The best theatre of 2017: Toronto, Stratford and Shaw
Touching, challenging and hilarious, here are the top 10 productions of the year – plus honours for the finest performance
Sometimes, the last you'll hear of a theatrical production is when it lands on a critic's top 10 list at the end of the year. In 2017, however, it was a distinct pleasure to find a number of Canadian shows that have made my list before – Come From Away, Soulpepper's Of Human Bondage, Quote Unquote's Mouthpiece – go out into the world and wow critics in other lands as much as they had at home.
Here's what I loved most this year, in alphabetical order, from my theatregoing in Toronto and at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals. Cheers to all these shows, whether this is their last stop – or if they're just getting started.
1. Bakkhai, Stratford Festival
A bold translation of Euripides's tragedy by Anne Carson got an equally bold production by director Jillian Keiley – who demonstrated how to stage female sexuality without sexualizing the performers. Long-time Shakespeare sidekick Gordon S. Miller gave one of my favourite lead performances of the year – funny and quite brave – as a ruler who unwisely decides to go up against the god Dionysus and his female followers.
2. The Boy in the Moon, Crow's Theatre
Crow's Theatre opened up a new theatre in Toronto's east end in January – and nothing has showcased the space as well so far as playwright Emil Sher's contraction and expansion of Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown's memoir about his relationship with his disabled son, Walker. Director Chris Abraham and his design team's use of the loading doors to provide glimpses of other worlds just out of reach has stuck with me – haunted me, in fact. As has the shaman's vision of Walker and description of his life's quest: A tree trying to see his reflection in the water at the bottom of a well.
3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Princess of Wales Theatre
Thank you, Mirvish Productions, for bringing this Tony-winning production by director Marianne Elliott from the National Theatre in London – an adaptation of the bestselling mystery of the same name by Simon Stephens. Normally, I prefer to see plays that have won Tony or Olivier awards in new productions with Canadian casts in Toronto, but Elliott's staging was groundbreaking in the way it balanced flash and feeling.
4. John, The Company Theatre
American playwright Annie Baker has rebirthed naturalism for a new generation – and this play about a young couple visiting a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg introduced Torontonians to her work in memorable fashion. Director Jonathan Goad elicited particularly great performances from Nancy Beatty as Mertis, the B&B's eccentric doll-collecting proprietor, and Nora McLellan as her blind, yet all-seeing friend, Genevieve. (Another Baker play, The Aliens, got a fine production at the Coal Mine this fall, and might well have ended up on this list if it were longer.)
5. Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, Buddies in Bad Times
Until recently, I could count the number of shows starring Inuit performers that I had reviewed on one hand.
In Canada's sesquicentennial year, however, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a wide range of Inuk talents through Qaggiq Theatre Collective's Kiviuq Returns, the Stratford Festival's The Breathing Hole and Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools at Buddies in Bad Times.
In the latter, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory gave an unforgettable performance – segueing from a soul-searching monologue about life in the North into an unsettling Greenlandic mask dance that challenged my ideas of what's permissible in a theatre.
6. Life After, Canadian Stage
Canadian Stage, the Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals combined forces to premiere composer/lyricist Britta Johnson's impressive musical about young Alice's trip through the looking glass of grief after her self-help guru father dies. "Losing is confusing," Alice sang – but everything was crystal clear in director Robert McQueen's star-studded production.
7. Middletown, Shaw Festival
I became a full-fledged fan of playwright Will Eno after watching Meg Roe's production of his metaphysical tour through a town located somewhere between birth and death. Here was the Shaw Festival ensemble acting as a true ensemble – with designer Camellia Koo pulling off a visual coup in a scene that catapulted an astronaut into outer space without leaving his easy chair.
8. Mr. Shi and His Lover, Tarragon Theatre
Playwright Wong Teng Chi and composer Njo Kong Kie's heady yet moving piece of music theatre deconstructs the relationship between Chinese opera singer and spy Shi Pei Pu and French diplomat Bernard Boursicot. Did Boursicot really believe Shi was a woman? Or is all love belief in something untrue?
9. Tartuffe, Stratford Festival
Director Chris Abraham makes this list once again with a production of a classic comedy on the thrust stage at the Stratford Festival. This time, he brought Molière's best play into the near future, tweaking Ranjit Bolt's unusually forthright translation to tackle Trump – and getting priceless performances from Graham Abbey, Tom Rooney and Anusree Roy as the dupe, the duper and the superduper maid. A shameless laugh-fest.
10. Unholy, Nightwood Theatre
It was a brilliant idea on Diane Flacks's part to write a play about a debate – on the topic "Should women abandon religion?" – rather than a debate disguised as a play. Letting us see these debaters let down their guards behind the scenes, as well, was a timely reminder of how much punditry is really performance. A sharp script other theatres across Canada should look into picking up now that director Kelly Thornton's excellent inaugural production has had two tours of duty.
And the character walk of the year goes to…
Nancy Beatty. Playing the proprietor of a bed and breakfast in Annie Baker's John, Beatty tottered across the stage in a way that somehow communicates everything you needed to know about that character's dottiness and strange dignity. I could have watched her slowly open and close the curtain for hours.