Project development, labyrinthine power structures, red tape and corporate greed don’t sound like such a good time, so it’s easy to be blindsided by the immense entertainment value of The Master Plan. Presented by Crow’s Theatre, playwright Michael Healey’s satire is a theatrical adaptation of Josh O’Kane’s exposé Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy.
The handful of years leading up to the pandemic saw Google try to work with Toronto officials to build a smart city on the waterfront. After winning a bid to develop twelve acres of awkward space, Sidewalk Labs (a Google subsidiary) comes barrelling onto the scene with big talk, but crashes into a very Canadian wall of bureaucracy and strict regulation.
Joshua Quinlan’s thematically expressive set, full of modular plywood elements, feels appropriately under construction. The centre piece is a boardroom table supported by pylons that suggests a model of the Port Lands. To prime us for the story, our attention is drawn to some overhead screens where a live video feed of the audience plays on our paranoia about big tech surveillance. A voice-over introduction by an avatar of director Chris Abraham is a clever bit of meta world-building, positing the uncanny—and hilarious—potential of a technologically-enhanced theatre of the future.
These screens also display the live recreations of news footage with the actors portraying familiar personages. Video designer Amelia Scott conjures a flashy documentary vibe with chyrons and immersive graphics. This dizzying visual-aid spectacle compliments Abraham’s kinetic staging of what is essentially a series of meetings and press conferences.
And there really is drama to all this charged wheeling and dealing, though it takes some time to recognize the emotional cost of all this farcical strategizing. The first act feels like a high-octane, theatrically dynamic info-dump. In the second act, timid municipal maneuverings grind disastrously up against blustering American overreach and the sparks really start to fly and scorch.
The tech giant’s ever-expanding capitalistic designs on our city prove increasingly unrealistic and public opinion on the whole enterprise sours. There is a dismal yet exhilarating train-wreck appeal to the inevitable, grand collapse. Brash and charismatic personalities clash with the subdued yet resilient faces of civil service as these diametrically opposed modus operandi collide. The tension feels amplified yet also entirely authentic.
In both their main roles and a myriad of supporting bit parts, the cast grounds us with a tapestry of human ambition and fallibility. It’s fun to see Justin Trudeau, John Tory and Kathleen Wynne represented as goofy emissaries from our recent past—though Mike Shara’s used-car salesmen turn as Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff is a flamboyant focal point. The rest of the ensemble provide a sober, communal, ever-frustrated buffer against his exuberant yet invasive momentum.
The aching core of this telling of the story is Christopher Allen’s deeply invested designer, Cam Malagaam. A dramaturgical amalgam of many engineers and advisors associated with the project, he provides an earnest impression of the American enterprising spirit. His eyes widen and his body fully trembles at the possibilities for a sustainable, innovative future. As the project crumbles beneath them all, it is his disappointment that really broke my heart.
Alongside a reasonable skepticism about the outlandish promises of self-driving cars, wooden skyscrapers and entirely carbon-free living, there is a fanciful charm to the notion of dreaming big and venturing into unknown territory. A thrilling ride from start to finish, The Master Plan is a testament to industry and high stakes negotiation—in all their invigorating and catastrophic glory. It inspires contempt and affection in equal measure for both sides of this sprawling, misguided venture.