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10 Must-See Plays During the 2013-14 Valley Theater Season

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During the summer, between seeing musicals, drinking, and napping, we eagerly anticipate local theater companies' announcements of their upcoming seasons. Shows to which performance rights have recently become available are politely competed for, actors look at their schedules and wonder what roles might suit them, and audiences keep their fingers crossed for things that sound fun, provocative, interesting, or like something to which they can drag a significant other or family member.

Most Valley theaters have determined their schedules at this point for the season whose beginning roughly coincides with the beginning of the school year. Many are already in rehearsal. We're pretty sure that even if it's physically possible for one person to see every single one of these plays, it would be exhausting and confusing and cost a lot of money.

So we've done some research and narrowed it down. If you have another suggestion, please share it in the comments.

See also: The 10 Best Plays I Saw in Metro Phoenix in 2012 Season Preview: Stray Cat Theatre Brings the Fresh and the Non-Human to the Stage

Okay, we'll just list these in the order in which they're scheduled to open:

The Flick, Stray Cat Theatre, September 20-October 15, 2013 Annie Baker, a currently en fuego playwright who's also a favorite of Actors Theater (Circle Mirror Transformation, Body Awareness), most recently inflicted The Flick on off-Broadway audiences. It's a three-hour, three-character play with a lot of dialogue-free pauses, about people who work in an isolated, crappy 35mm movie house.

While the script has won prizes and critical acclaim, some Playwrights Horizons audience members (sometimes as much as 10% of the house, in the early weeks of the run), annoyed by the length and pacing, walked out at intermission, and the company's artistic director even wrote an e-mail to more than half the subscribers -- ironically, a rather long e-mail -- discussing the controversy. That's a big deal; if you program a theater, you listen to complaints and you notice sales, but you don't usually engage with people about your choices after the fact, partly because you just can't win.

I would be thrilled in any case to see a new Baker work and confident in Stray Cat's treatment of it. Knowing that it's famous for being hella long and having people walk out is just gravy.

A Steady Rain, Actors Theatre, October 25-November 10, 2013 Actors Theatre truncated the 2012-13 season, pulled out of its Herberger Theater Center home, and made us all really sad when it announced a "pause" in the troupe's activities in February, after more than a year of precarious financial circumstances, meticulous reassessment, and dedicated planning.

We were promised a return to production on some scale, however, and the first of four shows on deck for 2013-14 is A Steady Rain, originally scheduled for last season. It'll be presented in Playhouse on the Park in the lobby of the Viad Building at Central Avenue and Palm Lane.

Even if you don't have practical or sentimental reasons to support Actors Theatre (or a twisted curiosity about how well production values will hold up post-hiatus), this should be a compelling show: Two Chicago cops, lifelong friends with plenty of human flaws, face personal and professional crises after, among other things, accidentally returning an escaped victim to a murderer, in an echo of the Jeffrey Dahmer case.

Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman starred in a top-selling Broadway version in 2009, and a screenplay's in the works -- with an unstoppable rumor of Steven Spielberg directing, apparently based on a remark Jackman tossed off during a surprise promotional appearance for Real Steel at 2011's Comic-Con in San Diego.

Phoenix has good actors, too, and the chemistry of the not-yet-officially-announced cast is what's going to carry this show.

Fifty Shades of Felt, Nearly Naked Theatre, "Fall" In association with Los Angeles' All Puppet Players, NNT is lampooning what it's currently referring to as a "recent" and "popular" book. We know which one it is. This will be raunchier than Avenue Q. It might not be funnier and filthier than Team America: World Police (almost nothing is), but it will be live, so it will be better.

"Why is the show listed as opening in 'Fall'?" you might be wondering. Have you seen the construction over by the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, where a new black-box space is being completed? While that may not be the only reason that Nearly Naked's season has been announced only on Facebook so far, and without firm dates, it's enough of a reason for me.

When the schedule has been nailed down, you'll be able to check those dates here. The whole season, especially Bill Finn's classic and rare Falsettos, is making me drool, but somehow the BDSM puppet concept is also making me hyperventilate.

The Velveteen Rabbit, Childsplay, November 17-December 22, 2013 For many years, Childsplay presented The Velveteen Rabbit every holiday season, but for the past several years, other (very good) shows have filled in. I've never gotten to see it, and it's suitable for children 3 and older, which means a whole lot of kids out there will also have their first opportunity to see it this season.

It's based on a charming, tearjerking children's book about, briefly, a toy who is new and wants to become "real" by becoming a beloved favorite toy; then he does become a favorite; then, scarlet fever, unbearable suspense, and Magic. As I recall, it's very much like Pinocchio, which I can tolerate, and A.I., which makes me cry for 40 minutes straight and ruins the rest of my day. But the stage version is tailored to a young child's sensibilities and is supposed to be pretty damn cool.

Mary's Wedding, Theatre Artists Studio, January 17-February 22, 2014 This is the most popular Canadian play of the past decade -- it's also been produced in several U.S. cities -- and it sounds pretty fascinating: A young couple is separated by World War I, but everything we see on stage is the content of a dream the bride has the night before her wedding. So it shifts from memory to fear to hope to symbolism, with the two young people playing all the "characters."

Tribes, Phoenix Theatre, January 30-March 2, 2014 I'll admit I subscribe to The New Yorker and love to read about plays I might never get to see. (Occasionally, at a doctor's office, I even get to read about plays in other magazines.) Some of them stick in my head, and Tribes is one of those.

It's about Billy, a deaf young man raised in a hearing family that's also annoyingly intellectual, academic, and artistic. Billy's never had an opportunity to learn sign language.

He meets a young woman who comes from basically the opposite background, and she begins to teach him ASL and introduce him to the deaf community he didn't even know exists. Conflicts over which world (or culture, or tribe) a person chooses to live in, whether he can straddle more than one, and how the options will affect existing relationships make this a story to which everyone can relate. Tribes will be presented in the new Black Box at Phoenix Theatre.

August: Osage County, Mesa Encore Theatre, January 31-February 9, 2014 Non-musical works, unless they are rather vanilla mainstream comedies, are hard to produce and hard to market. Mesa Encore Theatre, iTheatre Collaborative, and Peoria's Theater Works are among the very few community theaters who even bother, and they all hit home runs with more serious and/or offputting genres fairly often.

It's not that no one in the Valley has ever seen this 2008 Pulitzer-, Drama Desk-, New York Critics Circle-, and Tony-winning script by Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe). It's that it has an enormous cast exhibiting lots of unacceptable, unpleasant human behavior, and is sure to provide tour-de-force performances and waves of uncomfortable laughter. If I had money, I would put it on most of you not wanting to miss this. The Secret Garden, Arizona Broadway Theatre, April 11-May 11, 2014

More than one musical stage version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel exists, and so it might be helpful to know that the one that East Valley Children's Theatre is presenting at Mesa Arts Center this fall is not the one whose book, set, and performance by Daisy Eagan won 1991 Tony awards. EVCT's production could turn out to be very enjoyable, but it's the Broadway version we're previewing here.

Gilbert's Hale Centre Theatre did the show last summer, and I wasn't able to make it. The script is regarded as less effective than Burnett's novel in some ways -- it's hard to make the garden itself as personally resonant on stage, while the play beefs up, to questionable effect, the existence of ghosts who are pretty much metaphorical in the novel.

The New York Times' Frank Rich suggested that it's more like a play about the book (full of devices that amount to literary analysis or criticism) than a play based on the book.

So why am I excited? I hope this musical has the power to get audiences interested in Burnett, who was an acclaimed children's author (A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy) as well as one of my own favorites. It's not often produced in the Valley, and when I think about musicals that present challenges, Arizona Broadway Theatre is the company I would like to see tackle them. ABT makes innovative, solid choices, not feeling bound to doing things the way everyone else does.

Venus in Fur, Arizona Theatre Company, May 1-8, 2014 (Phoenix dates; opens in Tucson in April) This play, by the tried and true David Ives, was heralded as erotic, complex, troubling, and relevant when it opened in New York in 2010. The plot follows a contemporary playwright/director who's casting a stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel, Venus in Furs, the book that led us to start calling masochism masochism (inspired by the author's name).

When the perfect actress enters, it becomes a mystery where the audition leaves off and an actual seductive domination begins. What's not to like?

The Motherfucker with the Hat, Teatro Bravo!, May 31-June 15, 2014 Not only is Teatro Bravo! another company that's been on hiatus and we're happy to see return (and, again, the troupe's website does not yet reflect any of this), this script is by Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot) and was the subject of much conversation in New York a couple of years ago, when Chris Rock made his Broadway debut in it. (It probably would have sold better if people had felt freer to say the title out loud. As it is, other cast members did garner awards for their performances in the show, as did the ensemble as a whole.)

A short summary: It's a dark comedy about a man who notices a strange hat at his lover's apartment and suspects her of infidelity. It's also about true love, drug use, criminals, friendship, violence, and a sober AA member who's become a real asshole.

Keep an eye out for which venue(s) the Teatro Bravo! season will employ; that hasn't been announced yet, either.

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Editor's note: This post has been altered from its original version.

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