CVIndependent

Thu09192019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Remember those many old adages about walking a mile in another person’s shoes, or being a fly on the wall in someone else’s house—all sayings that basically mean you never know what goes on behind closed doors? Well, Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Lovesport, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theatre in the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, gives you a chance to be the fly.

An original work by DETC founder and producing artistic director Tony Padilla, Lovesport is the latest in a series of his creations as an award-winning playwright, director and producer. Basically, it’s a gayer, less-warped homage to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Here it is: A couple arrives at their San Francisco-area suburban home where they’ve lived for many years, after a ghastly dinner party. One of them has invited another couple, whom they have just met, to join them for a nightcap. Bzzz bzzz … we get to watch what happens.

It’s a play all about relationships, and about commitment. Here we have four gentlemen, all nice-looking and successful in their chosen fields, but the biggest concern of their lives revolves around their partner and how they are getting along.

Jerome Elliott, who always is working at either a play or a cabaret show, plays Josh, a mature and world-weary misogynist. He is in a longtime committed relationship with Marty, a former actor, played by Alan Berry. Their guests are Gary, a painfully young hi-tech designer working at what is hinted to be Google or someplace like it, played by Cameron Shingler; and his husband of two years, Ben, who is an older and sophisticated architect, played by J. Gazpar Ascenio.

Other than a few jokes about what to wear for Halloween drag, the four converse about the same things everyone, everywhere in a suburban living room might discuss, gay or straight: relationships, making sacrifices, making mistakes, the future, romance, doubts, what the wedding was like, a partner whose sense of humor is beginning to fade, making a decision about whether or not to have a baby. We get to watch the four interact, and we see secrets and revelations about each of them revealed … accidentally or not.

The play is listed as a comedy, but there are not a lot of chortles. Do you know the defining difference between a comedy and a tragedy? No, it’s not counted in laughs. In a comedy, the protagonist, or lead character, gets what he wants. In a tragedy, he doesn’t. So this is a (rather dark) comedy, but the script contains some beautifully memorable lines like: “My fears keep me from making stupid mistakes.” Or: “He who listens, wins.” Or: “It smells like a Rastafarian hippy hut” after two of the characters light up a joint. Padilla’s writing is most interesting. He makes each of the personalities distinctively different—not an easy task when the cast consists of four males—and each has his own very individual voice. The author really knows people. (But a few more laughs wouldn’t hurt!) This is the fortunate result of the author acting as the play’s director also—the message becomes the star of the show.

Act 1 ends with a shock. There are two acts, and the running time is about 90 minutes. The actors all have to be complimented on their lovely diction. This is a difficult room to play, because its textures are so soft—carpets, curtains—and the sound gets soaked up. But despite excellent diction, the occasional last words of a sentence got lost through dropped volume and pitch. Watch that projection please, boys!

As far as the acting goes, there was a sense of stiffness that never went away. I was hoping that it was just initial first-night nerves, but the stiffness didn’t vanish as the play progressed, alas. We found the characters interesting, intellectually speaking—but they never moved us emotionally.

The other little problem is some overly busy and unmotivated blocking … one got the feeling that the characters had been told to move here or there, rather than being impelled by their emotions to move themselves. This is not a large deal, but it was enough to cause the occasional wrinkled brow. Director Padilla always keeps his stage balanced, but at the risk of chess-boarding the characters a little much.

The basic problem was believability—we just are not convinced that the actors are really that person going through those feelings, or that they are affected by their drinking wine or smoking pot … which is tricky to portray, admittedly, but the audience needs to see a change and not just hear about it. When they indulge in some gossip about a woman at the dinner party, the words are there, but the delivery falls a little flat—we neither savor it nor are taken aback by the bitchiness, because the characters don’t fully reveal how they feel. Acting is, alas, all about feelings, not just saying the words.

Don’t get me wrong: The play will definitely hold your attention, even if it’s partly the universal schadenfreude that sees someone else having problems while you sit there comfortably, relieved that it isn’t your life that’s being exposed for all to see.

What we are looking at here is something that seems to take most of a lifetime for people to learn: You can put two perfectly nice people together, but the bottom line is that it isn’t guaranteed to work, because it’s the relationship itself that is wrong. A relationship has its own life, separate from the individuals in it, and a relationship can be as vulnerable as the people involved in it. It’s endlessly challenging trying to guess who in life will make it and who won’t—just like in this play. Secrets and scars are not always readily apparent.

As one character in Lovesport wisely asserts, “Relationships are not for sissies.”

Lovesport, a performance by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre in the Palm Springs Woman's Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

How far should spousal loyalty go when your mate’s creative expression causes you emotional pain? When does a risqué hobby become deviancy—and who decides what’s deviant, anyway?

These are the questions examined in Dezart Performs’ production of Casa Valentina. Harvey Fierstein’s provocative play earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best New Play, in 2014. The time in Casa Valentina is 1962—a more innocent yet much less tolerant era. A group of professional heterosexual men gather at a bungalow in the Catskills to relax and blow off steam. They eat, drink, dance and laugh—all while dressed as women.

This haven for transvestites really existed, at a resort called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th-century cross-dresser. The story was revealed when antiques dealer Robert Swopes stumbled across a box of pictures at a Manhattan flea market. Each photo captured these men in all their feminine glory: Bewigged and clad in dresses, heels and pearls, group members were shown doing mundane things like sipping coffee and playing cards. Intrigued, Swopes purchased the photos and put them together in a book called Café Susanna in 2005.

In the play, the establishment (here called “Casa Valentina”) is run by George (aka Valentina), played by Scott Smith, and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Tammy Hubler). As the show opens, they are preparing for yet another weekend of hosting men who relax by taking on their female personas for a few days. The couple is anticipating the arrival of a new guest, Jonathan (Cameron Shingler), also known as Miranda.

The strong bond between Rita and George is apparent. They banter back and forth while she lovingly pins on his wig cap as he begins his transformation into Valentina. It’s clear that Rita long ago accepted her husband’s predilection, and adores him in spite of it. “There’s no secret to being popular with men … just never say no,” she says. Smith is excellent as Valentina. You can feel both his devotion to Rita and his compulsion to express his feminine side.

Soon we meet Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Norman), resplendent in an over-sized housecoat and hot pink turban. A plus-sized cross-dresser, Bessie relishes every moment as a woman. Norman is a hoot as he tosses off some of the best lines in the show. When someone brings up the inadequacies of the male form, Bessie quips, “I once had a male form; I filled it out and mailed it back!”

A pivotal character in the play is the judge (the exceptional Bruce Cronander), who strides in with a shotgun. His professional position and penchant for firearms are irrelevant when he slips off his robe to reveal a floral satin dress and coos, “Hello, Amy, I’ve missed you!”

When Theodore/Terry (the fabulous Garnett Smith) must jump up shortly after perching on a chair, he complains, “Just when I got my skirt to lay right on the first try.”

Cameron Shingler ably captures the awkwardness and insecurity young Jonathan feels as the newcomer to the group. Getting settled in his room, he clutches a flowered frock, seemingly not knowing what to do with it. The other “girls” soon rally around him, giving him a proper makeover, complete with phony breasts and hips, cosmetics and jewelry. Their enthusiastic efforts to transform him into Miranda are touching.

The cast is excellent across the board, but San Diego resident Dale Morris as Isadore/Charlotte deserves special mention. Looking stunning in his gold lame blouse, designer suite and heels, he clearly revels in the freedom to express his inner diva. But he also knows the risk involved in theses activities, and chafes at society’s disapproval. As he admonishes one of the group’s younger members, “I’ve gone to jail so you don’t have to!”

Kevin Coubal (Michael/Gloria) is the most traditionally attractive woman of the group, by far. Statuesque in his heels, he flips his long auburn curls constantly and really works it. He is the standout when the girls perform a cute lip-synced version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with the jukebox.

Louise Ross appears briefly toward the end of the play as Eleanor, the judge’s daughter. The always-dependable Ross ably conveys the pain, anger and resentment as she deals with her cross-dressing family member.

Things turn serious when Charlotte announces that the “sorority” has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and needs to appoint officers. Some members aren’t thrilled about that, preferring to just keep things as they are. Their weekend escapades are harmless, they say, and the fewer people who know about them, the better. But Charlotte argues that secrecy is the enemy. Then things really get crazy when Charlotte asks each member to sign a document barring homosexuals from joining the group. In 1962, it seems, cross-dressers believed that putting on a dress was OK, but actually having sex with a man was true deviancy. The guests at Casa Valentina are divided on the issue. Since the gay community often accepted “the girls” when no on else would, they feel the need to return that loyalty. The booze-fueled tension finally explodes in an act of violence.

The costumes, makeup, wigs and lighting are all right on the money. There was only one problem with Dezart’s Casa Valentina on opening night, but it was distracting: There were many occasions when some of the actors could not be heard. In a theater the size of the Pearl McManus, one would not think that body microphones should be necessary. The hum of the building’s air conditioning unit was a factor, but it really comes down to projecting: Actors of this caliber know how to project, and did so during much of the show. But at several dramatic moments, the actors were inaudible. It was particularly annoying when much of the audience could not hear the last two or three lines of the play, delivered by the otherwise-superb Tammy Huber.

This an important play and a terrific production. Michael Shaw’s direction is spot-on. I only hope he corrects the sound issue so valley audiences can enjoy Casa Valentina in its entirety.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater (inside the historic Palm Springs Woman’s Club), 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in downtown Palm Springs. Tickets run $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Squabbles over family heirlooms following the death of the patriarch are not new—but they are taken to a whole new level in the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, Bad Jews.

Written by Joshua Harmon, the play received an Outer Critic’s Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2012-2013. It’s set in a New York City apartment the evening after the funeral of Poppy, the aforementioned patriarch. His three grandchildren—Diana (she prefers her Hebrew name, Daphna), her cousin Jonah, and his brother Liam (who does NOT like his Hebrew moniker, Schlomo)—are spending the night, as is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.

The word “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe the dynamics of this group. Things start out tense and deteriorate steadily from there. Diana is angry at Liam because he and Melody (a shiksa!) missed the funeral after Liam dropped his iPhone from an Aspen ski lift. But the bad blood between the two cousins goes way back: Diana professes deep devotion to her Jewish faith, while Liam takes a much more casual approach. His propensity to date non-Jewish women really sticks in Diana’s craw; she thinks they’re “beneath him.” Liam, on the other hand, mocks what he calls Diana’s temporary religious fanaticism, and does not believe that her Israeli fiancé truly exists.

But the real drama of the play centers around a piece of jewelry Poppy wore for most of his life. It’s a chain with the Hebrew word “chai” (living) spelled out in gold. He kept it safe from the Nazis while in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. He later proposed to his wife with it, because he could not afford a ring. Diana desperately wants this memento of her grandfather, and feels that it’s rightfully hers—especially since she’s always been a devout Jew. What Diana doesn’t know is that the chain has already been passed down to Liam (sent to him by his mother), and that he intends to give it to Melody this very evening when he proposes.

Each member of the four person cast is terrific. Though he does not have many lines, Cameron Shingler skillfully portrays Jonah’s anguish and discomfort at being thrust into the middle of his family members’ battles. He sits quietly absorbed in his iPhone or with his head in his hands as the verbal artillery flies around him. You get the sense he’d rather the floor open up and swallow him. Actively listening onstage and believably reacting (or NOT reacting as appropriate) requires great acting skill. Shingler pulls it off.

Kyrsten Watt is equally as good as Melody, the meek, squeaky-voiced former opera student. After just two professional auditions, Melody bagged a classical music career and is now working for a nonprofit—but she sports a tattoo of a treble clef on her calf (which Diana describes as “the size of a tumor”) as a sentimental reminder of her former life. Like Jonah, Melody tries valiantly to avoid being drawn into the Diana-Liam war. In an attempt to relax everyone when the yelling gets too intense, Melody sings an absolutely hilarious, off-pitch version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s one of the highlights of the show.

As Liam, Sean Timothy Brown ably captures the character’s shallow, smug and entitled demeanor, and matches Diana insult for insult. Some of their verbal sparring is quite loud and sometimes frightening. Being Jewish does not seem to mean all that much to him. We learn that once during Passover, Liam apparently consumed a forbidden cookie, proclaiming “I’m a bad Jew”—hence the play’s title. But Brown also shows a tender side; he makes Liam’s love for Melody seem quite genuine.

The MVP Award for this production of Bad Jews goes to Jordana Simone Pepper as the verbose, hot-tempered Diana. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, when she could have used a little more vocal projection, she’s nearly flawless. Once this girl gets started talking, it’s hard to get her to stop. (You know the type.) Whether she’s shouting at Liam over their religious differences, chastising Jonah for not taking her side, or grilling poor Melody about where her people were from “before Delaware,” Pepper makes every note ring true. She’s often a hoot, sometimes irritating, occasionally touching, and always real.

Rosemary Mallett’s direction is spot-on. She gets strong performances from everyone, while a terrific set and great costumes, sound and lighting all help bring this thought-provoking play to life.

Kudos to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s founding director Tony Padilla and executive director Shawn Abramowitz for another excellent production. (Full disclosure: I acted in Desert Ensemble’s previous show.) Bad Jews is not bad; it’s damn good.

Bad Jews, produced by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 17, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets, call 760-565-2476 or go to www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance