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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!

OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …

For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.

So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.

If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)

Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.

The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently--and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.

You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:

Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.

Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.

Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.

Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.

Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.

Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.

Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.

Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.

Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.

Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.

Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.

There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.

If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.

Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.

Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 29, 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 desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off its sixth season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s witty look at lost dreams and family dysfunction. The production is almost home run … almost.

The show opens as middle-aged siblings Sonia (Adina Lawson) and Vanya (Jim Strait) bemoan their uneventful lives over a cup of coffee in their Bucks County, Penn., house. Neither has moved out of their childhood home. It’s where they cared for their aging parents (now both deceased), and where they enjoy refuge from the trials and tribulations of life, subsidized by their movie-star sister, Masha (Heather Brendel). Vanya is a gay, mild-mannered, aspiring playwright, while 52-year-old Sonia (adopted into the family at age 8) is unmarried and bipolar.

Soon, their voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling cleaning lady, Cassandra (Alma Lacy), arrives, bringing with her predictions of doom and gloom. Things really get intense when Masha shows up unexpectedly, with her new young boy toy, Spike (Cody Frank), in tow.

Arrogant and demanding, Masha is tormented by the fact that her ingenue days are long gone. She needs the spotlight like the rest of us need oxygen, and must always be the center of attention. She looks down on Sonia and has little sympathy for her sister’s frequent emotional outbursts. Sonia, meanwhile, resents having sacrificed years of her life caring for their late parents while Masha was jet-setting around the world.

In the midst of the bickering, Masha makes two big announcements. First, she’s decided to sell the house, forcing her siblings to find more modest accommodations; second, they’ve all been invited to a costume party down the street. It’s all been planned out, and Masha has brought costumes for everyone. She will be attending as Snow White; Spike will be the Prince; and Sonia and Vanya are relegated to the roles of dwarfs. Sonia refuses, instead stealing her sister’s thunder as the Evil Queen (as interpreted by Maggie Smith).

Soon, the lovely Nina (April Mejia) is added to the mix; she’s an aspiring actress who lives next door. Masha is flattered by Nina’s admiration, yet angered that the young girl has captured Spike’s interest.

Everyone in the cast has memorable moments in this production, but the acting is uneven at times. The amazing Adina Lawson is unquestionably the standout. Her Sonia is riveting, hilarious, pitiful, poignant and wise, all at once. She has some of the best lines in the play. While extolling the virtues of her late father, she adds, “And he never molested me,” to which her brother replies “That’s nice.” Later, when someone suggests she could get a job at CVS, she shoots back: “I’d prefer death.”

Jim Strait’s Vanya seems a bit too subdued early on, but he has some great comic moments as he attempts to hide his sexual attraction to Spike. He definitely rises to the occasion in a passionate monologue near the end of the play during which he rails against the losses of his life, including black-and-white TV, and postage stamps you had to lick.

Alma Lacy’s Cassandra is a real hoot. Her blustering entrance—she’s clad in a billowing caftan and a curly red wig—really makes an impression. She throws herself into the voodoo sequences wholeheartedly, and makes the audience believe she really does have supernatural powers.

Heather Brendel is cast well as B-movie queen Masha. Her comedic acting chops are evident during her spats with Sonia, and her futile efforts to keep Spike from stripping down to his skivvies. Her performance seemed a bit one-note in the early scenes, but the character became fleshed out later on. Some of Brendel’s best moments are as Snow White (the Disney version), a persona she really makes her own.

As vapid sex-object Spike, Cody Frank holds his own, but he could use a little more swagger. This is not the first character Frank has played which called for him to show some skin. He has the body for it and is certainly is easy on the eyes. But parading around onstage in your underwear takes a lot of self-confidence—and that is sometimes missing in this performance.

Rounding out the cast as Nina, April Mejia does a fine job. Wide-eyed and innocent, she is the quintessential sweet ingénue. She’s absolutely adorable when she reluctantly appears in her dwarf costume, as mandated by the jealous Masha.

Special mention needs to be made about the sound design and exquisite original music by Mark Bennett. It adds just the right touch to the play.

Robbie Wayne wears several hats regarding the production. His set design and costumes are terrific. As the director, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast. The main problem here is pacing: Timing is everything in comedy. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night jitters, but there were occasions when you could drive a train through the pauses between the actors’ lines. I think a couple of speed-read run-throughs might do the trick. There were also a couple of dead spots during costume changes, during nothing was happening onstage, that went on too long.

Despite these minor flaws, I recommend seeing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking—and a good way to kick off the Coachella Valley theater season.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.n., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

It’s autumn, and again, the theater season begins. How auspicious that the beginning of our fourth season of theater reviews coincides with the opening of the fifth season of plays by the fabulously successful Desert Rose Playhouse.

With all the doom-sayers proclaiming that live theater is dead, and that newspapers are dead, we have both survived.

This year, Desert Rose’s artistic director, Jim Strait, tells us that he and producer Paul Taylor are “addressing the woes of the world by doing comedy.” What a great idea! Their plans for 2016-17 include The Santaland Diaries, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom with Coma, Southern Baptist Sissies and Clark Gable Slept Here. If these crazy titles are any indication, we’re in for a LOT of fun this year at our desert’s LGBT playhouse.

The initial offering, POZ, was written by Michael Aman. It’s set in 2003 in The City (as New Yorkers proudly call it), and later on a beach in Massachussets. The play was nominated for a Carbonell Award (a theater award in Florida) last year, and this is only the third-ever production of the show. The writing is fluid and filled with echoes, and instead of being plot- or action-driven, it’s a comedy-splashed investigation into the lives and relationships of some fascinating characters.

The show’s open stage, specially designed by Thomas Valach, is painted by Walter Lab into a bright-red sky with fluffy white clouds. Red? It’s a clue. The set is minimalist, with just a curving set of stairs, one low platform and an armchair—across which the sky and clouds are also painted. Brilliantly lit by the award-winning Phil Murphy, the set is where the actors move into a variety of settings which our imaginations can flesh out. (You will particularly love how Murphy lights the waterfront scene.) Steve Fisher’s clever stage management rapidly transports us from one place to another, and the actors efficiently bus the props in and out of scenes themselves. Robbie Wayne’s costumes reflect each character’s special personality, and the casting is perfect.

And what personalities they are. Adina Lawson opens the play as Catherine, a sort-of-retired and stylish actress, neurotic and malcontent about everything from her aging to her out-of-order apartment building. Her edgy voice and superior attitude disguise the gentle and generous person hidden underneath, we realize as we get to know her and watch her interactions with others.

But … who’s that silently watching her? Turns out he’s Arthur, an angel, sweetly played by John Fryer. Ballet-trained and rehearsal-clad Arthur swirls throughout the play, strutting with the grace of a premier danseur; he eventually breaks his silence by launching into a lengthy monologue. He knows and visits all the other characters, even though they are not all are aware of his presence. (Just like the angels in our lives, perhaps.)

Edison, a 23-year-old who has been diagnosed with leukemia, is an actor/singer currently working as a waiter (of course), played by Peter Stoia. His is perhaps the most serious role, because the irony of his situation is affected by politics in every aspect of his life: In 2003, the disease was 78 percent curable, but ruinously expensive to treat. His youth and apparent inexperience provide a contrast to the other characters—but he shocks us with unexpected and disturbing cunning that we just don’t see coming.

The role of Robert, a cynical and weary 50-year-old lawyer (yes, there are a couple of good lawyer jokes), is performed by Richard Marlow. Self-consciously determined to keep up with technology and the times, he can’t help reminiscing about the Olden Days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He struggles to find an elusive relationship, yet sabotages his chances by keeping everyone at arm’s length—only partly because he is HIV-positive.

Lorraine Williamson is a breath of fresh air as Maia, a lesbian psychic. (How often do we hear those two words together?) She fills the stage with her garish, outrageous outfits and larger-than-life personality, but we can peek behind the facade to see her hidden pain. She gives us a multi-layered performance, which is especially notable in her musically voiced monologue.

Her ex-husband, Oscar, is played by Terry Huber, who has thrown caution to the winds with this performance. Here, he’s an over-the-top old-school queen who loves to dish, but who becomes suddenly vulnerable and uncertain when he struggles to resolve his relationship with his father. Huber never disappoints, and he’s delightful here, relishing his chance to deliver some of the best lines in the play. He shows us how even the most outrageous of us have to sometimes face the horrors of reality.

All these characters know each other and affect each other’s lives. The complexity builds through the play; my favorite scene is probably the one in the disco bar. (You’ll love the lighting!) The monologues are shot through with references to the life and times—what was popular on TV, what was legal and wasn’t, what was new back then, and the shock of being reminded of Sept. 11. There’s plenty about ghosts, Arthur included, and a thread of mystery running through the play. Death is always lurking, which increases the intensity of comedy through the contrast. Historically, 2003 was a different time, and it’s interesting to be jolted back to there.

The audience visibly warmed during this show. Perhaps we’d like to see a little more passion in the love story, but the characters are unforgettable, regardless. Jim Strait’s blocking is flawless—nobody knows how to use a space like he can—and the timing is excellent. The plot definitely takes a back seat to the characterizations, and the story is simply the stories of the lives of these people at this time. Are their memories the same as ours? It’s an interesting reality check; after all, we are never aware of change while it’s happening.

The year 2003 feels like a long time ago … that is, it did until I saw this play.

Poz is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s a very good thing that the latest production by Desert Rose Playhouse, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, has settled in for a six-week run. That gives a large percentage of valley theater-lovers the chance to see it.

And they should.

The play, which won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, is an ambitious undertaking. The only way to do Kushner’s powerful script justice is with amazing acting—and director Jim Strait’s cast delivers.

The story is set in 1985. Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS has begun ravaging the gay population. We meet two couples: Prior Walter (Nick Edwards), who is battling the disease, and his lover, Louis Ironson (Daniel Gutierrez); and Joe Porter Pitt (Alex Updike), a devout Mormon lawyer in denial about his homosexuality, and his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Allison Feist).

Joe has gone to work for gruff, conservative Roy Cohn (Eliott Goretsky), who is also closeted and battling AIDS, but refuses to accept the diagnosis. Cohn believes gay men are weak and powerless; he refers to his illness as cancer instead. Meanwhile, Louis cannot handle the realities of the disease, and cruelly abandons Prior when the first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions appear.

Interfacing with both patients is AIDS hospital-ward nurse Belize (the superb Robert Ramirez). Doing double duty as the fur-coat-wearing Mr. Lies, Ramirez is caring, campy, hilarious and viciously witty all at the same time.

When Joe finally comes out of the closet, his mother, Hannah (Adina Lawson), travels from Salt Lake City to try to push him back in.

Director Jim Strait (who also designed the set, sound and projections) brings out the best in each member of his stellar cast. Each actor is a standout.

Nick Edwards rips your heart out as the dying Prior. His depiction of what AIDS does to the body is wrenching. This is an award-winning performance. As his Jewish lover, Louis, Daniel Gutierrez ably portrays a mix of guilt and callousness. His performance occasionally seemed to lack just a bit of energy, but that may have been an artistic choice for the character.

Goretsky’s Roy Cohn (based on the real political figure) is fabulous: dark, cynical, condescending and yet charismatic as he spews profanity at clients and barks orders at underlings over the phone. Just as strong is Alex Updike as the conflicted Joe. Talk about issues: He has the ultimate glass-half-empty guy, Roy Cohn, for a boss; a pill-popping, delusional wife; and a sexual attraction to men that he refuses to acknowledge. Updike’s emotional pain is palpable.

As Joe’s beleaguered wife, Harper, Allison Feist is impressive. I’ve seen this young actress in a number of productions now, and she never disappoints. She’s got a long career ahead of her.

Loren Freeman—a standout in the recent A Queer Carol—is terrific here as well in several cameos (The Angel, Nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, A Homeless Woman in the Bronx). He exudes presence, which is something you cannot teach.

Rounding out the cast is the amazingly versatile Adina Lawson. She also plays multiple parts, hitting each one out of the ballpark. Unrecognizable as a rabbi in the show’s opening, she is also notable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Soviet spy. I can’t help but grin each time I go to a show and see her name in the program; I know the audience is in for a treat.

This play is challenging technically, and Desert Rose rises to the occasion. There are lots of quick scene changes, and they are executed quite well. Phil Murphy should take a bow for his prism lightning design during those changes; it is beautiful and quite effective. Designer Tom Valach creates just the right dramatic tone with the angel costume, and the other costumes, hair and makeup are spot on.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is producing Angels in America as its annual Gay Heritage Production. Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley’s only LGBT and gay-positive stage company, and most everything the playhouse does is edgy and often pushes the envelope. So be warned: This show does contain brief full frontal nudity and a fairly graphic depiction of gay sex. Also keep in mind the show is 3 1/2 hours long—although the time whizzes by.

This play is not for the faint of heart; it touches on love, sex, death, betrayal, greed, bigotry, addiction and the afterlife. It will shake you to your core—and might make you look at what you’re doing with the time you have left on this Earth.

It’s damn good theater. Don’t miss it.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Evening tickets are $33; matinee tickets are $30. Running time is 3 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you’re one of those poor souls carrying resentment about mistreatment by nuns in Catholic school—or if you just need a few good belly laughs—get to the Desert Rose Playhouse, pronto.

The Divine Sister, produced by Paul Taylor, may just be your salvation.

The play was originally conceived by actor, writer and longtime female impersonator Charles Busch as a star vehicle for himself. Known for his off-Broadway play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch once said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be.”

The Divine Sister is a demented tribute to films featuring nuns, from The Sound of Music to Agnes of God. The story unfolds at St. Veronica’s Convent and grade school in Pittsburgh. Mother Superior (Jim Strait) has many issues to deal with, including the fact that the school building is falling down. She’s dealing with a young postulate named Agnes (of course), who believes she has magical healing powers and that the Virgin Mary speaks directly to her; Timothy, a young boy in desperate need of baseball coaching who doesn’t yet realize he’s gay; and a newly arrived German nun who may not be all that she seems.

Throw in devout atheist Mrs. Levinson, who could fund a new school if she were so inclined, and a man from Mother Superior’s crime-reporting past who is still pining for her, and you can understand the need for a few extra prayers.

Strait, who also serves as Desert Rose’s artistic director, is tremendous here. Though The Divine Sister is an ensemble piece, Strait is the captain of the ship, and he skillfully leads his cast through this irreverent romp. He’s strong actor and a charismatic presence who seems very comfortable in drag—but his physical size and voice remind us that there’s some testosterone in the mix as well. Sporting a long, curly wig and heels, Strait’s first appearance as girl reporter Susan Appleyard gets a huge laugh. Strait seems to be having as much fun as the audience is, which really enhances the theater-going experience.

Allison Feist is perfectly cast as innocent Agnes, who truly believes she’s been specially chosen by God. She exudes both the religious fervor of Meg Tilly in Agnes of God and the girlish mischievousness of Julie Andrews in The Sounds of Music. The physical gyrations she goes through while “healing” others are laugh-out-loud funny. Keep an eye on Feist; she has a bright future ahead of her.

As Sister Acacius, Lorraine Williamson knocks the role out of the park. Big, bold and brassy, she shows off animated facial expressions and perfect comic timing that remind me of a combination of Jo Anne Worley and Lucille Ball. Sister Acacius has a lusty past, and her vow of celibacy sometimes seems to waiver. When handsome movie consultant Jeremy (the fabulous Timm McBride) begins describing his impressive manhood in great detail, Williamson’s efforts not to drool are precious.

Adina Lawson delivers an award-worthy performance as smug, privileged Mrs. Levinson. Early in the show, two nuns visit her in an effort to secure funds to build a new school. Mrs. Levinson explains her devout atheism while describing agnostics as “wishy-washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand. Give me religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity.” Later, while sharing memories of her late husband Morris (including sea creatures during a visit to Crete, and his fatal heart attack), Levinson peppers her stories with hilarious Vogue magazine-esque descriptions of what she was wearing. Her turn as 12-year-old Timothy is equally impressive. Lawson is a pro—she totally embodies each character and is clearly having a blast on stage.

The always-interesting Alden West is quite good as the mysterious German nun, Sister Maria Walburga. Like pretty much everyone else in the play, her character has secrets—including a randy side. Walburga’s not-so-subtle invitation to Sister Acacius to have a sexual threesome with another nun is a hoot. West manages to maintain distinctly different (and believable) accents as both Berlin native Sister Walburga and, later, as a Scottish housekeeper. Any actor will tell you that to accomplish such a thing within the same play is not an easy feat.

As both Jeremy (the well-endowed film consultant hunting for a good story) and sinister monk Brother Venerius, Timm McBride is excellent. Having each actor play two roles in a production doesn’t always work, but it does here—beautifully. There is not a single weak performance here.

Director J. Stegar Thompson gets the best out of his strong cast. He keeps the pace going, which keeps the laughs flowing. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Thomas L. Valach’s set and Phil Murphy’s lighting provide just the right mood, as does Thompson’s sound. In a show with so much cross-dressing and actors playing dual roles, costumes (Kathryn Ferguson) and wigs (Toni Molano and Timm McBride) are crucial. All are spot on. Stage manager Steve Fisher deserves a nod as well.

This terrific show did suffer through a couple of glitches on opening night. There was a stumble right out of the gate with sound cues. After a delightful recorded welcome to the show from playwright Charles Busch, opening music began … then abruptly stopped. Then we heard a repeat of Busch’s welcome … which also abruptly stopped. Then there was the music again … which stopped. Finally, the music began in earnest, and the play got underway. The performances were so good that the audience soon forgot about the sound snafu, but it was an unfortunate way to start the night. Another big goof: Toward the end of the show, there was a premature entrance by an actor during a very dramatic moment in the script.

No matter what your religious affiliation, you will enjoy Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Divine Sister. It’s funny; it’s raucous; and it’s one hell of an entertaining evening.

The Divine Sister is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets or more information, call, 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

We’re confused—not because we’re Lost in Yonkers, but because of all the questions that are raised by this production of this show.

Have we come to expect too much from Desert Theatreworks? Has the quality of its other productions led us to anticipate an impossible-to-achieve consistency? With all the projects DTW has going, has the company spread itself too thin to give sufficient time and effort to this show? While there are laughs aplenty in this play, they’re due to Neil Simon’s deft scriptwriting—not because of what we see happening on the stage of the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre.

The most egregious problems suggest a lack of steady leadership. Somebody took their eyes off the road here. Example: It’s hard for actors, affecting an accent, to hear themselves clearly, especially if they’re simultaneously worrying about lines/timing/blocking/orientation. They need somebody else’s keen ears to catch them if they wander off. The actors here were all over the place with their mishmash of accents, and the results fluctuated from no dialect at all to downright mispronunciations.

Another example: There were several blocking mistakes, which placed some actors downstage close to the audience—completely masking the action happening upstage. This is not the kind of error we would expect at this theater.

Want me to go on? How about the grandmother’s wig, which was so obviously false and misfit and wrong that it actually distracted us from her acting? Or what about Gert’s breathing problems? They were funny the first couple of times, but then she changed the effect and totally overdid it—causing the audience to stop laughing. How about the father, Eddie, reading his own letters aloud, while he holds the paper up so high that you can barely see his forehead? Why is Louis’ jacket bunched all funny in the front when it’s buttoned—did they just hope we wouldn’t notice? Should I mention doors that stick nearly every time—except for one that slowly swung open by itself during someone’s speech? How could this happen?

It makes me feel terrible to point these things out, as I have consistently lauded the work at this theater for its originality and solid old-school creativity. But something has gone wrong here—not that you won’t enjoy the wit and wisdom of Neil Simon’s play, and revel in his magnificently crafted humor. Setup! Punch line! Roar with laughter!

Lost in Yonkers takes place during World War II. The widowed father of two young boys (supposedly 13 and 15, but neither looks it … we might have believed 9 and 11) drops them off at his mother’s home above her confectionary store in Yonkers, so he can take advantage of a wartime work opportunity involving many months of travel. The grandmother is a German refugee and mother of six. The boys’ observations and comments about their new situation are wonderful, with their “out of the mouths of babes” insight.

The grandmother, a hard case played by June August, has the most fabulous face, tragically overshadowed by the already mentioned weird silver wig. Her remaining children—the kids’ aunts and uncle—who were raised under her rigid and severe hand, lead lives that show their reactions to her steely and uncompromising discipline. Aunt Bella, a difficult role performed by Daniela Ryan, is a multilayered young lady full of secrets who displays serious problems with reality. Aunt Gert, played by Adina Lawson—wearing yet another ghastly copper-colored hairpiece mistake—has developed breathing problems due to the stress. Uncle Louis, played by Stephen Blackwell, has defected to a freewheeling lifestyle in a world of gangsters, breezily choosing to ignore his former life—until he requires a handy hideout from his nefarious companions. Eddie, the boys’ father, portrayed by Gregg Aratin, comes off as a broken man, overwhelmed by his responsibilities and terrified of his mother, yet determined to set things right and get out of debt. Alas, his performance was robotic.

Of course, it’s the kids who get the very best lines, and Cameron Keys, as Jay—or Yakob, as their grandmother insists on calling him—the older brother, is a pleasant surprise. Because he doesn’t wear makeup, we watch his fine-skinned face go bright-red under the influence of anger or indignation or protest, an astonishing experience. His kid brother, the big-eyed Angus Feath as Arty or Arthur, shows a poise and composure far beyond his years, and indicates a tremendous promise for the future. This young man has a gift for comedy and is definitely one to watch.

So what happened here? Perhaps the play just simply wasn’t ready. When the actors all spoke their lines, they seemed to miss the deep conviction of a finished product, and lacked the thoughtfulness of a stage-ready performance. Every actor has to remember the words, the blocking, the plots, but it’s entirely another experience to bring to the play the convincing portrayal, the passion, the commitment, the sincerity of a performance that will move the audience not just to laughter, but a whole range of emotions. They call it “polishing,” and this show simply lacked polish.

If we are not honest about the things that are wrong in our fantastic local theater community, then our praise will mean nothing, either. And that leaves us not just Lost in Yonkers … but really confused.

Lost in Yonkers, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

You don’t have to be a gay woman or a fan of quiche to thoroughly enjoy 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, the 2014-2015 season-opening production by Dezart Performs.

Written by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, the five-character play opened in Chicago in 2011, then hit off-Broadway in 2012; it was named a Best Overall Production at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Set in 1956, the play opens in a church basement, which has been turned into a fallout shelter. (The simple set by J.W. Layne works quite well.) The members of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein have gathered for their annual quiche breakfast. The main event on the agenda: the judging of the quiches, to determine which is best.

Everyone in the audience is a member of the society, too; attendees are each given a nametag upon entering. (I was “Dorothy.”) Throughout the production, the five ladies onstage zing individual audience members, focusing most of their venom on Marjorie, the impeached former building-and-grounds chairman sitting in the front row.

The egg—the main ingredient in a quiche, of course—has been sacred to members of the society since the group was founded by a pioneering woman who came across a colony of hens in the woods. Their motto: “No men, no meat, all manners.” When a misguided member once showed up with a sausage quiche, she was unceremoniously thrown out of the meeting. Joyce Jenkins’ brightly colored costumes and Lyndee Goodall’s hair-and-wig designs perfectly capture the era, and help define each character.

Thankfully, the entire cast is superb. It’s a joy when members of an ensemble are evenly matched, as they are here. Allison Feist is quite effective as emotionally fragile Dale. Adina Lawson is an absolute hoot as no-nonsense Vern, who takes her job as building-and-grounds chairman very seriously. There were times when she reminded me of a young Barbra Streisand. As the society’s innocent secretary, Ginny, Phylicia Mason is charming, even if her English accent was a bit inconsistent. Kristine Waters is hilarious and a bit campy as Wren and Yo Younger once again delivers a flawless performance as the group’s fearless Southern leader, Lulie.

Kudos go to director/producer Michael Shaw for choosing this piece, and for eliciting such great performances from his cast. Both the sound (Clark Dugger) and the lighting (Phil Murphy) are spot-on.

Act One ends with a nuclear blast destroying the outside world, apparently leaving only the members of the society alive. As Act Two begins, and the meeting progresses, the comedy gets broader, and the sexual double-entendres become more blatant. At one point, Ginny loses control, jumps on the table and buries her face, tongue-first, in the winning quiche; another character comments on her “good technique.”

Confessions begin, and the truth comes out: These self-proclaimed “widows” really prefer romantic liaisons with each other. (This isn’t a spoiler if you know the name of the play.) Dale’s monologue detailing why she’s the way she is, and why she hasn’t spoken to a man since a rift with her father at age 3, is terrific. Since audience participation is a big part of this show, by the end of the night, we were all proclaiming to be lesbians.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche was originally conceived as a one-act. Having it morph into a two-act play works, since the pace is brisk. Including the 15-minute intermission, the total running time was about 90 minutes.

Once again, Dezart Performs has proven that it’s a gem in the valley’s theater scene. This production is wonderful: It’s fun, bawdy and, at times, touching. If you’re not offended by sexual humor or two women kissing, you’ll love this show—and you’ll never look at quiche the same way again.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, by Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Evening shows are $25; matinees are $22. A champagne brunch at Lulu California Bistro, followed by the show, begins at 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 16; tickets are $44. A benefit performance for the Desert AIDS Project takes place at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 16; tickets are $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Great American Trailer Park Musical debuted at the New York Theater Festival in 2004 and opened off-Broadway in September 2005. Today, the two-act musical, written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso—which examines the relationships between the tenants at the Armadillo Acres Trailer Park in Starke, Fla.—has made its way to the desert, thanks to the efforts of Desert Theatreworks.

There’s not much of a plot; some of the characters need more fleshing out; and many of the songs are weak, but the show has enjoyed moderate success over the past 10 years. If you’re a Jeff Foxworthy fan and like your humor on the crass side, this show is right up your alley.

If the only criterion for reviewing a show was the earnest effort of the cast, Desert Theatreworks’ production would get five stars. Director Lance Phillips-Martinez has assembled a group of energetic actors with great comic timing who do their best to keep the audience smiling throughout the production.

So what’s the downside? The show is a musical, and many of those onstage lack the necessary singing ability. 

As the show opens, we meet Betty (Adina Lawson), Pickles (Briana Taylor) and Lin (Kitty Garascia)—whose name is short for linoleum, since she was born on the kitchen floor. The rousing first musical number, “This Side of the Tracks,” sets the tone of the narration and the commentary on trailer-park life that the trio provides. Though it’s one of the better songs, right away, issues of pitch and shrillness became apparent. Excess volume is also a problem. Nearly everyone in the cast seems to follow the “if in doubt, sing louder” mantra—something director and vocal coach Phillips-Martinez should have nipped in the bud. (I once had a fabulous musical theater instructor who said: “Loud does not equal better; it’s just loud.”)

Lawson fares the best. She hits the notes a bit more often than her cohorts, and her street-smart, cigarette-puffing Betty keeps us laughing, especially during the talk-show-spoofing The Great American TV Show. Taylor is amusing as the not-too-bright Pickles, and Garascia has her moments as the wife of a death-row inmate (who tries to postpone his execution by sabotaging the prison’s electricity).

The strongest pipes in the cast belong to Ashley Hernandez, as stripper-on-the-run Pippi, who arrives at Armadillo Acres and promptly starts an affair with tollbooth-collector Norbert Gastecki (Shawn Abramowitz). Norbert’s wife, Jeanne (Stacy Casaluci), is devoted but agoraphobic, and hasn’t stepped out of their trailer in years. Hernandez has a strong, pleasing voice, and has clearly had vocal training—but even she occasionally pushes too hard. Abramowitz captures the essence of Norbert, who feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but is also frustrated by her neurosis. Sadly, he is not a singer. His duet with Casaluci (“Owner of My Heart”) just did not work, because the harmonies seemed off. Though she has a pretty voice well-suited to the quiet solo numbers, Casaluci becomes shrill at times.

Rounding out the ensemble, Stephen McMillen delivers a nice comic turn as Pippi’s marker-inhaling ex-boyfriend, Duke. 

Kudos go to Ron Phillips-Martinez for the sets and costumes, which are quite good. The lighting, sound and choreography are all fine. 

The opening-night audience seemed to enjoy The Great American Trailer Park Musical at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, though applause following many of the musical numbers was not always very enthusiastic.

The show is loud, colorful, tacky and, most important, fun. If you don’t go expecting beautiful singing, or songs you can whistle on your way home, you just might like it.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 23, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; and $23 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The famine is at an end: Our Coachella Valley may have been starved for melodrama, but relief has arrived at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, in Palm Desert.

Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is the first “mellerdrammer” presented here in the valley (that we can recall, at least), and if audience response is any gauge of its success, we need MORE! Desert Theatreworks, led by executive director Ron Phillips-Martinez, is offering this play by Shubert Fendrich through Sunday, Feb. 2, and it is an experience not to be missed.

More than any other theatrical form, the melodrama requires an audience—and not just warm bodies sitting there. Oh no! Here, you must boo and hiss the nasty villain, cheer the brave hero, and go awwww for the sweet little heroine. Some venues (but not this one, darn it) let you pelt the cast with popcorn at appropriate junctures. It’s the most engaged you’ll ever be at the theater—and I’ve never seen a desert audience laugh so hard or so often.

The strong and innovative directorial hand of Lance Phillips-Martinez is a lovely thing to watch. His cast is evenly matched, with everyone overacting wildly, delivering confidential asides to the audience, and executing elaborate reaction “takes.” His guidance results in extraordinary acting details, including shoulder work, hand placement and footwork—aspects so often ignored by busy directors. Try to sit where you can see the actors’ shoes, because there are some lovely and hilarious extra bits done with their feet—sometimes the most-neglected part of the actor’s repertoire. Lance Phillips-Martinez has obviously kept a sharp eye on every member of his large cast, resulting in a beautiful unity among the actors. For example, he has paid exceptional attention to the actors’ use of their eyebrows. Powerful! Acting students can learn much from watching this production.

Melodrama is defined by the staging. One set (the hotel lobby) is all that’s needed for both acts. Off to one side perches the glamorous Miss Kitty (Kitty Garascia), who acts as emcee, with big white cue cards that advise the audience when and how to respond to the action. BOO! says one. CHEER! says another. And we do. Interestingly, the word OLIOS shows up on a placard after intermission, and she explains that this means it’s an opportunity for the cast to demonstrate their other talents—which they then do, by telling jokes, performing magic and singing tearjerkers of the day such as “The Bowery” or “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now.” Yikes.

“Breaking the fourth wall” is the term given to the acting technique of stepping out of the onstage action to address the audience directly. It can be done with spoken dialogue or just a look. It is employed wonderfully in this production, resulting in the audience's continuing involvement with the action, even when not actually delivering boos and hisses or applause. The finest example of this comes from actress Alden West (the evil Widow Black, owner of the town’s sole hotel), who snarls in reply to the audience’s reactions. “Aw, stuff it,” she snaps at us after being booed, provoking screams of laughter. (Yes, a female villain!)

Rubber-faced young actor Austin Schroeter, playing the aw-shucks overalls-clad farm-boy ingénue role of Bill Filbert, is delightful. (“That’s weird,” he comments thoughtfully at one point, his beyond-blue eyes staring into space.) Savvy and thoughtful actor Hal O’Connell, as Barney Black, the hapless son-in-law who toils as the hotel’s clerk, almost steals the show at one point, and I’m not going to ruin the surprise on that one. But it’s crafty Stephen McMillen, who plays two roles (Snipe Vermin and Harry Heartstone—you have got to love those names) and seizes a double opportunity to impress us by switching between facial expressions/voice/gestures/attitudes, as well as from black Stetson to white Stetson. Yee-haw!

And wait until you meet Flora and Dora, played by Jana Baumann and Joyce Ellenson, respectively. They never break character, even with their high-energy antics. Watch what they do with their eyes. They play bizarre showgirls in the troupe of Colonel Crabtree, played by charming and suave veteran actor John Alex Houlton, always a solid performer—this time augmented with a terrific cape. Adina Lawson plays Martha Muldoon, an aging escapee from said troupe, who has been hiding out at Widow Black’s hotel for two years. She’s a petticoat-and-frilled-pantaloon’d flirt with long curls and a parasol, ready to tackle any available male who happens by. Then there’s the lady sheriff, Willie Lovelace, smoothly played by Hannah Ruzicka, with all the body consciousness of a Marilyn Monroe and the self-confidence of a Bette Davis—in a fabulous pair of iguana-skin cowboy boots. The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience!

The plot is more complicated than you’d expect from this kind of theater—with an interesting twist. The actors get to push their Western drawls over the top (along with everything else, except the furniture). The production team holds up its end beautifully. Bless them.

When he opens the show, artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez reminds us that Desert Theatreworks is entirely funded by ticket sales—with no sponsors or donors at all—and always uses local actors, definitely another important reason to support them. How else will regional theater grow?

But the best reason of all to see Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is that it’s fantastic. Imagine: You, at last, in the audience of a melodrama!

Desert Theatreworks’  Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors; and $12 children 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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