You’ll need a library card and a pair of reading glasses, it seems, to get through this theatrical season.
Arizona Theatre Company, the state’s largest theater group, is staging a season wholly composed of book adaptations — from Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" (directed by the acclaimed Jon Jory) next month to a season-ender of "Tuesdays With Morrie," both of which come to the Mesa Arts Center.
"I don’t know that I set out to do that," ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein says. "I consciously try not to have themes."
His ATC is nevertheless spinning the literature-soaked season into a promotional book club.
Meanwhile, Actors Theatre has opened its season with a revival of its sold-out smash play from earlier this year, "Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling social commentary transformed into frenetic comedy. (The show runs through Sept. 25.)
The most anticipated show in the Broadway in Arizona series at Gammage Auditorium is the touring Broadway production of "Wicked" (Aug. 23 through Sept. 3, 2006), the musical based on Gregory Maguire’s book — itself a revisionist riff on L. Frank Baum’s "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
On the kiddie set, Tempe’s nationally renowned Childsplay theater for young audiences is doing gangbusters at the box office with its current musical of "Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business," which is followed by a December production of the Dr. Seuss musical "Seussical" (which Chandler-Gilbert Community College will produce in March). Childsplay is chasing its "Seussical" with a stage adaptation of the popular children’s book "Bunnicula" Jan. 21 through Feb. 19.
Even Phoenix’s Valley Youth Theatre is packaging its current season of the usual fare — "A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail," "Into the Woods" — around a book theme.
Of course, theater that draws on literature is nothing new.
"Good literature has always spawned good theater," Actors Theatre’s Matthew Wiener says. "It may just feel more apparent now."
But Goldstein ventures a deeper significance.
"It may have something to do with how the arts and theaters are embattled at this point," he says. "In a way, in times like these, you go back to the basis of theater, which is great stories. The zeitgeist may be pushing people in that direction of good stories done well."
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
Off the books, this season promises surprises from new companies — and those with new, stable venues.
There’s Desert Rose Theatre, Mesa actress Katherine Stewart’s spunky new stripmall theater company, doing classical theater (including, currently, a rather sharp "Lady Windermere’s Fan") on a shoestring budget.
And Arizona Women’s Theatre Company is offering its first season in its own downtown Phoenix performance space, while the Gilbert Fine Arts Association has six months to make its mark at the old Boys & Girls Clubs space in downtown Gilbert with an ambitious season that includes "Little Shop of Horrors" (Oct. 28 through Nov. 5).
Up north, European expatriate Daryll Mak’s Sidewinder Actors Theatre is staging productions of dramas by playwrights like Tom Stoppard (the taut sibling-rivalry piece "True West" (opening Sept. 29) and David Mamet — seldom produced in the Valley — on the bustling Cave Creek Coffee Company stage.
And on the west side, Arizona Broadway Theatre, a large dinner theater in Peoria (stretching the modifier "Broadway" nearly to the breaking point), will go head to head with Mesa’s Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre for supper-and-show audiences. Both are offering pretty safe seasons of shows — though the Broadway Palm will play the Disney card with productions of "Aida" (April 20 through June 10) and "Beauty and the Beast" (June 15 through Aug. 5).
Two new shows will deal in state civics. In October, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts’ Theater 4301, it’s Ben Tyler’s "GUV TV," a multimedia lampoon of local politics, from Glen Campbell’s arrest to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s publicityhound antics. And starting in December at the Mesa Arts Center, Brian Nissen’s funny, Arizona-flavored "A Prairie Home Companion" simulacrum, "Citrus Valley Playhouse: On the Air," kicks off a three-show series.
ON THE EDGE
On the fringes of Valley theater, bets are being taken in an unspoken battle between two edgy downtown Phoenix theaters for the season’s biggest buzz: In one corner, there’s Nearly Naked Theatre, which has already offered a tame "Marvin’s Room" to kick off the season and meanwhile announced it won’t be able to pull off its planned midseason show of the water-heavy "Metamorphoses."
In the other corner, there’s Ron May’s (who directed "Marvin’s" for Nearly Naked) Stray Cat Theatre, which is staging a bold repertory of "The Fourth Graders Present an Unnamed Love/Suicide" with the contemporary comedy "Nicky Goes Goth," a send-up of celebrity culture starring a fictitious Paris and Nicky Hilton, Oct. 21 through Nov. 5.
But the most controversial play this season comes courtesy of Actors Theatre — the same company playing it safe by remounting "Nickel and Dimed." It’s ending its season in late April with Edward Albee’s "The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?," a powerful piece about bestiality and the dissolution of the American family, featuring scads of smackdown brutality and enough living-room wreckage to either cause, at the most, angry audience walkouts or, at the least, passionate post-show arguments.
Which — in a season that might otherwise seem quiet as settling in with a good book — comes as a welcome challenge.