by Lynn on December 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

As many of you know, I have been giving out Tootsie Pops for many years to people in the theatre as a way of saying ‘thank you for making the theatre so special for me.’ Instead of doing top 10 lists of the best theatre and performances of the year, I do The Tootsie Awards that are personal, eclectic, whimsical and totally subjective.

Here are this year’s selections:


The Guts of a Bandit Award

Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra

Co-engineers of Coal Mine Theatre. Their original theatre space was destroyed in a fire just before their season was to begin. They needed a new space and funds to continue with their season, albeit delayed. They didn’t quit. Their supporters/audiences/champions pitched in with their fundraising. Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra went about finding a new space and producing their season (Yerma, The Effect and Appropriate) with the same standards and quality. The new space is at 2076 Danforth Ave.

Gil Garratt

Artistic director of the Blyth Festival. Not only did he adapt James Reaney’s huge The Donnelly Trilogy, he also directed it for the outdoor Harvest Stage.  He and his stalwart company often did a lot of fast maneuvering when the weather made it impossible to do a segment outdoors, so with quick reconfiguring they moved the performance into the Memorial Hall a few blocks away, and efficiently conveyed that to the expected audience. It all worked a treat.

The Chameleon Award

Ali Kazmi

Ali Kazmi is such a find actor he disappears into a role like a chameleon, as recent work would attest. In New by Pamela Sinha, (Necessary Angel/Canadian Stage) he played a reluctant husband in an arranged marriage, awkward, angst-ridden, frustrated; in Uncle Vanya (Crow’s) he played Dr. Ostrov, charming, exhausted, full of ennui at the world he lives in and smitten by a married woman; in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Crow’s) by Rajiv Joseph, he played Uday Hussein, the swaggering, sadistic son of Saddam Hussein. Uday was a cold-blooded killer, without conscience or regret. For a complete change of pace, in Beyond the Moon (Tarragon) by Anosh Irani, Ali Kazmi played an obsequious, frightened immigrant named Ayub working at a restaurant for an unscrupulous employer who kept him a virtual prisoner in the place. In each case, Ali Kazmi illuminates the truth and heart of each individual character.  

The Jon Kaplan Mensch Award

Thom Allison

Thom Allison is a gifted singer-actor whose humanity oozes out of every pore, no matter if he is singing in a concert, or acting on stage or on television.  There is a graciousness and nobility to his work. This summer he applied those gifts to directing the musical Rent on the Festival Stage at the Stratford Festival. Thom Allison illuminated the humanity and compassion of those mainly self-absorbed characters and made the whole enterprise pulse with life and depth.

The Arkady Spivak Gifted Theatre Creator Award

Ravi Jain

Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes worked for eight years to adapt the epic Sanskrit poem Mahabharata for the stage. Ravi Jain also directed it, realizing its sweep, beauty, complexity, artfulness, traditions and being true to its South Asian origins. He cast actors of South Asian descent from Canada, Britain, South Asia and Australia for authenticity. It played the Shaw Festival in Canada and then travelled to the Barbican Theatre in London, England. There will be a world tour of the piece and one senses Ravi Jain’s involvement here as well. His international reach and contacts make this huge international endeavor possible.  

The Jaw-droppers—They Can Do Anything–Award

Amaka Umeh

In Sizwe Banzi is Dead by Athol Fugard, (Soulpeper) Amaka Umeh played Styles, the easy-going, loose-limbed photographer who helps Sizwe out of an impossible situation. They played the whip-smart, sophisticated Rosaline in Loves Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival. The performance was full of confidence and grace. And in Sweeter, (Cahoots) Amaka Umeh played Jedadiah, a kindly merchant, in an uncredited part. Umeh is pure grace in the part. They were also the assistant director of Sweeter.

Tawiah M’Carthy

As the director of Fairview earlier in the year at Canadian Stage, Director Tawiah M’Carthy kept a light hand on the proceedings but a keen sense of detail, attention and a strong sense of humour. There are many traps in the play that can upend the proceedings but M’Carthy avoids every one of them. Smart work. He brought his directorial eye to topdog/underdog (Canadian Stage) about the love/hate relationship between two Black brothers. The relationships were beautifully created under his careful eye. And he did the same thing for Here Lies Henry at Factory Theatre. Every second directing Damien Atkins as Henry was full of pristine detail and nuance.

His performance as Sizwe in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead shone with the character’s fears and insecurity. You could see the terror glistening in M’Carthy’s eyes. This was a gripping performance in every way.

Tom Rooney.

Last year Tom Rooney played Uncle Vanya, who was hunched, bent, defeated and disappointed by life (the production will be remounted in 2024). Last winter Tom Rooney played a canine, Majnoun, ‘arms’ in front like a dog, in Fifteen Dogs (Crow’s) that was thoughtful, proud, intellectual and smart. And this past summer at the Shaw Festival he played King Magnus in The Apple Cart.  As Tom Rooney played him, King Magnus is beautifully well-mannered, self-deprecating in order to put his guest at ease, a keen listener and very astute. Magnus can parse out an argument but never plays the game of one-upmanship until and unless it is life or death. Rooney’s performances are full of nuance, subtext and truth.  

The One(s) to Watch Award

Sophia Fabiilli

Playwright. In Liars at a Funeral at the Blyth Festival, Sophia Fabiilli has written a devilishly funny, complicated farce. She has a wonderful facility with language and the jokes come naturally from people who are funny and irreverent. To ramp up the laughs, not only do people enter and exit rooms just as someone arrives that they should not see, Fabiilli does it with twins.

Lucy Hill and Justin Otto


In Liars at a Funeral, again at the Blyth Festival, Lucy Hill plays both Dee Dee and Mia, twin sisters with different attitudes and personalities. Justin Otto plays both Quint the awkward, insecure assistant at the funeral home who is sweet on Dee Dee, and Justin Otto also plays Cam, a lively jock who loves Mia. I look forward to see more work from Lucy Hill and Justin Otto.

Zaynna Khalife

Actor. Zaynna Khalife played Fatima in The New Canadian Curling Club at Theatre Orangeville. Fatima is a newly arrived immigrant from Syria is beautifully awkward as she tries to fit in. She is also full of angst because of her brother back in Syria. Zaynna Khalife gave a confident, layered performance as Fatima that was notable for an actor so young.

Alicia Plummer

Actor. She played Sweet Pea in Sweeter and played her as pure sunlight, buoyant, always cheerful and optimistic. She can read a situation and react accordingly. And she spreads her love around, especially to The Mango Tree. Alicia Plummer’s work is true, detailed and open-hearted.

Alicia Richardson

Playwright. She wrote Sweeter produced by Cahoots Theatre. It was a wonderful play for both children and adults about a young girl named Sweet Pea who loved a Mango Tree. The language was vibrant, funny and distinctive. Alicia Richardson wrote about the importance of listening to plants as well as people and how love can change everything. Alicia Richardson is a voice that is wise, true, open-hearted and needed.


The Delicate and Fierce Award

Metamorphoses 2023.

Produced by Theatre Smith-Gilmour.

Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour, the creators of Theatre Smith-Gilmour, have been producing thought provoking movement-based work that challenges the status quo for 43 years and they have done it brilliantly. Metamorphoses 2023 is a perfect example of their imagination, societal concerns and moral compass.

Metamorphoses 2023 is based on Ovid’s huge poem Metamorphoses that he wrote in 8 CE. Metamorphoses 2023 has been adapted to reflect our world in 2023 by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour.

As the play information notes: “Survival is at the core of Metamorphoses 2023, a bold and contemporary adaptation of Ovid’s epic poem, that realizes the original text’s mythic elements through mime, illusion, spoken word, silence and south Asian dance.” Their presentation is delicate. The attention to detail and the search for the truth is fierce.

It Creeps Up On You and is a Gut-Punch That Leaves You Winded Award

(This is a worthy repeat from last year (in Stratford), because it played at Crow’s Theatre in the Studio this year.

Girls & Boys

Produced by Here For Now Theatre and Crow’s Theatre.

Written by Dennis Kelly, with an astonishing performance by Fiona Mongillo and directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson. Here for Now Theatre, the scrappy little company in Stratford, Ont. has produced bracing, compelling theatre since it began producing. And the same praise can be applied to Crow’s Theatre in Toronto, headed by Artistic Director, Chris Abraham. He picked up Here for Now’s production of Girls & Boys for a Toronto run. It’s about a confident, charming woman telling us the harrowing story of how her marriage and her life unravelled slowly and irrevocably. At the centre of it was Fiona Mongillo giving one of the most composed, harrowing performances you will see in a long time.  Gripping in every single way.

Whatever the Title, It’s Powerful and Challenging Award.

Actor/writer Cliff Cardinal wrote a scathing, powerful challenging play for Crow’s Theatre about land acknowledgements, his anger at what he has to endure as an Indigenous man, dealing with ‘the woke’ and allies, among others.

The play was first titled: William Shakespeare’s As You Like it—A radical retelling by Cliff Cardinal. I disliked it because I sensed he was giving ‘the finger’ to the audience.

He took the play to The Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa with a slightly different title: As You Like It—a radical retelling by Cliff Cardinal. I wondered if he had changed the play along with the title so I went to see it in Ottawa, to see what I might have missed. Cliff Cardinal was still brash, angry and challenging, but the play had been changed from top to bottom, expanded and now skewered everybody. And I changed my mind. It was terrific.

In yet another iteration, Cliff Cardinal brought the play back to Toronto for Mirvish Productions, this time entitled: The Land Acknowledgement—or As You Like It. He removed ‘a trick’ with this iteration, but it was still powerful and still challenging.

Small But Mighty (Companies) Award

The following two small companies have been consistent in producing bracing, challenging plays that reflect our world and introduces us to talent that goes from strength to strength.  


Cahoots is led by Tanisha Taitt, the Artistic Director, Lisa Alves, the Managing Producer and Samantha Vu, the producer.

Tanisha Taitt has an unerring eye and ear for talent and takes the time and patience to nurture and develop it. Lisa Alves and Samantha Vu work their magic to see that the playwright and director’s vision is realized.

This year Cahoots produced a fascinating production of Between a Wok and a Hot Pot by Amanda Lin and directed by Esther Jun. In the play, Amanda Lin delves into the topic of cultural identity, being ‘authentic’ and being true to one’s Asian roots, all while guiding her audience in making a delicious hot pot.

Cahoots also produced Sweeter by Alicia Richardson, ostensibly a play for young audiences, but it is applicable to all audiences. It is a beautifully created story and production for both children and adults. It’s heartfelt, perceptive and wise.  Tanisha Taitt nurtured, encouraged and worked with Alicia Richardson to develop her play. Taitt also directed it with sensitivity. The folks at Cahoots are fearless when it comes to producing needed theatre.    

The Howland Company

The company was formed 10 years ago and is an artist-led and artist-driven Toronto-based theatre company. Howland’s leadership model is made up of the following core-artists (thus proving that a collective can lead a company and produce wonderful work): Ruth Goodwin, Sam Hale, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Cameron Laurie, Jareth Li, Paolo Santalucia, Hallie Seline.

The company produced the following bracing plays this year:

Prodigal written and directed by Paolo Santalucia, is about a wayward young man who has come home to his rich, privileged family, after being cut off from any inheritance. The fallout from his return is explosive. The writing is sharp, complex and challenging about: privilege, redemption, forgiveness and responsibility. The production is gripping.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery and directed by Philip Akin. Friends gather at a friend’s house to celebrate a former professor who has now become the college president.  Explosive in every way. Listen, consider, ruminate on another point of view: the Christian right in America, and engage.

Hypothetical Baby, written and performed by Rachel Cairns directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster.

A deeply personal and intellectually rigorous exploration of the many issues surrounding the choice to have a baby or not and all the existential, societal and ethical questions surrounding it.  

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1 Daniel Liebman December 27, 2023 at 7:02 am

Loved reading this year’s Tootsie Awards! I saw Liars at a Funeral on your recommendation and totally agree about Sophia Fabilli — Blyth Festival –as one to watch. Thanks, Lynn, for all your reviews. I’m amazed at your energy … what’s the secret? Happy New Year!