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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The title Suddenly Last Summer has to be one of the most unforgettable, ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has revived this “Southern Gothic” one-act drama by Tennessee Williams, which was adapted into the amazing 1959 movie. That film gave me a permanent case of the creeps (and left me forever debating who was prettier: Elizabeth Taylor or Anthony Perkins?).

In fact, the show is actually referred to as a “horror story,” giving credence to my goose bumps. Here, producer Paul Taylor and director Jim Strait emphasize the music in those soft Louisiana accents and the rhythm of the drawling dialogue. “It’s free-verse poetry,” Strait told me, and he’s right.

The open set is a lush garden, in late spring 1936, burgeoning with life. It actually plays a part in the foreboding—using Venus flytraps, those plants which trap and devour insects, as a topic of discussion. Kudos to Allan Jensen for the lush set decoration and the plantation-style costumes.

The plot concerns a young man, Sebastian Venable, who has met a violent and gory demise while in Europe. His mother is an aging Southern belle, Violet Venable, played by Marjory Lewis, a wealthy society lady determined to cover up her spoiled son’s scandalous life and death. She firmly believes her money and her force of personality can wipe out the ghastly story. But her niece Catherine, played by Cat Lyn Day, remembers it clearly, as she was there, on vacation in southern Spain with him, and Violet is frantic to do something about her before she blabs the truth: What Violet really wants is a lobotomy to be performed on Catherine to destroy the part of her brain containing the story of Sebastian’s death. She schemes to bribe anyone standing in her way—relatives and doctors alike.(Interestingly, Strait informed the audience in his pre-show greeting that this topic was heavily on Tennessee Williams’ mind at the time of writing, as he was in deep therapy, and his sister Rose had actually had a lobotomy. Eek.)

The doctor, played by Cody Frank in the perfect seersucker summer suit, is full of Southern gallantry and determined charm. The relatives (who are actually related to Violet only by marriage, not blood, which does mean something in the South), are Catherine’s brother, George, a wannabe frat boy played by Winston Gieseke, and her mother, a wonderful ditz without portfolio, giddily played by Lorraine Williamson. As the poor relations who have caught an addictive whiff of money, they try to hide their greed and their wobbly moral compasses, yet keep their eyes firmly on their ambitious goals.

Rounding out the cast are Leslie Benjamin, playing the harassed maid, a professional worrier and the only one capable of running in that heat and humidity; and Alden West, playing the fragile nun Sister Felicity, an antiquated import from somewhere in the British Isles, who precariously accompanies Catherine from St. Mary’s Hospital, where she is being held prior to her possible surgery.

This is a women’s play: Unlike in the movie, we never meet Sebastian through flashbacks, so the conflict between Violet and Catherine becomes the center of the action. Marjory Lewis beautifully shades her portrayal of a fading but still fluttering Southern lady, hiding both her backbone of steel and her firm belief that her money can buy anyone. Her innocent lavender-dress-and-garden-hat façade belie a grim determination to rule her little world as if it was really important enough to circle the globe. Lewis gives us a powerful first-scene speech that will take your breath away. We gradually realize that she is driven by her strong conviction that reputation and social standing are everything, and that if faced with absent or weak men, she will control anything and everything necessary, from helming a debutante’s ball to a sailboat.

Cat Lyn Day, on the other hand, marvelously captures the opposing sides of the inner conflict Catherine experiences. She vacillates heartbreakingly between her helplessness when faced by older, wealthier or more-powerful people, and her shaky belief in herself. She hesitates to stand up to others—as Louisiana ladies are not supposed to make a fuss by challenging anyone. She wears a smart blue suit, but we see runs in her stockings. Her naturally elegant looks (great cheekbones!) can’t hide her insecurities. And yet she knows her truth, and no amount of medication or bullying will keep her from speaking it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime role, and Day has pulled out all the stops for it. Her masterful monologue will knock you out.

I wish the cast could have been spared the awkwardness of attempting to look like they were smoking, but it’s written right into the script. Sigh … The fabulous lighting by Phil Murphy, of course, makes the mood of this 95-minute (no intermission!) play a memorable experience.

Strait once again offers a definitive example of how to block stage movement, demonstrating his wonderful sense of balance as well as proving how action affects the mood of a show. He has pulled excellent performances out of his stars, and the commitment to the work makes this production shine. Even the descent into the morass is handled with care.

The audience stays firmly hooked as we are reeled in through this story. The feeling that a train wreck is about to happen before our eyes grows slowly and deliberately. We are in the hands of the unforgettable.

Suddenly Last Summer is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, 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 www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Those of us who grew up in Canada were raised on it.

We knew The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Take It From Here on the radio; the Carry On gang’s outrageous ensemble movies; and, later, Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in theatrical revue, and the unforgettable Monty Python films.

So I felt very much at home with the British-humor outrages perpetrated in Desert Theatreworks’ “Noises Off!” at the Arthur Newman Theatre—as did the eager, nearly full house of supporters on opening night. They were probably all Americans, which is just fine; humor’s birthplace doesn’t matter. It’s all about having fun and being involved. Judging from the laughter and applause, it’s certain you’ll have a great time at this show, no matter where you were born.

The script, by Michael Frayn, starts with the final rehearsal of a play. We quickly see that it’s nowhere near ready to open, and the personalities of the actors are part of the reason why. The frustrated director, whom we hear only on a “God mic” from the audience, is desperately trying to control his nutso cast and get the show ready for the opening—which is only hours away.

The set, cleverly designed by Ron Phillips-Martinez, is a departure from the usual two-story setting of this show. “We create the illusion of two stories,” he confided to me, “and the way the set changes between acts leaves people saying, ‘How did you DO that?’ We wanted everything to be different, because this play has been done here before. … We didn’t want to re-do just another version of it.”

During the set change, the lights are left on so we can admire the super-efficient use of restricted space. When the scenery changes between acts, we find ourselves backstage at another performance of the same play—but now from the actors’ vantage point. Of course, the actors must not make the slightest noise during the performance, so everything is communicated in frantic mime.

Why would a small theater company like Desert Theatreworks, in an intimate space, even think of mounting such a production?

“I did it on a dare!” director Lance Phillips-Martinez told me. “They said this play couldn’t be done in this theater. There are 700 exits and entrances to deal with! It was a true challenge, and I spent six months thinking it through before deciding to do it. The actors were all open to it—though only two had ever performed in a farce before, so there was a lot of teaching involved.” 

Ah, the actors—the poor things were wringing wet by the end of the show, thanks to the astonishing amount of exertion needed. British comedy is indeed very physical, and Lance Phillips-Martinez has emphasized the importance of body language with this production, as he kaleidoscopes his constantly moving actors.

And what an ensemble! Everyone is physically transformed compared to other shows in which you may have seen them, and I don’t just mean costume and makeup changes—they talk, move and use their hair differently. They are, as the Brits might say, quite extraordinary. Farce lets a thespian get in touch with his inner ham, but make no mistake: This show is artfully disciplined, even though it seems like total chaos. Each actor has exquisitely developed his character fully, under Lance Phillips-Martinez’s guidance.

Stan Jensen plays the hapless director of this play-within-a-play (called “Nothing’s On”), and with that rich powerful voice, he’s perfect. His strained patience is conveyed in tones ranging from kindly coaxing to a bellow, and his authoritarian strut is exactly right. As in all caricatures, the exaggeration emphasizes rather than conceals his character’s qualities (and flaws).

Marjory Lewis plays actress Dotty Otley who plays Mrs. Clackett, the Cockney housekeeper. Lance Phillips-Martinez has nurtured and polished this gem of an actress to a high luster, with qualities we’ve never seen her display before. She is vibrantly alive, bright and multi-layered, and she runs through an astounding variety of emotions.

Stephen McMillen devours the stage as arrogant actor Garry LeJune, playing Roger in their play. A DTW staple, McMillen completely re-invents himself in every role, this time digging deep to give a complex performance as a talented but self-involved, neurotic and unintentionally hilarious thespian. He’s recognizable to anyone who has ever done theater at any level.

Mari Kerber is Brooke Ashton, playing Vicki (the “i” tells you so much), the troupe’s resident blonde glamour girl and idiot—but she’s street-smart enough to use her looks to fuel her ambition. Moody and vain, she shines as she prances and tosses her crimped hair artfully, constantly posing in calendar-girl fashion to show off her admirable figure.

Tanner Lieser plays Frederick Fellowes, who toils in the role of Philip Brent. A disaster magnet, he is instantly recognizable from his first lines: He’s the guy who puts himself down so you can’t do it. Hypersensitive and luckless—a terrible combination—he’s the epitome of insecurity. Lieser makes the most of this very funny role and actually enlists our sympathy.

Stacy Casaluci plays Belinda Blair, playing Flavia Brent in Nothing’s On, and she’s a sweetheart as the unsung heroine who is quietly keeping the cast together behind the scenes. She’s always upbeat, positive and there at the right time—one of those. She is convincing and pretty, and brings a lovely light to her scenes.

Garnett Smith is a seasoned actor—here playing the cast’s Selsdon Mowbray, acting as The Burglar—but we’ve never before seen him like this. He’s the cast’s old troublemaker and secret drinker, just this side of dangerous. He comes close to stealing the show with his unscripted monologue during a set change between acts, and his beautifully thought-out character gives us no end of delight. Smith knows his face, body and craft, and uses them all brilliantly.

Florentino Carrillo plays Tim Allgood, the overworked, youthful techie and stage manager of the troupe. His stillness gives us glimpses of his exhaustion, and contrasts delightfully with the rest of the high-energy group. He switches accents, a little confusing, but is delightful when he has to sub onstage, shaking in his shoes at being thrust into the spotlight.

Brittney De Leon-Reyes is Poppy, the assistant stage manager, the drab but sincere and hardworking little girl behind the scenes—almost every theater has one. She is a casting surprise in this role, a nervous nelly fearful of everything. It’s the mark of a true actress to be so versatile, and reveals a glimpse of her depth and her promise.

Curtain calls and applause! Go see this, and be prepared to laugh and be astonished. It’s a most unusual play, and whether or not you’ve ever actually been backstage for real, you will laugh out loud. A lot. I promise.

Noises Off!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 9 (with no show on Oct. 31) at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; or $23 seniors and students with ID. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance