Did you know there’s an election happening right now in Canada? You might have missed it. Pretty low-key. Theatre New Brunswick has had its eyes on it for awhile now. Since April, actually. That’s when artistic director Natasha MacLellan announced TNB’s 2019/2020 season would open with Michael Healey’s political comedy 1979.
Now here we are, just a few days before voters head to the polls. It is the opening night of 1979. Election chatter can be heard in TNB’s Open Space Theatre.
In Healey’s 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark (Jeff Dingle) is minutes away from losing a crucial vote in parliament. Minister of Finance John Crosbie (Kevin Curran) is ready to do anything and everything to save his budget. Meanwhile, foreign minister Flora MacDonald (Sarah O’Brecht) is focused on the extraction of six American hostages in Iran. Clark thinks the entire operation is ridiculous. A Canadian film crew scouting locations for a film? It’ll never work! (The real-life event was adapted for the film Argo, starring Ben Affleck.)
Built into the play is projected text, which is shown here on the back wall behind Clark’s desk (Matt Carter, Sound and Projection Designer). The text introduces the political figures who swing by Clark’s office. Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau are among those visitors. It also provides useful background information about the broader context in which the play’s events are happening. So, audience members are not only filled in about the politics leading to Clark’s short-tenure as Prime Minister, but also the aftermath of his loss in the 1980 election. Yes, there’s a lot of reading, but Healey brings life to the text with wit and humour. Imagine VH1’s Pop-Up Video. It’s kinda like that.
At its core, 1979 is about an ordinary person trying to do the right thing while everyone watches in complete disbelief, because yikes. Almost everyone wants to pull their hair out while talking with Clark about the impending vote. So many strategies on the table and yet, Clark remains firm in his convictions. He doesn’t want to do the right thing the wrong way. We can laugh at how many times Clark refuses to budge from his position, but damn if there isn’t something admirable in being such an immovable object.
On its surface, the play depicts the demise of Clark’s minority government forty years ago, but it also raises questions about power and leadership. You know, the kind of things to chew on during an election season. The kind of things to think about while you’re scrolling through your newsfeed.
Do you need a degree in political science to enjoy 1979? Nah. It might enhance your experience, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Do you need some patience near the end when the play dives into a drawn-out lecture about politics vs. policy? Yes. You might feel like you’re back in your second-year political science course that was required to graduate.
MacLellan’s direction sees the production lean closer to wacky comedy about an awkward politician than a comedic look at a young politician’s naiveté, which becomes his undoing. In going down that path, the production has a hard time convincing us that Clark truly stands behind his beliefs. The inevitability of Clark’s fate in office defeats the play itself — a problem inherit in the script. TNB’s production does little in the way of spicing things up with some tension between Clark and those who want him to break his own rules. The physical comedy is fun, sure, but the underlying foundation is shaky.
There is a gravitas missing in Clark’s words. Yes, Dingle is playing someone who was considered a nobody, but does he have to be so passive here? That aside, the actor is enjoyable to watch in this episode of a political sitcom. Dingle’s eyebrow game is strong. It’s fun to watch his character’s facial expressions as he patiently hears everyone’s two cents.
O’Brecht makes a splash with her enormous stage presence. Her interpretation of Mulroney as some slick used car salesman is hilarious. O’Brecht’s performance has Laurie Elliott and Kate McKinnon written all over it. And then there’s Curran whose John Crosbie would get along just fine with Chris Farley’s Matt Foley. The actor dresses in drag to play Flora MacDonald in some scenes, with O’Brecht playing the Secretary of State for External Affairs in others.
Andrea Ritchie’s costume design brings the spirit of the 1970s alive. Dingle’s brown corduroy suit is magnificently drab. Set Designer Patricia Vinluan brings elegance, with a dash of retro goodness, to Clark’s office. Ingrid Risk’s lighting design enriches the wood paneling.
With voting day just around the corner, Theatre New Brunswick’s production of 1979 is a fun, sometimes too breezy break from lawn signs and campaign promises.
Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick (Open Space Theatre). The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3.
For more information about the show, including tour dates: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/1979-2/