CITY FOR SALE written and directed by Deanne Taylor, with Janet Burke, Patrick Conner, Beverley Cooper, Greg Campbell, Shari Hollett, Ruth Madoc-Jones, Anand Rajaram and Stephen Sparks. Presented by VideoCabaret at the Cameron House (408 Queen West). Previews through May 9, opens May 11 and runs to May 30, Tuesday 7 pm, Wednesday-Friday 7:30 pm, Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$25, Tuesday pwyc, May 6 $10. 416-703-1725. Rating: NNNNN
Picture it - a great city by a great lake, about to have a mayoral election, is troubled by corruption and planning to build an airport on a nearby island. Fact or fiction? Check out Deanne Taylor's latest satire, City For Sale, for a lot of laughs and some parallels to a certain city we all know quite well.
"But it's a generic city we're dealing with here," asserts performer Janet Burke, who's taking a rehearsal break with fellow performer Stephen Sparks. Burke has worked with Taylor and her VideoCabaret cohort Michael Hollingsworth since the 70s.
"Though the figures are somewhat familiar, they're also archetypes who may or may not resemble a whole lot of real people."
C'mon, nobody we can identify? How about exiting mayor Max Hamwell, described as a self-made millionaire with hair plugs?
"Nope," deadpans Burke, "that's nooo-body we know."
City For Sale revolves around a group of City Hall types, both those out to line their own pockets and those concerned for Joe and Jane Citizen.
At the centre of the narrative is behind-the-scenes political manipulator Oscar Price, his polling-expert daughter Paula, lobbyist Nick Wolfe and city chief commissioner Wendy Wall, who's not above giving Nick his way in several kinds of circumstances.
Their opposites are the several groups that always champion lost causes, people who have the ear of a mayoral candidate who has no hope of winning.
Playing over 40 characters, the eight-member VideoCabaret cast tackles everyone from the current mayor and Rosedale types to union bosses and a theatre director who spearheads shows on the island.
This is Taylor's first play in a number of years (I have fond memories of the award-winning Second Nature) and marks the first time she's used the Cameron House's black-box theatre, a striking part of Hollingsworth's Canadian history series.
Burke, who plays good-time gal Wendy, has years of experience working on this stage, where being a few centimetres off your mark can put you out of the light. But for Sparks, who plays the manipulative Nick, it's the first chance to work with the exacting staging.
"There's quite a learning curve here," admits Sparks, whose last Toronto appearance was as a pyromaniac clown in Tequila Vampire Matinee. "But I'm a big fan of VideoCab, and gobsmacked that I get to try the style myself.
"My neck hurts from looking up - literally and metaphorically - at people like Janet, who have so much experience working with all the little rules you have to follow. Usually onstage you do your best to avoid any sense of overt theatricality. Here, everything is arch and presentational."
Burke has mixed feelings about the space.
"I love the box as much as I hate its tyranny," she says. "But there's nothing like it when the show's all cooked."
Writer/director Taylor, always so knowledgeable about local and national politics, has been researching the play for several years, compiling what Sparks jokes was originally a four-kilogram script. But don't worry if you think you're not as up on civic affairs as the author is.
"With Deanne's coaching and explanations, we're so sure and comfortable with our characters and the games they play that no one will have any trouble following the plot's ins and outs," says Sparks.
Don't expect a one-sided view either, for Taylor's satiric eye leaves few characters unscathed.
"There's no underlying attitude that a wealthy person is by definition the baddie," notes Burke.
"And granola people aren't always good," adds Sparks, one of whose characters is called the parasex guy. "They can be perfectly earnest, to a fault."