped, slow, soon to retire and ‘grabby’—he gives the women in the department shoulder rubs whether they want them or not. Gary’s claim to fame is that he reminds people of a ‘young’ Kevin Costner. Gary is a sleaze who takes advantage and credit of the hard work of others. Irena is a self-absorbed Russian scientist working in the department and couldn’t care less about her colleagues. Amy Rutherford plays them all with distinction changing wigs, clothes, body language and attitude. As Cynthia she is formal, officious, a bit confused and has the culture of the department so ingrained she just accepts any directive with resignation. While Madge fights for her work and its value to the public, Cynthia takes the party line. The fight is gone. When we realize just how much the fight is gone at the end of the play, it’s startling and sobering.

Comment. Jennifer Brewin and her gifted cast have created a production that zeros in on the specific and particular world of the public servant. They capture the changing attitudes through the main characters at different stages in their careers: the idealistic person starting out eager to serve; the middle aged person who follows the party line, and the senior public servant biding her time until retirement and finding she can’t wait that long to get out.

And by focusing specifically on this one job, Brewin and company have made a universal statement. Anybody who has toiled in any administration job will recognize themselves in these characters and will relive and share all the frustrations and idealistic good will, and lots of laughs.

Personally The Public Servant had me recalling my ‘other’ administrative life in an educational institution, from which I recently retired. The experience had me laughing in recognition at all the many and various aspects of the job and in dealing with frustrating bureaucracy. But it also had me break into a sweat and almost hyperventilate for the same reasons. Effective, smart theatre does that.

The Public Servant does us all a public service by shining a light on unsung heroes who do this kind of work.

Produced by Common Boots Theatre (formerly Theatre Columbus) in association with Nightwood Theatre.

: March 16, 2016.
Closes: April 3, 2016.
Cast: 3 gifted women.
Running Time: 80 minutes.

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