The Play's the Thing

The good news is that no theater company has announced a production of Cats this season. The bad news is that every single other tired old musical ever written will make its way to local stages over the next several months.

Surprise! And welcome to the 2006-2007 theater season, which promises to mirror the past three or four seasons with an endless parade of stuff we've all seen before, crammed between cheesy musical revues and the usual strip-mall productions tagged with "Southwest première!" (which generally means "No one west of the Rockies wanted it!"). The typical pile of reruns is offset nicely if infrequently by hip, risky stuff from the usual suspects and a surprising number of campy treats, both intentional and otherwise, some from surprising sources.

Not so surprising is that the more exciting stuff this season will come to us mostly from those little theaters that have made their name by taking artistic risks. Stray Cat Theatre is kicking off its season with Ben Ellis' darkly neurotic Falling Petals (September), about a town that eats its young, followed by Sarah Kane's disturbing 4.48 Psychosis (February), which she penned shortly before taking her own life. Nearly Naked Theatre is dusting off Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana (November) as a reminder of what was once considered "progressive" theater, then returning to form with its long-awaited première of Bat Boy: The Musical (June), a tuner ripped from the headlines — supermarket tabloid headlines, that is. Actors Theatre continues to swing out with shows like The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's disturbing peek into the effects of child abuse, with which it will end its season in April.

Fans of camp, rejoice! While you're waiting for Neil Cohen to turn up in a dirndl in iTheatre's The Bad Seed in May (don't bother to pretend you're not counting the days, either), there's plenty of campy fun, both deliberate and unintentional, headed your way. Artists Theatre Project is devoting the second half of its season entirely to Charles Busch with that auteur/drag queen's Psycho Beach Party (April) and Die, Mommy, Die! (May). Insurrection Theater and Stray Cat Theatre will weigh in with Twisted Tales: Fairy Tales for Adults (April) and the film-to-stage dramedy Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy (March), respectively. And can we expect anything but high camp from a show called Legends! (January) when it stars Joan Collins and Linda Evans? The real mystery here is whether Theater League, which is producing Legends!, is serious about its announcement that Tom Bosley will star in On Golden Pond in February. Mr. C. as Henry Fonda? Okay.

And of course, there's the Bard. It's still a mystery to me who in Phoenix attends Shakespeare plays, since most of what's presented by our local Shakespeare companies is usually so dreadful that no connoisseur of Old Will would possibly ever return after seeing one of these performances. Perhaps the families and friends of the casts attend. But by all indications (like the fact that The Shakespeare Theater still has its 2005 listing up on its Web site, suggesting it's dried up and blown away, and Actors Renaissance Theatre appears also to be MIA), even those folks have been staying home.

This year's Shakespeare pile will appear even paler once David Ira Goldstein and Arizona Theatre Company trot out Twelfth Night (October) at the top of their season. Goldstein loves Shakespeare, and ATC has proven (even to people like me, who deplore Shakespeare) that it can do the Bard in high style. The uninitiated can give Southwest Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona (March) a whirl, or hedge their bets with London Assurance (September), Dion L. Boucicault's well-crafted comedy full of Oscar Wildean bons mots and a mistaken-identity plot straight out of a Shakespearean comedy.

As ever, Theater Works is trotting out its share of war-horses — Lend Me a Tenor (September); The Miracle Worker (January); and Working (April) — but it's also lined up some surprisingly diverse stuff in between. In October it'll present Yours, Anne, a musical — no kidding — about the life of Anne Frank; in November, the noir-ish comedy LUV; and even Seven Nuns at Las Vegas (February), a frothy farce that some Catholic agencies frowned upon when it made its debut a while back. Shame on you for being so daring, Theater Works. And thank you, too.

Fear not, though: There are plenty of clunky old retreads coming up. Mesa Encore Theatre and Tempe Little Theatre haven't yet been burned to the ground, after all. The former will bring us I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change in January (insert shrieks here); Neil Simon's The Star Spangled Girl in October (run screaming!); I Hate Hamlet in February; and — will it never end? — The Fantasticks in April. Tempe Little Theatre actually expects people to pay for tickets to The Nerd, A Chorus Line, and Hair, because apparently no one has informed its board of directors that young people live in Tempe; the oldos are in Sun City.

The local gay/lesbian troupe has gone kaput, but other specialty and ethnic theater companies continue to flourish. I don't know how anyone could not go see a play called Vilna's Got a Golem, which Arizona Jewish Theatre Company will present in November, the same month that Arizona Women's Theater will bring us Lisa Loomer's Living Out, a comedy about Anglo mothers and their undocumented Latina nannies directed by Debra K. Stevens. Teatro Bravo plans to stage Rubn Amavizca Murúa's The Women of Juarez, postponed from last season, while Black Theatre Troupe's season starts off safe with Dreamgirls (October) and winds up less typically with Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine in March.

The usual cluster of Christmas shows (ATP's Christmas Carol; iTheatre's A Holiday Cabaret, both in December) returns this season, this time in the company of some new holiday cheer. I'm delighted to note that none of our several dozen local troupes is this year attempting Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical, although Maripat Donovan has penned another nun comedy, Sister's Christmas Catechism, set to play at Scottsdale Center for the Arts through December. New kids on the block Insurrection Theatre are weighing in with Holiday Cheer, a Musical Revue, and Copperstate Dinner Theatre hopes to entice us out to the dog track where it presents all its shows with Tuna Xmas (November), a sort-of sequel to the perennial Greater Tuna, with which Copperstate is opening its season. I'm saving my holiday cheer for Southwest Shakespeare's Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge (November), because I need to know what's behind that intoxicating title.

And theatergoers for whom no season is complete without a mammoth pile of tried-and-true musicals may want to Google this list for times, dates, and theaters: A Chorus Line; Jesus Christ Superstar; Godspell; Man of La Mancha; Gypsy; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Thoroughly Modern Millie; South Pacific; Guys and Dolls; Kiss Me, Kate; Cabaret; Fiddler on the Roof; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; The Fantasticks; Pump Boys and Dinettes; Grease; Hair; and The Music Man.

Phew. It's enough to make you want to stay home with your YouTube and forget the whole theater thing. But don't — there's plenty of exciting, provocative theater on the schedule this year, if you know where to look.

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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