Review: Unsettling Behaviour forces audience to question compliance

Sarah Kitz and Zoë Sweet in a scene from Behaviour on at the GCTC. Photo: Andrew Alexander

If this is life on Parliament Hill, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done. More to the point, if this is life for women – and not just women on the Hill – it’s a mystery why they didn’t give up long ago and just let the human race wither away.

Behaviour, by Ottawa’s Darrah Teitel and now having its world premiere at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, spotlights the convulsed working and personal life of Mara, a staffer for the Gender Equity Critic. (Teitel, who says the three-segment play is not her own story, was for several years a staffer for the NDP critic for The Status of Women and Indigenous Affairs).

Played by the very credible Zoë Sweet, Mara is smart and nervous. A dearth of self-confidence – her customary posture is apologetically pigeon-toed and hunched as though expecting a blow; her go-to word is ‘Sorry’ — makes Mara a target for anyone with a taste for power, be it organizational, sexual or otherwise. That includes her unseen and uncaring boss and her noxiously self-absorbed boyfriend/husband Evan (Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard), who fantasizes about joining the Conservative party and at one point declares, “I want a power suit!” There’s also Jordan, the buttoned-down, queer chief of staff played briskly by Sarah Kitz, whose attentions to Mara ultimately prove to be merely expedient.

Played out on a cold, white set designed by Shannon Lea Doyle, life on all fronts goes badly for Mara. She’s hemmed in by people and structures that seem to exist solely for their own benefit and she witnesses her well-intentioned efforts get swallowed up by purely political considerations (you ask yourself, “Do any of these people ever think about actually serving the public good?”). She has a child but decides to take just four months of maternity leave. The lazy Evan, meanwhile, plays every lousy card known to man, from whiny guilt tripping to considerably darker ones.

Mara, whose timidity at once annoys and elicits empathy in the viewer, grows ever more isolated. She loses her job. Her voice, never much listened to anyway, is further stilled.

The play, directed by Michael Wheeler, then shifts. Mara, alone on the stage, delivers an analysis of rape that reveals it in all its ghastly variations, from abuse of the body to abuse of the mind. Presented with a kind of cold-blooded fury (Teitel channels rage throughout the play), it’s by far the show’s most powerful scene, one that will leave many revisiting moments of their lives to wonder if they were ever an unwitting perpetrator or victim.

In a third and final shift, we find Mara and her infant son living in a haphazardly furnished apartment with her caustic grandmother, Lydia (the casually excellent Deena Aziz), a character not previously introduced. It’s a frequently funny segment, but one that bites as it expands on Teitel’s themes. As before, behaviour is the manifestation of ingrained messages about gender roles, sexuality, power and relationships, and rape is both metaphor and brutal physical reality.

The play ends with an uncertain resolution, which feels closer to real life than Mara’s erstwhile job on the Hill ever did.

The problem with all this is not the subject matter, which playwright and production tackle with insight and conviction. Rather, it’s the way Teitel has allowed that subject matter – including the fragmentation of Mara’s identity that results from forces larger than she – to overwhelm the play. The result is an awkward, three-part construction that feels designed to make Teitel’s points more than it is an organic part of the story. There’s too little cohesion between the segments, and that confuses and jars.

Teitel has also packed too much into her story, introducing elements like a reference to an abuse case at Mara’s workplace that serve no real purpose other than thematic ones.

Still, Behaviour unsettles and forces us to question ourselves and our compliance with existing structures. That’s a step forward.

Behaviour is produced in partnership with SpiderWebShow Performance. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until March 31. Tickets and information: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196,

The show will also be streamed free worldwide on March 27 at in honour of World Theatre Day.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.