Season winds down, festivals start up, Toronto critics regroup

A few words on end-of-season shows, Stratford and Shaw Festivals and the return of the (expanded) Toronto Theatre Critics Awards

Season winds down, festivals start up, Toronto critics regroup
Mariya Khomutova and Matthew MacKenzie returned to Soulpepper with their award-winning First Métis Man of Odesa. Photo by Dahlia Katz

This post is sponsored by the CBC podcast PlayME, which turns contemporary plays into bingeable audio dramas. See more about the podcast's season finale, Diane Flacks's Guilt (A Love Story), below.

All the signs are in the air that the Toronto theatre season is winding down.

The Stratford and Shaw Festivals are getting ready to launch their seasons. I got to preview the Shaw's big musical production of My Fair Lady recently in The Toronto Star (see article here). And at Stratford, the Star's Joshua Chong interviewed director Sam White, who directed last season's excellent Wedding Band and is helming this year's Romeo and Juliet.

Kimberley Rampersad and Tim Carroll discuss My Fair Lady during rehearsals. Photo by David Cooper Photo

Also, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards cutoff (May 12) has passed – that date when productions must have presented 60 per cent of their run. The nominations will be announced on May 28. And the ceremony, hosted by the fabulous Ryan G. Hinds, takes place June 24. You can find info about the Doras here.

Don't expect to see any Mirvish Productions shows announced on the 28th. As Chong reported earlier this week, the company withdrew as members of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts last fall, and so shows like Six, In Dreams and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead won't be eligible.

The Doras, now in their 44th year, aren't the only theatre awards being handed out this season. After a gap of four years, the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards are back. Theatre writing has exploded in the past few years, especially online, and this year's team of critics will be the largest in the modest group's history. Look for representation from Intermission, NEXT, BroadwayWorld, MyGayToronto and SesayArts, among other outlets, when the awards are announced in mid-June.

Jasmine Case (left) and Déjah Dixon-Green star in the remarkable Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz

New reviews

One of the most-anticipated productions of the year was Coal Mine Theatre's Hedda Gabler, in a script adapted from Ibsen by Liisa Repo-Martell. Here's my review of it starring Coal Mine's co-founder Diana Bentley in the difficult lead role, with another fine performance by Qasim Khan (after The Inheritance and before his Hamlet in High Park, he's having one helluva year) and the long-awaited return of Shawn Doyle.

It's a late entry in the season, but Jasmine Lee-Jones's Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner is not-to-be-missed. The Obsidian production just opened at Crow's Theatre, and Lee-Jones, director Jay Northcott and actors Déjah Dixon-Green and Jasmine Case are all exciting talents to watch. Here's my rave.

Some recent productions

A few weeks ago, I chatted with playwright Jordi Mand (Between the Sheets, Caught) about her play In Seven Days. Now that I've seen the play, in a world premiere co-production between the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and London's Grand Theatre, I believe it could become a Canadian classic.

Although it deals with a timely, controversial issue – Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAiD – its themes are timeless and universal. What, after all, is more basic than life and death? And its rich, beautifully detailed characters draw you in.

Rachel (Shaina Silver-Baird) is an over-worked 30-year-old Toronto lawyer who's made the two-hour trek to visit her dad, Sam (Ron Lea) and Sam's girlfriend, Shelley (Mairi Babb), for Shabbat dinner.

What she doesn't know is that Sam, who's been living with excruciating pain for years, has decided to kill himself – within seven days. After receiving the news, a shocked Rachel tries to dissuade him, even getting Sam's childhood friend, Eli (Ralph Small), who's also his rabbi, to try to convince him. But Sam is determined.

Things get more complicated after he posts his intentions on Facebook and the phone (yes, they still have a land line) starts ringing off the hook. Even Rachel's ex, Darren (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett), shows up – to support Rachel but also to talk to Sam.

What's so absorbing about the play is how artfully Mand has set up both the situation and the characters. Rachel and Sam have an unbreakable bond, one that was strengthened when Rachel's mother died when she was a child. This loss has obviously affected Rachel's relationship with Shelley (who's maybe in her 40s), which is amicable but not exactly loving. Shelley, meanwhile, is a fascinating figure. Mand is too good a writer to give us a scene in which Shelley tells us how she's coped with Sam's news herself; we assume she's come to terms with it, and we don't need to be told.

I also loved the easy, believable rapport between Lea and Small, two Toronto stage veterans whose work goes back decades. Sam and Eli have got the small talk, the little jokes and much-repeated memories, down pat.

Even Darren, who might seem like a throwaway character, is given many dimensions. There's a night-time scene between him and Sam that feels so real and powerful it elicited a bit of applause at the mid-run performance I attended. That's the thing about death, I suppose; it raises the stakes so much that people are forced to say things they've always wanted to say.

Director Philip Akin has found the right pacing for the production, taking special care with the scene transitions. Watch how he deals with Lea, who uses two canes to walk, between scenes. And Akin handles Mand's comic scenes – arguments about bagels, a parade of bad bridesmaid dresses – with finesse. Even a detail about how Sam has taken care of his will and end-of-life papers takes on a comic feel because of the use of repetition.

I love theatre in which the characters' lives seem to go on after the play is over, and their actions make you wonder how you'd act yourself. Mand's beautiful, touching play does that – and more.


I'm also glad I caught the return of Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova's Dora Award-winning play First Métis Man of Odesa during its Soulpepper return. I feel much the same as when I did when I first reviewed it in 2023, before it embarked on a national tour.

As might be expected, director Lianna Makuch's production seems more confident and assured after a year, but it still maintains a feeling of spontaneity and surprise. I was especially taken with how Amelia Scott's projections – which seem more detailed this time around – helped orient us.

It's impressive how a lighting effect (Daniela Masellis is production designer) can evoke a post-performance champagne toast, or how a simple whoosh in Aaron Macri's sound design and the image of liftoff can suggest an airplane trip.

MacKenzie's performance felt more settled and grounded this time around; was it my imagination or did he lessen our expectations the first time around by admitting that he wasn't an actor? And Khomutova reprises the role that earned her a deserving Dora nomination with grace and nuance. I hope to see her onstage in other productions soon.

With another war in the headlines this time around (and the one between Russia and Ukraine still ongoing), the idea of creating art out of real-life experiences has taken on even more layers and significance.

Diane Flacks's Guilt (A Love Story) closes out CBC PlayME's season. Photo from Tarragon staging by Cylla von Tiedemann

First Métis Man of Odesa closes this long weekend at Soulpepper. If you missed it this second time, then shame on you. Just kidding. You can always listen to the audio version on the CBC podcast PlayME, which incidentally wraps up its season this week with Diane Flacks's Guilt (A Love Story).

Flacks's multi-character solo show about the guilt she felt over breaking up her family works incredibly well in the intimate audio medium. In one sequence, the producers have even found a way to make it seem like Flacks's characters are talking to themselves, with overlapping dialogue – impressive!

The fact that the podcast is split up into two parts interrupts the play's momentum; when the show debuted at the Tarragon earlier this year, there was no interval. But now that both parts are online you can binge them one after the other.

A third part of the podcast includes a warm, candid interview between Flacks and co-host-co-producer Laura Mullin. It's fascinating to know that Flacks okayed the material with her two sons before it went up – and in some cases her kids didn't even remember the events she quoted them saying.

Flacks was also surprised by the reaction of some 20-something audience members, perhaps because they feel so restrained about expressing themselves in the current cultural climate.

And what a treat to hear Flacks talk about her early days in theatre, including what sounds like a not very satisfactory time at York University's theatre department, and taking part in Toronto's alternative theatre scene.

The stakes back then, she says to Mullin, were low. But they had a lot of fun.

"There's not as much fun now, everyone is so frightened," she says.

You can hear Guilt (A Love Story), First Métis Man of Odesa and the rest of the PlayME catalogue here.

And now that the season's winding down, I can't help wondering what plays producers Mullin and Chris Tolley will program next season. The Master Plan? Casey and Diana? Prophecy Fog? Now that I think of it, In Seven Days would work beautifully in audio, and you can find Mand's Between the Sheets in its archive.

As I Must Live It would work well in podcast form, I think, as would Wildwoman, Mad Madge and Women of the Fur Trade. Here's hoping.