Phoenix's New Theater Season Looks for an Edge

It's happening again: Another Valley theater season is about to commence. Beginning in September, Phoenicians will step out of short pants (well, most of them, anyway) and into grownup clothes for a couple of hours every few weekends, just long enough to take in a play.

One hopes so, anyway. This past season saw the closure of several estimable playhouses, among them Arizona Jewish Theater Company (which was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary), Tempe Little Theater, and Broadway Palm Dinner Theater. It's no wonder that some local companies are scrambling to reimagine themselves with newer, edgier material they hope will increase ticket sales, while others stick to popular favorites (this, therefore, is a good season for fans of Neil Simon).

Whatever happens, it'll be another Ron May-centric season. May first ruffled theater feathers 15 years ago, playing something called Dogboy in Trista Baldwin's hyper-naughty Chicks with Dicks at Planet Earth MultiCultural Theater. This year, May (who toils by day for Actors Theatre) will be directing Chicks for his own company, Stray Cat Theater. But first, he launches the Herberger Theater Center's season with Actors Theatre's The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey's controversial one-man show about Foxconn, the company that builds iPads and iPhones in China. Known mostly because of the flap it caused when a portion of Daisey's "true" story was aired on National Public Radio a few years ago, the play has been rewritten to include that scandal, and will feature May as Daisey.

Stray Cat isn't the only avant-garde company revisiting its roots this season. Nearly Naked Theater is dusting off Equus, the play that put the quirky playhouse on the map when it premièred there a decade ago. No word yet on who will play the troubled boy who blinds horses in Peter Shaffer's religious drama, but it's likely that Nearly Naked artistic director Damon Dering will helm the production.

I reported earlier this summer that Dering was trying to get the rights to David Nehls and Betty Kelso's The Great American Trailer Park Musical, but somehow super-conservative Arizona Broadway Theater snared the rights to this show instead. The spoofy homage to redneck culture ought to go a long way toward elevating ABT's stuffy reputation.

In fact, if there's a trend in theater this season, it's in more conservative playhouses scheduling this sort of edgier material — a trick that savvy artistic directors all over town are hoping will sell more tickets. Scottsdale's Desert Stages Theater, where one might typically find West Side Story or Cabaret (or The Odd Couple!), has just closed a rather randy performance of Rent and is this year offering, among other things, The Rocky Horror Show. Baby steps count, too.

Theater Works also is swinging out artistically this season and, instead of slotting in another tried-and-true musical comedy, the company is presenting the world première of local author Richard Warren's Burning in the Night. The peculiar play-with-music, which Warren adapted from legendary playwright Dale Wasserman's script, was workshopped at Phoenix Theatre (which this season will stage the locally produced première of Monty Python's Spamalot) a couple of years ago. It's a roman a clef of the life of Wasserman, who penned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Man of La Mancha.

Arizona Theater Company has been doing it for years — tossing up safe, accessible material with some of Off-Broadway's more idiosyncratic sensations. This year they're offering Mark St. Germain's Freud's Last Session, another of ATC's co-productions with San Jose Repertory Theatre. This one, which has been running off-Broadway for two years, imagines the famous psychoanalyst's pre-World War II meeting with fabulist author C.S. Lewis.

Black Theatre Troupe will continue to unveil August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" in October with Two Trains Running. But it's BTT's end-of-the-year news that's most notable: After years of being homeless (and presenting plays on other company's stages), the 43-year-old company will move into its newly built super-complex at 13th and Washington Streets — giving theater fans hope that things may now be looking up for local theaters.

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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