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Wed07172019

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

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

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

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

Frankly, I was uncomfortable going to see Clybourne Park, Dezart Performs’ latest production.

The setting for this “Black (and White) Comedy by Bruce Norris,” as the play’s poster says, is Chicago—in 1959 for Act 1, then fast-forwarding 50 years to the same house in 2009 for Act 2. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, and it requires a cast of eight—a sea change for Dezart, which until previous show Casa Valentina, always kept the cast size small (possibly because of those dressing rooms?).

The play deals with the always-awkward topic of race and real estate. My husband, Ted, was born in Chicago, and we have discussed the way his city divided up into enclaves dominated by Italians, Greeks, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. For those who can remember the bad old days of segregated neighborhoods and the “blockbusting” that took place, this play could serve as an unpleasant reminder. Yes, it’s important for the generations who have followed to be informed of this country’s often-dark history, lest we romanticize the past by forgetting how life really was back then … but I concede I was uncomfortable seeing a play tackle such an awkward topic.

But … what a surprise: This production is amazing! The writing is just astonishing. The conversation is completely realistic, with people butting in, cutting each other off, misinterpreting and talking when they should be listening. Clybourne Park is a magnificent example of playwright Bruce Norris’ magisterial command of the language and his shrewd understanding of people.

The direction by Michael Shaw is incredibly impressive, with his steady hand guiding the actors to performances even and strong throughout. He gets credit for total success with the extraordinarily difficult lines. (He confided to me afterward that the greatest part of their rehearsals was spent perfecting the speeches and dialogue, some of which require a language warning.) Each of the actors was allowed to develop his or her character(s) so the “voice” of each role is clarion clear. But it is the director’s prodigious talent and multiple skills that create the play’s consistency of tone. The blocking is also textbook perfection. Wow.

And the acting … oh my! Everyone is a “character”—well, actually, two. The whole cast (with one exception) plays two roles: One in 1959, and a different individual in 2009. One of the delights of this production is seeing the characters the actors have developed. We watch a complete person in each act—the good, bad and ugly. We see their pain, their tempers, their sweetness and their struggles. We glimpse their past history and get to know them more intimately than you’d think the time would permit.

David Youse opens the first act and dominates it; he’s a lit fuse we fear will explode—but when? His Russ is a man-in-a-grey-flannel-suit type, but we see so much more danger simmering beneath his surface. We search for a clue about his repressed anger, but dread finding it. His second-act role of Dan is a chameleonic contrast—he’s a blasé construction worker with a totally different voice, stance and attitude. What fun! Now THIS is acting.

Playing his wife, Bev, in Act 1 is Theresa Jewett. She’s a perfect product of 1950s-era women’s magazines and advertising—not just in her voice and appearance, but also in her dizzy attitude and even her belief system. But watch that heart-shaped face manage an enormous range of emotions—the way she handles a distancing husband, her black housekeeper, or her painful memories. She transmogrifies for Act 2 into Kathy, a feisty blonde lawyer with attitude—a delicious contrast, and equally believable.

Desiree Clarke in Act 1, plays Francine, a black maid who expertly balances the subservience of a domestic with her own dignity and her inborn sense of right and wrong. She is beautifully complex, and she gains our respect. In Act 2, Clark becomes Lena, a new-millennium woman with power and a strong sense of self which she asserts fearlessly but quietly. Her flawless diction is lovely.

Robert Rancano is Jim, a hapless cleric whose rigid adherence to his teachings and rather poor understanding of his parishioners makes him, despite his great voice, an ineffective and predictable minister. Rancano creates this memorable character by making him forgettable. In Act 2, he’s Tom, who is supposed to be leading this meeting about the contract, but is preoccupied and distracted. Rancano gives a subtle performance that required a lot of thinking.

Robert Ramirez creates the role of Albert, the husband of Francine, striving to appear at ease in this Act 1 white household. Ramirez gives a multi-layered performance almost entirely with his extraordinarily expressive eyes. He draws our attention with few words but plenty of reaction. In Act 2, he becomes Kevin, married to Lena, a smart and confident professional with nothing left to prove about himself. You like him in both of his well-developed roles.

Rob Hubler appears as Karl in Act 1, and earns our great admiration thanks to his willingness to appear foolish. A well-meaning bungler, his friendship is almost a liability, despite his sincerity and his fine voice. Hubler adroitly switches to Steve in Act 2, playing a stronger person who comes to surprise us—and his wife—with his odd and previously unexpressed views.

The extraordinary role of Betsy, played by Phylicia Mason, gives us a dear character who is not only pregnant, but deaf. She is very credible, including the gentle forgiveness she shows her husband, Karl, as he misspells his sign language (yes, I caught that), and to people who thoughtlessly turn away from her while speaking—or who stupidly yell at her, hoping to be heard. Lovely acting! In Act 2, she is uncomfortably pregnant AGAIN, but this time as Lindsay, married to Steve, and now is a very vocal, assertive and even sometimes shrill creature.

The lone character who plays just one role is Sean Timothy Brown, who is Kenneth. He appears as a perfect military prototype—handsome, tall and fit, looking fabulous in uniform. We don’t know him long enough to appreciate all of his subtleties, but he is hugely affecting with his air of tragedy in this flashback. Again, we are reminded how effective even a small role can be.

Kudos to the cast, the director the entire supportive crew of this play for a job superbly done. Clybourne Park is the surprise of the season, with its controversial, occasionally offensive and sometimes hilarious script. Don’t doubt that you will be surprised by it, too.

Clybourne Park, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.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