Jon Kaplan and Glenn Sumi’s Top 10 theatre productions

Offstage it was a dramatic year: one.


Offstage it was a dramatic year: one playwright left a theatre over cries of censorship, others withdrew works because of a firing and a stalemate with a board of directors, and people bemoaned a historic theatre soon to be razed to become a “condo and culture complex.” Not to mention cyber oddities like BuggingGlennSumi (unhappy with so-called nepotism in the community) and @DrunkGlennSumi (happy with just about everything). Fortunately, things onstage were just as exciting.

1. TERMINUS Outside the March/Mirvish, November 21 to December 16

Mitchell Cushman and Outside the March capped off one helluva year with this ride through the dark and lonely corners of Dublin life. A brilliant cast (Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus, Adam Kenneth Wilson) effortlessly navigated the poetic and darkly comic twists and turns of Mark O’Rowe’s script. With the audience onstage and the actor performing on the lip of the Royal Alex, Nick Blais’s set and lighting cast shadows onto the hall, making this ghost-filled series of intertwining stories even more haunting.


2. PROUD Michael Healey/Sue Edworthy, September 20 to October 6

Michael Healey quit his writer-in-residence post at the Tarragon after it announced it wasn’t programming this play about politics in the Harper era, so he produced it himself. Lucky us. Proud is a smart yet funny look at political power mongering and bait-and-switching, with a series of complex characters including Harper himself (Healey), who almost comes across as endearing, and a novice Quebecois MP (Maev Beaty) who quickly finds out how to play the game.


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3. THE LITTLE YEARS Tarragon, November 7 to December 16

John Mighton’s subtle, suggestive play follows the unhappy Kate from the 50s, when her childhood interest in science and math is squashed by family and school, to the suggestion of redemption she finds through her niece decades later. Under Chris Abraham’s meticulous direction, Bethany Jillard and Irene Poole as the younger and elder Kate were mesmerizing in a production as clever in its design (by Julie Fox, Kimberly Purtell and Thomas Ryder Payne) as its writing and acting.


4. CAROLINE, OR CHANGE Acting Up Stage/Obsidian, January 21 to February 12

Set in 1963 Louisiana, this Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical had it all: politics, civil rights, familial conflict and a washer and dryer that come to life as black period singers. Director Robert McQueen’s absorbing production, filled with a rich variety of melodies and fleshed-out characters, was crowned by the Dora Award-winning performance of Arlene Duncan in the title role. Rarely has a musical exuded such soul, in all meanings of the word.


5. KIM’S CONVENIENCE Soulpepper, January 12 to February 19 and May 16 to July 4

From one character’s hilarious formula for a variety store customer’s theft risk to the final heart-rending lines about identity, Ins Choi’s play about a Korean-Canadian family resonates with audiences of all ages and colours. The play’s genesis is now the stuff of legend – as is Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s performance as patriarch Appa – but kudos to Soulpepper for remounting it and keeping up with demand (it’s returning next season), not to mention changing the idea of classic Canadian drama.


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6. THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS Tarragon, February 29 to April 8

In the hands of Carole Fréchette and translator John Murrell, the Bluebeard story is turned from a dashing fairy tale to a nuanced narrative about a privileged woman who learns there’s more to the world, including pain, than she ever thought possible. Director Weyni Mengesha’s immaculate production, featuring Nicole Underhay and Rick Roberts as the newlywed couple at odds over a forbidden room, kept us on the edge of our seats. No less entrancing was the haunting design by Astrid Janson, Bonnie Beecher and Thomas Ryder Payne.


7. MISS CALEDONIA Lunkamund/Tarragon, October 13 to November 22

A resourceful young farm woman from southwestern Ontario enters rural beauty pageants in the 1950s to try to escape her humble life. That’s the premise of Melody A. Johnson’s delightful show, which is based on her own mother’s life and thus – in its sharp, affectionate details – an act of homage to her female ancestors. Directors Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis ensured each moment on the mostly bare stage was vivid and truthful, while Alison Porter’s onstage fiddling added lots of colour. The show’s in the midst of a country-wide tour long may it reign.


8. WAR HORSE Mirvish Productions, February 10 to January 6, 2013

Adapted by Nick Stafford from a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse isn’t just for kids. The tale of a British teen who goes off in search of his best friend, a horse taken by the army for service in France during World War I, may be occasionally sentimental, but the stark, sober design, a committed Canadian team of performers and the extraordinary three-person puppets designed by Handspring Puppet Company made this production a magical evening in the theatre.


9. THE PENELOPIAD Nightwood, January 10 to 29

Margaret Atwood’s revisionist look at The Odyssey as seen through the eyes of Penelope (Megan Follows) got a sumptuous production directed by Kelly Thornton in which Denyse Karn’s suggestive designs added layers of complexity and drama to each scene. The dream cast of female actors deserved their ensemble Dora Award, but it was hard not to smile each time Kelli Fox’s androgynous Odysseus strode onstage. Look for a remount next month.


10. TEAR THE CURTAIN! Electric Company/Canadian Stage, October 7 to 20

The media has rarely been more successfully multi- than in Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr’s play/film combination, created with director Kim Collier. Young played the central figure, a 1930s Vancouver theatre critic caught in the crossfire of a gangland war and in a mystery involving a femme fatale and a theatre guru who may or may not be dead. The seamless transition from live action to film and back again was often jaw-dropping, as was the attention to narrative and visual detail.


Riveting revivals

DIVISADERO MR. MARMALADE DEATH OF A SALESMAN THE NORMAL HEART WAR OF THE WORLDS A CHRISTMAS CAROL


Dramatic duds

CRUEL AND TENDER Atom Egoyan brought production fireworks to Martin Crimp’s adaptation of a Sophocles play, but he could never light a dramatic fire under his leading actor, Arsinée Khanjian.

THE HAPPY WOMAN Even a fine cast that included Barbara Gordon, Maev Beaty and Maria Vacratsis couldn’t bring to life Rose Cullis’s play about a family with secrets we never got below the surface of the characters.

LUBA, SIMPLY LUBA aka Boring, Simply Boring. It’s not that Royal Canadian Air Farce alum Luba Goy hasn’t led a fascinating life. But this dreadful show needed a tighter script and more pointed direction to showcase its star.

BLOODLESS: THE TRIAL OF BURKE AND HARE Artist-based Theatre 20 got off to an off-key start with Joseph Aragon’s third-rate Sweeney Todd wannabe that wasted the talents of many fine musical theatre stars. May their upcoming production of Company hit more resonant notes.

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