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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

It’s about math.

Oh no! Math was my worst subject in school, and here we are confronted with Proof, a play about real mathematical geniuses—the kind you see standing in front of an entire blackboard filled with incomprehensible squiggles. The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has brought Proof to the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club—but even if you are as bad as I am with numbers, there is nothing to fear.

Proof, written by David Auburn, won the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2001. The setting, here designed by Lauren Bright with lighting by Ashton J. Bolanos, is a modest Chicago home’s back yard. The house is inhabited by a math professor and his adult daughter, whom we meet in the first scene.

Robert (Larry Dyekman) emerges from the house to find his daughter Catherine (Kelley Moody) has fallen asleep outdoors at 1 a.m. She is dressed (by costume designer Frank Cazares) in awful moth-eaten sweat pants, bedroom slippers and an oversized cranberry cardigan. Her sulky attitude and slovenly appearance, however, can’t hide Moody’s flawless complexion and bountiful hair, and she gives us a finely tuned interpretation of her role. Dyekman, in a well-thought-out and underplayed performance that shows off his skills, is a believable father and mathematician. The two converse about their relationship, his “illness,” her inherited math aptitude and, oh yes, the fact that he is … how shall I put this … dead.

In the next scene, we meet Hal, played by a perfectly cast Sam Benson Smith; Hal is a former student of Robert’s who is now a math professor himself at age 28. He is the quintessential nerd, with all the assets of a genius—for example, he’s also a drummer in a rock band with other dweeb mathematicians by night, and he wears a red T-shirt with the symbol for pi emblazoned on the front. “I owe him,” Hal says about Robert, ferreting through the great man’s countless notebooks that were left behind, trying to discover what he was working on in his final years. The audience sees Hal only in profile for about 99 percent of the time he is onstage—an unusual choice. (See how I used numbers there?)

Fireworks explode between Hal and Catherine when she accuses him of theft, and we begin to unravel the story of her battle with higher education. (She dropped out.) There are many references to that unanswerable conundrum: How much of genius is inherited, and how much of it is affected by education and environment? And what, besides our brains, do we inherit from our parents? Their problems, too? Also: How insane do you need to be to warrant being locked up? Where does a savant’s eccentricity leave off and incomprehensibility start? What pushes brainiac people over the line into actual mental illness?

Enter Claire, Catherine’s sister now living in New York, to take charge, smoothly played by Lee Rice. Contrasts between sisters are endlessly fascinating, and director Jerome Elliott—also the company’s artistic director—has, with assistant director Sierra Barrick, made the most of the comparisons here. You will particularly like one scenario in which the two girls assume the exact same arms-folded position (always the default stance for Claire), with both staring forward like ancient Egyptian statues as they converse. Rice offers a masterful performance, with crisp gestures, keen focus, great diction, clever use of her eyes and some excellent “takes.”

Mathematicians, we are told, peak at about the age of 23, and feel it is all downhill from there. It is a closed community with plenty of jealousy and childish behavior … but they apparently really love to party, too! Each one is desperately searching for that special equation, formula or theorem that will help make their name historic. Their lives revolve around that search and discovery, and its “proof.” That, apparently, is the Holy Grail in this field—when all other mathematicians must accept and agree with your new truth. In this vein, Act 1 ends with possibly the best cliffhanger ever.

In Act 2, we are treated to a flashback from four years before—so Dad returns, bringing with him a couple of actual laughs, as opposed to the rather grim mood of Act 1. Robert is a silver fox with an expressive face and natural gestures—but Catherine dreads having to pay the same price that her father did for his gift. “The machinery,” he calls his mind. Yet how many of his issues might just be sleep deprivation, or other ancillary problems?

We wonder a lot about this very cerebral play. For example, why is the wife/mother never mentioned by Claire or Catherine or Robert—even once? Why are there so many F-bombs dropped? Although Claire is apparently a currency analyst, which would certainly require smarts, why did she not inherit the same size gift for numbers that Catherine did? What is the cost for each IQ point? Is it better to forgo the big gift and be better adjusted, more stable, in “real” life? “Mathematicians are insane,” declares one character.

There is very little action in this play; it all takes place above the neck. So the actors are given lots of difficult lines, which they all manage well. However, there are some errors being made onstage, such as shuffling feet—not a good idea on this stage’s squeaky floor boards—or pretending to drink but forgetting to also pretend to swallow, or dropping the volume at the end of a sentence.

Proof is a well-acted play—and you don’t have to be good with numbers to enjoy it.

Proof, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the play runs about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or 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

How auspicious to open a show on Chinese New Year. Gung hay fat choy, by the way, and welcome to the year of the dog. People born under this sign are loyal, honest, just, socially popular, helpful and decisive—and they keep all their worries and anxieties buried deep inside. Famous dogs include Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Elvis, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

That’s the good news. Election Day, presented by the hardworking, clever and talented people at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is our topic, but all the news regarding this play is not so good.

We now live in a world where humor, and particularly political humor, has changed drastically. Of course, who could ever have predicted that the show’s opening night would follow the ghastly reality of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., just two days before? With that and other recent horrors, in my mind, there just wasn’t much to find that’s funny about this play’s hostage mutilation, car bombs, violence or assault weapons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some amusing lines and situations in the show. I’m sure the script, by Josh Tobiessen, read well when DETC was making the decision about presenting this play. Many in the opening-night audience may disagree with my feelings, as the audience offered a lot of support and encouragement.

The greeter at the front door pasted cute little stickers on all of us as we arrived, reading “I VOTED TODAY.” It reminded me of all the kerfuffle and excitement and emotion of our 2016 elections. Election Day’s program-cover illustration was totally adorable. It set us in an enthusiastic if cautious frame of mind for the upcoming presentation. We were curious and intrigued to see what was to follow.

The story concerns a mayoral election in a northern California city. This is not a Republican-Democrat-independent political thing—this is about people trying to select a mayor from two choices: “the right guy” or the hated “Jerry Clark.” That was a relief—even for non-political me, as emotions still seem to run high every day on the news about American two-party politics.

The play opens on Brenda, an attorney, played by real-life TV weather person Kelley Moody, and Adam, her graphic-artist boyfriend, played by Sean Timothy Brown, who is moving into her apartment with her. The next scene introduces us to Adam’s sister, Cleo (Maricela Sandoval), and an activist hippie type, Edmund, or Eddie (Brian La Belle). Both are trying to look cool while slumped on a park bench and making plans for an act of protest about the election … with Molotov cocktails. None of these people come off as very likable, but when candidate Jerry Clark himself shows up for some desperate last-minute campaigning, the oily politician with his spiel of knee-jerk stock rigmarole, slickly played by Shawn Abramowitz, makes them look much nicer by comparison.

Directed by the legendary Rosemary Mallett, the action moves right along, and the actors are all on top of their rapid-fire lines. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and as the play bowls along, we watch some of the characters change—most notably Brenda, who ingests a batch of drugs and becomes hugely entertaining when high. In contrast, Sandoval’s Cleo—who loses some good lines through poor diction—comes off as an annoying teen rather than the young adult she’s supposed to be, despite drinking wine. (Note to young actors: It’s OK to turn your back on the audience, but not while speaking, especially in a room like the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, where the acoustics are so famously difficult.) Though Edmund smokes dope, he shows little change after—yes—inhaling, missing out on a great chance to mine the sure-fire comedy of portraying the stoned pothead, although his gravelly Nick Nolte-style voice is a great choice.

In contrast to that, observe Jerry Clark as he swallows a bottle of painkillers and shows us how it’s done, thanks to Abramowitz’ superb timing. Adam comes alive in a refrigerator bit, but otherwise stays pretty much the same. Good theater is all about the arc.

It’s interesting to see how the comedy that comes from the script compares and contrasts with the comedy that comes from the play’s director. Mallett has upped the pace with a lot of physical stuff, while the script throws out lines like the deadpanned, “You don’t need a truck to vote”—lines which come from situations and logic. Sometimes one works, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Unfortunately, sometimes neither.

Thirty years ago, this play probably would have been screamingly funny. How sad it is that today, at least for some of us, our laughs have been compromised by reality. Professional speakers tell me that about the only really safe topic to make fun of any more is yourself. While there are things to like about this production of Election Day—some of the humor does work, and Abramowitz is fantastic—there is just too much that rips the scabs off sensitivities to terrorism, bombs, victimization and harming other people to advance someone’s personal cause.

Election Day, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 25, 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

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