This year's list of artists proves that the best stage talents work as comfortably with mainstream troupes as with indie companies. Whether they're presenting the classics or premiering works that ask audiences to think outside the box, these 10 creators push the performance envelope without losing sight of the fact that the best theatre touches the heart.
1 AHDRI ZHINA MANDIELA This is the year that writer/director mandiela stepped out from the wings and moved into a series of directors' chairs. Intelligent, soft-spoken and dedicated to honouring past creators as well as developing future artists, the articulate mandiela proves her skill both in her discussion of a work's development and in the quality of the finished product. She helped bring heart, hardness and heat to Cast Iron , turned up the comedy factor for Two Can Play and helmed two versions of the moving Stori Ya . And if that wasn't enough, the always busy mandiela continued working with young black artists in rAiz'n the sun and produced b current's fourth rock.paper.sistahz festival of new writing, adding some brothers to the mix.
2 DAVID FERRY You'd have to flip a coin to decide whether Ferry's more skilled as an actor or director; he's done a terrific job as both this year. He began in acting mode, playing the blustery wooer Smirnov in Chekhov's The Bear . Ferry moved to modern dress as Danny, half of a difficult team of cops in a remount of two of the Suburban Motel series; he shifted from feral policeman to innocent little boy in a nanosecond. Then he directed Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew , giving the potentially thorny play a funny, insightful reading that saw Kate and Petruchio as a pair of outsiders who learn to value each other. He ended the year helming a riotous, fast-paced production of The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot that was filled with dark-edged humour and unexpected poetry.
3 DANY LYNE Don't look for kitchen-sink realism in the work of designer Lyne, who uses surreal elements to reveal a script's emotional truths. At Stratford, she gave the fairy tale Into The Woods a goosing with stark design and rich costumes, including a witch who wore her vegetable patch's harvest on her back and used a 2-metre-long broccoli spear as a magic wand. For the Canadian Opera Company, she combined a Chekhovian middle-class look with a fantasy skyline for Rodelinda , and literally had a river of blood cleave the stage as a central image in the murder-filled Macbeth .
4 RANDY HUGHSON Hughson's become a Tarragon regular this year, and it's appropriate that in a company that considers itself a playwrights' theatre, he's an actor who brings out the best in a writer's words. He was a commanding groom-to-be with a touch of danger ( The Optimists ), a kitchen philosopher caught up with cleaning forks and knives ( The Dishwashers ) and a soft-voiced, foot-in-mouth cleric who stirs up his flock more than he calms them ( Half Life ). In each, he captured the neurotic comedy of characters who sometimes think too much for their own good. Just to change the pace, he spent some time directing at the Blyth Festival last summer. But he's not done at the Tarragon -- he returns in the spring for an award-deserving solo turn in the remount of Earshot .
5 IRENE POOLE Emotional truth tied to elegance describes the work of Poole, a Labrador-born actor we're happy to have in T.O. Twice this year she's shown us first the highly polished, brittle exterior of a character and then the haunting emptiness inside. Poole picked up a Dora for her nasty, sad wife in The Leisure Society , half of a desperately unhappy couple who have all the trappings of success but none of its security. She later brought haute couture to hell in The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot , playing the defence lawyer who takes on witnesses as diverse as Satan and Sigmund Freud in her plan to prove that Judas wasn't as bad as he's made out to be.
6 RHOMA SPENCER No one can turn on the juice quite the way Spencer does -- she owns the stage simply by standing on it. Alternately comic and heart-rending, she made a vibrant impression in Mad Miss as a fantasizing homeless woman uprooted from the Caribbean and forced to survive in downtown Toronto. Later, in Stori Ya , she gave vibrant life to Maria, an abused woman whose life finally becomes focused on the home that is her sole possession.
7 MIKE SHARA A mainstay at the Shaw Festival, Shara usually plays the boy-next-door juvenile with charm to spare. In a rare Toronto appearance, he did a 180 turn in Take Me Out and nearly stole the show, playing a racist, homophobic cracker baseball player. Back at Shaw during the summer, he revealed a knack for physical comedy as a love-besotted dentist in You Never Can Tell , using his body as well as Shaw's lines as sources of comedy and emotional expressiveness.
8 GLENN DAVIDSON Designer Davidson, a mainstay in the theatre community for a quarter-century, finally received his first Dora this year for The Anger In Ernest And Ernestine . His constricted basement apartment, complete with smoke-belching furnace, captured the tensions between the play's newlyweds. There was more tension in his masterful use of the eerie Fermenting Cellar space for The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot ; hand-held lighting manipulated by the actors helped create a courtroom in Purgatory. Davidson had a chance to play with a sunnier design in The Taming Of The Shrew , set in 1913 Italy.
9 ERIC PETERSON It's not like Peterson's had a lot of free time this year, what with his TV work as the stolidly funny Oscar on Corner Gas and the sympathetic Judge Malone, doing his best to help those out of step with society, in This Is Wonderland. Still, he wowed audiences twice at the Tarragon, first in Half Life as a second world war code-breaker who begins -- or maybe continues, we're never quite sure -- a seniors'-home romance with an Alzheimer's patient, and at the end of the year as an oxygen-tank-carrying smoker who desperately holds onto his job as an ineffectual shuffler of dirty plates in The Dishwashers . In the former he was wistful and gentle, in the latter goofily funny; both performances were exquisitely detailed.
10 AVIVA ARMOUR-OSTROFF Producer, photographer, actor -- Armour-Ostroff's been working in the community for years. She stepped onstage twice in 2005 in memorable roles, in The Demimonde as half of a sister act taking the spotlight in a Klondike bar, and later, in The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot , as the angelic, streetwise Gloria and a not-so-saintly Mother Teresa. Just as importantly, for six years she's been presenting Lab Cab , a vital series for nurturing new stage works, which comes to a close early in 2006.