This year's list of theatre artists is a multicultural one, reflecting the cultural mix that defines Toronto these days. Too bad that mix isn't as frequently seen on local stages, but theatre companies are making a start. Everyone on the list has several credits, giving proof of his or her facility in handling the various hues of human emotions that define theatre at its best.
1 KAREN ROBINSON (Agamemnon; Electra; The Flies; The Swanne: Princess Charlotte ; The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God) After appearing on this list last year, Robinson jumps to the number-one position for the breadth of her work at Stratford and here in Toronto. At the festival, Robinson played three very different versions of hurt, deceptive Clytemnestra in the House Of Atreus trilogy -- manipulative and vengeful in Agamemnon, airy and often comic in Electra, fatalistically doom-ridden in The Flies. She followed up the royal Greek roles as a saucy 19th-century English prostitute in The Swanne and then came home to take on the daunting lead, Rainey, in The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God, bringing to the part an edgy blend of powerful emotions.
2 EDA HOLMES (Little Mercy's First Murder; Blood Relations; Helen's Necklace; Big Love) Whether she's working with festival veterans or young actors still training, director Holmes brings confidence to her work along with a strong sense of movement that helps unlocks a play's text. She gave zip to the musical noir Little Mercy's First Murder without ignoring the play's dark shadows, and then went to Shaw -- she'll return next year -- to guide a crackerjack version of the Lizzy Borden story, Blood Relations. Back in Toronto, she brought delicacy and nuance to the two-hander Helen's Necklace and finished off the year back at Ryerson University guiding the graduating class in an uproarious version of Big Love, a reworked Greek classic powered by sexual politics.
3 SANJAY TALWAR (Rice Boy; Twelfth Night; Helen's Necklace) Double-threat Talwar (performer and director) spent this year concentrating on acting, first in Rice Boy, in which he brought a warm sense of comic befuddlement to the uncle of a young boy caught between two cultures. He spent the summer in High Park in Twelfth Night, stealing the show as an Andrew Aguecheek who was both painfully shy and foolishly self-impressed. But his most splendid work of 2003 came in the fall, when he played a series of amazingly diverse characters -- including a sympathetic taxi driver and a distraught mother searching for her dead child -- in Helen's Necklace.
4 ANDREA LUNDY (Chronic; Little Mercy's First Murder; In The Freedom Of Dreams: The Story Of Nelson Mandela; Russell Hill; Blood Relations; Diana Of Dobson's; Phèdre; Helen's Necklace; Stories From The Rains Of Love And Death) Always in demand -- just look at the number of this year's productions -- award-winning lighting designer Lundy tackles one of the most difficult aspects of a theatre production and comes up with marvellously atmospheric results. She's especially good at sharp-edged designs that suggest a sense of menace (Stories From The Rains Of Love And Death, Blood Relations, Phèdre), but she also created the sunny openness of a South African village for In The Freedom Of Dreams and the light-filled Mediterranean scenes for Helen's Necklace.
5 JIM WARREN (No Exit; The Play's The Thing; Cinderella) In the past two decades, Warren's grown from being a hilarious comic actor -- often with a touch of clown -- to an award-winning director with serious chops. Helming one of the best shows at Stratford this year, he and a first-rate cast turned the difficult No Exit into a piece brimming with dark laughs and believable chills. Back in Toronto, he polished up his gemlike portrayal of a nervous servant in the revival of The Play's The Thing. Warren finished the year directing the panto Cinderella, giving the comic bits a whiplike precision and almost making Ross Petty palatable. He's back at Stratford this coming summer, but will somebody in Toronto please give him a serious directing job?
6 JONATHAN GOAD (The Laramie Project; The Taming Of The Shrew; The Adventures Of Pericles; Love's Labour's Lost) Goad has become one of the bright young lights at Stratford, where he's spent five seasons. We were lucky to see him here last spring in The Laramie Project, playing a variety of characters -- most impressively, a straight teen actor whose joy in his work helps him recognize the homophobia around him -- before he returned to Stratford for a trio of roles. He gave an impressive comic spin to characters in The Taming Of The Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost, but it was his rounded title character in The Adventures Of Pericles, an immensely difficult role, that marked his proper theatrical coming of age.
7 PAULINE MALEFANE (Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries; Carmen) Visiting Toronto during April's World Stage Festival with Broomhill Opera/Wilton's Music Hall, South African performer Malefane shone incandescently as a moving and very human Virgin Mary in Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries, palpably demonstrating her love for her young son and later her pain at his death. Then she did a 180 to sing and play the seductive title figure in Bizet's Carmen, creating the most sensual Carmen I've ever seen.
8 JOHN THOMPSON (Little Mercy's First Murder; Russell Hill; No Man's Land; Blue/Orange; Helen's Necklace) Juggling designs for set, costumes and lighting -- sometimes all three, sometimes fewer -- Thompson had a theatrically rich year, not just in quantity but in quality of work. He can do both elegant townhouse (No Man's Land) and sterile psychiatric facility (Blue/Orange), creating a mood with the placement of a piece of furniture, while his more impressionistic designs for Little Mercy's First Murder and Helen's Necklace suggest a work's tone with a colour pattern or a series of haphazardly scattered bricks. He scored most impressively with the set for Russell Hill, a subway platform captured in microscopic detail, down to the yellow plastic line at the platform's edge.
9 ERIC PETERSON (Chronic; Boy Gets Girl; The Blues) Talented actor Peterson had a knack this year for giving a goose to troubled productions. He played a seductive virus in Chronic, brought an amazing amount of understated charm and humanity to a sleazy porn filmmaker in Boy Gets Girl and then grounded The Blues as a down-in-the-dumps novelist, giving a wonderfully frantic, intense performance capped by a pair of long monologues that he manoeuvred with racing-driver skill.
10 NGOZI PAUL (pppeeeaaaccceee; In The Freedom Of Dreams: The Story Of Nelson Mandela; 3-parts harmony; 'Da Kink In My Hair) Paul's the kind of artist whose emotion-driven performances get under your skin and into your heart. She was one of a trio of actors in the philosophically thoughtful and theatrical elegy pppeeeaaaccceee and one of the creator/performers in 3-parts harmony, playing the neurotic side of a woman preparing to go on a date. For In The Freedom Of Dreams, Paul was ebullient youth personified as the preteen Nelson Mandela, and in 'Da Kink In My Hair explored with moving intensity the rejection felt by a black woman whose mother favours her lighter-skinned sister. ****