29 December 2019
I wasn’t going to do this. I’m wary of “best of” lists at the best of times, the decade doesn’t really end until next year, and I couldn’t help but be hyper-aware of what I was leaving off the list because time and conflict and sunlight have cast pretty big shadows over much of the theatre I loved this decade.
But I started writing about theatre early in 2010, so maybe I can think of this exercise less as dutiful New Years content and more as a specific account of a life spent chronicling something. Theatre defined me for the last ten years more than it ever had before or is ever likely to again. I figure now, at the hypothetical close of something, is as good a time as any to look back at the productions that mattered most to me for whatever reason.
This is not a best-of list, it’s just a time-altered, rose-coloured retrospective of the shows I look back on most fondly and often wish I could see again. It’s an excuse, really, to talk about a few productions I wish I got to talk about more.
Listed in chronological order:
My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding (2010)
This sweet little pre-Come From Away autobiographical musical in its post-Fringe Mirvish run was the first theatre production to ever receive a review on this website (until then we had exclusively covered TV). I couldn’t not include it.
To date my favourite ballet in the whole world, the 2010 run at the National Ballet of Canada was the world premiere of a new version and it featured a perfect one-night-only cast I will never ever forget. It’s the performance that made me a ballet true believer and I’ve never looked back.
Twelfth Night (2011)
If you only know a couple things about me, one of them is probably that I’m a Shakespeare nerd. I was the president of my University’s Shakespeare Society. I’ve seen hundreds of productions, and at least a few dozen Twelfth Nights, but this exuberant, anachronistic, hyper-musical version from the height of Stratford’s decadent McAnuff era is my unexpected favourite. The melancholy comedy is only my fourth favourite of Shakespeare’s texts but those other three have never managed to top it in performance. It helps that Stratford filmed this production so I have actually been able to revisit it and find nuances I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to give it credit for. The cast is a fabulous mishmash of many of my favourite actors in the world (Tom Rooney‘s Malvolio is quintessential) with a few performers I otherwise completely don’t like but who deliver work here that transcends everything else I’ve ever seen them do. It’s a terrifically funny production that’s also deeply sad, which is the fundamental dichotomy that makes Twelfth Night great. I could talk about this one for forever.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2012)
For all its flaws, I truly love Soulpepper and this is the production that started that for me. There’s something so satisfying in simply watching brilliant actors take on one of the big, difficult masterpieces of the English canon and it’s hard to think of a play bigger and more difficult than O’Neill’s 3+ hour tragedy. What a privilege to see the first couple of Canadian theatre Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk as the Tyrones. And, though he’d been nominated for his first award from this site the previous year, this was the production that really introduced me to Gregory Prest who would become one of the key artists of my decade of Canadian theatre.
Kat Sandler had to make the list somewhere; the timing of her rise and the sheer volume of good work she produced this decade makes it fairly easy to argue for her as the defining Toronto theatre artist of the 2010s. Choosing which play was the tricky part. I thought about Cockfight (which I think is one of her technical best and is also a perfect encapsulation of a very specific time and place in independent theatre) and I thought about Delicacy (the first one I saw), Punch Up (another favourite), and Mustard (her Dora-winning breakout from the indie scene). I went with Sucker, which is not one of her best known works but it’s always been my favourite. The original cast was perfect and the silly/grounded/sad/sweet story of Sucker just hit me straight in the heart, so it gets the Sandler spot on this list.
American Pie Songbook (2014)
I feel like Soulpepper’s concerts often get lost in the space between our theatre and music coverage so I wanted to make sure one of them made it onto this list because, without fail, Mike Ross’ perfectly curated and beautifully written narrative music shows are some of my favourite work produced on Toronto stages. American Pie Songbook is the one I think about most often. It came out of the Global Cabaret Festival, a theatrical event that I loved dearly in the 2010s and we’re never likely to see again, and united many of the best performers from the extended Soulpepper universe. The Janis Joplin/Leonard Cohen duet Hailey Gillis and Frank Cox-O’Connell created for this piece will never not be one of my favourite things.
The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt (2015)
Ok, here it is, the play I talk about when asked to name my favourite piece of Canadian theatre. It’s very possible that I’ve built the legend of this Shaw production up in my head so much that I’m remembering it as more than it was, but I know so few people who actually saw it that there’s no way to prove such a thing (if I could ask Toronto artistic directors for just one thing, it would be an original cast remount of this play). A world premiere from the incredible Michel Marc Bouchard (whose Tom at the Farm I also considered for this list), this production was a perfectly cast and gorgeously directed emotional marvel that exemplified Jackie Maxwell at the height of her powers. The Divine stands on its own but it also stands in for the rest of the 2015 Shaw season, a collection of work so across-the-board excellent that I doubt I’ll ever see a season like it.
I went back and forth between Slip and Dark Matter to represent my love of Circlesnake Productions and the beautiful, hilarious, complex work that came from their unique creation process. Ultimately I think Slip is the more sophisticated piece, growing what was so special about Dark Matter and leaning on the strength of the superb ensemble to tell an ambitiously crafted story in a deeply human way.
Red Light Winter (2016)
This era for Unit 102 Actor’s Company was one of the most succesful runs I have ever seen with excellent production after excellent production. Though it feels odd to choose a Unit 102 production that doesn’t include two of its most influential artists (actor/director David Lafontaine and designer Adam Belanger who together created many of my favourite productions of the decade), something about Red Light Winter has just stuck with me more than any of the company’s other exemplary work. A trio of stellar performances made this one completely indelible. It was also my first substantial introduction to the work of Anne van Leeuwen and Luis Fernandes who would go on to co-found the Assembly Theatre, one of the most important contributions to Toronto indie theatre this decade.
The Aliens (2017)
This production was just really really good- strong direction and design paired with a gutpunch script and a true stunner of a cast led by a completely unrecognizable Noah Reid in one of my favourite performances ever.
And, just for good measure, let’s mention…
– red light district, the company that forced me the most out of my comfort zone
– FeverGraph’s brilliant reimagined Look Back in Anger
– Rarely Pure’s wonderful winterized As You Like It
– Adam Brazier’s bleak Cabaret at Hart House that completely unlocked that show for me
– That moment in Of Mice and Men when Adam Belanger’s set opened up
– Brandon Crone’s Maypole Rose and the Circle Jerk celebration of collaboration
– Lauren Horejda in Desiderata’s brutal Changeling
– My favourite improv piece, Bad Dog’s La Grande Jatte
– Incredible solo shows by Owen Fawcett, Adam Lazarus, Thomas McKechnie, Martin Dockery, and Mark Shyzer
– Macbeth Muet, my great Fringe discovery of the decade
– Steve Vargo’s lights for Old Times after Unit 102 lost their space and most of their equipment
– Badass female indie producers like Ruth Goodwin, Torey Urquhart, and Nicole Strawbridge
– Shakespeare Bash’d at the Victory Cafe
– A Masked Ball, the only opera I’ve ever loved
– Polly Phokeev & Mikaela Davies’ How We Are plays
– Hilary McCormack as Desdemona
– Alex McCooeye as Richard III
– Leslie McBay as Romeo
– The unsung dramaturgical hand of Tom McGee
– Filament Incubator’s 8-Plays-in-8-Months
– Anthony MacMahon’s Wild Dogs on the Moscow Trains
– The November Ticket pricing experiment at the Theatre Centre
– Dylan Tedaldi in any contemporary National Ballet piece
– Daren A Herbert as Harold Hill
– Ramin Karimloo singing with Colm Wilkinson in Les Miserables
– Life in a Box! And the new generation of musical theatre writers in general
– Prince Amponsah returning to theatre
– How hard it was to get a ticket to Tough Jews
– Sarah Wilson as Elomire in La Bête
– A Quiet Sip of Coffee at SummerWorks
– Curtain call at opening night of Come From Away
– Robert Markus singing “Waving Through a Window”
– Cawrk’s Glass Menagerie, the first indie show I reviewed
– Ross Petty’s final performance in the pantomime
– The impossible ambition of Brantwood
– Weyni Mengesha