Size didn't matter in 2002. In fact, smaller indie theatre companies -- most without a permanent performing venue, some that mount a single show a year -- dominate this list. Ironically, many of those big, honking prize-winning American plays and musicals (Proof, Contact, Side Man) failed to shine in local or touring productions. Of the 250-odd shows I saw, here are the ones I'll remember for years.
1 in on it (da da kamera/Buddies in Bad Times, March 26 to April 7) A new Daniel MacIvor play is always exciting, but this show was a revelation. A self-conscious look at a disintegrating relationship (MacIvor and Darren O'Donnell), the senseless death of one of the characters and the writing of the play itself (why? to get that character back?) resonated profoundly. For all his postmodern tricks, MacIvor never shies away from real emotion, recognizing that the subtle power of theatre can make us gasp at the dropping of a piece of clothing. He also knows that sometimes you just gotta let loose and enjoy the silly dance.
2 the danish play (Nightwood, November 21 to December 15)
Sonja Mills's play was as brave, uncompromising and remarkable as its central character, Mills's great aunt, poet and Resistance fighter Agnete Ottosen. Mills made Ottosen's various bids for freedom more moving by placing them in the context of a richly drawn circle of friends, while director Kelly Thornton blended time and mood with awesome ease. Fine ensemble work; Kate Hennig gave us the performance of the year.
3 oedipus rex/symphony of psalms and the queen of spades (Canadian Opera Company, September 26 to October 12) The Canadian Opera Company's earned its international rep by taking on lesser-known works -- Bartók, Schoenberg, Janácek -- and making them riveting theatre. They ended 2002 with two shining examples, Stravinsky's opera oratorio and Tchaikovsky's solemn, moody (and practically aria-free) piece, which I never thought would work onstage. Both received hugely convincing arguments thanks to directors François Girard and Annilese Miskimmon.
4 the adventures of a black girl in search of god (Obsidian/Nightwood/Harbourfront Centre, February 7 to 23) With its cast of 21, its music and dancing, its humour and humanity, its reclamation of black history and its multi-generational look at love, faith and loss, director/writer Djanet Sears's play aimed high, and the gamble paid off. No, the script wasn't as rigorously structured as her masterpiece, Harlem Duet, but theatre lives and breathes onstage, not on the page. A cause for celebration for the debuting Obsidian Theatre.
5 mump & smoot in flux (Mump & Smoot, May 29 to June 23) Horror clowns Mump (Michael Kennard) and Smoot (John Turner) braved the great Canadian outdoors and made us laugh with their wilderness tips and pratfalls. Their best work targets the needy primal child in all of us, showing that we're hungry for food, yes, but hungrier for companionship and affection.
6 chekhov longs... in the ravine (Theatre Smith-Gilmour/Factory, February 5 to March 3 and November 16 to December 15) Darker than the earlier Chekhov's Shorts, this absorbing adaptation of Chekhov's novella about the downfall of a corrupt merchant family displayed Theatre Smith-Gilmour's economical theatricality. A few bricks evoked a village, some chairs and a cloth rendered a bustling wedding scene. Most importantly, five terrific actors -- including Dean Gilmour and Liisa Repo-Martell -- made a world emerge intact, complete with our too human flaws.
7 absolutely chekhov (Soulpepper, September 9 to 28) Great idea, brilliant execution. Ask playwrights Michael Healey, Jason Sherman, Adam Pettle and David French for new adaptations of short Chekhov comedies, then add an original piece about the Russian master by Sherman and Susan Coyne. The lovingly performed results (Martha Burns in comedy! Joe Ziegler as a hen-pecked husband!) were filled with bittersweet truths about life and art.
8 MEDEA (Theatre Babel/World Stage, April 8 to 13) Scotland's Liz Lochhead turned Euripides' tragedy into a darkly funny First Wives Club take on women, men, sexual jealousy and vengeance. Some brilliant details, including having the outsider Medea (a magnetic Maureen Beattie) speak with a husky-voiced pan-European accent, underscoring her alien status, and letting Medea and other woman, Glauke, duke it out verbally. A stunning adaptation that in the harrowing end remained duly respectful of its source.
9 a little rain never hurt no one (Good Hair Day, November 21 to 30)
Vocal phenom Fides Krucker journeyed through one woman's pain and heartbreak in this haunting late-night (it could only happen at 10:30 pm) cabaret show, fascinatingly staged by Mark Christmann with a fine, if underused, supporting cast of four women. Pianist Sageev Oore and percussionist Rick Sacks added some quirks and quarks, and unclassifiable performer Krucker made sure we'll never hear standards like Am I Blue? and Every Time I Say Goodbye the same way again.
10 Tracks (Big Sandwich/Fringe, July 6 to 14)
Although the Fringe and SummerWorks offered gems like Job: The Hiphop Musical, The Year Of Pretending, Fish/Wife and One Good Marriage That One, That One, the play that stays with me most is T.J. Dawe's adaptation of Jack London's memoir about being a hobo and riding boxcars during the Depression. Dawe's a born storyteller, and his simple staging and clear presentation plunged us into London's world. Having the occasional real train rumble by outside the Tarragon added, albeit unintentionally, to the work's power.