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Dezart Performs Artistic Director Michael Shaw is ending the company’s 11th season on a perfect note with Audrey Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin.

Set in rural Alabama, this charming story follows the burgeoning romance between new neighbors Lizzy Nash (Kay Capasso) and Jack Key (Joel Bryant). Lizzy has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher to mourn the loss of her husband in a roofing accident.

Jack, a physics teacher at the same school, has just moved in next door. He purchased the house not knowing that the previous owner died in the front bedroom, mere months after the man’s wife passed away. After Lizzy reveals this fact, Jack—a widower himself—becomes convinced the house is haunted, and takes to sleeping out on his back porch for safety. Featured prominently on that porch is a Maytag clothes dryer that Jack stubbornly refuses to move inside. Lizzy chooses to dry her laundry the old-fashioned way, on a clothes line, and finds the appliance an irritating eye-sore.

The neighbors discover a bag of old love letters the elderly tenant had written to his wife during their decades-long marriage, and they read them throughout the play. The tenderness of the letters helps Jack and Lizzy deal with the grief of losing their own spouses, and to slowly discover their feelings for each other.

In a two-hour play with only two characters, casting is crucial. If the performers don’t have strong acting chops and onstage chemistry, the audience is in for a long night. Thankfully here, director Deborah Harmon made excellent choices: Both Kay Capasso and Joel Bryant are superb.

Capasso’s Lizzy is conflicted, sexually frustrated, warm, likable and hilarious. The term “motormouth” does not adequately describe her penchant for chatter: The woman simply doesn’t shut up. Jacks sums it up perfectly, “You say it all out loud, huh?” When explaining why she can’t fall in love with a Catholic, Lizzy quips: “It’s just not done!” Her special meditation to “keep the dark thoughts out” is priceless. Capasso exquisitely captures all of Lizzy’s nuances. Her acting is flawless, and her Southern accent is spot-on. She has several long monologues in this production—hundreds and hundreds of lines to memorize—and I did not notice a single flub. Quite impressive.

As Jack, Joel Bryant is equally terrific. I’ve seen Bryant in several other valley productions, and he’s set the acting bar quite high for himself. He does not disappoint here: Attractive, well-built and charismatic, he commands the stage. Funny, friendly and kind, his Jack is the guy men want to be, and women want to be with. His attraction to Lizzy is apparent right away, but he realizes she is fragile and that he must tread carefully. Bryant’s comic timing is marvelous, and he handles the serious moments equally well. Not every actor could pull off the scene in which Jack breaks down when recalling his wife’s death. Bryant nails it.

It’s such a joy to see truly gifted actors ply their trade onstage. That is what you’ll see in this production of Maytag Virgin. I would encourage any acting student to check it out for that reason alone.

The production values are equally as good. Thomas Valach’s set could not be better. Every detail—from Lizzy’s collection of wind chimes to Jack’s statue of the Virgin Mary—seems just right. The costumes, lighting and song selection during the swift set changes are all fabulous.

Special mention should be made of the director: Deborah Harmon chose her actors well and then guided them expertly through the script. Even outstanding thespians need someone who knows what he or she is doing at the helm of the ship.

As a theater reviewer, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when you can’t find even a minor flaw in the production of a play: “Isn’t there something wrong here that I can write about?” But the truth is, there isn’t.

Maytag Virgin is a magical time at the theater. Go see it.

Dezart Performs’ production of Maytag Virgin is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 14, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35, and the running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Another play about race?

Dezart Performs is bringing us White Guy on the Bus at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. Despite walking into a full house of patrons, I was dreading this; being lectured is not my idea of entertainment, thank you.

Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart and the director of the play, was gracious when I cornered him in the lobby before the performance to ask: Why?

“It’s written by Bruce Graham,” he explained, “and we produced another of his plays (in 2016), The Outgoing Tide. I follow him, and I have to see everything he writes. His script for this play is brilliant—brilliant. The theme is uncomfortable, because we have to address it. It’s the only way we’ll grow. We’re in a world where this is a topic of major importance.”

I can’t argue with that. But it was written in 2014, which places it during Obama’s presidency, not now … something to remember. The playwright hails from Philadelphia, Shaw explained, where the play is set, though he now lives in Chicago. (“Great,” I thought glumly, as I fumbled my way to my seat, wishing the play were safely about some innocent but witty cocktail party here in Palm Springs.)

Speaking of “set,” Thomas Valach’s beautiful and minimalist open stage doesn’t remotely resemble a bus (which I had gloomily expected). It sports only two sofas, six chairs and one leafy plant, in three loose groupings. The gorgeous lighting, designed by Matthew Garrett, plays on the stark angled flats that back the stage. But wait until you see what happens to those flats when the play begins!

And wait until you see this play.

We are swept up in the story of five people, one of whom is black. The lead character, Ray, marvelously played by David Youse, never leaves the stage. He’s wealthy, “a numbers man,” but we first discover him trying to convince his wife to sell everything and run off to the South Seas à la Gauguin. His spouse, Roz, played by Alexana Thomas, is a hard-voiced but soft-hearted teacher who is committed to helping kids in the ghetto better their lives, even giving special reading classes on her own time. She has no interest in running off—especially after being nominated for the prestigious Teacher of the Year award.

Their sort-of son, Christopher, played by Sean Timothy Brown, is preparing his post-graduate dissertation on his analysis of the portrayals by black actors in TV commercials. Despite being accused of pandering, he investigates the now-stereotypical roles and the reasons for them. His pretty redheaded girlfriend, Molly, is sweetly played by Bianca Stoker, and they, with Roz and Ray, share lively white-people debates on such ghastly topics as, “Who is really a racist?” with everyone delivering their point of view with varying degrees of passion.

One of the most fascinating and unusual aspects of Shaw’s stage direction here is an almost complete absence of movement. The characters enter, and then stand, or sit … and talk. Nobody moves around. Nobody goes off to get a drink or a tissue or a sweater—the better to focus on the words. So when Ray quick-steps his way stage-left to seats “on the bus” to change the scene, and we pick up part way through a conversation, it seems completely natural, even if those few strides take him from his own living room onto a bus.

Now on the bus, we meet single black mom Shatique, exquisitely played by Desirée Clarke. From her first words, spoken—while busily clipping coupons—to her new acquaintance Ray, we totally believe everything this actress says and does. Every one of her actions and reactions seem to be completely spontaneous and unrehearsed. It is an extraordinary experience to see this kind of believing in an actor, because her natural and comfortable-in-her-own-skin manner makes us feel that we actually know this person. It’s beyond Method acting. Her scenes with the equally talented David Youse are exceptional theater—together, they shine.

The lifestyle she reveals through their conversation, without a trace of self-pity, is astonishing. “Cops don’t come unless there are shots fired,” she simply informs Ray, in his business suit, about her life in the ‘hood, when he asks why she doesn’t complain about the next-door meth lab—and her struggles to improve her grammar will touch your heart. Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares for dressing the whole cast, but especially for Shatique’s outfits, which speak volumes.

But something’s … weird. A nagging question in the backs of our minds finally struggles to the fore: What is this rich white guy doing on the bus, especially this bus, and especially since he rides it to the end of the line, and then—when everyone, including Shatique, disembarks—he rides it back again, alone?

That’s the magic of this play: The story will drag you through a chasm of emotions and surprise you again and again before you can recover. Nothing in you can guess what’s coming. A twisting plotline like this is a great rarity.

Shaw was right: The script is brilliant—brilliant. It says things you may have never heard spoken out loud. It delves into a new-millennium threat to our privacy, where you can find out anything about anyone. It tests the buying power of money. It looks at the world of incarceration, and ponders how much of what we think we know came from Hollywood movies about prisons. It shines a light on how different people can pay differently for a similar crime. It reflects on revenge. It says things we thought people were forbidden to say.

It sounds heavy, but don’t be afraid of going to this play like I was. You will be rewarded with an awesome theatrical experience, an unforgettable story, and terrific acting. It will make you think about everything from people’s inherent rights in this country, to how people perceive events differently, to who gets to be sensitive about what.

I can’t reveal more without giving too much away … so go see White Guy on the Bus—and enjoy the ride.

Dezart Performs’ production of White Guy on the Bus is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 10, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ah, the 1950s. The fashions alone … what a time!—and Dezart Performs has brought it all to life with Perfect Arrangement, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The two-week run is sold out—yes, the whole run! You might try phoning the company and seeing if there are cancellations, or whining to see if they will add extra chairs or performances (good luck).

Artistic director Michael Shaw welcomes the audience and reveals that Dezart has now become a recognized professional theater, joining the Equity union as small professional theater. Congratulations! Congratulations also for this show: Shaw produced and directed Perfect Arrangement with smooth and admirable skill.

Young people really should see this show to learn about the paranoia, the secrecy and the fears that bestrode the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Communism might have to be explained, but even more important would be learning about the conformity of the times, when everyone’s houses were supposed to look the same, when people’s behavior mimicked what they saw on the TV commercials … and when everyone smoked! Women wore hats, gloves and high heels just to go to the supermarket! Men wore entire suits and ties to business! Girls were supposed to giggle! Men made jokes about women’s inferiority, and people cooked with lard. The music, which you will hear at this show, was relentlessly perky. How exhausting it all sounds … and how it explains the 1960s!

As for being gay back then? Didn’t exist, at least not openly. Well … it didn’t until the State Department decided to ferret out “the fags,” as it called them, to expunge them from government jobs as an “undesirable influence.” And that brings us to this play.

Bob, Millie, Norma and Jim have secret lives: The two girls are gay, and the two guys are gay. They have intermarried and face the world as two straight couples, living in adjoining apartments with a hidden entrance through a closet (get it?) door.

Bob Martindale, even-handedly played by Adam Jonas Segaller, toils for the Personnel Security Board as one of the top people in his division at the Department of State. He has been charged with finding and firing anyone who even appears to be gay, and we come to realize his mercilessness is his shield against his own being found out. He gives a stellar performance.

His legal wife, Millie, is gleefully portrayed by Phylicia Mason, who parades the ’50s fashions beautifully. I really hope that she meant to have her slip showing in one outfit, and I wonder if girls today even know what a slip is. A stay-at-home “wife,” she outwardly conforms to her role by sweetly reciting recipes and touting cleaning products … but inwardly, she seethes at having to hide her relationship with Norma.

Norma Baxter, played by Olivia Saccomanno, works with Bob and lives with Millie. She brings a gravitas to both her role and her wardrobe statements; she’s especially gorgeous in the gown which she wears to the opera. Yes, they used to dress to go to the theater, people, NOT WEAR JEANS AND CAPS!

Sorry … I got a little carried away there. Anyhow: Saccomanno plays a thoughtful Norma which makes her attempts to imitate a squealing bubblehead even sadder.

Jim Baxter, portrayed by Hanz Enyeart, is a high-strung teacher who loves and lives with Bob but is married to Norma. He lives in terror of being found out but is determined to bulldoze through the nightmare. Enyeart gives a multilevel performance that draws the eye and rewards with the unexpected.

Theodore Sunderson, the State Department top gun, is solidly played by Hal O’Connell. He infuses this role with an edgy power, alerting us that his hail-fellow-well-met exterior might be covering up for his inner bully. He brings a believable Authority Figure quality to his part that makes us want to see more of him.

His wife, Kitty Sunderson, is brilliantly played by Deborah Harmon. She creates a ditzy character that you have to love, despite everyone’s opinion that she is a dope in a mink stole. She layers her performance with rare flashes of truth that glint through her mascaraed eyes and practiced lipstick smile.

Barbara Grant is a character who works at the State Department and is the subject of much gossip as a globetrotting slattern. So it’s quite a surprise when Yo Younger shows up playing this role, looking fashion-model stunning in sleek European fashions (Hats—why did they ever go out of style? There is nothing more flattering!) and radiating danger through her every move. Younger has to love playing this role, slithering through the troubled lives of the other characters and igniting change where it is least expected. Watch her stillness.

Written by Topher Payne, this award-winning play premiered off-Broadway in 2015. The script is bespangled with great belly laughs, while never veering far from the guilty terrors of those leading double lives. He has captured the vocabulary of the ’50s (“Goody!” “Phooey!” “Ta!”) as well as the awful obsolescent terms of this battle (“the latents,” “the deviants”) set in Washington, D.C.

Kudos to the loyal and hardworking members of the Dezart Performs company for this production. It runs two hours with an intermission, and if you can get in to see it, you won’t forget it. It will make you think about lies, shame, suspicion, security risks, fear, irony, hate, stereotypes … and also furniture polish, girl talk and sex.

Astronomers use light to look backward in time. We have theater to do that.

Dezart Performs’ production of Perfect Arrangement is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets, which were listed as sold out as of publication, are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

When a reviewer puts down her pen because what’s happening onstage is just too darned riveting to take any more notes, you know you’ve got a hit—and such was the case with opening night of Motherhood Out Loud, the final show of the season for Dezart Performs.

Conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein, the show consists of 19 short stories about the trials, tribulations and exquisite joys of being a mom. Starting with the painful, messy birthing process itself (“Fast Birth Fugue” by Michele Lowe), the play covers just about every aspect of parenthood imaginable, including foreign adoption, surrogacy, step-parenting and dealing with autism.

This was one of those magical nights at the theater when everything worked. First, artistic director Michael Shaw (who also directs this production) has once again chose a superbly written play—and then he cast it extraordinarily well. Finally, he seemed to find just the right touch as a director … not too heavy-handed, but not too laid-back, either. Obviously, the audience knows a director was involved, but the performances seemed to flow from each actor organically.

Desiree Clarke gets to show off her comic chops early in the show while sharing advice on how to minimize the damage childbirth can do to a woman’s body and her sex life (“Squeeze, Hold, Release,” by Cheryl L. West), and then much later, when her grown-up daughter brings home a questionable suitor for Thanksgiving dinner: “Sierra says Conrad is vegan, so we’ll have to carve the turkey in the mud room, under a sheet.” (“Thanksgiving Fugue” by Michele Lowe).

The always-impressive Melanie Blue shines brightest as a Muslim mother helping her daughter deal with her first menstrual period (“Nooha’s List” by Lameece Issaq), and a mom driving her 15-year-old autistic son to the movies with his new girlfriend (“Michael’s Date” by Claire LaZebnik).

Leanna Rodgers has great stage presence, and really draws us in as an elderly woman being interviewed about motherhood by her 12-year-old great-grand-daughter (Melanie Blue). When asked what she likes best about being a mother, Rodgers replies, “I never really liked being a mother,” and admits to loving some of her children more than others.

James Owens, the one male in the cast, mostly pops in here and there to support the female scenes. But he provides one of the evening’s highlights with “If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m The One With Morning Sickness?” by Marco Pennette. It’s a funny, moving look at what gay men must go through to become parents. Owens commands the stage and handles the scene with great skill.

The cast is superb across the board, but if I had to pick one standout, it would be Theresa Jewett. She is most memorable portraying the conflicted mom of a young boy who likes to dress as a girl (“Queen Esther,” by Michele Lowe), and breaking our hearts with the maternal anguish over a son sent off to war (“Stars and Stripes” by Jessica Goldberg). Jewett is an exceptional actress. Every emotion rings true, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

The other vignettes are penned by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice and Annie Weisman. Thomas L. Valach’s minimalist set works very well here, as do the costumes (Frank Cazares), the lighting (Phil Murphy) and the sound (Clark Duggar).

Motherhood Out Loud runs just more than 90 minutes with no intermission. The outstanding acting and the seamless flow of one scene to the next makes the production fly by. It never drags, which is always a blessing for a theater-goer. Congratulations to Michael Shaw and his company for ending their 10th season on such a high note.

If you are a mother, there are sure to be many relatable moments in this show. If, like me, you chose not to have kids, it may evoke a few twinges of regret. Dezart Performs’ Motherhood Out Loud will make you laugh and cry—and it will also make you want to go call your mom. Do yourself a favor … go see it.

Motherhood Out Loud, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A ghastly, unimaginable tragedy can strike without warning—shocking you and changing your life in a moment, forever, beyond anything you ever envisioned for yourself.

But … why? Fate? Kharmic payback? Written on the wind from the day you were born? Are you destiny’s plaything? Or was there some random lightning bolt hurled by a careless deity, meant for someone else, that just happened to hit you instead? This desperate search for answers is the theme of Rabbit Hole, now being presented in a fine production by Dezart Performs, celebrating 10 years this season.

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, the play earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007, as well as five Tony nominations during its Broadway run. The script examines the pain and the different ways of dealing with the grieving process. Too little has been written about this experience, though there is certainly a lot more information about it now than there was 30 years ago, when all I could find were two soft-cover books and a “support” group that stupidly refused to let you join until you had suffered alone for three months. Whether or not you have yet been through the grieving experience, you might identify with someone in the family of this play, as it demonstrates how different your recovery may be from those around you.

The play is set in Larchmont, N.Y. Becca and Howie Corbett have been struck by one of those lightning bolts and are attempting to survive it. The mundane is counterpointed with unexpected shots of raw emotion as they struggle through their days. Inevitably, blame surfaces. Self-examination results in guilt, defiance and denial. Other members of the family are dragged in to the maelstrom—and then, so is a stranger.

The actors have had to turn on their very deepest method acting skills to make this play work. Michael Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director, plays Howie. He’s a New York broker who commutes and manages to leave his work behind when he comes home. His character is likable, and he makes us care for him, despite his serious demeanor. Most New York brokers I’ve encountered seem way more driven and obsessive than the quiet B-type personality Shaw gives us. His performance is thoughtful and sympathetic, but it might have been even more compelling with a dose of the slick and the cocky.

Yo Younger, as Howie’s wife, Becca, gives us a multi-layered performance that shows a lovely woman on the very edge of unraveling. Her fragility and her resilience are at war inside her, and her survival depends on which one wins. Younger makes interesting use of her mouth to convey so many emotions—and it’s something that acting students should carefully note, as Becca attempts to cope with her now-mountainous challenges, from a profound emotional healing to simply sorting the laundry.

Becca’s sister, Izzy, is played by Phylicia Mason; she’s a wild child and a loosely wrapped creature who lives for the excitement of club-hopping. She opens the play wearing an outrageous and dazzling outfit apparently left over from the previous evening’s excesses—but she, too, is forced to change her ways and try to accept a more conventional lifestyle, creating an unusual arc of growth. Mason is always fun to watch, and here, she cleverly uses her eyes to convey her character’s many facets.

Deborah Harmon is the girls’ mother, Nat. Whether or not Harmon was chosen because of her physical resemblance to Yo Younger, it is very refreshing to see a mother and a daughter onstage who actually look like they could be a real life mother and daughter. Her appearance and her impressive resume are only some of her skills; here, she gives us a solid and thoughtful performance that is a pleasure to watch. We know we are safe in the hands of a seasoned professional with her.

It’s rare to mention an actor’s age, but Jonathan Hatsios is just 19, which is indeed worth noting. He’s a College of the Desert student in the Theatre Arts program, and he is perfectly cast as Jason, the lightning bolt who changes everyone else’s life. He displays the slight awkwardness of youth as he attempts to handle a situation that requires a maturity way beyond his years. Bent on doing the right thing, he is at sea trying to deal with the adults in the room, and is very believable in this role.

Scott Smith directs Rabbit Hole—his first time directing with Dezart Performs, though he has been seen at many other valley theaters, in many capacities. Though I disagreed with some of his blocking choices, he has pulled performances out of his actors that make this play move. The rehearsals must have been exhausting. It’s all about the emotions, as we watch the characters make all the mistakes—focusing on others rather than on their own recovery, scolding to try to dominate each other, inappropriate behavior blurting out under stress, and so on.

Smith is aided by a plethora of skilled compatriots such as Thomas Valach doing set design (I hope you will appreciate the so-clever center-stage “painting” which becomes an entire room in Act II), costumes by Frank Cazares, stage management by Diane McClure, props by Cecilia Orosco, and lighting by the always-amazing Phil Murphy. Shaw shares a production credit with Clark Dugger, who also designed the sound. And as a salute to Dezart’s mission of involving and training young people, let’s mention the three working interns from Palm Springs High School: Sierra Barrick, Kaley Doherty and Sierra Johnson.

Rabbit Hole was made into a movie in 2010, starring Nicole Kidman, which I now look forward to viewing. I hope it contains the same emotional power and the serious investigation of the grieving process that this work from Dezart Performs does. And consider yourself warned: The last 60 seconds of this play will break your heart.

Rabbit Hole, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Dezart Performs’ artistic director Michael Shaw has chosen to kick off Greater Palm Springs Pride and the company’s 10th season with The Legend of Georgia McBride—and I can’t imagine a better play for him to choose. Matthew Lopez’s hilarious yet touching romp through the world of small-town drag shows hits all the right notes and is enormously entertaining.

The show opens with Casey (Sean Timothy Brown) entertaining a small crowd at a Panama City, Fla., bar with his Elvis impersonation. Though Casey is not a bad Elvis, the nightly audiences are dwindling steadily, and the bar owner, Eddie (Chet Cole), is not happy. Deciding that a drag show just might do the trick, Eddie calls his female-impersonator cousin Tracy (Michael Mullen) to help save his business. Casey is out of a job—and at the worst possible time: His young wife, Jo (Brianna Maloney), is pregnant, and their latest rent check has bounced.

Tracy soon arrives, with fellow drag queen Rexy (Hanz Enyeart) in tow. The two are a hit with the bar patrons (much to Eddie’s relief), but temperamental Rexy (short for Miss Anorexia Nervosa) has a problem with booze. When she passes out drunk one night right before her Edith Piaf number, Tracy and Eddie enlist Casey to take her place—and the financial pressures of impending fatherhood cause the initially resistant Casey to eventually give in.

Tracy’s efforts to prepare Casey for his drag debut are a hoot. Dubbing him “Georgia McBride,” Casey admonishes him to “Suck it in, bitch … beauty hurts!” while struggling with a waist-whittling corset. Her advice on what to do if he forgets the words to his lip-synced song is priceless.

After a shaky start, Casey begins relishing his new female persona, and the crowds love him. Not everyone is pleased, however. Rexy is angry about being replaced, and Jo is shocked to discover that the wads of cash her young husband is bringing home come from him prancing around onstage in sequins and lipstick.

Director Michael Shaw has once again proved his skill at casting. Each actor in The Legend of Georgia McBride is terrific. There really is not a weak link.

Chet Cole hits all the right notes as Eddie. He’s a likable, jovial and charismatic emcee for the nightly shows at his bar, but when it comes to the bottom line—what’s in the till—he can be tough as nails. When his unrecognizable cousin Tracy shows up in full drag and appears to come on to him, Eddie blurts out: “Look. I’m sure we had fun, but I’m sterile!” Eddie’s increasingly flashy attire, including his holiday-themed sunglasses and toupee, are perfect.

Brianna Maloney is adorable as Casey’s long-suffering wife, Jo. We can see how much she loves him, and their chemistry is strong. But we also understand that, with unpaid bills piling up and a baby on the way, her belief in his talent may not be enough. Maloney’s acting is quite good; however, there were times during opening night—particularly early in the play—when some of Maloney’s lines got lost. Stronger vocal projection is the answer. It’s one tiny flaw in this production, and one that can be easily remedied.

In dual roles as Rexy and Casey’s buddy and landlord, Jason, Hanz Enyeart is superb. When he makes his entrance as Rexy—clad in a leopard jumpsuit and Elton John-esque rhinestone sunglasses—it’s hard to take your eyes off him. His Amy Winehouse number, “Rehab,” is flawless. Enyeart proves he has some serious acting chops, too: His monologue recalling a severe beating he endured in his early days as a drag queen is riveting.

Sean Timothy Brown is excellent as Casey. We can feel his sincere love for Jo, his drive to succeed as an Elvis-tribute artist, and his initial hesitance about performing onstage as a woman. The audience goes along for the ride as he blossoms into a bona fide drag star, and we root for him every step of the way. It’s hard to choose a favorite among his musical numbers—they are all laugh-out-loud funny—but his Edith Piaf, and, later, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” stood out for me.

If there is a standout in this stellar cast, it would have to be Michael Mullen as Tracy. First of all, he makes a damn good-looking broad. Though he’s been knocked around by life as a drag queen, he has a kind, maternal side to him, especially when he’s coaching Casey on the finer points of performing as a female. Mullen is one of the best drag queens I have seen: He looks great as a woman; dances well, even in 4-inch heels; and really captures the sass, attitude and humor necessary when portraying pop divas like Cher and Diana Ross. He is a fine dramatic actor as well. When he challenges Casey in an intimate scene to be honest about who he really is, you can hear a pin drop.

Huge kudos go to both Doug Graham for his amazing choreography and Kara Harmon for her costume design. James Geier’s wigs and Timothy McIntosh’s makeup design are also spot-on. The set design, sound and lighting are also top-notch.

Shaw gets the best out of everyone in the cast. The glitz and glam of the drag numbers is appropriately over-the-top, yet the emotion and humanity of the characters is very real.

Dezart Performs has offered the Coachella Valley fine theatrical productions over the past 10 years—but this is among the company’s best shows. The cast had the audience members on their feet, cheering and clapping along with the final musical number. There is only one word that sums up this incredibly entertaining night of theater: Bravo!

The Legend of Georgia McBride, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

What better way to rev up Greater Palm Springs Pride than with a play about a struggling Elvis impersonator who finds great success … as a drag queen?

That was the thinking of Dezart Performs artistic director Michael Shaw when he chose The Legend of Georgia McBride—a play he described as heartwarming and “funny as heck”—as the opening production of the theater’s 10th anniversary season.

The Legend of Georgia McBride debuted in 2015 and has been performed successfully several times, including runs in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Dezart is using the costumes from the San Francisco production—and costuming has been very challenging, Shaw said. There are three drag-queen characters, requiring a total of 19 wigs and 20 dresses. The staging, including multiple lip-synced musical numbers, has also posed a challenge on Dezart’s relatively small stage at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The story revolves around Casey (aka Georgia McBride), a beleaguered young Elvis impersonator who is barely making a living. Bill collectors are calling, and Casey has just learned that his young wife, Jo, is pregnant. Then he loses his Elvis gig at a run-down Florida bar; the owner, Eddie, brings in a mediocre drag queen named Rexy as the new entertainment. When Rexy gets too drunk to perform one night, his companion Tracy tutors Casey on the finer points of female impersonation—and a star is born.

Shaw says he easily cast the roles of Casey (Sean Timothy Brown), Jo (Brianna Maloney) and Eddie (Chet Cole) right here in the desert; the two more-seasoned drag-queen characters, Rexy (Hanz Enyeart) and Tracy (Michael Mullen), were harder to find.

“I auditioned several excellent drag queens here in the valley—and there are some darned good ones—but there is some serious dramatic acting required in this play, and being a fabulous drag queen wasn’t quite enough.” Shaw said.

So far, the cast has meshed well. “They adore each other!” Shaw said.

When asked what is unique about this play, Shaw paused. “Casey is a lost young man; he throws himself into Elvis and other characters because he really doesn’t know who he is. Casey hides behind the other personas because they are more together than he is. He is a man-child who cannot even balance his checkbook.” However, Tracy takes Casey under his wing and makes him an amazing drag queen—and a better person, too.

Just two years out of high school, young Brianna Maloney said she is thrilled to be performing in her first play with Dezart Performs. She did quite a bit of musical theater at Palm Springs High School with David Green, who introduced her to Shaw. Brianna calls her character, Jo, “the boss” in the marriage with Casey. Jo loves her husband, but she is frustrated by his irresponsibility. She knows the Elvis thing is his passion—but it’s not paying the bills, which is an even bigger problem now that a baby is coming. Still, she gets a kick out of Casey’s Elvis performances, and to some degree lives vicariously through him.

Sean Timothy Brown calls his character, Casey, a simpleton. ”He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Brown said. But Casey is passionate about performing, and loves being onstage. He takes to the drag stuff quickly, and finds that “Georgia McBride” has traits he wishes he had himself.

Brown—who had never done drag before this show—worked with Shaw previously in the cast of Dezart’s production of Clybourne Park. Local audiences have also seen him in Bad Jews, by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, and as Daddy Warbucks in Palm Springs High School’s recent production of Annie.

Shaw says that with all of the musical numbers, The Legend of Georgia McBride is unlike anything Dezart has ever done. There is no particular theme to this year’s 10th anniversary season, which will be celebrated with an anniversary party and fundraising event hosted by Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge on Sunday, Jan. 14.

Shaw said he’s looking forward to starting the season on Pride weekend with The Legend of Georgia McBride.

“It’s a play with a heart of gold,” Shaw said. “It’s so much fun!”

Dezart Performs’ The Legend of Georgia McBride will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Nov. 3, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $40 for opening night with a post-show reception; $32 for evening performances; and $28 for matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Michael Shaw, the artistic director and co-founder of Dezart Performs, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he helped start the theater company back in 2008.

“I was living in Los Angeles, so I was running the theater with my co-founder at the time,” Shaw said. “I went back and forth … and was still holding down my job in Los Angeles. I realized for it to grow, I needed to be here full-time. I needed to be entrenched in the community, because in order to be successful, you need to be in the community and get support for a nonprofit.

“I thought going into it that it was an avenue to explore new scripts. I really went into this thinking, ‘No stress; it’ll be fun. It’ll be an outlet to explore my creative side as an actor’—and the first four years, it was exactly that. But when you decide to take it to the next level, there are responsibilities that come with that. Things mushroomed and grew.”

Things mushroomed and grew so much, in fact, that Dezart Performs is outgrowing its home, the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. That’s why Shaw recently announced Dezart was embarking on a campaign to raise money for a new and bigger theater to call home.

Dezart Performs is not alone. Coachella Valley Repertory announced last year it had agreed to purchase the Desert Cinemas movie theater building in Cathedral City and turn it into the company’s new home, after outgrowing spaces in The Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage. Meanwhile, Desert Theatreworks outgrew its space at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert and just moved into a new space at the Indio Performing Arts Center.

Yep: Local theater companies are on the move.


Michael Shaw (far left) and the company of Dezart Performs' Casa Valentina watch as makeup artist James Geier demonstrates makeup techniques on actor Dale Morris. COURTESY OF CLARK DUGGERWhen Shaw (pictured here, at the far left) and co-founder Daniela Ryan began Dezart Performs, the company placed an emphasis on finding and developing brand-new plays. However, in recent years, Dezart Performs has shifted its focus away from new plays, and toward edgier fare. For example, the 2016-2017 season included Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, a play based on a real-life haven for transvestites in the 1960s, and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a play that tackles issues of race, housing and gentrification.

“Our season has an obligation to deliver socially relevant and provocative story lines. We’ve always tried to do that—and our audiences didn’t expect that in our little town a few years ago,” Shaw said. “They say, ‘I really love A Chorus Line,’ and didn’t expect to see Clybourne Park, which not only uses the F-word quite often, but also uses the C-word. When I read the script, I thought, ‘Oh my God! They’re going to pull out pitchforks and torches!’ (But audiences) loved the fact they were challenged and, in the context of the storyline, felt (such language) was necessary. The audience is there with you. That’s exciting. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done Clybourne Park, and wouldn’t have expected that.”

Shaw said he’s enjoyed watching the Coachella Valley theater world grow and prosper.

“All of the theater directors are friends,” he said. “We all communicate; we all get together and see each other’s shows; and we all support each other. We make an effort to support each other, because we need more than one theater. You can’t have just one hamburger joint or one grocery store. We all have that same belief in supporting theater in the community.”

Dezart’s fundraising campaign for a new facility is in its initial stages, Shaw said.

“What we’re doing is announcing the pledge drive and setting in motion the path to achieve all of the things we need to for us to say, ‘We have now secured a facility, and we’re now in renovation,’” he said. But we’re a few years off from that. We’re establishing a position for a director of development, fundraising, and consulting to put us in a place where we, as an organization, can solidify the foundation and the people we need to make it happen. It means bringing on more staff, funding that staff, and taking a number of things off my plate so I can continue to grow in my role as the artistic director. I wear many hats, but I’m also only one person. Even with the support of volunteers, we need to start thinking ahead and ask, ‘What do we need to do to allow us to grow our programming?’”


CV Rep's Ron Celona and Gary D. Hall (left) sign the option agreement to purchase the former IMAX theater in Cathedral City with city officials Joe Giarrusso and Tami Scott (right).The Coachella Valley Repertory, currently based at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, was also founded in 2008. It’s the only company in the valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with the Actors’ Equity union.

Founder and artistic director Ron Celona said the theater has grown well beyond what was originally planned.

“We were 2 years old, using outside venues, before we were able to rent our own space,” Celona said. “Our first big milestone was moving into (a space in) The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, which was an empty shell. We hired a contractor to build our 86-seat theater, lobby and box office. We expanded to the next unit, building offices for staff. … The first hire was a box-office staff member, and little by little, we have grown to be an eight-full-time-staff company. It might be called show business, and it’s certainly a business—and it needs to be run like a business.”

Celona said business success led to CV Rep’s current status.

“We started as a non-union theater that contracted Equity actors. A few years back, the accomplishment of the company as a business allowed us to become a full-fledged Equity house. It makes Coachella Valley Repertory the only Equity house in the Coachella Valley,” Celona said. “What that does is gives us national coverage.”

Celona said the CV Rep production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 2013 marked a key moment in the company’s history.

“That particular production was a turning point for Coachella Valley Repertory. Why? Because of the recognition of its production values and the cast,” Celona said. “Basically, we got a wide word of mouth, and it spread like wildfire. People who had never heard of us started to check us out. Prior to that, it was very much a small, contained following. Our subscription base was around 300, and afterward, we shot up to 700 to 800 subscribers the following year. Each year since, we’ve grown by about 200.

With that increase in subscribers, and 8,000 people attending the 2016-2017 season shows—in an 86-seat theater—it’s time for CV Rep to move into a bigger space.

“We have signed an option with the city of Cathedral City to purchase the old IMAX movie theater and two adjoining restaurants—the building and the land,” Celona said. “We have until June 2018 to execute that option. Basically, what that means is we’ve had a capital campaign since October 2016 to raise the money we need. The total campaign is a $6 million campaign. We’re just shy of our first $1 million as of right now. We need at least a percentage of that ($6 million) campaign to enter the agreement and break ground and build a state-of-the-art playhouse.”

Celona said he’s proud of the mark that CV Rep and the valley’s other theater companies have left on the valley.

“I think any arts organization in the community … we’re all making a difference,” Celona said. “The difference is to enlighten, inspire and educate our community to be a better place to live in, and (for us to be) better human beings in the world. Theater has always been a mirror to its community.”


Desert Theatreworks has grown in popularity and size since the community-based theater company was formed 2013, in part because the company produces a wide variety of shows, according to artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez.

“In our first season, we had around 2,000 people who came through and bought tickets. Last year, we had 8,000 people who bought tickets,” Phillips-Martinez said. “We’ve tried to do a diverse amount of productions, and not just things that are interesting to us. What we try to do is broaden our audience with every show that we do, or pick a different type of show in our season that will bring in different audiences and keep them coming back.”

Phillips-Martinez cited a 2015 production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone as a show that furthered Desert Theatreworks’ reputation.

“We did it in September that year, when the audiences aren’t always bountiful, and it was nice to get that critical response—and the audiences just kept coming back,” He said. “It was a big hit for us, and it was a different type of show. … We staged and choreographed nearly every number and theme transition. It was all original and a lot of fun.”

Phillips-Martinez said he’s had to battle commonly held assumptions about community theater.

“The public perception that community theater is of a lesser quality is a challenge,” he said. “… The work will speak for itself. If you focus on quality, you can put on whatever you want in your space, and your audience will trust you. That’s what the original challenge was—changing the perception of what community theater is.”

I could hear the excitement in Phillips-Martinez’s voice when he talked about Desert Theatreworks’ move from the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center to the Indio Performing Arts Center.

“We had outgrown the (Desert Theatreworks space at the Arthur Newman Theatre). We had asked for more space, and they had more to give, but for whatever reason, they were not willing to do that, and it’s fine,” Phillips-Martinez said. “Our customers wanted us to stay there and wrote more than 700 letters to the city of Palm Desert, but after much deliberation and trying, it didn’t happen.

“The city of Indio offered us the space. A solution was made quickly, and the show must go on. We love the space, and the city of Indio is our partner in producing our shows. They’re helping us promote our shows as well. It’s very nice to get a municipality’s support in producing shows, because it gives (us) some new support that we didn’t have before.”

The Indio Performing Arts Center has long had challenges attracting tenants and audiences. However, Phillips-Martinez said that it’ll work out just fine for Desert Theatreworks.

“One of the advantages that we have is we have such a good track record of producing shows, and (a large) number of shows we’ve presented, which is 32 main-stage productions,” he said. “Most theater companies that are local only do three or four a year; we produce eight to 10. If you’re looking for viability and sustainability, (the larger number of shows) is more attractive in sustaining a place like that. The possibilities are good.”

Published in Theater and Dance

Dezart Performs’ description of Chapatti, now playing at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, includes one actor, one actress, one dog and … HOW MANY cats? Oh, my aching allergies!

Of course, they don’t have actual cats on stage … remember that expression about “herding cats”? They’d be all over the room. And even a dog is … well, an unreliable performer. So fear not, my fellow feline-allergy sufferers: All the animals are mimed in this show. However, with great names like Prudence, Salvadore and Indiana, they seem very much alive and real. Chapatti is also a dog, named after an East Indian dish—and you’ll find out why in the play.

And you’re going to love it—the play, that is: Chapatti is the surprise of the season, a two-person show that will reach even the most hard-hearted, cynical, world-weary, super-sophisticated audience. It is an emotional shocker that only the Irish could create … and I can’t imagine any other two actors than Dana Hooley and Dale Morris playing these roles. Set in modern-day Dublin, Chapatti reaches deeply into the lives of two ordinary working-class people and their pets.

The author, Christian O’Reilly, has created a most masterful script. Just when you think you know everything about these two characters, he drops a bomb, and then another, and then another that changes everything, making the characters ever more complex and infinitely more precious. O’Reilly has brilliantly brought to life two characters you will never forget. He reminds us how much pain is hidden in most people, and how much our wounds define us. How often do we rush to judgment about people without knowing their full story? This play teaches us to look deeper before reaching conclusions. It’s a lesson worth remembering.

O’Reilly also gives us some very interesting information about pets. Having recently adopted an African spurred tortoise, we were most eager to learn these nuggets of wisdom, which hopefully apply to all creatures great and small.

Michael Shaw’s direction is perfect. He craftily unfolds the pace and intensity of the script so that we are rapt for the full 90 minutes. You can’t take your eyes off these actors because of the play’s flawless rhythm. You won’t consciously notice it, but you’ll sure feel it. The actors’ moves are minimalized and thoroughly motivated, and the blocking gets full marks.

Part of the reason for that lovely rhythm goes to the amazing lighting by Phil Murphy, who has truly surpassed his own genius with this work. He focuses the attention exactly where it’s needed, and as a result, the sweeps from one location to another are not just efficient, but enhancing. The rich colors are glorious, and I particularly loved his “warm” lighting when it was used.

Yet more kudos go to the set designer, Thomas Valach. His creation of a multi-use stage works magnificently with the lighting and the direction to create a variety of locales that blend smoothly and effortlessly. He expands the stage into a teahouse, a graveyard, a veterinarian’s office, a dark and lonely bachelor’s apartment, and a home overrun with cats—all seamlessly. I particularly loved the invisibly supported window.

But the actors! Let’s talk about the performances of Dale Morris and Dana Hooley. First, they have chosen to use that lilt in their voices that defines Irish speech, rather than affecting heavy accents—an interesting choice which works and makes every word understandable. Second, these are not gorgeous Hollywood-glamour types or dazzling feature-perfect TV stars. These actors look their parts: two simple people of humble means whose working life is now behind them. Everyday people, I guess they could be called. Great casting! Yet their spirits rise to make them so very special—and you will find them fascinating. Third, the script is nonstop verbiage composed of monologues or conversations, and the body of work is a feat of memorization—which these actors breeze through without breaking stride. The variety of emotions they, and we, experience are as many as The Emerald Isle’s famous 40 shades of green. We were not prepared to be so moved by these very skilled performers, and the experience is one that will captivate you. Bring a hanky.

Let’s also praise the work of Diane McClure, the production and stage manager; Jim Lapidus the costume designer (who has a surprise of his own up his “sleeve” in the final scenes); and Clark Duggar, a producer who also designed the sound.

Shaw tells us that Dezart is “moving on” and beginning to look for a new home of their own as the company concludes its ninth season of shows in the Coachella Valley. The Desert Theatre League has bestowed 147 nominations and 55 awards on Dezart, which has mounted four world premieres.

Afterward, I came home to hug my tortoise.

Chapatti, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. The play is 90 minutes long, with no intermission, and tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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