On Monday night, patrons crammed into Theatre Passe Muraille for a quickly organized first-draft reading of Michael Healey's controversial new play, Proud. The sneak peek was an unplanned fundraiser. CBC celeb Mary Walsh (aka Marg Delahunty) was supposed to be well into the run of her solo show, Dancing With Rage. But when she contracted pneumonia, the run had to be cancelled, leaving the theatre in a financial jam.
The beyond-sold-out play-reading began with a piece of good news: Walsh is finally out of the hospital and expected to make a full recovery. But TPM is still out $60,000 in lost revenue because its cancellation insurance doesn't cover solo shows.
Getting Healey, whose classic The Drawer Boy premiered at TPM in 1999, to share Proud as a work-in-progress reading wasn't easy. Apparently, he had to be asked three times.
Even in script form, the play - the third in his trilogy about Canadian values - has sparked controversy. Last year, Richard Rose, artistic director at the Tarragon, chose not to produce Proud, worrying that its main character (a thinly veiled, mildly fictionalized version of Prime Minister Stephen Harper) might be libelous, and attract the same kind of unwanted attention from the PMO that Homegrown did to SummerWorks in 2011.
Last month Healey left his residency at the Tarragon after a decade-long association.
Proud follows an unnamed Canadian prime minister (read by Healey) in the months after the 2011 federal election, with one twist: the Conservatives, rather than the NDP, have unexpectedly swept Quebec, so the Tory majority in Ottawa suddenly includes a number of political neophytes.
Together with his top adviser, Cary (read by Jordan Pettle), the PM attempts to use newcomer Quebec MP Jisbella (read by Jenny Young) - an amalgam of the NDP's Vegas-bound Ellen Brosseau and Sarah Palin - to distract the media while he quietly takes care of some unpopular business. The play takes a hilarious and at times insightful view of who Stephen Harper might be behind all the rhetoric and political manoeuvring.
While it's far too soon to critically assess the play (and remember it's a first draft), Healey's foregrounding of the PM's famously robotic social skills and cold, rationalistic decision-making and micromanagement - more Robert S. McNamara than Machiavelli - is spot on and scored tons of sustained laughter.
Fears of a libel suit probably stem from the coarse language the PM occasionally employs, a scene where he admits he only really cares about one thing, and another where he sort of briefly engages in some awkward foreplay. But the show, far from a crass one-sided hatchet-job, is a nuanced though ultimately critical look at the PM.
After the reading, Healey and director Andy McKim solicited audience feedback and said they'd be mounting the show independently as a one-act later this year ("sometime between Labour Day and Christmas") at a venue to be announced shortly. Healey has set up a Facebook page and website to collect "micro-donations" to fund the production, wryly noting that "we're not going to get government funding for this one."
Theatre Passe Muraille's Dacing Without Mary fundraising programming continues with Songbook Series: Beach Boys (Thursday) and Brick Bros. Circus by the Puppetmongers (Saturday).