Robrt Pela on Local Theater Troupes' Tough Times in 2011

Not far from where I sit typing this, theater people are wringing their hands. That's what I picture, anyway: The folks at Actors Theatre, pacing and moaning and occasionally stopping to grab the backs of their necks. This, our most interesting professional theater company, has only a few weeks to raise a big pile of money, or they'll go under.

If there's been a trend in theater this past year, it's been one involving calla lilies and a sickle. Tempe Little Theater, one of our best-known troupes, went belly-up, and recently Arizona Jewish Theater Company announced its own dire straits: It's broke, with no money to pay for the show it's scheduled for late January.

Despite the lack of financial support for the arts, theater folks managed to put a happy face on this fiscally troubling year. I'm still smiling about that moment in Arizona Theatre Company's God of Carnage when actress Joey Parsons projectile vomited all over a big stack of coffee table books. Even if you know it's coming, it's shocking to watch someone in a big, expensive, professionally produced play horking up her lunch all over the stage (aided by ATC prop master Paul Lucas' offstage wizardry and gallons of fake puke). Anyone who's ever paid full price for a hardcover art book died a little, watching this shocking scene.

I'm grateful, too, for the pile of theater gems I discovered when I was expecting something less. Sometimes, a critic reviews a show simply because there's nothing else playing that week. It's always nice when those shows turn out to be huge treats, which happened to me more than once this year — at Hale Centre Theatre's charming version of Little Shop of Horrors and Arizona Broadway Theatre's Baby, a smart, funny musical that deserves a New York revival.

There were low points this season: I'm still trying to forget the Sunday I spent in a toilet called The Rock, watching men in housedresses reciting dialogue from an episode of The Golden Girls. (It sounds more fun than it really was.) The most entertaining part of the experience was the surly death threat I received from the cast after I published a negative review of their "play." Apparently, Bea Arthur impersonators don't care for criticism.

I don't care. I've got lots to look forward to in 2012. There's former-Phoenician-turned-Broadway-star Kathy Fitzgerald as Mama Rose in Phoenix Theatre's Gypsy in March, and ASU's Arizona-themed Untold Stories/Unsung Heroes on ASU's main stage in February. And not one, but two new plays by local playwright Dwayne Hartford, both produced as world premières at Childsplay.

Maybe, if we all vow to attend these and other plays this year, Phoenix won't lose any more theater companies.

2011 in Theater: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A nice piece of mail: I received an e-mail from one of my favorite local actors, who wrote to thank me for not liking Stray Cat Theater's Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party. "Everyone I've spoken to loved this terrible show," he wrote, "and so I feel vindicated by your review." Whatever I can do to help, sir.

Rather a lot of Bob Sorenson: He left us for New York several years ago, but Bob returned to us this year in The Mystery of Irma Vep and God of Carnage, and he's sticking around to direct The Dixie Swim Club at Theater Works in 2012. Hooray.

Lenin's Embalmers: Forced to choose a single worst play I saw all year, I'd have to go with this tiny mess from Theater Artists' Studio.

Joyce Gittoes in Desert Stages Theatre's A Raisin in the Sun: Sublime.

Ben Tyler's Facebook essay: A nicely written, solid argument for the importance of theater. Check it out:!/helbent

Ironic, isn't it?: In Woody Guthrie's American Song, Arizona Theatre Company's sort-of biography told in tunes and travelogues, author Peter Glazer only hinted at Guthrie's emotional instability and leftist politics.

Doug Loynd in Nearly Naked's Oedipus for Kids: His saucy program notes were fun; his hat-and-cane routine during "Be Kind to the Blind" even better.

Hey, who's the guy in the bowler?: Boo to whomever cast Desert Foothills Theater's upcoming The Wallace and Ladmo Show with actors other than Wes Martin and Bob Sorenson, who originated the roles.

Nicole Belit in iTheater Collaborative's Race, and Susan Claassen in Actors Theatre's A Conversation with Edith Head: Amazing.

Too much Final Net: 2011 brought us three separate productions of Hairspray: The Musical. There are two more Hairsprays coming up in 2012. I like this show, and most anything John Waters-related, more than most. But enough, already. Option something else.

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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