REVIEW: Slick political dramedy The Master Plan is Crow’s Theatre at its best (and most absurd)

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s not easy living in Toronto.

The transit? Subpar. The mayoral position? Prone to scandal. The bureaucracy? Oh, the bureaucracy. We pay some of the highest rents in the world for the privilege of living in a mausoleum of condos, Dollaramas, and weed stores, with a city council that keeps the wheels of power greased only to maintain the status quo. 

I might sound bitter – and I am, a little, given I follow the ins and outs of Toronto civics for 40-plus hours a week at my day job.

But the great thing about being a municipal reporter here is that this world is often really, really funny. The people we hold to account in positions of power are often thrillingly unprepared for a career in the public eye, meaning they say silly things when the cameras are rolling and make decisions so outlandishly stupid that one has to wonder if they’re prepping for a second job at the Second City. 

The other great thing about reporting on this city: sometimes its theatre is just terrific.

Enter The Master Plan.

Globe and Mail reporter Josh O’Kane seemed to share my affinity for City Hall antics (and disgust with the oiliest of data-mining corporations) when he penned his nonfiction book Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy, now stirringly adapted into a play by Michael Healey at Crow’s Theatre. The story, in short, is that Google tried to buy a parcel of Toronto waterfront land under the guise of creating a “city of the future,” a carbon-negative oasis of affordable housing and efficiency. As you can imagine, the partnership between one of the largest conglomerates in the world and, uh, Toronto, didn’t go so well. (One need look only as far as the Gardiner Expressway or the speed camera on Parkside Drive to understand how an idea of such seismic potential failed to bloom to completion.)

Some things about this tale of corporate greed and governmental friction have shifted in the move from page to stage – the title, for one, as the play’s now called The Master Plan, a reference to the comically overstuffed document which ultimately brought the short-lived Google/Waterfront TO partnership to its knees. The humour, too, is sharper and more intentional – the absurdity of everyday life in Toronto as documented by O’Kane has been enhanced by Healey’s ever-quick wit and well-paced dialogue. (Is there another Canadian playwright who could get away with the narrator of Toronto’s biggest and most recent failure being a tree? I don’t think so.)

The Master Plan is close to a perfect play for 2023’s Toronto, plagued by an affordability crisis and a revolving door of local politicians. (This just in as I write this review: Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie is stepping down while she runs for Liberal leadership!) I can’t think of a project better suited for director Chris Abraham, who commissioned the play and who has brought O’Kane’s story in Healey’s voice to life with superb attention to detail. Abraham first won me over with The Assembly in early 2020, another play rooted in real-life politics with digital aesthetic trappings that enhanced, rather than distracted from, the written work. So it goes with The Master Plan: in partnership with set designer Joshua Quinlan and video designer Amelia Scott, Abraham has used live video to create mock “broadcasts” of the executives and bureaucrats drafting the doomed Quayside project. Screens above a modern conference table, located in a cleverly designed pit, morph to suggest maps, newspaper headlines, timelines, organizational structures; it’s a technically complex and visually stunning maneuver to convey the nooks and crannies of the political matrix that shapes this city. 

Abraham’s cast is just as excellent. Peter Fernandes is as heartbreaking a tree as he was a dog in last season’s smash Fifteen Dogs, bringing surprising depth and humanity to a larger story that at times languishes in dry details. Christopher Allen, too, is a standout as entry-level urban planner Cam Malagaam, described in post-show projections as a conglomerate of over 30 executive assistants, city planners, and communications coordinators involved in the Quayside project. Allen particularly shines during a monologue towards the play’s conclusion, when the ache from the loss of the Quayside project metastasizes into full-blown grief.

Mike Shara’s take on Alphabet exec Dan Doctoroff brilliantly walks the line between corporate evil and idiocy, while Ben Carlson’s Will Fleissig brings some needed pathos to the Toronto politicians trying their best. Yanna McIntosh, Tara Micodemo, and Philippa Domville are a blazing trio of women holding the line against the men in the story, who make a habit of raising their voices and abruptly leaving the room – together, the women are a welcome and well-used presence within an overwhelmingly male story.

Look: go see The Master Plan. It will sell out, and for good reason – I’d like to personally advocate for everyone at City Hall (and my colleagues in municipal journalism) to take a mandatory field trip to see the show. 

For the second year in a row, Crow’s Theatre has opened the Toronto theatre season at the highest possible level, with that rare play and production that speak to the present moment with a simultaneous levity and weight. The Master Plan is an astounding piece of theatre. Go.

The Master Plan runs at Crow’s Theatre until October 8. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here. 

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.