Arts

Behaviour stars Zoë Sweet as Mara, right, a political staffer and new mother struggling to be both. Photo: Andrew Alexander.

Behaviour tells difficult but important story of sexual violence

Behaviour is difficult to sit through, not because it’s bad (it’s actually well-written and well-acted) but because of its painful subject matter (deserving of a neon-sign content warning).

On the surface, it’s the story of shy, fearful Mara (Zoë Sweet) navigating the scandal-ridden life of a staffer on the Hill alongside a biting Chief of Staff (Sarah Kitz as Jordan) while she also raises an unexpected child with her irresponsible artist boyfriend-then-husband (University of Ottawa alumnus Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard as Evan).

Between its three leads (and a late addition in the form of Deena Aziz as Mara’s grandmother) there is enough personal and professional intrigue to earn the play’s description as being about “the abuse of power, political expediency, and the masks we wear to carry on as if everything is as it should be.

I think, acutely aware of my privilege as a white cisgender male, the key word here is abuse: Mara is abused by her boyfriend, her politician boss and just about everyone around her, culminating in an extended mental breakdown scene where she describes “the seven types of rape,” the many ways sexual violence has manifested in her life from childhood to present.

Playwright Darrah Teitel, a former Hill staffer herself, writes in the playbill that Mara’s experience is not uncommon.

“At times writing Behaviour has felt like I’m in a three-legged race with public discourse,” she writes. “As #metoo and I limp further towards the goal, we are learning together that the interplay between hierarchy, power, labour and abuse is so commonplace that it’s almost universal.”

“There is nothing particularly unique about Parliament Hill as a venue of this story, although it is worth noting that political staffers are exempt from the Labour Code of Canada due to parliamentary privilege and are therefore exceptionally vulnerable to abuse.”

Behaviour has a wide view beyond Ottawa and the present. This pervasiveness of sexual violence across societies and time periods is given full thematic expression once Mara’s grandmother, Lydia, shares her own experiences from the old country.

“Every woman is raped,” she tells her granddaughter, dismissing Mara’s experiences, while they sit in Lydia’s apartment. “Go home.”

But then Lydia is at other times hilarious, offering cruelly comedic quips between puffs of a cigarette. Because despite the traumatic subject matter, punctuated by an effective and minimalist synth soundtrack, Behaviour also offers razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud wit.

“I got this app to make my brain better at life,” Mara says at one point, laughably summing up the contemporary moment.

Yet even that constant shift in tone, between drama and comedy, has an added effect of unease when will the laughs end and the trauma begin anew?

Behaviour is an experience painfully exploring subject matter that echoes across time, a historical and contemporary reality that forever deserves more attention. So if you feel comfortable sitting through some possibly triggering content, it is well worth the 90-minute showtime and long conversations to follow.

Behaviour is currently playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until March 31. On March 27, it will livestream the performance in honour of World Theatre Day. Tickets and more information can be found online.