Some ideas need a long time to gestate, and maybe the idea of spending your lunch hour watching live drama was just one of them. But this year did mark the return of Lunch Time Theater, an elegant little plan to coax office-workers into a theater with the promise of short, entertaining plays and cheap, crunchy lunches. Actors Theatre of Phoenix first trundled out the concept in the late '80s -- known then as Brown Bag Theater -- and it worked for a few years before going on a decadelong, er, hiatus. But in its new incarnation in the Herberger Theater Center, it seems to have found its niche -- presenting one-act plays by up-and-coming companies, while audience members chew on turkey sandwiches, diced fruit and little bags of chips. It's win-win-win. Actors get to hone their chops, troupes get to test out new scripts, and stultified office drones get some really cheap entertainment: $5 for admission and $5 for lunch, catered by Teeter House. And its year-round schedule has helped put the lie to the notion that, during the summer, the Valley's theater scene is pitch black.
It's not easy getting an audience for Shakespeare in this town. And no one knows that better than Actors' Renaissance Theatre. This truly local troupe started (and still exists) on a shoestring but is held together by strong performances, well-planned seasons, and the passion of its founders, husband-and-wife team James and Ashley Barnard. ART offers up the classics of Austen, Wilde and Shakespeare, stages an annual Valley of the Sun Shakespeare Festival, and debuts original works, like its recent world première adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. None of these things is exactly known for selling hordes of tickets, but ART still manages to put on good, affordable theater without going under, and without the help of underwriting or grants. In our book, that deserves recognition.
Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre
After several consecutive seasons of mostly ill-conceived dreck, the Valley's oldest theater company rebounded with what was arguably the best show of the year. Phoenix Theatre's production of Sophisticated Ladies was so letter-perfect in performance and execution, it was nearly enough to make us forget the same company's laughably awful take on A Streetcar Named Desire of two seasons ago. Everything about Ladies was right: The dancing and singing were superb; the choreography fresh; the set and costume design outstanding. Every word, note and gesture jibed with our memory of Duke Ellington, whose music was celebrated in this tough-to-stage musical revue. Here's to hoping that Phoenix Theatre's upcoming season will repeat the stunning success of its Sophisticated Ladies.
With a single exception, the acting in Nearly Naked Theater's The King of Infinite Space was unexceptional. But Michael Sherwin's performance in the title role of Andrew Ordover's obscure morality play was so dazzling, it appeared to belong to another production. Red-faced and shrieking one moment, eerily calm the next, Sherwin delivered Ordover's lines with a riveting blend of chutzpah and megalomania. His performance -- which culminated in a final scene of glassy-eyed, catatonic madness -- rescued an otherwise dreary production from failure.
Orpheum Theatre
There are only a handful of theaters in the Valley of the Sun that were originally meant to be theaters, and even some of those have the acoustics of a dank cave. But the historic Orpheum Theatre, with its majestic proscenium, cloud-painted ceiling and rich red velvet seats, puts everything else in the state to shame. After a citizen-led battle to save it from demolition when it fell into shambles, 12 years of hard work, and $14 million, the Orpheum Theatre was reborn. The visible trappings were restored as much as possible, like the ornate carvings and stairwells, while retrofitting it as a modern theater capable of handling modern shows with all of their high-tech needs. And the round-light-trimmed marquee and side poster boxes at Second Avenue and Adams Street transport you to a time when having your name in lights really meant something.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
In the past couple of years, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has hosted some impressive shows of cutting-edge stuff, like the mind- and space-bending work of James Turrell and the contemplative conceptual work of German artist Wolfgang Laib. Sure, we wouldn't mind seeing more work by local artists and fewer of those stitched-together theme shows, but by our reckoning, SMoCA is still the best bet for artgoers who are looking for a dose of timeliness, relevance and challenge to go with their wine and cheese.

Museo Chicano
At the city-supported Museo Chicano downtown, the gift shop is just about as big as the gallery space itself -- and for good reason. The wares on sale are oftentimes as gripping (sometimes more so, actually) as what's on display. Flashy fiesta flags hang overhead. Cigarette-chomping sugar skulls line the shelves. And dioramas of canny calaveras are the order of the day -- scenes of savvy-looking skeletons shooting pool, drinking booze, giving birth, hanging out on street corners.

Of course, el Museo also offers the requisite coffee-table books, art prints and gear dedicated to the supposed George and Martha of Mexican art, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. But in our opinion, it's the folk art that makes this place most firme.

Where else can you drive 35 miles on a four-lane, divided parkway in the middle of the afternoon and see only six other vehicles?

Long ago dubbed the "Road to Nowhere," the Sun Valley Parkway was built in the mid-1980s as the centerpiece of a real estate development project that collapsed in typical Arizona fashion. The only thing that has ever come true from all the real estate hype for the area now annexed by Buckeye is the parkway.

A sign stating "No Service Next 35 Miles" signals the start of the parkway that lies about 12 miles east of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, off Interstate 10. The sign also gives the green light to floor it, which we did. After a few minutes, the old truck wound up to 102 mph, not bad considering the 198,500 miles on the engine (1994 Dodge Dakota, V-6).

Besides the obvious temptation to ramp up the RPMs, the road is a favorite for cyclists with its wide shoulders and paucity of traffic. The parkway bisects the Hassayampa Plain, offering vast expanses of relatively untouched Sonoran Desert landscape marred only by a jangle of crisscrossing, high-tension power lines.

Amid talk of strikes and steroids, there are still a few baseball players you can hold up as shining role models to your kids.

Craig Counsell is the shiniest role model of the lot.

Undersized and undertalented, Counsell seems to have nothing going for him except heart, an undying work ethic and an exceptional understanding of the subtleties of baseball.

There are a lot of guys in Double A with more natural talent. But because he's Craig Counsell, he's a consistent big-league batter capable of playing any spot in the infield on any day with Gold Glove acumen.

And like the superstars, he always seems to pull out a hit when the Diamondbacks most need one. Unfortunately for the D-Backs and their fans, Counsell suffered an injury in August and will be unavailable for the postseason. Still, if the Snakes repeat as world champions this year, Counsell will have been one of the biggest contributors to their success.

Sun Devil Stadium
Despite all the complaining and groaning about Sun Devil Stadium generated primarily by the hapless Arizona Cardinals, the facility remains one of the finest football venues in the country.

Yes, the toilets are old and concessions stands are limited, but for pure football fans, the proximity to the field and clean site lines can't be beat.

When the fans are fired up, the stadium generates a roar that spills down Mill Avenue and blots out the jets flying into Sky Harbor Airport. The stadium was built during Arizona State University's golden era of football under the direction of former coach Frank Kush, after whom the field is named.

It's a beautiful football stadium, plain and simple.

Despite the Cardinals' derisive feelings about Sun Devil Stadium, the National Football League Players Association last year named the stadium the fifth best facility in the NFL. If the Cardinals simply played a few night games in September and October, there would be no need for a new facility.

The Fiesta Bowl, which will host the national championship game this year at Sun Devil Stadium, will look back on its days at Sun Devil Stadium and realize those were the best of times.

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