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Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

Creating suspense has to be one of the most difficult effects for a play to achieve.

In movies, the complex use of sound effects, special lighting and music can all heighten that tension, along with some camera-lens trickery and a lot of cleverly timed editing. Yet at the Pearl McManus Theater in Palm Springs, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced one of the most jaw-dropping, edge-of-seat, suspenseful live plays you will ever see—with absolutely none of those fancy assists.

Adoption Roulette uses only three actors and a black-box theater setting … literally: There are four black wooden boxes that get shuffled around the stage to be used as imaginary chairs, a desk, or a seat on an airplane, against the black-curtained background. There is no scenery except a minimalist white-pipe impression of a couple of rooftops to imply an urban setting. The show uses the most basic lighting, zero sound effects, no props and few costume changes.

But Adoption Roulette will fry your mind.

To accomplish this kind of theater experience, you obviously require a great script—and artistic director Jerome Elliott can take credit for its discovery. At the theater, we were introduced to one of the playwrights, Joel Vig, and we chatted briefly about his bringing to life this true story, authored along with the woman who actually lived it, Elizabeth Fuller. The result is a magnificent and tightly written play that starts off so innocently that you can’t possibly dream of what lies ahead.

This nice American couple, Liz and Reuel (pronounced “rule”), want to adopt a child—specifically, a little girl. They find intolerable roadblocks and insufferable delays with the adoption system in the United States, so they investigate adopting a child from Russia, where it is apparently a little easier and faster. What happens to them during the winter of 2004 as a result is … unthinkable. This is truly one of the most surprising scripts you will ever see—and DETC is presenting it for the first time ever: This is Adoption Roulette’s world premiere!

Shawn Abramowitz directs this two-hour, two-act show, and for his cast, he has shrewdly collected the considerable talents of Yo Younger, Fergus Loughnane and Adina Lawson. Younger plays the key role of Elizabeth (Liz) Fuller, while Loughnane plays her husband, Reuel—as well as four other parts. Lawson gets to play a total of seven supporting roles.

The bulk of the work falls on the delicate shoulders of Younger. As the hope-filled Elizabeth, this actress must make us empathize with her decisions and accept her rationalizations, regardless of whether life is sunny or otherwise. She draws us in slowly but surely, gradually raising the tension of her frustrations to a pitch that becomes almost unbearable. Watching her, particularly in the second act, you forget to breathe; you forget she is an actress; and you forget you are watching a play. Some of Younger’s lines are spoken directly to the audience as a narration of the events, and she makes it seem perfectly natural for her to step outside the action and explain it to us, then slide effortlessly back into her role. Younger’s extraordinary performance is not to be missed—and I pray that her vocal cords can stand up through the run of the play. Just to watch her hands is a study; it is beautiful work.

Loughnane plays her husband as an engaged and reasonable man with naturally sound instincts and the good judgment that is born of experience. He is fully believable as Reuel, and his concentration and focus are admirable. In sharp contrast, he also plays Igor, a cab driver with attitude. He creates a colorful and likable character—a chain smoker and a Willie Nelson aficionado (Psssst! Don’t forget to exhale that smoke!)—who pops up frequently through the play. He also plays a smoothly handsome airline pilot and a scary agency official as well, though they are less-explored characters.

Adina Lawson has waaaay too much fun romping through her seven yummy roles. Some are better defined than others, but her strange blonde, Olenka, is unforgettable. It is her largest part, and she has mined it well, creating a rich character who keeps us baffled as to whether she is friend or foe. She also brings to life a briefly hilarious Nurse Blatovsky and a fascinating Russian judge (an homage to Judge Judy) we wish had more stage time. She also plays several American ladies and a spokeswoman, characters who appear too seldom for us to get to know very well. It’s fun to see an actress relishing her creations.

Abramowitz’s direction is to be admired. The skillful and measured increase in the play’s tension is meted out perfectly; I shudder to think of what the director and his cast went through in rehearsals. The only possible criticism to make involves the use of mime, a staple of black-box theater and staged readings. As they speak on the phones, some actors are “holding” a phone, while others are just talking out to the audience … in the same conversation. Usually, the actors all do it the same way, with “phones” or without. It’s a small point, but worth mentioning, as it happened frequently. Other than that, the blocking is beautiful; the actors speak clearly; the theater’s new lighting is well-used; and the show is … amazing.

If you have ever experienced what qualifies as a living nightmare, this play will wring memories and feelings out of you. If you haven’t, it will horrify you to observe what you luckily have been spared. Either way, you cannot watch this cautionary tale without reacting to it—it’s that involving.

As adoptive parents of an endangered (and darling) desert tortoise, we went to the theater expecting a play that would make us feel all warm and fuzzy about the good we were creating through participating in adoption, even with “just” an animal.

Wrong. Go see this play … and brace yourself for a goose-bump-raising experience beyond your imagination.

Adoption Roulette, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Angst over the current political climate seems to be leading many people to seek escape in a variety of ways—and live theater is a popular choice. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Expressions is a well-executed play, and it may take your mind off the details of what’s going on in the White House for a while, make no mistake: It’s no light-hearted diversion.

Its themes—post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), alcoholism and family dysfunction—are quite serious, indeed. Written and directed by DETC’s executive director, Shawn Abramowitz, Expressions is a stark and unflinching look at all of those issues.

As the play opens, we meet cousins Paul (Cameron Keys) and Joseph (Nick Wass) as they prepare for a family party to celebrate their graduation from high school. Each young man is contemplating what his next step in life should be. While Paul is thinking about attending community college and a film career, Joseph has decided to join the Army, largely due to his admiration of his Uncle Steven, a Vietnam vet. Steven’s stories of adventure and heroism have convinced young Joseph that a life in the military is the way to go. However, Paul has experienced a much different side of Steven over the years: His father’s alcoholism and emotional neglect have left their scars. Paul is hurt and bitter, and does not view his dad as the war hero Joseph does.

Joseph’s parents, Emily (Kelley Moody) and Karl (Fergus Loughnane), arrive home with supplies for the party. Karl is also a Vietnam veteran, and has a bad case of PTSD. He is emotionally withdrawn, and loud noises send him into a panic. The last thing he would want is for his son to become a soldier and face the horrors of war. He and Emily know their son has applied to several colleges, and feel confident he will be safely ensconced in university life come fall.

When Uncle Steven (James E. Anderson III) shows up, he heads straight for the bar. The tension between the adult brothers is thick: Despite the damage the war did to his soul, Karl has managed to keep his professional and family life together, at least on the surface. Steven, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in a bottle. His wife walked out shortly after he returned from the war, and he has virtually no relationship with Paul.

Steven applauds his nephew’s choice to join the Army, telling him: “America needs you. You’d make a great solder!” He even tags along when Joseph secretly enlists. When the secret comes out during the family celebration, all hell breaks loose. There are several twists and turns in the plot, which I won’t give away here.

The acting is strong across the board. Wass and Keys have great chemistry as the young cousins, and both ably convey the combination of uncertainty and bravado typical of 18-year-old boys.

Moody (also the morning weather anchor at CBS Local 2 News) is compelling as the wife struggling to deal with her husband’s illness (“I love you, but you’ve got to get your shit together!”) and terrified of losing her only son. She has many nice moments onstage with Loughnane, who is terrific, as always. He’s one of the valley’s strongest actors, and seemingly never gives a bad performance. The audience feels his love for his wife, his fears for his son’s safety, and his anger and frustration over what he sees as his brother’s failures.

As the troubled Steven, Anderson is fabulous. The climactic scene in which Steven comes clean to young Joseph about what really happened in Vietnam should be required viewing for every acting student. There is not a single false note.

Kudos to Abramowitz for his directing skills here. He elicits strong, emotional performances from each cast member, and no one ever goes over the top.

Abramowitz wrote Expressions partly as an homage to his own father, a Vietnam vet who lost three fingers in combat. His dad spent 35 years battling with Veterans Affairs to get the treatment he needed. Both father and son agree something that needs to change.

No, this is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good play—but it is definitely worth seeing. It will move you, make you squirm, make you think and possibly even make you cry. Isn’t that what good theater is supposed to do?

Expressions, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Ave., in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance