2022 was a year that felt like a decade on Canadian stages.
It began with the most demoralizing two months of the pandemic – as theatres that had finally got back on their feet had the rug pulled out from under them again by reimposed restrictions or complete closings by the government.
Then came the audience vaccination and mask requirements; then went the audience vaccination and mask requirements (mostly).
What was astonishing to me was how many theatre companies, when they did come back, came back with big, bold and ambitious shows, shows that felt essential to see now, despite the many additional challenges of producing amid a continuing pandemic. Perhaps this difficult period has led to a clarity of purpose at performing-arts institutions?
For this top 10 list (in alphabetical order), I’ve limited myself to what I saw in Toronto, at the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival as my forays beyond were even rarer than usual. And I missed some shorter-run shows in these places because of sickness, too – mine, or those of the artists involved.
1. & Juliet, Mirvish Productions
Canadian playwright and screenwriter David West Read wrote the silly-smart script for this Shakespearean travesty weaved around the Swedish producer and songwriter Max Martin’s biggest hits. If you missed it in Toronto, the jukebox musical has now settled in for what looks like a long and profitable run on Broadway. Audiences are hungry for fun and familiar right now – and, as the Celine Dion song in the show goes, that’s the way it is.
2. The Antipodes, Coal Mine Theatre
This Toronto theatre’s intimate venue was destroyed by fire at the end of the summer – but, happily will move into a new home in 2023. Perhaps the old space needed to be purged by flames after Ted Dykstra’s production of Annie Baker’s weird and wild play about a television writer’s room descending into monstrous chaos and the occult.
3. Cockroach, Tarragon Theatre
A highly original piece of stage writing by Ho Ha Kei (also known as Jeff Ho) that featured a cockroach and William Shakespeare as characters – and explored the complicated relationship between language and identity. A puzzle with a punch at the end that director Mike Payette, choreographer Hanna Kiel and designer Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart somehow turned into a parkour performance, too.
4. Death and the King’s Horseman, Stratford Festival
The theatrical event of Stratford‘s 2022 season. Director Tawiah M’Carthy’s powerful production of this dense and complex tragedy by the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka demonstrated just how immersive the theatre company’s new Tom Patterson Theatre can feel. Among the indelible performances were those of Akosua Amo-Adem and Maev Beaty giving portraits of conviction and cowardice.
5. Everybody, 6. Gem of the Ocean, Shaw Festival
Who knew a 15th-century morality play about death would be the feel-good show of the summer? It was as adapted by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, directed by Laszlo Berczes and starring the stage great Deborah Hay as herself (that is, God). Another highlight of the Shaw season was Philip Akin’s aching production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean; it, too, took audiences on a journey beyond the physical plane of existence. This repertory company led by Tim Carroll was firing on all cylinders this year – and I might have put a few of its other productions on this list on another day in another mood.
7. Kamloopa, Soulpepper Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts
Kim Senklip Harvey directed this terrific Toronto premiere of her own Governor-General Award-winning play about two urban Indigenous sisters who have their lives shaken up by a new friendship and end up taking a road trip to the largest powwow on the West Coast. Her production was a real trip, too – with bold choices made across the board in direction, design and the performances of Kaitlyn Yott, Samantha Brown and Yolanda Bonnell.
8. Public Enemy, Canadian Stage
This one may seem like it’s coming out of left field since I had expressed some reservations about Bobby Theodore’s English translation/adaptation of Olivier Choinière’s dark dinner-party play in my original review. But I now think the perfectly orchestrated chaos of director Brendan Healy’s production and the unlikeable performances from the excellent ensemble just got under my skin as intended; this eerie play made me uncomfortable and even more fearful of the future than I already was. Thanks?
9. Uncle Vanya, Crow’s Theatre
Director Chris Abraham’s atmospheric in-the-round production cast just the right spell and featured a trifecta of top-end tragicomic performances from Tom Rooney as Vanya, Bahia Watson as Sonya and Ali Kazmi as Dr. Astrov. This new adaptation gently juiced by Liisa Repo-Martell made clear how the disillusionment, futile rage and economic uncertainty of Chekhov’s characters is in tune with our own teetering times.
10. The Waltz, Factory Theatre
Like many theatregoers, I found myself appreciating lighter and brighter material on a new level this year. This slice-of-life romantic comedy by Marie Beath Badian set in the 1990s was just what the doctor ordered (aside from a bivalent booster), with its two young Filipino-Canadian characters getting to know each other and comparing and contrasting their second-gen perspectives on the porch of a lake house in northern Saskatchewan.