We see very little from local playwrights, a rare breed whose work is usually relegated to workshop productions before being tucked away forever. Richard Warren is one among a very few exceptions. This year, a staged reading of Warren's Revocable Trust received a lot of attention. His adaptation of theater legend Dale Wasserman's memoirs, Burning in the Night: A Hobo's Song, was performed in two local playhouses. And at Theater Works in Peoria, Warren's Shifting Gears — a full rewrite of Pollywogs, a two-act Warren wrote back in 1999 — trod the boards in the black box McMillin Theater. The improved and retitled version received a pair of workshop productions at Phoenix Theatre, followed by a full production at Sedona's Canyon Moon Theater before Theater Works' executive director Daniel Schay, who directed the recent production, signed the play. The result was a small, talky story that ponL.dered a recent world in transition, circa 1961, and received generous reviews from every corner.

We attended a Desert Stages Theater production of Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues hoping to see pleasant performances and maybe grab a few laughs. Who knew a powerhouse performance by a principal player — a performance so thrilling that it completely overshadowed the production itself and its other leads — lay in wait? The stunning performance by Todd Michael Isaac, who turned the secondary role of Epstein into a sensation, was more than a little memorable. It began small, with a handful of casually delivered wisecracks that built into a bravura of confrontation and emotion. He hadn't been seen on stage since an equally superb portrayal in the same company's production of The Pillowman a few years ago, but this performance — tense, stylish, slightly unhinged — was worth the wait.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, and its Arizona Theater Company production was a high point of this past season. Most memorably, this longish two-act about a trio of siblings, two of whom are living in their family home after caring for their deceased parents, was Isabell Monk O'Connor's wild performance. She whipped up a gleeful storm as a voodoo-enthused housekeeper, but her quieter moments — when she walked quickly through a scene, waggling a hat pin, or when she watched Charles Janasz's marvelous, nearly eight-minute-long tirade about the death of humankind — are moments we're still chuckling over.

When iTheatre Collaborative postponed its production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark last year, it was because casting of the title role wasn't going well. Vera Stark is, like so many actresses who start out hungry and wind up legendary, alone on her own stage. Unlike a lot of leading-lady parts, she's also tough to play. She works alongside other actors only because she needs someone to talk to, but none — in her estimation, and in ours — are her equals. Vera is a fictional character, drawn from life by playwright Lynn Nottage. Nicole Belit, the woman who played her in the iTheatre production, was very real. Eyes pooling with tears, nostrils flaring, and with posture that suggests she'd swallowed a yardstick, Belit was dazzling. Her second act performance provided wider range and the opportunity to play drunkenness, anger, and an aged actress's scenery-chewing. But it's the Vera of Act One who stayed with us: wildly romantic, full of energy and singleness of purpose as she aspired to a grander existence.

Calling poor, hapless audience members up out of the crowd and humiliating them is too easy, a particularly low form of humor, gratuitous and frankly dreary, since the poor slobs hauled up on stage invariably have no talent for acting. On the other hand, there was recently the one-two punch of Ron May starring in Richard Bean's smart tribute to commedia dell'arte, One Man, Two Guvnors at Phoenix Theatre. This update of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters slotted in an inordinate amount of chumming with the audience which — thanks to Pasha Yamotahari's slick direction and May's princely performance — turned out to be a ton of fun. May was called upon to tart up the also-ran responses shouted from the darkened house, and wowed audiences as ringmaster to a dazzling supporting cast that included stalwarts David Barker, Lucas Coatney, and Joseph Kremer.

Arizona Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet turned out to be a treat, but only for those who hadn't already witnessed a previous parade of updated, restructured Shakespeare productions. And for those who didn't care whether the Bard's verses were well-delivered or his young hero and heroine nicely acted. Set in swinging '60s Italy, this overlong, largely dreary Romeo and Juliet was saved by ensemble player Richard Baird, who appeared to be the only actor cast for his ability to play Shakespeare. However he arrived on the production's makeshift Italianate stage, he owned it — particularly as a swaggering, ultra-butch Mercutio, whose Queen Mab speech he transformed into poetry. His performances here spared audiences from an otherwise dreary evening of theater.

Young playwright Eric Dufault's angst-drenched story is presented by a quartet of characters who demonstrate what happens when pain and longing spin out of control. What makes it different, then? It's nudged along by a talking bird who, as played by Austin Kiehle, was some kind of revelation. He proved an unusually wide range by playing a maniacal rooster, determined to murder the sun — apparently his true enemy — and everything under it. Furious and pumped up on a combo of steroids and Chicken McNuggets, he was a captivating capon, strutting jerkily, twitching and crowing violent diatribes, and making what might have been a production-sinking camp performance into something worth seeing.

As with so many local arts events, we found ourselves attending the holiday performance of the Phoenix Metropolitan Men's Chorus simply to see a friend's brother perform. By intermission, we were texting friends to say, "You've got to go online and buy tickets to the next performance!"

We were completely blown away. Not only does this group work toward its mission of promoting acceptance and understanding of the LGBT community in Phoenix, it puts on a hell of a show. The vocal quality was stellar, the props kitschy in all the right ways, and the crowd was as engaged as we were.

The chorus performs throughout the year, and we know for sure that we'll never miss its Christmas show.

www.phoenixmenschorus.org

Best Place to Catch the Summer Solstice (in the Comfort of A/C)

Burton Barr Central Library

Burton Barr Central Library

While we're complaining about triple-digit temperatures and rummaging through our closets to find anything comfortable to wear, Burton Barr Central Library preps for its coolest event of the year. At the stroke of noon every June 21, the library opens its doors to the public for a unique natural light show. When the library was designed by Will Bruder, the architect included a Great Reading Room with a 32-foot suspended ceiling and several 6-inch-by-300-foot skylights on the east and west walls that work together to create a dazzling spectacle every Summer Solstice. Call it a good excuse to ditch the office or an impressive lunch date, we'll be marking our calendars for a cultural escape from the heat.

Women and their stories are not being adequately represented in American theater — not here in the Valley, nor on Broadway, nor points between. Two women working in local theater took note of these daunting demographics and, late last year, took action. Thespians Brenda Jean Foley and Tracy Liz Miller launched the Bridge Initiative to address the issue of gender disparity in Arizona theater. In January, the newly founded organization was awarded a $6,000 Arts Tank seed funding grant by the Arizona Arts Commission, and took that money to actress and businesswoman Lizz Reeves Fidler. The trio landed at Mesa Encore Theatre, a small East Valley house that provided additional fiscal sponsorship, a place to perform, and access to the company's nonprofit status. After meeting their matching-money goal via a crowd-sourcing campaign, they went on to create a series of quarterly networking events, offer master classes in playwriting, and created an awards program that will mount a production of its first-place play. Brava!

www.facebook.com/bridgeinit

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of