In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Brian Mani and Tracy Michelle Arnold redefined iconic roles in "Death of a Salesman." (PHOTO: Liz Lauren)

The top 20 plays of the 2016 Milwaukee theater season

Trying to pick the top 20 plays of the year in Milwaukee is kind of like trying to choose which of your triplets you love the most.

There are so many wonderful productions and the breadth and depth of Milwaukee theater is so breathtaking, that picking the best is a difficult exercise. Everyone has their own opinion about what makes a great play but I've decided to just pick the 20 plays I enjoyed the most.

They may not be big companies or all Equity shows or anything special, except for the special place they all found in my heart. In addition, it wasn't just these 20 shows that I enjoyed the most, but I couldn't do a list of 75 shows, so there are many other productions I liked a lot that didn't make this list.

And one more thing. I don't think theater is a competitive sport. I think that actors and directors and designers and productions all stand on their own. Some strike a chord and others don't. But they are not in competition with each other. They are only in competition with the attendance and love of the audience.

It's why I don't particularly care for awards, be they Tony's or Drama Circle or Critics Choice or Oscars. Let each performance speak for itself. Theater is one of the few places in this world where there is an intrinsic worth to each and every play that hits a stage, no matter how big or small.

Having said all that, here we go. And, to reiterate, not necessarily the 20 best, but my 20 favorites.

  1. "Death of a Salesman," American Players Theatre. I can't count the number of times I've seen this Arthur Miller classic, but never have I seen one like this. Brian Mani, Tracy Michelle Arnold and Marcus Truchinski redefined three of the most iconic roles in the history of American theater. For Mani, especially, this must be the crowning achievement of a career filled with marvelously crafted performances.

  2. "Man of La Mancha," Milwaukee Rep. Artistic Director Mark Clements has a special way with productions filled with the big, the bold and the beautiful. Clements hitched his wagon to Milwaukee native Nathaniel Stampley and turned him loose with a covey of actors who each had a time to create a special moment. His piercing plea to Leenya Rideout in "Dulcinea" was one of the most romantic scenes I ever saw on a stage. The set design by Jack Magaw was one of the most spectacular ever mounted at The Rep.

  3. "Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992," Next Act Theatre. A good case could be made that this was the most important and relevant play in Milwaukee last year, a title worn proudly by David Cecsarini, who directed this production. It's the story of the aftermath of the Rodney King riots almost a quarter of a century ago. It's told in the words of the real people who lived through those frantic days and nights. With Angela Iannone and Marti Gobel at the heart of the cast, this was about as moving, both emotionally and intellectually as it gets.

  4. "American Song," Milwaukee Rep. Put James DeVita in a one-man play about the torture of a man who has grappled with the slings and arrows of life and you have a recipe for a powerful and memorable evening of theater. From the first moment that I saw DeVita building a wall out of misshapen rock it was preparation for the subtleties that were to come in the Janna Murray-Smith world premiere. I am sure I would pay good money to watch DeVita read the instructions for operating a DVR aloud.

  5. "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur," Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Perhaps the best play I've ever seen young Leda Hoffmann direct. This Tennessee Williams play is full of humor as well as the sorrow for which he is so famous. The performance by Kelly Doherty as one of the four women whose lonely lives are wide open for all to see is one of her all-time best.

  6. "The Dumb Waiter," Alchemist Theatre. The early Harold Pinter play got wonderful and powerful performances from David Sapiro and Claudio Parrone, Jr. True to Pinter's trenchant writing the play is open to audience interpretation but many productions try to steer a meaning. Not this one, directed by Erin Nicole Eggers on a set designed by Aaron Kopec that captured every single piece of Pinter's dismay at the world around him.

  7. "Song of the Uproar," Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks. There are so many ways to tell a great story in the world of theater, but Milwaukee has never seen anything quite like this show. It was a cooperative venture between Jill Anna Ponasik and her Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Debra Loewen and her Wild Space Dance Company. It was also an opportunity to watch Viswa Subbaraman, who was soon to resign as Artistic Director at Skylight, conduct a five-piece ensemble with the kind of passion and verve that shows he was meant to have a baton in his hand.

  8. "No Exit," Off the Wall Theatre. Nobody does Jean Paul Satre anymore, except for Dale Gutzman, who never met a play that frightened him. This look at Sartre's twisted vision of hell was a brave and flash-filled production. This one was clearly the whole being much greater than the sum of its parts. It was thinking-man's theater of the highest order.

  9. "Motherhood Out Loud," Next Act Theatre. If you were a mother, had a mother or knew a mother, this one was for you. It's both a simple and increasingly complex look at both the wonders, worries and windows of being a mother. With Michelle Lopez-Rios, Deborah Staples and Tami Workentin, this powerhouse of a cast slithered into our hearts and minds under the always-thoughtful direction of Laura Gordon. It made me both laugh and cry, no mean feat in the world of theater.

  10. "Ernest in Love," In Tandem Theatre. This musical version of Oscar Wilde's famous play was as funny as it gets. Angela Iannone and Doug Clemons led a sparkling cast through a complex journey of love and deceit. Jane Flieller and Jill Anna Ponasik, two of my favorite women in Milwaukee theater, combined with choreographer James Zager to stage a production of high sophistication.

  11. A Life in the Theatre," Alchemist Theatre. I am normally predisposed to dislike theater about theater, but this David Mamet play is so much more. It's a story about life in general - growing up and growling old, your time and the time passing. Under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik both James Pickering and David Sapiro prove just how a life in the theater can educate and illuminate all while entertaining.

  12. "Slowgirl," Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. This play is a gentle journey of two individuals struggling over a thorny emotional landscape prodded and played with the soft sounds of brushes on a snare drum. This is not a play for shouting. It is a night for modest demand, and it sails blithely along under the watchful and patient eye of director C. Michael Wright. Sara Zientek and Peter Reeves deliver the kind of understated performances that only real pros know how to give.

  13. "Bonny Anne Bonny," Theatre Red. It was a marvelous collaboration with Wisconsin Lutheran College and a production with one of the most inventive and impressive set designs seen on a stage all year. The story of a woman pirate was written by Milwaukee's own Liz Shipe who continues to grow as a playwright. Other fledgling companies should take a look at what this collaboration wrought.

  14. "The Foreigner," Milwaukee Rep. This hallowed comedy, originally written for the Rep, has stood the test of time and there was something very special about this production. Linda Stephens, who was married to the late Larry Shue who wrote the play, starred in this year's production. It also featured the best performance by any actor in anything all year, Matt Zembrano as the title character.

  15. "The Taming," Next Act Theatre. Another in a line of relevant and powerful productions, David Cecsarini takes three top actors through a story of liberal vs. conservative vs. bubblehead. Sara Zientek, Marti Gobel and Bree Beelove star as stereotypes who provide more laughs than the announcement that Donald Trump is going to run for president.

  16. "Invisible Hand," Milwaukee Rep. The secrets to a great play – and make no mistake, this is a great play – are easy to identify, and hard to achieve. You need characters that the audience can care about. You need a story that rings genuine. And you need courage to tell the story without compromise. Milwaukee's Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize winner and this is a play that is eloquent testimony to his talents.

  17. "Drowning Girls," Renaissance Theaterworks. The production about a serial killer and three of his victims/wives was enthralling from the first moment on. Another young woman director, Mallory Metoxen has a fine feel for the emotional and dramatic impact of the story. Sarah E. Ross designed a set of three bathtubs complete with real water that served to douse me in a river of entrancement.

  18. "Bachelorette," Theater Red. Unlike the phoniness of the television reality show this one give us four real women, each with different lives, goals and backstories. It's a four-woman avalanche of intimate female discussion about casual sex, oral sex, boys, men, love, bad jobs, kids with cancer, marriage, brides, maids of honor, champagne, suicide, Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock, cocaine, bowls of weed, the "Star Spangled Banner," abortions, lying and Russian roulette. Kelly Doherty again proved she can find depth and distinction in any role she plays.

  19. "Ella Enchanted," First Stage.This show was yet another moving and delightful First Stage production that carries a profound message wrapped in a story guaranteed to be a fascination to young audience members as well as those who are older and wiser. The show is about the honor of being your own person and not flailing away in the winds of change and choice.

  20. "Powder Her Face," Skylight Music Theatre. This chamber opera wasn't the hit of the year for Skylight, but nothing is more exemplary of the time that Viswa Subbaraman spent as Artistic Director of the company. He took risks and this production, the story of a dissolute duchess, was romantic, vibrant and very brave. There were longtime subscribers who walked out, but if theater is supposed to lead, it's this kind of thing that needs to find a home.

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