Looking back on a memorable year of inventive, thought-provoking, and gloriously kinky theatre.
How do you reduce a rich and varied theatre season into 10 top shows? At Torontoist, we like to narrow the criteria, if only to avoid the kind of endless haggling that could last well into New Year’s. (OK, we’ll give you God’s Beard from the Fringe, but that means you’ll have to take Robert Lepage’s 887 from Panamania.) So once again we’ve self-imposed some restrictions.
First, we’re keeping the focus on new productions by Toronto companies—that means no touring shows, however excellent (so long Beckett Trilogy at Canadian Stage; farewell Straight White Men at World Stage and Nirbhaya at Nightwood). Second, we’ve eliminated shows presented at the city’s festivals, unless they had a post-fest remount. (And here we shed a tear of regret for Counting Sheep at SummerWorks and Apocalypsis at Luminato.) And speaking of remounts, those have been cut, too. (Despite the fact Tarragon’s An Enemy of the People was even better this year with Laura Condlin as Dr. Stockmann.) We did, however, allow ourselves a couple of exceptions: we included an outstanding homegrown play from the Pan Am Games’ Panamania, since that was a one-off festival, as well as a super-ambitious production from the GTA that involved Toronto artists.
Here, then, is our Top 10 of 2015, in order of appearance.
The gauge of a successful revival is when you feel you’ve been made to see a classic play with fresh eyes, something director Chris Abraham and his all-star cast achieved with this raw, intimate interpretation of Chekhov’s masterpiece about art, fame, and love.
In our review, we went on at considerable length about how and why playwright-interviewer Andrew Kushnir’s changing process vis-à-vis verbatim theatre did more to enfranchise his subjects in this show, examining cultural biases that inform queer persecution in Caribbean countries, and turned the viewpoint back on himself. It wasn’t done in a self-absorbed manner, but challenged personal bias, and in doing so he tried to see past his privileges and ignorance to incorporate their viewpoints into his own.
The G20 debacle, the carding controversy, and the Sammy Yatim shooting all found their way into director Ravi Jain’s angry-but-hilarious revival of Dario Fo’s classic 1970 Italian satire, updated/relocated to skewer Toronto’s police force, with bravura buffoonery from Kawa Ada and a superb cast of supporting clowns.
Acting Up and Obsidian’s colour-corrected version of this 2000 Broadway musical about a sordid Jazz Age soirée cast Cara Ricketts and a powerful Daren A. Herbert in the roles originally played by white actors Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin, bringing out a hitherto hidden level of racial complexity to its tragic tale of self-invention and self-loathing.
For this huge immersive musical production, audience members were bussed to a historic Oakville school, where they were encouraged to follow their choice of more than 40 actors around the impeccably set-dressed building. A phalanx of more than 100 technicians and stage managers helped the show—co-created with site-specific theatre experts Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman—portray 100 years of time-shifting stories. The result was so impressive that it won the Dora Mavor Moore Audience Choice award (which, full disclosure, we started the social media campaign for) and set up an immediate clamour for a (still-to-be-undertaken) remount.
Who can forget those giant, spidery yellow hands, belonging to the titular tyrannical tycoon, descending on the audience in an old east-end cinema at the climax of OtM’s wild, witty, mask-and-puppet staging of Anne Washburn’s inspired epic, set in a post-apocalyptic America where The Simpsons has been elevated to a sacred text?
In a year with exceptional new scripts by Canadian women—Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity, Kat Sandler’s Liver, and Jill Connell’s The Supine Cobbler among them—Annabel Soutar’s The Watershed was the stand-out. A a documentary-style recounting of how she and her family spent years interviewing scientists about cuts to Canada’s environmental monitoring, it was informative, entertaining, and affecting as it dramatized the challenges artists, activists, and environmentalists face when trying to deal with an obstructionist bureaucracy.
It was a banner year for Mirvish musicals with Canadian casts: first came the producer’s excellent domestic version of Once and then his north-of-the-border premiere of Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s joyously loud-and-proud celebration of fetish footwear and forward thinking, with stellar performances by Ontario natives Graham Scott Fleming and, especially, the charmingly Lauper-esque AJ Bridel.
Perhaps the savviest theatrical ploy of 2015 was Why Not Theatre and The Theatre Centre’s November Ticket, a producing coup that bundled three co-produced plays—Nicholas Billon’s revenge thriller Butcher, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s stealthy play-within-a-play We Are Proud to Present…, and Jordan Tannahill’s elegiac queer tragedy Late Company—together for their proper Toronto debuts—and while all three productions hit us hard, it was Butcher, tight as a drum and perfectly sustained in tension, that exceeded our expectations and proved most consistently intriguing.
This is the second year in a row that director Tyrone Savage has had an exceptional show staged at the end of the year at Storefront Theatre (last year, it was his take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and in just over a month this time, working with staunch collaborators—composer James Smith, Storefront’s resident dramaturge Emma Mackenzie Hillier, and resident choreographer Ashleigh Powell, and a collective of talented musicians and performers—he’s come up with a delightful and lusty original seasonal musical (with still-to-come shows December 28-31), inspired by the Québécois legend of stranded woodsmen who make a deal with the devil to return to their hometown of Montreal on New Year’s Eve. It’s a show that the indie theatre could dine out on for years—especially if they retain the “front line” of gender-swapped leads, most especially Kat Letwin in a career-best-to-date comedic performance as a surly hunter fond of drinking and fighting.