CVIndependent

Thu12132018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

What says “Christmas” more than candy canes, hot chocolate, Santa’s Village and a slide made of “snow”? While I don’t know the answer to that question, I do know that all of this can be found at the North Pole Village during the second annual Snow-Fest in Cathedral City on Saturday, Dec. 8.

And to clarify: Yes, I did say “slide made of ‘snow.’” More on that later.

“This is the first year that we have duplicated a Santa’s Village theme, and we have had a great city response,” said Jo Anne Kennon, the event organizer. “The CV Rep prop department has built 10 storefronts, and local artists from CV Rep are painting them. They are so cool—and each one has a local sponsor. Special thanks goes out to Ace Hardware of Cathedral City; they ordered everything and are helping build it all. They are our title sponsor.”

The involvement of CV Rep, aka Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, is a perfect fit, since the renowned company will be moving into the former IMAX theater in Cathedral City’s downtown area in the new year.

“Between Ace Hardware and the CV Rep designers and artists, they took our small idea and made it a million times better,” Kennon said. “This is going to be such a whimsical, fun event, because they made all the difference in the world! The village storefronts will be up for the whole month of December. Christmas music will be playing all the time so that people going to the theater or City Hall can enjoy the music and use (the storefronts) as a picture opportunity.”

There will be a whole lot of festive happenings during Snow-Fest.

“We’re going to have a tree-lighting, a candy-cane drop of 20,000 candy canes, strolling carolers, strolling instrumentalists, and a holiday market that includes food, arts and crafts, and much more,” Kennon said. “We’re trying to make this something big and different. We want to create something that covers all the generations. … We want to make this as family-oriented and interactive as possible. We are offering hot chocolate, Mexican hot chocolate and apple cider. Santa will be handing out cookies to some of the VIP guests also.”

Bad news: Santa will not be arriving via sleigh. The good news: He’ll be arriving in a more … shall we say, SoCal way.

“He will make a grand entrance in a convertible Volkswagen,” Kennon said. “The Grinch is coming, too.”

(Cover your kids’ eyes for this next revelation.)

“Both Santa and the Grinch are City Council members,” Kennon revealed, her enthusiasm growing as she spoke. “Santa Claus will be in his parlor, where he will have his own Christmas tree and a toy box. Mrs. Claus will be there, as well as a couple of elves. There is also going to be an elf workshop behind the tree in the middle of the village. That is where children will get to make Christmas ornaments out of recycled paper, CDs, ribbon and all kinds of stuff. That way, kids can make ornaments for their own trees at home.”

In the middle of the festival, a stage will feature music—and carolers and others will be stationed throughout the event “so that there will be music everywhere around the village,” Kennon said.

I had to ask: How is this snow slide going to work, seeing as we’re in the middle of the desert? The answer: The snow isn’t really snow.

“It’s in the form of bubbles. We don’t want anyone to get hurt from snowballs, so there’s going to be a small slide for young kids with the bubble machine, with bales of hay,” Kennon said. “Everything will be covered in bubbles! They will be able slide down the slide like they are in snow.”

While the snow won’t be real, the Christmas vibe will be.

“I’ve seen a lot of Christmas shows where you see carolers standing outside, in front of houses in the snow. But that’s not something we can actually see here. This is the vision that I wanted to bring for everybody to enjoy.”

Cathedral City’s Snow-Fest takes place from 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8, in Cathedral City’s Town Square Park, just east of the intersection of Palm Canyon and Cathedral Canyon drives. Admission and parking are free. For more information, visit www.snowfest.us.

Published in Local Fun

The season opener for Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is How I Learned to Drive. That’s a subject in which I am very interested, since I’m the only person I know who has never—since I got my driver’s license at 16—had an accident or gotten a traffic ticket.

However, no driving skill prepares you for this play by Paula Vogel. It won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1998, as well as Obies, Drama Desk Awards and an Outer Circle Award. Yes, the play is about learning to drive, and there are plenty of automotive references and sound effects … but, mostly it is about sexual abuse.

Back 20 years ago, things were different, yet eerily the same. Back then, we were reeling from the revelations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Today, look at our list of exposed predators, from Cosby to Moonves to Weinstein.

Founding artistic director Ron Celona took the stage to greet the audience, and was completely honest: This play was not the company’s first choice for season opener, but the writer of the other play is being sued by nine women over sexual harassment. However, Celona and his board decided that this all is a topic that should be addressed, so they chose How I Learned to Drive, and were even able to slide the first play’s actors into the new play. How great is that? (The show runs almost an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, so advise your kidneys of this beforehand.)

This is not a play that you will “like.” You might be stunned, maybe horrified, perhaps confused. You will not leave the theater with a song in your heart and a skip in your step. It is set in the 1960s, in a very rural setting—think hillbillies, crackers, hicks (their words, not mine) from the South.

The open set is creatively jumbled with imprints of maps rolled across the walls and angled risers topped by tables and chairs of various sizes and shapes. In fact, the set holds a surprise that doesn’t come out until the final scenes, so kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for that special and unexpected touch.

The cast members get to play multiple roles, always an exciting challenge for actors and an opportunity to show off versatility. It takes a while for the story to come forward as we see Uncle Peck, shrewdly played by Dennis Gersten, patiently stalking his niece “Li’l Bit,” intricately portrayed by actress Angela Sauer. The “Greek Chorus” roles are played by Charles Pasternak, Debra Cardona and Jillian Taylor, who delight us when they get to strut their stuff in a variety of other parts. Director Joanne Gordon has mined both the stage set and her actors for maximum effect, and she handles the potential awkwardness with taste. The lighting changes are terrific, and the sound effects are both legion and greatly effective.

The results of sexual abuse are dealt with by showing how the victim’s feelings inevitably shut down. We watch what happens to this girl and how she deals with it. Yet we are faced with her role in the seduction, too—is she part of the problem? She brokers a deal with her uncle that changes both their lives. Playwright Vogel squarely faces the role of alcohol and alcoholism in these characters, as well as their “addiction transfer” from one obsession to another, believing that they are cured from their first fixation by rationalizing a change to the second. But in this play, those shut-down feelings somehow come back when one is driving.

Wow, what a revelation. There are a lot of people who “love” to drive and see it as a time for the hands to be busy while the mind roams free. America’s love affair with cars is briefly touched on, too. The ’60s through the ’90s gave us some gorgeous and unique designs in the automotive world. Cars were considered sex symbols back then, and the inevitable relationship between cars and people-sex is obvious, emotional and complicated, both in this play and in life.

How I Learned to Drive is a thought-provoking work, no matter how distasteful the topic. We need to get real about this ongoing problem lurking in our society at every level—and only by facing it will we understand it. Then, maybe, we might actually learn how to fix it. Is it possible?

How I Learned to Drive is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is no show Tuesday, Oct. 30.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Back when the news was being dominated by the federal “zero-tolerance policy” which was resulting in family separations at the border, I attended a presentation by the writers’ group at Coachella Valley Repertory—always a great way to experience local talent.

The final writer performing her original work was Barbara Fast, the new pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert in Rancho Mirage, doing a piece she called I Am Miriam. She told the story of Moses’ journey down the Nile in a reed basket, into the arms of the Egyptian princess who adopted him into the royal kingdom, from the perspective of Miriam, Moses’ sister.

In Fast’s version, Miriam followed her brother’s journey and then suggested to the princess that she could get a Hebrew woman to breast-feed the baby—enabling their real mother to suckle her own infant. When Fast said her line about how no child should ever be separated from its mother, the audience gasped—a collective intake of breath at the ironic current relevance of that age-old story. I still get goosebumps when I recall the moment.

Barbara Fast, 67, has been in the desert for only a year and a half. She was born and raised in New York City, the only child of working parents.

“I was what used to be called a ‘latch-key kid,’” says Fast. “My mom and dad were big influences on me. I would get to go to work with my dad sometimes, at the Veterans Administration, and I learned to have respect for those who serve in any capacity in our government.”

In high school, Fast specialized in math and science. She then attended Sarah Lawrence College, majoring in philosophy, and went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University.

“My senior high school year was 1968, when so much was going on, particularly the King and Kennedy killings,” she says. “I had already become involved in local political campaigns, and then once I was in college, there were the Kent State killings, bus riders in the South, and marches. Fairness and justice were always really important to me.”

As a lawyer, Fast went into trial practice. “It was what I seemed to be good at, and I loved the thinking,” she says. “I became a prosecutor in New York state—not a defense lawyer, because I was all about justice and discretion on behalf of the people. In the late 1970s, New York was coming out of bankruptcy; graffiti was everywhere. I felt I was participating in upholding standards. Every day, there were ethical issues.”

The work required an enormous commitment. Fast and her husband decided to move to Connecticut to start a family, and she began to teach law.

How did Fast go from law to religion?

“My husband is Jewish, and I’m sort of Catholic (from a mixed marriage),” she says. “We decided to raise our children in the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Westport. I was doing lots of volunteer work on environmental issues and was asked to give personal witness at the church for Earth Day. I spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing to do five minutes, but I realized then that although I had always been standing in the back, I wanted to be in front of the church. I wanted to engage the hearts of the people.

“We live in this world, and it’s about how to live with integrity and joy. We don’t know for sure what happens afterward, so we can only imagine and wonder. What I do now is about how we live our lives. If we can ask the right questions, we can get to the right answers.

“Somebody once said to me, ‘If it knocks more than once, it could be God knocking.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I applied to go part-time to Yale and felt at home in divinity school, studying the Old Testament and ethics.“

Fast met her husband, Jonathan, in college, but it wasn’t until they met again at an alumni event that they got together. They have now been married 35 years.

“I have three wonderful children: Molly, my stepdaughter, and two sons, Ben and Dan. Jon was a novelist, but we both made career shifts at about the same time. He started teaching social policy, and I went into divinity school.”

What brought them to the Coachella Valley?

“About two years ago, we decided to retire, after kicking it around for about a year. I had served churches in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and then back to Connecticut, and I was tired. After the Sandy Hook shootings happened nearby, I was in a state of trauma. It was all just so sad.

“Jon was retiring, and our son Ben was in Los Angeles, so we looked around there. Then we came over the mountain originally thinking it was ridiculous—it was August, and the temperature was about 114! But we fell in love with this area. It’s affordable, and there are so many creative people here. We wanted a place that was near a UU church, and when we attended, we found a great group of people, friendly and smart. We knew the church was in transition; they weren’t ready at that time for a full-time pastor, but I did preach there a few times.”

Shortly after arriving in Rancho Mirage, Fast sought out the CV Rep Writers’ Group, run by Andy Harmon.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “I had crafted stories as part of sermons, not just about individuals, but about human beings in general and the human condition, trying to make connections with how we are living now. I had presented stories, after gathering evidence and analyzing it, as a lawyer. Then I did it in sermons. Now I wanted to expand my capabilities. Biblical text is very compact, so when I was writing about Miriam, I asked myself, ‘Why did she go into the water? How did she get there, down the Nile? What must it be like to sacrifice your child?’”

Fast says a “calling” is when your greatest love meets the world’s greatest need: “It takes different shapes at different times of your life.”

Lucky for us, Fast’s current time of life is here in the desert. She shares stories with her “audience” every Sunday, making a difference in the community, and bringing goose bumps to her listeners.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Coachella Valley Repertory, the quality theater company currently performing in Rancho Mirage, has a writers’ program, and each year, those writers read or enact their own works during a presentation. Andy Harmon heads the writers’ program, and this year, one of the participants was Anita Harmon—who recited her very personal poetry.

The work, and her presentation of it, was mesmerizing.

Anita, 73, was born and raised in London, and educated at Le Lycée Français.

“I didn’t go on to college because, after all, it was the 60s!” she laughs. “I met Andy when he was on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe on his first summer break while studying at Brandeis University. He was 18, and I was 19. I was waitressing to fund my traveling. I went to France, Italy, Spain, North Africa—all over. Andy and I stayed in touch for four years after that. He came over every summer, and we’d travel together.”

Anita’s mother had an important influence on her daughter, an only child.

“My mom was probably the most unprejudiced woman I’ve ever known,” she says. “She would talk to anybody and everybody. I remember once, in the 1950s, she brought home a very large, black African man. He was studying in London and didn’t really know people, and she just said to him, ‘Come home with me.’ He turned out to be Robert Mugabe.”

Mugabe was a Zimbabwean politician and revolutionary who served as prime minister of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 1987, and then as president from 1987 to 2017.

 “I grew up that way, and to this day, as long as somebody will talk to me, I’ll talk back,” Anita says.

Her father instilled in her a love of reading. “He was a bit of a difficult man, but he ran a bookstore for a while, and I could always have any book I wanted to read,” she says. “I was drawn to natural science—insects and animals, things that live under water, and human anatomy. I’d just look at all the pictures. I also read a lot of children’s books. My favorites were Through the Looking-Glass—I liked that one better than Alice in Wonderland, because she met all different kinds of characters—and The Wind in the Willows, because of the friendships. Friendship is the most important thing to me. My best friend, until she died, was someone I met when I was only 7.”

At 23, Anita moved to Boston to be with Andy, and lived there from 1968-1977.

“Andy was majoring in theater arts at Brandeis,” she says, “and I couldn’t work since I didn’t have a green card, so I got swept up in the theater work he was doing. My first job was sewing costumes. Then they asked me to go onstage as an extra. For me, it was like going to the best party ever. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t afraid at all. I felt like the Roadrunner just running straight off the cliff!”

Anita credits her lack of stage fright to the sense of responsibility she felt toward the other actors onstage:. “I never wanted to let anybody down. If you mess up, it’s more complicated for everyone else. That’s why I didn’t really like doing scripted parts.”

Anita and Andy got involved in improvisation, and she considers it her first love onstage: “You go onstage without the faintest idea of what might happen. You just have to take care of each other. It’s like being the catcher in a trapeze act.”

Anita and Andy have two children, one in England and the other in San Diego, and now a granddaughter, Cordelia.

“After 10 years raising my kids, I went back to school and got a degree in psychology,” says Anita. “I practiced for about 10 years. Then Andy and I put together a business doing management training, and brought our improv skills to companies to help with communication.”

Anita has been a resident of Rancho Mirage since 2006. “We lived 35 years in London, and in 2006 decided to come back to California. We’ve basically been retired for 12 years now.”

But retired doesn’t really describe Anita’s life today. While Andy is running the writer’s program for CV Rep, Anita got involved with the poetry workshop sponsored by the Rancho Mirage Library for several years, and has been writing with the hope of publishing her very personal memoir in poetic form.

“When I retired, I finally got serious about writing. I was inconsistent about it until then,” she says. “As much as I’ve wanted to do my memoir, now I’m interested in writing personal essays. I got involved with Andy’s group at CV Rep this past year, because I wanted to be pushed a bit. I’ve also been doing a writing class with friends for the past six years. Every Friday morning, we get together and just write.”

Where does Anita find inspiration? “One thing that always works to inspire me is travel. I went to England for a month last summer and just pulled out my laptop and started writing. A change of scene always stimulates me. And when I’m stuck in one place, I go to a museum or art gallery. Looking at other people’s work gives me a new way of looking at something. When I read other writers, my own voice goes off underneath. I also have a big file where I just keep adding things that I’ve read or overheard that I might want to write about.

“One of my preoccupations is time, not just because time runs out, but because of how ancient the Earth is. … We all tend to forget that.”

Time the soldier toiling up a hill knows his death or life

is all the same to the grass at the summit. Life and Death

The two sides of time, stood still for one moment,

Like the antlers of a deer holding up the moon.

Anita Harmon is a special person who brings the beauty of the world as she sees it to those of us lucky enough to hear her words.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Later this month, Coachella Valley Repertory’s summer series will bring The Doris Day Project, by Scott Dreier, to the desert.

Any millennials reading this may ask: Who is Doris Day? My answer: She is the definition of class and respect.

Day, still alive and kicking at the age of 96, recorded more than 650 songs for Columbia Records from 1947 to 1967. She is one of the most popular and acclaimed singers of the 20th century; one of the biggest box-office stars of all time; and an icon of radio and television.

“She was a mother, sister and Hollywood—all wrapped up,” said Dreier, the creator and star of The Doris Day Project. The cabaret show—Dreier has made an album with the same name—came about because of the actor’s obsession with Day. He has also created a “lyrical documentary” of Day’s life, titled Doris and Me.

“This has been a full circle for me. I originally workshopped my show Doris and Me here at CV Rep in 2011,” Dreier said. “I really started to make the connection with Doris and her music when I started performing. She showed me that I could do more than one thing as a performer. I was raised in a very conservative household with no music or television. My exposure to popular culture was very limited. Luckily for me, my mother was an old movie buff.”

Dreier said he was in a production of Little Shop of Horrors in San Diego a while back when the musical’s artistic director learned about his obsession with Day.

“The artistic director there said to me, ‘You need to make this into a show; you could talk about Doris Day’s life and your really quirky obsession with her,’” he said. “And it’s quirky. I wanted to singer her song book—as a guy would sing the songs. I called up Ron (Celona) at CV Rep, who knows of my quirky obsession, and he said for me come to Palm Springs to workshop the show. I really created the show as a love letter to her. I want her to be celebrated.”

This all leads to one obvious question: Has Dreier ever met Doris Day?

“Yes,” he said. “The first time, I was too young to really articulate the importance she’s had on my life. I left her thinking, ‘Why did I say that?’ or, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’”

Well, he obviously did something right: Dreier’s gone on to perform for Day at three of her birthday celebrations.

How does he select what to use in The Doris Day Project, from a catalog of more than 650 songs? He said he began picking the songs during performances of Doris and Me.

“People would come up to me after the show and tell me about their memories with certain titles of her songs, so I started to write them down,” he said. “Then I put all the songs in a bowl and would pick out a song before the show and do what we call ‘the pick of the day,’ and add it to the show that night.”

That is impressive. How many of those 650 songs does Dreier know?

“All of them,” he said. “I have an iPod that is set on shuffle with all of her songs, and I listen to it whenever I am working, walking the dog, or exercising.”

Speaking of dogs: Dreier and Day share a love of animals. Since Day retired from acting, she has spent much of her time working as an animal-welfare advocate. In addition to rescuing many animals herself, she co-founded Actors and Others for Animals, and created a nonprofit rescue organization now called the Doris Day Animal Foundation. Her 96th birthday celebration benefited the Doris Day Animal foundation in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Dreier followed her lead and currently has a rescued Chihuahua mix.

The Doris Day Project, by Scott Dreier, will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23; and 2 p.m., Sunday, June 24, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, located at 69930 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

What better way is there to deal with heartache on a 4 a.m. subway ride than to immerse oneself in a crossword puzzle?

That’s the mindset of Janet, the female character in Jerry Mayer’s 2 Across, now playing the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre. But the buttoned-up psychologist can’t seem to get a moment’s peace once free-spirited Josh barrels onto the subway car just as the doors close; he keeps trying to chat her up.

So opens the two-character comedy that artistic director Ron Celona has chosen to close CV Rep’s romance-themed season. It’s fun, funny and, yes—romantic. The dialogue and pacing are a bit reminiscent of situation comedies … which is not surprising, given playwright Mayer’s many years as a writer for shows like Bewitched and Bridget Loves Bernie.

During the 80-minute Bay Area Rapid Transit ride, we learn a great deal about the backgrounds and life philosophies of Josh and Janet as they each tackle the same crossword puzzle. Their styles are very different: She is a by-the-book kind of gal who believes all rules should be followed, that “a library card is a contract,” and that cheating on a crossword puzzle is sacrilege. (Her childhood nickname was “Granite Janet.”) Josh, an unemployed ad exec, is the very definition of laid back. He feels calling the 900 number for help on the puzzle is no big deal, and when it all gets too frustrating, he simply throws it away. Though he’s Jewish, Josh has brought a barbecued pork sandwich on the train as a snack. “I don’t follow dietary rules” he explains, ignoring Janet’s horror that he would dare violate the “No Eating on the Subway” sign posted in plain sight.

They banter back and forth, argue, flirt and slowly strip away the masks we all tend to wear when meeting someone new. Josh is charming, funny and likable. He’s also persistent in his efforts to win over Janet. When Janet bluntly announces that “she’s not the least bit interested," he retorts, “Well, try harder!”

With a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry between the leads is essential. Luckily, there is plenty between Andrea Gwynnel (Janet) and Joel Bryant (Josh). Veteran actors with impressive national credits, both are attractive, charismatic and comfortable onstage. Every moment in the arc of their blossoming friendship rings true.

Local actress Deborah Harmon, who directed the world premiere of 2 Across at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2004, is guest director here and does a superb job.

Special mention should be made of the terrific set, lights and sound. The recreation of a BART train, complete with periodic announcements of stops, is spot-on.

Congrats to Ron Celona for selecting a perfect piece to end CV Rep’s 2017-2018 season. 2 Across is light-hearted, upbeat and fun.

2 Across is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

To be perfectly honest, I dreaded seeing The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has earned a sparkling reputation for its work … and then founding artistic director Ron Celona chooses to do an Edward Albee play? High risk!

Playwright Albee, of course, is best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he’s one of the premier names of Theatre of the Absurd. This began as a post-World War II movement, evolving out of the existentialist philosophy of the time. It grew on both sides of the Atlantic; the horrors of the war left people questioning the meaning of life and the purpose of their existence, which left them feeling futile and depressed. Interestingly, the term “theatre of the absurd” was coined by a theater critic named Martin Esslin. See? We’re not so bad.

So here is the absurd in this play: We meet Martin—not the critic; this is Martin Gray, flawlessly acted by Sean Smith—who seems to be a success in every area of his life. He’s an award-winning architect, healthy and in his prime, with a lovely wife and a nice, gay, teenage son rounding out the happy home front. The set (another terrific Jimmy Cuomo creation) reflects some of the minimalist style so loved by those in the world of design: Nice home. Nice life. But then he confides to his best friend—TV host/producer Ross Tuttle, played by the brilliant Arthur Hanket—that he is in love with … a goat! Really?

Well, imagine that this happened in your family. How would everyone respond? And that’s the essence of the Theatre of the Absurd: What would be the most unimaginable thing that could ever happen to you? And then it happens.

Ross reacts. Martin’s wife, Stevie, played by fascinating actress Sharon Sharth, reacts on several levels. Their son Billy, thoughtfully played by Ian M. White, is a teenager at an all-boys school, and he reacts. Gradually, we begin to lose hope that this is all a joke.

It would be impossible to overstate the quality of this cast. They are so learned in their craft, and perfectly chosen for their roles, that it is a pure pleasure to watch them move, listen to their exemplary clarity of their diction, revel in their magical and ever-changing faces, and feel them weave their spells through their masterful skills.

Guest director Joanne Gordon clearly had her hands full with this play, but working with such talented actors had to make this experience immensely satisfying. She has beautifully fine-tuned the electricity between the characters, and subtly ramped up the growing tension of the play to a climax that leaves her theatergoers stunned. The play delivers one sucker-punch after another, and the audience can only sit there, helplessly astonished.

Albee’s writing is genius, particularly with the dialogue, in which he cleverly captures the half-sentences and non-sequiturs that pepper our own conversations. We learn about the quality of intimacy in their relationships when we see the characters finish each other’s sentences. The verbal swordplay between husband and wife is delightful, intellectual and refreshing. The script must be peculiar to be read silently, but in the hands of these gifted interpreters of his work, it feels familiar, natural and realistic. There are some good solid laughs, some appreciative chuckles for the cleverness, and also some guffaws born out of shock … and there are tears. We see plenty of blame dished out, and rationalization, and confusion, and a real redheaded temper tantrum.

And there’s the Albee statement in the play that sums up the philosophy of the Theatre of the Absurd: “Nothing has anything to do with anything.”

The Goat offers moments that will live in the memory forever. One of the actors, face bare of makeup, flushes red before our eyes when freaked out—something usually only found in close-ups in the movies, and rarely even then. There are screams that would strip the vocal cords of us ordinary mortals. We sit humbly at ringside, being allowed to watch life-changing events take place before us. The audience rewarded this one-act work with silent and spellbound attention—it seemed like not a throat was cleared the entire time.

Hats off to the CV Rep team members—and, of course, to Ron Celona (celebrating his birthday, yay!), whose company has finally acquired a new home for the Coachella Valley Repertory Company: The former IMAX theater in Cathedral City has been secured for their expanded future. (When he started the fundraising, I said to him, “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to raise this much money!” He replied, “Me too.”) How wonderful to see a dream come true! It’s productions with the stellar quality of this one which have made this award-winning theater such a success.

From this theater experience, we learn that the only difference between Absurd and your life … is for it to happen. Think of the most surprising and unpredictable thing that ever happened to you in your life. Imagine that a goat …

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona have a well-deserved reputation for offering first-rate theatrical productions—and the latest effort, Romance/Romance, does not disappoint.

To put it simply … the show is phenomenal.

With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, Romance/Romance was first produced in 1987, and received five Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

The show consists of two one-act musicals. The first, The Little Comedy, is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler; it’s set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Alfred and Josefine, both well-off but lonely, each decide that creating a less-affluent persona might increase their chances of finding true love. He pretends to be a nearly penniless poet, while her charade is that of a poor seamstress. They meet while walking in the park … and soon fall in love. The progression of their romance is detailed in letters each writes to friends. The question is: How long can they keep up the facade? And will their love endure if they come clean about their true identities?

Both Conchita Belisle Newman (Josefine) and Christopher Carothers (Alfred) are superb. Blessed with beautiful, robust singing voices, they take us on a lovely romantic journey. Their acting is quite good as well, and the onstage chemistry is palpable. The musical numbers, including the hopeful “It’s Not Too Late” and “I’ll Always Remember the Song,” are all memorable, but the highlight of the first act has to be Josefine’s poignant “The Night It Had to End,” exquisitely sung by Newman.  

Supporting cast members Eric B. Anthony (Him) and Robyn Cohen (Her) add the perfect touch to the first act, performing lovely, skillful dances that take us from scene to scene and tie it all together.

Act II, Summer Share, is based on Jules Renard’s play Le Pain de Ménage. Set in modern times, it introduces us to best friends Monica (Newman) and Sam (Carothers), and their respective spouses, Lenny (Anthony) and Barb (Cohen), who are on vacation together. Though Lenny and Barb have always been fine with the platonic bond between Monica and Sam, things seem to shift on this trip. Suspicions (and other things?) are aroused after Barb and Lenny retire to bed, and the friends are left alone to chat in the wee hours. They wonder if their relationship is really platonic (“Let’s Not Talk About It”). Could their respective marriages survive an affair? Every long-married woman can relate to the yearning for sweet nothings in “Words He Doesn’t Say” (flawlessly delivered by Carothers).

In this act, the chemistry between Newman and Carothers is not just palpable—it is electric. The audience almost feels heat coming from the stage; it’s a terrific example of damn-good acting.

Anthony and Cohen are featured more in the second half, and they are both triple threats—fabulous actors, singers and dancers, with great comic timing. Their duet “Small Craft Warnings” is particularly notable.

There is much to like about this production, but what really stands out is how everything just flows together. Before the first note is played, one is struck by the gorgeous set. The cast is uniformly excellent; kudos to Ron Celona for both his spot-on casting and direction. The costumes, hair and makeup and lighting are wonderful.

Special mention has to be made of musical director Jaci Davis and the band, featuring Davis on piano, Daniel Gutierrez on keyboards, Bill Saitta on bass and Dave Hitchings on percussion. Their perfect blend supports the singers without being overpowering.

Whether you are a hopeless romantic, a theater aficionado or someone who simply wants an entertaining evening out, Romance/Romance is the ticket.

Romance/Romance is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 11, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is a little more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has opened its new season with Venus in Fur. It’s a two-person, one-act show with no intermission—and it will knock your socks off.

It opened off-Broadway in 2010 and moved to Broadway in 2011; it was nominated for two 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Play. It’s currently running in the West End of London; Berlin; and … Rancho Mirage!

Director Ron Celona declared that the timing could not be more perfect for this play, due to the recent sexual-harassment scandals. It is set “today” (the cell-phone styles instantly reveal the era), and the show is about an actress auditioning for an unusual play set in 1870. She is facing a male playwright … a situation that puts us on edge right from the start, fearing the possibility of some sort of ghastly Harvey Weinstein-ian casting-couch calamity. A thunderstorm rages overhead, adding to the tension. The playwright is exhausted and disgusted after a fruitless day of tryouts, and the actress is late for her reading, soaked from the rain and furious. What could possibly go wrong?

Venus in Furs playwright David Ives, a Yale grad living in New York, has crafted an extraordinary work with this play. He’s most famous for his one-act plays, and garnered awards and honors for many of them. He has also created full-length plays, plus adaptations of both musicals and 17th- and 18th-century French plays. Here, multilayered and mercurial changes keep us off balance throughout, as we learn the playwright’s play is about the infamous 19th-century Austrian, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whom we have to thank for—you guessed it—masochism.

They say that the second you meet another person, there is a huge amount of psychic information exchanged about which person will control what in the impending relationship. Through this play-within-a-play, we deal with domination, submission, power plays, struggles, acceptance and rebellion. We see lies come to light. We see roles reversed. Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re seeing.

The actress, Vanda, is played by Angela Sauer, whose bouncy auburn hair sets off a beautiful face that shifts endlessly with her astonishing variety of emotions. You can’t take your eyes off her … not just because of the garters and lacy lingerie and black stockings and high heels, but because of her rapid switches from one personality to another. She snaps in and out of character: now a cranky actress and next a demanding director and then a radiant goddess Aphrodite and now a haughty countess and suddenly a smoldering dominatrix. Her vocal talents will surprise you—she gives each of her roles a special voice, with pitch, volume, speed, placement and even regional accents changing.

In contrast, Patrick Zeller—perfectly cast as the tightly wound playwright Thomas—internalizes and suppresses much of his emotions, though he never fails to let us know what he is thinking and feeling. He’s a thinking actor, whose subtleties provide the perfect foil for the high-energy and colorful Vanda. He morphs through his different roles, managing to be equally believable in each one. The abrupt switches of power between the characters catch us off guard every time, but Zeller rides every wave with ease. He is pitch-perfect in every complex part that he plays.

Ron Celona, also CV Rep’s founding artistic director, modestly credits the actors rather than his own directing skills for the success of this play. “They are smart and talented,” he said. “And sexy!” His steady directorial hand is evident, nonetheless, in the exquisite visual balance he maintains on this one-set stage. But it is the tension between the actors that is the most impressive part of this play. The undeniable chemistry between them increases unbearably as Celona gradually tightens the screws, making it impossible for us to guess what lies ahead. No director could have done more with the atmosphere … and when a completely unexpected plot twist occurs, we are suckered in helplessly. We know we will never be safe watching this play.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is simply designed, offering an ideal backdrop for the crackling energy onstage. He uses a palette of grays to contrast with the lightning and thunder storm viewed through the high windows, which echoes the electricity between the two characters. The set screams “crummy old lower East Side New York.” An innocent daybed sits center stage, making us nervous with its unspoken possibilities.

Moira Wilkie Whitaker gets credit for that lightning and thunder, along with Randy Hansen, the sound designer. Not an easy assignment! Add rain, and some finely timed effects, and you’ll see they had their work cut out for them.

Julie Oken’s costume design deserves a special mention, not the least of which was finding that bustier and those really high stiletto-heeled boots for Vanda to waltz around in … and those little S&M touches. Linda Shaeps’ hair and makeup design is, as usual, lovely, but what is especially astonishing is how Vanda’s makeup stayed on with everything she went through in this show. HOW? Audiences want to know, Miss Linda!

This is not a play for the faint of heart. It poses a lot of relationship questions and looks at social issues from both sides, causing us to examine our own deep-seated thoughts and beliefs. It brings us face to face with inequalities and prejudices and stuck ideas that still exist today. It peers beneath our surfaces to find what lies hidden far beneath. It is fascinating and confusing and a little scary, and there isn’t one dull moment in the entire show.

So gather your courage, and go see Venus in Fur. Besides, how often do you get to see a girl in garters?

Venus in Fur is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the show runs just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. There is no show on Tuesday, Oct. 31. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ron Celona got bitten by the acting bug in the first grade.

“I played a spider in Little Miss Muffet … and refused to take off my costume afterward,” he says. “I walked all the way home from school in my spider costume, and have been on the stage ever since.”

Celona, 59, the founding artistic director of the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, is a Rancho Mirage resident, along with his husband and partner of 32 years. Celona was born and raised in Philadelphia. He and his older sister lost their mom when Ron was just 7.

“My father was a tenor-sax player,” he recalls, “and although he gave up his career to have a family, he always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

Celona’s professional career began when he was in the sixth-grade, after he had already performed in many theater projects at school and at his local playground.

“I continued my education after high school in New York,” he says, “at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I graduated high school in June and moved that same September. After a few years working on East Coast stages, I moved to Los Angeles and continued theater studies at Cal State Los Angeles. While doing theater, I added television and film to my credits.

“But it wasn’t until I moved to the Coachella Valley in 1999 that I began my career as a producer and director. I produced the Joslyn Players in Palm Desert, and that turned into a successful community theater that thrived for nine years.”

How did CV Rep come about? In 2008, the stars were apparently in alignment.

“Frankly,” says Celona, “I was waiting for the right time in the valley’s growth. I modeled it after other companies, like South Coast Rep and Seattle Rep—companies that started out small and grew to be respected institutions in their communities. The board planned strategically so that we could grow slowly and successfully. The big goal was always to own our own theater building. … In the coming year, this dream is coming true, and we will be taking the next step toward creating a nationally recognized and respected theater company, for our communities’ residents and visitors alike.”

I love theater, and have been pleased to see the growth of several local theaters—each presenting a different experience that goes well beyond the old standard retreads. However, I became increasingly interested in CV Rep specifically because of its Youth Outreach Production program. Each year, CV Rep presents a play with a subject that is of particular interest to young people, and makes it available to students through the Coachella Valley—some of whom might otherwise never be exposed to live theater.

“This year, for the first time, we didn’t just bring students into the theater,” says Celona. “We were able to take the show on the road to local schools and reach over 3,000 students.”

This year’s show was Bully, a one-man show written and performed by actor, writer and producer Lee J. Kaplan, who explores his own struggle with bullying. Kaplan discovered his sixth-grade journal among some old boxes, and recalled the verbal, physical and emotional abuse he endured. His play includes him as several characters—his teacher, classmates, bullies, and himself—and examines how bullying can affect someone even well into adulthood.

The audiences are always able to talk with the cast and ask questions after the performances. Often, these questions don’t only explore the message of the play; many audience members share their own experiences.

The show I attended was not for students; it was an evening performance for the public. I was struck by those who shared their own memories and feelings.

Kaplan made it clear that bullying goes way beyond hurting someone’s feelings. It is the activity of repeated aggressive behavior intended to hurt or gain power over another. It is emotional, verbal and social abuse, and those bullied don’t know how to make it stop.

Kaplan’s lessons on how to defeat a bully: Stop caring about him. Tell somebody; don’t be ashamed, and don’t back down. Stop blaming yourself—it’s not your fault.

The one question Kaplan had to pause and think about was why bullying happens to one person and not another, even within the same family. He finally said, “I’ve known some people who seemed so sure of who they were, they seemed to walk straight forward through it all toward their own future. Somehow, bullying never affected them.”

Ron Celona, who clearly knew who he was and how to walk straight forward into his own future, had some influential mentors along the way. He first names the renowned Gordon Davidson, of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles: “His wisdom and advice gave me the confidence in myself that I needed.” Then he acknowledges Sheldon Epps, of the Pasadena Playhouse: “He is always there for me when I have a question or need advice on our growing pains. I’m very grateful for his friendship and support.”

The Coachella Valley should be grateful for Ron Celona’s vision and dedication to our burgeoning theater community—and particularly for his commitment to its students.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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