Arizona Theatre Company's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men this past spring was neatly rendered by an excellent creative team. Todd Edward Ivins' set design, moved to and fro by costumed, silhouetted ranch hands, provided expertly cheerless settings; Joe Cerqua's sound design and scoring and Jesse Klug's clever lighting design offered the only warmth in a series of deliberately dusty scenes of meager living. Director Mark Clements of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, with whom this is a co-production, found the gentleness in Steinbeck's cruel tale of George and Lennie, a pair of drifters with naive dreams for the future. Scott Greer's magnetic rendering of Steinbeck's tragic, brain-damaged man-child Lennie was a stunner, and Jonathan Wainwright's George provided the quiet eye of Steinbeck's storm.  

It was easy to lose count of how many plays-within-a-play this seriocomic beauty comprised, thanks to a stage full of fine performances and some stunning commentary about what's wrong with theater and with the world. It was also easy to love Aaron Posner's play, which was "sort of adapted" from Anton Chekhov's famous 19th-century drama The Seagull.

A stunning cast burnished a lot of hammy, existential dilemmas and improv-busting devices, and director Ron May created some stunning stage imagery on Eric Beeck's slick and functional set.

Buddy Thomas's raucous raspberry to childhood's best-known bedtime stories was neatly directed in its world premiere by Nearly Naked founder Damon Dering. If Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann had written fairy tales instead of potboilers, they might have resembled these second-act stories, whose heroines were all slatternly, marvelously grouchy, and mostly played by men. The effect was of an especially rambunctious Bette Davis impersonation contest, led by actor Terre Steed, who inched slightly ahead in this drag race if only because he portrayed four different women, most notably Snow White's Magic Mirror, an embittered, shrieking reflection of a baritone Baby Jane who convinces Snow not to be so pure. The real magic was in Mr. Steed's performance.

Jack Durant was a small-town gambler with loose ties to Vegas racketeers. He had a big, obstreperous personality, owned our city's most successful restaurant, and was listed among the FBI's most dangerous men in Phoenix. Jack liked women, eavesdropping on patrons of his restaurant bar, and golf. He might have seen one or two people being murdered. None of this makes for grand opera, but it did make for an independent feature film by local filmmaker Travis Mills. His stylish post-noir profile of one of Phoenix's bigger characters, Durant's Never Closes, increased Mills' profile as an indie filmmaker who shoots his low-budget, tightly shot movies right here in Phoenix. A new, young producer/director who can lure Hollywood A-listers like Tom Sizemore (who played the title role in the Durant picture) and director Peter Bogdanovich (who wanders through as a shady character trying to get Jack a spot in the local country club) is doing something right, and we're cheering him on.

If for no other reason than his comeback from a dreadful season opener, local theater bright spot and former wunderkind Damon Dering deserves accolades. Last fall, Nearly Naked Theatre founder Dering launched his new season with Monster, an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Perhaps because Dering didn't helm the production himself, it stank. But this past master of camp knuckled down, leaping in to remind local theatergoers of his many visionary talents by directing a knockout world premiere of Buddy Thomas' Wonderland Wives, followed by an acclaimed production of Next to Normal that had critics and audiences swooning. These two winners more than made up for any transgressions, and reminded us that Dering is estimable in his talents — our very own Tyrone Guthrie.

She's nothing if not versatile. Mid-year, local star Johanna Carlisle delivered the best line of the play ("Just because I moved to Yorkshire doesn't mean I have to sit on it!" she bellowed when asked to take a seat on the ground) in Phoenix Theatre's Calendar Girls. As a British gal "of a certain age," she elevated a one-dimensional role with some subtle movement and more than a little wisecracking. A few months later, she stomped off with a well-polished production of Next to Normal at Nearly Naked Theatre, directed by company founder Damon Dering. As a suburban mom doing battle with bipolar disorder and trying to keep her family and life together, she sang and danced and emoted like crazy. Carlisle is a world of talent, all of it her own.

Terry Johnson's Hysteria requires a cast who can perform and respond to both broad slapstick and stagy melodrama, often in the same scene. Fortunately for theater audiences last fall, director Patrick Walsh assembled such a cast for the Southwest Shakespeare production of this peculiar masterpiece, which reimagines the meeting between psychologist Sigmund Freud and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. Despite stiff competition from a gaggle of thespians, all of them running in and out of doorways and bellowing, Beau Heckman stood out as an especially fabulous Freud, both fearful of and besotted by his own knowledge of the emotional world.

There's a monumental shift happening in performance art, as companies grapple with the growing difficulty of getting butts in seats. Creatives are finding new ways to take performance art to the people, which is something dancer and choreographer Nicole Olson has mastered. Olson, who serves as assistant director and choreographer for Scorpius Dance Theatre in Phoenix, has performed at diverse locations including the Heard Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix Art Museum, and several local art galleries. She's choreographed work for local theater companies, including Stray Cat Theatre and Nearly Naked Theatre, and served as director of dance for Metropolitan Arts Institute. She's best known for being the fierce queen of the vampires in Lisa Starry's A Vampire Tale, but has also performed in Center Dance Ensemble productions. As a lovely dancer with long, fluid lines and a choreographer skilled at storytelling through movement, Olson elevates the metro Phoenix dance scene. A true collaborator and trailblazer, Olson embraces the call for contemporary dancers to move outside their own art form to work with, and support, artists in myriad other fields.

Indie rock royalty and a fashion empire go together like Sam and Anita Means. Which is to say, almost annoyingly adorably. Sam is the musician, a solo artist formerly one half of the Format with Nate Ruess. He co-founded Hello Merch back in 2008 as a way for bands to sell T-shirts and assorted goods online and on tour without restrictive contracts. A spinoff of the rock-wear company is Hello Apparel, the brainchild of Anita, who wanted to sell leggings for babies on Etsy. Much like Sam's single "A Little Bit of Yeah Yeah," a bona fide hit in the Netherlands, the companies have taken off. What will the duo do next — besides share envy-inspiring pics of their home, pups, and preternaturally stylish kid on Instagram? We can only assume it'll be cool, cute, and worth wearing (or singing along with).

Whether it's her determination to improve health care, get dark money out of politics, or make Arizona a more environmentally friendly place, Debbie McCune Davis has been a progressive Democrat in a pool of conservative Republicans for decades. And she's kept her head above water. She's proven to be that rare breed of politician who can remain principled, yet also compromise and work with opponents to actually get laws passed, which is why we were so sad to learn she's retiring at the end of the year.

During her time in office, McCune Davis has sponsored plenty of bills and taken up many causes worth applauding, but it's been the work she's done as a member of the Child Safety Oversight Committee in the last two years that has really stood out. Time and again, she's the committee member holding the agency's feet to the fire, demanding its leaders be held accountable for the progress they often promise to deliver. In a state with a beleaguered child-safety agency, Arizona's children are better off with McCune Davis in office. We're sorry to see her retire.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of