Monday, June 20, 2011

Fringe Review 3

Fucking Stephen Harper: How I Sexually Assaulted the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada And Saved Democracy

In response to some obvious initial questions: 1) No, he didn't actually fuck Stephen Harper; 2) The Sexual Assault wasn't intentional (and, indeed, that charge was dropped); 3) Yes, that is really the title of the show (and the accompanying book, only $15!)

"Civility", or at least some semblance thereof, is all the rage in the House of Commons these days. With that in mind, perhaps Rob Salerno should consider a career in federal politics. At this point, you may be glancing back at the title of the show, thinking "what the fuck?", but bear with me - I promise I will make myself clear in due course. The title of Fucking Stephen Harper... is about as vulgar as the show ever gets. Therein lies what I believe to be the show's greatest strength, but also a potential weakness. Left-leaning partisans looking to exorcise their post-election ya-yas will quite likely find the show bereft of hoped-for vitriol, and I fear that similar expectations may lead the Harper faithful to give the show a pass altogether. Put another way, the people who will want to see this show may not need to, and the people who need to see this show may not want to. It's a shame because I really, really like the title; it's provocative in the way that a political-comedy Fringe show ought to be. Unfortunately, I wonder if it does not suggest more partisanship than is really at work.

Before the show proper even begins, there is a powerpoint presentation cycling through anti-gay quotes from Conservative Members of Parliament, including Mr. Harper himself. It's blunt, but I enjoy that Salerno is not putting words in anyone's mouth. In fact, that's something I don't recall him doing once during the show. Even after he appears on stage, the powerpoint presentation continues as a visual aid to the show, with relevant articles popping up to underscore important points. Again, he's generally letting the content speak for itself. When he wants to illustrate that the Harper government has done something harmful to GLBT communities in Canada, he brings evidence. He does not rant and rave about any "hidden agenda" - in fact, the anti-gay policies of the Harper Conservatives prove to be anything but hidden.

Now, when I say this, I may be putting words in Salerno's mouth. I enjoy a subtle message he conveys about openly (and not-so-openly) gay members of the Conservative party. It isn't that these candidates are "not gay enough" (in one instance, the Conservatives alleged that Vancouver's Xtra newspaper had said as much). It's that they are members of a party that condones and facilitates the treatment of GLBTQQ* people as second-class citizens in this country. Whether or not gay conservatives are okay with that kind of treatment, it's not what Salerno (and, I would imagine, most gay people?) are going to vote for. He points out around this time that, under regulations brought in by the Conservatives, Cabinet Minister John Baird is not allowed to save lives by donating his organs (you can even join a Facebook group for that). Additionally, under the criminal code of Canada, anal sex still has a different age of consent in ~5 provinces, and all the territories (the others have found the law to be in violation of the charter of rights and freedoms). As he says, it is legal for a 40 year old to have hours of vaginal sex with your 16-year-old daughter in Winnipeg - but not for two men, ages 17 and 21, to consummate a long and committed relationship. Understandably, he does not link a John-Baird related Facebook page on that particular issue.

*Sorry if I left out any letters!

This might not sound very civil, but the whole show is presented very matter-of-factly, and not without some measure of balance. In the opening minutes, Salerno does go out of his way to point out that Stephen Harper's Canada is still in many ways more gay-friendly than the (perceived progressive) Obama's America. He does not froth at the mouth, does not accuse the Conservatives of wanting him dead, and calls them no names worse than "bible thumping". He's not without bias, but he presents his agenda clearly and up-front. He says that if people take away any message from his show, it should be to get involved in politics, and to get more people to care about gay rights (as a subset of human rights, viz "first they came for the gays, and I did not speak up...").

As for the story and the dramatic component of the show, they definitely take a back seat to the political lessons of the show. That being said, Fucking Stephen Harper
has the strongest emotional core of the three plays I've seen thus far, all of them very grounded in facts and figures. Salerno's motivations are not incredibly complex, but they really don't have to be. It's easy to understand how Salerno - as an aspiring journalist - would feel driven to great lengths to get answers from the man who threatens his livelihood (and, by extension, all our livelihoods - see the last parenthetical note). As he is stonewalled at every turn, frustration builds to the point where the now-infamous ambush becomes inevitable.

In the end, Fucking Stephen Harper is worth seeing. The story is good, the wit is dry, and the political humour plays well in Ottawa.

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