The Top 10 theatre productions of 2017
Confession: the hands-down most significant show I saw this year was the moving, heartfelt celebration of Jon Kaplan, NOWs long-time.
Confession: the hands-down most significant show I saw this year was the moving, heartfelt celebration of Jon Kaplan, NOWs long-time senior theatre writer. But Jon was too humble to have wanted me to include it on here. Like everything he did, he took this annual task seriously. We would arrive with separate lists, quickly agree on seven or eight, and then discuss the others. There were never any arguments we weighed ambition vs. outcome, indie vs. mainstream, emerging vs. established.
We always enjoyed ourselves mostly because we got to reflect on how much great theatre there was in this city and how lucky we were to write about it and its talented artists. Im sad Jon didnt get to see all of these shows, but he did see and love about half, including Our Town, one of the final shows he reviewed.
It was one of the last things we talked about, and fittingly it was excerpted at his memorial.
Company Theatre, January 29 to February 19
Nearly a year after watching it, Annie Bakers play about a young Manhattan couple confronting a snag in their relationship while staying in a Pennsylvania B&B continues to haunt me. Not much happened (in a plot sense) during the three hours. But director Jonathan Goad and a superb cast (Philip Riccio, Loretta Yu, Nancy Beatty and that unforgettable scene-stealer Nora McLellan) made every moment pulse with life and a strange sort of spirituality.
Why Not Theatre/Soulpepper, April 17 to 29
For the companys 10th anniversary, Ravi Jain and Why Not Theatre revisited their inaugural play in a bold new production that made us think about who gets to tell stories, who gets to make theatre and who gets to watch it. Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley was a revelation as the plays narrator, Horatio, with ASL, a truly diverse cast (including Christine Horne as the title character, Karen Robinson as Gertrude and Maria Vacratsis as Polonius), and some efficient textual nipping and tucking all used to tell the worlds best-known play in a new way.
Theatre Rusticle, March 26 to April 2
Like Hamlet, weve all seen many versions of Thornton Wilders play. But Allyson McMackons production, full of physicality, generosity of spirit and a feeling of enquiry theres even an audience participation segment was like no other. It shone a light on humanity, and the ending, mixing life and death was, as Jon said in his review, unforgettable.
Crows Theatre/Talk Is Free Theatre, January 12 to February 11
Kristen Thomsons comedy about a wedding that goes off the rails was many things: a classic farce, complete with mistaken identity and class commentary a high-wire bit of staging, featuring six actors playing dozens of roles (including a dog) and a fantastic way to launch the new Crows Theatre space and, incidentally, announce that the venue is available for wedding receptions. This was the play I pressed on people who dont go to plays. (Its back again in January.)
Soulpepper, September 8 to October 14
Considering the tragicomedy happening south of the border, Samuel Becketts modern classic about two tramps absurd waiting game took on a disturbing resonance in Soulpeppers darkly funny and unsettling production. Under director Daniel Brooks, Diego Matamoros and Oliver Dennis brought world-weary gravitas to their clowns, while Rick Roberts and Alex McCooeye made Pozzo and Lucky into a codependent nightmare that elicited tears. Harrowing.
Groundling Theatre, January 17 to February 19
In a year in which womens voices about mens abuses were finally heard, it was cathartic to see Michelle Girouxs Isabella triumph over the libidinous, hypocritical leader Angelo (Tom McCamus). What set Graham Abbeys production of Shakespeares problem play apart, however, was the brilliant blending of the serious and the comic, with Karen Robinson, Steven Sutcliffe and Mark Crawford bringing out laughs to lighten the bleakness.
Nightwood Theatre, January 15 to February 5 and November 23 to December 10
Count on Diane Flacks to combine three of the hot-button issues of our day religion, women and sex in one incendiary play. The result, equal parts debate, scathing satire and sexy melodrama, was crackling theatre, with the cast (Flacks, Barbara Gordon, Niki Landau, Bahareh Yaraghi and Blair Williams), under Kelly Thorntons firm direction, bringing lots of issues and emotions to the fore.
Soulpepper/Stratford, January 20 to February 11
Forget The Crown. Kate Hennigs play about Katherine Parrs plan to become Henry VIIIs new queen, keep her head about her and help her stepkids join the line of succession made riveting viewing. Alan Dilworths handsome production was clear and persuasive, with Maev Beaty, Joseph Ziegler, Sara Farb, Bahia Watson and others playing historical figures all carrying relatable emotional baggage.
Stratford, June 16 to September 23
Director Jillian Keiley took Anne Carsons adaptation of Euripidess tragedy and made a fierce, feminist cautionary tale about trying to control womens sexuality. Imagine the flip side of The Handmaids Tale, with just as much social and political resonance.
In Association, with Crows Theatre, Nightwood, Necessary Angel, October 6 to 21
Ellie Moons documentary-style play drawn from interviews Moon conducted with friends, family and professionals about the Ghomeshi affair and sexual consent pushed everyones buttons. Even before celebrity abuse allegations became a daily occurrence, the play efficiently directed by Brendan Healy and courageously performed by Moon, Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy and Jaa Smith-Johnson got people talking and thinking about their own boundaries.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Why Not Theatre experimented with a pay-what-you-can-afford ($5, $25, $50 or $75) pricing structure for its entire run of Prince Hamlet, which may have contributed to an early sold-out run and also drew big interest from non-theatregoers.
THE CONSENT EVENT
The timing of Nightwood Theatres Consent Event, involving two productions and various panels, couldnt have been better, coming right after the first Weinstein news opened up the floodgates on women, abuse and the #MeToo movement.
The opening of Queen West’s storefront Assembly Theatre provided a much-needed space for indie theatre, especially after the recent closing of Unit 102 and the Storefront.
Why werent people talking about Five Faces For Evelyn Frost and The Orange Dot? They werent perfect but they were fresh, bold and tried to do something new.
Program notes should complement, not explain, the show youre seeing. But both Cake and Bat Out Of Hell contained crucial information in their written material.
The National Post axed its theatre coverage, as did Torontoist. Thankfully, Intermission hired Lynn Slotkin as their house critic for a time, partly as a response to the dearth of theatre reviewing in the city.
BUS GOES BUST
The Shaw Festival started a Toronto-to-Niagara-on-the-Lake bus shuttle service, in which you could only see one show per trip. Boo! Word has it that some double-bill bus trips are coming next season.
The Audience: was yawning
Bat Out Of Hell: what the hell?
Grease: no lightning
Freedom Singer: flat notes, flatter story
Liv Stein: perhaps it was more profound in German
Sousatzka: at least we got to see Victoria Clark and Montego Glover