Season's Greetings

The theater season is about to start -- and not a moment too soon. With next to no theater to look at for the past several months, I've taken to watching television -- and the worst possible programs, too. It's with more than a little shame that I admit to having developed an addiction to Home and Garden Television, a wasteland of cheesy, often mean-spirited shows meant to promote the importance of interior design. I've lost entire afternoons watching House Hunters, a terrible show in which people are dogged by a camera crew while they shop for a new home, and where the phrase "It's really nice!" is used so often, I've built a counting game around it (one point for every time a buyer uses the word, two points for each time a real estate agent uses it; the record is 41 times in one episode).

Starting next week, I can forget all about While You Were Out (another of those "you went out for groceries and we threw away all your stuff and redecorated your ugly tract home" shows) and, worst of all, Flea Market Finds With the Kovells, a show about tag sales hosted by two lobotomized septuagenarians. I can switch off the TV and head out for the new theater season -- a season that looks pretty darned exciting, at least compared to the stuff I've been watching.

Because this is Phoenix, there are the requisite productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar to dodge, not to mention two West Side Storys and back-to-back productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Fortunately, we have companies here devoted to presenting more eccentric fare. Nearly Naked Theatre, which last year wowed us with superb productions of Equus and The Shape of Things, continues to stretch with still more worthy but seldom-seen programs. Although the company was unable to secure the rights to the zany musical Batboy!, it's promising Shakespeare's R&J: A New Version of Romeo and Juliet, adapted by Joe Calarco, and The House of Yes, Wendy MacLeod's dark comedy about America's obsession with the Kennedys. Nearly Naked has some competition in the oddball theater department from new kids on the block iTheatre Collaborative, which opens its first season with a remount of last winter's funny and profound Underneath the Lintel and a production of Bee-Luther-Hatchee (a mystery about the nature of art and issues of race), among other chancy shows.

Repertory is as trendy as a Christopher Lowell makeover this season. Teatro Bravo, Arizona's only bilingual theater company, will launch its fourth season with three different plays in repertory, each addressing a different social issue. And ASU's main-stage season will pair classic plays with newer, similarly themed pieces, namely How I Learned to Drive and The Laramie Project; Our Town and subUrbia; and The Cherry Orchard with The Fifth of July. It's an exciting idea for a theater season, made all the more appealing by ASU's promise of a new plays festival at the windup.

There's still no word on an upcoming season from tiny Desert Stages Theatre, which has extended its surprisingly superb production of Cabaret for the umpteenth time, this time until September 27. The company plans next to do Oliver!, perhaps an indication that it means to return to safe, family fare as soon as it's over its Isherwood phase. Too bad.

Stagebrush Theater and Phoenix Theatre continue to impersonate community college companies with their long lists of retreads. Look for Jesus Christ Superstar; Play It Again, Sam; and Fiddler on the Roof from Stagebrush; and Private Lives and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum from Phoenix Theatre, whose idea of "risky" this season is a production of Menopause: The Musical, presumably because songs about menses are a tough sell (and because the book for this show is God-awful).

Valley Broadway's roster of big-deal bus-and-truck shows provides its best -- and most eccentric -- mix yet: Road companies of Broadway blockbusters Mamma Mia!, Hairspray and Urinetown are somehow sharing the stage with war-horses 42nd Street, Oklahoma! and -- horrors! -- Starlight Express, Andrew Lloyd Webber's mammoth musical skate-a-thon.

Likewise, both of our biggest professional companies are presenting classic shows alongside newer material. Arizona Theatre Company will present A Streetcar Named Desire in February, and Actors Theatre is planning what I'm guessing will be an excellent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I'm less hopeful about the same company's Tapestry, a musical revue based on the music of Carole King, in good part because I've seen this treacly show elsewhere and can't imagine any company making much of it. I can't imagine what possessed Actors Theatre, a traditionally more forward-thinking troupe, to choose this particular show. I'm doing my best to reserve judgment.

In the meantime, I've discovered a cable show called What Not to Wear, and I'm hooked. Each week, a different unsuspecting suburban housewife is heaped with abuse, just because she's unattractive and has bad posture and hideous fashion sense. I can't stop watching, and, at least until the new theater season begins, it'll have to pass for entertainment.

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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