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Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

It’s a very good thing that the latest production by Desert Rose Playhouse, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, has settled in for a six-week run. That gives a large percentage of valley theater-lovers the chance to see it.

And they should.

The play, which won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, is an ambitious undertaking. The only way to do Kushner’s powerful script justice is with amazing acting—and director Jim Strait’s cast delivers.

The story is set in 1985. Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS has begun ravaging the gay population. We meet two couples: Prior Walter (Nick Edwards), who is battling the disease, and his lover, Louis Ironson (Daniel Gutierrez); and Joe Porter Pitt (Alex Updike), a devout Mormon lawyer in denial about his homosexuality, and his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Allison Feist).

Joe has gone to work for gruff, conservative Roy Cohn (Eliott Goretsky), who is also closeted and battling AIDS, but refuses to accept the diagnosis. Cohn believes gay men are weak and powerless; he refers to his illness as cancer instead. Meanwhile, Louis cannot handle the realities of the disease, and cruelly abandons Prior when the first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions appear.

Interfacing with both patients is AIDS hospital-ward nurse Belize (the superb Robert Ramirez). Doing double duty as the fur-coat-wearing Mr. Lies, Ramirez is caring, campy, hilarious and viciously witty all at the same time.

When Joe finally comes out of the closet, his mother, Hannah (Adina Lawson), travels from Salt Lake City to try to push him back in.

Director Jim Strait (who also designed the set, sound and projections) brings out the best in each member of his stellar cast. Each actor is a standout.

Nick Edwards rips your heart out as the dying Prior. His depiction of what AIDS does to the body is wrenching. This is an award-winning performance. As his Jewish lover, Louis, Daniel Gutierrez ably portrays a mix of guilt and callousness. His performance occasionally seemed to lack just a bit of energy, but that may have been an artistic choice for the character.

Goretsky’s Roy Cohn (based on the real political figure) is fabulous: dark, cynical, condescending and yet charismatic as he spews profanity at clients and barks orders at underlings over the phone. Just as strong is Alex Updike as the conflicted Joe. Talk about issues: He has the ultimate glass-half-empty guy, Roy Cohn, for a boss; a pill-popping, delusional wife; and a sexual attraction to men that he refuses to acknowledge. Updike’s emotional pain is palpable.

As Joe’s beleaguered wife, Harper, Allison Feist is impressive. I’ve seen this young actress in a number of productions now, and she never disappoints. She’s got a long career ahead of her.

Loren Freeman—a standout in the recent A Queer Carol—is terrific here as well in several cameos (The Angel, Nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, A Homeless Woman in the Bronx). He exudes presence, which is something you cannot teach.

Rounding out the cast is the amazingly versatile Adina Lawson. She also plays multiple parts, hitting each one out of the ballpark. Unrecognizable as a rabbi in the show’s opening, she is also notable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Soviet spy. I can’t help but grin each time I go to a show and see her name in the program; I know the audience is in for a treat.

This play is challenging technically, and Desert Rose rises to the occasion. There are lots of quick scene changes, and they are executed quite well. Phil Murphy should take a bow for his prism lightning design during those changes; it is beautiful and quite effective. Designer Tom Valach creates just the right dramatic tone with the angel costume, and the other costumes, hair and makeup are spot on.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is producing Angels in America as its annual Gay Heritage Production. Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley’s only LGBT and gay-positive stage company, and most everything the playhouse does is edgy and often pushes the envelope. So be warned: This show does contain brief full frontal nudity and a fairly graphic depiction of gay sex. Also keep in mind the show is 3 1/2 hours long—although the time whizzes by.

This play is not for the faint of heart; it touches on love, sex, death, betrayal, greed, bigotry, addiction and the afterlife. It will shake you to your core—and might make you look at what you’re doing with the time you have left on this Earth.

It’s damn good theater. Don’t miss it.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Evening tickets are $33; matinee tickets are $30. Running time is 3 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Like the little dog, you’re going to laugh—and you’ll love it.

The Desert Rose Playhouse’s new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, was written by Douglas Carter Beane. He’s not a household name, but perhaps he should be: He’s the genius who crafted the amazing screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, in which the late Patrick Swayze rose to new heights of acting skill, playing virtually his entire role in drag and turning in one of the most amazing and finely tuned performances ever.

So you already know you’re in for a comedic experience that combines wit with situational comedy and a cast of unusual characters. This four-person play, perfectly cast and deftly directed by Jim Strait, deals with Hollywood’s legendary but real craziness—though it’s mostly set in New York. The lights come up on a surprisingly bare stage: a rainbow-hued curtain, one chair, two doors and a lone rubber-tree plant.

Enter Joey. Oh, Joey! Miss English, dressed in her signature red wardrobe and with her red hair and enormous centipede eyelashes, catapults us into the play with a sensational monologue. She plays Diane, a lesbian Hollywood agent, and a classic, she is—she’s a product of Rodeo Drive and beauty salons and the horrors of trying to earn a living on the fringes of showbiz. Any actress who complains about no great roles for ladies older than 40 has never met Joey English, because she consistently finds terrific characters, and she’s always busy. In Joey’s Diane, we see an extraordinary combination of brassiness covering vulnerability, bravado hiding terror, and sarcasm shielding damage. Even at her snarkiest and sharkiest, we sense Diane’s bandaged wounds. With her huge comedic gifts and an edgy voice, Joey brings the script’s terrific lines to life, and snaps out some of the funniest lines in the play. Tottering about on her uber-heels, with sequins flashing wildly in Phil Murphy’s lighting, she is perfectly cast in this role as The Powerful Mistress of Hype. She is totally convincing, as her embittered verbal ax falls on such innocent victims as Cobb salads. The first-night audience rewarded nearly every one of her scenes with applause.

And then, surprise! The stage transforms in an instant. A bed rolls out; the lighting shifts; and, pow, we’re in a New York hotel room. We meet the show’s two males—the amazingly consistent John Ferrare (has he ever flubbed a line?) as Mitchell Green, a sleek, California-tanned, rising movie star obsessed with his “image.” He contrasts in every way with Timothy Douglas, playing Alex (or Bryan), an attractive youngster sent over by an escort service. And we’re off to a confusing start, with the movie star being drunk, and the greedy rent boy unsure about what to do with him. As actors, both appear effortless in their easy, seemingly natural relating to each other … and both are impressively fearless about stripping off their clothes. (The banner on the play’s poster warns about nudity and adult situations, so don’t say we didn’t tell you. Maybe now would be a good time to toss in a language warning, too.) Mr. Movie Star is emotionally conflicted about whether or not he is gay … and, it turns out, the male prostitute is as well: Despite multiple sexual experiences daily, he doesn’t “feel” gay. OK …

In fact, Alex has a girlfriend. Say what? Meet Allison Feist as Ellen. She is perfect as a potty-mouthed, hormone-ridden, completely self-absorbed Young Person of Today. Weak Ellen’s best gift seems to be her ability to take remorseless advantage of other people, rather than find her own purpose in life. Her youthful appearance, in every way, provides a stunning contrast to Diane’s artificial glam. Ellen is adrift on life’s surface, and we both sympathize with her and find her amusing at the same time. She is crucial to the plot, so don’t write her off … despite her managing to use every single annoying bit of verbal teen-slang in existence (starring “like” and “you know.” Like … you know).

The dialogue weaves through secrets, lies, truths and retractions, combining trash talk with yearning sincerity, and punching out the caught-you-off-guard humor. (“It’s like a relationship, only it’s enjoyable.”) The script mixes irony with real fears like the terror of being alone or having to fight for your own freedom. We are frequently told that “Diane solves problems,” and as the conflicts and confusion accrue, the characters turn to the agent for solutions. I won’t give away the wonderful twist at the end of the play, though I’ll promise that the writing is utterly masterful, and the resolution is a never-saw-that-coming surprise.

Kudos to the Desert Rose support team who made such a success of this play. We’ve already mentioned the mega-talented director, Jim Strait, whose flawless sense of timing, crystal-clear insights into the characters and lovely sense of stage balance all combine to make this play a delight. Turns out Strait is in charge of the scenery and the sound, too. His husband, Paul Taylor, is the play’s producer, and a steady hand on the wheel, he always is. Phil Murphy’s lighting is, of course, gorgeous; is there anything more fun than a disco ball? Mark Demry’s costumes are most excellent. (Well, there was a briefly hilarious entanglement with a tie belt on a robe.) And Steve Fisher’s stage managing is smooth and sweet, as usual.

It’s the contrasts that make this play brilliant—the playwright’s insights, the director’s right-on choices and the actors’ thoughtful explorations of their roles. New York versus California. Youth versus older. Shrewd versus naïve. Successful versus struggling. Focused versus confused. The multi-faceted result is hugely satisfying, and you will leave the theater smiling.

You’ll laugh … and you’ll love it.

The Little Dog Laughed is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 17, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you’re one of those poor souls carrying resentment about mistreatment by nuns in Catholic school—or if you just need a few good belly laughs—get to the Desert Rose Playhouse, pronto.

The Divine Sister, produced by Paul Taylor, may just be your salvation.

The play was originally conceived by actor, writer and longtime female impersonator Charles Busch as a star vehicle for himself. Known for his off-Broadway play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch once said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be.”

The Divine Sister is a demented tribute to films featuring nuns, from The Sound of Music to Agnes of God. The story unfolds at St. Veronica’s Convent and grade school in Pittsburgh. Mother Superior (Jim Strait) has many issues to deal with, including the fact that the school building is falling down. She’s dealing with a young postulate named Agnes (of course), who believes she has magical healing powers and that the Virgin Mary speaks directly to her; Timothy, a young boy in desperate need of baseball coaching who doesn’t yet realize he’s gay; and a newly arrived German nun who may not be all that she seems.

Throw in devout atheist Mrs. Levinson, who could fund a new school if she were so inclined, and a man from Mother Superior’s crime-reporting past who is still pining for her, and you can understand the need for a few extra prayers.

Strait, who also serves as Desert Rose’s artistic director, is tremendous here. Though The Divine Sister is an ensemble piece, Strait is the captain of the ship, and he skillfully leads his cast through this irreverent romp. He’s strong actor and a charismatic presence who seems very comfortable in drag—but his physical size and voice remind us that there’s some testosterone in the mix as well. Sporting a long, curly wig and heels, Strait’s first appearance as girl reporter Susan Appleyard gets a huge laugh. Strait seems to be having as much fun as the audience is, which really enhances the theater-going experience.

Allison Feist is perfectly cast as innocent Agnes, who truly believes she’s been specially chosen by God. She exudes both the religious fervor of Meg Tilly in Agnes of God and the girlish mischievousness of Julie Andrews in The Sounds of Music. The physical gyrations she goes through while “healing” others are laugh-out-loud funny. Keep an eye on Feist; she has a bright future ahead of her.

As Sister Acacius, Lorraine Williamson knocks the role out of the park. Big, bold and brassy, she shows off animated facial expressions and perfect comic timing that remind me of a combination of Jo Anne Worley and Lucille Ball. Sister Acacius has a lusty past, and her vow of celibacy sometimes seems to waiver. When handsome movie consultant Jeremy (the fabulous Timm McBride) begins describing his impressive manhood in great detail, Williamson’s efforts not to drool are precious.

Adina Lawson delivers an award-worthy performance as smug, privileged Mrs. Levinson. Early in the show, two nuns visit her in an effort to secure funds to build a new school. Mrs. Levinson explains her devout atheism while describing agnostics as “wishy-washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand. Give me religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity.” Later, while sharing memories of her late husband Morris (including sea creatures during a visit to Crete, and his fatal heart attack), Levinson peppers her stories with hilarious Vogue magazine-esque descriptions of what she was wearing. Her turn as 12-year-old Timothy is equally impressive. Lawson is a pro—she totally embodies each character and is clearly having a blast on stage.

The always-interesting Alden West is quite good as the mysterious German nun, Sister Maria Walburga. Like pretty much everyone else in the play, her character has secrets—including a randy side. Walburga’s not-so-subtle invitation to Sister Acacius to have a sexual threesome with another nun is a hoot. West manages to maintain distinctly different (and believable) accents as both Berlin native Sister Walburga and, later, as a Scottish housekeeper. Any actor will tell you that to accomplish such a thing within the same play is not an easy feat.

As both Jeremy (the well-endowed film consultant hunting for a good story) and sinister monk Brother Venerius, Timm McBride is excellent. Having each actor play two roles in a production doesn’t always work, but it does here—beautifully. There is not a single weak performance here.

Director J. Stegar Thompson gets the best out of his strong cast. He keeps the pace going, which keeps the laughs flowing. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Thomas L. Valach’s set and Phil Murphy’s lighting provide just the right mood, as does Thompson’s sound. In a show with so much cross-dressing and actors playing dual roles, costumes (Kathryn Ferguson) and wigs (Toni Molano and Timm McBride) are crucial. All are spot on. Stage manager Steve Fisher deserves a nod as well.

This terrific show did suffer through a couple of glitches on opening night. There was a stumble right out of the gate with sound cues. After a delightful recorded welcome to the show from playwright Charles Busch, opening music began … then abruptly stopped. Then we heard a repeat of Busch’s welcome … which also abruptly stopped. Then there was the music again … which stopped. Finally, the music began in earnest, and the play got underway. The performances were so good that the audience soon forgot about the sound snafu, but it was an unfortunate way to start the night. Another big goof: Toward the end of the show, there was a premature entrance by an actor during a very dramatic moment in the script.

No matter what your religious affiliation, you will enjoy Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Divine Sister. It’s funny; it’s raucous; and it’s one hell of an entertaining evening.

The Divine Sister is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets or more information, call, 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

You don’t have to be a gay woman or a fan of quiche to thoroughly enjoy 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, the 2014-2015 season-opening production by Dezart Performs.

Written by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, the five-character play opened in Chicago in 2011, then hit off-Broadway in 2012; it was named a Best Overall Production at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Set in 1956, the play opens in a church basement, which has been turned into a fallout shelter. (The simple set by J.W. Layne works quite well.) The members of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein have gathered for their annual quiche breakfast. The main event on the agenda: the judging of the quiches, to determine which is best.

Everyone in the audience is a member of the society, too; attendees are each given a nametag upon entering. (I was “Dorothy.”) Throughout the production, the five ladies onstage zing individual audience members, focusing most of their venom on Marjorie, the impeached former building-and-grounds chairman sitting in the front row.

The egg—the main ingredient in a quiche, of course—has been sacred to members of the society since the group was founded by a pioneering woman who came across a colony of hens in the woods. Their motto: “No men, no meat, all manners.” When a misguided member once showed up with a sausage quiche, she was unceremoniously thrown out of the meeting. Joyce Jenkins’ brightly colored costumes and Lyndee Goodall’s hair-and-wig designs perfectly capture the era, and help define each character.

Thankfully, the entire cast is superb. It’s a joy when members of an ensemble are evenly matched, as they are here. Allison Feist is quite effective as emotionally fragile Dale. Adina Lawson is an absolute hoot as no-nonsense Vern, who takes her job as building-and-grounds chairman very seriously. There were times when she reminded me of a young Barbra Streisand. As the society’s innocent secretary, Ginny, Phylicia Mason is charming, even if her English accent was a bit inconsistent. Kristine Waters is hilarious and a bit campy as Wren and Yo Younger once again delivers a flawless performance as the group’s fearless Southern leader, Lulie.

Kudos go to director/producer Michael Shaw for choosing this piece, and for eliciting such great performances from his cast. Both the sound (Clark Dugger) and the lighting (Phil Murphy) are spot-on.

Act One ends with a nuclear blast destroying the outside world, apparently leaving only the members of the society alive. As Act Two begins, and the meeting progresses, the comedy gets broader, and the sexual double-entendres become more blatant. At one point, Ginny loses control, jumps on the table and buries her face, tongue-first, in the winning quiche; another character comments on her “good technique.”

Confessions begin, and the truth comes out: These self-proclaimed “widows” really prefer romantic liaisons with each other. (This isn’t a spoiler if you know the name of the play.) Dale’s monologue detailing why she’s the way she is, and why she hasn’t spoken to a man since a rift with her father at age 3, is terrific. Since audience participation is a big part of this show, by the end of the night, we were all proclaiming to be lesbians.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche was originally conceived as a one-act. Having it morph into a two-act play works, since the pace is brisk. Including the 15-minute intermission, the total running time was about 90 minutes.

Once again, Dezart Performs has proven that it’s a gem in the valley’s theater scene. This production is wonderful: It’s fun, bawdy and, at times, touching. If you’re not offended by sexual humor or two women kissing, you’ll love this show—and you’ll never look at quiche the same way again.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, by Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Evening shows are $25; matinees are $22. A champagne brunch at Lulu California Bistro, followed by the show, begins at 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 16; tickets are $44. A benefit performance for the Desert AIDS Project takes place at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 16; tickets are $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance