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21 Jun 2014

Smiles From the South: Desert Theatreworks' 'Hospitality' Is a Whole Lot of Fun

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Shirley LeMaster, Don Cilluffo, Alexis Safoyan, Hal O'Connell and Daniela Ryan in Desert Theatreworks' Southern Hospitality. Shirley LeMaster, Don Cilluffo, Alexis Safoyan, Hal O'Connell and Daniela Ryan in Desert Theatreworks' Southern Hospitality.

For a show to open during these longest days of the year, and attract a packed house, proves that there is wonderful community support for our local productions. That’s exactly what happened on opening night of Southern Hospitality: Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez and their Desert Theatreworks are clearly doing it right at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.

So here’s the question: Can life in the Deep South possibly be as much fun as it’s depicted in the plays written about it? From the hilarity of Sordid Lives and Steel Magnolias to the glorious nonsense of the “Tuna” series and the “Pecan” series, the best comedy of our times seems to be coming from somewhere in Dixie.

In Southern Hospitality, we’re welcomed to Fayro, Texas, where everyone is some kind of nuts. The stage is loosely divided into three different areas, and the first scenes—brief and separated with lighting blackouts, accompanied by instrumental music—make us wonder if this is a revue. However, the characters eventually join up; the story begins, and the relationships become clear. Well, sort of. The four Futrelle Sisters (Frankie, Rhonda Lynn, Honey Raye and Twink) take time from their complicated personal lives to despair at the imminent demise of their town and ponder how it can be saved. The local characters—and this is really simplifying the tangled, mangled plot—come up with the idea of “Fayro Days” … and the planning begins.

The script is marvelous. Dealing with everything from midlife crises to guns to imaginary friends to hot flashes, the characters philosophize wildly. There are references to the “Squat ‘n’ Gobble” restaurant, the “Beaucoup Bouquet” flower shop, and other colorful place names. Fun. Just fun!

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have combined their considerable expertise and experience to create a wordy but fluffy crowd-pleaser. The playwrights are credited as being among the most produced in America today, with more 3,000 productions … and this play is their newest.

Using a cast of 13 is a serious undertaking, and not for the faint of heart. Only a director with solid old-school skills like Lance Phillips-Martinez would even consider such a challenge. With a play like this, it’s more like “wrangling” than “directing” to move everyone around efficiently but logically.

Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez have created a company in which actors, when not onstage in a production, are given the chance to learn backstage/sound/lighting/management skills. This used to happen only in summer stock. It is fascinating for the audience to see these actors morph into different characters from one play to another; the company approach also offers a great way for actors to learn. For example, in this production, we see Don Cilluffo, as Raynerd, play the Southern-fried equivalent of a Shakespearean young Fool, though recently we saw him as a mysterious middle-age, dark-cloaked Italian in The Mousetrap. Alden West (is she the busiest actress in town?) appears here as a short-haired blonde in designer-frame glasses and tropical colors, though we last saw her sporting a high-styled tower of black hair and widow’s weeds as she snarled her way through Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch.

As for the acting: Hmm. There were some inconsistencies in the Southern accents. There were some timing issues, which reflect nothing more than being a little under-rehearsed or first-night jitters. West’s first entrance presented a blocking problem: She spoke her lines with her back to the audience, unlit. One actor’s diction was messed up, either by a sore throat or something going on with her teeth, but it’s back to speech class for her. And, a couple of times, actors tossed away parts of their lines by turning to face the upstage person to whom they were speaking, rather than finding a reason to face the audience. Hey, y’all: We learn nothing from watching the back of someone’s head! It’s one of the most common acting problems, because it is so contrary to real life, but if you want to sock that punch line, you’ve got to let the audience see you and hear it.

Those are the few negatives. Other than that, the mob of actors (Daniela Ryan, Shirley LeMaster, Kathy Taylor-Smith, Kitty Garascia, Hal O’Connell, Alexis Safoyan, Austin Schroeter, Peter Nicholson, Poppy Reybin, Jana Baumann and Domingo Winstead, in addition to Cilluffo and West) tackle their jobs with the brave and noble spirit of the South. It’s not easy to be outrageous: It requires an enormous commitment. You have to combine sincerity with comedic skills and timing, or it just looks like over-acting. Cilluffo is the one who shines at this, with a command of technique that makes him lovable yet hilarious at the same time. A lot of it has to do with his resonant voice and well-used wide eyes.

The cast will grow in confidence. I urge you to see Southern Hospitality regardless of the summer heat.

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Southern Hospitality is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, June 28, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; $23 seniors; $15 students; and $10 kids 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

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