When U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence lauded Donald Trump’s pro-life stance during his recent visit to Ottawa, you couldn’t help but wonder if you’d suddenly been spirited back to some earlier decade.
Anti-abortion posturing by Sam Oosterhoff and some other Ontario Conservative MPPs induces the same head shaking.
The Omnibus Bill, the new play by Ottawa’s Darrah Teitel, gives an intimate voice to reproductive rights by going a step further. It plunges us directly into what it was like 50 years ago when women like Maria (Jacqui du Toit) turned to illicit abortions because legal ones in Canada were so hard to come by.
In the process, Teitel’s play tackles a host of other issues, from sex work to the messy, complicated nature of sexual and gender relationships, all of it drawing a dotted line between what happened half a century ago and what continues to this day.
The Omnibus Bill is set primarily in Bowmanville, Ontario in 1969. That was the year that Pierre Trudeau’s government enacted the Justice Omnibus Bill which, among other changes to the Canadian Criminal Code, decriminalized homosexuality. It also permitted abortions, which had been illegal, to be performed if they were for “therapeutic” purposes and approved by a committee of three doctors.
In the play, Maria, a prickly, Portuguese-born hospital cleaner, wants to terminate a pregnancy. The hospital abortion committee rejects her and, like so many other women, she turns to whoever will do the job for her.
As we saw in her play Behaviour at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in March, Teitel is fond of narrative disruption. She does that here by layering in other stories, all connected with Maria’s and with each other.
Sarah (Darcy Gerhart) works in an underground abortion clinic housed in a dank Bowmanville basement. She’s also a performer at the obnoxious Blue Falcon Sex Club and in a relationship with Salvador (Tayves Fiddis), a doctor whose heart appears to be in the right place but whose brain is generally in neutral.
Also on hand: the cynical Vicky (Neta J. Rose), a midwife and a staunch feminist (Teitel is adept at making you think twice about your preconceptions and use of language, including terms like “staunch feminist”). There’s also Howard (Michael Swatton), another doctor and one with a proclivity for niche sex.
Sometimes scenes involving these various characters are played out singly on Patrice-Ann Forbes’ set, which comprises three acting areas (it’s crowded, but director Esther Jun makes good use of it). At other times, one scene falls into shadow as another is enacted (Jun can’t do much with this, and it’s as distracting as a split-screen movie).
Teitel also includes snippets of parliamentary hearings on women’s reproductive rights and other committee proceedings, with the five actors taking on various roles.
As well, we get chunks of late-’60s music — Jim Morrison urging, “Light my fire”; Simon and Garfunkel plaintively singing about sounds of silence — references to back-to-the-landers and being “paranoid,” and other era-setters.
Sound overstuffed? It is. There’s so much going on that even Maria – whose experience of being boxed in by idiotic, punitive mores and laws is at the heart of the story and who is given taut, empathetic voice by du Toit — occasionally gets lost in the welter.
To change eras slightly, it often feels like an early Bruce Springsteen song, where there’s so much happening that your focus is splintered.
Teitel has important, timely things to say. She understands the complexity of finding your way in a world where the old assumptions no longer make sense but continue to hold undue sway. She knows that choices about reproductive rights are as individual and nuanced as are sexual practices. She can write evocative dialogue about love and connections and responsibility.
But, like an omnibus bill, there’s too much here to absorb it all.
The Omnibus Bill is a Counterpoint Players production. It was reviewed Friday. The show is in Arts Court Theatre until June 8. Tickets and information: tacticsottawa.com