Forced to give a name to the past year in theater, I would have to call it The Year of Ron May, because while many of his compatriots struggled to act, direct, run a credible theater or even just handle publicity for one, this quadruple-threat actor/director/artistic director/publicist excelled at each of these tasks.
Whatever you call it, it was the year in which I lost my mind a little over the plethora of "Junior" productions, those annoying kiddy versions of adult musicals that lately have been breeding like rabbits around here. It was the year I survived the treacle of ATC's expert Tuesdays With Morrie and another meltdown from the always-annoying Peter Hill, who wigged out when I showed up to critique his Barry Manilow revue at the dinner theater he runs at a local dog track. (I liked it, and he still complained.)
2006 marked the first time in recent memory that Nearly Naked Theatre presented an almost entirely clothed production with The Who's Tommy, although it certainly wasn't the first time this exceptional troupe turned out a compelling evening of theater even if it was sometimes necessary to look past the arm-waving and hip-swaying of the Scorpius Dance Theatre to see director Damon Dering's daring take on Pete Townshend's now-classic rock opera.
This past year we also got to watch actor Christopher Haines and director Charles St. Clair try valiantly to keep Glen Berger's leaden Underneath the Lintel afloat, and to see Richard Trujillo give a thrilling performance as Valentin in Actors Theatre's production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. I usually find Trujillo's performances stamped too strongly with his own personality, but his portrayal of Manuel Puig's puffed-up political prisoner, an entirely original creation delivered with restraint and passion, is still with me.
Algonquin Theater's remount of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, playwright Martin McDonagh's stunning two-act about a tyrannical mother-daughter relationship set in a dismal Irish village, was a high point last year that reminded us that Robyn Allen is a superb actress, a fact that had been briefly obscured by her befuddled performance in an execrable The Women at Phoenix Theatre.
There were various comings and goings: We saw former Phoenix theater star Nicolas Glaeser return to town and steal the show from his talented castmates in Michael Frayn's Benefactors, another Actors Theatre show at the Herberger; and we watched theater legend Marshall Mason leave town (and his post at ASU's theater department) for a new home in Mazatlán, but not before wowing us with a stunning production of Edward Albee's controversial The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. Mason brought a sense of reality to Albee's amalgam of highbrow literary allusions and barnyard humor, and gave Albee's gorgeous writing about the purity of true love as much room on stage as the playwright's many funny bits about screwing livestock.
Come to think of it, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? was also an Actors Theatre show, but if this isn't The Year of Actors Theatre it's because Ron May (who happens to work as the Audience Services Coordinator at Actors Theatre, because apparently being a triple threat to theater isn't enough now he wants to reign over those of us in the bleachers, as well) performed so well in so many different theater jobs this past year. As founding artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre, May is responsible for one of the few small local companies that turn out consistently worthwhile work year-round, such as this past year's deeply dark Trainspotting, which May directed and which horrified and delighted audiences with its young, first-rate cast and its graphically violent commentary on the horrors of drug addiction. May followed that triumph by directing a high-strung and exciting production of Neil LaBute's tricky Fat Pig in November, a show I was sorry I chose not to review after I saw the way May led a fine cast into the tetchy waters of looksism and the plight of the pigheaded.
The real surprise from May this year was in his stirring performance as a mild-mannered accountant in Nearly Naked's Take Me Out not because audiences didn't already know May as a competent actor, but because he took a sketchy, peripheral character who arrived late in the story and turned him into a featured role that has all but erased the rest of the cast from my memory. May provided subtle, colorful comic relief with a character that, in less-talented hands, might have been merely a court jester mooning over a sports stud.
In 2007, May will direct Stray Cat's production of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, the author's final play written shortly before she hanged herself in a mental hospital in 1999. I can't wait to see what May will do with this short, fragmented piece of writing, which has no plot and in fact doesn't even indicate how many characters are meant to read its jagged, psychotic speeches.
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I'm also looking forward to seeing local favorite Bob Sorenson playing Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Arizona Theatre Company's I Am My Own Wife. ATC is bringing back Sorenson, who made his move to the New York stage a couple of years ago, as part of its Rep Fest in the spring. Doug Wright's play about von Mahlsdorf, a German transsexual and survivor of Communist Berlin who murdered her father, won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2004 Pulitzer for Drama. Sorenson will be called upon to play 40 different characters in von Mahlsdorf's life, a job not unlike one he has currently, playing in a remount of Fully Committed at Mesa Arts Center, in which he runs through dozens of comic characterizations.
Most of the other one-woman shows scheduled in the new year will be performed by actual women. Elaine Stritch will bring her whiskey-voiced At Liberty to Scottsdale Center for the Arts in March, and Chita Rivera will reminisce at Gammage one week later. Perhaps because neither is able to carry a one-woman show on her own, Linda Evans and Joan Collins will appear together in Legends! for Theater League at the end of this month.
The Valley's perennial one-woman shows, Late Nite Catechism and Late Nite Catechism II, will continue their endless runs at Scottsdale Center, and other nuns can be found in Theater Works' Nuns Like Us in February. For fans of less pious humor, there's the pair of Charles Busch comedies at Artists Theatre Project Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommy, Die! or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Black Theatre Troupe. And since people are forever asking me to tell them "what's good" in theater (a nonsensical question that I've been asked twice a day for the past decade, and always from people who never go to the theater in the first place), I'll say this much: One attends any staging of Butterflies Are Free or a production of On Golden Pond starring Tom Bosley at one's own risk.
Happy New Year.