A theater reviewer occupies a unique position. Invited into the artistic equivalent of someone’s home, you’re confronted with flesh-and-blood human beings and asked to offer feedback on other artists’ most precious efforts. That relationship creates a certain intimacy since, unlike film, there is no screen to preserve distance. The art is so close you can sometimes touch it — either terrifying or thrilling.

Over the last three years as VCR critic, it has been my profound privilege to sit in our theater community’s living rooms. When I was growing up in Ventura County, attending theater was a revered fixture of my family’s life, but our experiences tended (whether through available choices or personal preference) toward conventional favorites like Rodgers and Hammerstein. As a critic, it has been deeply exciting to watch what seems to be a perceptible shift toward productions that keep pace with a larger cultural conversation. Both theater-makers and the audiences who watch them are developing more sophisticated tastes and increasingly opting for plays that speak to contemporary conflicts and concerns. If art is meant to show us how to live, then at least sometimes it needs to reflect our lives as we live them today. With this gradual evolution, Ventura County is finally getting the arts scene it deserves.

Recent years have seen exciting and painful changes: the loss of Ojai’s Theater 150 as well as the sustained success of Ojai Art Center Theater; the revival and hibernation of Transport Theater Company, whose performances remain stellar if infrequent; the rebirth of Skyway Playhouse as a venue for daring concept shows, including the county’s first performance of The Laramie Project; the steady transformation of Elite Theater with a spacious new venue and the invigorating co-leadership of Andrew David James; the consistent excellence of companies like Santa Paula Theater Center and the Rubicon; the classical education proffered by Senga Classic Stage Company productions and their strong female heroines; the thriving audiences that support lavish mainstage musicals at Conejo Players and High Street, including the county’s first production of Les Miserables; and the settling of the Flying H Group in Ventura, with hip, relevant fare already planned for 2014.

Mindful that I am also part of the theater ecosystem, I’ve decided to step down and allow a new critic to take the reins. Fresh blood is essential for any enterprise, and I look forward to savoring the continued richness of the county’s offerings from afar. I remain deeply appreciative of the professionalism, graciousness and passion I’ve witnessed in my reviewing capacity.

What follows is a (by no means complete) list of some of the top work I saw in 2013. If these are any indication, the future for Ventura County theater looks very bright.

Costumes – Barbara Mazeika, Penny Krevenas, Kyle Duncan, Leanna Crenshaw, Beth Glasner, Les Miserables, High Street Arts Center; Heather Smith and Sheryl Jo Bedal, Skin of Our Teeth, Ojai Art Center Theater

Lighting – Peter Hunt and Jeremy Pivnick, Our Town, Rubicon; Steve Grumette, Skin of Our Teeth, Ojai Art Center Theater

Set Design – Neva Ann Williams, Skin of Our Teeth, Ojai ACT; Alex Choate, Company, Skyway Playhouse

Musical Direction – Matthew Park, Les Miserables, Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi; Trevor Wheetman, Lonesome Traveler, Rubicon Theatre Company

Choreography – Miriam Durrie-Kirsch, Spamalot, Conejo Players Theatre; Arryck Adams and Tami Keaton, Damn Yankees, Conejo Players Theatre

Supporting Male – Michael Beck (Buddy), The Diviners, Elite Theatre Company; Christopher Mahr (Patsy), Spamalot, Conejo Players Theatre

Lead Male – Taylor Kasch, Death of a Salesman, Santa Paula Theater Center

Supporting Female – Natasha Schlaffer (Thomasina Coverly), Arcadia, Santa Paula Theater Center; Brittney Wheeler (Elizabeth), In the Next Room, Santa Paula Theater Center

Lead Female – Jenna Scanlon (Hannah Jarvis), Arcadia, Santa Paula Theater Center; Tracey Williams, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Ojai Art Center Theater

Ensemble – Arcadia, Santa Paula Theater Center; The Diviners, Elite Theatre Company; In the Next Room, Santa Paula Theater Center; Spamalot, Conejo Players Theatre

Direction – David Ralphe, Death of a Salesman, Santa Paula Theater Center; James Castle Stevens, The Diviners, Elite Theatre Company

Special Consideration:
Best Production Concept – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Skyway Playhouse

Best Specialty Prop – Curse of the House of Atreus, Senga Classic Stage Company

Best Facelift – Elite Theatre Company

Best Season – Santa Paula Theater Center