CVIndependent

Sun06242018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 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

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

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday out of the way, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season—and one of the special seasonal events in our valley is always Desert Rose Playhouse’s ever-innovative holiday production. This year, the choice is Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel.

Set in New York (and heaven, do you mind), it visits Manhattan in 1948—a wild postwar world of swinging nightclubs, famous restaurants, jazz and a night life that goes on until dawn. The underbelly of the town contains a second world of mobsters and molls, gambling and gunplay, cheesy shows and characters … and that’s where we find ourselves, with everyone speaking thick Manhattan-ese.

Understand that everything in this light-hearted comedy is over the top—you will find no subtle gritty-realism method acting here. It’s all for fun and for the effect, and producer Paul Taylor has assembled a cast that fully comprehends this.

The show stars the extraordinary Loren Freeman as Irish O’Flanagan, a carrot-topped nightclub singer whose miserly, selfish and mean-spirited ways earn her some flashback visits to the past, plus a glimpse of her destined future, courtesy of a guardian angel. (I know, I know—you’re already seeing the parallels with Scrooge.) The angel, Albert, is played by Robbie Wayne, who has been named a “DRP artistic associate” for his ever-growing and varied list of jobs with the group, including creating the choreography for this “musical pastiche.” As Albert, he’s a slick, pinstripe-suited and smart-mouthed former performer in trouble with God for a batch of heavenly infractions who is facing expulsion to Hades. He bargains to get back into God’s Good Books by agreeing to go down to Earth and trying to convert Irish into a being who is also worthy of admission to heaven. Which, as you’ve guessed, she currently is not.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the lead actor in this show. Everything turns on Irish O’Flanagan’s magnetism and believability, as she is in almost every scene. Loren Freeman, with his astonishing aquamarine eyes, resonant foghorn bass voice and shapely legs, brings an arsenal of skills and talents more than equal to this task. (In fact, this entire show features many great gams, both male and female—if the Desert Theatre League ever creates a category for Best Legs, this show is the, umm, hands-down winner.) A consummate professional, Freeman actually takes a pass on opportunities to react when another actor is speaking, knowing that if he does, it would draw the audience’s eye away to him … yet when he does react, it’s flawless. His New York accent is perfect, and in that whisky-baritone voice, he relishes rolling his mouth around the script’s 1940s street-slang—like “a clop on the chops,” “doll,” “jawboning” and “stooge.” Even as Irish blusters and struts, we see the vulnerability beneath the surface, and when she sings, it can break your heart. It’s a case of absolutely perfect casting.

DRP seems close to forming its own repertory company with the return to the boards of such favorite actors as Terry Huber, Cat Lyn Day, Michael Pacas, Melanie Blue and Kam Sisco. Also included are some welcome new faces: Ruth Braun, James Owens and Karen Schmitt. A growing company is a healthy company, and they all get to fill the stage and show off their versatility by playing a delicious variety of multiple roles. Parker Tenney plays The Voice of God, which might surprise you.

There were a couple of understandable first-night fumbles and misfortunes, and in some places, the timing was a little bit off, but knowing Jim Strait, this will be fixed by the time you see the show. And some of the accents need work—they’re a little muddy. There were a couple of bewildering moments, possibly because of some anachronisms in the costumes and the music, but for “heaven’s” sake, who cares?

Among my favorite moments were Huber’s touching solo; some of the terrific quick changes; Sisco’s hilarious portrait of a drunken former Vaudeville star from back when drunks were still funny; extra touches like the antlers; some lovely harmonies; several moments of exquisite timing; and the expression “a case of the dismals,” which will promptly be absorbed into everyone’s current vocab. The first-night audience must have agreed, because they broke into spontaneous applause during and between the scenes. The 95-minute play is performed without an intermission, just in case your kidneys might want to know in advance.

The production is designed and directed by DRP’s founding artistic director, Jim Strait. He and Paul Taylor unabashedly adore Christmas, wearing outrageous Yuletide garb to welcome the playgoers. How refreshing is this? It makes you want to rush home and get out your Christmas decorations.

Playwright Charles Busch—whose name you will remember from other DRP productions including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/Coma—frankly admits A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as inspirations for Times Square Angel, along with the gangster movies of the ’40s, with those tough-talking chorus girls and thugs found in places like this show’s gaudy Club Intime.

Musical director Joel Baker has pre-recorded the accompaniment music, which mixes styles such as doo-wop, blues, gospel and, of course, some good old Christmas songs everyone knows. (You DO know “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaiian, right? Because they sing it here.)

Regarding the aforementioned repertory, returning costume director Mark Demry (who delights us with two-tone spectator shoes, perky hats and nostalgic fur stoles) and hair stylist Toni Molano (the wigs are hugely important in this show … though some are a bit weird) are again joined by the incomparable Phil Murphy as lighting director, whose contribution makes this his 49th show for DRP. Steve Fisher is the stage manager once again. How pleasant for this company to be able to rely on the same tried-and-true talents for every production!

This play is fun. It will make you feel good. It will infuse you with Christmas spirit. You will want to immediately rush home and dust off the Christmas tree lights—and maybe it will even inspire you to give Christmas gifts of theater tickets or even season subscriptions, thereby giving ideal presents to everyone!

Times Square Angel is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 17, at 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

What actor wouldn’t want to have a play called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom included on one’s resume? From the moment I heard this show was coming to the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater company, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Director Jim Strait and producer Paul Taylor have chosen a play with one of the longest-ever Off-Broadway runs for their annual salute to gay heritage theater. Who doesn’t love a success story? This play opened with plans for just one weekend—and it turned into a five-year run! Strait informed me that he has wanted to do this play for 30 years; read on, and you’ll understand why.

Written by Charles Busch, this outrageous show actually consists of two one-acts: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma. (It’s important to distinguish thd latter one from the “other” Sleeping Beauty, lest suburban matrons mistakenly show up at the theater door with eager 6-year-olds.)

VLOS is the story of two rival ladies, beginning in the ancient city of Sodom—which you’ll remember was supposed to be, oh, you know, the most depraved city ever in the entire world. Both gals are immortal vampires who repeatedly cross paths on their 2,000-year journey, starting in Sodom at a pagan sacrifice, appearing next in Hollywood in the 1920s, and last in present-day Las Vegas.

SBOC starts off in the swingin’ ’60s of London. Who could forget it? Miniskirts, the Beatles, Twiggy, the Frug, bell bottoms, the Rolling Stones, Carnaby Steet, etc. This is exactly when the theatrical style of revue began. SBOC echoes its snappy style, with actors playing multiple roles, running gags, quick changes, satire, broad comedy, and snippets of song and dance. The revue style borrowed heavily from the old American vaudeville shows (and music halls in England), and its future would become TV shows like Laugh In, Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live.

Here at Desert Rose Playhouse, this cast members have been chosen for their versatility and inventiveness. Each actor works not just in both acts; Act 2 includes three separate scenes, so some actors play as many as four parts, complete with elaborate costume, wig and makeup changes. It’s a demanding show! We have to mention there’s nudity and a few choice vulgarities, by the way, if anyone still cares.

Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting even includes strobe lights and a “limelight” effect. (You can’t imagine the number of light cues.) Steve Fisher’s stage management whisks people, sets and props on and off stage with breathtaking ease. Allan Jensen’s colorful rich-textured costumes are just magnificent—some are awesomely elaborate (vampires, actresses, a Vegas show star) while others are built for speedy changes—some right onstage. The fascinating wigs are masterminded by Toni Molano. Strait himself created the scenery (and he runs the lights … talk about multiple talents), and it was painted by Walter Lab. Let’s also applaud Robbie Wayne’s delightful choreography, sprinkled throughout the show with flair and wicked humor. Along with Paul Taylor as producer, Edward Monie is listed as the show’s executive producer.

How do we describe this show? Do terms like “madcap” and “over the top” convey the wackiness? Do I tell you about the audience’s gasps, spontaneous applause and belly laughs? Should we discuss the lovely “takes,” the knockout legs of the actors in drag, and the amazing shoes? Where do we begin?

Let’s start with the actors. The stars are Loren Freeman and Kam Sisco, two seasoned professionals who devour the stage like their vampire characters devour blood. Freeman’s sensational and sonorous voice, his unequalled skill with makeup, his evident relish with his costumes (a gold dress with a popcorn trim; a delicious cerise suit with giant faux pearls)—these are hallmarks of a detail-oriented and vastly talented actor. His flawless diction is a joy—he never wastes a word. His deft performance is a must-see, and acting students could learn much from him.

Sisco’s amazing legs are fantastic enough to be distracting, and the flesh-colored pantyhose in the modern-time scenes flatters him wonderfully. (Wait until you see his canary-yellow heels.) He’s an actor who is right on top of every line and gesture, and his careful attention to his craft makes these roles unforgettable. He goes through so much in this show that you will be astonished by him.

Adina Lawson is the only real girl in the cast. There are so many men in drag that it feels like the stage is completely mobbed by ladies, but there’s really only Lawson! Hmmm. She is tinier by about a foot of height than everyone else, but always spunky and terrier-alert. She plays a variety of roles with extreme body language and attitude.

Terry Huber is an actor of enormous variety, with a whole pocketful of regional and international accents and seasoned theatrical skills. Here, he weaves his skills through some really strange roles. Oh, and there’s a shock underneath one of his outfits. Brace yourself.

Richard Marlow changes so completely in his roles that we had to sneak a look at our programs to make sure the designer Sebastian Lore was really the same person later playing King Carlisle, the Hollywood actor with a complicated persona. He brings a pleasing variety to his work.

Jacob Betts is almost unrecognizable as he switches roles from Ian McKenzie to Etienne the butler to Danny the dancer, showing his chameleonic ability to fully inhabit each part.

Steven Ciceron and John Fryer give us some smaller roles (my faves were two bitchy chorus boys), but they both inhabit their many characters with the conviction that grows out of working with a great director: Strait has pulled solid performances and impressive vocal variety out of both gentlemen.

SBOC and VLOS have to be seen to appreciate this wild ride. VLOS’ strange plot is, surprisingly, beautifully and satisfyingly resolved. I won’t talk about the finale, so I don’t ruin it for you. So buckle up, and see it. You’ll love it. The outrageous title only begins the fun in this show!

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma, are performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-320-2000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and I was hopeful as I settled into my seat at the Desert Rose Playhouse on opening night of The Santaland Diaries.

I wanted to like it—and indeed, I did. However, I wish I’d liked it a little bit more.

David Sedaris first presented his essay about working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s on National Public Radio in 1992. The piece was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, and the one-man show debuted at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in November that year.

The play, which runs not quite 90 minutes with no intermission, details Sedaris’ trials and tribulations as he first interviews for—and then lands—a position at Santaland as an assistant to the big man in red. 

The elf selection process has 30-something out-of-work actor David (played by Chris Clonts) on edge: “If you can’t even find work as an elf, that’s when you KNOW you’re a failure.” Luckily, he makes it through, and chooses “Crumpet” as his elf name.

Crumpet lets us in on the daily grind of elf training, and introduces us to some of his colorful co-workers—including the Santa who never breaks character, insisting that he really does live at the North Pole. We also learn that the really bitter elves include people like former ad executives who were hit by the recession and “never saw a velvet costume in their futures.”

Life as an elf is rarely glamorous. Duties include wiping up the vomit of nervous children and trying to explain to the little ones why Mr. Claus sometimes accidentally spits on them while promising to bring shiny new toys on Christmas morning.

Then there is the sea of humanity lined up for a chance to spend a few moments with Santa: “I could not tell where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began.” Crumpet laments that dealing with difficult parents is also part of an elf’s job description—including some parents who demand a Santa of a particular race. Then there was the time a mother asked for help getting her misbehaving son under control. All she wants is for Crumpet to echo her warning that if the boy does not shape up, Santa will bring him coal for Christmas. Alas, the elf goes a bit overboard, terrifying the child by telling him Santa will actually come to his house and steal everything.

Alone on the stage for the entire play, Chris Clonts does an admirable job as David/Crumpet. One-person shows are not easy; for starters, there are no other actors onstage to save you if you forget your lines. Clonts fell victim to this early on during the opening-night performance, and stage manager Steve Fisher had to prompt him from the sound booth. First-night jitters aside, Clonts has some very nice moments, including a fabulous Billie Holiday-esque version of “Away in a Manger.”

Charisma, confidence and good pacing are vital when a single actor must carry an entire show, and I’d like to see Clonts ratchet up the latter two items just a bit. There were times when he seemed somewhat tentative—again, that may just be a case of opening-night jitters. Though the brief blackouts between vignettes, accompanied by upbeat holiday music, were effective, a couple of them felt too long.

The festive set, designed by director Jim Strait, is superb. Santa’s “throne” is dead center. Large Christmas packages wrapped in shiny red and green abound; a reindeer and columns adorned with tinsel add the perfect finishing touches. The adorably tacky elf costume created by Robbie Wayne is terrific as well. Kudos go to Phil Murphy for his lighting, and Steve Fisher for both stage direction and sound.

Strait elicits a good performance from Clonts, but I think there’s some untapped potential there. A faster pace, a slightly stronger entrance and maybe even some ad-libbing or bantering with the audience here and there would enhance the evening.

Get yourself in the holiday spirit by going to see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Santaland Diaries. It’s fun, entertaining and sometimes touching, even if the opening-night show left me wanting just a little but more.

The Santaland Diaries is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org or call 760-202-3000.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s autumn, and again, the theater season begins. How auspicious that the beginning of our fourth season of theater reviews coincides with the opening of the fifth season of plays by the fabulously successful Desert Rose Playhouse.

With all the doom-sayers proclaiming that live theater is dead, and that newspapers are dead, we have both survived.

This year, Desert Rose’s artistic director, Jim Strait, tells us that he and producer Paul Taylor are “addressing the woes of the world by doing comedy.” What a great idea! Their plans for 2016-17 include The Santaland Diaries, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom with Coma, Southern Baptist Sissies and Clark Gable Slept Here. If these crazy titles are any indication, we’re in for a LOT of fun this year at our desert’s LGBT playhouse.

The initial offering, POZ, was written by Michael Aman. It’s set in 2003 in The City (as New Yorkers proudly call it), and later on a beach in Massachussets. The play was nominated for a Carbonell Award (a theater award in Florida) last year, and this is only the third-ever production of the show. The writing is fluid and filled with echoes, and instead of being plot- or action-driven, it’s a comedy-splashed investigation into the lives and relationships of some fascinating characters.

The show’s open stage, specially designed by Thomas Valach, is painted by Walter Lab into a bright-red sky with fluffy white clouds. Red? It’s a clue. The set is minimalist, with just a curving set of stairs, one low platform and an armchair—across which the sky and clouds are also painted. Brilliantly lit by the award-winning Phil Murphy, the set is where the actors move into a variety of settings which our imaginations can flesh out. (You will particularly love how Murphy lights the waterfront scene.) Steve Fisher’s clever stage management rapidly transports us from one place to another, and the actors efficiently bus the props in and out of scenes themselves. Robbie Wayne’s costumes reflect each character’s special personality, and the casting is perfect.

And what personalities they are. Adina Lawson opens the play as Catherine, a sort-of-retired and stylish actress, neurotic and malcontent about everything from her aging to her out-of-order apartment building. Her edgy voice and superior attitude disguise the gentle and generous person hidden underneath, we realize as we get to know her and watch her interactions with others.

But … who’s that silently watching her? Turns out he’s Arthur, an angel, sweetly played by John Fryer. Ballet-trained and rehearsal-clad Arthur swirls throughout the play, strutting with the grace of a premier danseur; he eventually breaks his silence by launching into a lengthy monologue. He knows and visits all the other characters, even though they are not all are aware of his presence. (Just like the angels in our lives, perhaps.)

Edison, a 23-year-old who has been diagnosed with leukemia, is an actor/singer currently working as a waiter (of course), played by Peter Stoia. His is perhaps the most serious role, because the irony of his situation is affected by politics in every aspect of his life: In 2003, the disease was 78 percent curable, but ruinously expensive to treat. His youth and apparent inexperience provide a contrast to the other characters—but he shocks us with unexpected and disturbing cunning that we just don’t see coming.

The role of Robert, a cynical and weary 50-year-old lawyer (yes, there are a couple of good lawyer jokes), is performed by Richard Marlow. Self-consciously determined to keep up with technology and the times, he can’t help reminiscing about the Olden Days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He struggles to find an elusive relationship, yet sabotages his chances by keeping everyone at arm’s length—only partly because he is HIV-positive.

Lorraine Williamson is a breath of fresh air as Maia, a lesbian psychic. (How often do we hear those two words together?) She fills the stage with her garish, outrageous outfits and larger-than-life personality, but we can peek behind the facade to see her hidden pain. She gives us a multi-layered performance, which is especially notable in her musically voiced monologue.

Her ex-husband, Oscar, is played by Terry Huber, who has thrown caution to the winds with this performance. Here, he’s an over-the-top old-school queen who loves to dish, but who becomes suddenly vulnerable and uncertain when he struggles to resolve his relationship with his father. Huber never disappoints, and he’s delightful here, relishing his chance to deliver some of the best lines in the play. He shows us how even the most outrageous of us have to sometimes face the horrors of reality.

All these characters know each other and affect each other’s lives. The complexity builds through the play; my favorite scene is probably the one in the disco bar. (You’ll love the lighting!) The monologues are shot through with references to the life and times—what was popular on TV, what was legal and wasn’t, what was new back then, and the shock of being reminded of Sept. 11. There’s plenty about ghosts, Arthur included, and a thread of mystery running through the play. Death is always lurking, which increases the intensity of comedy through the contrast. Historically, 2003 was a different time, and it’s interesting to be jolted back to there.

The audience visibly warmed during this show. Perhaps we’d like to see a little more passion in the love story, but the characters are unforgettable, regardless. Jim Strait’s blocking is flawless—nobody knows how to use a space like he can—and the timing is excellent. The plot definitely takes a back seat to the characterizations, and the story is simply the stories of the lives of these people at this time. Are their memories the same as ours? It’s an interesting reality check; after all, we are never aware of change while it’s happening.

The year 2003 feels like a long time ago … that is, it did until I saw this play.

Poz is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Sold out!

A wall-to-wall audience surged into the Desert Rose Playhouse for the LGBT theater company’s summer show: David Dillon’s Party. The play was originally created in 1992 in response to the heavy hearts of that time, weighed down by the stigma of being gay, plus the fear and loss created by the AIDS epidemic.

When it opened in Chicago, producers anticipated a run of several weeks—but it ran for two years! Next, it went to New York—specifically, off-Broadway—where it flourished before going worldwide. And now, it’s onstage in Rancho Mirage.

The timing could not be better: Opening night came 12 days after the Orlando shooting. With our hearts still aching and our tears not yet dry after the horrors at Pulse, Party takes us to a carefree evening where seven gay friends congregate. Is there anything more healing than laughter? This show gives us belly laughs, chortles, whoops, cackles, hoo-haws and snickers. The capacity audience roared and applauded freely throughout, then rose to a standing ovation for the artistry of the cast and crew. You must not miss Party … because this is how we all heal.

The one-act, 105-minute play (no intermission) is set in the cramped Manhattan apartment of Kevin. As his guests arrive, the introductions teach us faces and names—which could be daunting if the clever casting didn’t honor the wildly diverse characters with whom we will spend the evening. All are single. Light conversation fills us in regarding professions and some backgrounds. Former relationships are touched upon. (All you really need to remember is that one of them … is a priest!)

The show is produced by Paul Taylor, and Jim Strait directs. If you think blocking seven characters isn’t a task, just watch the movement on this stage. But Strait has also carefully mined each role to bring out the personality differences, and the result is a study in psychology. Steve Fisher masterminds the technical world of sound and the cues of Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting.

So let’s start the party. Kevin, the host, is a complex role brought to life by actor John Fryer. In his sleeveless shirt, Kevin weaves his story through the evening in scraps. We come to realize that he is still emotionally raw from the end of a very long-term relationship, though he never asks for pity from his friends … or from us.

Boldly dressed in black and red, his talky friend Ray is the priest, played by Kam Sisco. He grabs most of the laughs, including some uproarious ones about church life. Sisco’s bigger-than-life personality is ideal for portraying an older authority figure … but one who lives to let his hair down and “dish.”

Next is the arrival of Phillip, the creation of actor Jason Hull. This unforgettable young man with his lean body and sculptured face looks intense even while at rest. (Great profile!) His stage character seems to blend effortlessly with his real self, and his combination of laid-back and high energy is a fascinating mix.

Brian, played by Allan Jensen, is convincing as a type we know well: the skilled and talented individual whose life is the arts. Jensen romps through his demanding role with obvious pleasure—and what fun it is to see an actor relaxing into his role so completely … even when performing a strip tease.

Strip tease? Did I forget to mention the nudity? Well, take a look at the poster: Yes, these guys all eventually wind up in their pelts. I’ll explain later.

Miguel Arballo plays Peter, a beer-swiller whose personality blends the watchful and thoughtful with a tinge of the dangerous. He appears to be complete and self-satisfied—but then panics at the thought of taking off his clothes in front of a group of men, even if they’re friends.

James is marvelously played by Robbie Wayne. He swaggers in as the butchy, leather-vested, tattoed type. But then he smiles—and he lights up the stage and our hearts. That million-watt mega-grin transforms his handsome face over and over.

Jacob Betts portrays Andy, a youthful and nerdy newcomer whose role contains the greatest arc of all. We watch in astonishment as this young man sheds his shell as he peels off his clothes. As the evening progresses, he becomes another person, in a commanding and impressive performance.

Yes, the cast is filled with accomplished actors, and directed by Jim Strait, each produces a beautifully subtle and shaded portrayal of his character.

Here’s the idea of Party: The boys have gathered to spend an evening in a safe place where they can just be themselves. Someone brings along a game, a version of “Truth or Dare,” here called “Fact, Fiction or Fantasy.” So that’s how the clothes come off, as they win or lose at each turn, while we learn more about each one’s life. We gain insight as they describe an incident in their past or act out a challenge. It builds into an amazing and gleeful final scene which you will love.

You don’t have to be gay to enjoy this show (although it’d help; the script is sprinkled with underground vocabulary and references to preferences). The humor is universal, and that’s the most important takeaway. It’s a simple plot, and the show is devoid of any real action, which makes it perfect for this intimate stage.

It’s the laughter, that wonderful laughter with so many levels, which unites us all in the joy of life and the appreciation of our differences. This is an extraordinary show that offers a most important gift: Help for us all to heal.

Party is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30-$33, and the show runs one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

When the opening of a play is postponed a week, apparently because the cast is not quite ready, it tends to make reviewers a bit nervous.

What if the cast is still not ready? What if the show’s just a bomb?

Thankfully, my worries about the world premiere of Junk at the Desert Rose Playhouse were unfounded: Other than a few opening night jitters, it was quite an enjoyable production.

The musical is based on the real-life experience of writer/composer Michael Penny. While helping clean out a dead man’s home, two friends find the place chock-full of porn and other indications of the late resident’s loneliness and quirks.

So begins the plot of Junk. Two gay men—60ish Miss Lily (Jim Strait) and his “student,” 35-year-old Chris (Robbie Wayne)—arrive to dispose of the contents of a recently deceased man’s North Carolina cottage. The dearly departed has left behind a huge collection of homosexual porn, piles of cigarette butts, and an unmistakable aura of isolation and melancholy.

While sorting through the mess, Miss Lily and Chris explore the different ways in which they have experienced life as gay men. They bicker and snipe at one another; they laugh and cry; they commiserate; and ultimately, they strengthen the bond of their 20-year-old friendship.

The aforementioned opening-night jitters occurred very early on, as the pair launched into the first musical number, “A Man Needs a Hobby.” The actors seemed a tad uncertain as to where to come in, and slightly tentative with the first few lyrics—but they hit their stride quickly. Both Strait and Wayne have nice singing voices (particularly the latter), although there were a few occasions (especially on the very low notes) when they were difficult to hear. More vocal projection was also needed once or twice during spoken lines while accompanist/musical director Joel Baker was providing lovely background music. The versatile Baker, who tickles the ivories all over the desert, is fabulous, as always.

The word “intimate” kept popping into my mind throughout the evening. The Desert Rose Playhouse is an intimate theater; Junk is an intimate play; and the two actors and director Steve Fisher successfully create a warm, intimate world onstage.

Some of the musical numbers are quite memorable, including Chris’ touching musings about his mother, “She Loves Me” and the hilarious duet “She Believes in Bran.”

One of the big debates between the two men is whether or not prospective lovers should remove their pubic hair. Chris votes yes, in the risqué “I Like ’Em Smooth,” while Miss Lily equates the clean-shaven to “those cats who are bred to have no fuzz—it’s creepy!”

Aging—particularly the inevitability of losing one’s looks and sex appeal—is one of the show’s major themes. On the subject of turning 50, Miss Lily says, “You’re no longer a butterfly, but a gross, stinking wasp that no one wants to be with.” Though to a certain degree, Miss Lily has resigned himself to the fact he’s no longer a young stud, he does fondly remember his past sexual conquests. He brags about how gorgeous he was back then, and makes comparisons to what he considers Chris’ inadequacies in that department: “I wonder what’s going to happen when YOUR small store of looks runs out and no one wants you any more?”

Chris quickly fires back: “And what’s that like, Miss Lily?”

Both Strait and Wayne deliver strong, nuanced performances. Their chemistry is terrific. We really believe these two have been friends and “student-teacher” for a couple of decades. Always charismatic onstage, Strait does not disappoint here. His Miss Lily is witty, acerbic, hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking. One of Strait’s best moments is his rhapsodic description of seeing the movie The Sound of Music at age 9. It is priceless.

Wayne, whose work I had not seen before, is tremendous. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as his struts around the stage. He’s a triple threat: a strong actor, singer and dancer. (He created the show’s fun choreography as well.) His “I Hate Musicals” is one of the evening’s highlights.

The play’s double-entendre title, Junk, could of course refer to either the jumble of possessions the late homeowner has left behind, or a man’s genitals (which are often discussed throughout the show). While Desert Rose often pushes the envelope, and Junk does not shy away from the subject of gay sex, its themes are universal. We all, regardless of our sexual orientation, grow old, lose our sexual attractiveness and need to face our own mortality. Strait’s moving rendition of the closing song, “No One Wants to Leave the Party,” drives that home.

Desert Rose’s resident stage manager Steve Fisher once again proves his talent as a director. Phil Murphy’s lights and Thomas L. Valach’s set are spot-on.

Junk was worth waiting an extra week to see. It’s a memorable experience I would encourage all valley theater-goers to try.

Junk is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

So the name of the play is Cock.

All right, settle down. Even though the show takes place at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater, the name does not mean what you’re thinking. Think cock FIGHT. Like, roosters. OK?

Included in the printed program is an actual fight card, listing the adversaries in each round. The setting is the next surprise: The audience sits around a square ring, inspired by the illegal sport, and the actors represent their chicken counterparts. Frankly, it’s the best seating arrangement I have seen at the Desert Rose: Everyone is so close to the action, and the raked back rows are on risers so we all can see perfectly. It’s great! Not all plays lend themselves to this format, but we hope that clever producer Paul Taylor will use this style again when possible.

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play opened last weekend, and will be performed for four more weekends at the Rancho Mirage playhouse. Lighting director Phil Murphy has brilliantly lit this stark set. Stage manager Steve Fisher rings a bell between rounds, as in boxing. (Sorry … I have no idea whether there are bells in actual cockfights.)

Theater in the round brings with it a true challenge for a director, because in this format, the actors are always facing away from some of the audience, while facing others, so they must change position frequently. But here the actors can face each other, like real people talking! This almost never happens on a proscenium stage where actors “cheat forward” to present their faces to the audience. Thank heaven for the excellent natural acoustics of the Desert Rose, as the intimate size (usually 83 seats, but 65 in this style) helps us hear everything. Theater in the round can fail horribly in too large of a room, where the actors’ voices vanish because they seem to be always facing away from you, or in a room with a ceiling that’s too high, where the sound drifts up, up and away from your straining ears. A modified three-quarters circle format is frequently the compromise; think classic Shakespeare. Here, director Jim Strait has brilliantly choreographed the actors’ movements, with the seduction scene being the model example of this theatrical style.

If you expect that this rumble just involves two guys squaring off, think again: It’s a cast of four, each with an agenda to defend. John, played by Stephen McMillen, has been in a long-term relationship with “M,” acted by Robert Rancano. They break up, and John “accidentally” falls in love with a straight girl, “W” (Phylicia Mason; we guess that the letters stand for “Man” and “Woman”). Of course, there is much angst all around when John goes back to M. Then M and W both agree to wait for John’s decision: With whom will he live? M’s father, “F,” (for “Father,” right?) gets to act as referee, so we meet Terry Huber at a dinner party given to sort things out.

So is John gay … or straight? Hmmm? What will he decide?

By the way, we have to slap a “mature” rating on this show due to “frank” (a term I love) sexual language. We’re so PC! But truly, this show not for anyone easily offended, as the playwright clearly wants us to be shocked.

The set consists of just two lavender hassocks on which to sit. There are no props—no cutlery, china, wine glasses or even a dinner table. There are no costumes, except what the actors are wearing, and no scenery. And get this: The actors don’t even mime their eating/drinking/taking coats off. So, no distractions! The author’s words are all that matter.

And the words! There are British accents all around. The writing is a cross between free-verse poetry and real life, where sentences are only partially spoken and often unfinished. Strait’s artful direction all but eliminates pauses between speeches, and the tension rises or falls with the speed, pitch and volume of the actors’ voices. It’s a masterful demo of acting technique.

At the show we attended, the actors were rewarded with pin-drop attention, as the audience is so physically close to the actors that every flicker of an eyelash contains significance. Our attention is riveted.

McMillen, the quintessential beautiful blond boy, dithers and stews and not only seems incapable of making decisions, but has never even figured out who or what he is. Youth! So he is frozen, overthinking everything. He makes us want to either smack him into action, or hug him in sympathy.

Rancano, dark-haired and fashionably unshaven, with flawless skin, is like pepper to McMillen’s salt. More mature and powerful, but attempting to hide his sensitivity, he shows a confidence that comes with age while trying to cover his fragile feelings. His performance hits just the right note.

Mason lights up the world with her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. She struts a perfect figure that will make everyone in the audience silently swear to go on a diet and get back to the gym. Great legs, toned body, amazing hair, sweet face—she has it all. Her character is complex, and she knows how to show it. Now if she could only do something about those black bra straps showing at the back of that terrific coral dress … .

Terry Huber, perhaps the busiest actor in the valley this season, has a face you just never get tired of watching. The shades of meaning he can express are uncountable, and as a gifted actor with a pocketful of regional accents from which to choose, his choice of this British one is pitch-perfect. His second-act role here is too small—we always want to see more of him.

The concept of fowl fisticuffs is wonderful; the casting is perfect; the direction is genius; the script is astonishing; and the actors’ energies are beautifully balanced. Obviously I’m not going to give away the ultimate decision or reveal who is left standing at the final bell.

You’ll have to go to the next match yourself.

Cock is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 10; there is no show on Easter Sunday, March 27. The shows take place at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season with A Queer Carol, billed as the first gay version of Charles Dickens’ classic story; it premiered in New York in 2001.

I really wanted to like this show. Given the excellent quality of previous productions I’ve seen at Desert Rose, I expected to like it. Sadly, it was a little like anticipating a stocking full of Christmas goodies and instead finding an empty sock.

The story here is set in modern day New York, where Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (Steve Fisher) is a Manhattan interior designer who makes life miserable for his loyal right-hand man, Bob Cratchit (David Brooks). Scrooge barks and snaps at Cratchit, pays him a meager salary and refuses to provide him with health insurance. The lack of insurance is especially problematic, since Tiny Tim here is an adult—Cratchit’s HIV-positive partner.

It is Christmas Eve, and as Scrooge does his best to put a damper on everyone’s holiday spirit, fabric-salesman Fred (Jayson Kraid) stops by to invite Ben to his annual Christmas party. Also paying a call to the shop is charity-worker (Terry Huber), looking for a donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. True to form, Scrooge declines to give, because there are already hospices and shelters to handle the problem. And if those infected should die, then “let them do it and decrease the surplus population.”

We also learn that Scrooge’s former business partner, the late Jacob “Jake” Marley (Aaron Zontek), was his ex-lover. As Scrooge’s night of terror and forced self-examination begins, the ghost of Marley appears in full S&M regalia—leather, chains and a bare tuckus.

This Scrooge has a lot more emotional baggage than Dickens’ version. In a flashback, we see young Ben’s father express rage and disgust that his son is turning into “a goddamn fairy.” The boy then suffers homophobic taunting when he’s shipped off to boarding school. At age 21, Ben meets Jake Markowitz (he later changes his name to Marley for business purposes) at a Christmas party, and the two become lovers. The relationship is problematic, because Jake can’t bring himself to say “I love you,” and Ben is conflicted about his homosexuality. After the pair take over Fezziwig’s Fabrics, Ben concentrates on making money, while Jake’s promiscuity results in him contracting the HIV virus.

In Desert Rose’s production, things start to pick up when The Ghost of Christmas Past (Cat Lyn Day) shows up in the form of Marilyn Monroe. As she guides Scrooge through the review of his life, references to the blonde bombshell’s movies abound. (“Every seven years, I get this itch.”) Day delivers a strong performance. She is flirty, vampy and fun to watch.

But the true high point of the evening is the entrance of The Ghost of Christmas Present (Loren Freeman), who shows up as an outrageous drag queen. She gives Ben a glimpse of the private world of Bob Cratchit and Tim, where money is scarce, but love is abundant. Dressed like a sparkling Christmas tree in boots—with red and green fringe, and tree ornaments for earrings—Freeman lights up the stage with camp and energy. We never want him to leave.

Fisher is well-cast as the world-weary, bitter Scrooge. He’s just the right age and has the proper physical type; his gruff, cold demeanor rings true. He’s most effective in the later scenes, when the Ghost of Christmas Future terrifies him with what might be if he does not change his ways.

Zontek (Jake Marley, Blake) comes across as a bit stiff and tentative throughout much of the show. With more passion and commitment, his Marley could be a tour de force.

David Brooks’ Cratchit is appropriately endearing and likable; we are rooting for him and Tim to prevail in the end. Alex Enriquez does a decent job as Young Scrooge and Tim, but as with much of the cast, he sometimes seems to hold back—we want more from him.

Always a pro, V.J. Hume (a frequent Independent contributor) handles multiple roles (Scrooge’s Mother, Jean, Nurse, Maria), and she handles them pretty well. Pulling off more than one role in a play is not easy. Hume and Day both succeed—although there were times when their accents (Russian and Latina) seemed inconsistent.

Kraid (Fred, Fezziwig, Pytor) and Huber (Nick, Scrooge’s Father, Noel, Fence) are pleasant enough, but could both use an infusion of energy.

The multiple sets functioned fairly well, although the blocking seemed awkward at times. Phil Murphy’s lighting was quite effective. Kudos to Allan H. Jensen for costumes and wigs.

Alas, there are several problems with this production. The script could use some tweaks; there’s a distinct a lack of energy from much of the cast, as well as slow pacing here and there, and some fumbling with lines (which could have been opening-night jitters).

Jim Strait is normally a strong director, as evidenced by his long list of excellent productions at Desert Rose. I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps another week of work and some coaching from Freeman on stage presence would help.

Desert Rose Playhouse has brought some fabulous theater to the valley. Here’s hoping the show improves throughout the run.

A Queer Carol is being performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to 33, and the running time is about 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Page 1 of 3