Valley Theater 2000

This article by Kyle Lawson appeared in the Arizona Republic on Dec. 31, 2000 and can be viewed as his State of the Theater address for that year:

Some people think 2000 was the first year of a new millennium. Others argue that it was the last year of an old one.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t a memorable 12 months in Valley theater.

There were hits, though not many. Wallace, Ladmo and Gerald became stars all over again in Ben Tyler’s The Wallace & Ladmo Show, and Patti Hannon, playing a feisty nun in Late Nite Catechism, ruled Scottsdale with her glow-in-the-dark rosaries and a heavenly gift for improvising.

There was controversy. Musicians picketed Evita when its producer used partially synthesized music to reduce costs. Some religious conservatives objected to the satiric tone of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged).

There were disappointments; fortunately, none was a career sinker. The local premieres of The Mineola Twins and The Swan and the much anticipated revival of Hair didn’t live up to advance billing. Victoria Holloway, one of the best directors working in local theater, came a cropper with her attempt to revitalize Arsenic and Old Lace.

Good news wasn’t lacking. Actor-director-teacher Jared Sakren’s lawsuit against Arizona State University’s theater department was settled out of court, allowing the department to get back to normal and Sakren to concentrate on his new role as artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company.

There was at least one piece of bad news that verged on the cataclysmic. After running afoul of a safety inspector, Planet Earth Theatre was forced to close. More than a haven for sexually explicit, artistically rude productions, Planet Earth was one of the few Valley venues that regularly showcased young actors, directors and playwrights.

Those exceptions aside, 2000 was a year in which “competent” was the defining adjective. Production values at the major companies were good. Actors seldom debased themselves. Directors kept things going until curtain. If artistic adrenaline was in short supply, at least most folks stayed awake.

Audiences, though, were moderate. A few productions (most notably, Late Nite Catechism) played to capacity, and several companies posted small gains in subscriptions and single-ticket sales. But, generally, seats were available right up to curtain (and after).

Many blamed the increasing price of admission. For the first time, the average cost of a single ticket approached $30.

On a performance level, actor of the year honors go to Bob Sorenson, a prize he wins with some regularity. This year, he began as a number of bizarre characters in the outrageous Mystery of Irma Vep, surpassed himself as Pat McMahon and Gerald the Nasty Kid in Wallace & Ladmo, then made it three for three with his befuddled Yvan in Art, a man caught in the middle when his best friends go for each other’s jugular.

Count on Sorenson to top himself. At year’s end, he announced that he was leaving for New York, a decision that will make 2001 the worst of theater years for his fans, no matter what else happens.

Hannon wins the actress nod. One of the reasons Late Nite Catechism was the year’s biggest hit was her ability to play off audiences. No two shows were alike, and people returned again and again to see what she’d do next. They’re still returning. Late Nite has been extended through March.

The year’s breakthrough performers were Wes Martin, Michelle Gardner and Joyce Gittoes, an actress who proved it’s never too late to become the toast of the town.

Martin took time off from his producing chores at the Shakespeare Theatre to delight audiences as the warden in Man of La Mancha and Wallace in Wallace & Ladmo. Gardner, a perennial supporting player, entered the star ranks with her Aldonza in La Mancha, then, just to show she wasn’t going let billing go to her head, reverted to cameo status to steal A Christmas Carol in the small role of Mrs. Cratchit.

It was Gittoes, in her 60s, who gave the year’s most unexpected, and quite possibly best, performance as a woman dying of cancer in Grace and Glorie. Taking to the stage after retiring from a business career, Gittoes radiated a confidence that suggested she’d been dazzling audiences all her life.

If nothing else, 2000 was the year that showed Valley audiences why Guillermo Reyes is one of the nation’s hottest Hispanic playwrights. Productions of Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown and Deporting the Divas displayed his ability to elicit laughs while luring audiences into a nightmarish vision of the American dream.

Putting down roots in Phoenix, Reyes, ASU’s playwright-in-residence, founded Teatro Bravo!, the city’s first Hispanic troupe since the ill-fated Teatro Del Valle.

On the directing front, Michael Barnard, long the dean of local musical theater but lately taken for granted, returned to form with productions of La Mancha and Children of Eden. Eden was particularly strong. Sadly, attendance didn’t justify an extended run.