When you step inside the lunchtime theater space at the Herberger in downtown Phoenix, you never know what you're getting (unless you've pre-ordered lunch; then you can be sure of your turkey sandwich). On a hot August afternoon, we had a particularly memorable experience, watching James E. Garcia's new work, In a Glass House, about the life of former Arizona Governor Raul Castro.

As Garcia would want us to quickly point out, the play was only being workshopped. A full production will premire sometime soon, he promises. And we can't wait. Castro was Arizona's first (and only, to this day) Hispanic governor, and his tenure (although brief, from 1975-77) was fascinating, topped only by the stories of his youth and his time as ambassador to El Salvador, Colombia and Argentina.

We don't want to ruin the story, if you don't know it already. We just want to say that you must see the play when Garcia premires it. We hope Marcos Najera (full disclosure: he now writes for us at New Times) is in the cast. He did a terrific job in the workshop. And we hope you're there for a performance where the governor happens to be in attendance. The day we saw In a Glass House, we had a good view of Governor Castro, throughout. The old guy's now in his 90s but is looking relatively spry. He took the stage afterward for a Q&A and repeated the quote that opens the play: "I don't want to be loved. I want to be respected." He got that, certainly, from Garcia. "Tears came to my eyes," Castro said, "reminiscing about my life."

Ours, too.

The Palms Theatre
We never thought we'd ever see anyone, anywhere, do the Siamese ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" and make us like it, until we blundered into a superb production of The King and I at this East Valley dinner theater. Broadway Palm is part of a chain of similar venues, and its stock in trade is the usual warhorses (My Fair Lady) and super-popular jukebox musicals (Beehive), but we're beginning to rethink our snooty attitude about dinner theater after seeing what these guys did with this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic — not to mention what Broadway Palm's chefs do with a pork loin! We found their Carved Roasted Garlic Chipotle Pork Loin as tasty as any we've had at better restaurants, and their Crab-Stuffed Pollack Filet was pretty close to perfect, too. Forgive us for going back for seconds at the rather opulent dessert bar, but we noticed the colossal ice cream bar only after we'd helped ourselves to samplings from the super-sweet array of cakes and pies. We left stuffed and happy and planning to return as soon as possible.
Christopher Haines' portrayal of a monstrous, self-absorbed serial killer was so intense and so terrifying that one local director sent regrets that he, unnerved by Haines' performance, fled at intermission. Bryony Lavery's award-winning play about a little girl's death at the hands of a depraved pervert isn't an easy one to sit through, to be sure — a fact that was made all the more apparent in iTheatre Collaborative's production directed by Mike Traylor earlier this year. Haines' interpretation of the cold-blooded killer was so chillingly sinister — and his working-class British accent so dead-on — that it trumped several excellent performances at nearby professional theaters. Bravo.
Judy Kaye's victory here is no mean feat when one considers that local favorite Bob Sorenson, who made his move to the New York stage a couple of years ago, scored raves playing a German transsexual and survivor of Communist Berlin in Arizona Theatre Company's I Am My Own Wife. But we're still chuckling over former Phoenician Kaye's performance as dismal songstress Florence Foster Jenkins in ATC's delightful staging of Souvenir. Kaye, on whose mantel rests a Tony Award for her portrayal of Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, is the real deal. She appeared in the original Broadway Grease (as a replacement Rizzo) and in numerous film and stage roles before reprising her Broadway performance as La Jenkins, whose abysmal tin-eared warblings were re-created as if Kaye herself weren't a formidable vocalist.

That she was able to make us love Jenkins in spite of her pompous self made this performance all the more worthy of mention. Here's hoping Kaye returns to her old stomping grounds more often.

While many of his compatriots struggled this past year to act, direct, run a credible theater or even just handle publicity for one, Ron May proved himself a quadruple-threat actor/director/artistic director/publicist who excelled at each of those tasks. As founding artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre, May (whose day job is the audience services coordinator at Actors Theatre) is responsible for one of a very few small, local companies that turn out consistently worthwhile work. This year, the company scored with Neil LaBute's tricky Fat Pig in November, in which May led a fine cast into the tetchy waters of looksism and the plight of the pigheaded.

May also helmed Stray Cat's sterling production of Sarah Kane's difficult 4.48 Psychosis and, at ASU, he worked his magic on Love's Fire, a tricky collection of short plays based on Shakespeare's sonnets. And no one's forgetting May's subtle, colorful comic relief the season before as a lovable doofus in Nearly Naked Theatre's Take Me Out.

Theater fans are eager to witness May's contributions to the just-launched 2007 season, which can only be improved by whatever he brings to the stage.

He wore a dirndl and platinum braids. He threw tantrums and fistfuls of excelsior. He even did a little soft-shoe, and won the hearts of a dozen different audiences when Bad Seed performed at the Herberger early this summer.

He's Neil Cohen, a man who isn't afraid to play Solitaire in a giant, rick-racked party dress before hundreds of people. Lucky thing, too, because Cohen might well be the only actor in town who could have brought Rhoda Penmark to such big, bold life. He's certainly the only actor who could possibly upstage former New Times columnist Paul Braun, whose return to the stage after nearly 30 years also involved wearing a frock or two, not to mention a couple of droopy bad seed — oops! We mean bird seed! — breasts. Did someone say, "A memorable night at the theater?"

The big gay weekend in Phoenix always starts with the Saturday-morning parade, where everybody from local group "Dykes on Bikes" to parents carrying signs proclaiming pride for their gay kids marches through downtown from Third Street and Virginia. Once the festival gates open, the park plays host to a plethora of activities, with multiple stages and outdoor dance floors, karaoke booths, rows and rows of vendors, and an entertainment lineup that boasts some pretty good stuff: This year's fest included performances by comedian Judy Tenuta, pop diva Taylor Dayne, and R&B stars En Vogue, alongside an eclectic collection of Valley artists that included girl punk-pop group The Pübes, drag king troupe Sisterzz Twisted, drag queen Ineda Buffet, and, uh, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.

For two days, nothing's taboo — and people do everything from donning nothing but neon green Speedos to participating in "spanking booths," where burly bear men whip them for the crowd. But it's not just a spectacle; it's a celebration and resource, too, with big-business sponsors and big-hearted nonprofits tempting the crowd.

We'd like to tell you that these society ladies are wrinkled biddies who cast off their walkers, strip down to their unmentionables, and break a couple of hips doing a bawdy striptease. Sorry, sickos. The women of this national charitable organization are more likely to burn their bras than flaunt them. Children of the '60s, they've retained their activist mindset into middle age, though the causes they champion now are more likely to be fundraisers for nonprofits than anti-war rallies. Inspired by the more genteel ladies of the Red Hat Society, the Blue Thongers (and we're not talking flip-flops) have a local group that meets at places like The Library in Tempe. Linda Pollack, director of the Phoenix/Paradise Valley chapter, says "Our mission is to fight frump." Like-minded femmes should e-mail [email protected]
Virginia Hill was an American do-gooder who came from wealth and lost a leg during a hunting accident — an unlikely combination for someone who would go on to become one of World War II's most decorated spies. Tempe-based Pearson relates Hill's fantastical tale in The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy (Lyons Press, 2005). The author's strength is research, and her clean, uncluttered writing allows the story to tell itself. The same attributes are evident in her first book, Belly of the Beast: A POW's Inspiring True Story of Faith, Courage and Survival Aboard the Infamous WWII Japanese Hell Ship Oryoku Maru (Penguin Books, 2001), as well as Pearson's "travel series" — a collection of writings detailing various adventures in the Southwest and beyond.
Diana Gabaldon is the kind of person you really want to hate but can't. She's talented and rich and brain-surgeon smart, but she also posts fudge recipes on her Web site.

Wait, there's more. She has a master's in marine biology from Scripps, once wrote comic books for Walt Disney Productions, and created a better scientific computation mousetrap between teaching classes at ASU's Center for Environmental Studies.

Then she decided, "Aw, what the hell! I think I'll sit down for a few hours and write a New York Times bestseller." (Okay, not really. She toiled as a freelancer for 15 years before tackling long form, but we still think she's a smarty-pants.)

Gabaldon's first book-length project was named Outlander, a moody tale about an 18th-century Scotsman and his time-traveling wife, Claire. That book blossomed into five more — so far. The Outlander Series, as it's known, is the historical fiction/romance version of Harry Potter, and is idol-worshipped in much the same way by the author's loyal legions. Her latest in the series, Outlander, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was published in 2006 by Bantam Dell. And her latest novel, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade — the second entry in her "Lord John Grey" series — was published in August by Delacorte Press.

The Flagstaff native lives in Scottsdale with her husband, Douglas. We're hoping he has a robust self-image.

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