Witches, Vampires and Soldiers,
Oh My!

Tucson's theater season rolls out a cavalcade of plays big and small

Check in at the box office. Find your seat. Turn off all electronic devices and unwrap your cough drops. Lean back and savor the excitement. Are you ready? You'd better be, because the curtain is going up on Tucson's new theater season.

In the next nine months, 18 local theaters will produce more than 50 plays. Several more shows will find a temporary home in Tucson courtesy of Broadway in Tucson and UApresents, which bring in touring versions of big-name hits.

These high numbers don't even include student productions at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College, or shows for kids and other special programs and events.

There's even a play—seeking a national audience, no less—that's been developed and produced by Tucson publisher Kore Press. Coming in Hot is a tour de force, drawing on the powerful writing of women who've served in the military.

Oh and the wildly popular—and award-winning—musical Wicked is going to settle in at Centennial Hall for an extended run in January. This is big. So big it's taken the joint effort and resources of UApresents and Broadway in Tucson to get it here.

So let's take a deep breath and survey the menu of what our diligent and dedicated theater community hopes will make us laugh and cry and fuss and fume. Or surprise us. Maybe even change us. This is not a comprehensive overview of each theater's plays. Go to the websites for schedules and ticket prices. These are simply some observations about the interesting, the curious and the sometimes bewildering ways this new theater season is shaping up.

The Invisible Theatre's managing artistic director, Susan Claassen, says that specific ideas guide her as she pulls a season together.

"We certainly still have the goal of producing plays which haven't been seen in Tucson," she says. "And we also look at how we can best utilize our local artistic talent." First up: Moonlight and Magnolias, a "zany comedy" about moviemaking.

When Joseph McGrath and Cynthia Meier founded the Rogue Theatre five years ago, they articulated a distinct mission. Says Meier, "Really, the most consistent thing we ask is, 'Are people going to have something to talk about after the show? Are we giving them something to chew on? Are the ideas challenging?' Consequently, we do tend to choose plays that are more serious."

Just take a look at the serious playwrights Rogue has lined up this season: Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Pinter, Ionesco. September's season opener, Naga Mandala or Play With a Cobra, is by a writer unfamiliar to American audiences, India's Girish Karnad.

Brent Gibbs, artistic director of Arizona Repertory Theatre, chooses seasons with students in mind. The company is part of the UA's theater department, and students participate in the plays as actors or designers as part of their professional training.

"To train students is at the core of every decision," Gibbs says. "We always aim to do two musicals, two of Shakespeares plays, or one Shakespeare and another period piece, and then a couple of contemporary pieces."

Spanning the centuries, ART this year will, among other plays, tackle Shakespeare's As You Like It and The Shape of Things, by edgy contemporary playwright Neil LaBute.

Then there's Beowulf Alley Theater, where there is no artistic director. Rather, an artistic development committee reviews proposals for plays submitted by directors. Dave Sewell, the current chair, says the nine-person group "reads everything submitted. ... Then we choose five plays we feel best fit together. And we always have an eye on shows that might draw some new folks in."

For the season opener, the troupe is pinning its hopes on a contemporary Irish play, Conor McPherson's Shining City, described as a modern-day ghost story.

What else catches our attention?

Vampires. Yes, several theaters are capitalizing on the vampire craze created by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series and HBO's True Blood. Sewell at Beowulf Alley is directing The Transylvanian Clockworks in October. Also in October, ART's Gibbs will direct Dracula, a new adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Gibbs says the play is loaded with special effects to delight and amaze audiences as it challenges his design students.

Even Arizona Theatre Company is giving a nod to the trend by reviving its production of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, which the company produced a scant dozen years ago. Although not specifically vampire-themed, the play does wade into rather bloody waters—albeit in a totally campy way. And the Gaslight Theatre, always ready to pounce on popular trends, has The Vampire, or He Loved in Vein up and running right now.

Counteracting a potential overdose of vampires are two productions of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Arizona Onstage Productions has mounted a really delightful version, which can be seen for one more weekend at the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art. Arizona Repertory will unveil its version in November. It's not unheard of for the same play to be produced by two companies so close in time, but it makes you wonder if our fair city's theaters ever talk to each other.

Certainly deserving a spot in the preview highlight reel is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a production of The Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater. ATC brings it to town for a limited engagement in November.

Another thing that grabs our attention is the large number of original plays and even world premieres. Jeffrey Hatcher's Ten Chimneys, commissioned by ATC, is a fictional look at famed actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as they prepare to perform Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. It's scheduled to take flight in January.

For the opening production of its second season, Winding Road Theater Ensemble is mounting local playwright Toni Press-Coffman's brand-new Armor, opening Labor Day weekend. And Borderlands Theater, which often brings us new work, will premiere Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert. Playwright Kara Hartzler developed the border play from the research of UA Mexican-American studies prof Anna Ochoa O'Leary. The professor interviewed more than 100 migrant women who were caught in the desert and sent back to Mexico.

Now here's an interesting thing. The Invisible Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary. How many of us are so old that we can remember that first decade of IT's existence? In those days the company struggled to survive as a co-op with diverse ideas about what theater should be. Now it's the second-oldest theater in Tucson. (ATC is a couple of years older.)

Four decades of survival is a rare thing for a theater, and certainly cause for celebration. Claassen, who has been a part of IT for 36 of those 40 years, says several special anniversary events are planned, including a Painting the Town Red cabaret and a play-reading series featuring playwrights who first got their writing toes wet at IT.

Producing new plays is a dicey thing. Potential audiences often hesitate to attend a production of a play with no name recognition, while other folks turn up hoping to be present at the birth of a great new play. Frankly, too many new scripts are not ready for full productions, and there were a few of those last season. But keep bringing them on, I say. A play is a living organism and it needs a chance to evolve and develop. And it can only do that when actors, directors and designers give it a shot at life and audience response can be measured.

Sometimes a potential play can be discovered in unexpected places. Two years ago Tucson's Kore Press published Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, From Vietnam to Iraq. There were readings from the book at various gatherings, and in attendance at one of those readings was actress Jeanmarie Simpson, who realized that the book's good stories would make good theater. Along with collaborators Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain, she put together Coming in Hot, a one-woman play that premiered last September here in Tucson and went on to get multiple stagings at various venues.

Coming in Hot will be onstage again this September in Tucson, playing at high schools and community centers (Marana High School Sept. 8; University High/Rincon Sept. 9; Pima College West Sept. 11; Tucson High Sept. 13; Ward III Council office Sept. 14; UA Gallagher Theater Sept. 15; City High Sept. 21). The final Tucson gig, at the UA Poetry Center Sept. 24, will include a scholarly conference. Then the play travels to Phoenix for several engagements, followed by shows in New York and Washington, D.C.

If you haven't seen it, seek it out. It's a powerful and affecting piece beautifully delivered by Simpson and Vicki Brown, a musician-composer whose evocative solo score carries these stories aloft before they settle deep in our minds and hearts.

So get out your best blue jeans and buy your tickets now. If you're worried about ticket prices, contact the theaters. There are numerous ways you can see shows with discounted tickets or even for free.

But go. Now. The houselights are dimming.

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