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29 Sep 2013

Never Dull: The Desert Rose Playhouse Launches the 2013-2014 Season With All-Male, New Orleans Weirdness

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John Ferrare, Jeff Rosenberg, Terry Huber (top row) and Garnett Smith in House of the Rising Son. John Ferrare, Jeff Rosenberg, Terry Huber (top row) and Garnett Smith in House of the Rising Son. Desert Rose Playhouse Facebook

The first thing you should know about The House of the Rising Son: It’s mostly set in New Orleans, so immediately, you know there’s a grand capacity for weird.

The second thing you should know: The cast is all-male (well, there’s one female impersonator), and all play double roles in this strange play.

The third thing: Most theatergoers will find their eyebrows raised by this show, possibly more than once. Now at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the desert’s only LGBT theater, the play runs through Oct. 27.

The hard-working cast, under the firm directorial hand of Jim Strait, should be applauded, first of all, for learning the lines of this talky play—but, of course, they bring much more to the show. Courage, for example—and you’ll know what I mean when you hear the audience gasp.

John Ferrare plays Trent, a parasitologist giving a lecture in Los Angeles. Jeff Rosenberg is Felix, an audience member and employee of the museum where the talk is being presented. Long story short: They fall for each other, and Trent takes Felix home to New Orleans to meet his family. So we meet Garrett, played by Terry Huber, who is Trent’s father; we also meet his grandfather, Bowen, played by Garnett Smith. All is not what it seems with this woman-free family. (“All dead,” Garrett solemnly reports.)

The casting is excellent, and all four gentlemen look their part. The ominous air that hangs over the show is fed by references to ghosts, family trees and, of course, several chunks from Trent’s erudite lectures about parasites, accompanied by some rather ewwww graphics and yucky descriptions of their behavior. Remember the word “parasites,” and see how it echoes.

The exquisite lighting by Phil Murphy complements the ingenious set design of Jon Triplett, which through the play continues to spread to other venues. Clever!

Yet there is a fatal flaw that Desert Rose must address: They have built a hollow stage. Each footstep sounds like a drum—and there are plenty of footsteps. Part of the floor is carpeted, but that doesn’t help much. This is not an uncommon problem in regional theater, alas, but it is distracting, and it can actually compromise an audience’s hearing of the dialogue.

The play offers a couple of laughs, and one fascinating monologue about the history of homosexuality in the 20th century. The underlying theme is not the acceptance of gays, but the value they have contributed to society. The argument is presented as yet another lecture, which gives it a gravitas it would lack if it was merely a conversation between the characters.

The role that shines is, interestingly, that of Grandpa, the outrageous old curmudgeon. Smith eats it up, flailing around the stage, cussing and drinking and loathing everybody—as he feels his age has given him the right to do. But the balance among the cast is to be admired, and each actor brings powerful strengths to his role. Felix is cute and young; Garrett is mysterious and quiet; Trent is brilliant and searching.

Whether you love the play, or are merely shocked by it, you’ll admit: It is never dull. Tom Jacobson’s two-act script moves the story along beautifully, with new plot revelations throughout. The play doesn’t really move you, however.

Producer Paul Taylor chose this show to open the Desert Rose’s new season, which runs through next June—and will include one world premiere. I like this comfortable theater, with its splashy wall art, its stairs (they give a slightly exciting speakeasy feel to the entryway), its friendliness, and the fact that there are no long lines for the ladies’ room at intermission. But most of all, I like the Desert Rose for its brave commitment to presenting shows that you won’t see anywhere else.

House of the Rising Son plays at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28, or $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call at 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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