“The satirist’s most effective weapon is irony,” Arthur Koestler reminds us in his 1964 classic The Act of Creation. “Its aim is to defeat the opponent on his own ground by pretending to accept his premises, his values, his methods of reasoning, in order to expose their implicit absurdity.
“Irony purports to take seriously what it does not; it enters into the spirit of the other person’s game to demonstrate that its rules are stupid or vicious. It is a subtle weapon.”
If Koestler had been able to look into the future, he would probably have cited Rising Tide Theatre as an exemplary practitioner of the form.
Rising Tide Theatre’s Revue 2016 kicked off its provincial tour last week, and the annual production continues to entertain and delight the St. John’s audience which got first crack at it. Revue offers a satirical recap of key figures and events in the past year of provincial politics and other doings, through a fast-paced combination of musical acts and sketch comedy.
The past year provided Revue’s team with no shortage of material. From the moment veteran trouper Rick Boland staggers onstage carrying the literal weight of the world on his artificially muscled shoulders, the action targets the foibles of the past year of Liberal governance in Newfoundland and Labrador. A musical spoof of “American Pie” puts it bluntly: “Bye-bye Liberal lie / Sold my Chevy for the levy because my wallet was dry / Did you have to tax the book of love?” You get the idea.
Revue’s greatest strength this year was, as it often is, its musical elements. From a rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart (Dwight Ball: “I was totally screwed from the start!”) to a lively folk spoof tuned to Muskrat Falls (“Even when we’re halfway up / We’re really halfway down”), the musical comedy is lively, compelling and sarcastically biting. The viewer is torn between tapping their toes, laughing their lungs out or sobbing at the naked truths unveiled; the audience invariably does all three.
Two extended sketches stand out. A multi-song parody of Little Shop of Horrors—Little Flop of Horrors—is themed around Muskrat Falls, with Nalcor as the ravenous man-eating plant (“Feed me! Feed me!”). The growing number of Indigenous Peoples and Labradorians who are being legally prosecuted by Nalcor may not find much to laugh at in the situation, but Rising Tide aptly portray Nalcor and Muskrat Falls as the destructive beast that must be destroyed.
Another skit offers an Alice in Wonderland themed piece, with Cathy Bennett as the evil queen (“Off with their heads!”), Ed Martin as the Cheshire Cat (“comes and goes as he pleases”) and Telegram reporter James McLeod as the dormouse. A rendition of “White Rabbit” (Dwight Rabbit) is the icing on the cake.
While some skits are stronger than others, Revue continues to deliver pithy one-liners that do just what Koestler said irony is meant to do: expose the “implicit absurdity” of our political leaders and their policies. Muskrat Falls: “It’s like an upside-down carton of cold molasses. It just keeps coming…We can’t afford it, but we can’t afford to not afford it.” Dwight Ball and his policy consultations: “We were very adamant that we survey everyone who shares our foregone conclusions.” There’s plenty of others, but you’ll have to go see the show for them.
So far as revue programs go—other jurisdictions do them too—Rising Tide’s Revue series is without a doubt among the world’s best. This is partially due to the consistently absurd government policies that give them so much fodder each year; but it has just as much to do with the talent of its cast and crew (this year’s cast also includes Jim Payne, Tina Randell, Bernadine Stapleton, Amelia Manuel, and Michael Power).
Let’s be critical too
As talented as Revue is, it’s useful to reflect on what role shows like Revue actually play in our society, and whose interest they draw. The Revue tours do quite well, by all appearances—the one I attended looked to be almost, but not entirely, full, yet its audience is visibly older; younger folk were remarkably sparse. The friendly woman I sat next to informed me she and her husband had been attending Revue since 1985, its inaugural year.
Some of Revue’s age demographic appeal can be attributed to the excessively high cost of theatre tickets (a problem compounded by the provincial government’s fee hikes on theatre and other forms of entertainment), which has priced most youth out of the theatre. It’s a tragic trend as it means many of our province’s youth have no choice but to turn to Netflix and other American entertainment since they can’t afford to enjoy our own local talents and provincially-produced creations. Little wonder Revue turned its scathing wit on Ball and Bennett’s backward-minded shenanigans this year.
But one also has to wonder whether part of the youth absence has to do with the shifting demographic and mindset of the province, too. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about seniors and sex, and trying to make people laugh at supersized bay accents has long comprised an important part of Newfoundland humour, but like all forms of humour it comes with an expiry date, and that date may be fast approaching.
A growing portion of our population no longer finds the notion of seniors having sex something to laugh at, finds little to laugh at in mental health jokes (“Sleep all day? You’re not depressed – you’re a cat!”), and takes pride in their accents without feeling defined by them.
Humour relies on manipulating the audience’s sense of what’s ridiculous, and what was considered ridiculous 20 years ago is by no means today. Last year’s production, with skits poking fun at Caitlyn Jenner among others, caused controversy and offense and led to some of the younger people in the audience walking out in disgust. Fortunately, Rising Tide seems to have taken this lesson to heart.
Humour such as this is also remarkably white and Anglo-Irish in a province which, more and more every day, is no longer that. Whether as a result of growing diversity in our population, or the fact that our youth are raised in the multinational ether of the web, humour rooted in white, Anglo-Irish values and traditions speaks to a slowly shrinking segment of our population.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with appealing to that segment of Newfoundland society, and making them laugh, a show meant to speak to the province should acknowledge its greater diversity, which has changed tremendously in the past 20 years.
And while the only skit that featured Indigenous Peoples was one critical of the Muskrat Falls project that threatens Innu and Inuit communities in Labrador, there is certainly room for more Indigenous content.
Revue writers fared well in satirizing class divides in our society, with some of the more potent skits targeting upper-class louts who move to the bay in search of clotheslines and ‘getting back to the land’, while others showcase the dangers of tourists being given priority and better treatment over locals.
We ought to also give thought to how much of our humour seems to rely on the extravagant deployment of local accents and sayings. We used to showcase these things as a way to claim pride in the face of our province’s marginalization on the national stage, but today’s generations have a broader and complex range of concerns. The accents and traditional attitudes we once defiantly showcased are now among the very tools being used against us in an effort to monetize and sell our culture. Are there new and more challenging ways we can be humorous without buying into stereotypes and caricatures?
To be fair, Revue recognizes the problem to a degree, poking fun at government’s obsession with tourists and with stereotyping traditional culture. Yet the show relies on similar stereotyping in order to sell tickets.
We don’t just laugh because there’s nothing else we can do; we laugh because we know how ridiculous the status quo is, and how urgently it needs to be changed once and for all.
And as potent and scathing as Revue’s satire can be, it’s tempered with that timeless technique which undermines the power of dissenting commentary, and which our own Newfoundland and Labrador folk culture is terrible for—a sort of ‘grin-and-bear-it’ mentality. A ditty toward the end of this year’s Revue features a verse proclaiming “Some years are jewels, and some years are gold / And some years are nothing but sawdust and coal / Still we think someday our dreams will come true,” an affirmation that this province’s social, political and economic woes may be terrible right now, but that’s just our lot in life. Next year might be better, just hold on and wait.
Time-tested and true folk logic, for a society that thinks itself incapable of changing anything.
It’s disappointing when satire disarms itself with such apolitical shrugs. We don’t just laugh because there’s nothing else we can do; we laugh because we know how ridiculous the status quo is, and how urgently it needs to be changed once and for all. Finding humour in the absurdity of our status quo doesn’t mean we should resign ourselves to the powerless acceptance of years of sawdust and coal.
We mustn’t forget that satire isn’t just for entertainment; it also serves an educational and social levelling function. We laugh at our political leaders not just because they’re funny, and not just to encourage them to laugh at themselves sometimes, but also to help them realize their ridiculousness and encourage them to change their course.
We make fun of ourselves not just to say in the end, “Oh well, better luck next time,” but to also recognize our agency and ability to evolve as a people, a province, and to respond as responsible citizens to political and economic institutions that are culpable for the very plight that is the source of both our collective grief and Revue’s satirical success.
If this musing sounds like harsh love, it’s because we love Revue and what it has given Newfoundland and Labrador over the years. Regardless of the province’s changing dynamic, the production will continue to pack theatres and play an important role in our society and culture for some time.
This year’s show is well worth catching, but let’s hope that in the years to come its talented producers, writers and cast continue to challenge not only politicians, but also themselves.
Revue will tour through Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook, Stephenville, Gander, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador West, Bonavista, Carbonear, and St. John’s before its final show in Trinity on March 10. Visit the Arts and Culture Centre website for more information, including dates and ticket sales.
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.