JON KAPLAN and GLENN SUMI's Top 10 theatre shows
This year's top plays proved that all the world's a stage -- literally. The top three shows transported us to South Africa, 17th-century France and an unnamed contemporary Middle Eastern city. It's hard to think of a broader-reaching list, as shows touched on everything from a black heir to the British throne to a moving documentary-style piece about homophobia. Here are 10 shows that hit all their marks.
1 YIIMIMANGALISO: THE MYSTERIES (Broomhill Opera/Wilton's Music Hall/World Stage, April 8 to 13) The most joyous, moving show of the year came to Toronto from South Africa. Created by director Mark Dornford-May and music director Charles Hazlewood, The Mysteries was a surprisingly simple reinterpretation of medieval English dramatic versions of Bible stories, streamed through the immense talents of a multi-ethnic, multilingual cast. Church spirituals, township drumming, deliciously earthy comedy and, in the person of Vumile Nomanyama, a sensational God/Christ. A spontaneous standing O for each performance.
2 THROUGH THE EYES (Factory Theatre, January 16 to February 9) Don Druick's nuanced, subtle look at the collision between two historic giants -- Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and his demanding patron, France's Sun King, Louis XIV -- proved that negotiating court intrigue is as much an art form as anything that emerges from an atelier. Directed by Brian Quirt, working on Carolyn M. Smith's marbleized floor and under Paul Mathiesen's suggestive lighting, the chameleon-like Richard McMillan played myriad figures by changing tone, casting a glance, altering a facial expression, all the while turning the audience into his court confidants. The show returns in May.
3 HELEN'S NECKLACE (Tarragon, October 14 to November 16) On its deceptively simple surface, Carole Fréchette's thoughtful two-hander featured a middle-class Western woman (Susan Coyne) navigating a crumbling war-torn Middle Eastern city in search of a lost necklace. But beneath Fréchette's lyricism and layered text, it suggested so much more about personal and global responsibilities. Eda Holmes directed a sharp production, with Coyne's self-obsessed Helen contrasting nicely with Sanjay Talwar's gallery of lost souls.
4 SOMETHING ABOUT A RIVER (bluemouth, inc., November 13 to 29) Too often, multidisciplinary works dazzle with tricks but fail to touch the heart. Gathering together the three parts of Something About A River and presenting them as an extended epic, bluemouth, inc. took audiences on a fascinating journey into the sometimes understated, sometimes overwhelming emotional undercurrents that give life to an extended family. The strands of narrative were left to each viewer to connect in some fashion, and if the text elements were sometimes vague, the visuals and sheer kinetic energy of the company swept us along for a dreamlike, absorbing five hours at different venues around town.
5 THE SWANNE: PRINCESS CHARLOTTE (THE ACTS OF VENUS) (Stratford, September 3 to 28) Most of the highlights of the past two Stratford seasons have been at the Studio Theatre, and at the top of the list is Peter Hinton's monumental, hyper-theatrical look at the young Princess Victoria's investigation into the life and times of a black man who should have preceded her to the British throne. The second instalment ran this summer (we hope for Stratford to stage all three parts in 2005) and skipped through time and history to present a riveting story of Dickensian coincidence and spectacular magic realism. Hinton directed a large ensemble that included Diane D'Aquila, Steve Cumyn, Karen Robinson, Jane Spidell, Maria Vacratsis and Scott Wentworth.
6 THE DOMINO HEART (Tarragon/Jack in the Black, March 25 to April 27) Actor Matthew Edison made his playwriting debut with this impressive series of monologues tied together by the serial transplants of one donated heart. Bookended by poignant scenes by the mesmerizing Rosemary Dunsmore and filled with further compassion by David Fox and Raoul Bhaneja, the script -- skilfully directed by Michael Kessler -- provided a window into the souls of a trio of all-too-human people.
7 CUL-DE-SAC (da da kamera, May 22 to 31) Writer/actor Daniel MacIvor and director Daniel Brooks captured all the conflicting stories and feelings surrounding the death of a middle-aged gay man one rainy night. Not as depressing as that sounds, it amounted to a narratively challenging and clear-eyed investigation of what it means to be alive, anchored by MacIvor's strongest-ever performance.
8 LITTLE MERCY'S FIRST MURDER (Tarragon, January 21 to February 23) Morwyn Brebner's musical noir, with tunes by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, took the audience on a fast-paced drive through a surreal 40s Big Apple with a murder suspect hungry for worldly knowledge (Melody Johnson) and her new-found partner, a hardboiled crime photographer (Peter Millard). The excellent cast made the most of the pastiche of a score, whose melodies perfectly suited Brebner's rich lyrics, and director Eda Holmes caught the wry comedy and toughness of this dark world.
9 ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY (Scott Sanders/John Schreiber/Bob Benia, June 23 to 28) Scratchy-voiced septuagenarian Elaine Stritch's trek through her 50-odd years in showbiz was soaked in booze, spiked with witty zingers and delivered with a physicality that would defeat a performer half her age. In its sober look at missed opportunities and rare second chances, the show -- constructed by John Lahr and efficiently staged by George C. Wolfe -- also revealed a generous and moving heart. A work deserving of her signature song, I'm Still Here.
10 THE LARAMIE PROJECT (Studio 180, February 14 to March 2) A three-act show about a group of actors who visit the town where gay student Matthew Shepard was murdered? Sounds high-concept and terribly pomo. But Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project's fascinating script accumulated power in its look at hate, compassion and difference. Joel Greenberg handled the many character and scene changes effortlessly, and a strong ensemble including Deborah Drakeford, Alison Lawrence, Kimwun Perehinec and Jonathan Goad breathed life into real characters. Don't miss the upcoming remount at Buddies.
Blue/Orange; Stories From The Rains Of Love And Death; Happy Days; Sunday Father; Job: The Hip-Hop Saga; Tamara; Mis(Oriented)
CABARET Falling between an energetic student show and a sometimes competent community-theatre effort, this wan production of the Broadway hit had no business charging $58.50.
GOODBYE, TIM HARDIN Bill Ballantyne's rambling ode to Hardin shed no light on the composer/singer, and the playwright's phlegmatic acting failed to generate interest in the material.
AIDA Hmm... Written on the wind? Or by monkeys in the Disney studios? Shame on you, Elton John.
ME, DAD AND THE HUNDRED BOYFRIENDS Cathy Jones's under-written and -rehearsed sketch of a show seemed thrown together haphazardly, and it only rarely touched the funny bone.
CHRIST 2: THE SECOND COMING First-time scribe Brian McAnoy's script about a modern-day Jesus was a sketch that relied on characters yelling "Oh, Jesus!" for laughs. First time, cute. Fiftieth, gimme a stake.
MAMBO ITALIANO Call it My Big Fat Italian... oh, forget it. Sitcom humour, bad taste and a gay-is-OK theme that would have felt stale two decades ago. ****