As her employees file out the door for their no-more-than-one-hour lunch, Anna (Mishelle Cuttler, also the composer)—lyrically hailed a "micro-managing abusive bitch" only minutes before—flips open her desk to reveal a keyboard and launches into a heartbreaking ballad about the "cold double standard" imposed on ambitious women. "The fool who thought the boy's club had room for one more," she sings. "I'm your friendly neighbourhood bitch next door." This is the point where Stationary: A Recession-Era Musical—a Vancouver-born musical about six twenty-somethings trapped in a soul-sucking office that functions as nothing more than a "glorified email-forwarding service"—begins to shed its light-hearted veneer; caricatures reveal their complicated humanity, tropes are deconstructed. Up until this point, Anna is decidedly unsympathetic—she's mean, passive aggressive, her father is the boss, and she shames her best employee for the length of her skirt. But playwright Christine Quintana is not content to let Anna be just a villain: by the end of the play, even if I didn't agree with her decisions, I understood her and I felt sorry for her. In "Bitch Next Door", Anna wonders if she can change. In the penultimate scene, she explains to an employee that she decided to promote him—over the aforementioned short-skirted (and better-qualified) female candidate—because the office needed a "good cop." The devastating subtext is that Anna does not believe she could ever be more than the bad one.
All six main characters are deconstructed in a similar way—for example, the romantic tension between Lizzie (Quintana), the receptionist and quintessential office sweetheart, and Aiden (Anton Lipovetsky), the aspiring NGO employee / people-pleasing-hero-in-training, takes a nice turn when Aiden's overwhelming need for everyone to like him hurts both his career and the woman he claims to love (albeit in a small way, but in an office, grains of sand can feel as insurmountable as mountains). Every character in Quintana's clever script is intensely relatable. Yes, these are first-world, university-educated, healthy, young people working in what superficially might be considered a decent job, but they are anchored by student loans, the “yoga and sushi-swilling succubus of a city” they call home, and the numbing recognition that their childhood dreams are not just on hold, they might never be realized. The gap between who they wish to be and who they grows endlessly wider. As Britta (Claire Hesselgrave) shouts: "They may be first world problems, but they're MINE."
The music is varied and excellent; highlights include "Waltz", where all six characters apologize to their eight-year-old selves, and clever office wordplay in "Little Spoon"—“But I file away my feelings when I see you every day / hoping to find the human resources to say that I will be your little spoon.” Brian Cochrane adds some hilarious and smart lyrics to the two rap numbers—the first song will make you roll your eyes, but it pays off in the follow-up. (You can check out and buy the original soundtrack here).
The final song ("Tomorrow My Friend") is a powerful gut-punch. It's worth mentioning that I had a very different interpretation than my partner, who I took to Tuesday's show. As we left, amid our praise, I mentioned that I found the ending depressing.
"What are you talking about?" he said. "There's hope—they sing about tomorrow, they can still change, there's always tomorrow."
"But tomorrow never comes," I replied.
A quick review of the promotional material for the show suggests that his interpretation is closer to the show's intentions (and since I think I've failed to mention how funny Stationary is, let me emphasize this now—the audience for opening night was laughing hysterically throughout and there was a well-deserved standing ovation). On a hunch, I asked him which character he identified with most. He said Brad (Brian Cochrane), who, by the end of the play, pragmatically finds a way to experience smaller aspects of his dreams through his job. The character I identified with most was Britta.
Of all the characters, Britta is the most stationary—she's given up hope. As she sings: "The girl who skipped class and drew on the walls / now sits at a desk and feel nothing at all." Britta is the angry heart of the show. She represented what I picture to be the worst version of myself, she bubbles beneath my skin, that part of me (of us all) that is too scared to take a risk, that is too trapped to move forward, and yet too angry and unhappy to find the best in her situation. At I left the Cultch, I believed that the other five characters had moved in some way (two in major ways, three in smaller ones), but that Britta was still stationary. I worried she would sing about tomorrow forever.
Go see this.
Stationary: A Recession-Era Musical will be at the Cultch in Vancouver until May 2, 2015.
Produced by Christine Quintana for Delinquent Theatre
Book and Lyrics by Christine Quintana
Music by Mishelle Cuttler
Rap Lyrics by Brian Cochrane
Directed by Chelsea Haberlin (with original direction by Laura McLean)