MOST ANTICIPATED SHOW OF 2012: King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa
As his time as artistic director of the NAC English theatre winds down, Peter Hinton is taking on Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. (Yep, it's the greatest.) Relocated to Canada in 1608, the year the play was written, Hinton's production is already noteworthy for having an entirely aboriginal cast, including such well-known actors as Tantoo Cardinal, Lorne Cardinal ( Corner Gas) and Craig Lauzon ( Royal Canadian Air Farce). Emmy nominee and Genie winner August Schellenberg – a veteran of the Shaw and Stratford Festivals and the original, 1969 production of George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe – takes on the title role. Here's hoping Hinton goes out on top.
LEAST ANTICIPATED SHOW OF 2012: You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
From Jesus Christ Superstar, Stratford is now moving on to the gospel according to Peanuts? Pretty much every conversation I've had with regular festivalgoers since the classical theatre company's 60th season was announced has begun with a baffled/angry/ironic remark about You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown being on the bill.
And yet, under artistic director Des McAnuff, Stratford has pulled off surprises before: I recall a jaw or two dropping when it was first announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock operas were now fair game. Of course, that leap of faith resulted in the Festival's upcoming visit to Broadway, so we're keeping our minds open about Snoopy.
MOST HYPED SHOW: War Horse at the Princess of Wales in Toronto
Mirvish is going all out to promote its production of this First World War puppet play that originated at Britain's National Theatre. If the Canadian cast can pull off the magic of the London and New York production, however, the months of buildup will be more than justified.
Steven Spielberg may have already adapted the play into a movie, but it won't take away the chief appeal of Nick Stafford's play based on Michael Morpurgo's novel – the incredibly lifelike and loveable horses designed by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. They live and breathe – and seeing the carnage of the trenches through their neutral eyes is profoundly moving.
MOST UNDER THE RADAR SHOW: Bliss at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto and Centaur Theatre in Montreal
Quebec playwright Olivier Choinière's surreal drama about four Walmart employees, Céline Dion and a Josef Fritzl-style dungeon didn't make huge waves when it had its English-language premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London. But there's a reason why Caryl Churchill, one of the UK's greatest playwrights, translated this stylish, nightmarish script. Up-and-comer Steven McCarthy is in charge of the professional North American premiere – and, based on how good an earlier version was at SummerWorks festival, this should be the moment the anglos finally catch on to an exceptional piece of writing.
THE 2012 TREND: Sophocles for All Seasons
We all know about Oedipus and his misfortunes, but what about jealous Deianira, who accidentally kills her beloved husband Heracles? Of the seven surviving plays by ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, The Women of Trachis (also known as The Trachiniae) is perhaps least familiar to audiences. What a surprise then that two of the most anticipated shows of the 2012 season are versions of the play.
First up, in January, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan ( The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) takes on British Martin Crimp's update of the story, Cruel and Tender, at Toronto's Canadian Stage. His cast includes Arsinée Khanjian, Nigel Shawn Williams, Jeff Lillico and Cara Ricketts.
Then, in the spring, Quebec director and playwright Wajdi Mouawad's controversial trilogy Des Femmes – which puts The Women of Trachis together with Antigone and Elektra – plays the National Arts Centre in Ottawa followed by Montreal's Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.
Another prominent Elektra will hit the Stratford Shakespeare Festival come summer. Thomas Moschopoulos, the Athenian director who staged the closing ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games, directs Canadian poet Anne Carson's translation with Yanna McIntosh as the title character.
THE IT ARTISTS OF 2012: Whoever ends up running the country's most-important English-language theatres. In June, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced that Tony-winning artistic director McAnuff would be moving on. In October, Hinton announced he was leaving the NAC in 2012. Both men will be tough acts to follow. Their successors will be announced in the coming months – and immediately come under intense scrutiny from artists and audiences who always have strong feelings about these institutions.
THE 2012 CAN'T MISS LIST
ENRON at Theatre Calgary in Calgary
Lucy Prebble's satire about the rise and fall of the Texas energy company was a surprise hit on London's West End – and then a surprise flop on Broadway. Theatre Calgary will break the tie with its Canadian premiere of the play. Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, visits the Stampede city to direct and brings Graham Abbey ( The Border) along to play Enron's infamous president Jeffrey Skilling. Starts January 31.
Carrie at the MCC Theater in New York
Canadian director Stafford Arima makes an attempt to bring Carrie, the 1988 musical based on the Stephen King novel, back from the dead. The fact that there's a book called Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops tells you all you need to know about how the show was originally received. Was it simply ahead of its time? Theatre junkies who have only heard the legends can't wait to find out starting Jan. 31 off-Broadway.
August: Osage County at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg
The 'Peg finally gets a chance to see the most critically acclaimed American play of the past decade – and gets the bonus of one of Canada's most venerable actors in the lead role. As of March 7, Martha Henry will be popping pills as the profane matriarch Violet Weston in a new production of Tracy Letts's dark comedy August: Osage County. Ann Hodges directs.