A disclaimer accompanies Michael Healey’s latest political drama The Master Plan: the following is a work of fiction. A work of fiction about events not very long ago (2017-2020) in a land not very far away (a 10 minute drive from Crow’s Theatre where the play has been extended until October 8). A work of fiction based on a non-fiction book telling a story that seems fantastical but is, at least in its broad strokes facts, completely true. The eventually abandoned proposal by Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs to build a smart city on Toronto’s waterfront was an outlandish moonshot but the human infrastructure holding up that wild dream is the real heart of Healey’s play. Whether he imagines their private dialogues with perfect accuracy or not, their stories ring with poignant recognizable honesty.
Director Chris Abraham has assembled a killer ensemble of seven actors each in multiple roles. There isn’t a weak link to be found anywhere in or around Joshua Quinlan’s thoughtfully designed set that sees the audience surrounding the players on all sides as if staring into a gladiatorial ring. The voyeurism goes both ways as live cameras reflect audience reaction back at us over large screens hovering above the stage, stamping every moment of action with corporate branding and quarterly projections. The incorporation of designer Amelia Scott’s video work necessitates hyper-precise blocking, which Abraham and the cast manage to execute seamlessly, every movement and positioning choice grounded in storytelling as much as sightline necessity. The in-the-round staging means that every seat in the house has, at any and all moments, a great and limited view of the action. You can only ever see one side of the story straight from the source, for the rest you’ll have to trust what the TVs are telling you. That kind of thematically resonant, visually intriguing staging is what separates a good production of a new play from a great one. Healey’s text is fantastic- funny, dense, refreshingly complex in its ambiguous moral angling- and the cast is exquisite; two plus two would have very happily added up to four but the play really flies when bolstered by fully integrated production execution at every level, from Abraham’s bold concepts and tight precision to Kimberly Purtell’s expert lights and Ming Wong’s diligent character-conscious costume choices.
The Master Plan seems at first glance to be a hyper-local story about something that happened (or almost happened, I guess) to us specifically. I live on land revitalized by Waterfront Toronto, I’ve been to community feedback meetings just like the ones recreated in the play. But stepping back from the minutiae of the Sidewalk Labs debacle, the sneaky universality of Healey’s work is clear in the detail of his character portraits. Ben Carlson plays a contrasting pair of fair minded men in impossible leadership positions and, with very little in way of adjusted posture or tone, delivers a masterclass on authority and the lack thereof. Mike Shara thrives in his perfect casting hit as a charismatic climber simultaneously slick and daffy. His Sidewalk Labs CEO brings frustrating lead character energy into an ensemble paradigm and smashes the audience with the very recognizable sensation of what it’s like to work with an American on a Canadian project.
The Master Plan is an intellectual treat on a hundred fronts but never slips too far into analysis and deconstruction of failure because it remains anchored by the steadfast faith of Kristina Verner and Meg Davis (played by Tara Nicodemo and a particularly sublime Philippa Domville). Long suffering civil servants who refuse to stop fighting to turn neglected concrete into something beautiful and useful, Verner and Davis are the beginning and the end of the play, the immovable pillars around which the chaos swirls and who remain standing after everything crumbles. They’re back at their desks, starting again. The Master Plan may be a “work of fiction” but Verner and Davis are real and they’re still working to make Quayside real too.