This year's list of best theatre artists tracks actors, writers, directors, designers and people who wore several hats. Made up of both established and new talents, this top 10 list proves that local theatre offers a diversity of talents, people who made us think about, wonder at and, most importantly, feel a little more deeply about ourselves and the world around us.
1 JANE SPIDELL No one plays near-to-boiling text and multi-layer subtext like Spidell, who doesn't work in Toronto nearly often enough. Her back-to-back performances at the start of 2004 kick-started the theatrical year, first in a revival of Tom Walmsley's two-hander Blood , in which Spidell played a manipulative, wounded prostitute. Then she took on the title role in Michael Healey's Rune Arlidge , a three-chapter story about a dysfunctional family, in which she kept her emotional cards close to her chest but built up a picture of a needy, uncertain woman looking to connect.
2 NINA AQUINO Aquino's the local stage wonderwoman, working as administrator, performer, writer, director and dramaturge. As artistic director of the Asian Canadian troupe fu-GEN, she organized last spring's Playwrights Kitchen Potluck Festival , which introduced audience to six Asian writers and a slew of new performers. In the fall, fu-GEN made its mainstage premiere with Leon Aureus's adaptation of Terry Woo's Banana Boys , with Aquino confidently at the helm of the multimedia show. Also marketing and development coordinator at Native Earth, she directed the workshop of Carl Brave Rock's Indian Daze as part of the Weesageechak Begins To Dance Festival.
3 DAVID JANSEN It's good to have Jansen back on this side of the ocean after his time in England. One of the most intelligent actors on the local scene, he's marvellously lucid with text and the emotions that underlie it. Jansen's been in three productions since August, beginning with The Arabian Night , in which he ended up, genie-like, trapped inside a bottle. He then gave the best performance in the rocky Private Jokes, Public Places , as a teacher with more than a passing connection with a female student, and finished the year with That Time , a series of brief, enigmatic Beckett pieces in which he played a trio of roles that explore the (mostly) quiet desperation of human life.
4 HUME BAUGH Baugh was all over the map this year, and that's a good thing. A performer who cleverly combines physical vitality and emotional truths, he began 2004 playing one of the splintered aspects of Trudeau in the viscerally based And One Night It Snowed . He followed it with a pair of solo shows by Michael MacLean, first as a troubled pyromaniac in Smoke and then a porn-star Pinocchio in Woody . Baugh finished the year with a turn in Silvija Jestrovic's Not My Story , as a documentary filmmaker who has difficulty turning the camera on himself.
5 JORDAN PETTLE Pettle does some of his best work in plays by his brother Adam, but this year in plays by three other authors he revealed the open heart he brings to the stage. As the youthful outsider in Michel Marc Bouchard's Written On Water , he became a guardian angel who was both repository of the past and hope for the future of a town populated by seniors. In a fascinating take on Waiting For Godot , Pettle played child to William Hutt's splendid parent. He finished the year as the troubled Point Five in Jacob Richmond's Small Returns , a sometimes unsatisfactory script given comic poignancy by Pettle's hallucinating, romantic debt collector.
6 PASHA McKENLEY A comedy and theatre artist, Mckenley won a Dora a few years ago and keeps getting stronger. That strength emerged as soon as her first wail in Claire Calnan's Inanna , in which Mckenley played the goddess of the underworld. Later, as a member of the coloUred girls' collective, she was an impressively heartbreaking Lady in Purple in for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf . Early in December she took part in the collective's Langston Hughes Project as a woman who recalls the pain and joy of a relationship, demonstrating yet again that Mckenley dives into the deep end of the pool of human emotions. She'll keep on creating with the coloUred girls' collective, but, hey, Obsidian and other companies - give her more stage time.
7 GORDON RAND Unlike most others in this best-of list, Rand kept switching hats over the course of the year. He both wrote and directed Pond Life , a Fringe hit that was revived last month, though he spent the Fringe not watching his handiwork but rehearsing a role in Brian Friel's historical drama Translations . The sharp-edged Pond Life, a darkly comic piece about a dinner party that quickly goes to ratshit, showed his rat-a-tat way with dialogue and characterization. Rand revealed a different side in Translations as the handicapped Manus, who lives in the shadow of his teacher father but nonetheless opens his large heart to the students of an 1830s Irish hedge school.
8 JOANNE DENTE Just as the playwright and the actor define a show verbally and physically, the designer does so visually. One of this year's top visualizers, in totally different contexts, was Dente, a member of the Spindle Collective . Early in the year, creating costumes and set for Marjorie Chan's China Doll , she explored the richly sensuous world of Su-Ling, a young Asian woman rebelling against the tradition of foot-binding. Dente turned Su-Ling's bed into a cage from which the unwilling bride-to-be finally escapes. Dente ended the year designing set, props and costumes for the double bill of Beckett's That Time and the collectively created BéBé , which looked at Bertolt Brecht and the women in his life. Philosophical and political, the look of these works had a bare-bones quality, but Dente helped infuse each with an intangible atmosphere of lingering memory, sadness and defiance.
9 BEN CARLSON I usually reserve slots in this roundup for artists who've done outstanding work in at least two shows, but I think a five-hour work like Shaw's Man And Superman counts for a good pair of productions. Carlson anchored the presentation physically, verbally and with enormous stamina as John Tanner, the modern-day Don Juan unaware that he's being pursued by the woman destined to tame his revolutionary qualities. Carlson gave the performance of his young career as the fast-talking, fast-thinking intellectual anti-hero.
10 GREG CAMPBELL The chameleon-like Campbell specializes in character roles, but even when they're satiric they have a touch of heart. There's not much room for internalized emotions in Deanne Taylor's City For Sale , a skewering of the self-serving market forces at play in a big city like T.O., but Campbell managed a moral 180, playing both a power-craving media baron and the grassroots mayoral candidate opposing the baron's backroom forces. Not long after, the actor returned in drag to Suzie Goo: Private Secretary as Sheree LaFuente, a good-hearted secretary who was alternately subtle and brazen, with a deliciously bitchy side and very big hair.