New Apache Junction theater group attracts talent from across Valley

Zao Theater will perform the Neil Simon comedy “The Odd Couple” Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 25 at the Centerstage Church, 3700 E. 16th Ave., near Goldfield Road and U.S. Highway 60. The cast includes, from left, Bill Williamsen, Fred Gerle, John Janezic, Don Crosby and David Herbert (Wendy Miller, Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA).

Zao Theater will perform the Neil Simon comedy “The Odd Couple” Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 25 at the Centerstage Church, 3700 E. 16th Ave., near Goldfield Road and U.S. Highway 60. The cast includes, from left, Bill Williamsen, Fred Gerle, John Janezic, Don Crosby and David Herbert (Wendy Miller, Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA).

A new theater group is drawing talent from all over the east Valley to Apache Junction and hopes to attract audience members from as far away as well.

Opening night for the newly formed Zao Theater’s first production — “The Odd Couple” — is Friday, Oct. 10. The Neil Simon comedy and future productions will be performed at Centerstage Church, 3700 E. 16th Ave., off Goldfield Road and about a mile north of U.S. Highway 60.

The bulk of its cast and crew includes actors and behind-the-scenes workers who travel from Mesa, Gilbert, Scottsdale and Tempe as well as some from Apache Junction, according to the group’s founder, Matt Bowker.

“There wasn’t (a theater group) in Apache Junction and Gold Canyon so geographically it was a good fit,” the Gilbert man said during a phone interview Sept. 29.

The company’s name — Zao — comes from a Greek word for new light, Mr. Bowker said. “We want to breathe new light into the community,” he said.

About a year ago, he approached Mickey Bryce, a long-time friend and senior pastor at Centerstage Church, about establishing a new theater group in the far east Valley, he said.

Mr. Bryce, a Mesa resident who has been part of the Valley’s theater community for about three decades, liked the idea, he said during a phone interview Sept. 29.

“Our church is distinctive for its support of the arts and so I was very excited to partner with Matt and provide the facility,” Mr. Bryce said. “We recently remodeled our church and it has a fully functional theater.

“Matt and I share a desire to bring wholesome entertainment to the east Valley,” Mr. Bryce said. He said that is why they decided to open their season with “The Odd Couple,” a comedy about two friends with different personalities who try to share an apartment.

“Neil Simon is a brilliant writer. It’s a blast to watch,” Mr. Bryce said.

Cast member John Janezic is co-starring in the role of Felix Ungar, the compulsive, neat-freak half of the play’s title characters. He considers his drive from Mesa to perform in the Apache Junction production worthwhile for several reasons, he said during a phone interview Oct. 1.

First, as a working actor who also makes a living teaching fifth grade in Chandler, he appreciates having another venue in which to perform, he said. But it was the opportunity to work with Mr. Bryce that clinched the deal, he said.

“He’s a pretty big name in the Valley. I didn’t know his connection with the church or anything,” Mr. Janezic said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s a little out of the way. It might be hard to get actors out there but then again, actors from out there have been traveling to the downtown (Phoenix) area for years for the chance to perform.”

Mr. Bryce has won five Arizoni awards — Arizona’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Award for excellence — for musical direction and one for best actor in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2006, he said in an e-mailed response to questions. Many of his awards were won for productions for Hale Centre Theatre, the Gilbert-based theatrical company, he said in the e-mail.

Second, Mr. Janezic was excited about the opportunity to perform alongside Don Crosby, a Scottsdale-based actor who was cast as Oscar Madison, the messy half of the title characters. The men toured together during a Hale Centre Theatre production of “The Man with the Pointed Toes,” he said.

“With roles like Oscar and Felix, they need to seem bonded, you worry about a role like that. But Don and I have worked together — we’ve already bonded — and it shows in our performances,” Mr. Janezic said about what he called “the role of a lifetime.”

In addition to Mr. Crosby and Mr. Janezic, the cast of poker-playing buddies features Fred Gerle of Gilbert as Roy; David Herbert of Apache Junction as Murray; Bill Williamsen of Mesa as Speed; and Bill Wiatr of Mesa as Vinnie. Rebecca Johnston of Mesa and Dilcia Rokusek of Tempe play the Pigeon Sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily, respectively.

The crew consists of Ms. Rokusek, who oversees the costumes; Dawne Smith, props; Mr. Bryce, set design and construction; and Bob Nelson, lighting.

Ms. Johnston also is Zao’s creative and administrative director; Mr. Williamsen is its lead audio technician, Mr. Bryce said.

The actors, who rehearse 10-12 hours a week, auditioned for the roles in August, according to the Zao Theater website: http://zaotheater.com/. They will be paid a stipend but the amount has not been determined, Mr. Bowker said.

Mr. Bowker and Mr. Bryce have not licensed additional properties for Zao’s 2014-15 season, Mr. Bryce said. They plan to take a month off after “The Odd Couple” to regroup, Mr. Bowker said.

Then they plan to produce a New Year’s Eve event that will include a night of improvisational comedy with a dessert bar during intermission, Mr. Bowker said.

Zao Theater is the first division of the Zao Foundation for Arts and Justice, according to the Zao website. As part of its mission to give back to the far east Valley, the group will donate 10 percent of its revenue from “The Odd Couple” to the Mesa campus of Where Hope Lives, according to the Zao website.

The nonprofit organization rescues victims of human trafficking and provides them with safe housing and other resources to help rebuild their lives, according to its website.

Tickets for “The Odd Couple” are $15. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10-11, 17-18 and 24-25 with 3 p.m. matinees Oct. 11, 18 and 25.

For more information, call 480-924-5122.

Reach staff writer Wendy Miller at wmiller@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment