By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Jun 05, 2014 at 9:16 AM

The 2013-14 theater season has closed, and now it's on to the wonderful summer of productions in Spring Green and Door County.

Before hitting the road, I wanted to talk about a season that gave us so much wonderful theater. It’s hard to believe sometimes that a city the size of Milwaukee has so many companies that do such outstanding work.

It’s impossible to pick one or two plays that left memorable impressions on me. So I went back through all my reviews in the past theater season and picked the ten that had an impact on me. I saw somewhere around 70 plays this season; narrowing it to just ten is difficult.

One of the most interesting things I found was that three of my selected few were one-man plays. Normally, I’m not a fan of them, but in this case, the three had such an impact they had to make the list.

So, here we go: My ten favorites from a memorable season of theater.

1. Skylight Music Theatre's "El Cimarron" was a stunning, unique and excruciatingly powerful story of Esteban Montejo, who was born a slave in Cuba, escaped to the woods, fought in the Cuban War of Independence from Spain and lived to be 113 years old before dying in 1973. With unusual music from Hanz Werner Henze, four onstage musicians and one actor weaving a compelling story of joys and sorrows, the show was a continuing testimony to the courage of artistic director Viswa Subbaraman, who pushes the envelope for Skylight with wonderful results.

2. Great theater is about telling a story, and it's hard to find a much cooler story than "An Iliad," the epic poem by Homer, staged by The Milwaukee Rep with James DeVita as the only man on stage. His performance left me breathless and delivered what may well be the most memorable moment all season: DeVita reciting from memory all the wars that have ever been fought. From the Crusades and the War of the Roses, to various Mongolian and Viking invasions all the way up to Libya and Syria. The drama of this moment is sharp as we watch DeVita run through war after war until he nears the end, overwhelmed by the unending litany of cruelty and inhumanity. He buries his head in his hands, a curdling testimony to what war hath wrought upon lives and souls.

3. The historical debate about the value and importance of art has simmered or raged for centuries. There have always been two sides: those who believe in art and those who couldn’t give a damn. The argument got a tantalizing and overwhelming treatment at In Tandem’s 10th Street Theatre with the staging of the Lee Blessing play, "Chesapeake."  

This play truly belonged to Matt Daniels, the actor who brings alive a string of disparate characters, all of whom have a role in this discussion of the value of art. In a performance that has the kind of impact of an earthquake, he plays a performance artist, a southern congressman who drips righteousness, his aide who drips sex appeal, his wife who drips bitter control and, oh yes, a dog named Lucky. Chris Flieller had an amazingly deft hand directing this difficult piece.

4. The "Romeo and Juliet" at Off The Wall Theatre was such a delightful surprise that it only enhanced the reputation of artistic director Dale Gutzman as one of the most daring and creative people in Milwaukee. This particular pair of star-crossed lovers was in their 60s, and the play is set in a retirement home for actors in Verona. But instead of playing this for humor, he played the show straight, helping prove that the classic story created by William Shakespeare knows no boundaries. I’m always full of eager anticipation to see what Gutzman comes up with next.

5. Next Act Theatre had an outstanding season, but nothing quite matched the production of "Groucho," which may be one of the most perfect plays I’ve seen. Directed by Pam Kriger and featuring a spectacular cast of Norman Moses, David Cecsarini, Chris Klopatek, Alexandra Bonesho, Chase Stoeger and Jack Forbes Wilson, the story of Groucho Marx was a riot. The scene where Klopatek (Harpo) danced with a ravishing Bonesho was one of the funniest and most creative scenes I saw all year.

6. Just five days after recovering from the laughter of "Groucho," the Rep opened "Noises Off," the single most laugh-filled play of the season. The story of a dysfunctional theater troupe trying to stage a play filled with wild missteps is an absolute ballet of funny theater. The play – which has to-the-second time down pat thanks to KJ Sanchez – is a tour de force for a wonderful cast and Gerard Nugent, the Rep artist who can play just about anything with conviction.

7. "A Midnight Cry" from First Stage is a perfect example of the breadth this company has in creating a production from scrap. Written by James DeVita, the play is inspired by the true story of Caroline Quarlis-Watkins, a slave who escaped to freedom through a path that went through Milwaukee. Stunningly directed by Jeff Frank and lit with absolute precision by Jason Fassl, the play is an eloquent example of the First Stage motto: "Transforming Lives Through Theater."

8. "Venus in Fur" at the Rep was the surprise of the year. Staged in the small Stiemke Studio, it was a mysterious examination of the battle of the sexes and the battles we fight with ourselves. Laura Gordon directed magnificent performances from Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe, who play a director and an actress who meet at an audition and dance through the phases of relationship battles with a magnificent style. "Venus" gets my vote as the sexiest play of the year, a credit to both Madigan and Wohlrabe.

9. Combining rollicking dance and music with a story of family that touches the heart, the Skylight production of "In the Heights" was an evening full of joyous revelry and emotional highs and lows. The play features a cast searching for love or respect or peace. They are all individuals but they are bound to each other by geography, history and care. It’s a remarkable demonstration of how to both survive and flourish as long as you never have to stand alone. A highlight is Milwaukee’s own David Flores and his stunning rendition of every father’s song "Useless."

10. "The Understudy" at Renaissance was a very precise production notable for several major developments. One was the brilliance of two of the actors, Philip Sletteland and Cassandra Bissell, who I had never seen before. Another was the continued growth of Milwaukee’s own Ken Williams, who has labored for years and is now rapidly becoming an actor with major chops and getting his long due recognition. And finally, this was the directing debut of young Mallory Metoxin, who got a chance thanks to the brave women of Renaissance and delivered an absolutely top flight production. She is someone we should all watch.

Those are the top ten plays that made an impact on me last season. One thing to note is that among all the plays I saw last season, very few of them were without merit. As the saying goes, there were only a few dogs in the kennel.

I can’t wait for the summer season and the opening of next season’s run from some great theaters in this city. It’s only about three months away.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.