Did Michael Healey, left, cross the line when he criticized Stephen Harper? Or was it the other way around?
Next time you're in a theatre in Toronto, take a look around before the show starts. The government may be seated near you.
For the second time in year, a Toronto playwright has felt the chilling reach of the federal Conservatives, interfering with the staging of a theatre production.
Michael Healey, the writer behind the Drawer Boy and Generous, has left his post as writer-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre over a dispute over his latest work, Proud. There is "concern the play could potentially libel Stephen Harper," said Richard Rose, the Tarragon's artistic director.
The plot, as Healey describes it, is a cautionary tale about a character called Mr. Prime Minister, a thinly veiled critique of the current PM. The story jumps through time and imagines the country 20 years from now. As anyone familiar with Healey's distaste for the current PM can guess, it's a pessimistic prediction.
Regardless, Healey is one of this country's best-known and celebrated playwrights. To meddle with a play so severely is unheard of. To halt its production? Probably tantamount to the War Measures Act - an extraordinary measure.
Since Healey's departure, Rose has been silent other than a mushy statement about admiring the playwright's work.
So, with "potential libel" all we have to go on, we are left to make their own conclusions here. And those conclusions are frightening.
The threat of state retaliation has interfered with the Tarragon's artistic program.
This would sound like more of a conspiracy theory if it hadn't already happened.
During SummerWorks last year, SUN Media, the communications arm of the Conservative Party and thus the government, raised hell over a small production called Homegrown. That play challenged the notion of terrorism using the so-called Toronto 18, the alleged homegrown terror cell.
Eventually, the entire festival was defunded by the federal government. It was seen as a reprimand for the play.
The Tarragon may have be rattled by that, and become more timid in the aftershock. Or worse. Again, Rose isn't talking, so there's no real way of knowing.
Of course even the suspicion that the Prime Minister would become litigious (or worse) in response to artistic criticism is enough to worry about Canadian society. This is the type of preemptive censorship you hear about in Myanmar or Belarus.
Asking the government to stay out of the theatre is now a moot point. It already has its ticket, and is roaming the aisles.
The battle now is on the stage. Will Toronto theatre stand up to the sinister libel chill and ominous threat of defunding, or will it kibosh anything remotely critical of Canadian power structures?
That is a challenge for the city's artistic directors. And, more immediately, Richard Rose.