If you were to douse yourself in maple syrup, peameal bacon, and poutine, while shouting “O Canada” at the top of your lungs, you couldn’t beat The Public Servant at Canadian-ness. This Ottawa-pleasing show, produced by the Great Canadian Theatre Company in association with Theatre Columbus, aims to shine a light on the life of government servitude while still noting its faults and somehow enlightening the audience by the end.
Madge (Haley McGee), Canada’s #1 fan, loves Canada so much she decides to work for the government. There she meets and works with Lois (Sarah McVie), a single mother hoping to find love with her new beau, and Cynthia (Amy Rutherford), the senior manager in the office, who has become cynical after years on the job. As Madge makes her way through the maze-like layers of bureaucracy, meeting many colourful people — all played by Rutherford– along the way, she finally settles into her new job. However, she soon loses touch with her real life and becomes fully invested in her work. This becomes apparent as she attends her first happy hour aiming to make friends, but speaks of nothing but work-related topics. Soon, Madge, Lois, and Cynthia are charged with an important memo about asparagus. As they complete stacks upon stacks of paperwork, Madge gets more and more invested. This ultimately becomes her downfall, as their project becomes irrelevant after one phone call from further up the bureaucratic food chain. From there, Madge is forced to make a choice — to stay or go.
The set (Anna Treusch) is simple yet clever, its rolling dividers and tables a funny and creative way to depict the labyrinth that is this workplace environment. As McGee and McVie perform their office corridor waltz, they go for the easy laughs. The series of long-winded government-related jokes are executed with delayed punch lines, but always meet with a house full of laughter. The main fault with the show (co-written by the three performers and director Jennifer Brewin) is that is caters to its audience too well. Those outside the public service could easily get lost. It’s like sitting at the popular table in high school, but being the token minority. You can laugh at some things, but you can’t relate to 95% of what’s going on.
Ultimately, Cynthia’s monologue about leaving her job is the stand-out moment of the play. In the strongest of her many characterizations, Rutherford earnestly reveals how after all her years in service, Cynthia’s passion has weathered down into hatred. At that moment, the authors aren’t going for the gags, and they let Rutherford create the much-needed shift in the atmosphere to transition into the story’s conclusion.
The Public Servant is perfect for Ottawa. It depicts the life of the stranger on Bank St. just trying to get by. However, its place in Canada’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival is questionable. It’s a pigeon-holed lens, accessible to the local rather than the international audience.
The Public Servant
Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), co-developed with Theatre Columbus
By Kayla Clarke