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Ah, the 1950s. The fashions alone … what a time!—and Dezart Performs has brought it all to life with Perfect Arrangement, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The two-week run is sold out—yes, the whole run! You might try phoning the company and seeing if there are cancellations, or whining to see if they will add extra chairs or performances (good luck).

Artistic director Michael Shaw welcomes the audience and reveals that Dezart has now become a recognized professional theater, joining the Equity union as small professional theater. Congratulations! Congratulations also for this show: Shaw produced and directed Perfect Arrangement with smooth and admirable skill.

Young people really should see this show to learn about the paranoia, the secrecy and the fears that bestrode the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Communism might have to be explained, but even more important would be learning about the conformity of the times, when everyone’s houses were supposed to look the same, when people’s behavior mimicked what they saw on the TV commercials … and when everyone smoked! Women wore hats, gloves and high heels just to go to the supermarket! Men wore entire suits and ties to business! Girls were supposed to giggle! Men made jokes about women’s inferiority, and people cooked with lard. The music, which you will hear at this show, was relentlessly perky. How exhausting it all sounds … and how it explains the 1960s!

As for being gay back then? Didn’t exist, at least not openly. Well … it didn’t until the State Department decided to ferret out “the fags,” as it called them, to expunge them from government jobs as an “undesirable influence.” And that brings us to this play.

Bob, Millie, Norma and Jim have secret lives: The two girls are gay, and the two guys are gay. They have intermarried and face the world as two straight couples, living in adjoining apartments with a hidden entrance through a closet (get it?) door.

Bob Martindale, even-handedly played by Adam Jonas Segaller, toils for the Personnel Security Board as one of the top people in his division at the Department of State. He has been charged with finding and firing anyone who even appears to be gay, and we come to realize his mercilessness is his shield against his own being found out. He gives a stellar performance.

His legal wife, Millie, is gleefully portrayed by Phylicia Mason, who parades the ’50s fashions beautifully. I really hope that she meant to have her slip showing in one outfit, and I wonder if girls today even know what a slip is. A stay-at-home “wife,” she outwardly conforms to her role by sweetly reciting recipes and touting cleaning products … but inwardly, she seethes at having to hide her relationship with Norma.

Norma Baxter, played by Olivia Saccomanno, works with Bob and lives with Millie. She brings a gravitas to both her role and her wardrobe statements; she’s especially gorgeous in the gown which she wears to the opera. Yes, they used to dress to go to the theater, people, NOT WEAR JEANS AND CAPS!

Sorry … I got a little carried away there. Anyhow: Saccomanno plays a thoughtful Norma which makes her attempts to imitate a squealing bubblehead even sadder.

Jim Baxter, portrayed by Hanz Enyeart, is a high-strung teacher who loves and lives with Bob but is married to Norma. He lives in terror of being found out but is determined to bulldoze through the nightmare. Enyeart gives a multilevel performance that draws the eye and rewards with the unexpected.

Theodore Sunderson, the State Department top gun, is solidly played by Hal O’Connell. He infuses this role with an edgy power, alerting us that his hail-fellow-well-met exterior might be covering up for his inner bully. He brings a believable Authority Figure quality to his part that makes us want to see more of him.

His wife, Kitty Sunderson, is brilliantly played by Deborah Harmon. She creates a ditzy character that you have to love, despite everyone’s opinion that she is a dope in a mink stole. She layers her performance with rare flashes of truth that glint through her mascaraed eyes and practiced lipstick smile.

Barbara Grant is a character who works at the State Department and is the subject of much gossip as a globetrotting slattern. So it’s quite a surprise when Yo Younger shows up playing this role, looking fashion-model stunning in sleek European fashions (Hats—why did they ever go out of style? There is nothing more flattering!) and radiating danger through her every move. Younger has to love playing this role, slithering through the troubled lives of the other characters and igniting change where it is least expected. Watch her stillness.

Written by Topher Payne, this award-winning play premiered off-Broadway in 2015. The script is bespangled with great belly laughs, while never veering far from the guilty terrors of those leading double lives. He has captured the vocabulary of the ’50s (“Goody!” “Phooey!” “Ta!”) as well as the awful obsolescent terms of this battle (“the latents,” “the deviants”) set in Washington, D.C.

Kudos to the loyal and hardworking members of the Dezart Performs company for this production. It runs two hours with an intermission, and if you can get in to see it, you won’t forget it. It will make you think about lies, shame, suspicion, security risks, fear, irony, hate, stereotypes … and also furniture polish, girl talk and sex.

Astronomers use light to look backward in time. We have theater to do that.

Dezart Performs’ production of Perfect Arrangement is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets, which were listed as sold out as of publication, are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

A play set in a 1940s radio station in Chicago—now, how much opportunity for fun is that?

Playwright Tony Padilla is directing the world premiere of his The Thespian Radio Hour at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, on behalf of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. Padilla has been lauded for his plays, receiving the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Writing and the Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for his impact on local theater—and he’s received international recognition as well.

The writing here is solid. Padilla uses the stereotypes of early radio personalities to make his case. Linda Cooke, for example, plays crusty producer Agnes Cohen, who fusses and worries about everything, endlessly bossing everyone around. Her sidekick, the youthful Steve Randy, played by Nick Wass, is the unappreciated kid who directs the actors and narrates the broadcast and writes the scripts and commercials (while trying to date every girl in the cast) … because that’s how it was done back then. Larry Dyekman is Hamilton Sterling, the suavely aging debonair matinee idol, complete with ascot. Bonnie Gilgallon (an Independent contributor—my fellow theater reviewer!) is Ellen Haze (not Helen Hayes, as everyone has to find out), a voluptuous but fading femme fatale actress with the greatest legs who is battling the passing of the years, but who has learned bags of showbiz tricks along the way. Kelley Moody is cute and perky newcomer ingénue Lilly Darling—talented, ambitious and untroubled by scruples that might prevent her from forging ahead in her career. Hal O’Connell very believably plays a serious businessman, Waldo Burns, whom we don’t meet until the second act—but he is the great hope of the rest of the cast, as he is considering sponsorship of the show which would save all their jobs (and sponsorship is still a huge concern in radio even today). 

While the writing in this world premiere play is indeed solid, Padilla missed a great opportunity for comedy through revealing these radio actors’ real names. Some can be terribly funny. Perhaps the best example ever was author Paul Gallico’s character, a wannabe actress called Pamela Penrose, but whose mail still came addressed to “Enid Snite” (say it out loud). It’s no secret that most of our old movie stars changed their names to WASP pseudonyms. We all know that Tony Curtis was Bernie Schwartz, Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch, John Wayne was Marion Robert Morrison, Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and so on. Plus, in the world of radio, it was (and sometimes still is) customary for announcers to use “air names” rather than their real names, so they could change monickers when they changed jobs.

Just a thought—because we need more from this cast. The characters need to be more vain, self-obsessed, selfish and ruthless if they are to excite our horror at the way they all try to seduce their possible sponsor. But here, we got the feeling that this was business as usual, ho hum. There was a lack of depth in these portrayals—which is too bad, as this new play is rife with possibilities.  Maybe the cast needs to research some old ’40s movies like the “film noir” ones that gave us such unforgettable performances (think Bogie/Bacall). They need more and brighter colors in their palettes. Because now, the play’s only real surprise comes from something that happens to Gilgallon’s character. Well, that and Waldo’s little secret …

Another thought: Back then in radio, a professional actor’s diction was hugely important. Actors enunciated every word super-flawlessly, even in their real lives. However, in this play, some of this actors’ pronunciations were inconsistent, and occasionally just lazy lipped.

My most serious question about this script is the use of vulgarities which would surely have gotten a radio station turfed off the air back then. To call someone an “old bastard” on the air would have brought the screaming censors running … and to say into a microphone that someone was “talking out of your ass”—besides it being an anachronism—would have shut down the station immediately. WC Fields once got a radio station permanently closed for saying something like that. (Don’t ask.)

Other concerns: Could a woman really have been a producer back then, in what was an almost completely male-dominated field? Also: Why was the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” included? It added nothing to the plot and it interrupted the timing. Moody did it nicely, but, try as we might, we can’t find a reason for its inclusion.

It’s important to note, again, that this show is a premiere—meaning there’s time and room for this brand-new play to be tightened up and improved as it moves forward. There are some clever and delightful comedic touches in this script. For example, the name of the former sponsor of the radio show is SHM, or Still Here Mortuary. Yikes! And the title of the play these actors are performing is The Last Nail in His Coffin, which is perfect melodrama. More, please!

Also, gratitude goes to Tony Padilla for choosing to not having his characters smoke, which apparently EVERYONE did in the mid-1040s … cough, hack, gasp … although with these new e-cigarettes the actors could possibly have strutted the look without suffocating the audience.

So what this play needs more of is what’s called “comedic attitude.” Director Padilla may have to surrender his famously laid-back style and lean hard on his cast to bring out the silliness and fun in them that would enhance playwright Padilla’s script. Right now, they’re taking themselves seriously, when what they need is to find the funny.

This play has so much potential, and I hope the actors can rise to the challenge of doing the work to take it from “amusing” up to maybe even “hilarious” on the comedy scale.

The Thespian Radio Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 18, at the 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

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Anyone who’s worked as an office receptionist knows it can be a thankless job, but it’s not normally all that dangerous.

Well, danger certainly lurks in Dezart Performs’ current production, The Receptionist, a dark comedy by Adam Bock.

In the first part of the play, the title character, Beverly (Deborah Harmon), goes about her daily duties with great efficiency. It’s a seemingly normal day at the North East Office, as Beverly cheerfully handles the phones, relegating unwanted callers to the voicemails of co-workers. She sorts mail, tidies her desk and dishes out romantic advice to officemate Lorraine (Theresa Jewett). Beverly’s maternal warmth is clear as she calms her upset daughter over the phone—as is her irritation when her husband announces he has spent the money allocated for the family phone bill on yet another collectible teacup. It’s the boss’ birthday, so Beverly takes on the job of ordering a cake, and proudly shows Lorraine the card she’s purchased, which features a pony smoking a pipe.

Everything seems to be running smoothly until Martin Dart from the Central Office arrives to see the boss. Dart (Lou Galvan) appears to be a likable guy. He chats amiably with Beverly and responds to Lorraine’s blatant flirting with gusto. When the boss, Mr. Raymond (Hal O’Connell), finally shows up, the two men disappear into his office. After several minutes of shouting behind a closed door, the grim-faced pair emerges—and Dart escorts Mr. Raymond out of the building.

Apparently Mr. Raymond did not follow proper procedure when torturing and interrogating a client. He’s now facing the consequences.

As Act I ends, the audience is left wondering whether Beverly and Lorraine might also be marched down to the Central Office for questioning. And just what does this company do? It certainly seems ominous. Given the threat of worldwide terrorism (especially with opening night coming on the same day as the horrific attacks in Paris), this play seems quite timely.

Under the masterful direction of Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, the cast is uniformly excellent. Like an evenly matched tennis foursome, they volley the dramatic ball back and forth with great skill. As Beverly, Deborah Harmon is perfect. There is not one false note in her performance. Early on, she’s funny, witty and totally in control of the kingdom that is her reception desk. Later, as the reality of what her fate might be sets in, we see her composure melt away into a puddle of fear.

Theresa Jewett is fabulous as Lorraine. Vampy and flirty, yet insecure, she reminds us of that one woman we’ve all worked with who just can’t get it together in the romance department.

Lou Galvan is spot-on as the mysterious Martin Dart. After initially coming across as a friendly guy, he sends a chill up our spines when his menacing side emerges. Equally as good is Hal O’Connell as the beleaguered Mr. Raymond. He also strikes us as a nice guy who got caught up in his company’s dark business, and is ultimately resigned to his fate.

Thomas L. Valach’s set is superb, while Phil Murphy’s lighting and Clark Dugger’s sound are just right.

The Receptionist is a relatively short play—just 75 minutes—but it will keep you pondering its themes for days.

The Receptionist, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28, or $24 for matinees. The show runs just less than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

October 1962 was a crazy time in the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis had the world on the verge of nuclear war. Deadly riots after the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi had the country on edge.

Cultural change was afoot as well: Rock ’n’ roll was taking the country by storm, and some women, in some places, could gain control over their own bodies thanks to “the pill.” Oh, and kids were starting to wear sneakers to school. Yes, God forbid, sneakers.

This is the world in which the Whitebottom family of Worcester, Mass., finds itself in Duck and Cover, the dramatic comedy currently on the Palm Springs Womans Club stage, compliments of Dezart Performs. The organization’s mission is to present newer works of theater, and this is the West Coast premiere of Michael Kimball’s play. He should be proud of the fun, if flawed, production it is receiving from Dezart Performs and director Judith Chapman.

We first meet the Whitebottom family as the father, Hugh, is quizzing his 12-year-old son, Stevie, on state capitals and proper knot-tying. The mother, Claire, looks on, as the friendly neighborhood milkman, Mr. Rippit, drops by. We soon learn that Hugh served our country during World War II on a submarine, and that Stevie wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up. The scene is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting—at first.

We soon start to see small cracks in this all-American scene: Hugh chastises Claire for mentioning a financial matter “with strangers,” and makes Stevie feel stupid for dangerously leaving the door unlocked. Yes, Hugh’s a bit domineering—and we sense early on that this is going to become a problem at some point for the Whitebottoms.

The family’s relative peace is thrown into total disarray with the sudden arrival of Bunny, Claire’s brother. He shows up wearing tattered pajamas and holding a trumpet—the one thing he was able to save from the fire that has just destroyed his apartment. Hugh’s not a fan of his musician brother-in-law; he begrudgingly lets Bunny stay, but only until the end of November, and only if he pays $10 per week as rent.

A little later, the family is thrown into further turmoil when Eddie, a—gasp!—black man!—arrives. Turns out he’s a nice guy who is Bunny’s friend and co-worker, but his arrival sends Stevie fearfully scurrying into the bedroom, and leaves Claire wondering whether she’s ever seen a “negro” in person before.

Any play starring Yo Younger and Michael Shaw (Michael, I should disclose, is a good friend of mine) has a lot going for it; after all, they’re two of the best actors working in the valley today. True to form, Younger is amazing; she is, by far, the best thing about this production. She fully inhabits the role of Claire as she transforms from a put-on-a-happy-face housewife into a woman who decides she finally needs to put her foot down to protect her brother, her son and—most importantly—her own self-interests. This is a flawless, fantastic performance; Younger is so good that, at times, you may be tempted to race to the stage to give her a hug as she struggles to reconcile her needs with her reality.

Shaw, on the other hand, falls a bit short in his characterization of Hugh. The lines Hugh is given reminded one of my fellow play-goers of Archie Bunker—Hugh is a domineering bully of a man who declares repeatedly that in HIS house, and with HIS family, HE is the one who makes the rules. While Shaw brings plenty of bluster and frustration to the character, he doesn’t amp up the domination and anger quite enough; it’s hard to believe that Stevie and Claire would be so fully under the thumb of this Hugh. It’s only when Hugh shows off his lovable and noble traits—most notably in a scene near the end of the play when he cries out that all he really wants to do is protect his family from the turmoil of the world that surrounds them—that Shaw truly shines.

Local middle-schooler Stephen Lee is perfectly cast as the awkward, nerdy Stevie, while Scott Smith is good as Bunny; he’s especially good when expressing the adoration he feels for his dear sister, Claire. Hal O’Connell brings a lot of laughs as Mr. Rippit, the milkman who, we learn as the play progresses, is delivering more than dairy products to some of his customers. Robert Ramirez is strong in the first act as Eddie, although he descends a bit too far into stereotypes in the second.

All of the technical aspects of the play, per usual at Dezart Performs, are excellent, with one notable exception: The set. It’s a gorgeous, detailed, technically flawless piece of work, and may well be the best set that could have possibly been designed for the smallish stage at the Womans Club’s Pearl McManus Theater. Problem is, this play feels a bit too big for this stage: A living room, a kitchen and Stevie’s bedroom are all crammed in, and this leads to some awkward blocking by the characters, especially when four or more people are on stage at once.

Kimball’s script has some hilarious lines; I laughed out loud at least a half-dozen times. Still, the book could use some smoothing out. The characters’ transformations at the end seemed unrealistically sudden, and one moment—involving Stevie and Mr. Rippit—came off as downright creepy.

These issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Duck and Cover. It’s a funny and, at times, moving piece of theater that will leave you smiling as the talented actors take their bows. Don’t miss it.

Duck and Cover, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For a show to open during these longest days of the year, and attract a packed house, proves that there is wonderful community support for our local productions. That’s exactly what happened on opening night of Southern Hospitality: Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez and their Desert Theatreworks are clearly doing it right at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.

So here’s the question: Can life in the Deep South possibly be as much fun as it’s depicted in the plays written about it? From the hilarity of Sordid Lives and Steel Magnolias to the glorious nonsense of the “Tuna” series and the “Pecan” series, the best comedy of our times seems to be coming from somewhere in Dixie.

In Southern Hospitality, we’re welcomed to Fayro, Texas, where everyone is some kind of nuts. The stage is loosely divided into three different areas, and the first scenes—brief and separated with lighting blackouts, accompanied by instrumental music—make us wonder if this is a revue. However, the characters eventually join up; the story begins, and the relationships become clear. Well, sort of. The four Futrelle Sisters (Frankie, Rhonda Lynn, Honey Raye and Twink) take time from their complicated personal lives to despair at the imminent demise of their town and ponder how it can be saved. The local characters—and this is really simplifying the tangled, mangled plot—come up with the idea of “Fayro Days” … and the planning begins.

The script is marvelous. Dealing with everything from midlife crises to guns to imaginary friends to hot flashes, the characters philosophize wildly. There are references to the “Squat ‘n’ Gobble” restaurant, the “Beaucoup Bouquet” flower shop, and other colorful place names. Fun. Just fun!

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have combined their considerable expertise and experience to create a wordy but fluffy crowd-pleaser. The playwrights are credited as being among the most produced in America today, with more 3,000 productions … and this play is their newest.

Using a cast of 13 is a serious undertaking, and not for the faint of heart. Only a director with solid old-school skills like Lance Phillips-Martinez would even consider such a challenge. With a play like this, it’s more like “wrangling” than “directing” to move everyone around efficiently but logically.

Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez have created a company in which actors, when not onstage in a production, are given the chance to learn backstage/sound/lighting/management skills. This used to happen only in summer stock. It is fascinating for the audience to see these actors morph into different characters from one play to another; the company approach also offers a great way for actors to learn. For example, in this production, we see Don Cilluffo, as Raynerd, play the Southern-fried equivalent of a Shakespearean young Fool, though recently we saw him as a mysterious middle-age, dark-cloaked Italian in The Mousetrap. Alden West (is she the busiest actress in town?) appears here as a short-haired blonde in designer-frame glasses and tropical colors, though we last saw her sporting a high-styled tower of black hair and widow’s weeds as she snarled her way through Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch.

As for the acting: Hmm. There were some inconsistencies in the Southern accents. There were some timing issues, which reflect nothing more than being a little under-rehearsed or first-night jitters. West’s first entrance presented a blocking problem: She spoke her lines with her back to the audience, unlit. One actor’s diction was messed up, either by a sore throat or something going on with her teeth, but it’s back to speech class for her. And, a couple of times, actors tossed away parts of their lines by turning to face the upstage person to whom they were speaking, rather than finding a reason to face the audience. Hey, y’all: We learn nothing from watching the back of someone’s head! It’s one of the most common acting problems, because it is so contrary to real life, but if you want to sock that punch line, you’ve got to let the audience see you and hear it.

Those are the few negatives. Other than that, the mob of actors (Daniela Ryan, Shirley LeMaster, Kathy Taylor-Smith, Kitty Garascia, Hal O’Connell, Alexis Safoyan, Austin Schroeter, Peter Nicholson, Poppy Reybin, Jana Baumann and Domingo Winstead, in addition to Cilluffo and West) tackle their jobs with the brave and noble spirit of the South. It’s not easy to be outrageous: It requires an enormous commitment. You have to combine sincerity with comedic skills and timing, or it just looks like over-acting. Cilluffo is the one who shines at this, with a command of technique that makes him lovable yet hilarious at the same time. A lot of it has to do with his resonant voice and well-used wide eyes.

The cast will grow in confidence. I urge you to see Southern Hospitality regardless of the summer heat.

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Southern Hospitality is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, June 28, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; $23 seniors; $15 students; and $10 kids 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Anyone who’s seen the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark vividly recalls the terror they felt for Audrey Hepburn as she fought for her life in the nail-biting final scene. In fact, the whole point of the film, and the play that preceded it, is to scare the daylights out of us.

Though it has wonderful moments, Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark doesn’t quite achieve that goal.

Frederick Knott’s plot involves a heroin-filled doll that makes its way into the life of blind New York housewife Susy Hendrix (Katie Pavao). Her husband, Sam (Gregg Aratin), has innocently brought the doll from Canada as a favor to a woman who turns up dead early in the play. Three bad guys—Harry Roat (Hal O’Connell), Mike Talman (Stephen McMillen) and Sgt. Carlino (Florentino Carrillo)—try to make Susy believe that her husband will be suspected of the murder, and the only way to protect him is to hand over the coveted doll. The drug-filled toy is actually in the hands of the little girl upstairs, Gloria (Vienna Lima and Scarlett Goodlander, alternating performances), who has stolen it after discovering it’s not a gift for her.

I won’t give away much more of the story, to protect those who have not seen the film, but it involves cops who aren’t really cops, phone booths (remember those?), the reappearance of the doll, knives, gasoline and lots of action on a stage plunged into total darkness.

The pivotal role in this play is that of Susy, and thankfully, director Lance Phillips-Martinez has cast the terrific Katie Pavao. Playing a blind person onstage requires great skill, and Pavao has it. Her eyes never actually focus directly on another character’s face, but she does not look too far to the side or too high—a common mistake by amateurs, who can come across as phony. Attractive, charismatic and endearing, Pavao makes us root for Susy from her first appearance to the final curtain. A touch of feistiness balances the vulnerability that comes with a lack of sight.

Though he has a nice stage presence, Hal O’Connell’s Roat doesn’t come across as truly menacing until the very end of the play; this is one of the main reasons the production lacks a consistent feeling of tension and suspense. The same goes for McMillen and Carrillo. They are the right types physically, and McMillen has some nice moments as he and Susy start to feel sympathy for each other, but as bad guys, they are just not quite scary enough.

Gregg Aratin does a nice job as Susy’s loving husband, who doesn’t coddle his wife because of her disability. Vienna Lima, who played the doll-pilfering Gloria in the opening-night performance, is appropriately bratty (and occasionally helpful).

Ron Phillips-Martinez re-creates a Greenwich Village basement apartment nicely, and the sound effects are fine. Lights—and a lack of them—are crucial in this production, and Andy Cavalletto is up to the challenge. The pitch-black final confrontation between Susy and Roat finally gives the audience the thrill for which they’ve been waiting.

The 1967 film version—featuring Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Jack Weston, as well as Hepburn—had the advantage of a score by Henry Mancini. Perhaps a more liberal use of music throughout the play would heighten the dramatic tension. (Imagine Jaws or Psycho without the soundtrack.) That, as well as a slight quickening of the pace here and there, and more sinister villains, would raise this production of Wait Until Dark to the edge-of-your-seat level at which it should be.  

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, May 17, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 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

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

Yes, The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the history of the world. (I saw it in London decades ago, and it’s still going strong in the West End, 60-plus years after its debut.) Yes, it’s an Agatha Christie story, and she is the grande dame of mystery writing. Yes, it’s a different type of presentation than we usually see in the desert.

But that’s not why you should go to see the Desert Theatreworks production of The Mousetrap at the Joslyn Center. Every theater student and actor—and anyone remotely interested in theater—should see this play to study its direction. Lance Phillips-Martinez gifts us with a classic piece of what he readily admits is “old-school.” It’s rare enough to see clever directing, but this extraordinary example of balanced blocking is textbook.

Watch how the actors move. Because of Florentino Carrillo’s good sound, you can sit anywhere in the auditorium. Too often, we focus on the actor who is speaking, but here, we are treated to a constantly moving kaleidoscope of motion by all. Everyone glides with lava-lamp smoothness in a beautiful ballet, particularly delicious when all eight actors are onstage at once. And although the symmetry shifts constantly, the scene is always in balance. This is big-picture directing at its best.

Ron Phillips-Martinez’s excellent set, with its clever absence of doors and its use of multi-layered depth, enhances his life-partner Lance’s direction. And yet no move is made without motivation. Lance Phillips-Martinez doesn’t just idly shift actors about as if they were chess-board pieces. Every movement is the result of a character’s clearly shown anxiety, deep thought, boredom or curiosity. Again: Directing at its best.

The first act presents the characters. It’s not easy to keep eight roles straight in some plays, but the clever casting here results in eight wildly differing body types, and personalities that are gradually revealed. Everyone’s back-story emerges as the plot thickens. The laughs come easily as the characters become defined, and the clues are discovered. We can take a moment to admire the hard work of makeup/hair/props manager Kathy Taylor-Smith, the lighting by Doug Ridgeway, and the stage managing of Megan Camacho.

The characters are gradually introduced. Christopher Wren is played by Luke Rainey, who works without makeup so we can actually see him go bright red when he is upset, embarrassed or freaked out—an astonishing effect. Alden West, the desert’s grande dame of the theater, is Mrs. Boyle; West’s magnificent silver hair is inexplicably covered by a heavy gray wig, but her natural dignity comes through beautifully, and her upper-class accent is flawless. The role of Major Metcalf is played by Hal O’Connell, with a mysterious and tight-lipped presence, as well as a remote and formal air. Briana Taylor plays Miss Casewell, a mannish, abrupt, pantsuited (In the 1930s? Hmmm …) character clearly covering up a murky past. Don Cilluffo eats up his fun role as Signor Paravicini, flailing about, Italian-style, kissing hands and gesturing wildly—and having the most fabulous time. Stephen McMillen appears as Sgt. Trotter, who unexpectedly shows up to investigate a murder, with a correct, clipped and appropriately militaristic style.

The second act changes the mood: Now we focus on the story. Everyone is snowed in (being Canadian, I can sure identify with that) at a country inn 30 miles from London, owned by Giles (solidly played by the reliable Shawn Abramowitz, with a quite delightful Scottish accent) and Mollie (Ashley Hernandez, morphing into another role so thoroughly as to be unrecognizable from her other recent work—except for her unmistakable and beautifully carrying voice). They and their guests are trapped there on the inn’s opening day.

We are solemnly sworn not to talk about the rest of the plot. Really; I mean sworn: The audience has to stand and swear not to reveal the ending! Fortunately, I saw the play so long ago that I didn’t remember how it resolves. The twists and turns of the plot, the clever “red herrings” that are introduced to confuse us, and the puzzling aspects of the characters’ actions all combine to make it impossible for the audience to guess “whodunit.” I was as surprised as anyone to see how this 61-year-old play turned out. Agatha Christie strikes again!

My lips are sealed. Go see for yourself.

The Mousetrap, presented by Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. The show runs two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Being a brand-new startup sometimes has its advantages. Just ask the folks at the Desert Rose Playhouse.

The next play on the boards for the LGBT and gay-friendly company—British playwright Joe Orton’s controversial (during its debut in 1964, at least) Entertaining Mr. Sloane—was originally slated to open this week. But the play wasn’t quite ready, so artistic director Jim Strait and managing director Paul Taylor decided to push the opening back a week. Then came a last-minute casting change, so Strait and Taylor decided to delay the opening yet another week: The show is now scheduled to debut on Friday, March 1.

“We’re determined not to put up a show unless it’s up to a certain standard,” Strait says.

Of course, an established company could never do what the Desert Rose has done—at least not without upsetting season-ticket holders and sponsors.

“We have no subscribers,” Strait says. “So our schedule is our own.”

That flexibility allowed the Desert Rose’s inaugural show, Dirty Little Showtunes—a gay-themed musical revue/comedy that debuted in San Francisco and features … well, dirty little showtunes—to enjoy a nearly unprecedented run.

“It opened on July 21, and we were going to do four shows per week for seven weeks,” Strait explains. “Well, people kept coming to it.”

So Desert Rose kept extending the play. It finally closed as 2012 closed, after an amazing 24-week run.

“It kept going,” Strait says. “It wasn’t always profitable, but it was always fun.”

After a recently concluded four-week run of Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little will come Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

“It’s a very early gay play,” says Strait. “Joe Orton was of the bad boys of British theater. He only wrote five plays before his lover killed him with a hammer. … Audiences in the West End were just aghast (at the play).”

The play focuses on a middle-aged woman named Kath, who takes in a young man named Mr. Sloane. Kath’s father immediately dislikes Sloane; meanwhile, Kath begins to take a sexual interest in Sloane. And so does her brother, Ed.

Strait compares the piece to “Britcoms” like Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances.

“It’s not Ozzie and Harriet,” he says while emphasizing that the play is not that dirty, and is appropriate for all audiences.

Ryan Dominguez, who performed in Desert Rose’s Dirty Little Showtunes, recently joined the cast as Mr. Sloane. Valorie Armstrong plays Kath, and Hal O’Connell plays Ed. Another Showtunes performer, Terry Huber, plays the father of Ed and Kath.

Strait concedes that the play is not the easiest show to produce. It features a fair amount of unfamiliar British slang. And then there’s the play’s length.

“It’s a three-act play, with two intermissions,” he says. “It’s a serious evening of theater.”

After the abbreviated nine-show run, the Desert Rose will produce The Boys in the Band, before concluding the company’s first season with a yet-to-be-determined show.

It’s been an up-and-down journey for the Desert Rose, which was founded by Strait and Taylor—two theater veterans—in 2010 in an effort to fill the void after another LGBT company, the Thorny Theatre, closed. They started raising money, and planned on taking over a Cathedral City building as the Desert Rose’s home. However, the election and the competition for charity dollars with other local causes led to a slowdown in donations; meanwhile, code changes meant the building they wanted was in need of more bathrooms.

Therefore, Strait and Taylor switched courses and found The Commissary in Rancho Mirage, and rented it out last year. They moved in to the spot in May, and converted it into a showroom. Then came their Desert Rose’s first full show, Dirty Little Showtunes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While Strait and Taylor are still seeking donations, and keeping their eyes open for a permanent home for Desert Rose, Strait says they’re happy to be focusing on theater.

“This is pretty much a grassroots kind of thing,” he says. “It’s really quite charming.”

The Desert Rose Playhouse will perform Entertaining Mr. Sloane, barring any further schedule changes, at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $25, and shows take place at The Commissary, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For tickets or more information, call 202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance