Dave Belden played John Starr — the narrowly focused and sometimes unpleasant violinist whose obsession with music blinds him to his living daughter's hunger for affection — with quiet conviction in Charles Ives Take Me Home. He also played the violin so beautifully that the instrument itself spoke, and man and music became one, lending depth and intensity to a transcendent script. It's rare these days to leave a theater feeling that you've actually heard the inexpressible expressed, but that's what Belden did for Curious audiences.

Jim Hunt always works with intelligence, insight, warmth and charm. But in playing the ghostly composer in Charles Ives Take Me Home, Hunt outdid himself. He was funny and wry; he was soulful. He even managed to mock-play the piano convincingly in a musical duet with genuine musician Dave Belden — a feat much harder than most non-actors realize. Most of all, his Ives was a generous font of wisdom, insight and kindness.

Christy Montour-Larson's shows are always worth seeing, but something particularly magical happens when this skilled director takes on a play about art. She did this three years ago with Red, about painter Mark Rothko, and again last year. Beautifully staged and acted, Charles Ives Take Me Home is all about music and composition. In performance, you could feel the subtlety and specificity with which Montour-Larson worked with her actors to explore the script and bring it to vivid life.

Directed by Bruce Sevy, Animal Crackers was a romp of a musical, a trifle, a bright, funny nothing full of bad puns, visual jokes and silly stunts. And between the elaborate set, the innumerable costumes, the dippy props, the crazy sound requirements and — not least — the very large cast, it must have taken a zillion painstaking rehearsals to perfect the timing and get the jokes delivered for maximum impact. The cast, which included Jonathan Brody, Jonathan Randell Silver and Jim Ferris impersonating the Marx Brothers, worked together brilliantly, each member knowing exactly when to hog the spotlight and when to give it up, maintaining a high energy level and responding with open appreciation to the others' antics.

The lead in Next to Normal is complex: Diana suffers from bipolar disorder. She's intelligent and funny, but also self-pitying and sometimes nasty as hell. Margie Lamb gave us all the character's complexities in one prickly, scintillating package. She wasn't afraid of being unlikable when necessary, but she also made the audience pity and understand Diana's suffering. Lamb also unleashed a fine, supple voice that was easily up to the difficult score.

As Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Wayne Kennedy gave the comedy its due while also showing the profound sadness beneath Tevye's jovial exterior. He was larger than life, full of passion and vitality, sometimes enraged and sometimes thoughtful, and — as he bargained with God, bickered with his wife, and devised an outrageous plan to free his oldest daughter from an arranged marriage — funny as hell.

The role of Engineer, the profiteering pimp of Miss Saigon, was written for a man, and you could say that Arlene Rapal completely reinvented it. Her version came across as an archetypal figure, a sort of mash-up of the amoral Old Lady of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, who survived through cunning no matter how much trouble she found herself in; the salacious Emcee of Cabaret; and the heartless, endlessly bargaining, titular proto-capitalist of Brecht's Mother Courage. Rapal has terrific poise and presence, and her rendition of the satiric "American Dream" was the highlight of the production.

Playing Donkey, who insists on befriending a reluctant Shrek, Tyrell Rae was a hoot. He posed and preened, whined and threatened, cajoled and charmed, sang his lungs out and, with his cute little hooves, almost trotted away with the entire show. No matter how silly his antics, Donkey always had our sympathy in Shrek, and also somehow maintained a weird off-kilter dignity.

A literary S&M fest involving whips and leather; a one-man piece about sexual predation, rage, forgiveness and understanding; an examination of the very personal way a Boston woman experiences class, power and powerlessness; a wry comedy about two weary fortyish losers falling in love; and a brilliant play about a dead composer (Venus in Fur, All the Rage, Good People, Lucky Me and Charles Ives Take Me Home, respectively) — these were the offerings from Curious Theatre Company in the past year, as the company reaffirmed its primacy in producing fascinating new works, well-acted and mounted with care, passion and integrity.

Readers' choice: Curious Theatre Company

One of those evenings of theater you felt blessed for having experienced, Charles Ives Take Me Home evoked thoughts and emotions you couldn't put into words. A beautiful script, beautifully brought to life by the director and her actors, transcendent and filled with music, the play tells the story of a violinist profoundly influenced by the work of composer Charles Ives and the daughter who, to the violinist's distress, is a dedicated jock. Ives himself makes a ghostly appearance. The play left the audience so entranced that a few members actually resented the applause that broke the silence of that crystalline final moment.

Readers' choice: The Book of Mormon

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