Devon Nickel's been around Valley theater a while (not too long — he's a relatively young man), including in Nearly Naked and Phoenix Theatre's co-production of Spring Awakening in 2012 and NNT's acclaimed Blood Brothers in 2009. He sings beautifully enough that he could be routinely cast doing only that, but that isn't what happens, because he acts at least as well. Last winter, he took on the physically, emotionally, intellectually taxing role of utter crazy-pants Alan Strang in Nearly Naked's revival of the classic '70s British drama Equus. The entire production was stunning, but Nickel's Alan was the hub around which it all revolved, and appropriately so. We laughed, we cried, we could not look away — and yet there was so much truth, passion, and pain in Nickel's work that we scarcely remember the play's protracted nude scene. Which is not something that would escape us on an ordinary day.

Some performers are like the J.D. Salinger of acting — hard to catch. (Usually it's because they're working very hard doing other things that generally are none of your business.) But one of Shawna Franks' conflicts, as artistic director of Space 55 Ensemble, understandably eats into her available time to appear in plays. We're happy when we do get to see her act, and sad the rest of the time, because we aren't watching her act. See, she's got mad chops, partly from her training days in Chicago (at the former Goodman School at DePaul and on the mean streets).

In March, Franks played the beautiful, idle, self-loathing Elena in an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. (Everyone in Chekhov, as in life, is self-loathing — but anyway . . .) Her trajectory through the evening appeared entirely inevitable (for the character) and effortless (for the performer). This is pure toil that should look like the random machinations of nature, and that's what Franks accomplishes.

One of the signs of great work in theater or film is that enough time and effort have been invested to make inanimate objects like clothing, furniture, dishes, and books feel as real as the characters do. Give those props and dressings a chance, and they'll enhance the art. (Give them too much leeway and they'll upstage the biggest star.)

We were stumped, before we saw Southwest Shakespeare's A Christmas Carol, trying to imagine the cuddly, grandfatherly David Vining as archetypal grouch Ebenezer Scrooge. Vining's a fine actor, and Don Bluth a masterful director, especially on the visual side, but really? Well, Vining entered playing Charles Dickens himself, promoting Carol to his reluctant publisher, and as he began to read from the manuscript, he picked up a hairbrush, swiped his well-groomed noggin into a neurotic shock, and became Scrooge. Done. May we have a link to get one just like it?

Herberger Theater Center

A handful of Valley theaters operate under year-round contracts with Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. Actors Theatre, one of our favorites, does amazing work, employs scads of local artists, and was chewed up and spit out by the economy in February. (But will return next month.)

The states's largest professional theater, Arizona Theatre Company, travels between Phoenix and its Tucson birthplace, and while it was a reported $1 million in the red as of June 30, made significant progress on financial and management issues later in the summer. Money worries moved to the back burner during dynamite 2012-13 shows like the edgy, Broadway-hot rock musical Next to Normal and racial drama Clybourne Park, not to mention literate, girly musical romance Jane Austen's Emma. ATC's upcoming season, featuring Arizona premières of Other Desert Cities and Venus in Fur, fuels the hope that local live theater will keep lighting up our nights.

Space 55 Theatre

To be the best crappy little dump at which to see live theater, you have to present astonishing, diverse work that showcases excellence from writers, performers, directors, and designers. And if that were all that Space 55 does, it would have earned this award. However, the seven-year-old company and venue also hosts workshops for writers and performers, touring events from kitty-cat circuses to fringe festivals, and late-night encounters with sketch comedy, experimental political theater, solo performance (some vetted and coached, some fresh outta the butt), and forms of lunacy that blur the boundaries of even those already flexible genres. Meanwhile, along with popular themed series "7 Minutes . . ." and "A Bitch in Time" and holiday spectacle A Bloody Mary Christmas, there's a season of actual plays each year. Some are even recommended for children and families, like environmental puppet epic Of Plastic Things and Butterfly Wings and Charlie Steak's contemplative Woman and Girl, which starred Valley favorite Patti Hannon.

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To be honest, we're always a little skeptical of anything billing itself as "community theater." That is, we were until we saw a production at Hale in downtown Gilbert. Last year's The Secret Garden was so good that we took our family — and some family friends — to see Annie. Equally impressive. This summer, when we took the kids out one night for a spontaneous dinner in Gilbert, there was a collective gasp when we saw the sign advertising Hale's Hairspray — drat, we missed it. But we'll be back. If you can get us excited about a small-town theater production that doesn't include a single cast member we know (who hasn't sat through a dreadful show just because a fourth cousin once removed had a bit part?), you can guarantee it's gonna be good. From the setting to the sets to the dancing, singing, and acting, these people are real pros.

Theater Works

If you enjoy being mesmerized by action-packed adventures, wooed by wistful romances, or cracked up by side-splitting comedies on the big screen, imagine seeing it all happen in front of you — live and in person. There's no better place to experience it all than at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, in the heart of the city's downtown. The center is home to Theater Works, a theater company that thrills audiences with dramas, musicals, mysteries, and comedies. Patrons enjoy varied shows performed by talented actors in an intimate setting and against a backdrop of perfectly executed scenic design. Its simplicity is its genius. The seats in the smaller of the venue's two houses are basic banquet-style chairs, but elevated platforms make sure there isn't a bad seat in the house. With weekday matinees, dinner-and-theater packages, and complimentary coffee and desserts after the shows — along with affordable ticket prices — Theater Works is a must-visit.

Last year, we left Ballet Arizona's Topia with stars in our eyes. When the original piece by company artistic director Ib Andersen was announced to play again in 2013, we told anyone who'd listen that they had to see this beautiful ballet. This beautiful ballet that's performed in a parking lot. Yeah, a parking lot. On the perimeter of the Desert Botanical Garden, an empty lot holds the custom-made extra-wide stage on which our resident ballet bounds and pirouettes during one of the loveliest, most immersive dance performances we've ever witnessed. As the sun sets, the dancers take to the stage in fleshtone costumes, the Papago Buttes in the distance as their backdrop. Something happens, though, when the Beethoven turns up: The pavement's forgotten. You're under the sky, out in the desert, and you're part of Topia. Encore.

Irish Cultural Center

One of the last things anyone would expect to see in Sand Land — home of rocks, cactus, snakes, lizards, and more rocks — has to be a 12th-century Norman castle that looks as if it popped out of a picture book about Ireland. But damn if there isn't one on Central just north of Roosevelt Street near downtown. Well, a replica 12th-century Norman castle, anyway. Just so happens it's Phoenix's Irish Cultural Center, home to the McClelland Irish Library, which features 5,000 books on Irish history and culture, a 22-ton archway with stones imported from Ireland, a replica of an Irish cottage, and art exhibits such as one on Irish boxing or another on the Book of Kells. The site also plays home to the Irish Cultural and Learning Center, which sponsors classes in Gaelic, Irish dance, and Irish music, as well as concerts and other events. It's one of the few places in Phoenix where you can forget you're in Phoenix, as long as you're inside and the air conditioner is going full blast.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Portland artists made their own personalized deck of playing cards. Austin has a cupcake truck. In Los Angeles, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an art installation. And Phoenix? We're just home to that grumpy cat. Around these parts, we have a tradition of spending way too much time complaining about what other cities have instead of making cool things happen for ourselves. That's changing, and Tania Katan's at the forefront. With a background as a playwright, actor, and book author (among her many credits), Katan has brought verve (and nerve) to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art with several programs, most notably Lit Lounge. She mixes local and imported writers, gives them a theme, and puts them onstage at SMoCA each month, backed by live music and fronted by none other than the very entertaining Katan herself. The fact that she packed the almost 1,000-seat house across the breezeway at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in May, in honor of Lit Lounge's one-year anniversary, is a testament to the fact that Lit Lounge is high-quality stuff — and that Phoenicians are soaking it up. Here's to another great year.

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