We almost lost this venerable company last year, in good part because people don't go to the theater often enough to support even the best playhouses. Which is senseless when you consider how truly impressive Actors Theatre's just-passed season was. It kicked off with a remount of the previous season's Nickel and Dimed, a comic adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the working class that featured a delightful performance by Cathy Dresbach. Next up was Blue/Orange, a thoughtful and well-acted meditation on mental health. A stunning late-January production of Kiss of the Spider Woman featured what might well have been Richard Trujillo's best performance ever. As if this weren't enough, the company closed its already impressive season with an amazing production of Edward Albee's shocking The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? that had audiences buzzing for weeks after. We're glad that wiser heads (and deeper pockets) have prevailed, and that Actors Theatre remains with us.
We're still remembering fondly this production of Paul Rudnick's remarkably funny Valhalla, brought to us last winter by Damon Dering's Nearly Naked Theatre Company. Rudnick's naughty comedy was elevated by wonderful performances from Dion Johnson as a degenerate yokel with a heart of gold; Tim Shawver as the mad King Ludwig II; and Joseph Kremer as a hick whose exasperation at and confusion over his sexuality was appealing and good-natured, where it might have been churlish and annoying. Dering directed, creating a seamless interplay between the play's two distinct eras, and scenic designer T.J. Weltzien brought us both Bavaria and Texas in a mad hodgepodge of a set that was all newel posts and glimmering curtains. Both cast and crew gave their all, and we're still basking in the memory of a wild and wildly entertaining evening of theater.
Although the darkened domain of the gay leather bar Padlock is under weekly siege by big, brawny bears, put away your guns and ammo. See, the burly beasts we're referencing aren't anything like Smokey or Gentle Ben, but, rather, are part of the particular subset of the gay community known as "bears." These bearded, bulky, and hairy males who're proud of their hirsute appearance partake in drink specials while mixing and mingling here on the second Friday of every month during "Bear's Night Out," many clad in leather and denim with their fuzzy chests on display for the world to see. Hey, why not flaunt it if you've got it?

BEST PLACE TO CATCH A QUEER-FRIENDLY SHOW

Soul Invictus

Soul Invictus Gallery & Cabaret
This gallery and performance space has exploded since David Salcido, publisher of local gay and lesbian mag Red Nightlife, moved into the building that used to house the Annex. In less than a year, Soul Invictus has played host to a series of alternative theater plays (including Salcido's own Rain Damage, and the glammy and very gay Hedwig and the Angry Inch), panel discussions about gender with ASU professors, monthly provocative art shows, and concerts by numerous queer and transgender bands (including the Ex-Boyfriends from San Francisco, local tranny punks The Insignificant Others, and Venus de Mars, who literally made sparks fly off her codpiece with a metal grinder). And best of all, the venue has a spacious patio in view of the stage, where patrons can sit, smoke, and mingle while men in lipstick and fishnets rock the stage.
There were so many reasons Desert Stages Theatre's production of A Man of No Importance shouldn't have worked. There was the cramped quarters of the company's Actor's Cafe space, into which this odd musical was squeezed. There was the mostly amateur cast, an unusual, time-bending script, and the curse that seems to blight most all stage musicals based on little-known films (in this case, the 1994 Albert Finney movie of the same name). All these should've-failed reasons are what made this production's success all the more notable. Firm direction from Jim Carmody and a better-than-average supporting cast helped, but the main reason this production soared where it might have faltered was Dominic Kidwell's lead performance as Alfie. Kidwell kept his character's complex elements a stubborn determination to bring Oscar Wilde's work to Dublin; a frail gentility; a quick anger in fine balance. When the story turned dark, Kidwell maintained Alfie's sweet, hopeful demeanor in song and in action. His shaded performance elevated what might have been a near miss into a superb production, one that Wilde himself probably would have loved.
Kyle Sorrell gave a powerhouse performance as Mark, the lead in Harry Gibson's dark meander through heroin addiction's dark night no mean feat when one considers that Sorrell was surrounded by a superb cast. Sorrell shone brightest, though; balancing the horror and comedy in the text without ever toppling into camp, and never playing Mark as weird or deranged. Sorrell implied a subtle regret under his endless crowing about the pleasure of getting high that let us see the wretchedness beneath Mark's manic glee about choosing drug addiction over a materialistic, bourgeois existence. Sorrell's was a star turn that we're still recalling with a combination of horror and pleasure.
The eccentric 19th-century German musician Christian Friedrich Buschmann built the first accordion way back in 1822. We're willing to bet the kooky Kraut would have been shocked to learn that his atonal invention would someday be utilized by a pair of goofy and gangly Valley teenagers to create a comically clamorous combination of polka and punk rock. But regardless of how much Herr Buschmann might be spinning in his grave, brothers Andrew and Tristan Jemsek have used their squeezebox (along with an electric guitar and drum kit) to blast out a bizarrely boffo blend of polka and punk rock, delighting denizens of the downtown Phoenix art scene over the past two years. Influenced by everything from the accordion-happy Weird Al Yankovic to The Dead Kennedys, the Jemseks perform more traditional-sounding (yet highly hyperactive) polka jams about Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and haunted European castles, as well as raucous rock ditties about Access Hollywood and local hypnosis guru Sam Meranto. Eat your heart out, Weird Al.
Lillie Richardson is among our finest local actors, and as Paulina in Ariel Dorfman's semi-autobiographical political thriller, she was called on to play a woman who's alternately jovial and condescending; who might be insane or simply jubilant in her finest hour. She played scenes that in the hands of a lesser actress certainly would have fallen to scenery chewing, scenes filled with violence and fear, crackling with tension and crammed with Dorfman's darkly comic dialogue. She shifted from cantankerous glee to spiteful cruelty without a trace of the hamminess this kind of role practically demands. Brava!
Since its wildly cacophonous and sonically entrancing inaugural concert last year, the Phoenix Creative Music Movement has been dead set on getting folks out of their aural comfort zones by offering kick-ass experimental music during its bi-monthly concert series at Modified Arts. And it must be doing something right, because its diehard followers and curious newbies demanded more creative craziness and got it. The PCMM's two-day annual winter festival showcases harmonically ambitious local cats gigging in a variety of styles, including improv jazz, atonal electronica, mixed-media installations, and ambient free-flowing sound narratives. The December '05 Fest featured six original acts; Chicago drumming heavyweight and Phoenix native Frank Rosaly performed solo freak-out deconstruction percussion, while the all-woodwind New Jazz Saxophone Quartet closed the fest with angular walls of modern sound. Ditch the winter coat at home, because these artistic pulsations are hot shit, udig?
Terra Java Coffee House & Bake Shop
Timur Guseynov
Brush up on some classic bluegrass, some low-down country blues, and bring out your inner hillbilly during the Arcadia Bluegrass Jam every Sunday night. Started in August 2004, the open bluegrass flat-pickin' session features a healthy mix of musicians equipped with acoustic guitars, banjos, bass, and violins in Mama Java's relaxed and sociable atmosphere. If the only thing you know how to pick is your nose, don't fret. The java and jams flow from 7 to 9 p.m., and admission is free. The jam is always accepting hot strummers and skilled vocalists of all levels, so bring a country-twanged ax and get pluckin'.

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