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Mon07222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!

OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …

For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.

So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.

If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)

Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.

The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently--and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.

You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:

Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.

Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.

Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.

Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.

Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.

Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.

Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.

Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.

Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.

Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.

Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.

There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.

If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.

Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.

Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you’ve read the 1974 Stephen King novel Carrie, and you’ve seen the 1976 Brian De Palma film, you know that the book and the film are very different.

Well, the new Carrie remake, which stars Chloë Grace Moretz in the role that netted Sissy Spacek an Oscar nomination for the 1976 film, has more in common with De Palma’s film than King’s novel.

King’s novel, about a bullied telekinetic high school girl who endures one prank too many at the senior prom, depicted a series of episodic news reports, flashbacks and interviews, for the most part, to tell the story.

The new film welcomes a few of the novel’s plot points back into the story, although it takes a lot of the same liberties that De Palma took with the novel. In the new version, a few more characters survive the fiery black-prom tragedy—and one character might be pregnant. Otherwise, this feels like a remake of De Palma’s movie rather than a faithful retelling of King’s book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: De Palma went to the core of that novel, massaged its great ideas, and made something akin to a horror masterpiece, with much thanks given to the brilliant Spacek.

Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), unfortunately, doesn’t turn in anything that makes a Carrie remake worthwhile. Yes, the new film takes place in the present, where cellular phones and the Internet have become prevalent bullying weaponry—but much of the plot execution remains the same. In a lot of ways, this version even rips off De Palma.

Moretz (Kick-Ass) was a mere 15 years old during the filming—a little young for a high school senior. While Spacek did an exemplary job playing younger than her then 26 years for the original, Moretz looks like a freshman crashing the senior prom.

Still, the Moretz performance is, in many ways, admirable. She captures the pain and confusion of a young girl tormented by her classmates after receiving no valuable life-coaching from her religious-fanatic mother (played here by Julianne Moore in a role originated by the Oscar-nominated Piper Laurie). Interestingly, Goetz also played a tormented teen in this year’s awful Kick-Ass 2.

Moore goes to a darker place with the role of Margaret White when compared to Laurie’s campy, crazy take. This Margaret is far harder on herself (i.e. intentional cutting) and her daughter; she simmers with a dark, disturbing violence that makes her truly hateful. Goetz and Moore play well off each other during the movie’s major confrontation scenes.

As for supporting performances, Pierce gets it right with the casting of Gabriella Wilde as the virtuous Sue Snell, the popular student who regrets bullying Carrie and asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (a charming Ansel Elgort), to escort Carrie to the prom—with deadly results. Judy Greer is OK as the gym teacher who tries to get Carrie through everything in one piece.

On the down side, Portia Doubleday and Alex Russell are mere caricatures as villains Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan (notoriously played by the wild-eyed Nancy Allen and John Travolta in the ’76 version). Their dull portrayals offer nothing new.

The infamous prom scene, in which Carrie goes nuclear after getting doused with pig’s blood, was an operatic, gloriously torturous, expertly prolonged hell in De Palma’s movie. In the new version, the scene feels hastily edited and glossed over with a CGI polish. It totally misses the mark, and is the final reason that this remake is mediocre, at best.

I suppose if you’ve never seen De Palma’s film, the 2013 version might seem better. While the remake is, at times, skillfully made, its resources could’ve been put to a better cinematic use—like, say, an actual big-screen adaptation of King’s great novel, The Stand. A TV miniseries starring Molly Ringwald just isn't enough!

Carrie is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews