My Theatre

17 April 2018

The 2017 Critics’ Pick Award Winners: Theatre

By , , , , , and // Theatre

On April 16th, 350 artists, arts administrators, arts critics, and arts everything else gathered at The Great Hall in Toronto to celebrate another year of creativity, ambition, talent, and hard work as we looked back on the productions that defined 2017 in Toronto Theatre.

With help from sponsors like Dufflet Pastries and our generous patrons and donors, we celebrated inspiring theatre artists across the theatrical spectrum from basement productions without a dollar to spare to the lavish operas, ballets, musicals and plays that sold out the country’s biggest performance spaces. Take a look at photos from the event HERE.

Don’t miss our 2017 Nominee Interview Series, featuring exclusive interviews with over 100 of this year’s nominated artists and be sure to check out Awards Headquarters for more from the Critics’ Pick Awards, including the TV and Cinema winners. 

Without further ado, the winners are listed below with a few words from the critic who advocated for their win- Kelly Bedard (KB), Chelsea Dinsmore (CD), Lisa McKeown (LM), Duncan Derry (DD), Mary-Margaret Scrimger (MMS), Kymberley Feltham (KF) or Jace Hijazi (JH). 

Outstanding Sketch/Improv Production
32 Short Sketches About Bees
(Clear Glass Productions/Toronto Fringe Festival)

A zany concept that forced creativity and demanded precision was the key to this ambitious Fringe show that was literally 32 short sketches about bees (or b/bee/Bea-related things). A cohesive ensemble, strong direction, and total dedication elevated that silly, ambitious idea into our favourite comedy show of the year. – KB

Outstanding Solo Performance
Justin Miller
in Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua
(SummerWorks Festival)

Legs and stage presence for days, Pearle Harbour’s solo performance was an incredible mix of drag, clowning, and expert storytelling. She takes you on an emotional rollercoaster that you won’t forget.
-MMS

Outstanding New Work
Tough Jews by Michael Ross Albert
(The Spadina Avenue Gang/Storefront Arts Initiative)

Michael Ross Albert engagingly combined Toronto social history with all the elements of classic American family drama to create a compelling and exciting new Canadian play. While it was brought to life by strong direction and a great ensemble, Albert’s text was itself an ambitious and empathetic piece of work that illuminated the prejudices and struggles in our city’s all-too-recent history. -DD

Outstanding Ensemble (Large)
Saint Joan
(Shaw Festival) 

The supporting cast of this Shaw Festival standout from new Artistic Director Tim Carroll was just a laundry list of my favourite performers, showcasing not only the incredible bench depth developed during the Maxwell tenure but the range (both emotional and technical) of the artists in the company as they fleshed out the expansive world of the play on a simple bare stage. – KB

Outstanding Ensemble (Medium)
Passing Strange
(Obsidian Theatre Company/The Musical Stage Company) 

This outrageous rock musical featured an across-the-board fantastic ensemble appearing in multiple parts, using multiple accents, performing in multiple styles, and nailing absolutely all of it. A dynamic, unforgettable assembly of diverse artists performing really difficult material. – KB

Outstanding Ensemble (Small)
Grey
(Three Five Productions/Toronto Fringe Festival)

Grey‘s minimalist staging and use of only a few key props highlighted the considerable strengths of its superb five-person cast. Playing multiple roles and shifting seamlessly between past and present versions of their characters, the ensemble made Grey a highlight of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival. -CD

Outstanding Ballet Performance (Leading)
Piotr Stanczyk
in The Winter’s Tale
(National Ballet of Canada)

In a year packed with emotional ballet performances, Piotr Stanczyk moved and thrilled us. As the tortured Leontes in the opening night cast of Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, he delivered a mesmerizing portrayal of a man consumed by jealousy. -CD

Outstanding Ballet Performance (Supporting)
Jordana Daumec
in Nijinsky
(National Ballet of Canada)

One of the great joys of seeing Nijinsky return to Toronto stages last fall was witnessing Jordana Daumec’s affecting Act II solo, which she described as “one of the most emotional solos that I’ve ever had to do.” She was a revelation in the supporting role of Bronislava Nijinska, earning her first Critics Pick Award nomination and win. -CD

Outstanding Contemporary Dance/Cirque Production
Backbone
(Red Sky Performance/Canadian Stage)

Backbone is a physical and auditory triumph. Laronde and her highly skilled creative team evoke images of raw landscapes moving through temporal truths that exist outside of Western acknowledgements. Whether it is shifting spines, shifting landforms, or shifting mainstream consciousness, Backbone is a masterful display of contemporary indigenous dance and inspiring athleticism. -KF

Outstanding Opera Performance
Marcelo Puente
in Tosca
(Canadian Opera Company)

In Paul Curran’s production, tenor Marcelo Puente defiantly claimed the stage in a vocally soaring and confident performance that ensured that we felt the tragedy of Tosca‘s brilliant finale. He was excellent throughout, sparring well with Scarpia and creating a nuanced portrayal of what could have been a two-dimensional good guy. – DD

Outstanding Supporting Actor (Large)
Michael Spencer-Davis
in Timon of Athens 
(Stratford Festival)

Michael Spencer-Davis was the beating heart of one of the best Shakespeare productions to come out of Stratford in ages. The one true friend in Timon’s selfish world, his Flavius was straight-shooting, unshakeable and profoundly moving in his kindness. – KB

Outstanding Supporting Actor (Medium)
Noah Reid
in The Aliens
(Coal Mine Theatre)

Every writer on our staff came into the winner selection meeting with one or two categories they were really ready to fight for. For me, Noah Reid for Supporting Actor was my non-negotiable must-win-this-debate moment. His chameleonic turn in Annie Baker’s melancholy masterpiece was my favourite 2017 performance in any medium. – KB

Outstanding Supporting Actor (Small)
Michael-David Blostein
in Blue Remembered Hills
(Good Old Neon)

I truly feel that Michael-David Blostein deserves this win. In his absence, Kat Letwin performed his acceptance speech (in his memorable voice) on his behalf. Here’s hoping the allure of Berlin won’t keep him away from us forever, cause I know I’ll be at his next Toronto show if there ever is one. – JH

Outstanding Supporting Actress (Large)
Anusree Roy
in Tartuffe
(Stratford Festival)

Anusree Roy’s no-nonsense Dorine was a highlight of the Stratford Festival’s best production of the year. Snippy and hilarious and absolutely always right, Roy gave her Dorine a nagging obnoxiousness and “how dare you” indestructibility that resonated profoundly in the modernized production. – KB

Outstanding Supporting Actress (Medium)
Nora McLellan
in John
(The Company Theatre) 

One of the definitive performances of the year, Nora McLellan as the blind sage Genevieve in The Company Theatre’s sublime production of John was a career-best outing in a storied career. Marked with bold eccentricity and nuanced emotion, McLellan’s performance proved unshakeable. – KB

Outstanding Supporting Actress (Small)
Krystina Bojanowski
in Odd One Out
(Human Wick Effect/Toronto Fringe Festival)

My favourite dramatic performance of the 2017 Fringe was Krystina Bojanowski as a young woman daring to be herself in a time and place where doing so threatened her life. She was both grounded and ethereal, a figure of fantasy and deeply human reality all at once. – KB

Outstanding Performance in a Musical (Large)
Kristi Frank
in Me and My Girl
(Shaw Festival)

Ray of sunshine Kristi Frank was the tap-dancing, mezzo-belting, accent-perfecting, skeptic-charming heart of the Shaw Festival’s sprightly fish out of water musical. The thought of her performance as the titular “my girl” still brings a smile to my face. – KB

Outstanding Performance in a Musical (Medium)
Hailey Gillis
in Onegin 
(The Musical Stage Company)

There are never enough superlatives to describe a Hailey Gillis performance, but it’s especially true of her portrayal of Tatyana in the Toronto premiere of Onegin. Hailey’s lyrical voice soared through the contemporary score and she gave a nuanced, vulnerable performance that left us feeling moved and empowered. – CD

Outstanding Performance in a Musical (Small)
James King
in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
(Hart House Theatre) 

This was my other non-negotiable win of the year; I went into the selection meeting absolutely insisting that James King win Performance in a Musical for a thousand reasons, including his brilliant vocals and gorgeous vulnerability and the fact that he so disappeared into the role that I didn’t realize it was him until after it was over. – KB

Outstanding Actor (Large)
André Sills
in An Octoroon
(Shaw Festival)

In a role that was really three roles, André Sills blew the roof off the Shaw Festival in 2017 with perhaps the most palpable tour de force to ever cross that sometimes dusty stage. His performance as hero, villain, and voice of the author was both an emotional achievement and a technical marvel. Absolutely unforgettable. – KB

Outstanding Actor (Medium)
Walter Borden
in Tragedie of Lear
(independent) 

A tiny production with little budget to speak of (and basically nothing in the way of props, set or costumes), this independent Lear found itself in the medium awards division because of the calibre of its cast, first among them the legendary Walter Borden who played Shakespeare’s ageing king with heartbreaking empathy and thundering power. – KB

Outstanding Actor (Small)
Kwaku Okyere
in The Seat Next to the King
(MinMar Gaslight Productions/Toronto Fringe Festival)

To enter the 2017 Toronto Fringe tent was to hear Kwaku Okyere’s name. The buzz over his captivating performance in Steven Elliott Jackson’s ambitious period piece was a definitive feature of the festival and those who missed it ran to the Theatre Centre for the almost immediate remount. Okyere is a huge star; get on this train now. – KB

Outstanding Actress (Large)
Pamela Mala Sinha
in Crash
(Soulpepper Theatre Company) 

Returning to her seismic one-woman show, Pamela Mala Sinha displayed total emotional commitment as well as strong, audience-holding technique in her work exploring trauma and loss. She seemed to dive further and further into the depths of her wounded character while at the same time keeping us entirely within her control. – DD

Outstanding Actress (Medium)
Julia Course
in Grimly Handsome
(Theatre Animal)

In Theatre Animal’s ambitious debut production, Shaw Festival standout Julia Course embodied a complex awkward vulnerability that resulted in a quietly powerful performance, captivating our attention whenever she was on stage. -LM

Outstanding Actress (Small)
Arinea Hermans
in Three Sisters
(Wolf Manor Theatre Collective) 

As middle sister Masha in Wolf Manor’s bold and clear-eyed indie production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, rising star Arinea Hermans gave a performance so complex and intelligent that we’re still parsing its many layers all these months later. – KB

Outstanding Lighting & Sound Design (Large)
Kevin Lamotte & Alessandro Juliani
for Middletown
(Shaw Festival)

At the heart of this mesmerizing Will Eno play and its beautiful production at the Shaw Festival last summer is world building. The inspired lighting and sound team of Lamotte and Juliani paired with a standout cast to define an extraordinary world within the blank slate confines of the festival’s studio theatre. – KB

Outstanding Lighting & Sound Design (Medium)
Martin Sirois
for Illusions
(Sidemart Theatrical Grocery)

The intangibility and unknowability of Illusions is central to the play’s effectiveness. That slippery tone was married with intriguing romance beautifully in Martin Sirois’ atmospheric technical design for a play all about what love is and how it can exist. – KB

Outstanding Lighting & Sound Design (Small)
Ken MacKenzie & Christopher Willes
for Other Jesus
(Public Recordings Performance Projects)

Working with limited resources in the intensely unconventional space of St. Matthews sanctuary, lighting designer Ken MacKenzie and sound designer Christopher Willes crafted some of the most unforgettable theatrical design moments we’ve ever seen (or heard). – KB

Outstanding Set & Costume Design (Large)
Michael Gianfrancesco
for Dracula
(Shaw Festival)

The bravura costumes and eerie set design were the real showstoppers in The Shaw Festival’s bold gothic presentation of the world’s most famous vampire story. Year after year, MVP Michael Gianfrancesco delivers thoughtful, detailed work and he may just have topped himself with his fantastical world building for Dracula. – KB

Outstanding Set & Costume Design (Medium)
Shannon Lea Doyle
for John
(The Company Theatre)

Walking into the Berkeley Street Theatre’s upstairs space for The Company Theatre’s stunning production of John felt like intruding. Shannon Lea Doyle’s vividly suffocating design contained so much rich character detail that it read like a diary that could be examined for hours without discovering all its secrets. – KB

Outstanding Set & Costume Design (Small)
Jessica Hiemstra
for The Hungriest Woman in the World
(Pencil Kit Productions)

Jessica Hiemstra’s design emerged from a nuanced understanding of the central themes of the play, providing a world that beautifully illustrated those themes while also offering concrete dimension to the action that best served the actors, the direction, and ultimately, the story. – LM

Outstanding Direction (Large)
Meg Roe
for Middletown 
(Shaw Festival)

A remarkable combination of intimate character work and big-idea vision brought Will Eno’s challenging script to life in Meg Roe’s truly wonderful production for the Shaw Festival (soon to be remounted for Crow’s Theatre in Toronto- don’t miss it). The level of insight and creativity Roe brought to the table here was inspiring. – KB

Outstanding Direction (Medium)
Peter Pasyk
for Poison 
(Coal Mine Theatre) 

Peter Pasyk brought inspired restraint to his direction of Poison at the Coal Mine Theatre, focusing on the intricate emotional journey of the characters, the understated vicissitudes of their conflicts, and presenting this narrative with a strikingly effective simplicity. – LM

Outstanding Direction (Small)
David Lafontaine
for Miss
(Unit 102 Actor’s Company)

A production directed by David Lafontaine has appeared in the Outstanding Production category every year since I first heard the name David Lafontaine. He has an unmatched eye for assembling a team, keen insight in script selection, and a deft directorial hand that never fails to produce top-tier work, Miss being a prime example. – KB

Outstanding Production (Large)
Tartuffe
(Stratford Festival)

This soon-to-be-remounted triumph was the perfect marriage of casting and concept and go-for-broke direction from the ever-conscientious Chris Abraham. Starring a top-of-his-game Graham Abbey and Tom Rooney in maybe the best Tom Rooney role to date (terribly high praise), Tartuffe was a high mark in recent Stratford history and won’t be forgotten anytime soon. – KB

Outstanding Production (Medium)
John
(The Company Theatre)

The critics all went crazy for this beautiful, challenging, epic, intimate production from the ever-reliable Company Theatre, and with good reason. Every element of this production worked brilliantly- Annie Baker’s gorgeous script, the pitch-perfect cast, Jonathan Goad’s smart direction, the aforementioned set, the lighting, the sound, the mysteriously profound sum of all these wonderful parts. – KB

Outstanding Production (Small)
Blue Remembered Hills
(Good Old Neon)

Bold and ambitious and creative, this oddball production directed and designed by Good Old Neon’s Nicole Wilson really snuck up on me. I started skeptical, left the theatre moved, and didn’t stop thinking about the play for weeks afterwards. And every time I thought about the production’s big swings and strong statements, the more I fell in love with what I’d seen. – KB

The Anonymous Award for
Outstanding Stage Management

Kathleen Hemsworth
(Production Manager, Shakespeare in Hospitals;
Stage Manager, Fake Nerd Girl

Nominated twice for her dedicated, instinctive work on two different projects in 2017, Kathleen Hemsworth received such enthusiastic accolades from her colleagues that she couldn’t be ignored when it came to selecting our Stage Management winner… – KB

Fan Favourite Award
Marvin Araneta
… but it was Marvin Araneta who actually received the most nominations. Unit 102’s beloved SM received such an insane groundswell of support that his Stage Management Award nominations actually overtook the Fan Favourite voting and the one award that’s determined by sheer force of fandom went to someone so behind-the-scenes that we couldn’t even find a proper photo of him. Fan Favourite going to a stage manager is my favourite plot twist of the year. – KB

Performer of the Year
Ann Pornel
The incomparable Ann Pornel competed against herself in the sketch & improv category this year for her work in sketch (Second City) AND in improv (Squad Goals). She’s a singular comedy force to be reckoned with, closing out her Second City Mainstage run in 2017 after stealing three consecutive revues by making me laugh and cry and proclaim myself the president of her fan club. She’s brash and hilarious and completely unwilling to be anything less than exactly herself. – KB

Emerging Artist
Olivia Croft
I love indie theatre because…
Sometimes you walk into a dingy basement in Kensington Market and you see a production of a new play mounted with no money and ramshackle everything but there’s someone in it who makes you think “I’m honoured to be seeing this”. Future superstar Olivia Croft defined that feeling for me in 2017 as Sappho in Filament Incubator’s Tenth Muse. I can’t wait to see what she does next. – KB

Honorary Award
The Assembly Theatre
I love indie theatre because…
There are people who make something out of nothing, who see setbacks as opportunities, who open doors for others and put the art first and never say die no matter how many floods and rent hikes and assholes they encounter. The Assembly Theatre is an indie space that opened when all the others were closing. It’s primarily home to Unit 102 Actor’s Company and Leroy St Theatre and I’ve yet to see a bad production within its walls. The Assembly team is keeping gentrification away from independent creators with a whip and a chair, insisting that there be somewhere artists can go to get their work on its feet and somewhere audiences can go to see good theatre at an affordable price. It’s a game-changing arts space in a neighbourhood that needs an arts space and a young but vital piece of the Toronto theatrical landscape. I’m so happy that it exists; the least we could do was give them a trophy. – KB

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