Best Performance 2019 | Duane Daniels | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Stray Cat's production of Jack Thorne's dark drama belonged almost entirely to Veronica Mars actor Duane Daniels. As a creepy fellow who hides behind trees and slits the throats of college kids, he created a canny set of scenes that helped elevate an otherwise ordinary story. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by John Lindqvist, and on the author's screenplay for a 2008 Swedish film adaptation, Let the Right One In sold like crazy to fans of vampire fiction and those who like their romance to include a certain amount of gore. The blood in Stray Cat's production, nicely directed by the company's artistic director, Ron May, was neatly contained, though — fortunately — Daniels' performance was not. He played a shifty slob who skulked about a cold, lonely set, the whites of his eyes illuminating shadows and suggesting evil with just the set of his shoulders and the grumble of his voice. Bravo.


Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End isn't so much a play as a collection of zippy one-liners lifted directly from the writing of the popular newspaper columnist and bestselling humorist, who died in 1996. And Arizona Theatre Company's production couldn't do much to save this stale honorarium by playwright sisters Allison and Margaret Engel. They hadn't bothered to write much of a story, instead creating a timeline they borrowed wholesale from Bombeck's many essays about motherhood, housewifery, and the place of women in contemporary culture. Bombeck herself is lost in the Engels' bid for laughs aimed at her wry assessment that motherhood was hard, and the world was a wearying place to live in. If there was anything to recommend this tired tale, it was Jeanne Paulsen's neat performance as Bombeck. Affable and demure, Paulsen did what she could with this recitation of Bombeck's aging punchlines. Rather than impersonate the columnist, she channeled instead her quiet anger, folding it (as Bombeck had done) in humor and a friendly shrug. Hurrah to Paulsen, then, for making the most of a mostly bad thing.

After Phoenix choreographer and dancer Liliana Gomez learned about the BlakTina Dance Festival launched in Los Angeles back in 2013, she partnered with founder Licia Perea to create a BlakTina Dance Festival here in Phoenix, eager to highlight the contributions of black and Latinx creatives on the local arts scene. Now called the BlakTinx Dance Festival, the event brings together diverse movement artists and audiences for contemporary dance works that explore shared humanity, human emotion, and sociocultural issues related to women's rights, the immigrant experience, systemic racism, and more. The festival incorporates poetry, film, and other creative expression, breaking down walls between art forms as it punctuates the power of movement to effect change.

Technology gets used way too often by performance artists who think it makes their work more relevant or accessible. Take note, choreographers. Audiences are way past wanting to ruminate on the ways digital technology is challenging human connections. Instead, they want to see more works like Drone, a contemporary dance piece performed by NobleMotion Dance of Texas during the 2019 Breaking Ground Contemporary Dance and Film Festival at Tempe Center for the Arts. Its embrace of drone technology was authentic and effective. By giving a drone that hovered over dancers humanlike properties, choreographers democratized humans and machines, prompting audience members to consider whether machines might be capable of artistry in their own right. Scary thought? Yes, scary good.

Locals often lament that the Valley arts scene doesn't get enough national attention, considering that Phoenix is the country's fifth-largest city. Now, maybe, they can put that idea to rest, knowing that Meow Wolf decided Phoenix was worthy of its first combined hotel and arts venue project. The arts and entertainment group based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is partnering with True North Studio to make it happen in Roosevelt Row, although it likely will be many years before it opens. It's planning to have local artists involved at several levels, including designing themed hotel rooms and producing work for the interactive art space. That means more paid work for creatives, and a chance to finally put Phoenix arts and culture on the map.

James Turrell has been working on his Roden Crater project north of Flagstaff for so long, there's a chance he could die before it's complete. Thankfully, at least one extremely rich person doesn't want that to happen, and unexpectedly, it's Kanye West. After he and his wife, Kim Kardashian West, visited the site in December, he decided to give $10 million to help Turrell finally finish the thing. He wrote of the visit on Twitter, "This is life changing. We all will live in Turrell spaces." He also seemingly put some locals in a giving mood: Just one week later, Arizona State University President Michael Crow announced that the university would invest in the project to the tune of $200 million, ensuring people will finally get to see the crater in its finished glory.

Every first Friday of the month, thousands of people gather in downtown Phoenix for what is essentially a monthly pop-up block party featuring dozens of art galleries, local artists, performers, and food trucks. Promoted by Artlink, First Friday has become a popular way to see tons of local art for free. The self-guided tours allow you to wander around the streets of downtown Phoenix while supporting local artists by browsing their wares forever without buying anything, then taking an art break to get drunk and (we hope) going back to actually give the artists some money. The participating vendors, studios, and restaurants are concentrated in a few neighborhoods, including Roosevelt Row, the Grand Avenue Arts District, and the Warehouse District just south of Roosevelt Row.

Andrew Pielage

Lisa Sette's midtown art gallery is part exhibition space and part sanctuary, perfectly suited to those who want to linger with art and explore its many layers and subtleties. Each of the artists she represents, including several based in metro Phoenix, demonstrate exceptional mastery of materials, technique, and artistic vision. Every exhibit brings new perspectives on ordinary experience, as well as vast shifts happening within the contemporary cultural landscape. Recent exhibits have explored a wide range of social justice issues, including priest pedophilia, white supremacy, and environmental degradation. Here, art prompts the thoughtful reflection and dialogue that's getting harder to find in a world filled with noise and shiny objects.

While others seek to consolidate the Phoenix arts scene into areas dubbed art districts, artists and married couple Joel Coplin and Jo-Ann Lowney are expanding the boundaries of Phoenix's evolving arts landscape. They've transformed a warehouse space not far from the Arizona State Capitol into a studio and gallery, inviting community members to see both their own art and exhibits featuring works by accomplished artists who have been nurturing the downtown arts scene for decades, such as Jeff Falk, Annie Lopez, and Beth Ames Swartz. They've also planted a garden, where they enjoy talking with passersby. Coplin's studio includes a space where he often paints people he's met on nearby streets as he listens to them talk about the circumstances that have dramatically altered their lives, from losing a job to battling addiction. Gallery walls are filled with artworks that convey reverence for the natural world, as well as artworks that use humor and historical perspective to amplify human foibles.

Grand Avenue has shifted from an alternative arts destination to the main attraction on First Friday. With most creative spaces located along a single diagonal street that sits in the shadow of a giant anti-Trump billboard, it's easy to find and easy to explore by walking or cycling. Grand Avenue boasts a beautiful balance of galleries, music venues, small creative businesses, and welcoming places to eat and drink with friends. The atmosphere is casual and quirky, so people feel right at home even as they get the sense they've just landed on a wonderfully weird and wacky planet. Pinata-style art hangs from trees. Fences are dotted with art made from ribbons or old campaign signs. People gather indoors and out, talking about the art they've seen in their travels. Best of all, community events like the Grand Avenue Festival and Chalk Art Festival transform enjoying art from a solitary affair into a social adventure.

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