Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

the master plan

The Master Plan At Crow’s Theatre

I was familiar with the work of director Chris Abraham mostly through classics like Much Ado About Nothing and Uncle Vanya, so I was eager to see what he would do with The Master Plan, Michael Healey’s new “ripped-from-the-headlines” play at Crow’s Theatre. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s terrific.

The Master Plan is based on “Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy” by Globe and Mail journalist Josh O’Kane. That book is a sober, sprawling, detailed, and meticulously documented account of the doomed attempt by Waterfront Toronto, a quasi-public organization dedicated to revitalizing the Toronto waterfront, to turn a 12-acre, L-shaped sliver of land called Quayside into a testing ground for a “smart city” that would use the latest technology and test new approaches to urban planning.

Sidewalk Labs, an offshoot of Alphabet (née Google), was looking for a way to turn Google founder Larry Page’s utopian visions of an urban paradise into reality and won the contract. Eventually, the project came to be known as Sidewalk Toronto.

If you would like to know the whole story – and it is fascinating – I recommend O’Kane’s book. For the impatient, there’s Wikipedia.

In contrast to the “just the facts, ma’am” approach of “Sideways,” The Master Plan is high comedy and Healey goes to considerable lengths to remind us that what we are seeing is fiction. (In a preshow chat with the audience at the performance I saw Healey mentioned that all it takes to shut down a show is a letter from a lawyer.)

And fictionalized The Master Plan most assuredly is. I was able to spot a number of major liberties taken with O’Kane’s book and I am sure there were many more that escaped my notice. His depiction of most of the major characters is exaggerated and at times cartoonish. I’m pretty sure Meg Davis of Waterfront Toronto never smashed her face into a birthday cake.

Yet for all the liberties Healey has taken in The Master Plan, he has done a masterful job of making the issues, hurdles, roadblocks, misunderstandings, miscommunications, and emotions that plagued the project at every step crystal clear.

As a result, The Master Plan is the ideal accompaniment to reading “Sideways.”

Healey has used a number of ingenious devices to make his points.

The in-the-round set depicts an appropriately L-shaped conference table surmounted by a square hanging canopy of narrow video screens. Each of the four sides displays the same images.

As the play opens an animated cartoon avatar of Chris Abraham, the artistic director of Crow’s, appears on those screens to welcome us and tell us that Crow’s has solved the always knotty problem of gauging audience reaction. Our seats, we are told, contain sensors that measure every shift of our posteriors, microphones detect and record any sounds we make, and the many cameras throughout the theatre record our facial expressions. In this way, the theatre can learn how the show is affecting us “without the mediation of intellect.” It’s a droll metaphor for what Sidewalk Labs hoped to do at Quayside.

“Sideways” has a cast of hundreds. The Master Plan has just seven, all of whom play multiple parts. Healey has chosen four players in the real-life drama (but heavily fictionalized here) to carry the story along – Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs and Meg Davis, Kristina Verner, and Will Fleissig of Waterfront Toronto.

There is so much information to get across that Healey resorts to a narrator to fill in key facts and speed the tale along. That narrator is a tree. Yes, a tree, specifically a Norway maple that sits in a backyard at 134 Yorkminster Road. The device, which Healey also uses to illustrate the absurdity of Toronto city bureaucracy, is every bit as effective as it is wacky and Peter Fernandes carries it off with aplomb.

Another narrator of sorts is the video screen above the stage which constantly updates with organizational charts that reflect the many resignations during the course of events, press headlines, close ups of the major players, and so forth.

Mike Shara is simply brilliant as Doctoroff, one of a long line of American captains of industry whose transparent idiocy never prevents them from getting their way. Healey’s Doctoroff operates on the principle that if you yell loudly and long enough you will prevail.

As Meg Davis, Philippa Domville is a model of rational self-restraint, until she isn’t and when she cracks she does it hilariously. Tara Nicodemo as the occasionally potty-mouthed Kristina Verner has quite a temper on her and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I couldn’t help thinking what a great political leader she’d make.

Ben Carlson makes the in-over-his-head Will Fleissig, CEO of Waterfront, an intensely sympathetic figure. He then turns around and also portrays Fleissig’s more assertive replacement, Steve Diamond.

Yanna Macintosh does impressive work as Helen Burstyn, the tough as nails Board Chair of Waterfront Toronto and has great fun sending up Toronto mayor John Tory.

While there is plenty of humour, most of it unintended, in the actual story of Sidewalk Toronto, Healey has added plenty of his own. Much is made of instructing Doctoroff in the correct pronunciation of Toronto. It’s tuh-RAH-no, he is instructed, although I have heard it further elided to T’RAH-no.

I was surprised Healey passed up an opportunity to twit Justin Trudeau for making a point of using the American pronunciation for the benefit of some visiting Google big wigs, an incident that raised more than a few Canadian eyebrows.

When Davis tells a fire chief (Carlson again) visiting Waterfront’s offices that they spend a lot of time putting out fires, he responds “My wife said the hardest part about becoming fire chief would be listening to everybody’s fire puns. But it turns out it’s actually the fires.”

All the actors, including the four principals, play myriad other characters who pop in and out of the narrative. Director Abraham has made sure that not a single one of those moments is thrown away.

Abraham has also conducted the proceedings at a brisk pace, which keeps the audience on its toes and adds a great deal to the humour and enjoyment of the play.

Every other aspect of the production is top notch. Especially impressive is Amelia Scott’s video work, but the sets and props by Joshua Quinlan, costumes by Ming Wong, and sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne are equally praiseworthy.

One thing that puzzled me while reading the book and also while watching the play was that all the reasons that the project ultimately fell apart were so obvious so early on that I wondered why Waterfront Toronto or Sidewalk Labs didn’t walk away, as they had every contractual right.

Healey answers that question in a speech by one Cam Malagaam (Christopher Allen) toward the end of the play. That character, so the video screen tells us at play’s end, is an amalgam of thirty odd urban designers, architects, and engineers who worked at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto.

Cam decries Toronto’s NIMBYism  (“It’s bigger than hockey.”) and says that while Sidewalk Labs was full of fools and, yes, they made mistakes, what they were doing was an honest attempt to deal with Toronto’s population explosion and a climate crisis that will soon turn hellish. Sentiments I can only assume were shared by Waterfront.

He concludes, “The time has passed to tell a project like this to f**k off. If not this then f**king what?”

As I drove back to Stratford after seeing the show, I passed the Quayside site. It’s still as it was when the Sidewalk Toronto project began.

Footnote: The American press has seen a spate of articles about the dire straits of theatre, specifically non-profit, regional theatre. The decline in attendance has been attributed to a number of factors, but I am convinced that one of them, seldom mentioned in the articles but called out frequently in the accompanying comment threads, is that these theatres are not producing work that speaks directly to the communities they serve. That should change.

The Master Plan is a perfect example of what I have in mind. The show is selling out, has been extended, and may be extended again. There’s a good reason for that. The play speaks directly to the lived experience of all Torontonians, not just a narrow swath of theatre cognoscenti.

It’s a shame that the play will have to close before a lot of people who would dearly love to come see it get that chance. I was told that there is only one commercial space in Toronto where a relatively small scale show like this could open and, if successful, enjoy an extended run.

Others have expressed a hope that the show will find a commercial transfer, but that too would most likely be for a limited run. It’s really too bad.

In the meantime, if you can find a seat, go see this show.

The Master Plan continues at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto through October 8, 2023 For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Crow’s Theatre website.

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