Jane Jacobs, the great guru of city planning, hated Toronto’s Gardner Expressway with passion. For those who have not spent hours parked on it, it is an elevated road that separates the city from its waterfront and one of its biggest assets – the waterfront not the Gardiner. Her concern was unnecessary because Toronto managed to wreck its waterfront almost completely with or without the expressway.
The Master Plan is a play by Michael Healy based on Sideways: The City that Google Couldn’t Buy by Globe and Mail reporter Josh O’Kane about the attempts and colossal failure of trying to construct something on the waterfront. The play is dramatic, funny and an amazing theatrical experience featuring some stunning performances. It is also an outstanding dramatization of the frightful attempt by an American consortium to “buy” a twelve-acre lot east of Yonge Street and south of the Gardiner in Toronto to develop the waterfront.
Seven actors represent an array of characters and organizations who attempt to develop a “master plan” for the improvement of the east part of the lake shore with mind-boggling ideas and mind-numbing negotiations.
The organizations involved are Google, a company we are told, with a capitalization of $700 billion compared to Canada’s budget of $300 billion. Through its subsidiary Sidewalk, it wants to “buy” ostensibly twelve acres but in effect the city of Toronto (I am not kidding), again, with some mind-boggling plans that will bring about $6 billion in profits for it. That is just a conservative figure. Google or Sidewalk is represented by Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk.
Mike Shara gives a stunning performance in a highly demanding role and plays several other parts as well. Doctoroff is loud, aggressive, highly intelligent, manipulative and ruthless. He wields power or wants to wield power to get the contract or “the master plan” signed and is willing to manipulate power brokers to get the highly lucrative piece of paper. He is prepared to misrepresent everything but he is no common liar. He is subtle, bullying and frequently convincing. Shara’s performance is a powerhouse example of superb acting.
Waterfront Toronto is the agency assigned to develop the waterfront and its CEO Will Fleissig is no fool even though he admits to not being good with the details. Ben Carlson stands up to Doctoroff but the latter has superior vocal cords and bullying tactics. Carlson gives an outstanding performance and is almost tragic in his realization that all efforts to write a master plan are futile and unworkable for many reasons. Fleissig is no match for Doctoroff and he is unable to focus on important details and wastes time on trivial matters. He shows strength on occasion but lapses into wishy-washiness. He is the perfect target for Doctoroff.
In addition to Will Fleissig, Waterfront Toronto is represented by Helen Burstyn (Yanna McIntosh), Kristina Verner (Tara Nicodemo), Vice President and Meg Davis (Philippa Domville) its Chief Development Officer. They are the professionals on the side of the city that must confront the American greed and mendacity machine.
Toronto is looking for a development plan that will provide a digital layer and will be sustainable and affordable, whatever that means. Doctoroff’s plan provides among the jargon a plan to level the sidewalk and the street and keep cars away from pedestrians by s system of lighting. Again, whatever that means.
The play has some twenty VIPs make appearances from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford, city politicians and others. Mayor John Tory attempts to speak French with hilarious results and Carlson as Fire Chief Matthew Pegg is a comic bumbler. Peter Fernandez plays Tree, a Norwegian maple, that is a character and a commentator, sort of Chorus, who gives background information and makes observations. Tree is informative and very funny.
At first blush, a play about the development of Toronto’s waterfront seems an unlikely subject. I suspect that few people know much about and even fewer can recall events around it that occurred years ago. But Healy knows how to jazz up the subject and Director Chris Abraham dresses it with such consummate theatricality that it keeps our attention rivetted and the huge laughs coming. Yes, it is a very funny play.
What may not seem like an interesting subject becomes a life-and-death event as the ambitious Americans try to buy Toronto and a few city officials manage to defeat them. The site remains undeveloped but the city was not bought by Google. Don’t relish the ‘victory” or hold your breath about anything decent being done on the waterfront. Just look at it, if you can find the parts that are for public or civic enjoyment and cry for Jane Jacobs.
The Master Plan by Michael Healy will run until October 15, 2023, at Streetcar/Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. http://crowstheatre.com/