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Thu12132018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

What actor wouldn’t want to have a play called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom included on one’s resume? From the moment I heard this show was coming to the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater company, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Director Jim Strait and producer Paul Taylor have chosen a play with one of the longest-ever Off-Broadway runs for their annual salute to gay heritage theater. Who doesn’t love a success story? This play opened with plans for just one weekend—and it turned into a five-year run! Strait informed me that he has wanted to do this play for 30 years; read on, and you’ll understand why.

Written by Charles Busch, this outrageous show actually consists of two one-acts: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma. (It’s important to distinguish thd latter one from the “other” Sleeping Beauty, lest suburban matrons mistakenly show up at the theater door with eager 6-year-olds.)

VLOS is the story of two rival ladies, beginning in the ancient city of Sodom—which you’ll remember was supposed to be, oh, you know, the most depraved city ever in the entire world. Both gals are immortal vampires who repeatedly cross paths on their 2,000-year journey, starting in Sodom at a pagan sacrifice, appearing next in Hollywood in the 1920s, and last in present-day Las Vegas.

SBOC starts off in the swingin’ ’60s of London. Who could forget it? Miniskirts, the Beatles, Twiggy, the Frug, bell bottoms, the Rolling Stones, Carnaby Steet, etc. This is exactly when the theatrical style of revue began. SBOC echoes its snappy style, with actors playing multiple roles, running gags, quick changes, satire, broad comedy, and snippets of song and dance. The revue style borrowed heavily from the old American vaudeville shows (and music halls in England), and its future would become TV shows like Laugh In, Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live.

Here at Desert Rose Playhouse, this cast members have been chosen for their versatility and inventiveness. Each actor works not just in both acts; Act 2 includes three separate scenes, so some actors play as many as four parts, complete with elaborate costume, wig and makeup changes. It’s a demanding show! We have to mention there’s nudity and a few choice vulgarities, by the way, if anyone still cares.

Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting even includes strobe lights and a “limelight” effect. (You can’t imagine the number of light cues.) Steve Fisher’s stage management whisks people, sets and props on and off stage with breathtaking ease. Allan Jensen’s colorful rich-textured costumes are just magnificent—some are awesomely elaborate (vampires, actresses, a Vegas show star) while others are built for speedy changes—some right onstage. The fascinating wigs are masterminded by Toni Molano. Strait himself created the scenery (and he runs the lights … talk about multiple talents), and it was painted by Walter Lab. Let’s also applaud Robbie Wayne’s delightful choreography, sprinkled throughout the show with flair and wicked humor. Along with Paul Taylor as producer, Edward Monie is listed as the show’s executive producer.

How do we describe this show? Do terms like “madcap” and “over the top” convey the wackiness? Do I tell you about the audience’s gasps, spontaneous applause and belly laughs? Should we discuss the lovely “takes,” the knockout legs of the actors in drag, and the amazing shoes? Where do we begin?

Let’s start with the actors. The stars are Loren Freeman and Kam Sisco, two seasoned professionals who devour the stage like their vampire characters devour blood. Freeman’s sensational and sonorous voice, his unequalled skill with makeup, his evident relish with his costumes (a gold dress with a popcorn trim; a delicious cerise suit with giant faux pearls)—these are hallmarks of a detail-oriented and vastly talented actor. His flawless diction is a joy—he never wastes a word. His deft performance is a must-see, and acting students could learn much from him.

Sisco’s amazing legs are fantastic enough to be distracting, and the flesh-colored pantyhose in the modern-time scenes flatters him wonderfully. (Wait until you see his canary-yellow heels.) He’s an actor who is right on top of every line and gesture, and his careful attention to his craft makes these roles unforgettable. He goes through so much in this show that you will be astonished by him.

Adina Lawson is the only real girl in the cast. There are so many men in drag that it feels like the stage is completely mobbed by ladies, but there’s really only Lawson! Hmmm. She is tinier by about a foot of height than everyone else, but always spunky and terrier-alert. She plays a variety of roles with extreme body language and attitude.

Terry Huber is an actor of enormous variety, with a whole pocketful of regional and international accents and seasoned theatrical skills. Here, he weaves his skills through some really strange roles. Oh, and there’s a shock underneath one of his outfits. Brace yourself.

Richard Marlow changes so completely in his roles that we had to sneak a look at our programs to make sure the designer Sebastian Lore was really the same person later playing King Carlisle, the Hollywood actor with a complicated persona. He brings a pleasing variety to his work.

Jacob Betts is almost unrecognizable as he switches roles from Ian McKenzie to Etienne the butler to Danny the dancer, showing his chameleonic ability to fully inhabit each part.

Steven Ciceron and John Fryer give us some smaller roles (my faves were two bitchy chorus boys), but they both inhabit their many characters with the conviction that grows out of working with a great director: Strait has pulled solid performances and impressive vocal variety out of both gentlemen.

SBOC and VLOS have to be seen to appreciate this wild ride. VLOS’ strange plot is, surprisingly, beautifully and satisfyingly resolved. I won’t talk about the finale, so I don’t ruin it for you. So buckle up, and see it. You’ll love it. The outrageous title only begins the fun in this show!

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma, are performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-320-2000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A great theater experience allows us to see our human selves reflected back—in a way that moves, informs and enables us to relate to the realities of the lives of others.

When I was 17, my father threw me out because I had stayed out all night. Shortly thereafter, I got pregnant out of wedlock and contemplated suicide. I remember despondently standing in front of a bathroom mirror, ready to slit my wrists, and suddenly saying out loud to my reflection, “If it’s that bad, it can only get better.”

And it did.

Those feelings were overwhelmingly brought back when I attended the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre production of Push, written by George Cameron Grant, and directed by Cathedral City resident Jeanette Knight. The play was this season’s Youth Outreach Production. I first experienced this CV Rep program last year, when the focus was on female bullying.

The theater buses in students from throughout the area to see a one-act play about issues to which they can personally relate. After the production, the audience discusses the play’s themes with the actors and the director, to explore their own reactions and experiences. It’s more than a learning experience: For some students, it’s the first time they have attended dramatic theater and realized its ability to impact an audience.

Push revolves around a young man who comes out as gay to his parents and faces immediate rejection by his stern father. After the boy is thrown out, he subsequently suffers another rejection—by the boy he has fallen in love with—and commits suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming subway train. The play follows the anguish suffered by his sister, who runs away from home and is discovered at the same train station, contemplating ending her own life. As she struggles with her own feelings, she questions whether her brother made a choice, or whether he was “pushed” by others to feel he had no other options.

The performers in Push were almost all students, some of whom have never acted before. Their ability to inhabit the roles and then discuss with the audience the impact of those roles as it relates to their own lives and experiences was not only educational, but also very moving.

Ron Celona, the founding artistic director of CV Rep, participated in the after-play discussion. He noted that the 1,400-plus students who had seen Push were not so focused in the after-play discussions on the bullying and rejection of the boy’s sexuality; instead, their focus was on the suicide, an issue they and their friends had already encountered, either personally or through troubled acquaintances.

Jeanette Knight, originally from Michigan, has been in the desert since 1997.

“My mother dragged me to dance classes, and I now thank her every day for it,” she says. “I stayed with dance, and that’s how I got into acting.”

Knight began doing musical theater, and “I fell in love with the whole theater crowd.” She completed a degree in theater at UNLV, but says, “I’ve learned so much more from doing it outside of college.”

Knight’s local experience includes working at McCallum Theater as the education program manager, running the Beaumont Actors Studio, teaching acting and improvisation at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, and teaching classes in improv at CV Rep. “I’ve learned so much about acting by teaching it,” she says.

When Ron Celona approached Knight about directing Push, she jumped at the chance. “I really like doing this kind of theater,” she says. “We can’t sweep these issues under the carpet. The kids who come to see these shows are our future.”

There are two local efforts devoted to assisting young people who feel unsafe or who are aware of someone else who feels threatened or hopeless: Sprigeo is an anonymous reporting and investigation service to deal with bullying, harassment or intimidation in or out of school, with which the Palm Springs Unified School District is affiliated. SafeHouse of the Desert helps teens in crisis; those who feel threatened can go to any Sunline bus stop or McDonald’s and get free transportation to SafeHouse.

My parents finally allowed me to return home, but only if I gave my child up for adoption. In those days, there was no real way a teenage unwed mother could make it, so I lived with the hope that my son had indeed been able to live a better life than I could have given him. My first-born son and I were happily reunited after over 40 years. He is a gay man.

At the end of Push, when the sister decides her life is worth living, and her father apologizes for having rejected his son and contributing to his death, I was overcome with tears. All I could think was: I am so thankful that something inside of me knew it would get better, and that my son was adopted into a family where he was loved and accepted.

CV Rep is truly making a difference. In Jeanette Knight’s words: “It’s rewarding to have a hand in art not just for art’s sake, but to be a part of theater that can help make the world a better place.”

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

When the opening of a play is postponed a week, apparently because the cast is not quite ready, it tends to make reviewers a bit nervous.

What if the cast is still not ready? What if the show’s just a bomb?

Thankfully, my worries about the world premiere of Junk at the Desert Rose Playhouse were unfounded: Other than a few opening night jitters, it was quite an enjoyable production.

The musical is based on the real-life experience of writer/composer Michael Penny. While helping clean out a dead man’s home, two friends find the place chock-full of porn and other indications of the late resident’s loneliness and quirks.

So begins the plot of Junk. Two gay men—60ish Miss Lily (Jim Strait) and his “student,” 35-year-old Chris (Robbie Wayne)—arrive to dispose of the contents of a recently deceased man’s North Carolina cottage. The dearly departed has left behind a huge collection of homosexual porn, piles of cigarette butts, and an unmistakable aura of isolation and melancholy.

While sorting through the mess, Miss Lily and Chris explore the different ways in which they have experienced life as gay men. They bicker and snipe at one another; they laugh and cry; they commiserate; and ultimately, they strengthen the bond of their 20-year-old friendship.

The aforementioned opening-night jitters occurred very early on, as the pair launched into the first musical number, “A Man Needs a Hobby.” The actors seemed a tad uncertain as to where to come in, and slightly tentative with the first few lyrics—but they hit their stride quickly. Both Strait and Wayne have nice singing voices (particularly the latter), although there were a few occasions (especially on the very low notes) when they were difficult to hear. More vocal projection was also needed once or twice during spoken lines while accompanist/musical director Joel Baker was providing lovely background music. The versatile Baker, who tickles the ivories all over the desert, is fabulous, as always.

The word “intimate” kept popping into my mind throughout the evening. The Desert Rose Playhouse is an intimate theater; Junk is an intimate play; and the two actors and director Steve Fisher successfully create a warm, intimate world onstage.

Some of the musical numbers are quite memorable, including Chris’ touching musings about his mother, “She Loves Me” and the hilarious duet “She Believes in Bran.”

One of the big debates between the two men is whether or not prospective lovers should remove their pubic hair. Chris votes yes, in the risqué “I Like ’Em Smooth,” while Miss Lily equates the clean-shaven to “those cats who are bred to have no fuzz—it’s creepy!”

Aging—particularly the inevitability of losing one’s looks and sex appeal—is one of the show’s major themes. On the subject of turning 50, Miss Lily says, “You’re no longer a butterfly, but a gross, stinking wasp that no one wants to be with.” Though to a certain degree, Miss Lily has resigned himself to the fact he’s no longer a young stud, he does fondly remember his past sexual conquests. He brags about how gorgeous he was back then, and makes comparisons to what he considers Chris’ inadequacies in that department: “I wonder what’s going to happen when YOUR small store of looks runs out and no one wants you any more?”

Chris quickly fires back: “And what’s that like, Miss Lily?”

Both Strait and Wayne deliver strong, nuanced performances. Their chemistry is terrific. We really believe these two have been friends and “student-teacher” for a couple of decades. Always charismatic onstage, Strait does not disappoint here. His Miss Lily is witty, acerbic, hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking. One of Strait’s best moments is his rhapsodic description of seeing the movie The Sound of Music at age 9. It is priceless.

Wayne, whose work I had not seen before, is tremendous. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as his struts around the stage. He’s a triple threat: a strong actor, singer and dancer. (He created the show’s fun choreography as well.) His “I Hate Musicals” is one of the evening’s highlights.

The play’s double-entendre title, Junk, could of course refer to either the jumble of possessions the late homeowner has left behind, or a man’s genitals (which are often discussed throughout the show). While Desert Rose often pushes the envelope, and Junk does not shy away from the subject of gay sex, its themes are universal. We all, regardless of our sexual orientation, grow old, lose our sexual attractiveness and need to face our own mortality. Strait’s moving rendition of the closing song, “No One Wants to Leave the Party,” drives that home.

Desert Rose’s resident stage manager Steve Fisher once again proves his talent as a director. Phil Murphy’s lights and Thomas L. Valach’s set are spot-on.

Junk was worth waiting an extra week to see. It’s a memorable experience I would encourage all valley theater-goers to try.

Junk is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The words “world premiere,” when attached to the production of a play, present something of a conundrum.

On one hand, world premieres are exciting: Audiences get to see a brand-new work of art come alive before their very eyes. World premieres are also important: All new plays have to start off somewhere, and the companies brave enough to put them on deserve every theater-lover’s support.

On the other hand … world premieres tend to be unpolished at best, and complete messes at worst. After all, even the best plays are tweaked, reworked and rewritten many times before they become truly great.

Well, Poster Boys, enjoying its world premiere thanks to the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, is far from a complete mess. The play by Dan Clancy has a great deal of potential, and Desert Rose’s production—aside from a few minor flubs—is done well.

Poster Boys tells the story of Ned Harris and Will Bennett, a gay Los Angeles “power couple.” It’s early 2009; Ned (Jason Hull) is a plastic surgeon, and Will (Craig Michaels) is an artist who works on advertising campaigns. We first meet this loving pair in their living room; another couple—Jeffrey (Ed Lefkowitz) and Telly (Ron Coronado)—is supposed to be stopping by. Ned and Will, generous donors to a variety of gay and progressive causes, presume Jeffrey and Telly want them to open their checkbook yet again.

Once Jeffrey and Telly arrive, we learn they’re seeking not a check, but a potential “poster couple” to represent the legal case being mounted against Proposition 8, the November 2008 ballot measure that took away the right for same-sex couples to marry in California. Because of the great reputation that Ned and Will have in the community, Jeffrey and Telly think they’re ideal candidates to become a poster couple. Ned and Will are convinced to take a meeting with one of the lead lawyers in the case, a lesbian named Cassandra (Candice Edsell), who we later learn has an undying love of the word “fuck.”

The possibility of being presented to the world as a model couple on behalf of an undeniably important cause both intrigues and concerns Ned and Will; they have a frank discussion about the matter after Jeffrey and Telly leave, during which their potential wedding vows come up. The couple seems happy and stable—far from perfect, yes, but loving and solid.

The next scene takes us to Will’s art studio, where’s he’s working on a painting for an ad campaign. His assistant has arranged for a young male model, Morgan (Alex Enriquez), to come by for a session. The interplay between Morgan and Will does not lead to sex—but it’s decidedly sexual.

Hmm. Maybe Ned and Will’s monogamous relationship isn’t so solid after all.

While the legal battle against Proposition 8 is a big part of the plot of Poster Boys, it isn’t what poster boys is about. Really, the play is about the challenges of modern long-term gay-male relationships, especially when the possibility of marriage is introduced into the equation. The merits of open relationships versus monogamous (or supposedly monogamous) relationships are discussed at length. And does marriage fit if a committed couple decides they are open (i.e., can have sex with other people)?

All of these important questions are tackled nicely by playwright Clancy, even though parts of the script could use work. Some of the dialogue is stilted, and there are a couple of plot holes. (In her initial meeting with Ned and Will, Cassandra never brings up monogamy. Isn’t that one of the first topics that would come up?) However, Clancy succeeds at creating central characters about whom we care, and the 85-minute production moves at a nice pace.

Some performances suffered through opening-night unevenness, but Jason Hull, as Ned, is splendid. His performance should get some Desert Theatre League award consideration; he is fantastic from start to finish, as Ned grows from a meek sort into a man who decides he needs to take control of his life. Candice Edsell also deserves special mention for bringing energy and a bit of comic relief to the show as the lovable “dyke” lawyer with a deadly handshake.

As usual, director Jim Strait and his husband, producer Paul Taylor, do a fantastic job of making sure all of the production’s details are top-notch. The two-part set—Will’s tiny studio is placed on the stage, while the furniture that becomes every other setting is on the floor level—works wonderfully, while the sound and lighting are flawless. OK, there is one flaw worth noting: There needs to be a curtain, or something, that fully blocks the backstage goings-on from the view of the audience. We were sitting on the left side facing the stage, and we were distracted by the sight of people moving around off stage, visible through a gap upstage left, multiple times.

Quibbles aside, this production of Poster Boys, while the script is still very much a work in progress, is enjoyable, provocative and important. Don’t let the words “world premiere” stop you from seeing this engaging show.

Poster Boys is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, at 69260 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $28; the show runs 85 minutes without an intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance