CVIndependent

Tue02182020

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Creating suspense has to be one of the most difficult effects for a play to achieve.

In movies, the complex use of sound effects, special lighting and music can all heighten that tension, along with some camera-lens trickery and a lot of cleverly timed editing. Yet at the Pearl McManus Theater in Palm Springs, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced one of the most jaw-dropping, edge-of-seat, suspenseful live plays you will ever see—with absolutely none of those fancy assists.

Adoption Roulette uses only three actors and a black-box theater setting … literally: There are four black wooden boxes that get shuffled around the stage to be used as imaginary chairs, a desk, or a seat on an airplane, against the black-curtained background. There is no scenery except a minimalist white-pipe impression of a couple of rooftops to imply an urban setting. The show uses the most basic lighting, zero sound effects, no props and few costume changes.

But Adoption Roulette will fry your mind.

To accomplish this kind of theater experience, you obviously require a great script—and artistic director Jerome Elliott can take credit for its discovery. At the theater, we were introduced to one of the playwrights, Joel Vig, and we chatted briefly about his bringing to life this true story, authored along with the woman who actually lived it, Elizabeth Fuller. The result is a magnificent and tightly written play that starts off so innocently that you can’t possibly dream of what lies ahead.

This nice American couple, Liz and Reuel (pronounced “rule”), want to adopt a child—specifically, a little girl. They find intolerable roadblocks and insufferable delays with the adoption system in the United States, so they investigate adopting a child from Russia, where it is apparently a little easier and faster. What happens to them during the winter of 2004 as a result is … unthinkable. This is truly one of the most surprising scripts you will ever see—and DETC is presenting it for the first time ever: This is Adoption Roulette’s world premiere!

Shawn Abramowitz directs this two-hour, two-act show, and for his cast, he has shrewdly collected the considerable talents of Yo Younger, Fergus Loughnane and Adina Lawson. Younger plays the key role of Elizabeth (Liz) Fuller, while Loughnane plays her husband, Reuel—as well as four other parts. Lawson gets to play a total of seven supporting roles.

The bulk of the work falls on the delicate shoulders of Younger. As the hope-filled Elizabeth, this actress must make us empathize with her decisions and accept her rationalizations, regardless of whether life is sunny or otherwise. She draws us in slowly but surely, gradually raising the tension of her frustrations to a pitch that becomes almost unbearable. Watching her, particularly in the second act, you forget to breathe; you forget she is an actress; and you forget you are watching a play. Some of Younger’s lines are spoken directly to the audience as a narration of the events, and she makes it seem perfectly natural for her to step outside the action and explain it to us, then slide effortlessly back into her role. Younger’s extraordinary performance is not to be missed—and I pray that her vocal cords can stand up through the run of the play. Just to watch her hands is a study; it is beautiful work.

Loughnane plays her husband as an engaged and reasonable man with naturally sound instincts and the good judgment that is born of experience. He is fully believable as Reuel, and his concentration and focus are admirable. In sharp contrast, he also plays Igor, a cab driver with attitude. He creates a colorful and likable character—a chain smoker and a Willie Nelson aficionado (Psssst! Don’t forget to exhale that smoke!)—who pops up frequently through the play. He also plays a smoothly handsome airline pilot and a scary agency official as well, though they are less-explored characters.

Adina Lawson has waaaay too much fun romping through her seven yummy roles. Some are better defined than others, but her strange blonde, Olenka, is unforgettable. It is her largest part, and she has mined it well, creating a rich character who keeps us baffled as to whether she is friend or foe. She also brings to life a briefly hilarious Nurse Blatovsky and a fascinating Russian judge (an homage to Judge Judy) we wish had more stage time. She also plays several American ladies and a spokeswoman, characters who appear too seldom for us to get to know very well. It’s fun to see an actress relishing her creations.

Abramowitz’s direction is to be admired. The skillful and measured increase in the play’s tension is meted out perfectly; I shudder to think of what the director and his cast went through in rehearsals. The only possible criticism to make involves the use of mime, a staple of black-box theater and staged readings. As they speak on the phones, some actors are “holding” a phone, while others are just talking out to the audience … in the same conversation. Usually, the actors all do it the same way, with “phones” or without. It’s a small point, but worth mentioning, as it happened frequently. Other than that, the blocking is beautiful; the actors speak clearly; the theater’s new lighting is well-used; and the show is … amazing.

If you have ever experienced what qualifies as a living nightmare, this play will wring memories and feelings out of you. If you haven’t, it will horrify you to observe what you luckily have been spared. Either way, you cannot watch this cautionary tale without reacting to it—it’s that involving.

As adoptive parents of an endangered (and darling) desert tortoise, we went to the theater expecting a play that would make us feel all warm and fuzzy about the good we were creating through participating in adoption, even with “just” an animal.

Wrong. Go see this play … and brace yourself for a goose-bump-raising experience beyond your imagination.

Adoption Roulette, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Yee haw, little dogies! If’n you’re hankering for a Western-flavored good time, slap on yer best bib and tucker, and mosey on down to the Desert Rose Playhouse! Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch are a-waitin’ on you, buckaroos!

The sold-out house of patrons for the opening weekend of this world premiere sashayed into the theater in high-falutin’ denim, Stetsons and boots. The mood is immediately set by the piped-in sounds of great country Western music from stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

Interestingly, the stage and house at DRP have been completely reimagined for this production. The now-sprawling stage area features different levels that include a saloon, a set of stairs and even a hoosegow. (That’s “jail” to you whippersnappers.) A dividing curtain, which can be drawn across the stage at an angle, creates a backdrop that hosts small scenes. The reason for this is explained by playwright Andy Halliday in the printed program: The play was not originally envisioned like this; it was “cut down” for the DRP production, which changed the timing. Each scene transitions into the next without pause—which is actually how Shakespearean plays were originally enacted. This speeds up the play, and the flow allows the entire show to be filled with mini-scenes that keep the action moving nicely.

So here’s the premise: What if the Old West was … all gay? Why not? In this imaginary town of Snake Pit Gulch, the writer has mixed the classic stereotypes of the Drunken Sherriff, the Sneaky Villain, the Fresh and Innocent Farm Boys, the Young Troublemaker, and so on—and then thrown in a visiting Femme Fatale. It’s a recipe for pure melodrama. But gay, as one may expect from the valley’s only LGBTQ playhouse.

And it’s a musical—with lyrics by CJ Critt and music by Frank Schiro. The musical director is hardworking Jaci Davis—in an outrageous mustache and bowler hat—who not only serves as the accompanist for all the songs, but even doubles as the bartender in one scene! Alas, the mic-ed sound of the keyboard sometimes overpowers the singers.

It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that only a couple of the members of the enthusiastic seven-man cast are trained singers. Well … can you imagine doing the casting for this play? With a title like this one, the crucial emphasis was obviously on musculature rather than vocal skills. So the singing voices are mostly not … operatic, let’s say.

Kai Brothers plays Sam Cantrell, a naïve farm boy. Brothers is an actor who knows how to use his bright eyes to his advantage, and seems at home in this role. His big brother, Evan Cantrell, is played by Clay Sales, a professional dancer and bodybuilder (those quads!) with a degree in computer science—go figure—whose flawless skin and shaven head drew much approval from the audience. The boys head off to Snake Pit Gulch, where they meet such characters as the sheriff called Wheezy, played by Tom Warrick. Warrick plays Wheezy as an alcoholic who vows to quit drinking. The goal is to solve the mystery of a vanished deed to a gold mine—and the next time we see him, he is suffering a ghastly case of alcohol withdrawals. Warrick is a rare breed—an actor whose innate confidence allows him to play silly comedy, and who is fearless about appearing ridiculous. That’s a gift.

“Topeka” is the nickname of another of the town’s characters, played by Rob Rota. He is very believable as a flirt and a troublemaker who claims to have been raised by wolves and who rationalizes his promiscuity on the basis that he has never experienced true love. He gets to do a song with lots of double entendres. Michael Pacas devours the role of Big Jack Slade, the mandatory villain, although he modifies the usual nastiness of such roles and instead plays him as more of a slick, crooked businessman—in superbly toned shape. Mark Fearnow plays Scully Jones, a character who keeps popping up unexpectedly, along with a couple of other roles. Fearnow quickly establishes himself as a professional singer; his versatility and powerful, beautifully managed voice are refreshing.

But it’s Anthony Nannini who dominates the show. He plays Daisy LaFleur, a Pinkerton detective who goes undercover—in drag, of course. Wearing the most fantastic huge-skirted gowns and thigh-high boots, he switches hair colors from a ratty red to a prettily coiffed blonde, and handles his costumes smoothly. With his signature athleticism, Nannini bounces and leaps amazingly around the stage, and survives countless pratfalls on cue.

The play is directed and choreographed by Robbie Wayne, and much is made of the Gay Rodeo Association lending items and props to this play—including, on opening night, an actual horse! The legendary Phil Murphy again lends his considerable skills to the lighting design, cleverly creating smooth transitions between scenes. Matt Torres is the costume designer, deftly handling a multitude of enormous challenges—mostly decisions about the amount of skin shown.

The story is at times a bit confusing, but that doesn’t slow anybody down. There are misunderstandings and switches in the relationships—but it’s not about the plot, because that’s not what you came for. You came to laugh and see them thar muscles, right? You won’t be disappointed.

As one of the characters exclaims: Holy corn pone!

Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has begun its first full season in the company’s wonderful new playhouse in Cathedral City—and, rather appropriately, this season’s theme is “New Beginnings.”

The opening show is Dinner With Friends, by playwright Donald Margulies. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama back in 2000, along with a batch of other awards. Now … if you’re looking for a play full of action, this is not for you. If you’re looking for a catharsis-provoking tragedy that will have you wringing out your Kleenex, forget it. If you want an uproarious thigh-slapper of a comedy, move on. However … if you have ever wanted to be a fly on some wall where you could watch the interactions between people and see the changing of their relationships, this quiet play might interest you.

Dinner With Friends has a cast of four—all efficient actors who maintain a low-key approach to their work. The role of Beth is played by Corryn Cummins, a slender actress with a plump resume which includes work onstage, in film and on TV. Redheaded Beth, when we meet her, is finishing up dinner and vainly attempting to appear interested in the blathering of a married couple, Gabe and Karen, who are endlessly rattling on about their trip to Italy—specifically, about the food they encountered. It turns out that their profession is, in fact, writing about food, so it is of keen interest to them … though not so much to their friends.

The role of Gabe is brought to life by Scott Golden, a veteran of TV series and commercials as well as theater. Dark-haired Gabe is married, stable and solid, a family man keenly interested in all food and drink—a topic that occupies part of his brain in almost every scene, regardless of what else is going on.

His stolid brunette wife, Karen, is portrayed by Jennifer Sorenson, an actress and a dramatist in her own right. She brings a wide range of experience to the role of Karen, a woman with the casual air of a multitasker accustomed to juggling kids, husband, kitchen, friends and career—without raising an eyebrow.

Christopher Wallinger, who can be seen on everything from HBO to FX as well as the stage, plays Tom, Beth’s husband—although he is not present in the first scene. An attorney, he travels a lot, and when we meet him, Wallinger subtly shows us a Tom who is a slightly spoiled and entitled golden boy, despite his rather casual attire.

Director Darin Anthony captures the laid-back quality of the writing and inserts it into the actors’ movements and speech—in every scene. The audience will sense a restrained and drifting quality in the ambiance of the play, which prevents us from anticipating what will happen next. Many plays charge full speed ahead to their goal, but here, as in life, there are no big important signs flashing or foreshadowing every event that occurs. Hmmm.

A heads-up that you could miss if you don’t carefully read the program: The second act is a flashback to 12 years before to the first act.

As always, CVRep’s resident set designer comes through beautifully with scene changes that amaze: Jimmy Cuomo’s designs for each scene are moved in the dark or semi-dark, which is a bit of a disappointment, because it is such fun to watch his terrific sets morph from one to another. Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting designs come through beautifully as well in each of the play’s seven scenes. Kudos to the entire CVRep crew members, who, as usual, have thoughtfully and professionally shared their skills.

I won’t give away the rather thin plot—but this play is all about relationships, and what happens to other people who are not directly involved when a sudden, enormous change occurs in someone else’s relationship(s). It has happened to all of us: A friend or relative goes through a transformation of some sort, and you react to it. This raises questions, such as: What do we really truly want for our friends? How is being married different from being single, beyond the obvious? Have we assigned labels or roles to our family and acquaintances that suddenly don’t apply when a person changes? Are true family members our blood relations, or the people we choose to be close to us? What are the necessary and/or sufficient ingredients that affect or alter the course of a relationship? Why do people grow in different directions after being together for years? Can you ever truly reinvent yourself?

Heavy stuff. We see the characters wrestle with denial, with differing views of reality, with the bonds of marriage and of friendship. We see them talk at the same time instead of listening to each other. We see them test their relationships, with varying results. We see people surrounded by other people—yet experiencing a deep loneliness. We see people unable to communicate their wants and needs—and the craters in relationships this can create. We see people blame others for their own choices. We see them wonder if they ever actually knew each other.

You get to be the fly on the wall watching all this.

Dinner With Friends is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 24, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $48 to $58. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

The Independent is starting our seventh season of theater reviews—and the first of this new season celebrates the emergence of a new theater company.

Well, the Encore Theatre District isn’t really “new”: For two seasons now, Encore has been quietly performing at the Black Box Theatre at the Palm Springs High School. For the 2019-2020 season, Encore has moved to the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres), where it is rumored that the popcorn is most excellent. (BTW, why is it that popcorn makes a movie better? Regardless, I can’t bring myself to take it in to a live performance.)

The group’s artistic director, Tiffanie Patscheck, is ETD’s inspiration and driving force. She was born here and studied with the legendary Rosemary Mallett before moving to Connecticut for five years; she returned after marinating in its enormously successful theatrical community.

“I see us as different,” she told me about Encore. “Most of our productions are not what the other theater companies in the valley would do. We are minimalists. You won’t see us doing Peter Pan here! But the advantage is that we can work practically anywhere.”

Many of Encore’s shows feature actors playing multiple roles; in her upcoming Alice in Wonderland, six actors will play about 60 parts. For most thespians, that’s a dream come true. Each show is cast separately; Tiffanie and her son, Jeremiah Rhoads, alternate as directors of the plays. The company opened in 2017 with Lydia, which immediately established a reputation for tackling unusual, controversial and difficult theater pieces.

Now, in the cozy 100-seat Cultural Center room, Encore has opened this season with 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. Oy vey! The title alone … !

The play, written by Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan, uses only two actresses. Katrina Dixon plays a standup comedian—as well as about 20 different Jewish mothers. Audrey Liebross is the stereotyped Jewish mother whom we know as the star of so many hilarious and dreadful jokes. Here, she bludgeons us with the most indescribably irritating over-the-top whine of a voice ever to hit any stage on the planet. She also gives us—delivered in her own voice, thank heavens—the offstage introductions to the different roles played by her partner. The show is directed by Patscheck, and Rhoads is the stage manager for this production.

It’s as if we are seated in a comedy club, with a bespectacled lady comic wearing fancy boots ranting away into a microphone (which, in this case, isn’t hooked up, oddly enough). She ends each section of her spiel by posing a question to us, her audience, and then she morphs into one of the Jewish mother characters to answer that question.

This is not easy! Dixon’s feat of memorization is amazing. The show is basically a monologue, with some cues thrown in. The stories become increasingly interesting and varied through the play. The emotional toll of morphing in and out of the various characters must be huge—but Dixon has done her homework, and gives each and every part she plays distinctive looks, attitudes, gestures, voices, postures and facial expressions. At one point, I could swear she even changed her face’s shape. Watch for it: That’s acting. We might like to see her wearing a solid color rather than her shirt’s distracting design, and she needs to avoid dropping her volume on final syllables—but Dixon turns in an impressive piece of work. She starts off by asking her audience, “What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” Her performance is the answer.

Audrey Liebross relishes her outrageous comedy bits in this sometimes-awkward play. She earns the chortles as well as the show’s only belly laugh. Alas, some of her lines are delivered while she stands on the floor in front of the stage, outside the lit area—which different blocking could easily correct. An actor needs to find the light! Otherwise, it is fun to watch her swagger and declaim, and it is always delightful to see an actress so thoroughly enjoying her role.

The show deals with sensitive topics. Some—such as the definition of kosher, the importance of tradition, and bat mizvahs—are educational for anyone (including the surprising date of the first-ever female rabbi). It can be a little discomfiting for anyone to hear discussions on such topics as anti-Semitism, Jewish stereotypes and the Holocaust, but this show is unsparing in its investigation into the private lives and private thoughts of the characters it presents.

The show’s pacing is to be complimented. The seats are super-comfortable, as they were built to anticipate lengthy stays for films—and they even include drink holders. From the time when the Camelot was the only movie house around, it has always been freezing cold inside, and that tradition continues—so bring a sweater, and don’t say you weren’t told.

There is much to like here, and it is important for us all to encourage a new theater company, so we hope you will support this show. It runs only two weekends—so get to it.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, a production of the Encore Theatre District, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, visit www.facebook.com/encoretheatredistrict.

Loren Freeman is one of the best actors in our valley—and now he’s making his directorial debut with the Desert Rose Playhouse’s summer production of Ruthless! The Musical.

So here’s what is wrong with the show: Absolutely nothing! This is a not-to-be-missed romp, with a high energy level that will leave you wrung out from laughing, music that will delight you, and extreme hilarity.

I asked Freeman how he felt about directing his first show. “It’s a great excuse to boss everybody around,” he confided, “if you’re that kind of person.” Well, that is beyond modesty, because everyone in the cast clearly wears the stamp of his famous style. He has a matchless gift for over-the-top work, and has uniformly inspired these actors with his special comedic flair.

It is a show about obsessive showbiz ambition; can there be any juicier topic? The original Los Angeles production of Ruthless! ran for an extraordinary eight months back in 1993, and guess who starred in it? You got it: Loren Freeman himself. Voila!

The open set that greets the audience, designed by Bruce Weber, is a living room done in mid-century modernism classic, with crisp whites, cool blues and minty greens—a classic home of the ’50s. The lady of the house—in pearls, apron and a baby-blue polka dot shirtdress—is bizarrely Stepford Wife-like. This is Christine Tringali Nunes, perfectly playing the role of Judy Denmark with a brainwashed or maybe tranquilizer-addled sweetness—but this actress cleverly slips us a hint of other moods to come.

Her darling daughter, Tina, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Schmelling, wears identical polka dots, a crinoline and tap shoes; she introduces herself in a number that reveals a confident soprano voice, fine dance skills and the palest sky-blue eyes ever. Her heart-shaped face can instantly transmogrify from child-like sweetness into that of a devilish brat or a sullen rebellious youth; it’s a fabulous face that bears watching in the future.

The kid has talent—and she’s ambitious! Although still in school, Tina aspires to greatness. And that’s where Sylvia St. Croix—extravagantly and fabulously played by the theater’s artistic director, Robbie Wayne, in drag—comes in. Her amazing wardrobe, also courtesy of Bruce Weber, echoes Hedda and Louella and those overdressed Hollywood ladies of the ’50s. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is the self-appointed agent/guardian/manager of little Tina, swaggering around under gigantic hats, huge diamonds worn in the daytime, and wild colors in animal patterns. Her lipstick alone is terrifying.

Oh! This show is a musical, and the multitalented Steven Smith once again provides flawless music direction … plus he accompanies each performance as a one-person orchestra on keyboard. The songs are very funny, and the sound is beautifully balanced thanks to Adrian Niculescu and Miguel Gomez. There is no choreographer listed; evidently, the dance steps are the self-invented brainchild of the actors and/or Loren Freeman.

This show being a musical explains the presence of musician/vocalist Dana Adkins in the cast. A longtime Valley fave, she plays Miss Thorn, Tina’s teacher—everyone’s worst nightmare of a schoolmarm, with the nose-perched reading glasses, pencils poked into her beehive hairdo, ghastly sensible shoes, lips pursed in perennial disapproval, and the pointiest eyebrows imaginable. Her vocal range takes her from a hilarious falsetto to low growls—dangerous voice use for anyone except an experienced singer like Adkins, who manages it breezily.

Jaci Davis plays the theater critic (ahem!) Lita Encore with jaw-dropping gusto. She serves up a fascinating silver-haired character who sports one of the most powerful singing voices anywhere, demonstrating a masterful vibrato and an edgy style that appears effortless. Her energy is incandescent, and she simmers with a stunning stage presence.

One of the greatest challenges (and most fun) in acting is playing multiple roles in a production, and this play gives Leanna Rogers an opportunity to showcase her impressive chops with two wildly different characters. First, Louise is a peculiar schoolgirl aspiring to grab the lead in Pippi Longstocking, and then Rogers switches to play Eve, a jealousy-consumed secretary/assistant to a successful Broadway star. She changes everything from posture to hair, makeup and vocal choices between the characters, and yet manages to bring a tinge of brief sadness to both roles.

But there are laughs everywhere in this production. Our audience applauded frequently and enthusiastically, and roared at the punchlines. (Actually, a couple of people nearly lost it, so be warned.) The second-act set takes us to a Manhattan apartment, featuring the glitziest of multihued drapes, the purplest possible shade of settee cushions, and the fanciest telephone that ever rang.

This show involves several different styles of comedy, meaning the range for each of these actors can be fully explored. It is rare to find material that provides this kind of opportunity, and these six talented thespians are no doubt grateful for the chance to show us what they can do with the music of Marvin Laird and a book by Joel Paley. Yet the evenness of the production has to be credited to Freeman’s eagle eyes and his sense of timing.

Enormous kudos to whoever did the casting for this play; the selection of these players is flawless. The lighting is designed by the incomparable Phil Murphy, and it can’t get better than that, thanks also to lighting tech Duke Core. The temperature in the Desert Rose Playhouse is very comfortable (not like certain movie theaters determined to freeze us out with running noses). What a joy to see a live show in the summertime—and you are absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this one. It has some really great moments and truly unforgettable lines.

This is a directorial debut that was evidently long overdue. Not only has Freeman pulled hilarious and layered performances out of his actors, but the stage blocking is beautifully balanced; the tension continues to mount through surprising plot twists right to the outrageous endings; and the overall atmosphere of silliness and send-up never stops tickling the audience. The only way this show could possibly be improved would be to see Loren Freeman himself back up on the stage along with his fabulous cast!

Ruthless! The Musical is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 14, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

We’ve reached the end of the season at most of the valley’s theater companies—sob! But what a year it’s been, and what a great way to end it: with Good People, at Coachella Valley Repertory.

Have you seen the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City? This is the second production here, and right away, you have to love the steeply raked levels of seating so that no head, no matter how tall, can blot out your view of the stage. Huzzah! And they serve coffee at the snack bar! Can it get better than this?

Well, actually yes. I hate to give this away, but nothing could dampen the surprise that awaits you when you see the scenery: The amazing Jimmy Cuomo, CVRep’s resident set designer, nearly steals the show. Wait until you see what he does with this high-tech new stage! The open set that greets the audience is a grotty and depressing back alley in South Boston’s lower end, with one lonely plain chair on the stage. Some jaw-dropping theater magic is in store for you thanks to Cuomo. It gave us goose bumps.

The playwright of Good People is David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. When this play opened on Broadway, it garnered all kinds of awards, including two Tony nominations. If his name seems familiar, it’s because he penned Rabbit Hole (which was given a riveting production by Dezart Performs in January 2018), and you might remember him as author and lyricist for Shrek the Musical. You are in good hands here.

The show’s guest director, Michael Matthews, has brilliantly aimed this script directly at your brain pan. Its gritty reality is played out, giving the audience a being-there feeling that never wavers. The dialogue is cleverly “telescoped” so that Matthews’ actors appear truly spontaneous, and it gives the show a spirit of breathless anticipation. There isn’t a great deal of movement onstage, but it is accomplished logically (except twice when an actor moved on someone else’s line … distracting, but not important.)

Remember the seedy back alley we mentioned? Our protagonist, Margaret, magnificently and utterly believably portrayed by Reamy Hall, is marched out the back of the dollar store where she toils, by manager Stevie, perfectly underplayed by Erik Odom, for a talking-to about her work performance. It does not go well. In the next scene, in a cramped kitchen with two friends—the cynical Dottie, unforgettably played by Barbara Gruen, and the fiery gossip Jean, delightfully played by Candi Milo—Margie bemoans her lot. We learn about the women’s relationships with their families, the neighbors and each other. We learn about their values like “Southie Pride,” the local spirit in so many places—here with a special defiance attached to it. We see some flashes of the infamous Irish temper. We learn about their lives in “the projects,” and attempts to escape—with various results.

How much does it matter where you come from? So many desert residents cheerfully admit to “re-inventing” themselves upon arrival here, without a trace of embarrassment about it. But back in Southie, it apparently matters a great deal. Those who do well are jeered at as being “lace-curtain Irish.” Those who never make it away from their ghetto will forever play desperate mind games of “What if?” How much does our environment really shape us?

But we also discover that, in looking back, two people can selectively remember the same incident very differently. Michael Matthys gives us a deliciously multi-layered performance as Mikey Dillon, who, through hard work and some luck, makes it out of the neighborhood. Now an upscale and successful doctor, he is married to his privileged, elegant and sophisticated wife, an African-American woman named Kate, played by the smoothly stunning Nadege August. When they find themselves confronted with Mike’s past by Margie, their attitudes about it show how memory can be affected by time. Kate, with her combination of high-society finishing-school grace—plus her phenomenal figure in a skin-tight knit, and her wicked eagerness to sneak into the wild side—is one of the most complex characters on any stage, and August shrewdly plays every card in her hand to create this fascinating role.

The play’s theme slowly emerges: the eternal conflict between truth and rationalization. How far can your moral compass wobble before you are no longer a good person? Can blaming someone else justify your actions? Are your choices the right ones? How far will you bend your morality to change someone else’s life? Whom do you “owe,” and how much? Whew …

Study the biographies of the actors (and staff!) in the hefty program. The full bios detail where you may have glimpsed these terrific performers elsewhere, in movies or on TV. These experienced pros know how to sweep you into their world. They will drag you through a bumpy mix of thoughts and emotions … and they’ll bring you to your feet at the end of the show.

This theater’s matchless brain trust, led by artistic director Ron Celona, has assembled a formidable staff. Kudos to lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, production stage manager Marcedes L. Clanton, sound designer Rebecca Kessin, sound engineer/audio technician Karlene Roller, costume designer Chandler Smith, hair/makeup artist Lynda Shaeps, and prop master Doug Morris. Flawless work!

Good People is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 19, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. (There is no show Tuesday, May 7.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Admit it: You think it’s funny when a man puts on a dress.

Well, you’ve got company—and Desert Rose Playhouse is smart enough to know that. Hence, Pageant, the company’s final show of the 2018-2019 season. It’s guys in drag competing to win the title of “Miss Glamouresse”—and the hilarity builds right up to the final scene, which contains more belly laughs than any show in recent years. It only runs until May 12, so we strongly suggest that you run, not walk, to see this show—whether you’re in high heels or not. The packed house at our presentation—containing way more ladies than we’ve ever seen in a DRP audience—would agree.

The open stage that greets you—designed by Bruce Weber—is pink, pink, pink. This is the signature color of the “Glamouresse” brand, and your eyes will water from 50 shades of pink during the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission!). Pale pink ostrich feathers, Elsa Schiaparelli shocking-pink costumes, Pepto-Bismol pink—it’s everywhere. Brace yourself. Phil Murphy has even used pink lighting on the filmy curtains.

Robbie Wayne, the show’s director and Desert Rose’s producing artistic director, leaps onto the stage to welcome you—and joyously admits that this show has no “message.” It was just chosen because of its laughs. How wonderful!

So, bring on the girls. This pageant presents six semifinal competitors from various regions of the USA, such as Miss West Coast, Miss Industrial Northeast and Miss Bible Belt. Can you imagine such titles? Well, why am I surprised? In my home town there was a contest for Miss Potash, for heaven’s sake …

The competition’s emcee is Frankie Cavalier, played by Michael Pacas, who strides onto the stage wearing what might be the most frightening toupee in all of show biz. He fabulously combines the smarm of so many professional emcees with flawless timing and relentless cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster. Just keeping the names and titles straight must be exhausting, but Pacas’ energy never flags. He introduces the girls, who appear in all shapes and sizes, proudly wearing their title banners. Our judges, chosen from the audience, sit alertly up front. Consulting your program will only confuse you, as the actors’ headshots bear zero resemblance to the female flamboyance that you see on the stage.

Miss Great Plains, for example, is played by Larry Martin. Miss Industrial Northeast is created by Noah Arce. Timm McBride plays Miss Texas. Miss Bible Belt is Ben Reece. Miss Deep South is played by Miss Rusty Waters, and Miss West Coast is played by Jersey Shore, aka Brian Keith Scott.

Three shades of blonde, two shades of brunette, one auburn—and there they are.

Through the competitions, we get to know them personally. The emcee rattles off their qualifications and qualities (Miss West Coast, for example, is “Karma,” a double Gemini with a past including self-improvement techniques and tie-dying) throughout the various contests, such as evening gown, spokesmodel, fitness, talent cavalcade, philosophy, and—brace yourself—swimsuit.

You can instantly see the opportunities for merriment. My favorite part was the talent competition, during which these hugely talented actors toiled with their extremely creative director to create a jaw-dropping segment. Wait until you see what stuff they strut … and there are some extraordinary moments, such as Miss Bible Belt, wearing a flaming-red choir robe over a gold sequined gown, wailing a song called “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus,” or Miss Industrial Northeast on roller skates playing an accordion. Seriously!

There is no program credit given for costumes, but they are many and varied, and all are fantastic. Perhaps they came from the actors’ own closets. Some quick changes are required—another opportunity for laughs. There is no choreography credit, either, though there is dance aplenty, with some cute routines. One change suggestion: From most of the seats, when an actor lies down on the stage, he becomes invisible. It makes the neck-craning audience—except those in the front row—feel as if they are missing something, possibly important. The only real criticism is that the music, directed by Jaci Davis, was too loud, and drowned out the actors at times.

The competitors themselves select a “Girlfriend” award, like Miss Congeniality in most beauty pageants. A running gag throughout is their “spokesmodel” competition, in which the girls are forced to shamelessly shill for “Glamouresse,” which turns out to be a big-business brand in the field of beauty products, by creating a commercial. And the surprise guest who arrives at the end—well, let’s not ruin it for you.

The comedy here varies from slapstick to intellectual to tricky, so there is literally something for everyone in this play. Although I have had to stop slapping language warnings on reviews since four-letter words in theater have become so ubiquitous, we must compliment this show on not taking the cheap shots—there isn’t one objectionable word in the script. Amazing! It CAN be done. There are a couple of (terribly funny) adult-humor sexual references, but you could basically take anyone to see this show.

With drag queens, it’s all about nuance. It’s not just popping on a wig and makeup and a dress. To really be a standout requires infinite subtlety and much careful study. Drag is an art form dear to my heart, because when I was starting my performing career, I was invited to be in several shows at a drag club (they introduced me as “a real girl”)—and I learned a LOT from the queens of drag. This show reveals incredibly varied, individualized and thoughtful performances by all these entertainers, and it is a play I would love to see again.

So, who wins the crown? That rollicking finale alone is worth the price of admission.

Pageant is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 12, with a special show at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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.

Q: What is a “tuna?”

A: Well, snort, obviously, a fish.

Q: And what else?

A: HUH?

OK, here it is, confidentially from me to you: A tuna, my darlings, is a kind of prickly pear cactus found in the desert! And there really was once a town called Tuna … in the Texas desert. It doesn’t exist anymore—well, except it’s still “real” in the theater world.

And this brings us to Coyote Stageworks’ production of Greater Tuna at the museum’s Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, directed by the steady and inspired hand of Larry Raben. Written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, this production of the first play in the four-part Tuna series is one of the most unforgettable shows you will ever see. Why? Because here, the cast of about 20 characters is played by only two men!

It’s an acting tour de force. I have seen this same play done elsewhere with a cast of 20 actual actors, each playing just one part, so this production goes beyond genius. You want to see quick changes? Stars Chuck Yates and Alan Denny transform themselves in split seconds to move from one role to another—and not just by slapping on a different outfit or wig, but by totally changing. More about this later.

The Josh Clabaugh set that greets us is moodily lit by Danny Durand. A prototypical Western setting of three barn-tall plank flats with angled roofs is sparsely decorated by a Lone Star, a pair of Longhorn horns, a dusty old Texaco sign, two tables with chairs … and, under the spotlight at center stage, a huge free-standing console radio so old-fashioned it will date you if you recognize it. It is 1978, and we are in the “third smallest town in Texas”: Greater Tuna.

The stage-right flat contains a midsection which revolves to create the background for radio station OKKK to start the show. Everything is broadcast live, and we open with two local yokels smart-talking their way through the morning news, giving the audience instant belly laughs. Thurston Wheelis and Arlis Struvie (not made-up radio names, clearly) give us rapid-fire patter and signature banter before announcing a weather forecast from a roving reporter.

Now here is where it gets interesting: Both of our actors are already busy playing the announcers. Who is going to be the weather person? Well … with timing that would make a magician turn emerald with envy, throughout the play, an actor vanishes and then re-appears as another character with no resemblance to the one he was just playing. And just as quickly, he returns to update the prior role, or even goes on to a different one! This happens over and over; each actor plays 10 different parts, and he plays many of them multiple times! Yes! They play bratty kids. They are in drag as the ladies of the town. They play a cliché-spouting preacher, a sullen youth just emerged from reform school, a sheriff, a grandma, the town drunk … practically everyone in Tuna!

We find out about the relationships, the secrets, the ambitions, the shame, the problems, the vanities of these characters—and they will capture your heart even as you laugh. The costuming deserves mention, as some were hoarded from Coyote Stageworks’ first-ever Tuna show back in 2009, with Alan Denny and Chuck Yates then playing these roles and creating the costumes. Wardrobe master Frank Cazares and Jim Lapidus have updated and augmented them. And the wigs! Cazares has created some of the most outrageous and hilarious looks ever.

However, it is all about the acting. Wigs and costumes certainly help change an actor physically, no question, and they have simplified their labors by miming the props. But both Yates and Denny take this show to a higher level by transforming themselves for each role in ways that chameleons only dream of. Each voice was unique. They grew tall or shrank; they gestured differently; their postures and spines were different; they changed their very face shapes—they seemed to even change their skin textures. They breathed in different ways. This is beyond acting—it is becoming someone else, inhabiting roles so completely that the audience could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a huge cast of actors. I’ve played multiple roles in a show, and it is an enormous challenge—but it was nothing like seeing the accomplishments of these two amazing thespians. This is what actors yearn to do all their lives—and here it is, performed perfectly. There is considerable physicality involved (wait until you see the high school cheerleader—yikes) as well as an intellectual process of creating the characters plus the emotions of playing them, but in this show, you will see the actual spirit of each character on display. That’s how deeply mined this script has been by Denny and Yates.

You could tell by the frequent spontaneous applause and the waves of laughter that the audience totally enjoyed the show, but there were also moments of breathless anticipation when we all cared very much about what was happening. There’s not much of a storyline, but we learn about small-town life and the sometimes horribly misguided attempts to better or control their tiny world. The radio blithely plays Tammy Wynette or Patty Page or Hank Snow, set against the heart-wrenching struggles of Petey Fisk from the Humane Society or that innocent-looking but murderous grandmother. Contrasts.

This is a show not to be missed, and it so deserves the standing ovation it earns. Every actor should see it as a master class in classical technique. Non-actors should see it because it’s such great fun and an extraordinary experience. And it’s not just laughing at hillbilly silliness; it twangs your heartstrings like a good country tune.

And you, personally, can feel superior, knowing what a tuna really is.

Greater Tuna, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

It’s about math.

Oh no! Math was my worst subject in school, and here we are confronted with Proof, a play about real mathematical geniuses—the kind you see standing in front of an entire blackboard filled with incomprehensible squiggles. The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has brought Proof to the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club—but even if you are as bad as I am with numbers, there is nothing to fear.

Proof, written by David Auburn, won the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2001. The setting, here designed by Lauren Bright with lighting by Ashton J. Bolanos, is a modest Chicago home’s back yard. The house is inhabited by a math professor and his adult daughter, whom we meet in the first scene.

Robert (Larry Dyekman) emerges from the house to find his daughter Catherine (Kelley Moody) has fallen asleep outdoors at 1 a.m. She is dressed (by costume designer Frank Cazares) in awful moth-eaten sweat pants, bedroom slippers and an oversized cranberry cardigan. Her sulky attitude and slovenly appearance, however, can’t hide Moody’s flawless complexion and bountiful hair, and she gives us a finely tuned interpretation of her role. Dyekman, in a well-thought-out and underplayed performance that shows off his skills, is a believable father and mathematician. The two converse about their relationship, his “illness,” her inherited math aptitude and, oh yes, the fact that he is … how shall I put this … dead.

In the next scene, we meet Hal, played by a perfectly cast Sam Benson Smith; Hal is a former student of Robert’s who is now a math professor himself at age 28. He is the quintessential nerd, with all the assets of a genius—for example, he’s also a drummer in a rock band with other dweeb mathematicians by night, and he wears a red T-shirt with the symbol for pi emblazoned on the front. “I owe him,” Hal says about Robert, ferreting through the great man’s countless notebooks that were left behind, trying to discover what he was working on in his final years. The audience sees Hal only in profile for about 99 percent of the time he is onstage—an unusual choice. (See how I used numbers there?)

Fireworks explode between Hal and Catherine when she accuses him of theft, and we begin to unravel the story of her battle with higher education. (She dropped out.) There are many references to that unanswerable conundrum: How much of genius is inherited, and how much of it is affected by education and environment? And what, besides our brains, do we inherit from our parents? Their problems, too? Also: How insane do you need to be to warrant being locked up? Where does a savant’s eccentricity leave off and incomprehensibility start? What pushes brainiac people over the line into actual mental illness?

Enter Claire, Catherine’s sister now living in New York, to take charge, smoothly played by Lee Rice. Contrasts between sisters are endlessly fascinating, and director Jerome Elliott—also the company’s artistic director—has, with assistant director Sierra Barrick, made the most of the comparisons here. You will particularly like one scenario in which the two girls assume the exact same arms-folded position (always the default stance for Claire), with both staring forward like ancient Egyptian statues as they converse. Rice offers a masterful performance, with crisp gestures, keen focus, great diction, clever use of her eyes and some excellent “takes.”

Mathematicians, we are told, peak at about the age of 23, and feel it is all downhill from there. It is a closed community with plenty of jealousy and childish behavior … but they apparently really love to party, too! Each one is desperately searching for that special equation, formula or theorem that will help make their name historic. Their lives revolve around that search and discovery, and its “proof.” That, apparently, is the Holy Grail in this field—when all other mathematicians must accept and agree with your new truth. In this vein, Act 1 ends with possibly the best cliffhanger ever.

In Act 2, we are treated to a flashback from four years before—so Dad returns, bringing with him a couple of actual laughs, as opposed to the rather grim mood of Act 1. Robert is a silver fox with an expressive face and natural gestures—but Catherine dreads having to pay the same price that her father did for his gift. “The machinery,” he calls his mind. Yet how many of his issues might just be sleep deprivation, or other ancillary problems?

We wonder a lot about this very cerebral play. For example, why is the wife/mother never mentioned by Claire or Catherine or Robert—even once? Why are there so many F-bombs dropped? Although Claire is apparently a currency analyst, which would certainly require smarts, why did she not inherit the same size gift for numbers that Catherine did? What is the cost for each IQ point? Is it better to forgo the big gift and be better adjusted, more stable, in “real” life? “Mathematicians are insane,” declares one character.

There is very little action in this play; it all takes place above the neck. So the actors are given lots of difficult lines, which they all manage well. However, there are some errors being made onstage, such as shuffling feet—not a good idea on this stage’s squeaky floor boards—or pretending to drink but forgetting to also pretend to swallow, or dropping the volume at the end of a sentence.

Proof is a well-acted play—and you don’t have to be good with numbers to enjoy it.

Proof, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the play runs about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

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