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Gray Powell as Vito and Steven Sutcliffe as Pill perform in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. (David Cooper)
Gray Powell as Vito and Steven Sutcliffe as Pill perform in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. (David Cooper)

The best of Toronto, Stratford and Shaw theatre in 2015 Add to ...

Toronto’s theatre scene has never been busier than it was in 2015.

The Theatre Centre had its first full calendar year of presenting and producing theatre and performance in its new hub on Queen Street West, while indie upstart Storefront presented a completely curated season for the first time this fall.

Festival followed festival in the summer – with Panamania commissioning some of the most-talked-about theatre productions of the year.

The question of whether Toronto’s theatre audiences are growing at the same pace – or simply fracturing – is a question for another time. But all this activity on top of the usual stuffed seasons at Mirvish Productions, Canadian Stage, Soulpepper and all the others means compiling a definitive year-end top-10 list of theatre in this city is harder than ever for an individual critic.

It was often impossible to catch up on what I’d missed while away at the Stratford Festival or on a reviewing trip to Alberta – with many of the most talked-about shows having runs as short as a single week.

That’s why I never got to productions that my second-string Martin Morrow saw and loved – such as The Watershed at Panamania or Eurydice at Soulpepper. Though I’m not sure what my excuse is for not having caught up on the popular Mirvish production of Kinky Boots yet. (Luckily for me, it’s been extended until March 6.)

So, when looking at this list of my 10 favourite productions from Toronto, the Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival this year – take it with an even bigger grain of salt than usual.

1. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Shaw Festival

I gave more stars to the Shaw Festival’s excellent productions of The Divine and Peter and the Starcatcher, but director Eda Holmes’s perfectly orchestrated production of one of Tony Kushner’s lesser-known logorrheic plays has stuck with me longer. It helped that Holmes was working with an ensemble to die for – with Jim Mezon, Kelli Fox and Fiona Reid the cream of the crop as leftists left way behind by American society’s shift to the right. Read my review.

2. The Diary of Anne Frank, Stratford Festival

Festival director Jillian Keiley’s production at Stratford had me in tears before we even got to the attic – with each of the actors in the ensemble talking about being 13 years old, or when they first learned about the Holocaust. That simple framing device led to a gorgeously designed and impeccably acted take on a story that can’t be told often enough. Read my review.

3. The Taming of the Shrew, Stratford Festival

Stratford had an undeniably strong season in 2015 – and I could easily select The Sound of Music or Oedipus Rex for this list. But it’s hard to think of a bigger theatrical thrill this year than the twist that started Chris Abraham’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. I won’t soon forget Tom Rooney’s tremendously funny Tranio or Deborah Hay’s exquisite Kate, either – and, if you missed this Shrew on stage, you can still catch it as part of Stratford in HD next year. Read my review.

4. Once, Mirvish Productions

This Broadway romance about an Irish singer-songwriter and a Czech single mother has made my year-end list before – but why punish the superb Canadian cast in Mirvish’s sit-down production for the fact that the show had previously toured to Toronto? Trish Lindstrom gave the best performance I’ve seen as the heart-warming musical’s unnamed female lead. Read my review.

5. The Wild Party, Acting Up Stage and Obsidian Theatre

I didn’t hear a better band this year than the one Bob Foster put together for this production of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical set in the Jazz Age. Among the actors, Daren A. Herbert was the stand-out as a black minstrel named Burrs in this sizzling Toronto premiere that couldn’t have come at a better time – just a month after a blackface controversy in Quebec theatre made headlines across the country. Read Martin Morrow’s review.

6. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, Outside the March

This formally fascinating play about a future without electricity where live performances of the Simpsons become high art got a suitably environmental production directed by Simon Bloom and Mitchell Cushman. For Toronto audiences, this was a great introduction to the work of Anne Washburn – one of a pack of exciting dramatists from the United States that recently led the LA Times to declare this “the most revolutionary moment in American playwriting” since the 1960s. Read my review.

7. Crawlspace, VideoFag

Karen Hines’s macabre monologue about a real-estate nightmare – and a dead animal stuck in a crawlspace – was all the more terrifying for being true. This was Hines at her most horrifyingly hilarious – here’s hoping the show comes back in a space that can fit more than 15 audience members a night in the future. Read Brad Wheeler’s interview with Hines.

8. Abyss, Tarragon Theatre

A suspenseful thriller about a missing young woman from the margins whose disappearance is, all too realistically, dismissed by the police. Set in an unnamed German city, Maria Milisavljevic’s play got a gripping staging from director Richard Rose – in which the three actors (Gord Rand, Sarah Sherman and Cara Pifko) never let go of each other for (almost) the entire production. Read the review.

9. Bombay Black, Factory Theatre

Director Peter Hinton created another successful spectacle at the Shaw Festival this summer with his updated production of Pygmalion – but his ritualistic revival of Anosh Irani’s Bombay Black showed he could spellbind with a simple, set-free show, too. Read the review.

10. Small Axe, Project: Humanity/The Theatre Centre; Like There’s No Tomorrow, Architect Theatre

Documentary theatre is one of my favourite genres – but these two verbatim plays were as much about questioning the form as they were about their stated subjects. Andrew Kushnir’s Small Axe began as an investigation into homophobia in Jamaica – and turned into a consideration of privilege in performance and “passing the microphone.” Georgina Beaty and Jonathan Seinen’s Architect Theatre show went even further – after talking to dozens of people about the Northern Gateway pipeline project, they chose to play tape of only one interview subject, Yvonne Lattie, hereditary chief of the Gitxsan Nation of northwest B.C. Two innovative indie shows that pushed the form forward. Read my reviews here and here.

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Our theatre critic shares his four picks for this year's Stratford Festival (The Globe and Mail)

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