The Civil Service and Its Discontents
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The Civil Service and Its Discontents

The Public Servant offers more laughs than enlightenment as it exposes the lives of Canada’s bureaucrats.

Common Boots and Nightwood Theatre's The Public Servant stars, from left to right, Amy Keating, Amy Rutherford, and Sarah McVie as federal employees  Photo by Neil Silcox

Common Boots and Nightwood Theatre’s The Public Servant stars, from left to right, Amy Keating, Amy Rutherford, and Sarah McVie as federal employees. Photo by Neil Silcox.

The Public Servant
Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs to April 3
Tickets: $18 – $35

Queer maverick Quentin Crisp famously titled his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant. That also would be a great alternate title for The Public Servant, the new comedy by Common Boots and Nightwood, if only thanks to a wacky dance scene in which Amy Keating strips to her underwear. Keating plays Madge, an eager-to-please new government employee whose superiors have advised her to adopt more conforming attire. So, like a colourful caterpillar turning into a dull moth, she exuberantly shucks off her student garb (hiking boots, sloppy sweater) and proceeds to don a business outfit from Reitmans—managing to execute a cartwheel or two in the process.

It’s one of the delightful bits of physical theatre in this highly entertaining, if only moderately revealing, play based on the experiences of real civil servants. Creators Jennifer Brewin, Haley McGee, Sarah McVie, and Amy Rutherford descended on Ottawa and grilled its government employees about what it’s like to toil in the Byzantine bowels of bureaucracy. We shouldn’t be surprised that the material they emerged with turned out to be the stuff of comedy. Or, given they did their interviews under the old Harper regime, that the underlying tone is one of frustration and futility.

Keating’s Madge, a farmer’s daughter from Saskatchewan, is a lover of all things Canadian and wants to serve her country by shaping policies. She ends up in the federal agriculture department among scientists, engineers, and a whole lot of paper pushers. Her supervisor is the cheerily efficient Lois (McVie), who initiates her in the mysteries of the office-supplies closet. Both women answer to the vinegary veteran Cynthia (Rutherford), who suffers from dyspepsia and a lack of basic computer skills.

We follow Madge as she drafts her first memo—an intricate document about transporting asparagus—and then later helps craft a major policy paper. The typical bureaucratic headaches are chronicled—the need for countless signatures, the meddling of middle managers—along with a few unexpected revelations. It turns out that when you’re writing massive documents on public policy, it’s wise to do a find-and-replace search for the word “pubic” before submitting it.

The play also offers glimpses into the lives of its government drones. McVie’s Lois, a middle-aged single mom, is dating a military man at Petawawa; aware of her dwindling romantic options, she’s trying rather desperately to keep an open mind. Rutherford’s Cynthia, bitter at the current state of government affairs, waxes rhapsodic about her salad days during Pierre Trudeau’s reign, when policy making was like a hot jam session. Keating’s Madge, meanwhile, sees her own youthful idealism being slowly shredded like so many abruptly-scuttled policy papers.

The script is witty (and especially scathing in a scene involving the inanities of “downsizing”), but it never gets into the nitty-gritty of policy work. By keeping the women’s big project somewhat vague, it prevents us from sharing in Madge’s passion and anger when it’s thwarted. We’re not entirely sure what’s at stake, so we don’t really care.

It’s the three actresses, with their deft characterizations, that make the show. McVie’s Lois beams with sunny self-deception, meticulously making diet plans as she waits in the Tim Hortons lineup. Keating’s Madge is like Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath with motivation; she has a priceless scene trying to record her bilingual voicemail greeting without sounding like a dork.

But it’s Rutherford who surprises us. We’ve seen her do fine work in such shows as Infinity (Tarragon), A Beautiful View (Volcano), and Divisadero (Necessary Angel), but who knew about her chameleon skills? Here, she not only plays the perpetually irritable Cynthia, but also three other employees. They include two men: Gary, a handsome, hotshot senior analyst, and the soon-to-retire Vic, a creaky structural engineer who likes to give the ladies in the office impromptu massages. (Did we call him creaky? Maybe that should be creepy.)

Common Boots artistic boss Brewin, who directed the show, has given her cast all kinds of clever physical business, helped by designer Anna Treusch’s mutable office set. When Lois takes Madge on a tour of her new workplace, McVie and Keating continually manipulate some partitions to suggest an endless labyrinth of hallways as well as that narrow supplies closet. But Brewin lets things sag near the end with a long choreographed sequence depicting the building of the policy paper, which grows tedious before reaching its final sight gag.

The Public Servant was originally staged in Ottawa last June, with co-creator McGee in the role of Madge. No doubt the play accurately caught the demoralized mood of the public service in the waning days of the Harper administration. Now we must assume that mood has changed to optimism with Pierre’s boy Justin in power. At the very least, the old Cynthias and young Madges have less to despair about these days. Brewin and company may need to go back and do some new interviews.