The lively debates at City Hall can make for great theatre—and now, Daniel Brooks’ Necessary Angel Theatre Company is taking that idea to its literal extreme, nude Doug Ford and all.
The first time I stepped inside City Hall’s Council Chambers, back in May 2005, I was dazzled by the theatricality of it all. City Council was among the funniest and most entertaining things I had ever seen, and it was meaningful, too. I was hooked.
Maev Beaty recently had a similar epiphany: “It was the best show that I’ve seen in about five years,” says the ubiquitous Toronto actor, at the start of a new play about Toronto City Council. “If we could,” she tells the audience, “we would take you there right now.”
Civility is a new “theatrical work-in-progress” by Necessary Angel Theatre Company, conceived and shaped by its artistic director, Daniel Brooks. Brooks is something of a legendary figure in the Toronto arts scene: working primarily as a director, he has collaborated on many of the best-known shows by playwrights Daniel MacIvor, Guillermo Verdecchia, and John Mighton. So when he was first spotted hanging out at Council meetings last fall, there was reason to believe he was up to something.
That something quietly premiered in a workshop production at the Lower Ossington Theatre for two performances last weekend. It was the culmination of a five-week rehearsal process that involved Brooks bringing a small team of theatre artists (both actors and designers) to City Hall for the April and May Council meetings. As things had settled down politically by then—taking a turn from the apocalyptic to the banal—the group found itself focusing not on the major dramas but on the little details: the gestures, the movements, the procedures, the nuances of every councillor’s sigh. And indeed, Civility is as much a tribute to the rituals and rhythms of Council as it is to the particular characters involved; the things that are eye-glazing in a nine-hour meeting are hilarious when rendered as tightly choreographed movement-based interludes and clown-inspired physical comedy.
The show opens with the players casually wandering in to take the seats at their desks. A small red digital clock on the back wall counts down the seconds from “5:00.” Beaty, her hands full with a coffee, a glass of water, and a stack of Council documents, unsuccessfully attempts to navigate the belt stanchions separating the stage from the audience. You just know that this is something she witnessed a councillor doing, and you try to figure out who it was.
The stage manager and sound designer, seated at desks on either side of the performance area, serve as the clerks. The stage manager even has a laser printer, from which she distributes “motions” to the performers, who themselves are situated along a long desk in the centre, a microphone at each seat. Much of the comedy comes from the show’s attention to, and the characters’ obsession with, minutiae. To list the procedural quirks reproduced in Civility would be to give away many of the jokes.
But it’s not all riffing on the little things. Much of the show consists of actual episodes from City Council and the Budget Committee, presented in word-for-word reenactments: impressively, such scenes are even funnier and more compelling when transferred into an explicitly theatrical context.
Beaty portrays every female member of Council, some with uncanny accuracy. In one vignette, she plays Pam McConnell, delivering a speech congratulating the St. Lawrence Market for being named the best food market in the world by National Geographic. (See the original starting at 21:00 here.) In another, she plays Frances Nunziata, burning with rage as she clashes with Mary Fragedakis over civic appointments. (See the original starting at about 3:15 here.) The latter vignette, with Beaty taking on every role in the melee, is a particular tour de force.
Two original interviews conducted by the cast are presented as verbatim monologues. Christopher Morris, embodying Doug Ford, spits out the label magnate’s gregarious tirade at a rapid clip—and entirely in the nude. Deco‘s expansion across North America, for example, is illustrated through confident, directional tugs of his penis. Perhaps even more eyebrow-raising, however, are Ford’s candid admissions that he dislikes dealing with ward issues (“The constituents are kind of boring”) and that he considers Marci McDonald’s Toronto Life cover story on the mayor to have been an even worse smear piece than those put out by the Toronto Star; he says he personally phoned up Tony Gagliano—CEO of St. Joseph Communications, Toronto Life’s parent company—to complain. Later in the show, a City staffer (whose name is withheld for obvious reasons) compares Giorgio Mammoliti’s thumb-based vote-whipping to a “fascist state” and observes that Mayor Rob Ford possesses ”such enormous discomfort outside his own world.”
That, however, is more or less the extent of the Ford talk. The mayor has no greater presence in Civility than he does in the real City Hall. His influence is sometimes felt, but he plays no substantial role in the proceedings. What interests Civility’s creators is everything else about City Council, everything else about the city.
The show’s final movement brings us the deputation of Hubert Mantha, a 71-year-old Seaton House resident who addressed the Budget Committee last December. (See the original starting at 1:22:15 here.) Mantha, played by Morris, speaks slowly and plainly: about the shelter in which he lives, about inequality more broadly, and about the inanity of a budget that is focussed on cutting despite the enormous wealth that is apparent in our city. His subsequent exchanges with councillors Janet Davis, Raymond Cho, Sarah Doucette, Joe Mihevc, and Josh Matlow follow. And here we see why this show—both City Hall itself and Civility the play—matters. We see why civility matters. We see that City Council and the things they do are often entertaining and funny, yes, but also monumentally important to the lives of the people in Toronto, and especially to those who are the least well off. The dialogues, the interactions, the personalities, and the decisions they make have direct effects. It’s entertainment with a purpose.
Speaking to director Brooks a couple of days later, I ask him what his plans for Civility are. Where does it go from here? Some of the people who, unbeknownst to them, function as characters in the show would surely like to see it. “I have no firm plans,” he says. “There are a number of things that could happen. I mean, I think it’s a piece that could be run in a theatre. But it’s also the kind of thing that we could do every month, once a month. I need to catch up on my taxes and my sleep, and once I do that, which could be next week, I’ll start considering my schedule.”
There’s further room for it to grow. After all, Brooks teases, he has yet to include the extensive conversation he just recorded with Giorgio Mammoliti.