As 2017 reaches its end, we’ve asked the Intermission core team members to write about one of their favourite theatre experiences of the year.
Please know that this list is far from exhaustive—just about everyone we asked expressed how hard it was to narrow it down to one pick, and one of our editors changed her mind three times.
Our Town (Theatre Rusticle)
I was feeling a little off the night I went to see Our Town. Disconnected, maybe. It was late March, I was tired, and I had biked a half hour in the cold rain to get to the theatre. But as soon as the play’s first words were spoken, I was lifted. The story is beautifully simple, and Theatre Rusticle’s version was infused with so much energy and brightness. It gave me life, not only that night, but in the time since; I often catch glimmers of the final scene on the edges of my mind, and I feel calm. Months later, as I was thumbing through the drama section in a bookstore, I picked up a copy of the play and read the first page. I was transported back to the Grover’s Corner dreamt up by Allyson McMackon. I sensed the delight the production had instilled in me, and I felt illuminated.
Life After (Canadian Stage, The Musical Stage Company, and Yonge Street Theatrical Productions)
Another year, another 300+ shows seen in Toronto. And another year where my absolutely subjective personal favourite show is an original Canadian musical: Life After. by Britta Johnson. It’s a moving, poignant piece about the experience of loss, the feelings that can arise and overwhelm, and the many ways that those affected turn to cope. The score of this mainly sung-through chamber musical is exceptional, with individual melodies weaving together sophisticated lyrics to create an emotional journey filled with wonder, humour, and heartbreak. Reflecting as I write this, on memories of my own parents who have both passed and the emotions I experienced then and continue to feel now, I am once again so grateful for having experienced this remarkable production.
S h e e t s (Veritas Theatre)
S h e e t s wasn’t perfect, but several of the individual scenes were the best I’ve seen in a long time. The play is made up of a series of vignettes—glimpses into moments in the lives of strangers—taking place in the same hotel room. It’s true, there was a lot of nudity. Like, a LOT of nudity. As in, at one point a guy pulls his foreskin out and pretends it’s an anteater. But the play didn’t feel (for the most part) like a gimmick. It felt vulnerable. Honest. Watching a middle-aged woman peel off the layers of her SPANX, or a young man, home for the funeral of a friend, have to ask for help changing because he no longer has hands, was like peeking into moments we wouldn’t normally have seen. And the cast played those moments so honestly I couldn’t help but fall in love.
The Aliens (Coal Mine Theatre)
The Aliens is achingly realistic. It unfolds slowly, with the sometimes repetitive pace of real life, but goes to unpredictable and unexpected places. The slow, natural, easy rhythm of the interactions between its three main characters—two smart but aimless small-town slackers, and the impressionable teenager they befriend—lulls you into thinking you’re watching a smart and insightful playwright simply take on the monotony of everyday life, as though tragedy isn’t always accompanied by monotony. The production explores rage and friendship, humour and grief, ambition and self-expression, masculinity and its limitations with a subtlety and sensitivity that stayed with me for months.
John (The Company Theatre)
John was such a three-dimensional kitchen-sink-y realization of a very strange, alien, yet eerily relatable place, with the patience and open space to invite the audience to speculate themselves to distraction, until the mystery truly took over, until the theatre magic and the present moment was all there was left to hold on to. It is the hardest show to describe, but I will never stop trying to tell people about it, and in that it has done its job as an ephemeral community experience: you had to be there.
Stupid Fucking Bird (The Bird Collective)
In the battle of contemporary plays vs. the classics, this adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull somehow made the argument for both. It started off in the tone the title suggests: a bit pleased with itself, very cool, and it got a lot of laughs by poking fun at the original. It seemed to be saying, “Yeah, we’re doing Chekov, but, you know, ironically…” Then it kept going, and the story took over, and the adaptation turned out to be pretty true to the text (and performed by a stellar, heartbreaking cast). By the end it was clear that it wasn’t taking the piss at all—it was an homage of the highest order. It proved that the story of The Seagull isn’t just something to be studied by actors and academics, it’s also acutely relevant, with humour and sex and tragedy that left me shaken and deeply optimistic about the past and future of theatre.
The Wedding Party (Crow’s Theatre)
From the elegant set, to Kristen Thomson playing a dog, to Tom Rooney fighting with himself, everything about The Wedding Party was perfection. The show was a marathon performed seamlessly. I spent the majority of it laughing embarrassingly loudly, and I still debate internally which of the many characters is my favourite. As soon as it was over I was quoting the lines back and forth with friends, similar to how I once did when Zoolander was fresh on the scene. It is a show that I would see again and again.
Tartuffe (Stratford Festival)
As the old saying goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Theatre that makes me laugh out loud is almost impossible to find, but Tartuffe achieved that more than once. The ensemble, direction, and design worked together to create the best production of a Molière play that I’ve ever seen. All elements were first-rate. Chris Abraham’s created a well-oiled machine running at a blazing pace, yet it somehow held onto an air of mischief and spontaneity. Nothing embodied this duality more than Tom Rooney’s ballsy performance as the title character. Like the con man he played, it was impossible not to be seduced by Rooney’s performance. He broke every conventional rule about playing a leading role in Stratford’s Festival theatre. He wasn’t going to spend any energy trying to win you over or convince you to watch him. And somehow this only made you sit even more forward on your seat, not taking your eyes off him.
Cake (New Harlem Productions)
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard is the fiercest artist currently working in Canadian theatre. Her plays offer a vision that’s at once politically attuned and poetically resonant. Cake is no different. Part of her ambitious 54ology project (each play focused on a specific African country), the play offers a multifaceted look at uranium “yellowcake” mining in Niger and how this unfolds within a particular domestic unit. The set design’s illustration of the land seeping into the home with yellow-stained floors and oil drums positioned in the background balances the stylized movements of the performers irrevocably caught in a flood of lies, greed, ambition and assault. It’s a play that is meant to haunt our own visions of ecological and bodily exploitation. Its final harrowing moment haunts me still.
Dancing at Lughnasa (Shaw Festival)
I love the ache of this play. How the five fiercely loving Mundy sisters all lived in grinding poverty and each had their jobs to do within the family unit. Love and anxiety informed every character. Sometimes they dwelled on regret, thinking of “what might have been.”
Love suffused the production as well from Krista Jackson’s sensitive, meticulous direction to the acting of that whole cast and especially those five gifted women playing the Mundy sisters: Fiona Byrne, Diana Donnelly, Claire Jullien, Sarena Parmar, and Tara Rosling. John Gzowski’s choice of Celtic music welcomed us but became explosive when a familiar tune came on the Mundy radio. Each sister danced and screamed at the joy of it, but none more than repressed Kate (Fiona Byrne) whose legs twitched at first as the music bubbled up inside her and she gave into a frenzied, fearless dance. I wanted to scream and punch the air with my fist as well, overcome by it all.
In the end, I left the theatre, moved to quiet tears (can’t let them see you weep, Slotkin), exhausted and exhilarated because of this glorious heart-squeezing play and production.
Bonus Editors’ Pick (May Antaki and Maija Kappler)
Asking For It (In Association with Crow’s Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, and Necessary Angel)
At any time, during any year or any news cycle, this is a show everyone should see. Ellie Moon’s gripping documentary play makes use of real, verbatim interviews to consider and interrogate what we actually mean when we talk about consent—a topic that’s taken on a special resonance in the last few months, as it’s become clear just how vital these conversations are. Asking For It is an incredible accomplishment, not just in what it puts onstage but in the offstage conversations it will inspire. Just about everyone we’ve heard from, like us, left the theatre wanting to talk about what we’d all just seen, to connect it to our own experiences. It’s a vital piece of theatre.