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the best of 2023

Theatre companies are still experiencing challenges rebuilding after the pandemic shutdowns. But if that was sometimes visible in the seats this year, it wasn’t on the stages where audiences were treated to blockbuster spectacles and ambitious new plays.

Globe and Mail theatre critics J. Kelly Nestruck and Glenn Sumi put together this top 10 list (or 11) of plays they saw in Toronto, at the Stratford Festival and at the Shaw Festival, where our stage coverage is most concentrated. It’s in alphabetical order.

The Apple Cart, Shaw Festival

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Tom Rooney as King Magnus with the cast members of The Apple Cart.David Cooper/Supplied

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s celebrated repertory theatre does much more than the plays of George Bernard Shaw these days – but it’s nice to see the company still nailing its original niche nevertheless. Tom Rooney toplined a tremendous ensemble in this idiosyncratic, idea-filled 1928 “political extravaganza” about a British king refusing to stay in his corner in a democratically subverted constitutional monarchy – and was elegantly directed by Eda Holmes. J.K.N.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review.

The Hooves Belonged to the Deer, Tarragon Theatre in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

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Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski and Noor Hamdi in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer at the Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

Makram Ayache’s rise in Canada’s playwriting ranks continues. This complex queer coming-of-age tale of his took place in both small-town Alberta and a reimagined Garden of Eden – and its central relationship between a young gay Muslim boy and a local Christian youth pastor was endlessly fascinating. Director Peter Hinton-Davis conjured a suitably numinous production to channel all the lyrical-political play’s mysteries (and mayhem). J.K.N.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review

Kelly v. Kelly, Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage

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Kelly v. Kelly centres on the conflict between an affluent uptight mother and her wilder daughter. From left: Kelsey Verzotti, Margaret Thompson, Jessica Sherman, Julia McLellan.DAHLIA KATZ/Supplied

Not one word, note or bit of movement was wasted in Britta Johnson and Sara Farb’s musical inspired by a real-life 1915 legal case about a well-connected Manhattan single mother (Jessica Sherman) who charged her 19-year-old heiress daughter (Eva Foote) with incorrigibility. Impeccably directed and choreographed by Tracey Flye, this show proved that musicals can tackle big themes (sex, class, women’s independence) with as much seriousness as straight plays. G.S.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review.

Mahabharata, Why Not Theatre presented by the Shaw Festival

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Jay Emmanuel as Shiva with the cast of Mahabharata.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

This long-awaited, large-scale stage adaptation of the classic Indian epic by Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes did not disappoint, with a cast of the 14 actors from the South Asian diaspora using age-old and high-tech ways to theatricalize some of the juicier parts of the longest piece of literature in the world. A subsequent London premiere at the Barbican Centre in the fall put Why Not where it’s always aspired to be on the global touring circuit; stay tuned for news of American and Australian dates. J.K.N.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review

The Master Plan, Crow’s Theatre

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The cast of The Master Plan in a scene at Toronto's Crow’s Theatre.Supplied

Who knew that a show about Sidewalk Labs’ failed attempt to build a so-called “smart neighbourhood” along Toronto’s eastern downtown waterfront would become the most talked-about play of the year? But Michael Healey, adapting Globe writer Josh O’Kane’s book Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy, director Chris Abraham and a superb ensemble collaborated in a way the play’s blustery CEOs, overworked bureaucrats and bumbling politicians couldn’t. G.S.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review.

Much Ado About Nothing, Stratford Festival

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From left: Allison Edwards-Crewe as Hero, Austin Eckert as Claudio, Patrick McManus as Leonato and Akosua Amo-Adem as Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Festival.Supplied

It felt like a golden age at Stratford chuckling through director Chris Abraham’s adroitly executed production, with its hilarious and heart-filled star-in-the-true-sense performances from Maev Beaty and Graham Abbey as Beatrice and Benedick. An extra postshow chortle came from some online reaction to a bit of new text from Erin Shields interpolated to make the conclusion of Shakespeare comedy less clunky. Alas, the folks who started a “Remove radical feminism from Stratford Festival” petition couldn’t garner the 1,000 signatures they were aiming for. J.K.N.

Read the Globe’s review.

Prodigal/Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Howland Company in association with Crow’s Theatre

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PRODIGAL. Michael Ayres, Shauna Thompson. Produced by The Howland Company, in association with Crow’s Theatre. Written and Directed by Paolo Santalucia

Michael Ayres and Shauna Thompson in Prodigal.DAHLIA KATZ

Rather than choose between these two, let’s instead celebrate the collectively run Howland Company for producing a pair of scorching shows dramatically querying two very different contemporary conservative circles with compassion. Prodigal, Paolo Santalucia’s new play, self-directed, was a fantastically funny family romp set in the Family Compact of today’s Toronto; and Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Will Arbery’s exploration of American Catholic intellectuals in Trumpian times, sent chills down spines in director Philip Akin’s Canadian premiere. J.K.N.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review of Prodigal.

Six, Mirvish Productions

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From left: Lauren Mariasoosay, Maggie Lacasse, Krystal Hernández (centre), Elysia Cruz, Julia Pulo and Jaz Robinson in Six The Musical.Joan Marcus/Supplied

In a year marked by competing stadium-show concerts by musical monarchs Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, how fitting that the most sheerly entertaining show was a glitzy pop concert about Henry VIII’s six wives. Full of catchy tunes, clever lyrics and an empowering feminist message, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s crowd-pleaser also acted as a showcase for Jaz Robinson, Julia Pulo, Maggie Lacasse, Krystal Hernández, Elysia Cruz and Lauren Mariasoosay, no longer ladies-in-waiting in the country’s theatre scene. G.S.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review.

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, Soulpepper

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Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, staged in the Michael Young Theatre.DAHLIA KATZ

“What’s in a name?” Another playwright asked that, but Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona explored it with a new political urgency in their 1972 play about identity during South Africa’s apartheid era. In her striking production, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu added even more layers to the material by casting the gender-fluid Amaka Umeh in two male roles (opposite Tawiah M’Carthy), making this already powerful play about freedom and agency burst like a flashbulb. G.S.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review.

Wedding Band, Stratford Festival

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Cyrus Lane, left, and Antonette Rudder in Wedding Band at Stratford Festival.Ted Belton/Stratford Festival

When Alice Childress wrote this play – subtitled “A Love/Hate Story in Black and White” – in the early 1960s, white Broadway producers wanted her to change it. Thank goodness she refused, so that Sam White’s revival of her play about the doomed relationship between a Black seamstress (Antonette Rudder) and a white baker (Cyrus Lane) in 1918 South Carolina could land with such dignity, humour and uncompromising dramatic force. G.S.

Read The Globe and Mail’s review.

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