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Theatre & Performance The 10 best theatre productions of 2018: Toronto, Stratford and Shaw

Coriolanus was a landmark Canadian production.

David Hou

I don’t imagine I’ll ever forget the past year in theatre.

It began, after all, with the #MeToo movement hitting Toronto theatre hard in the form of four civil suits filed against Soulpepper and its founding artistic director on Jan. 3.

I’m hopeful that what happened over the ensuing 12 months will change theatre and theatre training for the better across the country – and I’m rooting for a new year in which I can spend more time writing about on-stage successes than behind-the-scenes failures.

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Sometimes, compiling a year-end list feels like a chore. This year it was therapeutic, reminding me that the show went on (at Soulpepper, and elsewhere) and there was a lot of great theatre to be found in tumultuous times.

As in past years, I’ve limited my top 10 to Toronto, the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival – the only places in Canada I cover comprehensively. As in most years, I’ve cheated a bit – and still felt bad about shows I couldn’t squeeze in.

And, although not technically a remount, I’ve left the Canadian sit-down production of Come from Away off the list. But it’s worth noting (and celebrating) that Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s feel-good musical became the longest-running Canadian-written show in Broadway history this fall – and has extended its run in Toronto longer than any commercial musical has in a decade. Wow.

1. Coriolanus, Stratford Festival

A landmark Canadian production – marrying the top acting talent from Stratford with the visual and conceptual genius of Quebec director Robert Lepage. This was a theatrically cinematic take that defied an easy political reading (and developed new ones when Lepage’s next show, SLAV, was protested on the streets of Montreal). It was at its most riveting when Lucy Peacock simply let rip as Volumnia, saving the city with a single speech.

Read the review.

2. Paradise Lost, Stratford Festival

Funny, shocking, thought-provoking – I loved Erin Shields’s meaty and enjoyably messy adaptation/riff on the 17th-century epic poem about the Fall of Man by John Milton. Director Jackie Maxwell’s production was unapologetically silly at times, truly sublime at others and featured another unforgettable performance by Lucy Peacock, this time as Satan. In her 31st season at Stratford, Peacock was at the peak of her powers.

Read the reviews.

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3. What a Young Wife Ought to Know, Crow’s Theatre; Bunny, Tarragon Theatre; Secret Life of a Mother, Theatre Centre

It’s easy to take Hannah Moscovitch’s talent for granted at this point – but it’s hard to think of another playwright who’s ever had a run like she did in Toronto this year. A trio of much talked-about shows centred on female characters and immersed in the full complexity of their (cisgender) bodies, all were, as my colleague Martha Schabas wrote about one, a “powerful convergence between the physical and the emotional.”

Read the reviews.

4. The Wolves, Crow’s Theatre; Dry Land, Assembly Theatre

The young female (and non-binary) body in action was also a theme on Toronto stages this year thanks to these two American sports-themed plays. The Wolves, Sarah DeLappe’s celebrated show about a teenage soccer team, will end up on a lot of year-end lists; Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s production for the Howland Company at Crow’s Theatre was terrific. But I was equally affected by Cue6’s Toronto premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s lesser-known Dry Land, about two competitive teen swimmers and an unwanted pregnancy, at the tiny Assembly Theatre. Director Jill Harper’s production, which I caught too late to review, was a gut punch – and I hope Mattie Driscoll’s slippery performance is not forgotten at awards time.

Read the review.

5. Jerusalem, Crow’s Theatre

I wasn’t sure how this wild 2009 Jez Butterworth play about Englishness set on St. George’s Day would stand up in the wake of Brexit – but director Mitchell Cushman made the case that it was more urgent than ever in this thrilling Toronto premiere. With an incredible performance by prodigal Canadian son (of anarchy) Kim Coates at the centre of a 14-member cast, it took a bunch of companies – Outside the March, Company Theatre and Starvox Entertainment – to get this off the ground. Sometimes bigger theatre is just better!

Read the review

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6. The Nether, Coal Mine

A techno-thriller about a VR brothel and slaughterhouse, I’m not even sure I liked this American play by Jennifer Haley, but director Peter Pasyk’s production was perfectly creepy. It’s great to see a young director really come into his own, as Pasyk did this year with both this Studio 180/Coal Mine production and his equally stylish production of Rosamund Small’s Sisters at Soulpepper.

Read the review

7. The Monument, Factory Theatre

Factory Theatre is at its best lately when it lets directors loose on Canadian classics. Jani Lauzon took a fresh look at this 1995 Colleen Wagner play about war crimes through the lens of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls – and shook audiences into thinking about both from new angles. (The show also catapulted Augusto Bitter to the top of my list of must-see young actors.)

Read the review.

8. Fun Home, Musical Stage Company

An exquisitely emotional Toronto premiere of the Tony-winning musical adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoirs about her unconventional family. A great cast, top to bottom. Brilliant musical direction. In a just world, director Robert McQueen’s production would still be on for us to revisit and weep at will.

Read the review.

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9. Krapp’s Last Tape/The Runner, Theatre Passe Muraille

Founded in 1968, Theatre Passe Muraille’s 50th year of existence was bookended by these memorable solo shows (from Singing Swan Productions and Human Cargo, respectively). Bob Nasmith was simply the best Krapp I’ve ever seen in the Beckett classic; and Gord Rand was sensational as a volunteer paramedic in Israel in Christopher Morris’s new play ingeniously staged by Daniel Brooks. Both short plays centred around spinning technology – and it’s tempting to imagine the treadmill Rand ran on throughout The Runner as a giant reel-to-reel of Krapp’s last tape.

Read the reviews.

10. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soulpepper

In its 20-year history, Soulpepper has made its way through most of the “great” American playwrights in the canon (Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard), but somehow (“somehow”) only got around to August Wilson this season. Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu brought us a sizzling production of this 1920s-set show about session musicians – and introduced us to an incredible young actor named Lovell Adams-Gray as the tragic trumpet player Levee. (Now what about the other nine plays in Wilson’s cycle depicting African-American life through the 20th century?)

Read the review.

AND THE CHARACTER WALK OF THE YEAR GOES TO …

Julia Course in The Baroness and the Pig at the Shaw Festival. Teetering on two feet for the first time as “the pig” Emily, she gave us a playful, fun and winking take on a Pygmalion-esque transformation into a proper lady. Even the audience members who hated this show have to give credit to Course for going whole hog in the part, getting down on all fours and sniffing strangers' feet.

Read the review.

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