Bentley Projects
What a leap of faith for one of Scottsdale's most prestigious contemporary galleries to open a branch in downtown Phoenix -- and aren't we glad they did it. Representing an impressive roster of nationally recognized painters and sculptors from the get-go, Bentley not only makes us optimistic about the potential of downtown, but also considerably raises the bar for the quality of art on display throughout downtown Phoenix. Set up in a huge warehouse space that accommodates monumental works -- quite a change from most other charming but cramped downtown art spaces -- this is proof that our bohemian art scene is entering the big time.

Harkins Camelview 5
We despaired of ever seeing France's The Triplets of Belleville in a timely manner, but only because we'd forgotten for a moment about Harkins' Camelview 5 in Scottsdale. Shame on us, then, for failing to remember that Camelview is the best place in town to see exclusive, often obscure art and foreign films. How dare we forget that we got to see Super Size Me the very week it opened in New York, or that The Twilight Samurai opened at Camelview even before it went into major release? One thing we can't forget: The staff here is ultra-courteous and always knowledgeable about the sometimes oddball films they show. And the popcorn is so good we sometimes forget we're at an art house cinema and just plain pig out.

Readers' Choice: Harkins Camelview 5

BEST PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN ON A FIRST FRIDAY

Roosevelt Street

Any time of the year, the first Friday of the month in downtown Phoenix is a circus. Sure, the main event is still the art -- varying dramatically in quality from something you'd see in a New York gallery to "Hey, my kid could do that!" But our favorite thing about the most happenin' night of the month is the side show outside the galleries along Roosevelt Street between Central Avenue and Sixth Street. If for only one night a month, the heart of a driving city becomes a pedestrian oasis. And the pedestrians range from toddlers in cowboy boots to heavily tattooed teenagers to older folks in comfortable shoes. It's the best time to people-watch, the best time to run into someone you haven't seen in years or just saw that afternoon at the office. Music is playing, and when it isn't, there's a buzz in the air -- or fire, from a fire-breather who just might jump into the busy street as you walk by. Freeze this moment in time, because who knows how long the party will last . . .

BEST PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN ON A FINAL FRIDAY

B-Side Gallery

First Fridays, you'll find us in Phoenix. But final Fridays belong to Tempe, and this is a night that has yet to be tainted by an excess of hype. In other words, you can actually see the work on display by local artists.

At the center of Final Friday is Wet Paint, which transforms into B-Side Gallery on the last Friday of each month. B-Side has become the spot to see eclectic local art, listen to live music and, of course, check out what the hipsters are wearing. But the difference here from First Fridays, as far as we can tell, is that the crowd in attendance actually seems to care about the art and supporting the local scene. The well-coifed hair, white belts and high heels are just an added bonus -- a different kind of art, if you will. And we will.

Icehouse
In its 1990s heyday, the Icehouse was the epicenter of Phoenix rave culture. Legendary parties lasted all night long within the walls of this cavernous downtown space, making it a natural anchor of the art and music communities. Then, as the times changed, so did the nightlife, and the Icehouse seemed to fall off the local radar. It continued to host events, but only sporadically. Most nights of the month, the grand building loomed large and silent on a dark stretch of Jackson Street.

But lately we've noticed that the Icehouse is reasserting itself as a place to see and be seen. Not with old-school raves, exactly, but with the sort of over-the-top multimedia events -- live bands, DJs, fashion shows and art installations -- that Phoenicians adore, including the now-annual LIFE Festival, an alternative Fourth of July celebration of "Liberty, Independence, and Freedom of Expression." Welcome to the new Ice Age.

Like the Phoenix art scene in general, Art Detour -- that spring weekend where most every gallery in town opens its doors to the masses -- is a mixed bag. Some good, some bad. Some very, very bad. We had a favorite spot this year, partly because the art was so good, but even more because the vibe was so great. Held at the downtown Phoenix home of an unnamed but well-known member of the local arts community whose initials happen to be G.S., Garage S. was billed as a traditional garage sale. And it hit the mark, with all the things we love about garage sales, starting with really amazing bargains.

We couldn't believe our luck -- we scored Jon Haddock sketches and a portrait by Sue Chenoweth, painted on the spot. We drooled over bags by Sherrie Medina and Carrie Bloomston; Heidi Hesse and Colin Chillag both had work for sale. There was even a garage band, the Haystacks, and someone had the great idea of trucking in some fake snow. We ran into all kinds of people we knew, and gobbled an ice pop as it rolled down our arm.

The best part was, for that one weekend, Garage S. made our big city feel like a small town.

Everyone we know who attended Catholic school or had to endure catechism class has horror stories to tell about the nasty nuns. But these same people have been screaming with glee over Patti Hannon, who plays Sister, the ball-busting bride of Christ charged with our ecumenical upkeep in Late Nite Catechism Parts I and II. Both plays are written by Maripat Donovan and directed by Marc Silvia, and are running concurrently at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, where the audience pretends to be students of Hannon, who paces the stage, swinging her beads and cracking wise about Christ and his cronies. She's a master at improvisational comedy, which is the hallmark of this frequently hilarious homage to holiness. And that's a good thing, since Late Nite II is really just a prolonged improv sketch, one in which Hannon must lob funny answers to any number of questions posed by the audience. No matter how silly or stupid the question, Hannon is always ready with an answer both amusing and instructive. Late Nite II is irreverent but not irreligious, and always funny, thanks to Hannon's litany of one-liners about good and evil.

Bless you, Patti Hannon, for knowing your way around a sepulcher, and for making us laugh at stuff that used to bug us.

By now, we're accustomed to complex, compelling entertainment from this tireless troupe. But Nearly Naked's take on Joe Calarco's smart, sexy Shakespeare's R & J was more than fun to watch -- it made us want to go home and read Twelfth Night. Fortunately for us, an intimate relationship with the Bard wasn't necessary to grasp the genius of Calarco's script -- thanks to director Damon Dering's talent for drawing subtle parallels between tormented youth and the kids in Romeo and Juliet, the ultimate story of adolescent tragedy. Dering's gifted cast nailed the angst of Catholic school youths stifled by the repressive regime of a Catholic boarding school, who meet to read aloud from a banned copy of Romeo and Juliet. The spartan set and wonderfully low-tech sound design, executed live by a chorus that created the sounds of wind and heartbeat with just their lungs and their teeth, set the stage for one of last season's very best productions.

When the nice folks at Desert Stages remounted their rip-snorting production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret last December, it was a holiday gift to all of us who couldn't get tickets to the show's original sold-out run the summer before. The glory of this particular production is that this perennial musical is usually mauled by college theater troupes and small, earnest companies like Desert Stages -- the familiar score is best served by big voices, and Joe Masteroff's wicked translation of Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories needs a wider acting talent than is usually found among amateur thespians. Which is what made Desert Stages' superb staging all the more impressive. Songs like "Money" and "Don't Tell Mama" benefited from exactly the kind of rough talent that director/choreographers Gerry and Laurie Cullit cast here -- the very sort of talent one would have found at the Kit Kat Klub. The excellent, stripped-down staging crammed the show onto catwalks and into stairwells, transforming the troupe's smallish black box (they've since moved to bigger, tonier digs) into a seamy nightclub where musical numbers began in the flies and slithered onto a cramped, dirty stage. We're still crowing about this one, which made us want to "come to the cabaret, old chum" again and again.

With its debut in January, TheatreScape whetted our appetite for more and better community theater productions. The tiny company bowed with Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary, a story of three women -- a mother, her daughter, and her granddaughter the spelling bee champ -- for whom love and resentment are indistinguishable. Blessing's nonlinear tale is a tough one to tell; it's a stylish, witty play as challenging as a good word game. Its lighthearted narrative is crammed with sadness and loss; it asks us to root for some pretty pitiless people; its main storytelling technique is avoidance. Yet Patrick Du Laney's skillful, intuitive direction and pitch-perfect cast made sense of these complicated women and their less-than-perfect lives. And when tiny Michelle Chin, her eyes filled with tears, crossed the stage during her curtain call to retrieve the paper wings that are her character's prized possession, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

It was tiny details like this -- the wide purple wing sketched onto the set's cubist triptych; the tears welling in Lauren Bahlman's eyes when she confronted her daughter; the wonderful musical bit enacted by Barbara McGrath -- that made this Eleemosynary so gratifying. The result was a sad story told with a generosity of spirit, and an impressive debut from a troupe whose new season we look forward to.

Best Of Phoenix®

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