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El Cimarron tops the list of the best plays of 2014 in Wisconsin (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

14 best plays of 2014 display an embarrassment of theatrical riches

Live theater in Wisconsin has never been more exciting or relevant than it was during 2014, with dozens of outstanding plays and performances throughout the year.

I used to offer my "Best Of" list at the end of the season in Milwaukee, but since theater now is a year-round treat, I've decided to follow the calendar.

Here are the 14 best plays out of the 142 I saw I saw in 2014. Next year it will be the top 15.

1. "El Cimarron" at Skylight Music Theater 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 weave 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. "An Iliad," the epic poem by Homer., staged by the The Milwaukee Rep with James DeVita twas a performance left me breathless and delivered what may well be the most memorable moment all season. There is a moment in this production when DeVita recites 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 and is overwhelmed by the 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. Two vastly different versions of "Romeo and Juliet" make my list. Dale Gutzman set his Off the Wall version in an Italian retirement home for actors. Both the main characters were AARP eligible and battles were fought with golf clubs and croquet mallets. James DeVita staged his at American Players Theatre and gave one of the most unique takes on Juliet I've ever seen. His heroine, played by Melisa Pereyra, was no fragile waif but was a young woman with a steel backbone and a fierce sense of determination and equality.

4. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival staged a production of "Elizabeth Rex," directed by Milwaukee's Paula Suozzi and featuring Deborah Staples as the queen. It was, very simply, one of the best acting performances I've ever seen.

5. Summer at APT is full of delight, but nothing quite matched the production of "The Seagull." Director John Langs ensured that we all understand the concept of "family," no matter how disparate, dysfunctional or dispersed. Tracy Michelle Arnold led this pack of players with a performance so powerful and inspiring that she was both larger than life and so tiny we need to squint to see each sideways glance or flutter of a finger.

6. I can't begin to count the number of times I've seen a production of "The Glass Menagerie," ranging from high schools to professional. The In Tandem production ranks with the very best. Led by Angela Iannone this cast brought new wisdoms and life to what many say is the best American play ever written.

7. "The Last 5 Years" was the opening production for a brand new company, All In Productions. This show makes the top 14 because they staged an evening of theater that was almost perfect. Julie Swenson, the highly-respected Producing Director of Renaissance, was in the audience opening night and she called the evening "magical theater."

8. Drew Brehl, an outstanding Milwaukee actor, took on a great tole and made it his own in "Talley's Folly" at the Third Street Playhouse in Door County. The role of Matt Friedman, the 42-year-old Jewish accountant who is in love is a passionate and eccentric character and Brehl did what may well be his finest work in a body of wonderful performances.

9. Door Shakespeare has had an uneven recent history but this summer under the new leadership of Amy Ludwigsen the company made a statement about climbing back into the elite. "Comedy of Errors." directed by Leda Hoffmann, was as good a production as I've seen of this play.

10. Next Act Theatre can always be counted on for something spectacular and this past year was no exception, especially with the production of "Three Views of the Same Object." the play by Henry Murray. It's about the right of each of us to determine how best to hold on to some sense of dignity as the end comes near and featured a cast of some of the best actors in Milwaukee.

11. The most surprising production to make this list is "Lucy," the opera about a monkey staged by Milwaukee Opera Theatre. Jill Anna Ponasik continues to create a unique platform where music and theater merge in fascinating ways. This was about as mesmerizing a performance as I saw all year.

12. The Rep's Laura Gordon took the reins to direct a spellbinding production of "Amelia" at Renaissance Theaterworks. This Civil War story featured a brilliant performance by Reese Madigan and was full of love and danger, elements of any great story.

13. "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the Moon Marigolds" got a striking and emotional treatment by Splinter Group. Niffer Clarke, on of my favorite Milwaukee actors, delivered an unrelenting and powerful performance as Beatrice, whose natural maternal instincts have been ground into dust by a life filled with emptiness. The young director, Mallory Metoxen, continued to show her marvelous grasp of her work.

14. Nothing beats a good love story, especially when there are bumps in the road and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production of "The Good Father" had everything you could want. Jonathan Wainwright and Laura Gray delivered haunting performances.

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