John, Prince Hamlet and Our Town top NOW's list of the year's best Toronto shows
Confession: the hands-down most significant show I saw this year was the moving, heartfelt celebration of Jon Kaplan, NOW’s 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. I’m sad Jon didn’t 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 Baker’s 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 company’s 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 play’s 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 world’s best-known play in a new way.
Sarah Machin Gale (front), Lucy Rupert and Geoffrey Whynot
Theatre Rusticle, March 26 to April 2
Like Hamlet, we’ve all seen many versions of Thornton Wilder’s play. But Allyson McMackon’s production, full of physicality, generosity of spirit and a feeling of enquiry – there’s 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.
Crow’s Theatre/Talk Is Free Theatre, January 12 to February 11
Kristen Thomson’s 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 Crow’s Theatre space – and, incidentally, announce that the venue is available for wedding receptions. This was the play I pressed on people who don’t go to plays. (It’s back again in January.)
Cylla von Tiedemann
Waiting for Godot, Soulpepper
Soulpepper, September 8 to October 14
Considering the tragicomedy happening south of the border, Samuel Beckett’s modern classic about two tramps’ absurd waiting game took on a disturbing resonance in Soulpepper’s 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 Company
Lucy Peacock (left) and Michelle Giroux
Groundling Theatre, January 17 to February 19
In a year in which women’s voices about men’s abuses were finally heard, it was cathartic to see Michelle Giroux’s Isabella triumph over the libidinous, hypocritical leader Angelo (Tom McCamus). What set Graham Abbey’s production of Shakespeare’s 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.
Photo by John Lauener.
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 Thornton’s firm direction, bringing lots of issues and emotions to the fore.
Cylla von Tiuedemann
The Last Wife, Soulpepper
Soulpepper/Stratford, January 20 to February 11
Forget The Crown. Kate Hennig’s play about Katherine Parr’s plan to become Henry VIII’s new queen, keep her head about her and help her stepkids join the line of succession made riveting viewing. Alan Dilworth’s 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.
Cylla von Tiedemann
Women rule in innovative Bakkhai.
Stratford, June 16 to September 23
Director Jillian Keiley took Anne Carson’s adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy and made a fierce, feminist cautionary tale about trying to control women’s sexuality. Imagine the flip side of The Handmaid’s Tale, with just as much social and political resonance.
In Association, with Crow’s Theatre, Nightwood, Necessary Angel, October 6 to 21
Ellie Moon’s documentary-style play drawn from interviews Moon conducted with friends, family and professionals about the Ghomeshi affair and sexual consent pushed everyone’s 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 Theatre’s Consent Event, involving two productions and various panels, couldn’t 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 weren’t people talking about Five Faces For Evelyn Frost and The Orange Dot? They weren’t perfect but they were fresh, bold and tried to do something new.
Program notes should complement, not explain, the show you’re 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