A city on the move

I enjoyed The Acting Company and Guthrie Theater production of Romeo and Juliet at the newly renovated Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (Photo: Michal Daniel)

It’s been apparent for some time that Phoenix is a city on the move.

The single largest indicator is perhaps the light rail system that now takes arts patrons and professionals to and from their diverse destinations.

But I was reminded again of our ongoing cultural maturation during my first encounter with the newly renovated Herberger Theater Center — which now has a decidedly more cosmopolitan feel.

I was there Saturday afternoon to experience The Acting Company and Guthrie Theater production of “Romeo and Juliet,” presented by the Arizona Theatre Company.

A renovated plaza with a now generous rather than merely dotted distribution of statues conjures the image of an evolving city in motion.

These bronze dancers of various ages, body types and expressions remind me of how the city has grown since I came to Phoenix more than two decades ago.

Herberger Theater Center — now complete with an illuminated metal and glass art piece passing through the inner circle of the second story that houses the Herberger Art Gallery and the swanky Bob’s Spot fit for apres-show coffee and cocktails — is a place you want to sit, or stroll through, and stay awhile.

It’s no longer one of many venues that locals and tourists rush in to and out of amidst mad parking garage skirmishes. The new black, red and white scheme has true elegance, with an easy yet sophisticated grace befitting the country’s fifth largest city.

Movement seemed the maxim of the day as I sat watching The Acting Company and Guthrie Theater perform “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Penny Metropulos (a bit more espresso and I’ll be making a Metropulos/metropolis connection).

Just across the way at Symphony Hall, Ballet Arizona is performing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I expect exquisite movement with good dance performance. But this is the first time I’ve been struck by the sheer beauty of movement in a straight play.

There’s hardly a moment when bold movement isn’t launching the characters and story forward. Still, it enhances rather than distracts from the dialogue  — so perfectly played with during this romp through an early 20th century setting complete with newsboy caps and walking sticks.

I did some informal polling during intermission, starting with seven or so folks affiliated with Nearly Naked Theatre, which prides itself on producing “the Valley’s most challenging and provocative” work (“The Muckle Man” opened Saturday night in The Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre).

Artistic Director Damon Dering agreed that the movement work and fight scenes in this production of “Romeo and Juliet” are exceptional — giving high praise as well for the caliber of acting.

There’s one spunky, saucy nurse at Juliet’s side — and roving men with a rioutous nature that rivals a modern-day frat party vibe. Elizabeth Grullon (Nurse) reminded me in many ways of the Valley’s own talented Maren Maclean. I was also struck by the at once affectionate and angry Friar Laurence (Ray Chapman).

Unlike some of the other productions I’ve seen, this performance left me mesmerized with more than the Romeo and Juliet coupling. There’s a single set (designed by UCSD alum Neil Patel, production designer for HBO’s “In Treatment”) that’s free of the distracting bells and whistles too prevalent in some other productions.

Truth be told, I had a pretty good ideas of what the Nearly Naked folks were likely to say. They sat one row behind me and delivered hearty laughs throughout the entire first act, which is every bit as comical in this production as the second act is, of necessity, dramatic.

I was thrilled to meet several students in the audience, including a delightful mother and her two children who graciously chatted with me about their experiences with homeschooling and the Valley arts scene — telling me about the Arizona Renaissance Commonwealth School.

I mentioned my recent tag-along tour of the Musical Instrument Museum’s education program, sharing how much I’d have enjoyed the MIM during my own days as a homeschooling parent.

I also shared a bit about the Southwest Shakespeare Company and an upcoming event to benefit their education programs.

I even managed a mention of Lizabeth’s earliest Shakespeare training, with Childsplay in Tempe, and her recent acting studies with Southern Utah University and the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Staci, who lives in the East Valley, spoke of enjoying the dinner theater experience and suggested I take in a show at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Mesa. I recall Lizabeth auditioning with them as a young child, but don’t get to return as often as I would like to.

Still, I love learning what fellow parents recommend — and hope the mom and daughter duo I met at the snack bar will call to tell me more about the Mesquite Junior High School English class currently studying “Romeo and Juliet.”

I hope the Mesa school knows about the extensive education offerings on the Arizona Theatre Company website, which include lessons plans, study guides and a great deal more.

Families or classes who miss this production of “Romeo and Juliet” in Phoenix will have another opportunity to see it during the Nov 11-14 Tucson run. 

Arizona arts and culture is indeed on the move, thanks in large measure to hometown and guest artists, arts advocates, and art aficionados who continue to strengthen and share the arts.

Keep making art, keep fighting for arts funding and keep voting with your feet by getting out there to enjoy Arizona’s diverse array of visual and performing arts. In reality, we don’t vote every two years.

We vote each day with our time and treasure. Thanks to the Herberger Theater Center and others for giving us ballot boxes of sorts that we can all be proud of in this city on the move.

— Lynn

Note:  Click here to learn more about Sunday’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet” as well as other works in the Arizona Theatre Company 2010-2011 season. And, because I’m both a proud stage mom and a proud social justice mom, you can click here to learn about a project my daughter Jennifer worked on as part of an ASU justice studies class.

Coming up: The week ahead in arts — featuring diverse art offerings coming to the Valley Monday through Sunday

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2 responses to “A city on the move

  1. The Herberger’s recent renovations have impressed me and make me think about my own experiences with that building, Arizona Theater Company, and Downtown. When I moved to Phoenix in 1989, I was lucky enough to have some coworkers at my new job approach me about joining them in an ATC season subscription. They had been going for several years before me and told me that they were excited about ATC’s new home at the Herberger. Prior to the 1989-1990 season, I believe ATC performed in an auditorium at Phoenix College.

    The theater and the ATC performances had enough of an impact on me that 20 seasons later, I still have season tickets. With attending ATC plays a constant, the Herberger renovations allow me to reflect of what has changed in two decades. From my point of view, the Herberger has always been a great place to see a play, but during its first 20 years it did have a little more of a drive-in / drive-out feel. The updated theater now addresses Monroe Street much more effectively, engaging passers by and encouraging people to linger. Creating a pedestrian-centric street life is the next frontier for a Downtown has traditionally relied on a big project approach to development. The Herberger has made an important contribution to that effort.

    You briefly mention light rail in your post, which brings me to my final thought in this rather long comment: When my wife and I attended our most recent play, we took the train Downtown as we normally do. As we boarded, we recognized friends we hadn’t seen in years. It turns out they were members of my original theater group from 1989. They had retired and moved somewhere else but were back in Phoenix for a weekend. During the ride Downtown, we were able to catch up for a bit. That’s one of many times I’ve encountered long lost friends on the train. In that respect, light rail has an effect similar to pedestrian-friendly streets. It allows spontaneous encounters that are more meaningful than a quick wave on the freeway.

    With this in mind, I hope that ATC will eventually recognize that some of its audience members prefer to come to performances via light rail. Right now, ATC allows subscribers to pre-purchase parking passes with season tickets and even gives free parking to contributors at a certain level. I encourage ATC to do the same with public transport by allowing subscribers and contributors to choose light rail / bus passes in lieu of the usual parking benefits.

  2. David: Thanks again for reading — and writing. Perhaps you were born to blog? Love the ‘reconnecting on the rail’ story. — Lynn

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