This will go down as the year The Producers and Hairspray closed prematurely, but the real question is where are the new Canadian scripts? Most theatre companies played it safe, staging remounts of acclaimed hits once (The Laramie Project, Helen's Necklace, Through The Eyes, Cul-De-Sac) or even twice (One Good Marriage). The new works that did squeak through seemed either workshopped to death (Pélagie) or in need of serious dramaturgy (Small Returns). That said, here are 10 shows that impressed us.
1 DIE WALKÜRE (Canadian Opera Company, April 4 to 23) Yes, an opera topped our list - but not just any opera. The COC kicked off what promises to be a world-class version of Richard Wagner's epic tale of gods and humans, The Ring Cycle , with a thrilling production of the cycle's second opera, Die Walküre. Conducted by Richard Bradshaw, directed by Atom Egoyan, with production design by Michael Levine and lighting by David Finn , the show worked not just musically but on every front, from warrior maidens clad in 19th-century evening gowns carrying dead heroes to what looked like a bombed-out theatre, to human figures who were achingly real.
2 BIGGER THAN JESUS (Necessary Angel/Factory, November 16 to December 19) In a multimedia piece that looks at the central figure of Christianity, the stories that have surrounded him over the centuries and the acts done in his name, performer Rick Miller and director Daniel Brooks don't shy away from sly and often yowl-out-loud satire. But roving from outrageous comedy to serene contemplation, they've also based the piece in spiritual, ennobling certainties about the human soul. Yes, Christ has risen again - in a thoughtful, theatrical and gripping manner.
3 THAT TIME (Theatre Extasis/Theatre Centre, December 6 to 19) Director Jennifer Tarver ended the year on a high note with this electric program of five shorts by Samuel Beckett . From Barbara Gordon 's disembodied and anxious spotlit Mouth in the opening piece, Not I , to Paul Fauteux and David Jansen as a couple of happy-sad clowns going through the motions of life, the bleak, sometimes wordless show was full of both white-knuckle moments and knee-slapping laughs. Brilliant.
4 NATHAN THE WISE (Soulpepper, June 17 to July 31) Soulpepper specializes in rediscovering lesser-known classics. Here, director Tim Albery took G. E. Lessing 's 18th-century German play about a Jewish businessman ( William Webster , in a compassionate performance) who - through his benevolence and intelligence - resolves racial and religious tensions. Performed on Dany Lyne 's intriguing book-lined set and lit by Sharon DiGenova , the production gave equal weight to the work's Dickensian coincidences, comic undertones and potential family tragedy. A masterpiece reclaimed.
5 ENOCH ARDEN ON SORAUREN (Tract 6.4/SummerWorks, August 5 to 15) Judith Thompson 's fascinating hybrid of a play mixed up a sentimental narrative love poem by Alfred Tennyson and music later written for it by Richard Strauss . Her clever twist? Setting it in a Parkdale boarding house and having it performed by two troubled residents, one an incessant talker (the confident John Fitzgerald Jay ), the other a near catatonic (the expressive Kristin Mueller ) whose only mode of communication is playing the piano and singing lieder. A sense of mystery - what was real? what imagined? - suffused the show, evocatively helmed by Maria Lamont . Original, memorable theatre.
6 THE SYRINGA TREE (CanStage, February 21 to March 20) Pamela Gien 's solo show about growing up in apartheid South Africa is, on the one hand, simple storytelling; at the same time, it's a riveting, intricate piece about the fact that humanity is colour-blind. Alternating in the show, Caroline Cave and Yanna McIntosh each brought her own nuances to the dozens of characters Gien created, touching the heart especially with the white daughter at the centre of the tale, the black servant who is her surrogate mother and the servant's daughter, who gives her life for her convictions.
7 THE HANDMAID'S TALE (Canadian Opera Company/SUPERDANISH, September 23 to October 9) One of the highlights of the city-wide SUPERDANISH Festival, this production of Poul Ruders 's melodic, challenging opera was even more faithful to Margaret Atwood 's dystopic novel than the film version was. The temporal shifts were handled gracefully, and the brilliant idea of splitting the title character into two - one before the theocratic dictatorship, one after - paid huge vocal and dramatic dividends, especially in a climactic duet by expert singing actors Stephanie Marshall and Krisztina Szabó . Sensitively directed by Mamma Mia's Phyllida Lloyd and conducted passionately by Richard Bradshaw , the ambitious piece proved that modern opera is alive and thrilling.
8 HAIRSPRAY (Mirvish, May 5 to November 28) Plus-sized civil-rights-fighting teen Tracy Turnblad convinced us that you Can't Stop The Beat, even while T.O. audiences showed us that you Can Stop The Musical. The biggest mystery of the year was why this candy-coloured adaptation of John Waters 's campy cult classic didn't pack crowds into the Princess of Wales. It certainly wasn't because of the hummable 60s pastiche score, the witty double- and triple-entendre-filled book, or the performers (including Vanessa Olivarez , Jay Brazeau , Michael Torontow , Charlotte Moore ) who motored through the show with infectious glee. A good time while it lasted.
9 THE RED PRIEST (EIGHT WAYS TO SAY GOODBYE) (Tarragon, March 23 to May 2) Set in an 18th-century French court, Mieko Ouchi 's subtle script took a nifty premise - court musician Antonio Vivaldi must teach a courtier's wife to play the violin in six weeks - and created a moving duet about art, love, public life and private passions. No, it wasn't as precious as that sounds. Ron Jenkins directed Ashley Wright as the frustrated Vivaldi and Ouchi as the wife whose marriage is faltering but who learns a valuable, humane lesson about self-worth and dignity.
10 THE UNNATURAL AND ACCIDENTAL WOMEN (Native Earth/Buddies, November 18 to December 5) Marie Clements 's bold, ambitious piece looks at the status of women and natives and a natural world that's being stripped of its power by a rapacious society. The poetry, philosophy and multimedia didn't quite come together, but director Yvette Nolan 's fascinating production, sprawling across the stage of Buddies, captured the bawdy, sometimes horrifying lives and deaths of the women murdered by a serial-killer barber. And the largely native cast treated us to some fine performances, including those of Muriel Miguel , Gloria May Eshkibok and Valerie Buhagiar .
Timon Of Athens; Copenhagen; Dear Boss; Tape; The Last Five Years ; One Man Lord Of The Rings
DUSE This clichéd look at the lowlights of thespian Eleanora Duse's life and career was a joyless affair, more an opportunity to examine Jennifer Dale's timeless beauty than to learn about the legendary actor who impressed everyone from Chekhov to Chaplin.
ROMEO AND JULIET Opening a new lakeside theatre devoted to the Bard, ShakespeareWorks fumbled the ball. No wonder - in this production of the quintessential story of young love there was no chemistry between the two leads, and the acoustics rendered the text nearly unintelligible.
THE PENELOPE SHOW Elizabeth Harpur's and Lory Berger 's pointless, self-indulgent show about a precocious seven-year-old who blows up her school was a 10-minute skit stretched out to two interminable acts.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR Donizetti's tragic opera about power, love and madness was about as engrossing and harrowing as a neighbourhood kids' show. The acting was at about the same level.