Actors Theatre presents View of the Harbor, Black Theatre Troupe has Gem of the Ocean, and more in this fall theater preview

I had a subscription to TV Guide when I was a kid, and I remember looking forward each September to the magazine's annual Fall Preview issue, in which the editors devoted a page to each of the new season's network shows. Shows like Mr. T and Tina always sounded better on paper than they turned out to be, although there was the occasional surprise (Charlie's Angels? It'll never last, I thought.) and disappointment when one of my favorites turned up missing ("What do they mean, Love, American Style has been canceled?").

Today, I watch less television and don't read TV Guide, but I get that same September thrill reading about upcoming shows by flipping through the brochures printed by local theater companies. There's a similar sense of anticipation and disappointment (West Side Story again?!), and always a short list of shows and theaters that stand out as obvious winners.

Like Actors Theatre (www.actorstheatrephx.org), which wraps ups its ambitious mini-festival of Richard Dresser plays with A View of the Harbor (October 24-November 9, at the Herberger), the third in Dresser's series investigating the concept of "happiness in America." In this final offering, Dresser pokes fun at wealthy people in a story about a rich kid who returns home to confront his nasty old man.

Black Theatre Troupe (www.blacktheatretroupe.org) is also ponying up with a series installment with Gem of the Ocean (October 16-November 2), the ninth in August Wilson's 10-drama series chronicling the American black experience. Each of the plays in the cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century; this one, directed by Chuck Smith, takes place in 1904 and concerns a 285-year-old Pittsburgh woman who may or may not be the world's oldest living former slave.

Arizona Jewish Theater Company's (www.azjewishtheater.org) entire season looks interesting, especially Parted Waters (March 14-29, at Paradise Valley Community College), an original play by Robert Benjamin. Commissioned by AJTC and based on a suggestion by the company's artistic director, Janet Arnold, the play is about Crypto-Jews, the Hispanic Jews forced to convert to Christianity centuries ago.

That's certainly a timely story for local audiences, but don't ask me why Arizona Theatre Company (www.aztheatreco.org) is doing Hair, a show whose relevance expired the moment the Cowsills covered its title song in 1969. I am looking forward to ATC's production of David Rambo's The Lady with All the Answers (November 13-30 at the Herberger), a biography of sorts about "Dear Abby" advice columnist Ann Landers, directed by Samantha K. Wyer.

iTheatre Collaborative (www.itheatrecollaborative.org) has Greg Kotis' Eat the Taste (October 31-November 15, at the Herberger), directed by Greg Lutz, about how former Attorney General John Ashcroft goes about wrangling a new, post-political career as a Broadway musical theater star.

The same company is also planning a production of Tracy Letts' Bug (May 1-16, at the Herberger), a play about bed bugs and conspiracy theories that I've wanted to see for awhile now. I'll have to wait 'til May; hopefully actor/director Michael Traylor, who's set to direct, will still be tied to the project.

Did someone say "Seen it all before?" Phoenix Theatre (www.phoenixtheatre.com) continues to court the blue-hairs with an upcoming year bereft of surprises but full of big musicals every theatergoer already knows by heart. They'll start with The Producers and wind up with Les Miserables; in between it's Forbidden Broadway and How the Other Half Loves, all at the company's home base at 100 East McDowell.

Some of my faves are still missing in action, most notably Algonquin Theatre Company, which I keep hoping will turn up in the black box at Theater Works (www.theaterworks.org) now that Algonquin founder Robyn Allen (whom I spotted recently riding on the back of a motorcycle — shocking!) is that company's artistic director. (Speaking of Theater Works: Aside from a proposed world première by legendary playwright Dale Wasserman, who lives in the Valley, that company's season is a total snooze.)

Gone, too, but only from their old home, is Stray Cat Theatre (www.straycattheatre.org), which always vies with Nearly Naked Theatre for my "favorite local company" vote. Stray Cat has left its downtown home at Metro Arts High School and settled in at the old Tempe Performing Arts Center. Artistic Director Ron May is celebrating the company's new home by directing Everything Will Be Different (A Brief History of Helen of Troy) (September 26 through October 11), a play by Mark Schultz about awful teenagers and the terrible things that can happen to them. Stray Cat also plans to present what has to be the strangest production any local troupe has ever attempted: an all-kid holiday musical about the teachings of Scientology. Director Gary Minyard is apparently going to gather a group of grade-school children to perform A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant (December 5-20), a wacked-out history of L. Ron Hubbard's New Age religious empire with music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow. I can't wait.

But I'll have to. Meanwhile, there's the first couple of months of the new season — not to mention the new Fall Preview TV Guide! — to get through. Go buy some theater tickets and join me.

 
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