The curtain has fallen on another theater season, one that featured a couple of world premieres, the usual dozen-odd Neil Simon retreads, and a handful of pleasant surprises. Chief among those surprises was that the most stunning productions of the season came from one of our tiniest companies. Nearly Naked Theatre, a no-budget troupe of part-time thespians, showed up our biggest Equity houses with flawless productions of two difficult dramas. The company followed its Broadway-caliber The Shape of Things with a striking production of Peter Shaffer's Equus, a dark, complex drama so beautifully acted that Republic theater scribe Kyle Lawson, who rarely ventures an opinion in print, was moved to write a glowing review.
"Phoenix is always called a cultural wasteland, yet we have an amazing amount of theater here," according to Nearly Naked's artistic director, Damon Dering. "The trouble is that the shows are all the same. All these little theaters are saying to each other, Okay, This year you guys get to do West Side Story, but next year us guys get to do West Side Story.' And the truth is that everyone has already seen West Side Story. You're not going to go see it again, and I'm certainly not going to go see it again."
It's this monotony that inspired Dering and his cronies to open their own theater. "We figured we're all working for free anyway, so why work on the same three shows that don't challenge you? If you're not getting paid, you should at least have an artistic challenge to look forward to."
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Dering says he's indebted to the folks at Phoenix Theatre Company, who gave Nearly Naked a permanent home in its children's playhouse last season. "We almost didn't get to stage Equus," he recalls, "because the venue where we'd been working heard we were doing Equus and said, No, no, no, you're not doing that show here.' PT saved us by giving us a permanent home."
Dering plans to fill that home with more of the same obscure, arty plays that made last year's season a hit; among the proposed production is Batboy: The Musical, a whacked-out, tabloid-inspired spoof that played for months off-Broadway. In the meantime, Dering and company are opening a summer production of novelist Don DeLillo's Valparaiso, a dimly comic tale of fame and its consequences. DeLillo's play is about an average Joe named Michael who becomes a media darling after he mistakenly boards a flight to Valparaiso, Chile when he's actually headed for Valparaiso, Indiana. He returns home with a wacky story, and the attention gives Michael's life new meaning and, as he loses control, turns out to be a big drag.
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DeLillo, author of such modern classics as White Noise and Underworld, has fashioned an entertaining meditation on our media-crazed society. Michael enjoys his newfound stardom, and is so keen on pleasing the media and his fans that he distorts his story to satisfy his audience. Eventually, Michael starts believing his own lies, and self-destructs in a darkly funny second act that's staged as a fictitious TV talk show.
"The language in this play is beautiful, like modern Shakespeare," Dering says. "It's not at all the way people normally talk to each other. The dialogue is an incredible challenge to our actors and our audience."
Audiences typically prefer less challenging fare, a fact that's spelled doom for oddball playhouses in the past. But Nearly Naked is so far succeeding where troupes like In Mixed Company and Planet Earth Multicultural Theatre ultimately failed. "It's because we didn't get too big for our britches, which is what killed off a lot of other theaters," Dering says. "We'd love to pay our actors, but pretty soon you're looking at the bottom line and then you're doing boring shows that sell tickets, and what's the point? After September 11, everyone went for safe seasons. We went the other way. We kept doing provocative work, and we're going to continue that way. We're gonna show them everything we have -- which is what you do when you're naked."