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Coyote StageWorks is starting its 11th season with a terrific production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Founding artistic director Chuck Yates and his production team are thrilled to have found a new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres). The venue is a great fit, providing a cozier, more-intimate experience for the audience, as well as a lovely upstairs bar and lounge for after-show relaxation.

Yates’ choice of A Doll’s House, Part 2, as the season opener was a wise move. The story is set 15 years after Norwegian wife Nora Helmer walks out of her stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. She has now returned, perhaps partly to soothe old emotional wounds, but she’s also on a personal mission: Now a successful writer of books urging other women to liberate themselves, Nora (Robin McAlpine) needs the help of Torvald (Don Amendolia), the husband she left behind. It turns out a judge has discovered she is still married to Torvald and is blackmailing her. Unless Torvald files the divorce papers (which he promised to do when Nora first left), she could lose her both her fortune and her professional reputation.

Also in the mix are the nanny and housekeeper, Anne Marie (Barbara Gruen), and Nora’s now-adult daughter, Emmy (Lizzie Schmelling).

The performances are first-rate across the board. McAlpine is excellent in the pivotal role of Nora. Full of confidence and bravado now that she has found creative and financial success as an author, Nora is a totally different person than she was when she departed 15 years earlier. McAlpine makes Nora’s sense of accomplishment and her twinges of guilt over putting herself first—at a time when most women did not do so—feel quite real.

As Torvald, Amendolia is fabulous. The wound from Nora’s leaving him is so deep that he can’t even look at her upon her return. His anger and pain are raw: “I loved you and you threw it way!” he bellows.

Schmelling’s performance as Emmy is riveting. Quietly seething with fury at the woman who abandoned her as a young child, Emmy has built up a wall around her heart—and has no intention of letting her mother in. After learning of her daughter’s engagement, Nora warns her of the perils of marriage. Emmy counters, “I WANT to be held and possessed.”

Equally as good is Gruen as nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie. Much of the burden of keeping the family together and sane after Nora walked out fell on her. Listening to Nora rattle on about her glamorous life, filled with lovers and book deals, becomes too much for Anne Marie: “You should say thank you for raising your kids!”

Kudos to Yates for great casting, and for masterfully guiding his ensemble through the story.

Thomas Valach’s set is perfect. After moving into their new home, Yates and company took out two front rows of seats, and knocked out a back wall in one of the movie theaters to accommodate dressing rooms. It makes for a wonderful, intimate theater experience.

Frank Cazares’ costumes are spot on, and the lighting and modern music scattered throughout the show are a nice touch. The juxtaposition of period costumes with modern-day props and language works well here, as when Anne Marie enters in a long dress, apron and snood … while wielding a Dustbuster. The smattering of profanity is also effective. When, during a tense argument with his estranged wife, Torvald blurts out, “Fuck you, Nora!” it seems at first jarring, but then wholly appropriate.

As with all theatrical productions, the story affects each viewer differently. One older man told me he did not like the Nora character; she reminded him of Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, a woman who coldly abandoned her family and then had the gall to return. As a woman who was once married to a controlling, overbearing man who was threatened by my longing for liberation and creative fulfillment, I had a contradictory viewpoint: The deep frustration and soul pain of being with a partner who refuses to allow you to become the person you were meant to be is excruciating. I suspect many women will see themselves in Nora. Though things have changed a great deal since 1879, females in our society still struggle daily for equality and respect.

I totally understood Nora’s desire to flee a stifling marriage, but the issue of the children is more complicated. Does personal fulfillment always come first, even if you hurt others deeply in the process? How long and how hard should one “work at” a troubled marriage?

These are the big questions audience members will be wrestling with long after they see A Doll’s House, Part 2. Isn’t that what good theater is all about?

Congrats, Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates on your new home and a superb season-opening production. Bravo!

A Doll’s House, Part 2, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at various times Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $50; tickets to the Valentine’s Day show with a champagne reception afterward are $75. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-318-0024, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Until now, I was always haunted by the line about “first-nighting” in that song “Autumn in New York.” But after seeing Coyote StageWorks’ newest show at the lovely Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs, The Understudy, I think we’ve got New York beat: Mix a gorgeous mellow fall evening, a packed house of enthusiastic theater-goers, the presentation of a citation celebrating the achievements of Coyote Stageworks from city of Palm Springs, and the excitement of opening night for a new play … can it get better than this?

The Understudy is the 10th-season-opener for Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director. The company has garnered more than 80 Desert Theatre League Awards—and if that’s not success, what is? Alas, not everyone goes to the theater—a pity, because no electronic experience can duplicate the thrill of live theater. When a show is a success, there is an electricity in the audience … and you will never feel that sitting in front of your TV or movie screen. If you have never gone to the theater, and would like to try it, The Understudy is a perfect place to start.

Of course, not everyone has been in a play, either—and this show will let you peek into the process of building a scene and a character, and the relationships and tensions among the actors. For those at the other end of that spectrum, it’s a wonderful luxury to watch others navigate the changing (and sometimes shark-infested) waters of a rehearsal.

So here’s the play: Harry (David Youse) arrives at a theater to understudy a role in an ongoing show … by Franz Kafka. Oh, stop groaning. We get to see snippets from the play as the actors work, but it’s not enough to make you Kafka-crazy. The ugly bare stage on which they begin their work slowly comes to life—and what a fabulous set Thomas Valach has designed here. Moira Wilke Whitaker’s lighting is just fantastic, and the two work together beautifully as the play unfolds.

Harry arrives to rehearse with Jake (Alex Best), a successful but minor action-movie star who is desperate to establish himself as a real and serious Actor by appearing in this play. The two men vie for alpha-dog rights immediately. The stage director, who is running the rehearsal, is Roxanne (Robin McAlpine), a feisty middle-aged former actress. Two characters we hear about but never see are Bruce, who has the lead role in this show and is a big-name movie star whose celebrity sucks in huge crowds nightly; and Laura, the evidently totally stoned lighting and sound tech up in the booth.

The Understudy is written by Theresa Rebeck, who has been showered with awards, teaches writing at Brandeis and Columbia, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Laughs abound in this comedy—on many levels. There is truly something for everyone’s sense of humor in this script, and your involvement with these very believable characters will grow as you giggle. The first-night audience roared and applauded with gusto throughout. The writing contains a magnificent arc, as the relationships among these characters grow and change.

The acting is simply superb. Yates’ always-formidable directing includes flawless blocking, which always balances the stage beautifully, and he moves his actors with perfect motivation—so that we never see it happen. The characters wear slightly grungy rehearsal garb, thanks to costumer Frank Cazares, but it adds to the realism. These actors show us their “acting,” as they have been schooled, in the play—with suddenly heightened voice projection, new and different posture, and exquisite diction … and then they break character to discuss what they are doing—while still, of course, acting for us! It’s wonderful. These skilled players augment the script with some marvelous touches, such as Jake’s constant filling of any spare time by dropping to the floor to do breathtaking push-ups; Harry’s layered and infinitely subtle facial expressions; and Roxanne’s spellbinding hand gestures. Bravo!

The play delves into some nearly-untouchable topics, such as: Are actors crazy? Who is really responsible for a play’s success or failure? What is the “biz” in Showbiz; is salary a true measure of an actor’s worth? The show flirts with personal and professional jealousies, every actor’s constant nagging worry about the future and the next job, and concern about how much of one’s success is due to one’s “contacts,” while how much is about their own real talent? Agreed, much of this applies to many other professions, but it all seems magnified in the theater.

Youse is a veteran actor, producer and director in his own right, and he brings a wealth of experience to his role as Harry. His complex character, who puzzles us a bit at first, grows to reveal a smart but unlucky aging thespian who hides his insecurities and personal flaws behind the roles he plays.

Best, a shining young tiger who works in stage, film, TV and commercials, shows us Jake, a creature of necessary vanity, who never stops fussing with his cell phone (“It’s my agent!”) or his obsession with the physical fitness demanded by action films—though he only flashes his rock-hard abs briefly. (Don’t blink.) He is unexpectedly likable, and is we grow fond of him as we see that even he can experience ups and downs in both his career and his personal life.

McAlpine, herself a successful Shakespearean actress, has created a fascinating character in Roxanne. We are initially impressed by her efficiency and her command of the frustrating and challenging job as stage manager. Murphy’s Law rules, however, and everything possible goes hilariously wrong. But as we get to know her, she reveals her self-doubts and her pain-filled past. I couldn’t take my eyes off her hands, which she brilliantly uses to tell us everything.

You will love this play, whatever level of theatrical experience you bring to it. In fact, I’m hoping you will gather up your friends and neighbors to visit this production, as Chuck Yates has created an ingenious 2-for-1 price for those who bring used ticket stubs to the box office. Take advantage of it! Enjoy!

The Understudy, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance