| Theater |

Season Preview: Stray Cat Theatre Brings the Fresh and the Non-Human to the Stage

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It's difficult to pin Stray Cat Theatre down -- just one thing the company has in common with actual stray cats. The troupe's selections are often super-gay, not unlike Nearly Naked's; they like to do shows Phoenix hasn't seen before, which is something Actors Theatre is also superb at. 

Maybe its defining programming characteristic, based on the past couple of seasons, is the spectacularly weird, potentially broadly offensive show, examples of which in the months to come will deliver robots, show-tuney fetal pigs, a giant chicken, and Damon Dering as Satan (Eric Bogosian played the role in New York, but Dering probably wasn't available).

The main thing that makes Stray Cat entirely unique, though, is artistic director Ron May, who's known for a genuine love of expressive art that makes him an enthusiastic supporter of just about every other artist and company (with and for whom he frequently works) at the same time he's also nearly world-famous for his snarky, gossipy, self-deprecating Facebook updates that are frequently about alcohol and his cat.

Check out what Stray Cat's bringing to the stage this season after the jump ... 

The new season opens on Friday, September 23, with The Sparrow, a work developed organically in 2007 by The House Theatre of Chicago, a smokin'-hot group known for youth, physicality, innovation, rigorous craft, and near-magical staging. With echoes of, according to some spectatorsWicked as well as Stephen King's CarrieThe Sparrow explores the return of orphaned telekinetic Emily Book to an Illinois town ravaged by a school-bus accident 10 years in the past that killed everyone aboard -- except for Emily.

Emily can fly. Her community values her, but the story nevertheless plays out with plenty of conflict and suspense, as any story of a high-school senior really should. There's Homecoming, cheerleading, grief, young love, and an original musical score -- partly instrumental soundscape, partly with vocals. That's where the dancing, singing fetal pigs come in, performing their big number in the middle of getting dissected in science class.

Next up is MilkMilkLemonade, opening Friday, December 2. The title's the beginning of a rhyme I first heard on Will & Grace (because I was raised as a girl and missed out on a lot of gross-out humor until I started hanging around with boys). The play's about Emory, a fifth-grader in (again) the Midwest, who is discouraged by his grandmother from expressing his gay little self and has only a very special chicken to talk to until Grandma suggests he spend more time with the butch, somewhat violent neighbor boy Elliot .

This does not, thankfully for Emory and the audience, have the intended results, as the boys, among other pursuits, play House as though it had been scripted by Tennessee Williams. Meanwhile, Linda the chicken is scheduled to be made into cutlets, and a lady in a black leotard tries to hold everything together in a dry, self-conscious tribute to children's theater narrators since the beginning of time.

Author Joshua Conkel claims to be influenced by many terrific writers I love, and if you read this review, you should know that saying "there's very little better than MilkMilkLemonade anywhere south of 14th Street," while it is a douchey, typically Manhattanite thing to say, was far from faint praise back before this recession dried up the usual overwhelming quantity of diverting off-off-Broadway theater.

Satan's visit, along with appearances by Mother Teresa, other saints, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, Sigmund Freud, and even Jesus (hey, He's super-busy!), is part of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who more recently wrote the popular The Motherfucker with the Hat. What seems to be a typical fantasy-courtroom scenario (does Judas really belong in Hell, considering Jesus' whole raison de mourir is to help us get forgiven?) is enlivened with contemporary, street-smart dialogue.

Though the play's alleged to be long and wordy, we should be able to enjoy the dance, in part thanks to Stray Cat's collaboration with a new crop of master's candidates in ASU's acting program. The batch that just graduated left some enormous shoes, but this production sounds like a great fit for the program. It opens February 17, 2012.

Finally, opening May 18, 2012, Stray Cat presents Heddatron, with three temporally separated plots that all have something to do with Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen's classic drama of passion and independence. Probably the funkiest of the three is the one in which a group of robots abducts a pregnant Michigan housewife to the rainforest and makes her perform the original play with them.

There's no reason not to look forward to this. The New York production featured completely real robots, made by a robotics team, with computerized voice tracks that ran straight through, meaning that the human actors could not speed up, slow down, or make mistakes without serious consequences. Also, the robots were heavy, clumsy, and didn't always go the direction they were told.

It sounds like a freakin' nightmare, but also like a theater experience unlike any other, for both artists and audience. And even if Stray Cat has to resort to people in robot suits, it'll still be some kind of awesome.

Individual tickets to Stray Cat performances are $18 to $25; to order, or to find out more about season passes and other discounts, click here or call 480-820-8022. Performances take place at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 East Sixth Street.

Note: This weekend only, you can (or maybe you can't; see update at the end of this paragraph) see an abbreviated, two-man version of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, a show called Pass It On, co-starring Richard Springle, one of the two fantastic actors who appeared in Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre's production last year. Your $20 donation benefits Weldon House, which helps women (and their children) who've "faced barriers in leaving abusive relationships, sustaining recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism, obtaining adequate housing, and finding jobs that provided a livable wage." All the info's here, or call 602-264-6214. Update: the nice folks at NCADD tell me all the tickets have been sold, which is great for everyone except people who don't have them yet. If you're near Brown and Higley anyway between now and Saturday night, September 3, or if you want to call Broadway Palm and ask about their waiting list policies, feel free to give it a shot. Have a super weekend!

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