We’ve never done a year-end list before.
Most raves are adrenaline-fuelled, typed in a flurry the morning after. Coffee brings back the thrills of the night before, allowing easy access to those juicy gut reactions.
But as we started drafting this list of some of our favourite theatre in 2023, we didn’t always bring up the shows that prompted the highest degree of instant enthusiasm. Sure, there are some we loved from the first moment and still adore — but others have grown on us over time, revealing their splendours gradually.
Indeed, these shows have stood the test of at least a few weeks, if not several months. Their pleasures are not transitory, but mature and long-lasting. We think of them often. (And argued about them spiritedly at The Only Cafe on the Danforth as we pulled together this list.)
As You Like It, a radical retelling
Some might argue that Cliff Cardinal’s subversive take on the Bard is old news. But As You Like It, a radical retelling has beaten all number of odds this year. It toured across Canada, including a stop at the prestigious Festival TransAmériques in Montreal. It survived an asinine name change at Mirvish. And thrillingly, it’s off to Under the Radar in New York in the new year. Cardinal’s grand experiment in what theatre can do, a collaboration with Crow’s artistic director Chris Abraham, is the show we keep talking about, and for damn good reason — it’s a vital, incendiary play that’s oh-so-deserving of its recently bestowed Governor General’s Award.
Here Lies Henry/Monster/Your Show Here
In a talkback following Factory Theatre’s one-night-only reading of Daniel MacIvor’s powerful new work Your Show Here, Cardinal introduced MacIvor as “my hero” — unsurprising, in retrospect, given the artists’ shared affinity for the solo show form. Excellent new productions of two such MacIvor plays, Here Lies Henry and Monster, were given concurrent runs at Factory this year, brought to piercing life by directors Tawiah M’Carthy and Soheil Parsa respectively. They reminded us how unique — and totally theatrical — the encounter between solo performer and audience can be.
Maanomaa, My Brother
This co-creation by M’Carthy and Brad Cook, a collaboration between Canadian Stage and Blue Bird Theatre Collective, made magic out of simplicity. Under the gorgeous lighting of the reliably excellent Andre du Toit, the tale of a friendship gone cold used inventive, unpretentious movement sequences to evoke the undefinable feeling of childhood. Director Philip Akin’s had a great year, but Maanomaa was something special, a jam-packed hour of grief and brotherhood that should be picked up for a remount in the years to come: it’d be a perfect touring show.
Letters From Max, a ritual
We need not ramble on about how much we enjoyed this show — we wrote 2,100 epistolary words on it barely a month ago — but Necessary Angel’s Canadian premiere production of Sarah Ruhl’s Letters From Max set a high standard for theatre in Toronto, with a starry cast and a gut-punch script.
The final opus from visionary theatre director Daniel Brooks, who died in May, this Soulpepper Theatre production was unforgettable. Shannon Lea Doyle’s set design, which slowly transformed as the evening went on, produced a visual arc that continues to reverberate in our minds. As the months have gone by, the show has only felt more and more important — a wholly original work that Toronto is fortunate to have witnessed.
Best of the Stratford Festival
While Stratford’s Casey and Diana is sure to receive praise elsewhere, we had to include it here ahead of its 2024 Soulpepper remount. The play is funny and devastating; topical and dreamy. Nick Green’s script as directed by Andrew Kushnir might be the best new play of the year — perhaps in a year’s time, there’ll be another Governor General’s Award-winning playwright on this list.
From a queer adaptation of Richard II to an obscure Italian three-act, every show at the recently renovated Tom Patterson Theatre was at least interesting this year. But the venue’s most cohesive and memorable offering turned out to be Sam White’s production of Alice Childress’ underproduced drama Wedding Band. Though the show’s design was sumptuous and realistic, the highly physical performances didn’t feel trapped in a Stanislavskian box. As protagonist Julia, Antonette Rudder was particularly explosive — a real star turn. White has an uber-prestigious Stratford directing assignment next year: Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Theatre. We await it eagerly.
After a heartbreaking fire last September, Coal Mine Theatre roared back with several strong 2023 productions. Our favourite was this incisive 2014 play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed with assurance by co-artistic director Ted Dykstra. And hey, just this week, a production of it starring Sarah Paulson opened on Broadway to great reviews despite a mixed New York reception a decade ago. Dykstra and company’s taste in scripts has again proved unshakable — and, in this case, ahead of the curve.
Peter Fernandes is God’s gift to Canadian theatre. As soul-destroying a beagle as he was a tree in The Master Plan, Fernandes was the beating heart of every show in which he appeared this year — including, of course, Fifteen Dogs. Directed with whimsy and incessant charm by Marie Farsi (who we hope to see well-represented in 2024/2025 season announcements), the theatrical adaptation of André Alexis’ beloved novel brought new insights to the book, and assembled a knockout cast of actors to play a group of runaway dogs. Tom Rooney as a poodle, complete with canine mannerisms? Come on.
Toronto’s Kat Sandler drought was finally quenched with a winning new play, about Catherine de Medici and the real-life story that inspired Beauty and the Beast. Dan Mousseau was a memorable, heartbreaking Pete-the-dog-man, and Tony Ofori’s take on Henry II was note-perfect in its dastardliness. Is the second act a tad long? Sure. But WILDWOMAN was an audacious return to the stage for Sandler, and a play any theatre in the country would be lucky to program into its future seasons.
The Master Plan
Some irony: a satire about how Toronto is a terrible place to live opened the 2023/2024 season of a company that makes Toronto a much better place to live. Abraham’s production of this Michael Healey world premiere was another obscenely successful hit for Crow’s Theatre; between the two of us, we saw it five times. While the punchlines have been rightly hyped, it might be Christopher Allen’s earnest portrayal of a young infrastructure designer that’s stuck with us most.
Shows of the summer
Two boundary-pushing shows exemplified what makes Toronto’s summer theatre festivals so exciting. At the SummerWorks Performance Festival, We Quit Theatre’s i am your spaniel, or, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare by Gislina Patterson used a single line from the play mentioned in its title as jumping-off point to deconstruct the more insidious aspects of Canada’s theatre industry — it’s a postmodern swirl of scrappy aesthetics, Marxist politics, and internet ephemera. You can see it next January at Buddies. Meanwhile, at the Toronto Fringe Festival, a front company’s morning after mixed stunning design with elaborately calibrated choral soundscapes to offer a disarming look at the process of recovering from sexual assault.
Aisling spent more weekends this summer in not-Toronto than Toronto, getting to know new cities and reacquainting herself with others. A few national productions stick out to her as being worthy of year-end recognition: Theatre Aquarius’ Maggie, for its heart the size of Scotland and its standout lead Dharma Bizier; Come from Away in Newfoundland, for its surprisingly effective reimagining of a show some might say didn’t need it; and A Christmas Carol in Calgary, for its staggeringly high-quality stagecraft and rock-solid cast.
Indie solo shows about climate, child-having, and child-losing
Three solo shows across the city this year form a triptych of rigorous, brilliant work. Here For Now’s Girls & Boys, which bowled Aisling over in Stratford last summer with its haunting story of child loss, made the exciting journey to Crow’s Theatre. I love the smell of gasoline, written and performed by Claren Grosz, investigated climate change (and its implications regarding procreation) against a mosaic of inventive projections and shadow puppets. And just last week, The Howland Company’s Hypothetical Baby combined all the best tropes of solo performance to recount the context and aftermath of theatre-maker Rachel Cairns’ abortion. It was a rock-solid year for indie solo artists, all of whom we hope to see more of in the new year.
The Toronto theatre subreddit was started last April, but it grew to over 500 members this year. It turns out an anonymous forum is the perfect place for honest discussions of local art, with a November thread about that overhyped announcement at the Princess of Wales amassing nearly 100 comments.
More importantly: thanks for posting all those Intermission reviews, u/SpinLiquid. We appreciate it. (Also, who are you?)