Tempe Center for the Arts
Phoenix has so many theater companies, it's hard to know where to start. So take our advice, and start at birth (well, maybe around 4 or 5) with Childsplay. The Valley's professional children's company has been around for 30 years, serving up dozens of kid-friendly plays and musicals that never pander to their audiences. Which is why parents and children alike love the likes of Goodnight Moon, Seussical and this season's upcoming Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Not to mention the company's super-talented troupe of regulars that includes Debra K. Stevens, Jon Gentry, and the incomparable Katie McFadzen. The heck with amusement parks and water slides — take the kids to a Childsplay show, where you'll have at least as much fun as your little charges.
True, Phoenix is home to only a handful of professional theater companies. Thus, Actors Theatre is on a short list of troupes with access to bigger budgets, better venues, and better performers. No matter, because what truly sets this company apart, time and again, is its choice of material.

For more than two decades, AT has wowed us with material that other companies pass up, as anyone who saw their awe-inspiring production of The Pillowman late last season can attest. This season, AT is bringing us the equally provocative The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh, as well as Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire and the world premire of Speak Spanish to Me, a commissioned piece by Bernardo Solano about a young love affair at Arizona State University.

Who else but Actors Theatre would bring us such a diverse, risky season? No one.

Okay, so their Night of the Iguana sucked like mad. Yet Nearly Naked continues to offer not only some of the highest-quality productions in town, but some of the most daring, least-often-produced material Phoenix has ever seen, as well. What's more, Damon Dering and the other stalwarts at Nearly Naked, which is now a resident company at Phoenix Theatre, continue to surprise theatergoers with plays that seem out of this often-impish troupe's element. The Who's Tommy seemed mighty tame for these guys; after all, it had played Gammage in its squeaky-clean road company version a few years before. But Nearly Naked showed us a groovy, grunged-up production that would have made Pete Townshend and his pub-crawling pals proud. Even their awful Night of the Iguana was sort of subversive, reminding us what "alternative theater" used to look like 40 years ago. We like what it looks like today, especially when we see it at Nearly Naked.
It's been a long time since it was considered clever to spoof obscure science-fiction films in wacky stage musicals. But tiny Artists Theatre Project (their friends call them @Pro) managed last season to prove that, sometimes, everything old can be new again. The company's Scream Queens: The Musical worked well in spite of the fact that an all-girl camp tuner about the joys of Z-grade horror flicks is such a tired idea that right now, someone is probably squirreled away somewhere writing a spoof of such spoofs. Scream Queens hollered in earnest about how campy camp can be, and did so with such gusto and charm that its worn-out premise seemed somehow shiny and new. Director Douglas Loynd kept the many components of this complicated campathon moving at a fast clip by integrating set changes into each number, and letting the all-gal cast improvise over the inevitable technical glitches that come with film clips and audience participation. All these months later, we're still screaming for Scream Queens.
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?"

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