Crow’s Theatre/The Master Plan, written by Michael Healey, directed by Chris Abraham, Guloien Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, until Oct. 19. Tickets here.
I think that The Master Plan is the hottest ticket in town because it is about us, we who call ourselves Torontonians.
We all lived through the events that take place in The Master Plan, and followed the story as it unfolded. It also helps that it is a superbly written play with an uber-talented cast. (In fact, if you wondered why some of your favourite actors weren’t at Stratford and Shaw this season, it’s because they’re here.)
The Master Plan is based on Josh O’Kane’s bestseller, Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy. At the time, O’Kane was the tech reporter at the Globe and Mail. In a divine moment of inspiration, Crow’s Theatre’s artistic director, Chris Abraham, (who also directed The Master Plan), commissioned Michael Healey to convert the book into a play, Healey being one of Canada’s great political satirists.
How Healey managed to reduce the book to a manageable time frame without losing the major figures and plot twists is a miracle. The result is a play that is a wild theatrical ride filled with colourful characters, boardroom intrigues, and all manner of corporate shenanigans. In the final analysis, it’s American Big Tech versus Canadian city government, Goliath versus David, so to speak.
Here’s a brief summary of the Quayside cause célèbre.
In 2017, Waterfront Toronto was the multi-level government agency in charge of choosing a private sector company to create a so-called smart city in 12 acres of undeveloped land on Lake Ontario called Quayside.
A smart city is defined as one using diverse technology to gather data in order to manage every aspect of that city, from roads to libraries, for better efficiency. The urban planning company that won the contest was Sidewalk Labs, a sister affiliate of Google whose CEO was the flamboyant Dan Doctoroff (Mike Shara).
Tasked with working with Sidewalk Labs was Waterfront Toronto’s CEO Will Fleissig (Ben Carlson), his development officer Meg Davis (Philippa Domville), and his innovation officer Kristina Verner (Tara Nicodemo). There was also the agency’s board chair, Helen Burstyn (Yanna McIntosh).
Perhaps the saddest character is Cam Malagaam (Christopher Allen), a Sidewalk Labs designer who truly dreamed the dream. The role of the funniest character, a tree (Peter Fernandes), is to function as a sort of narrator who points out the truth, even before the main characters know what is about to hit them. All the actors also play a host of other personalities. In fact, they are running for their lives in this madcap misadventure.
Suffice it to say that Doctoroff literally attempted to run roughshod over the Waterfront bunch, thinking Sidewalk Labs could take over everything and get its own way. He simply never listened. Meanwhile, a backlash of privacy activists was getting increasingly alarmed at who was going to control all the data collected. Alarm bells were ringing everywhere. The result was that Google/Sidewalk Labs pulled out of the project in 2020.
Not only is the play brilliant, but so is the production.
Director Abraham has set a furious pace as facts and figures literally assault the audience a mile a minute. It would have been so easy to lose sight of the characters in this mad dash of story, but Abraham has ensured that fully developed people are on the stage. His cast, led by Shara’s over-confidant Ugly American is simply superb. There is not a false note among the actors, although Nicodemo has to talk louder.
Joshua Quinlan’s set is theatre in the round, with a jagged edge perimeter. A board table and chairs sit centre stage. Additional information is found on a four-sided news ticker above the stage, courtesy of video designer Amelia Scott, aided by projections graphic designer Eric Dizon.
For example, when board members are bailing out of Waterfront Toronto in disgust, all the board names are flashed on the ticker, with those leaving taken off the screen. It’s vital information that is posted there. We also get biographical information that is not in the text.
Kudos also to Ming Wong’s character-driven costumes, Kimberly Purtell’s blazing lighting, and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design filled with cityscape noises. From a production point of view, The Master Plan is so complex that it takes a 14-member technical crew to run the show.
By the time this exhilarating play is over, the audience has sat through a whirlwind of events featuring a dizzying number of players who contributed to this Quayside fiasco. The scope of what Healey has managed to cram into this play is mind-boggling. The glory of the writing is he has never allowed humour to be very far away.
When you think of it, the title, The Master Plan, is in itself satiric, and what a wonderful name to give a project that became a born and bred Toronto cockup.
Surely some company is thinking of filming The Master Plan, because how can it possibly be performed elsewhere, given the technical forces needed to mount the play.
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