Stage Door Review
The Best Productions of 2019
Thursday, January 2, 2020
This year saw the passing of veteran actors Bob Nasmith and Jennifer Phipps and of renowned designer Martha Mann. Nasmith was known for his work for as an actor for Videocabaret and in many different capacities for Theatre Passe Muraille beginning in the 1960s and culminating in 2018 in his sold-out performances in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Phipps was one of the most beloved of the Shaw Festival’s veteran actors. She joined the company in 1967 and appeared in more than 50 productions over 30 seasons, her last being as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland in 2016.
Mann was an award-winning designer of theatre, opera, television and film. Her work enhanced productions on stage and screen from coast to coast, including Stratford, Shaw, a long residency at Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto and across North America. One of Mann’s last commissions was the designs for Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni in 2011, whose revival this year the company dedicated to her memory.
In alphabetical order here is my list of the ten best productions in Toronto in 2019. As usual, I have excluded productions that have previously appeared on this list.
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, Soulpepper Theatre Company. Jackie Maxwell drew the finest ensemble acting seen in years from Soulpepper in Lett’s large-scale family drama, including a best-ever performance from Nancy Palk as the family’s vicious, drug-addled matriarch.
Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis, Coal Mine Theatre Company. Kelli Fox smoothly guided a fine cast from the naturalism of Guirgis’s play’s first act to the wild magic realism of its second act giving theatre-lovers the kind of thrill they live for.
The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Soulpepper Theatre Company. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu led a trio of strong performances in McCraney’s remarkable play that found the archetypes of Yoruba mythology in the lives of ordinary Black men.
Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart, Opera Atelier. OA’s Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski took Mozart’s designation of this masterpiece as an “opera buffa” as his guide and as a result created the most satisfying production of Mozart’s opera ever staged in Toronto.
The Father by Florian Zeller, Coal Mine Theatre Company. Zeller’s 2012 play twists the typical parent-with-dementia story by presenting it from the parent’s point of view. Eric Peterson gave an outstanding performance as a man who can’t understand why the reality around him keeps shifting.
The Flick by Annie Baker, Outside the March & Crow’s Theatre. Mitchell Cushman directed a perfectly realized production of Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play where the uneventful lives of three ushers in a decrepit movie theatre conceal a drama of deception and betrayal.
The Good Thief by Conor McPherson, Fly on the Wall Theatre. In an ideal site-specific setting in an Irish pub, David Mackett in an understated, note-perfect performance recounts McPherson’s tale of a small-time thief who watches as his whole world crumbles.
Kopernikus by Claude Vivier, Against the Grain Theatre. AtG’s production of Vivier’s 1980 opera, the first in Canada since 2001, was both the operatic and theatrical event of the year. Director Joel Ivany understood how Vivier had re-envisioned opera as an experience of a psychological and mythic ritual and turned that ritual into an overwhelming experience.
Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, Canadian Opera Company. David McVicar directed and Johannes Debus conducted the most insightful presentation of Dvořák’s best-known opera that I have ever seen, including that at the Národní Divadlo in Prague. Sondra Radvanovsky’s account of the title role was ravishingly beautiful.
School Girls by Jocelyn Bioh, Obsidian Theatre with Nightwood Theatre. A tight-knit ensemble under Nina Lee Aquino’s astute direction of Bioh’s play set in a girls’ school in Ghana brilliantly revealed the lasting malign effects of internalized colonialism when the girls must compete in a beauty contest.
On the other hand ...
Bigre by Pierre Guillois, Compagnie le Fils du Grand Réseau presented by Canadian Stage and Théâtre français de Toronto. The silent French play may have won the 2017 Molière Award for Best Comedy, but the French sense of humour must have seriously degenerated since the days of Molière and Marivaux. The tedious work came off in Canada as a series of slapstick skits and gags that were relentlessly unfunny and often repellent.
The 2019 Stratford Festival produced several fine shows this year finally including a Shakespeare among them. As ought to happen at a festival, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino presented intelligent pairings of shows old and new on the same theme such as Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII (1613) and Kate Hennig’s Mother’s Daughter (2019), both featuring Katherine of Aragon, and G.E. Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1983) with Wadji Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind (2018), both about religious prejudice. The three best shows were:
Billy Elliot by Elton John & Lee Hall. Director and choreographer Donna Feore so completely reconceived Elton John’s musical that it seemed better suited to a thrust stage than it had been to a proscenium stage. Young Nolen Dubuc gave a dazzling triple-threat performance as Billy and Dan Chameroy brought enormous passion to the role of Billy’s father.
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. Merry Wives is often thought of as one of the Bard’s lesser plays, but it certainly did not seem so under Antoni Cimolino’s direction which created a strong portrait of a real small town community on stage. Geraint Wyn Davies’s hilarious performance as Falstaff will long be remembered.
Mother’s Daughter by Kate Hennig. The last play in in Hennig’s Queenmaker Trilogy was by far the most successful in examining Tudor history through a contemporary lens. With a superlative performance by Shannon Taylor as “Bloody” Mary, Hennig explored how cruelty is an inevitable part of absolute power.
The worst show was:
Othello by William Shakespeare. Stratford’s latest production of Shakespeare’s play was a tragedy in more ways than one. It was heartbreaking to see Michael Blake deliver one of the best performances ever of the Moor of Venice at Shakespeare without an adequate Iago or Desdemona to play off of. Director Nigel Shaw Williams’s overuse of sound and projections diminished rather than enhanced Shakespeare’s words.
Tim Carroll’s third season as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival felt like a welcome climb back from his first two seasons where he seemed intent on destroying the Festival’s unique niche and purpose in the world of theatre festivals and in eliminating the company’s beloved long-serving performers. This year long-time Shaw supporters felt more at home with a major work by Shaw and six more from the Festival’s original mandate. Carroll has not yet restored the uniformly high level of performance the Festival once boasted and made only a token attempt to bring back some of the Festival’s most experienced actors.
Of the offerings in 2019, the three best were:
Man and Superman by G. B. Shaw. The Shaw Festival advertised Man and Superman as a “once in a lifetime experience” which came as news to those who hds seen the Festival’s acclaimed production in 2004. Though director Kimberley Rampersad had nowhere near the firm, distinctive hand that Neil Munro did in 2004, her all-star cast positively shone in their roles and demonstrated yet again that this one of Shaw’s very greatest plays.
Holiday Inn by Irving Berlin. The plot of this 2014 stage version of the beloved 1942 film may simply be a string to link a series of Irving Berlin’s greatest hits, but director Kate Hennig encouraged her leads to create more fully rounded characters whom we could care about. Allison Plamondon’s exhilarating tap choreography proved a glittering showcase for the talents of the ensemble and especially for Kyle Blair and Kyle Golemba.
The Ladykillers by Graham Linehan. Film comedies rarely translate well to the stage. But Linehan’s version of the classic 1955 film turned out to be absolutely hilarious, especially with Tim Carroll’s ideal pacing and great sense of farce. Chick Reid gave her best-ever performance as the not-quite-so-dotty Mrs. Wilberforce and Judith Bowden’s detailed revolving set was a delight in itself.
The worst show was:
Victory by Howard Barker. Tim Carroll’s bizarre unreliability places him again in both the “best” and “worst” lists. Howard Barker states that a play should be an “ordeal” for and audience as so Victory proved to be. A widow’s pointless quest to assemble her husband’s bones alternates with scene of pointless cruelty in Charles II’s court. All the intensity the starry cast brought to their roles could do nothing to make sense of Barker’s self-indulgence. Barker has stated that plays should not enlighten and Carroll obviously believes the same is true of directing.
Elsewhere in Ontario:
This year at least ten productions seen outside Toronto, the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival deserve special mention:
The most remarkable was:
Fences by August Wilson, Grand Theatre, London. Why Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play has never been staged in Toronto is inexcusable. Luckily, the Grand Theatre gave it a powerful production directed by Djanet Sears with an outstanding central performance by Nigel Shawn Williams that fully conveyed its greatness.
The rest in alphabetical order were:
Cabaret by John Kander & Fred Ebb, Grand Theatre, London. What new way is there to present Cabaret? Director Dennis Garnhum took Sam Mendes’s idea in his 1998 production to its logical conclusion and presented the entire show as a cabaret in a cabaret created from the Grand’s McManus Stage. Metatheatricality was heightened to the limit and Tess Benger as Sally and James Daly as Cliff gave superb performances in an all singing-dancing-acting-instrument-playing ensemble.
Drunk Girl by Thea Fitz-James, TMI Productions, Ottawa. After her success at the Ottawa Fringe, Fitz-James portrays feminism’s split on the relationship between women and drink by dividing herself into Drunk Girl and the Academic who present widely differing views on why women drink and why drunk women are judged more harshly than drunk men.
The Gamblers by Nikolai Gogol, Talk Is Free Theatre, Barrie. Talk Is Free Theatre continued to explore rarities with its presentation of Gogol’s ingenious 1843 comedy of how a group of small town gamblers take down a visiting big time player. Esther Jun’s use of gender-blind casting helped universalize this fizzing comedy.
Hilda’s Yard by Norm Foster, Foster Festival, St. Catharines. Shaw Festival veteran Jim Mezon gave Foster’s sly 2012 comedy a precise, insightful production. Foster’s identification of Hilda’s yard on stage with the stage itself became a multilevelled exploration of how people who encounter forgiveness are changed.
A Huron County Christmas Carol by Gil Garratt with songs by John Power, Blyth Festival. Even if you had seen far too many Christmas Carols, you had to make room for Blyth’s first-ever winter show. Garratt’s relocation of the action of Dickens’s tale to present-day Huron County was not merely clever but also shows that the heart of the story is the remorse in realizing one’s life has had no useful purpose. Randy Hughson, surrounded by a superb multi-talented cast, gave a revelatory performance as Scrooge.
Pal Joey by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Talk Is Free Theatre, Barrie. Director Esther Jun did not try to sweeten this no-nonsense musical filled with classic tunes. Instead she had Justin Stadnyk as Joey and Carly Street as the woman who keeps him play their cynical roles just as they were written, thus painting a negative portrait of society that feels decades ahead of its time.
Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, Drayton Entertainment, Huron County Playhouse, Grand Bend. Director Marti Maraden assembled a superlative ensemble cast from veterans of the Stratford and Shaw festivals and other regional theatres. Maraden’s cast turned Rose’s 1964 play into a battle of belief versus facts that was chillingly more relevant now than ever.
The Vise by Luigi Pirandello, Pie in the Sky Productions, Stratford. Torontonians tend to forget that there are small professional theatre companies scattered all throughout Ontario. Pie in the Sky gave riveting a site-specific production of Pirandello’s 1910 play, directed and adapted by Douglas Beattie, that showed Pirandello already uncovering the game-playing in human interactions in his very first play.
The Writer by Norm Foster, Foster Festival, St. Catharines. Norm Foster’s best comedies are known for their undercurrent of seriousness. In The Writer, Foster allows this undercurrent to become the main flow of a play filled with loss, sadness and regret and only occasionally shot through with humour. It is comedy in the broadest sense in appraising the ironies of life. Under Patricia Vanstone’s sensitive direction Shaw veteran Guy Bannerman as the increasingly demented father and Jamie Williams as the son who desperately wants to know him while he still can gave impeccable performances.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Scene from Kopernikus, © 2019 Darryl Block; Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot and Blythe Wilson as Mrs. Wilkinson with ensemble in Billy Elliot the Musical at the Stratford Festival, © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann; Sara Topham as Ann Whitefield and Gray Powell as Jack Tanner in Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival, © 2019 Emily Cooper; Nigel Shawn Williams as Troy and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Rose in Fences at the Grand Theatre, London, © 2019 Dahlia Katz.