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A great theater experience allows us to see our human selves reflected back—in a way that moves, informs and enables us to relate to the realities of the lives of others.

When I was 17, my father threw me out because I had stayed out all night. Shortly thereafter, I got pregnant out of wedlock and contemplated suicide. I remember despondently standing in front of a bathroom mirror, ready to slit my wrists, and suddenly saying out loud to my reflection, “If it’s that bad, it can only get better.”

And it did.

Those feelings were overwhelmingly brought back when I attended the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre production of Push, written by George Cameron Grant, and directed by Cathedral City resident Jeanette Knight. The play was this season’s Youth Outreach Production. I first experienced this CV Rep program last year, when the focus was on female bullying.

The theater buses in students from throughout the area to see a one-act play about issues to which they can personally relate. After the production, the audience discusses the play’s themes with the actors and the director, to explore their own reactions and experiences. It’s more than a learning experience: For some students, it’s the first time they have attended dramatic theater and realized its ability to impact an audience.

Push revolves around a young man who comes out as gay to his parents and faces immediate rejection by his stern father. After the boy is thrown out, he subsequently suffers another rejection—by the boy he has fallen in love with—and commits suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming subway train. The play follows the anguish suffered by his sister, who runs away from home and is discovered at the same train station, contemplating ending her own life. As she struggles with her own feelings, she questions whether her brother made a choice, or whether he was “pushed” by others to feel he had no other options.

The performers in Push were almost all students, some of whom have never acted before. Their ability to inhabit the roles and then discuss with the audience the impact of those roles as it relates to their own lives and experiences was not only educational, but also very moving.

Ron Celona, the founding artistic director of CV Rep, participated in the after-play discussion. He noted that the 1,400-plus students who had seen Push were not so focused in the after-play discussions on the bullying and rejection of the boy’s sexuality; instead, their focus was on the suicide, an issue they and their friends had already encountered, either personally or through troubled acquaintances.

Jeanette Knight, originally from Michigan, has been in the desert since 1997.

“My mother dragged me to dance classes, and I now thank her every day for it,” she says. “I stayed with dance, and that’s how I got into acting.”

Knight began doing musical theater, and “I fell in love with the whole theater crowd.” She completed a degree in theater at UNLV, but says, “I’ve learned so much more from doing it outside of college.”

Knight’s local experience includes working at McCallum Theater as the education program manager, running the Beaumont Actors Studio, teaching acting and improvisation at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, and teaching classes in improv at CV Rep. “I’ve learned so much about acting by teaching it,” she says.

When Ron Celona approached Knight about directing Push, she jumped at the chance. “I really like doing this kind of theater,” she says. “We can’t sweep these issues under the carpet. The kids who come to see these shows are our future.”

There are two local efforts devoted to assisting young people who feel unsafe or who are aware of someone else who feels threatened or hopeless: Sprigeo is an anonymous reporting and investigation service to deal with bullying, harassment or intimidation in or out of school, with which the Palm Springs Unified School District is affiliated. SafeHouse of the Desert helps teens in crisis; those who feel threatened can go to any Sunline bus stop or McDonald’s and get free transportation to SafeHouse.

My parents finally allowed me to return home, but only if I gave my child up for adoption. In those days, there was no real way a teenage unwed mother could make it, so I lived with the hope that my son had indeed been able to live a better life than I could have given him. My first-born son and I were happily reunited after over 40 years. He is a gay man.

At the end of Push, when the sister decides her life is worth living, and her father apologizes for having rejected his son and contributing to his death, I was overcome with tears. All I could think was: I am so thankful that something inside of me knew it would get better, and that my son was adopted into a family where he was loved and accepted.

CV Rep is truly making a difference. In Jeanette Knight’s words: “It’s rewarding to have a hand in art not just for art’s sake, but to be a part of theater that can help make the world a better place.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Joshua Tree is known for eclectic festivals. The high-desert community hosts gatherings centering on everything from yoga to UFOs to music.

Now Joshua Tree can add improv/comedy to that list.

The Joshua Tree International Improv/Comedy Festival will take place Friday through Sunday, July 8-10, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center. The performer list includes both local names and people from recognizable comedy institutions including Second City and Last Comic Standing.

Jeanette Knight, the director of the festival, said that although the venue is new (to the event), the festival itself is not.

“It’s the first one in Joshua Tree,” Knight said. “The first one was actually called the Coachella Valley Improv/Comedy Festival, and that was in 2014. There was a change in management at our (original) venue, the Indio Performing Arts Center (IPAC). They didn’t really support the idea or the festival, and the Hi-Desert Cultural Center found out that we needed a new home.

Knight, who was the artistic coordinator at IPAC, said the first festival was an amazing experience.

“There are improv/comedy festivals held throughout the world, and I … had the idea to do an improv festival,” she said.

Knight said she’s encouraged about the buzz the 2016 edition of the festival is receiving.

“We’ve already sold tickets, so we’re very optimistic. We’re hoping for a great turnout. We sold quite a few early-bird tickets during early June,” she said. “We have performers coming from as far away as New York and Chicago. We really want the community to turn up and support them. We have a selection company that viewed video submissions and determined the best. We had 70 submissions, and there are 38 performers. These are the best, and they’re up-and-coming.

“Some of them, like (Los Angeles comedy group) the Fireturtles—I’ve become a fan of them after I found all these videos they have on YouTube. They have hundreds of thousands of views.”

Tom Dreesen, a well-known actor and standup comic, is coming to the festival to share a very important message.

“He opened for Frank Sinatra for 14 years,” Knight said. “He also used to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman and also guest-hosted for him. He’s actually donating his time to us. He has a real important message to get out: He’s doing an hour-long seminar for us on Sunday. He’s had a lot of friends who are standup comics, and a couple of them committed suicide. Not to make it sound like his seminar is going to be depressing, but it is about standup comedy and enjoying the journey. It’s open to performers and the general public. It’s for anyone who wants to learn how to enjoy life a lot more.”

The festival should not be considered “fun for the whole family.”

“Some material might be R-rated and not suitable for children,” Knight said. “Parents these days are pretty diverse with what they want to expose their kids to, but we’re not encouraging kids to come, because we don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, with these different tickets, you can come and go as you please. … With improv comedy, you don’t really know where the story is going to go.”

What can attendees expect?

“Expect to have a lot of fun,” Knight said. “The audience will also be voting on the overall winner. The overall winner, the top-scoring sketch group, improv group or standup comic, will be offered a paid engagement to return as part of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center’s next season. That’s what they’re competing for. The audience will have a little say.”

The Joshua Tree International Improv/Comedy Festival takes place Friday, June 8, through Sunday, June 10, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Highway 62, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $45 for a one-day pass, or $120 for an all-access pass. For tickets or more information, visit jtimprovfestival.org.

Published in Comedy

A Handful of Nickels and Dimes opened on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Indio Performing Arts Center to a sold-out house of appreciative vaudeville fans.

The attendees were mostly (very lively!) seniors, but this show would provide an education to any age group, as it deconstructs this fascinating segment of theatrical history, and analyzes the reasons for its success and eventual demise. The cast demonstrates the varied elements that created the wonder of vaudeville from the late 1800s through to the start of World War II.

The cast is equally varied. Musician/songstress Yve Evans leads the show, joined by magician Dean Apple, emcee and vocalist Justin Blake, wide-eyed blonde bombshell Cat Lyn Day, comedian Stephen Kauffman, and Jeanette Knight in dazzling assortment of roles from chorus girl to comedienne; similarly, Michael Seneca plays everything from a baggy-pants comic to a bratty schoolboy.

It’s all about timing. Vaudeville, of course, combines everything from the world’s corniest jokes to the split-second mastery of songs, dances, sketches and—most perilous of all—blackouts. In this show, we see samples of it all … and most of it works. The program gives credit to no director, and this might explain some of the less-than-snappy entrances and exits, things a sharp-eyed director would tighten.

The set resembles a rehearsal hall of some sort, with Evans and her piano (AND microphone AND sound system, which the rest of the cast unfortunately lacked) tucked in at stage left. The uneven sound shows up when Evans teams up with Blake on numbers such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The pro that she is, Evans shares her mic.

The rest of the time, we sit back in contented bliss as we admire Evans’ exquisite professionalism on such numbers as “Handyman,” “Second Hand Rose” and “Skylark.” She backphrases as well as anybody—she’s so in control of her music that although we might quietly panic while she toys with the notes, stretching and delaying, she always comes out exactly on the beat, letting us breathe again and smile in delight. Her prowess on the piano is just magnificent, and her vocal range has never been greater. She’s a perfect example of how experience pays off in performance; young singers would do well to take advantage of this opportunity to learn from her. She whisks us through tributes to Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice and the black entertainers of that day—and she flashes some priceless facial expressions when she turns to comedy.

Justin Blake provides the intellectual gravitas of the show, leading us through interesting explanations of how vaudeville managed to collect such variety as Burns and Allen’s wit, the baggy-pants comics’ outrageous silliness, and the specialty acts—and how vaudeville all ties in with burlesque, musical-comedy revues and extravaganzas like the Ziegfeld Follies. He performs parts of Will Rogers’ routines—but not the rope-twirling, alas. He manages to combine the educational portion with his own personal warmth and charm, so it works.

Dean Apple is the bright light of the show. We don’t see him and his magic until Act 2, when he manages to be not only very funny, but fresh and original. In his homage to Houdini, he uses audience participation to keep us on the edge of our seats while he struggles hilariously with his handcuffs. He pulls a rabbit out of a hat. He does card tricks. But what makes him special is his boyish charm and his unique ability to laugh at himself along with the rest of us—most unusual in a magician! Apple is refreshing and delightful.

Cat Lyn Day adds an exotic hint of the burlesque, like those girls who added spice and sex to the mix. Blonde and leggy, she romps through sketches and skits, adding flair and color everywhere.

Stephen Kauffman takes the business of comedy seriously. He appears in a wide variety of roles and seems comfortable in each one, ranging in style from baggy-pants comic to slick comedian with ease.

Jeanette Knight is known for being able to tackle anything, as she does here, playing everything from a star radio comedienne to a school kid. She switches between roles with aplomb—gaining the respect of the audience and, you can bet, of her fellow actors as well.

Her real-life husband, Patrick, is billed here as Michael Seneca, and he handles more roles than anyone—or so it seems, making lightning-fast changes between outrageous costumes and attitudes. Fearless about appearing silly, he is a breath of fresh air.

I wish the show had more blackout sketches. They are discussed, and there are a couple of them, but they are best demonstrated rather than talked about. “Blackouts,” of course, still exist in theater, but not like they were used in vaudeville, which introduced the audience to freeze-dried comedy, performed often in front of a curtain with no help from set changes or costumes or any kind of setup. These are often hugely effective and usually hilarious jabs, often “running gags” which become funnier every time because of the repetition.

While vaudeville faded away, overwhelmed by the innovations of radio and then TV, we should not let it stay forgotten. Shows like this are historically important, whether for reminiscence in those who actually still remember them, or to introduce vaudeville to those who’ve never been exposed to it. A Handful of Nickels and Dimes examines America back in the day, and we’re glad for it.

There’s a warning in the program about the double-entendres that abound through the evening. As Yve Evans says, “It helps if you have a dirty mind.” These double-entendres were part of the genre, but for some, this might be a consideration when deciding to bring other people to IPAC to see this show. But then so are the awful groaner jokes—and nobody seemed to mind them. (Well, we didn’t mind them much. The pain is brief.)

There are many reasons for you to see this show, but most of all, you should see it because you’ll learn something about the amazing world of vaudeville—and you’ll have fun while learning it.

A Handful of Nickels and Dimes is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., Indio. There are no shows March 6-8. Tickets are $26 with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.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