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Thu12052019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The final offering of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s 2018-2019 season is an unusual show, composed of two one-act plays.

Written by the same author, Ellen Byron, they’re connected by a character who appears in both. The first is called Graceland, and the second one—which actually takes place a decade earlier and provides a backstory for the first play—is called Asleep on the Wind. You needn’t fear that you’re in for a lengthy marathon: With an intermission, the plays total an hour and 35 minutes.

Both plays are directed by local legend Rosemary Mallett, who during her time teaching theater at Palm Springs High School produced over 80 shows (!); here, she’s assisted by Eve Fromberg.

Graceland opens on designer Lauren Bright’s stark set, lit by Ashton J. Bolanos. We see only a pup tent and a giant cooler resting on a square of grass, and one fold-up lawn chair. We eventually realize that this is across the street from Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home, which opened to the public on June 4, 1982—and this is the night before that opening.

Enter the owner of said tent: Bev Davies, played by Bonnie Gilgallon (a longtime Independent contributor and friend, we should note). She is dressed in a very 1980s outfit of pink and white polyester, clunky heeled sandals, and the most amazing hairdo: Blonde, curly and teased-within an inch of its life, it looks fit to withstand hurricanes or possibly any natural disaster. (Can you believe we really dressed like this in the ’80s?) Bev speaks with a country twang and a hard-edged attitude. She is an Elvis worshiper—she even refers to Graceland as a “sacred place,” and she has staked out the first spot to enter the mansion at the appointed hour.

However, her status is challenged by Rootie, played by Maricela Sandoval. Rootie is a young and diminutive brunette in faded cutoff overalls, a plaid work shirt, and cute little designer running shoes. (Costumer Frank Cazares has done some thinking about this play.) The heavily made-up Rootie loves Elvis, and needs to be the first one through the gates of Graceland for a variety of weird reasons.

Why do these people go through such an effort to salute their idol? Their emotions go way beyond fandom; they pin a lot of feelings onto the object of their obsession. It’s not just memorizing the words to his songs or reading an occasional article about him: They know him. They feel they can actually communicate with him. They buy and hoard souvenirs and mementos and paraphernalia. Hey, it keeps the economy going, so how bad can it be? But … why?

The two women clash, each vying to be first in line—but inevitably they talk to each other, and we learn that Bev’s husband, Tyler, is an Elvis lookalike … at least to her. Both ladies are married, and the backgrounds are sketched in as we learn about Rootie’s messy life and her family tree, whose limbs are dangling with relatives who suffered untimely deaths and tragedies; we also learn about Bev’s peculiar marriage. They find some common ground as well, and actually enjoy some Mallomars together, which Bev just happens to have brought along in her giant cooler. (In a thoughtful touch, they’re also available for the audience at the concession table.)

In Asleep on the Wind, the scene changes to a night of stars and singing crickets, featuring one twisted bare tree and a stump, along with a partial ruin of a pillar left over from grander times. We are now in the Louisiana bayous, and the time is 10 years before Graceland. We meet a much-younger Rootie, still played by a now-almost-unrecognizable Sandoval, here a barefoot child with no makeup, no sass, no curves. Here, her tiny stature works for her, especially since she is dwarfed by her much-older brother, Beau, played by Sean Timothy Brown. They are Cajuns, with their own music and vocabularies enhanced by French expressions and attitudes. Rootie and Beau have created their own world, a sibling relationship based on playful teasing, warmth, talking nonsense and great affection. The two are oddly isolated from their other relatives. Through their conversation, we learn about their lives and values—and begin to pick up clues as to why Elvis matters so much in their rocky existence.

The playwright slowly reveals to us the recipe that creates an obsessive fan. It seems that Bev, Rootie and Beau all derive great comfort from their adoration of Elvis because it fills a huge hole in their lives. All three of them have a lack of direction, and no feeling of past accomplishment; otherwise, they have little to live for or look forward to. They see no clear path for themselves, so instead, they transfer their energies to their hero, and relish his successes. They may not have found themselves, but they have found Elvis, and it works for them. Their lives may have little opportunity for change—but look at what Elvis got to have, spend, appear in, sing, eat, drink and enjoy! It’s an interesting and curious life lesson—because we all know people who are similarly adrift on the thin surface of life.

Our wish list for this production would include a deeper understanding Cajun culture—the music of their speech, the lilt and better French pronunciation. Becoming a convincing denizen of the bayous takes way more than just slapping on a generic Southern accent. Also, we’d love for the actors to be less stiff, and not telegraph their next moves—Bev’s most-dramatic moment is bumbled because of this—and more passion regarding obsessive fandom, as they don’t convince the audience to care about their feelings. That said, they are amazingly word-perfect on their often-difficult lines. Frankly, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better to reverse the order of these one-acts and keep the chronology correct.

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company promises an interesting season for next year—and we can’t wait to see what comes next from them.

Graceland and Asleep on the Wind, productions of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, are performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 28, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the plays runs about an hour and 35 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

How auspicious to open a show on Chinese New Year. Gung hay fat choy, by the way, and welcome to the year of the dog. People born under this sign are loyal, honest, just, socially popular, helpful and decisive—and they keep all their worries and anxieties buried deep inside. Famous dogs include Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Elvis, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

That’s the good news. Election Day, presented by the hardworking, clever and talented people at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is our topic, but all the news regarding this play is not so good.

We now live in a world where humor, and particularly political humor, has changed drastically. Of course, who could ever have predicted that the show’s opening night would follow the ghastly reality of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., just two days before? With that and other recent horrors, in my mind, there just wasn’t much to find that’s funny about this play’s hostage mutilation, car bombs, violence or assault weapons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some amusing lines and situations in the show. I’m sure the script, by Josh Tobiessen, read well when DETC was making the decision about presenting this play. Many in the opening-night audience may disagree with my feelings, as the audience offered a lot of support and encouragement.

The greeter at the front door pasted cute little stickers on all of us as we arrived, reading “I VOTED TODAY.” It reminded me of all the kerfuffle and excitement and emotion of our 2016 elections. Election Day’s program-cover illustration was totally adorable. It set us in an enthusiastic if cautious frame of mind for the upcoming presentation. We were curious and intrigued to see what was to follow.

The story concerns a mayoral election in a northern California city. This is not a Republican-Democrat-independent political thing—this is about people trying to select a mayor from two choices: “the right guy” or the hated “Jerry Clark.” That was a relief—even for non-political me, as emotions still seem to run high every day on the news about American two-party politics.

The play opens on Brenda, an attorney, played by real-life TV weather person Kelley Moody, and Adam, her graphic-artist boyfriend, played by Sean Timothy Brown, who is moving into her apartment with her. The next scene introduces us to Adam’s sister, Cleo (Maricela Sandoval), and an activist hippie type, Edmund, or Eddie (Brian La Belle). Both are trying to look cool while slumped on a park bench and making plans for an act of protest about the election … with Molotov cocktails. None of these people come off as very likable, but when candidate Jerry Clark himself shows up for some desperate last-minute campaigning, the oily politician with his spiel of knee-jerk stock rigmarole, slickly played by Shawn Abramowitz, makes them look much nicer by comparison.

Directed by the legendary Rosemary Mallett, the action moves right along, and the actors are all on top of their rapid-fire lines. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and as the play bowls along, we watch some of the characters change—most notably Brenda, who ingests a batch of drugs and becomes hugely entertaining when high. In contrast, Sandoval’s Cleo—who loses some good lines through poor diction—comes off as an annoying teen rather than the young adult she’s supposed to be, despite drinking wine. (Note to young actors: It’s OK to turn your back on the audience, but not while speaking, especially in a room like the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, where the acoustics are so famously difficult.) Though Edmund smokes dope, he shows little change after—yes—inhaling, missing out on a great chance to mine the sure-fire comedy of portraying the stoned pothead, although his gravelly Nick Nolte-style voice is a great choice.

In contrast to that, observe Jerry Clark as he swallows a bottle of painkillers and shows us how it’s done, thanks to Abramowitz’ superb timing. Adam comes alive in a refrigerator bit, but otherwise stays pretty much the same. Good theater is all about the arc.

It’s interesting to see how the comedy that comes from the script compares and contrasts with the comedy that comes from the play’s director. Mallett has upped the pace with a lot of physical stuff, while the script throws out lines like the deadpanned, “You don’t need a truck to vote”—lines which come from situations and logic. Sometimes one works, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Unfortunately, sometimes neither.

Thirty years ago, this play probably would have been screamingly funny. How sad it is that today, at least for some of us, our laughs have been compromised by reality. Professional speakers tell me that about the only really safe topic to make fun of any more is yourself. While there are things to like about this production of Election Day—some of the humor does work, and Abramowitz is fantastic—there is just too much that rips the scabs off sensitivities to terrorism, bombs, victimization and harming other people to advance someone’s personal cause.

Election Day, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Squabbles over family heirlooms following the death of the patriarch are not new—but they are taken to a whole new level in the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, Bad Jews.

Written by Joshua Harmon, the play received an Outer Critic’s Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2012-2013. It’s set in a New York City apartment the evening after the funeral of Poppy, the aforementioned patriarch. His three grandchildren—Diana (she prefers her Hebrew name, Daphna), her cousin Jonah, and his brother Liam (who does NOT like his Hebrew moniker, Schlomo)—are spending the night, as is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.

The word “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe the dynamics of this group. Things start out tense and deteriorate steadily from there. Diana is angry at Liam because he and Melody (a shiksa!) missed the funeral after Liam dropped his iPhone from an Aspen ski lift. But the bad blood between the two cousins goes way back: Diana professes deep devotion to her Jewish faith, while Liam takes a much more casual approach. His propensity to date non-Jewish women really sticks in Diana’s craw; she thinks they’re “beneath him.” Liam, on the other hand, mocks what he calls Diana’s temporary religious fanaticism, and does not believe that her Israeli fiancé truly exists.

But the real drama of the play centers around a piece of jewelry Poppy wore for most of his life. It’s a chain with the Hebrew word “chai” (living) spelled out in gold. He kept it safe from the Nazis while in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. He later proposed to his wife with it, because he could not afford a ring. Diana desperately wants this memento of her grandfather, and feels that it’s rightfully hers—especially since she’s always been a devout Jew. What Diana doesn’t know is that the chain has already been passed down to Liam (sent to him by his mother), and that he intends to give it to Melody this very evening when he proposes.

Each member of the four person cast is terrific. Though he does not have many lines, Cameron Shingler skillfully portrays Jonah’s anguish and discomfort at being thrust into the middle of his family members’ battles. He sits quietly absorbed in his iPhone or with his head in his hands as the verbal artillery flies around him. You get the sense he’d rather the floor open up and swallow him. Actively listening onstage and believably reacting (or NOT reacting as appropriate) requires great acting skill. Shingler pulls it off.

Kyrsten Watt is equally as good as Melody, the meek, squeaky-voiced former opera student. After just two professional auditions, Melody bagged a classical music career and is now working for a nonprofit—but she sports a tattoo of a treble clef on her calf (which Diana describes as “the size of a tumor”) as a sentimental reminder of her former life. Like Jonah, Melody tries valiantly to avoid being drawn into the Diana-Liam war. In an attempt to relax everyone when the yelling gets too intense, Melody sings an absolutely hilarious, off-pitch version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s one of the highlights of the show.

As Liam, Sean Timothy Brown ably captures the character’s shallow, smug and entitled demeanor, and matches Diana insult for insult. Some of their verbal sparring is quite loud and sometimes frightening. Being Jewish does not seem to mean all that much to him. We learn that once during Passover, Liam apparently consumed a forbidden cookie, proclaiming “I’m a bad Jew”—hence the play’s title. But Brown also shows a tender side; he makes Liam’s love for Melody seem quite genuine.

The MVP Award for this production of Bad Jews goes to Jordana Simone Pepper as the verbose, hot-tempered Diana. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, when she could have used a little more vocal projection, she’s nearly flawless. Once this girl gets started talking, it’s hard to get her to stop. (You know the type.) Whether she’s shouting at Liam over their religious differences, chastising Jonah for not taking her side, or grilling poor Melody about where her people were from “before Delaware,” Pepper makes every note ring true. She’s often a hoot, sometimes irritating, occasionally touching, and always real.

Rosemary Mallett’s direction is spot-on. She gets strong performances from everyone, while a terrific set and great costumes, sound and lighting all help bring this thought-provoking play to life.

Kudos to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s founding director Tony Padilla and executive director Shawn Abramowitz for another excellent production. (Full disclosure: I acted in Desert Ensemble’s previous show.) Bad Jews is not bad; it’s damn good.

Bad Jews, produced by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 17, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets, call 760-565-2476 or go to www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For many years, Coachella Valley audiences have enjoyed the works of award-winning playwright Tony Padilla. He was co-founder of the Playwright’s Circle with Marilee Warner, and is now enjoying success with his own company, Desert Ensemble Theatre.

A member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Tony has won many local awards, including the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing for his play Becoming Ava. Knowing his impressive background, I always look forward to seeing a new play by Tony with great anticipation. His latest offering, Two by Tony, is a couple of one-act plays now on stage at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The first is Family Meeting, directed by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director, Rosemary Mallett. It’s a drama peppered with dark comedy which takes place in the home of Daniel Mann (Alan Berry), a bitter, washed-up playwright now reduced to writing B-movie scripts. He’s planning to relocate to New York to get back into the live-theater scene, where he feels he belongs. Daniel’s 20-something grandson, Jason (Shawn Abramowitz), has stopped by to ask if he can move in for a while. Armed with an Internet law degree, Jason is also planning a long-distance move to get his career rolling. He’s anxious to move out of his parents’ home, because their constant bickering is driving him crazy.

Soon, his father, Ed (Rob Hubler), shows up, looking for advice from Daniel on whether or not to divorce his wife, Karen (Denise Strand). Ed calls Karen to join them, and the whole clan is soon gathered in Daniel’s study, swigging red wine and trading barbs. The marriage between Karen and Ed is beyond strained—he’s got an Internet porn addiction, and she’s banging the contractor. Everyone has buried resentments and baggage, but the animosity between Karen and her father-in-law is particularly intense.

The acting is uniformly strong, though there were some volume issues at the top of the show. At first, I thought Berry seemed a tad too young to be cast as Ed’s father, but that reservation faded eventually away. Berry’s Daniel clearly bears the scars of having been beaten up by life over the years. Abramowitz is quite likable as Jason; he spends a lot of time engrossed in computer games on his cell phone, partly to drown out the sound of his battling parents. As Ed, Hubler ably communicates the disappointment and frustration many of us face in middle age. Nothing’s going right—and now his son wants to get away from him. Denise Strand is terrific as Karen. The energy picks up noticeably when she enters the scene. She has fabulous mother-son chemistry with Abramowitz in some of the play’s few tender moments. Occasionally uncomfortable because it mirrors some of our own dysfunctional families (this group sure does drink a lot!), Family Meeting is thought-provoking and worth seeing.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, the second play, The Comeback, would get my vote. A farce directed by Padilla set in the mid 1950s, it’s reminiscent of 1940s films like Blithe Spirit and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The play tells the story of Nora Raymond (Lee Rice), a Norma Desmond-esque, aging film actress attempting a comeback with the help of her loyal assistant, Thelma (Theresa Jewett). Nora receives a mysterious message urging her to contact a Count Orca (Theo Nowicki). The count later arrives at her home to conduct a séance in hopes of contacting Johnny Bellini (Stephen McMillen), Nora’s long-missing and presumed-dead husband. When Johnny appears, much hilarity ensues. There’s lust, greed, schemes-within-schemes and characters who are not who they seem to be. Everything’s a bit over the top, and laughs abound. The cast is uniformly terrific.

As the dramatic, self-important Nora, Rice is perfect. Cute and petite, but exuding the egomania typical of Hollywood, Rice has the audience routing for Nora’s success, both in the movies and in love. Jewett is a scream as Thelma. Wise, wry and wary, she trusts almost no one, and does not suffer fools gladly. At one point, she advises Nora’s man-servant, Morgan (Nowicki, in a dual role), “Don’t try to be mysterious; you’re no good at it.” Jewett is known to many as an amazing singer; she’s one hell of an actress as well. This is an award-winning performance.

Equally as funny is Nowicki, particularly as Count Orca. Sporting a heavy accent and an obviously fake mustache, Nowicki romps through the role, having a great time onstage, and tickling the audience’s funny bone nonstop. McMillen is quite good as Johnny; he has just the right mix of good looks and comic acting chops.

Kudos to director Tony Padilla … and to playwright Padilla, for a nice evening of theater.

Two by Tony, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, or $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. The running time is just more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The word “inspiration” came up a lot.

I was talking with composer and orchestrator Saverio Rapezzi, and Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, about the creation of a one-night-only production of a new musical which has taken 10 years to bring to life.

Desert Ensemble will present Esperanza: The Musical of Hope as a concert performance at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24.

How did it all start? Writer Ken Luber, a TV and movie writer living in Idyllwild, began writing Esperanza’s book and lyrics in 2005—about sports figures, of all things. The work deals with the falls from grace of these once-worshipped creatures and their hopes to return to their former glory. When Saverio Rapezzi arrived in Los Angeles, Luber was one of the people he contacted while looking for work. The rest, of course, is history.

Shawn Abramowitz came into the picture when Luber contacted the DETC, because of the company’s interest in performing new works.

DETC started years ago as a theater-and-writing group, headed up by Tony Padilla and influenced by Rosemary Mallett, a legendary name in Palm Springs theater. The group offered students not only technical training, but also scholarships—a unique approach. As a theater company, DETC is now in its fourth season.

Esperanza has been in rehearsals since October, and Abramowitz promises theatergoers “a polished piece, with great music and a compelling story.” The cast includes Keisha D., Charles Herrera, Theresa Jewett, Phillip Moore and several others.

Saverio Rapezzi—don’t you love the name?—lives in Los Angeles half the year. The other months are spent in Italy’s Tuscany region, where his musician wife conducts choirs and teaches at the conservatory where they met. In L.A., his company Film Scoring Lab creates music for movies. On his website, he offers examples of various sounds to express the different moods of the films; it’s a great tutorial on this very special skill.

Rapezzi cut his teeth on short films, but has gone on to score feature-length movies as well. “If it’s a good film, it’s easy,” he muses. “It inspires you—you pick up on the rhythm. And if I like the story, each scene’s music is already in my mind by the time it’s finished. I play the scenes back two or three times, and then start writing it out.”

Rapezzi is one of those rare and special composers who can hear music in his head and write it down without having to pick it out on an instrument. His main instrument is the guitar, and he holds degrees in classical guitar and composition from the Royal Philharmonic Academy of Bologna. He also studied film-scoring with stellar names including Ennio Morricone, and continued his graduate studies at UCLA. But his first influence, as with so many musicians, was his father. He was a classical guitarist, and at age 13, young Saverio followed his papa’s lead, eventually using the guitar “to compose what was in my heart.” Rapezzi then became a respected concert performer.

However, writing music for the movies was always his goal. His first big film was a Mexican psychological thriller, The Echo of Fear.

“It was so exciting to see my name on the screen in a cinema!” he remembers. The same director hired him again for his next movie—the ultimate compliment. He recently finished scoring Ignatius Lin’s The System Is Broken. In 2015, Rapezzi’s new opera will debut—in Hungary, even though it’s in Italian.

When Rapezzi teamed up with Ken Luber to create Esperanza, he wrote about half the show—just enough to use in an audition. When they brought it to DETC, and the answer was a resounding, “YES!” he immediately wrote the rest of the music.

What’s in store for the future of Esperanza? Abramowitz, who also works both as an actor and as an account executive for KESQ-TV, dares to dream: He wants to take it all the way to Broadway!

“Even if it changes one person’s life, that makes a huge impact,” he said.

Summing up, I couldn’t resist asking Rapezzi what he thought of Americans. He took time to reflect seriously, and announced, “They are the best at getting things done. They know how to make things work. Italians are creative, but … .” Then he shrugged.

Will the performance become the first step on the long road to Broadway? “It takes time,” Abramowitz said. “But the message is strong—it’s one of hope, no matter where life takes you.”

Can’t wait. It sounds like … an inspiration.

The concert reading of Esperanza: The Musical of Hope takes place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance