Best Director 2012 | Damon Dering in Shakespeare's R & J | People & Places | Phoenix

Shakespeare's R & J offers the bare bones of Romeo and Juliet (interspersed with other Shakespearean verse) in Joe Calarco's passionate play about four Catholic school boys who read aloud from a banned copy of the bard's most famous tragedy. In a chilly attic that doubles as Verona, these repressed, rep-tie-wearing lads honor an old Shakespearean tradition of males playing female roles as they create an evening's entertainment that's all subtext. And every moment of that subtext was cleverly outlined for even the most illiterate among us, thanks to the finesse and insight of director Damon Dering in last season's production of this difficult, complex piece of theater. It's a rough-and-tumble play that grafts comedy onto a tragic love story and asks that we watch both what these boys are doing with Old Will and what reading his love story is doing for them. And Dering made it all look so easy — and entertained us, besides.

Last season, he (and his Actors Theatre) brought us Geoffrey Nauffts's Tony-nominated and controversial paean to atheism, Next Fall. He brought Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers (about a dinner party at which an animal sacrifice kicks off the evening, followed by sex, violence, wrestling, and dancing). And while so many other theaters were dusting off Gypsy and West Side Story for the umpteenth time, he brought us a stunning Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies' finest play in years. Weiner and company take risks where other companies won't, and for that (and for the bravery that led to Weiner booking this season's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, starring Ron May), we salute him.

Teatro Bravo

Having completed a successful 12th season (which included a beyond-the-grave visit from Federico García Lorca and a play about Frida Kahlo, culminating in a New Works series of staged readings), Teatro Bravo is going strong. The company, co-founded by playwright Guillermo Reyes, has produced plays in English or Spanish for more than a decade — plays that offer a complex portrait of the Latino and Latin American populations of Arizona. Its upcoming season is sure to offer another cultural boon to Phoenix — as if the company's mission to employ and develop the talents of Latino actors, directors, playwrights, and designers weren't enough.

Local performers Bill Binder, Jose Gonzalez, Jacque Arend, Sam Haldiman, Nina Miller, Mack Duncan, Shane Shannon, and Tommy Schaeffer own and operate a theater collective they insist isn't theirs.

There's no one leader or decision-maker in Torch Theatre, which formed in 2007 when local performance troupes Apollo 12, Galapagos, Remainders, Mail Order Bride, Light Rail Pirates, Phoenix Neutrino Project, and Dangerville joined forces to perform on a regular basis, as well as offer classes and workshops.For Torch, the goal was always to find a home. And in 2011, they found a spot on Central Avenue, took out what was left of an old hair salon, added few coats of fresh paint, a stage and a curtain, and a few rows of chairs, and settled in.The Torch members since have seen countless performances, a number of graduation ceremonies, and a wedding. They've solidified a weekly schedule of performances and introduced new levels of instruction, and they organize the annual Phoenix Improv Festival. And now, they're waiting for you to come on board.

Mere days before this venerable company throws open the doors on its brand-new downtown theater facility, we're happy to remind them and you that Black Theatre Troupe has been pleasing and enlightening local audiences for years.

This last season, we needed no reminding. A stunning production of Pearl Cleage's A Song for Coretta was followed by Bill Harris' Stories About the Old Days featuring Rod Ambrose and DeAngelus Grisby. Winding up with a new production of Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, BTT wowed us again, and this year's season promises to be just as engaging and features The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. We can't wait, but the anticipation of what BTT has in store for us this year is almost as exciting as seeing the plays themselves.
Courtesy of iTheater
From iTheater's T Bone N Weasel (2013)

As if it weren't enough that this thought-provoking and well-tuned community troupe brought us a stunner in David Mamet's Race last winter, Christopher Haines and company also launched a unique series of drama workshops aimed at boosting the self-esteem of Arizona teenagers at a local homeless shelter. The iPlay curriculum, developed by Haines himself, since has taught dozens of at-risk teens about acting, improvisation, and performance. That, combined with a stunning season finale (up-and-coming dramatist Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries) convinced us that good theater and good deeds deserve some kind of recognition.

We almost lost them last year, and that would have been a shrieking nightmare from Hell. Because Actors Theatre has brought us decades of consistently high-quality professional theater from Stage West at the Herberger Theater Center. Just this past season, artistic director Matthew Weiner and company brought us Susan Claassen's dead-on impersonation of the famous Hollywood costume designer in A Conversation with Edith Head, followed quickly by Geoffrey Nauffts' Next Fall, and a staging of Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still that local theater fans were counting among the company's best productions, ever. So forgive us while we hoot and holler with joy that Actors Theatre was able to scrape together the financial means to stay with us for another year — and, hopefully, beyond.

It's entirely possible that Damon Dering and David Weiss could have wound up somewhere other than Phoenix, in which case our city would be a lot less colorful, theater-wise. This trio of thespian talents has, for more than 10 years now, brought us a long list of avant-garde theater — camp musicals like Batboy! and top-shelf dramas like Spring Awakening. Upcoming productions include David Nehl's Great American Trailer Park Musical, which we know Dering and friends will make as memorable and thought-provoking as their many colorful past productions.

If we love to take kids — ours and other people's — to Childsplay, it's not just because we know that Little Johnny and Little Janey will leave with a nice, tidy morals lesson, but because we'll have a good time there, as well. This 36-year-old professional theater company has long offered history and even math and grammar lessons (Schoolhouse Rock, anyone?), always folded into shows professionally presented by an amazing troupe that includes actors Jon Gentry, Debra K. Stevens, and the marvelous Katie McFadzen, and playwrights like Dwayne Hartford (author of The Imaginators and Rock the Presidents).

So, you're looking for a place to hold your kid's birthday party that won't also make you want to slit your own wrists before you get to the cake-cutting part. Ta-da! Time to consider Great Arizona Puppet Theater. Once you do, you'll discover why the word "great" appears in their title, because this neat nonprofit (in business since 1983!) thrills young audiences with old-timey entertainment that still delights. Ancient fairy tales get a once-over, as do twice-told Native American stories with morals about why it's great to live in the desert. The theater offers summer puppet classes for kids — one more reason to add them to your child's "to do" list!

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