Going to the theatre was a joy in 2019 mostly because of the 10 artists on this list. Besides being a part of at least two productions, these people thrilled and surprised us with their intelligence, imagination and empathy things we definitely needed to get us through this difficult year.
1. Jani Lauzon
Lauzon did it all this year. In the spring, she mesmerized audiences with Prophecy Fog, her one-of-a-kind, immersive solo show about her history with stones and rocks. Then she directed a chilling production of Rope for the Shaw Festival. In the summer, she added a vaudevillian zing to her shepherd in The Winter’s Tale. And she finished off the year directing Soulpepper‘s first Indigenous production, Almighty Voice And His Wife, obviously drawing on her own experience of the play (she was in the original production). When I tweeted my admiration for her varied work, the Metis artist explained why she was back in such full force: “Back at it after raising my amazing daughter!”
2. Mitchell Cushman
One of the defining Toronto artists of the 2010s had an impressive 2019. First, he made every little moment in Haley McGee‘s delightful solo show The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale pay off. Then he orchestrated all the human, puppet and possibly demonic elements to come together in Hand To God. And finally, he helped us rewind and be kind (or at least empathetic) with two movie-related Outside the March shows: the fun trilogy of escape-room-style experiences in The Tape Escape, and the absorbing three-hour examination of 21st century angst, The Flick.
3. Maev Beaty
No stranger to this list, Beaty had another phenomenal year. She began by reprising her role as Elmire in Canadian Stage‘s remount of Chris Abraham‘s hilarious Stratford production of Tartuffe. At Stratford again in the summer, she was one tough (but resourceful) Cookie in Michael Healey‘s new adaptation of The Front Page. Meanwhile, at Soulpepper, she did some of her best work yet, adding nuance and mystery to the enigmatic Little Menace: Pinter Plays, and then battling her domineering, drug-addicted mother (Nancy Palk) in a thrilling August: Osage County. Don’t miss her in February’s remount of another great play, Secret Life Of A Mother, at Crow’s.
4. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
One of the most exciting directors of her generation, Otu helmed two outstanding shows this year: the Canadian debut of Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s The Brothers Size and a remount of Claudia Dey‘s quirky Trout Stanley featuring an all-Black cast. In both cases, she took plays with rich language and outsized characters and made them relatable, emotionally resonant and fully theatrical. She also co-directed the immersive, experimental installation piece Here Are The Fragments, about the impact of racism and colonialism on Black consciousness. Otu’s a director with a purpose.
5. Allegra Fulton
The Dora Award-winning Fulton got the year off to a terrific start by adding charisma and diva-esque notes to her conflicted concert violinist in Nick Green‘s Next Stage Festival play Dinner With The Duchess. In her Shaw Festival debut, she brought layers of complexity to one of the most iconic roles in the repertoire Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and also joined the ensemble for the revelatory revival of Mae West’s Sex. At the end of the year, she added a bit of magic to the tricky role of the church lady in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside And Crazy, seducing both the central character and Coal Mine Theatre‘s sold-out audiences.
6. Anahita Dehbonehie
Dehbonehie created so many vivid theatrical worlds this year. There was the hyper-realistic office of a corrupt oil exec in David S. Craig and Richard Greenblatt‘s Athabasca, as well as her playful, airy use of space in The Election and Worry Warts. The level of retro detail provided in The Tape Escape, which she designed with Nick Blais, was staggering. And her moveable, funhouse set for Hand To God provided much of the production’s enjoyment. But her most impressive work was the set for The Little Prince, creating mystery and magic from the simplest of elements all worth of Saint-Exupery.
7. Anand Rajaram
The multitalented Rajaram showed off his skills in several shows this year, including co-writing and voicing some characters in Scadding and directing the sketch show Woke ‘N Broke, both at the Fringe, and joining the energetic ensemble of The Election. But he was absolutely riveting in two solo shows: Rohinton Mistry’s The Scream which he adapted and directed at SummerWorks playing an unnamed elderly Indian man stuck in an existential limbo and Buffoon, Anosh Irani‘s expansive play in which the actor juggled a dozen or so colourful circus characters without ever losing his balance.
8. Akosua Amo-Adem
If anyone personifies the expression “There are no small parts, only small actors,” it’s Amo-Adem, whose focus and clarity regularly make supporting roles pop. Early in the year, she earned peals of laughter from her wise-talking Dorine in Tartuffe. Then, as a teacher in School Girls Or, The African Mean Girls Play, she brought a sense of dignity and pride to the competitive students’ lives. And even though Stanley, Blanche and Stella were centre stage in Soulpepper’s scorching A Streetcar Named Desire, Amo-Adem created a mini drama all her own as their upstairs neighbour, Eunice.
9. Daniel MacIvor
Writer/actor MacIvor is one of Canada’s most acclaimed artists, with decades of credits to his name. But he displayed a new depth and maturity in two plays that both featured deeply scarred middle-aged men. In the ensemble drama New Magic Valley Fun Town, he played Dougie, a man anxious (for good reason) about a reunion with a childhood friend (Andrew Moodie). And in the solo show Let’s Run Away, created with frequent collaborator Daniel Brooks, his defensive, former orphan Peter attempted to reclaim his own narrative by putting on a show.
10. Zorana Sadiq
In a year that boasted dozens of fine ensemble shows, the always striking and committed Sadiq stood out in three of them. First came her work in the sprawling documentary theatre piece Towards Youth, in which she played, among other things, a hilariously controlling Greek teacher. In the summer, she convincingly channeled her inner child to play various kids dealing with issues of love and relationships in CHILD-ISH. And she closed out the year as the concerned but loving mom of a teenage soccer prodigy in Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical.
20 OTHER AMAZING ARTISTS (in no particular order): Claire Armstrong, Jason Hand, Jeff Ho, Shakura Dickson, Frank Cox O’Connell, Nina Lee Aquino, Natasha Mumba, Steven Gallagher, Nick Blais, Virgilia Griffith, Michaela Washburn, Amy Keating, Shannon Taylor, Augusto Bitter, Richard Greenblatt, Julie Tepperman, Peter Fernandes, Hailey Gillis, Eo Sharp, Thomas Ryder Payne.
PASSIONATE PUBLICISTS The Toronto theatre scene won’t be the same without the hard-working, engaged and always personable publicists Carrie Sager (FLIP Publicity) and Dianne Weinrib (DW Communications), who both retired from the business after decades of helping to spread the word about the performing arts.
The top 10 Toronto theatre shows of 2019