Last year in this space we bemoaned the lack of new Canadian scripts. This year our prayers were answered. Yes, there were strong remounts (Bigger Than Jesus, Enoch Arden, Jimmy), but it's telling that more than half the plays on this list are new. Let's hope the trend continues in 2006.
1 TROUT STANLEY (Factory, January 4-February 6) Claudia Dey 's poetic voice and vivid imagination finally found a suitable home in this heartbreaking and quirky script about two fraternal twins - and the man who disrupts their lives - in a BC mining town. Director Eda Holmes and an unusual ensemble ( Michelle Giroux , Melody Johnson and Gordon Rand ) made us believe in the eccentric trio's losses and hopes. An exciting, brave high-wire act, gracefully executed.
2 HALF LIFE (Necessary Angel/Tarragon, February 22-April 3) Wholly engaging, John Mighton 's award-winning Half Life charts the love story of a senior Romeo and Juliet who might have known each other half a century earlier. Mighton's effective blend of heartfelt recollections and scientific theory proves that both sides of the brain can be equally involved in art. The production, directed by Daniel Brooks , played with a dreamlike quality that suits a work in which memory is both called into question and remains the centre of our humanity.
3 A WHISTLE IN THE DARK (The Company, January 13-February 5) The idea of national bloodlust, violence and dumb retaliation is as relevant as ever. No wonder Tom Murphy 's script about a clan of Irish emigré men fighting for their family pride in England resonated so effectively. Jason Byrne , from Dublin's Loose Cannon Theatre, directed a terrific team of young actors ( Philip Riccio , Allan Hawco , Oliver Becker , Aaron Poole , Jonathan Goad ) as the siblings jockeying for position in the family pecking order. Best was Joseph Ziegler , delivering one of his career-best performances as the vain, defensive patriarch.
4 THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT (Birdland, November 16-20) Staging this recent epic black comedy by Stephen Adly Guirgis , Birdland Theatre showed that it had more balls than most American theatre companies, who've shunned the poetry-dusted piece. In a corner of purgatory, a corrupt judge hears arguments for and against the archetypal Christian sinner. Though the script could use some pruning, director David Ferry and his first-rate cast never let the production's vivid energy flag, and designer Glenn Davidson beautifully played up the mechanical, prison-like aspect of the Distillery District's Fermenting Cellar.
5 THE ANGER IN ERNEST & ERNESTINE (Theatre Columbus, May 7-June 5) Theatre Columbus's 1987 comic two-hander about newlyweds who discover they're not compatible (or are they?) got a brilliant revival, by turns side-splittingly funny and tenderly poignant. In a terrific funhouse production helmed by Leah Cherniak , Rick Roberts and Jenny Young made the clown-like couple heartbreakingly true. Their initial nervous innocence was as believable as their later bursts of anger and their final defeated exhaustion. Full of wisdom and laughs for people in any stage of relationshipdom.
6 GOODNESS (Volcano/Tarragon, October 18-November 27) In Michael Redhill 's clever pomo piece, a writer named Michael Redhill travels to Poland looking for traces of his family, many murdered in the Holocaust. From there he meets a woman in England who recounts her own genocide experiences. Ross Manson juggled the play's complicated theatrical and intellectual shifts with ease, making us understand not only the fluid nature of good and evil, victim and victimizer, but the subjective nature of storytelling itself. Chilling performances by Victor Ertmanis as a possible murderer and Lily Francks as a haunted survivor.
7 BELLE MORAL: A NATURAL HISTORY (Shaw, July 7-October 7) The highlight of the Shaw Festival season combined gothic mystery, scientific inquiry and feminist dialogue in a delightfully comic and theatrical fashion. Ann-Marie MacDonald 's smart, irreverent script offers the kind of intellectual drama that marks GBS at his best, too, with a central conflict between romanticism and realism. Director Alisa Palmer 's production - with a fine cast headed by the excellent Fiona Byrne as a budding scientist and student of evolutionary theory who investigates dark family secrets - proved the best reason to take a drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
8 THE LEISURE SOCIETY (Factory, March 19-April 24) François Archambault 's bitingly ironic comedy is like an acid cocktail followed by a shot of arsenic. Three of its four characters -- an unhappily married couple and the male half of a fuck-friend partnering who's reliving his explosive adolescence -- are always playing games filled with hidden agendas of sexual aggression and bitchy one-upmanship. Could be a downer, but under director Ken Gass 's direction the quartet of performers were note perfect in making us feel ill at ease with these financially well-off but emotionally bankrupt people while allowing us to understand what's driven them to the precipices on which they're perched.
9 THE DISHWASHERS (Tarragon, November 10-December 18) There's no one who can direct a Morris Panych play as well as the writer himself, as he proved yet again in this production set in the grungy kitchen of a haute restaurant, created with loving, icky detail by designer Ken MacDonald . Driven by the yin/yang energies of a pair of co-workers - one ( Randy Hughson ) honours his work, the other ( Jonathan Crombie ) vilifies it - and the sideline comments of an aged employee ( Eric Peterson ) about to kick the bucket, this existential tale proves that life can be a sparkling-clean brandy snifter or a plate of baked-on cheese, depending on your point of view.
10 CHEKHOV'S HEARTACHE (Theatre Smith-Gilmour/Factory, April 26-May 29) Theatre Smith-Gilmour's fourth trip to the short stories of Anton Chekhov yields a rich harvest. An ensemble piece for four actors, the production creates much from little, using storytelling as a technique to spur the imagination of performers and audience. There's little philosophizing, just a view of the lower class's hard life, but the actors conjured up an entire village, complete with animals, and conveyed a range of emotions that touched us with the Russian master's view of the human comedy as well as the human tragedy.
Adult Entertainment, BoyGroove, Cast Iron, Democrats Abroad, Dreary And Izzy, Red River Rebellion, Rough House, Siegfried, Hongbu & Nolbu: The Tale Of The Magic Pumpkins, Blue Man Group
The year's worst drama occurred offstage. We lost venues around town: two spaces at Artword, two at the Poor Alex and the Tim Sims Playhouse. Not only that, but the potential sale of the Great Hall might result in the loss of the newly renovated Theatre Centre. These spaces are important both for the development of new work and for those companies that have no permanent homes and therefore must rent theatre space. The rental market just got a lot tighter and producing a lot harder.