Flat(ware) Season

Early in the year, I wrote that I wondered whether I'd see a scene all season that was as astonishing to me as the one I saw in Space 55 Theater Ensemble's Book of Liz, where actress Shawna Franks attacked a tray full of flatware with such gusto that forks flew into the audience, which had been all but asleep up 'til then. All these months later, I'm not sure that I did see anything onstage to rival Franks' marvelous freak-out.

It was that kind of year. The kind of year when a single scene from a sullen, too-earnest production like this one ranks as a high point; the kind of theater season in which the companies I count on to wow me mostly didn't. There were exceptions and a few surprises (who knew a dinner theater The King and I could be so dang fun?), but while in 2006 I wrote that I'd seen more worthwhile performances and productions than ever before, I found 2007 somewhat less exciting — at least when I wasn't at Black Theatre Troupe, a company patiently waiting 'til its new venue is completed later this year and it can escape the cavernous John Paul Theatre. There, its productions have occasionally been visually and aurally swallowed up these past few seasons. BTT artistic director David Hemphill and company have this year produced some of their best work, most notably a version of Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine that, as my friend Lilia likes to say, "totally rocked my bangs."

And there was the company's very recent Caroline, or Change, splendid for many reasons, most notably performances by Piper Davis (who was so delightful to watch that I was only slightly distracted by the big, ugly piece of tape holding her body mic to her cheek) and lovely Taylore Mahogany Scott, whose take on the title role will, I'm sure, still be with me this time next year.

It was the kind of theater year that brought us three different Draculas in a single month. I meant to see each of them, but the first two were so dreadful I bagged on the third. I also skipped Artists Theatre Project's Psycho Beach Party, not because I don't love a good romp with Charles Busch or don't think @Pro (as they like to be called) would have messed it up, but because I'm holding out for that long-rumored production starring Neil Cohen as Chicklet and with return performances by Christopher Wynn (in a giant polka-dot dress) and Kirby Holt dressed as a lobster.

I did get to see Cohen in a dirndl in iTheatre Collaborative's Bad Seed, which also featured Paul Braun sporting a droopy birdseed bosom (a sight from which I may never recover) and a superb performance by Greg Lutz as a demented handyman.

I did make it to most of the one-woman shows that banked here this year. I enjoyed the bawdy Elaine Stritch at Liberty, during which the grand dame dished thespians and theater queens for nearly three hours (although her best bits were trumped by my friend Oscar, who later confided, "I thought we were going to see Elayne Boosler!"). The next night, I attended Chita Rivera's listless, laughable one-woman show at Gammage, which was half-empty after intermission thanks to underwritten, unfunny monologues and routines stumbled through by a troupe of the world's oldest chorus boys.

If there was a high point this year, it came in May when I saw, in a single weekend, both Actors Theatre's The Pillowman, brilliantly acted (as ever) by Jon Gentry and Christian Miller, and Bob Sorenson as German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife, one of very few shows I've seen here that deserved the standing ovation it received.

It was the kind of year in which we lost a promising new company, Off-Center Productions, just as it was getting going, and another company before it ever got off the ground (the Unnamed Theater Company, which held a name-our-troupe contest and announced a first show before vanishing into thin air). It was a year that brought us triumphs like Tina Fabrique in Arizona Theatre Company's bio-revue, Ella, and atrocities like North Valley Playhouse's execrable Diet! The Musical, from which I'm still recovering. But recover I shall, because to do otherwise would mean missing 2008's stage stuff, which may even be more exciting than flying flatware. Here's hoping.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela