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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

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