Actors Theatre

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.

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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.

Childsplay

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).

Great Arizona Puppet Theater

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!

Herberger Theater Center Performance Outreach Theater

In the chilly, dark room at the back of this wonderful downtown building, in a space normally reserved for play rehearsals for Herberger residents Arizona Theater Company and Actors Theater, daytime magic sometimes happens. Lunch Time Theater is a going thing at 12:10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in the recently renamed Kax Stage. Showcasing the work of young, emerging theater companies, Lunch Time Theater offers up one-act plays lasting 30 to 45 minutes, to which daytime playgoers can bring a lunch or pre-order one from Lunch Time's own caterer. Tickets are a measly $6 apiece, not including lunch, and the short plays and musicals are top-notch stuff from seldom-seen, smaller local troupes. (Last season's schedule included work from the Improbable Theatre Company and popular Theatre Artists Studio.) Most shows offer an evening preview performance of each show on the Monday night of opening week, too.

With his new play, The Color of Stars, Dwayne Hartford gave kids and grownups alike some fulfilling, provocative entertainment. With this emotional and vibrant drama, set in rural America during World War II, Hartford, the playwright in residence for Tempe's Childsplay theater, commented on our contemporary attitudes about wartime America with literate dialogue and sad, sometimes confused characters. Characters spoke of "Krauts" and "Japs" without tidy apologies tacked on by the playwright, who trusted that his audience, no matter its age, would find the morals lesson in an engaging story about loyalty and war and the love of a good family.

She used to be "ours," but then actress Kathy Fitzgerald left the Valley for New York and the Great White Way, and became — thanks to a long string of major successes including Wicked, 9 to 5, and the original company of a little thing called The Producers — "Broadway's Kathy Fitzgerald." Still, we were briefly able, earlier this year, to reclaim her when she came home to star in Phoenix Theatre's production of Gypsy. She played Mama Rose and, from the moment she made her entrance from the back of the house, carrying a Chihuahua and rasping a holler at her kids, took that old theater archetype — a woman whose made-up life was further rewritten in stories told by her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee — and made her entirely real. Even if she weren't our hometown gal made good and a real-life Broadway star, it would have been impossible not to be knocked over by Kathy Fitzgerald's magnificent Mama Rose.

This year, D. Scott Withers did the near-impossible: He gave some real depth to one of musical theater's most famously underwritten roles. Herbie, the love interest of Mama Rose in Arthur Laurents' Gypsy, is as one-dimensional as supporting roles get — perhaps because he's an apocryphal character who replaces the real-life Rose's many lesbian lovers. Whatever the reason, Herbie is a snooze — so long as he's not being played by Withers, who truly brought the guy to life in Phoenix Theatre's production of the famous tuner in March. Withers' big exit scene packed a wallop each night, and it may have been the only time that all eyes weren't on the marvelous Kathy Fitzgerald as his gal pal, Mama Rose.

Best Performance by an Actor Depicting a Differently Abled Person with Compassion

Tie: Will Hightower in Body Image and Travis Russell in The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh's notorious The Pillowman, about a writer of fables whose stories typically involve the sadistic murder of children, is a tough play to sell. The story, about the ways in which art informs our lives, focuses on a pair of brothers, one of them demented because he was tortured by his parents as a child. Listening to Michal recount that torture requires a performer both willing and able to play idiocy and rage with compassion and light humor. Travis Russell, who played Michal in Desert Stages Theatre's production, whipped in and out of dark comedy and frank tragedy with impressive ease.

Equally striking this season was young Will Hightower's performance as an autistic teen in Actors Theatre's burnished production of Body Image in April. Hightower went for comedy in his depiction of a disabled youth without ever tipping over into caricature or disrespect for the troubled teenager he portrayed.

No one was surprised when Nearly Naked Theatre, arguably our most radical company, announced a production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening this time last year. But the fact that they were collaborating with Phoenix Theatre, inarguably the Valley's most conventional Equity house, was something of a shocker. This Tony-winning rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's controversial 19th-century German play is precisely the type of sexy stuff that put Nearly Naked on the map, but it's a far cry from the tamer, more family-friendly fare that PT typically presents. Yet the august company made no attempt to tame Sheik and Sater's steamy story about the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers in a small German village. The show was tacked on as a bonus for PT's season subscribers — a wise marketing move, one that may bring a younger, hipper audience to the 92-year-old playhouse, which has been inching toward more adventurous material (Nine, Avenue Q) these past few seasons.

Best Of Phoenix®

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