Review: '1979' at Alberta Theatre Project

Vicki Trask

  • OnStage Calgary Critic

I need to begin with a small disclaimer: I had the privilege of sitting in on a rehearsal for “1979”. While I will endeavor to offer my opinions on only the opening night performance of this production, I cannot promise to be wholly objective. Prior to observing the finished product on the Martha Cohen stage, I had an idea of what I was about to see. I ask that you read on with that in mind.

Alberta Theatre Project’s final production of the season, the world premiere of“1979” is a three handed, ninety minute play with strong, Canadian roots. It follows Prime Minister Joe Clark’s final moments in office before his Progressive Conservative government would lose over a budget vote. This isn’t a historical retelling by renowned playwright Michael Healey, but rather an administrative “A Christmas Carol”, placing Joe in the centre and letting the various characters drift through his office to offer their tests of strength and morality amidst the political turmoil.

Director Miles Potter delivered a fantastic show. I got it. The choices, the movement; it made sense. Sitting in the audience I often struggle to distinguish between a director’s decision and an actor’s choice but there was rarely I time when I questioned what I was seeing in terms of blocking and pacing.

Joe Clark, played by Philip Riccio was, in a word, sweet; but very one-note. Even at an emotional climax, I didn’t see a change in Philip’s characteristics. Especially in his facial expressions, I wanted more. I saw this sweet, quiet, endearing Joe all the way through.

The other actors took on multiple roles – even sharing the same character. I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher Hunt’s performance as the so named Actor A. Each of his character’s had a distinct voice and movement. He had great focus and didn’t miss a beat. Some of his characters’ movements were similar but I recognize that performing on a raked stage is not the easiest thing in the world.

Of course Actor B, played by Jamie Konchak, also did a fantastic job. I think Jamie made distinct choices and I really admire that, however I don’t necessarily agree with those choices. That one that’s sticking in my head is her Stephen Harper. It sounded like Jamie with a little more grounded movement. I saw a woman in a wig rather than our former Prime Minister.

I admit I lied earlier; there were actually four characters on that stage, one of them being the playwright himself, offering historical footnotes in the form of often lengthy projection slides that instantly pulled my focus from the story and into my grade nine social studies textbook. I understood more jokes than I laughed at and I don’t know if they entirely enhanced my investment in the story. I think the humour and entertainment in “1979” is derived from the nostalgia factor. Nostalgia is not a bad thing in the slightest but it certainly felt alienating as an audience member.

Here’s where I get a little apprehensive. Scott Reid’s set/projection design was good. I didn’t “get it” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Scott’s design of Joe’s office made sense; clean, organized, brown. I have to question the decision to create a raked stage. Did it do more harm than good for the actors and audience members? The projection slides were well timed and were cleanly made (although the bunny slide was very distracting); a logical, visually clean design overall.

And again, for the most part, I loved Jennifer Arsenault’s costume designs. They were period appropriate, easily identifiable and fit the actors well – especially amid all those costume changes. The only one that stuck out to me was Harper’s suit because the cut was very feminine and Jamie already has such feminine shape. It stood out because the other’s looked so fantastic to me.

“1979” was good. The faults I find came mostly from the text and I just don’t believe I was the right audience for this show. I don’t believe theatre should be so exclusive but I am speaking as an outsider who just didn’t get the jokes.