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Stormy weather! We squished our way through wild spring winds and swirling rain, grateful that traffic on “The 10,” as we call it, held steady and accident-free on Friday night, March 11. But arriving at the theater, we were immediately transported to a calm, lovely evening in New York’s Central Park … and people with storms inside them.

Tony Padilla, always bursting with creativity, directs his own play Endangered Species at the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. It plays only this weekend and next, so if you are committed to supporting original local theater, hurry over to the Palm Springs Woman’s Club to see it in the Pearl McManus Theater. It’s a one-act play which has been produced in Italy, and, amazingly, that translation won the International Medal at the Schegge d’Autore playwriting festival in Rome, in 2009. Go Tony!

It’s easy to like the one-act format. Like a short story, it embraces one-ness: a single setting, one plot line, a small cast, one theme and atmosphere, and a streamlined journey to the climax and conclusion. These plays are generally clean, neat, brief and easy to follow. What’s not to like? Here, the stage is appropriately dressed with just a single park bench and one trashcan (marked NYC!). Simplicity personified.

The four-member cast consists of Bonnie Gilgallon (my Independent colleague) with Alan Berry in the first scene, and Yo Younger with Denise Strand in the second. In a nutshell, the plot consists of these people finding an abandoned baby in a park trashcan, and their reactions to it.

Unthinkable! That’s the genius theme of Padilla’s play—ordinary people tossed into an unimaginable situation that has the power to change lives completely. Screenwriters call it the “inciting incident.” It’s the defining moment of a story … and how do the characters react to it? How would you?

Scene One. Enter: tourists from “outside Chicago,” a longtime married couple (Gilgallon and Berry) enjoying the view and weather, and reminiscing about previous Big Apple visits. Through their conversation, we learn about their backstories and personalities. Then they discover this baby. What to do? Ignore it, or get involved? What is the right action? What’s legal? How does each really feel? What does this event dredge up from the past? What do their moral compasses dictate?

Scene Two. Enter: two casually-dressed ladies, tourists—we never find out from where—but they immediately let us know they have lived together for 10 of 11 years. Lesbians? We watch attentively for clues. I won’t ruin it for you by revealing all … but now they find the baby, and the ensuing discussion and conflict tells us much more about them. Stress will always reveal the weak spots in any relationship.

One of my most influential theater instructors once demanded of me, “What is the most important thing you can learn about a person?” (I gave the wrong answer. Well … I was young.) But the right answer is: their work. It determines schedule, income, dress code, address—everything. True! Point being, in this play, we don’t learn this. Strand’s character turns out to be a teacher, and Gilgallon’s became a frustrated housewife. But ... more info, please? This is important—and very easy to fix.

The play is a talky one, with zero opportunity for action. The direction compensates for this by moving the characters around their little space a great deal. Too much? Well, not if and when the actor is motivated to move. Some of the actors here should re-think their gestures, and cut out any that make pointless circles or drop with a plop. But our largest discomfort was watching Alan Berry walk backward several times—something nobody does, and certainly not a middle-aged man in an unfamiliar/dangerous location. Alas, we are made overly conscious of every actor’s move because of the unfortunate hollow space underneath the stage, creating a distracting drum-like boom with every step—worst with high heels. And speaking of shoes: I once wore an ivory suit with ivory shoes onstage, and an internationally famous actress in the audience later raked me over the coals for it, proclaiming that white shoes must NEVER be worn onstage, as they draw the eye (and also can make feet look unduly huge). Enough said. There are other colors that scream “summer.” Another small problem with this theater: The extreme overhead lighting can create shadows, and blank out the eyes of any actress wearing heavy bangs … and the eyes are the most important tool an actor owns.

These little glitches aside, the acting is lovely, with admirable pacing and variety in delivery. The emotional arc is pleasingly handled through the rising tension in both scenes.

What we liked best: Gilgallon’s exquisite diction. (Hey, she’s been in radio for years.) Learning about the characters through their arguments. The emphasis on sharing in a relationship. The line “the luxury of your compassion.” How pretty Strand and Younger looked together onstage. The debates about fate. The moment when we are emotionally moved. The endlessly interesting discussions about the choice of having children, or not … and when is the timing right? When is the money enough? The question: Do morals change with the times, or are they forever?

Tony Padilla has forced each of us to confront our own answers to these questions. We are all involved, just by realizing our own positions for or against each character’s beliefs in this play. Isn’t this the most important task of theater—to make the audience THINK?

It’s not an easy task for a playwright, but with Endangered Species he has done it … beautifully.

Endangered Species, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 20, at Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

I’m now in my third season as one of the Independent’s theater reviewers. I have seen many excellent productions here in the valley, and some … well … that were not so good. But I don’t know if I have ever been as emotionally affected by a play as I was by Dezart Performs’ world premiere of Suicide Dogs.

Jess Honovich’s play, which won the theater’s 2015 Play Reading Festival, chronicles how one family deals with the aftermath of a suicide of a man named Barry. Chief among the loose ends which must be tied up is what to do with Barry’s ailing dog, Driver.

Barry (Michael Shaw, who also directs), who was gay, was a successful golf pro—hence the dog’s name. In flashbacks, we learn that in his youth, Barry was insecure and a bit melancholy; he also had a somewhat difficult relationship with his mother. Perhaps the thing that brings him the greatest pleasure in lifeother than golfis the deep bond he has with his dog, which he adopted from a shelter.

As the play opens, Barry’s sister Amelia (Yo Younger); her husband, Dave (Rob Hubler); and their daughter, Frankie (Rachel Silverman) arrive at Barry’s home to prepare for his funeral. Soon after, Barry’s pushy neighbor, Podgy (Stan Jenson), drops in; not long after, Barry’s other sister, Dori (a very well-cast Denise Strand), unexpectedly shows up.

Shaken that her only brother has taken his own life with a bullet, Amelia valiantly tries to organize the funeral service while dealing with the media throng desperate for more details on the tragedy. Then there’s Driver, who is howling nonstop and puking all over the neighbor’s yard.

The always-stellar Yo Younger does not disappoint as Amelia. We feel her shock and grief at the loss of her brother. “Sometimes I feel like Barry’s playing some kind of joke on us—like he’s really in the hall closet or watching us on some computer somewhere,” she notes. She’s the anchor who holds the hold family—and the play—together.

Some of the strongest scenes are those featuring Amelia and the uptight, overly religious Dori. Dori, who has spent the last three years in rabbinical school, feels suicide is a sin, and announces that she will not be attending the funeral. Stunned, Amelia tries to understand Dori’s mindset while throwing a few barbs her way: “Everything you say sounds like it’s written on a pillow somewhere.”

Though it focuses on suicide, the play is billed as a “dramedy,” and it does have some very funny moments. Much of the humor is provided by Ron Huber, who is quite entertaining as Amelia’s harried husband, Dave.

Stan Jenson’s Podgy also gets a number of laughs. He’s nearly perfect as the nosy guy next door who good-naturedly insinuates himself into the drama a bit too often. He and Barry were clearly close friends—at the very least.

Rachel Silverman is a real find as Frankie, a precocious 16-year-old who swears a blue streak and often disrespects her parents. In an exchange with her self-centered Aunt Dori, Frankie boldly blurts out: “So … what’s wrong with you?” It’s a question everybody else in the family must also be thinking.

Doing double-duty, Michael Shaw succeeds admirably. He appears often in flashback as the likable but troubled Barry. We want to call out to him: “Things will look better tomorrow, Barry. Don’t do anything rash!” As the director, Shaw brings out strong performances from his cast.

Thomas L. Valach’s set, the lights (Phil Murphy) and sound (Clark Dugger) are all top-notch. Stage manager Blanche Mickelson also deserves a mention.

Suicide Dogs hit close to home. I’m in the midst of packing up the house of my ex-husband—a retired golf pro—who recently passed away. My partner and I had to put down a beloved, aging dog not long ago, and depression and suicide have touched me personally.

I’m certainly not the only person who will be moved: Everyone will find something to relate to in this play, which will have you laughing through your tears. It just may make you pick up the phone and call that family member you haven’t spoken to in years. It will certainly remind you that, as Podgy says: “Happiness is fleeting. Hang on to what you’ve got.”

Dezart Performs’ Suicide Dogs is being performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 31, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 for evening shows, and $24 for matinees. The running time is just less than 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Literature

For many years, Coachella Valley audiences have enjoyed the works of award-winning playwright Tony Padilla. He was co-founder of the Playwright’s Circle with Marilee Warner, and is now enjoying success with his own company, Desert Ensemble Theatre.

A member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Tony has won many local awards, including the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing for his play Becoming Ava. Knowing his impressive background, I always look forward to seeing a new play by Tony with great anticipation. His latest offering, Two by Tony, is a couple of one-act plays now on stage at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The first is Family Meeting, directed by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director, Rosemary Mallett. It’s a drama peppered with dark comedy which takes place in the home of Daniel Mann (Alan Berry), a bitter, washed-up playwright now reduced to writing B-movie scripts. He’s planning to relocate to New York to get back into the live-theater scene, where he feels he belongs. Daniel’s 20-something grandson, Jason (Shawn Abramowitz), has stopped by to ask if he can move in for a while. Armed with an Internet law degree, Jason is also planning a long-distance move to get his career rolling. He’s anxious to move out of his parents’ home, because their constant bickering is driving him crazy.

Soon, his father, Ed (Rob Hubler), shows up, looking for advice from Daniel on whether or not to divorce his wife, Karen (Denise Strand). Ed calls Karen to join them, and the whole clan is soon gathered in Daniel’s study, swigging red wine and trading barbs. The marriage between Karen and Ed is beyond strained—he’s got an Internet porn addiction, and she’s banging the contractor. Everyone has buried resentments and baggage, but the animosity between Karen and her father-in-law is particularly intense.

The acting is uniformly strong, though there were some volume issues at the top of the show. At first, I thought Berry seemed a tad too young to be cast as Ed’s father, but that reservation faded eventually away. Berry’s Daniel clearly bears the scars of having been beaten up by life over the years. Abramowitz is quite likable as Jason; he spends a lot of time engrossed in computer games on his cell phone, partly to drown out the sound of his battling parents. As Ed, Hubler ably communicates the disappointment and frustration many of us face in middle age. Nothing’s going right—and now his son wants to get away from him. Denise Strand is terrific as Karen. The energy picks up noticeably when she enters the scene. She has fabulous mother-son chemistry with Abramowitz in some of the play’s few tender moments. Occasionally uncomfortable because it mirrors some of our own dysfunctional families (this group sure does drink a lot!), Family Meeting is thought-provoking and worth seeing.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, the second play, The Comeback, would get my vote. A farce directed by Padilla set in the mid 1950s, it’s reminiscent of 1940s films like Blithe Spirit and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The play tells the story of Nora Raymond (Lee Rice), a Norma Desmond-esque, aging film actress attempting a comeback with the help of her loyal assistant, Thelma (Theresa Jewett). Nora receives a mysterious message urging her to contact a Count Orca (Theo Nowicki). The count later arrives at her home to conduct a séance in hopes of contacting Johnny Bellini (Stephen McMillen), Nora’s long-missing and presumed-dead husband. When Johnny appears, much hilarity ensues. There’s lust, greed, schemes-within-schemes and characters who are not who they seem to be. Everything’s a bit over the top, and laughs abound. The cast is uniformly terrific.

As the dramatic, self-important Nora, Rice is perfect. Cute and petite, but exuding the egomania typical of Hollywood, Rice has the audience routing for Nora’s success, both in the movies and in love. Jewett is a scream as Thelma. Wise, wry and wary, she trusts almost no one, and does not suffer fools gladly. At one point, she advises Nora’s man-servant, Morgan (Nowicki, in a dual role), “Don’t try to be mysterious; you’re no good at it.” Jewett is known to many as an amazing singer; she’s one hell of an actress as well. This is an award-winning performance.

Equally as funny is Nowicki, particularly as Count Orca. Sporting a heavy accent and an obviously fake mustache, Nowicki romps through the role, having a great time onstage, and tickling the audience’s funny bone nonstop. McMillen is quite good as Johnny; he has just the right mix of good looks and comic acting chops.

Kudos to director Tony Padilla … and to playwright Padilla, for a nice evening of theater.

Two by Tony, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, or $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. The running time is just more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, now being produced at the Indio Performing Arts Center, has some big credentials: It premiered in Chicago in 1990, before heading to runs both off-Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1992, it won both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and was adapted into a film in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.

At the center of the play are two sisters: Bessie, a woman who is taking care of her ill father and aunt; and Lee, a wise-cracking, somewhat slutty woman who has not helped out Bessie and the rest of her family much at all. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she is faced with her own looming mortality. Mortality is a topic that playwright McPherson knew all too well: He cared for his partner who died of AIDS, and later succumbed to an AIDS-related illness himself at the young age of 33, in 1992.

Lee comes to Bessie’s Florida home to see if she or one of her two teenage sons can donate bone marrow to save her sister’s life. They also must decide what to do with their infirm relatives if Bessie can no longer care for them. Lee and her 17-year-old son, Hank, have had a tense relationship for years; in fact, the boy has been sent to a mental institution after burning down the house. But Bessie’s wise, loving influence leads mother and son to warm to each other; the door to mutual understanding cracks open just a bit. As Bessie faces her own impending death, she embraces a new sense of gratitude for her imperfect family and for life itself.

Though the play’s main theme is death, there are lots of laughs; McPherson manages to find humor in some very dark places. Subtlety is not his forte, however; for example, the self-absorbed Lee is a cosmetician, a profession that seems to exaggerate her shallowness. Her generous, spiritual side does peek through as she helps a group of local nuns bake their supply of communion hosts each week. Meanwhile, Bessie is battling loneliness, as her one real boyfriend drowned while she and others watched from the beach, thinking his cries for help were laughter. And Bessie’s father, Marvin—confined to bed and seen only in silhouette through the blinds—is not only dealing with the after-effects of a stroke, but is also battling diabetes and colon cancer. We do hear Marvin moaning from time to time and laughing when family members play “chase the flashlight beam” on his bedroom wall.

Pretty much every cast member in IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room has a few memorable moments. Kirk Geiger, best known for his role in the cult film Sordid Lives, plays Dr. Wally, and is quite funny in the opening scene while trying to draw blood from Bessie, whose panic is rising by the second. Too bad he’s not onstage more often. The always-dependable Louise Tonti (Aunt Ruth) does not disappoint here; she’s hilarious and loveable, and makes us forgive her character’s sometimes-frustrating forgetfulness.

As 17-year-old Hank, Diego Valdez has a great stage presence and some real acting chops. The scenes in which he discusses his possible bone-marrow donation with Bessie, and begins reconciling with his mother, are particularly touching. As younger brother Charlie, Julian Jacobo is adorable and exhibits nice comic flair.

Valerie-Jean (V.J.) Hume (my theater-reviewing colleague here at the Independent) is quite good in her brief scene as the psychiatrist working to bring Hank and Lee together. Domingo Winstead, as Bob, is fine.

The two leads, Denise Strand (Bessie) and Tiffani Lobue (Lee), are strong throughout much of the show. We genuinely feel Bessie’s weariness from the task of caring for Aunt Ruth and Marvin, though we know she loves them dearly. She also skillfully portrays her fears about her terminal diagnosis. Lobue really captures the essence of Lee, and has some nice comic moments—like dumping at entire bowl of candy at a nursing home lobby into her purse. Also, the growing warmth between the two sisters as they get to know each other for the first time is palpable. But like many in the cast, Strand and Lobue occasionally seem to run out of steam. Director Jeanette Knight deserves kudos, though I’d like to see her push the entire ensemble to keep their energy up until the final curtain, as well as pick up their cues a bit.

The set, lighting and sound are all effective, particularly the song selection for set changes.

I recommend seeing IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room, to remind us that we’re all dying, one day at a time, and that family—and love—is what really matters.

Marvin’s Room is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $19 to $26, and the running time is just over two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.

Published in Theater and Dance