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The Best Plays Robrt Pela Saw in Metro Phoenix in 2015

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I am not sleeping with actor/director Ron May. I am a happily married man who’s a sucker for a well-crafted theater performance. I mention these simple facts because, in reviewing the best theatrical events I saw in 2015, I find that I have as usual favored productions in which May appeared or that he directed.

Like Pluto, which May directed for Stray Cat Theatre, the company he founded a number of years ago. This surrealist Steve Yockey play was one long fever dream, about Elizabeth, a youngish suburban mother determined to have a normal day. But there was a tree growing upside down in her kitchen; her three-headed talking dog was acting churlishly; and the announcer on her radio, which kept turning itself on, was speaking directly to her. May and his impressive company of players found each and every comic moment in Elizabeth’s dreadful day, making the most of what little subtlety there was in a splendid production of a noteworthy play. Eric Beeck’s flawless set design was a stunning recreation of a suburban kitchen gone wrong.

And then there was the one-two punch of May starring in One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s smart tribute to commedia dell’arte at Phoenix Theatre. This update of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters was enough to get me to reconsider my hatred of audience participation. May’s endless chumming with the audience was — thanks to Pasha Yamotahari’s slick direction and May’s princely performance — charming and fun. He played ringmaster to a dazzling supporting cast that included Robert Kolby Harper as a dodgy mobster; David Vining, milking laughs as an effete barrister; and swoony David Barker playing a pile of pratfalls that stole away the long set-piece that wound up Act One. And somehow, neither comic master Walter Belcher nor any of these others managed to walk off with the whole shebang — perhaps because the audience was so well distracted by May’s frenetic performance as the muddled manservant who can sell anything, even audience participation to a grouchy old theater critic.

Ron May did not appear in the recent road company of The Book of Mormon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s irreverent book musical launched ASU Gammage’s new season this year, and it was clear on opening night that the capacity crowd had been binge-listening to the show’s cast recording for a couple of years. From its opening notes, Robert Lopez’s deeply vulgar songs about God and the Bible were matched note for note by a big hunk of the audience; the effect was that of a mammoth karaoke sing-off between the performers and their audience. It’s always fun to watch the creators of South Park trash the world around us, even while they do tend to rely rather too much on scatological humor and naughty words meant to shock us. I liked this show’s Hope-and-Crosby setup about a couple of Mormon missionaries in Africa, trying to convert especially obstreperous natives who think the Bible is, as one native says, “fucking crazy.” Neatly refined performances by triple-threat performers like A.J. Holmes and Billy Harrigan Tighe and the Valley’s own Alexandra Ncube were fun to watch; the show’s irreligious take on Mormonism was a gasp-inducing hoot.

Southwest Shakespeare Company gets my vote for the rudest local theater of the year, after they ignored my requests for a ticket to Hysteria and never responded to my numerous emails about a photo to illustrate my review this delightful production of Terry Johnson’s peculiar masterpiece. Their front office may suck, but Patrick Walsh’s staging of this oddball two-act did not. Set in 1938, the year of Sigmund Freud’s death, Hysteria imagined the meeting between Freud and surrealist painter Salvador Dali, who famously visited the dying neurologist one afternoon that year. Freud, having recently fled the Nazis, was sick with cancer of the jaw. His morphine high informed the events we were witness to, leaving us wondering how much of the story, presented largely as farce, was actually happening. In the play’s quietest role, Clay Sanderson managed to keep up without either mugging or vanishing behind the much bigger performances that surrounded him.

Rosemary Close’s concise, tranquil direction of her husband Christopher Haines’s one-man performance found and burnished what was good about An Almost Holy Picture, Heather McDonald’s one-person play. iTheatre Collaborative’s production cast Haines as Samuel Gentle, the gardener and groundskeeper of a small church whose wife survived three miscarriages before their daughter, Ariel, was born covered in a fine coat of golden hair. Gentle stands on a knoll, describing for us how he found God, and how his faith was shattered when a bus he was riding in crashed, killing nine of the children aboard.

As the storyteller, Haines sustained a consistently genial quality, underplaying like mad but also bringing life to a lackluster role. He never became a casualty to McDonald’s imperfect monologue. The actor’s affable nature and comfortable use of casual language saved him—and us — from McDonald’s sometimes sleepy narrative. Close’s direction meshed neatly with Haines’ presentation, so that the very obvious choreography and neatly timed line deliveries never felt obvious. Ultimately, these nods to stylishness and elegant trickery helped elevate a story whose characters had no place to go.

With only a few weeks left of the year, it seems unlikely that I’ll find anything I like more than these half-dozen productions from earlier in 2015. On the other hand, there’s Ron May in a one-man Arizona Theater Company production of David Sedaris’ hilarious Santaland Diaries , about the author’s pre-fame days as a loser so strapped for cash, he takes a job as an elf in a shopping mall. Directed by Ira Goldstein, that’s a holiday gift that could only be topped by a one-woman take on A Christmas Carol starring Katie McFadzen and directed by Matthew Weiner, with which the Sedaris play happens to be playing in rep at the Herberger. This Yuletide double-header, also directed by Weiner, is one I’m looking forward to. And just to prove that there are in fact local performers I like better than I like Ron May, I’m going to the Katie McFadzen play twice.

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