The Top 10 Theatre Productions of 2016

A Canadian classic astonishingly reinvented, a pair of epic trilogies and a new musical whose feel-good quality was entirely justified.


A Canadian classic astonishingly reinvented, a pair of epic trilogies and a new musical whose feel-good quality was entirely justified were among the top productions of the past year. Enthralling viewers with a mix of drama, comedy and music, these were rich shows worth seeing a second and even a third time.

Factory Theatre, February 26 to March 13

The highlight of Factory’s Naked season was director Ravi Jain‘s spare, transcendent reimagining of David French‘s Newfoundland love story. No naturalistic costumes or sets. No attempts at accents. Singer/guitarist Ania Soul underscored moments, crooned contemporary tunes and also read aloud the play’s stage directions while the superb actors (Kawa Ada and Mayko Nguyen) negotiated a stage lit only by candles. The result was an emotionally rich experience that glows in the memories of all who saw it.

Soulpepper, September 23 to October 22

Another landmark Canadian play, Michel Tremblay‘s passionate, sharp-edged exploration of sexuality and sexual politics focuses on a humiliated drag queen and her over-the-hill lover. The polished Soulpepper production sparkled in the hands of director Gregory Prest and actors Damien Atkins and Jason Cadieux, whose chemistry proved the strongest since the work’s 1974 Tarragon premiere. Add designer Yannik Larivee‘s mirrored set and lighting by Rebecca Picherack, which reflected in several senses the various sides of the pair, and the result was scintillating theatre.

Modern Times Stage Company/Theatre Centre, March 26 to April 10

Modern Times director Soheil Parsa worked his magic with the revival of Bahram Beyzaie‘s tale, inspired by Persian history, about the body of a ruler found in a poor miller’s house. Partly a mystery that explored who killed him and why, the play allowed each member of the miller’s family to become the king in a fascinating series of switched roles. Parsa’s strong ensemble cast and design by Trevor Schwellnus (scenography) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound) had us on the edge of our seats watching the shift of power in this multi-layered script.

Obsidian/Shaw, June 30 to September 10 and October 8 to 23

In a year that made us wonder again about the roots of racism and intolerance, Athol Fugard‘s powerful play about a bright Caucasian teenager’s changing relationship with his family’s two Black servants in early apartheid South Africa really hit home. Director Philip Akin and a superb cast (Andre Sills, Allan Louis, James Daly) brought out every nuance in the beautifully crafted script (aspiring playwrights: this is how you write character and exposition), leading to a climax that elicited gasps… and then tears.

Soulpepper, July 25 to September 1

Suzan-Lori Parks‘s epic look at America’s complex attitudes toward race and racism begins during the Civil War as slave Hero willingly follows his white master into battle only to be disillusioned by what happens. Weyni Mengesha‘s direction hit all the right notes in a gripping work that includes a talking dog, references to the Odyssey and a Greek chorus. Her cast, headed by Dion Johnstone, Daren A. Herbert, Lisa Berry and Oliver Dennis, never let her down. Can’t wait for later segments of the play, yet to be written.

ARC, November 1 to 19

Site-specific theatre can be really tricky, especially if the site is a warehouse space that needs defining in terms of focus for actors and audience. Director Christopher Stanton and his design team, Nick Blais and Jackie Chau, took the right risks and, along with a strong cast, turned Alistair McDowall‘s difficult play about a missing woman, a mythic H.P. Lovecraft monster and role-playing games into a disturbing yet fascinating look at the underbelly of a society that puts pleasure ahead of concern for others.

Luminato, June 16 to 26

If you think the political machinations south of the border have been dramatic, they’re nothing compared to the lives of the first three Kings James of Scotland. Rona Munro‘s thrilling trilogy, the jewel of Luminato, contained enough love, sex and murder for an entire season of Game Of Thrones, but was also shot through with philosophical questions about democracy, power and change. It helped that the shows were staged at the dilapidated, rusty old Hearn Generating Station, which has plenty of history of its own.

Mirvish, November 15 to January 8, 2017

In the face of tragedy, people can show great generosity. That’s one of the messages in David Hein and Irene Sankoff‘s heartwarming musical about the connection between the townsfolk of Gander, Newfoundland, and the thousands of passengers rerouted to their airport and left confused and alone on 9/11. Crafted from dozens of real stories and staged with efficiency by director Christopher Ashley, the show is a true ensemble piece, but several performers stand out, including Astrid Van Wieren as a warm schoolteacher, Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley as British and Texan passengers drawn to each other, and Jenn Colella as a pioneering female pilot. May the Canadian show’s touchdown in Broadway in February be just as exciting.

Independent Aunties/Buddies, March 10 to 27

The most famous lesbian couple of the 1920s, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas got the Independent Aunties treatment in a funny, insightful and sometimes self-mocking production, directed by Karin Randoja and featuring Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton. The script played with the fact that audience members knew the women’s names but little of the work of the magisterial and self-impressed Stein. Presented as an informal lecture, the evening included the women’s words as well as new text that played with rhyme and repetition. The result? An intellectually potent and entertaining evening.

Acting Up Stage, February 19 to March 6

Told in two time frames, the 1970s and 1940s, Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie‘s musical was inspired by the cult Maysles brothers’ documentary about Big Edie and Little Edie, a mother and daughter who were related to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Director Ann Hodges‘s production of this riches-to-rags tale, complete with a multitude of household cats, lost loves and broken dreams, proved insightful and compelling, in no small part due to a winning cast, especially Lisa Horner‘s Dora-winning performance as mother in the first half and daughter in the second. In many ways, this was a haunting production.

The Gay Heritage Project (Buddies) Betroffenheit (Canadian Stage) Pyaasa (Theatre Passe Muraille) The Great War: The History Of The Village Of The Small Huts, 1914-1918 (VideoCabaret/Soulpepper) Iceland (Why Not Theatre) Concord Floral (Canadian Stage) The Watershed (Crow’s/Porte Parole/Tarragon) Chasse-Galerie (Soulpepper)

MATILDA THE MUSICAL (Mirvish) Nice set and talented kids, but what a soulless, heartless, baggy show.

CONSTELLATIONS (Canadian Stage) and IF/THEN (Mirvish) Even in multiple universes, these shows would suck.

BLOOD WEDDING (Soulpepper) Anemic, especially after Modern Stage’s recent production.

GASLIGHT (Mirvish) Dated and unfunny, this thriller evoked eye rolls, not terror.

TORONTOIST The website stopped publishing non-festival theatre reviews.

INTERMISSION MAGAZINE

This new online pub includes essays, interviews and some great conversation-starters about theatre. You’ll also find a hub for show reviews, although some NOW reviews seem to be missing.

HAPPY TRAVELS

One of this year’s best trends is the export of some great homegrown shows. Come From Away had sold-out runs in San Diego, Seattle and Washington, DC before its current record-breaking run here. Next, it’s heading to Broadway. A little farther south in Manhattan, another Canadian musical, Ride The Cyclone is getting raves, even making New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s top 10 list. And the immersive political show Counting Sheep had a phenomenal run at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest.

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