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

Millions of stunning pictures have been taken by photographers attempting to capture the essence of the flowering desert. But none has done so at the level of Petra Fromme, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at ASU who led an international team of scientists to take the first snapshots of photosynthesis in action. That's right; the pictures show the plants' cells splitting water into protons, electrons, and oxygen. The photos aren't the prettiest Arizona has ever produced, but Fromme's work could lead to the development of an artificial leaf, which scientists think may be one solution to energy shortages. We're impressed.

What Arizona Republic photographer Mark Henle can do with an Instagram account shouldn't be legal. We know we can't make our photos look like that no matter how many filters we try. But Henle is nice enough to share, and we are inspired and awed on a daily basis by the humor and talent in a simple image of a pool toy or a silly shot of a dog. We love seeing our world through his eyes.

@markhenle

Ah, to live the city life through the lens of @downindowntown, a.k.a. Keith G. Mulvin. The downtown Phoenix enthusiast spends his days working for the International Rescue Committee, which often means interacting with people and friends all over town. And whether he's on foot or on his bike, Mulvin has a good eye for the still-lifes that make Phoenix, well, Phoenix. He's captured a range of downtown's unique architecture (both existing and in the process of being demolished), stunning sunsets, quirky street art, and details we may pass everyday but are happily surprised to see again in a neat, framed square.

Best Of Phoenix®

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