Some years ago, a reader rightly complained to me about all the “vanilla pudding actors” on Canada’s theatre stages. That’s changed considerably over this past decade, with many more non-white performers – and women – treading the boards. But the most important change – a greater diversity among the creators behind the scenes – is only starting to take hold.
That’s why 2019 felt like a turning point, at least in Toronto, where we saw Weyni Mengesha, an Ethiopian-Canadian (and a first-rate director) take the helm at Soulpepper, the city’s leading public theatre. At the same time, Chinese-Canadian playwright-director Marjorie Chan was appointed the new boss of venerable Theatre Passe Muraille. They followed the trail-blazing footsteps of Filipina-Canadian director Nina Lee Aquino, who has spent much of the decade busily remaking another august institution, Factory Theatre, into a mirror for the country’s multicultural reality.
This was also the year that saw Canada’s Indigenous theatre artists finally take their place at that table called the National Arts Centre. To be fair, the Ottawa-based NAC has been at the forefront of showcasing Indigenous productions for some time, but this past fall’s exciting inauguration of its Indigenous Theatre division has made it official.
It was an exciting year in general and squeezing the highlights into a Top 10 list hasn’t been easy. With input from the Globe’s chief theatre critic, J. Kelly Nestruck – and with some sneaky doubling up of shows – I’ve taken a stab at it. Note that the list is restricted to theatre in Toronto and at the country’s two mainstay festivals, Stratford and Shaw. However, several shows were created by – or were co-productions with – other Canadian theatres.
Also note that these selections aren’t ranked but listed in order of appearance:
1. New Magic Valley Fun Town, Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre
On the surface, one of Daniel MacIvor’s most conventional plays, this turned out to be among his funniest and most moving. The playwright-actor himself gave a marvellous tragicomic performance as Dougie, a middle-aged Cape Bretoner with a trailer, an obsessive-compulsive disorder and a toupée. During the course of Dougie’s reunion with a boyhood friend – and some shocking revelations – MacIvor and his splendid cast subtly turned our laughter to tears with a compassionate portrait of traumatized people trying their best to salvage their lives.
2. School Girls, Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre; The Brothers Size, Soulpepper Theatre
Two acclaimed plays by African-American playwrights received terrific Toronto productions in 2019. Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play, a sharp comedy about shadeism set in a Ghanaian girls’ school, and the all-male, myth-infused The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney of Moonlight fame, are very different works, but both captivated us with imaginative stagings and delightful performances.
3. Dear Evan Hansen, Mirvish Productions
No, this multi-Tony-winning musical about secrets and lies in the age of social media wasn’t the blockbuster that the Mirvish organization had hoped for. The show’s first Canadian production, which was expected to run into the fall, instead closed in late July. But that certainly wasn’t the fault of its excellent homegrown cast, and in particular Robert Markus, who took the celebrated title role of the troubled young antihero and made it all his own.
4. Angélique, Factory Theatre and Obsidian Theatre
Let me get sentimental for a minute: I championed this play by the late playwright Lorena Gale when it premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects in 1999 and then struggled to find another Canadian company that would touch it. I only wish Gale (who I later came to know) had lived to see this searing revival by Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte, in which her tale illuminating Canada’s half-forgotten history of slavery proved to be 20 years ahead of its time.
5. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, Tarragon Theatre
There’s nothing better than to see a Canadian show touch Canadians across the country – and when it succeeds internationally, that’s icing on the rugelach. Halifax’s 2b Theatre did both with this wild, witty, tear-inducing and hugely relevant piece of small-scale musical theatre. Written from the heart by Hannah Moscovitch and fronted by fiery klezmer musician Ben Caplan, it was a wonderful antidote to anti-immigrant attitudes.
6. The Glass Menagerie, Shaw Festival
If you thought you knew Tennessee Williams’s classic memory play, this piercing production from Hungarian guest director Laszlo Berczes made you think again. With a multiracial cast to shake up our preconceptions of its characters, and performances that revealed new facets of a familiar story, it made you feel like those audiences in 1944 encountering Williams’s autobiographical masterpiece for the first time.
7. Sex, Shaw Festival
Mae West’s notorious 1926 Broadway play, for which she was willing to do jail time (one of her greatest publicity moves), has long been the stuff of theatre lore. The Shaw’s rare revival, directed with dazzle by Peter Hinton-Davis, finally let us see it for what it was – and is: a shrewd look at society’s uncomfortable relationship with sexuality.
8. Birds of a Kind, Stratford Festival
It was a solid season at Stratford, with another runaway hit from director-choreographer Donna Feore – her exhilarating production of Billy Elliot – but little in the way of artistic daring. Except, that is, for the festival’s English-language premiere of the latest sprawling epic from Wajdi Mouawad of Incendies (Scorched) fame. Mouawad’s unpacking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through one family’s murky past proved to be a complex, shattering tragedy employing multiple languages and perspectives.
9. The Flick, Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre
Move over, David Mirvish. Toronto indie companies Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre have the same showbiz savvy (if not quite the same budget). They turned The Flick – Annie Baker’s brilliant but hard-to-sell exercise in “slow theatre” – into one of the buzziest shows this fall, transforming Crow’s east-end venue into a popcorn-scented replica of a repertory cinema. And the production itself lived up to the hype.
10. The Particulars, the Theatre Centre
Edmonton Métis playwright Matthew MacKenzie is fast becoming one of our most compelling writers. I loved his wicked dark comedy about Fort McMurray, After the Fire, back in January and this fall’s follow-up was just as striking – an eerie comic narrative of escalating disaster, told via monologue and dance, in which an insomniac homeowner’s battle with a voracious unseen pest becomes a metaphor for suppressed grief.
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