CVIndependent

Thu04092020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

What can you say about a Terrence McNally play? You know before you enter the theater that he’s waiting to spring a surprise on you. But truthfully … this time, I didn’t think it would happen.

The story is about “two middle-aged ladies who travel to India.” OK … that doesn’t sound very exciting. But then again, I have friends who travelled to India and were so traumatized by the experience that they still can’t talk about what happened to them there. So was this play going to be about something like tourist muggings or pickpockets? Not everybody’s cup of oolong!

I got to Coachella Valley Repertory early for the Wednesday preview (the folks there graciously agreed to let us review the first preview show so we could get this piece into the February print edition); I wanted to study the program. Inserted between the pages was a drawing of Ganesh or Ganesha (either is acceptable—I looked it up) with a microscopic-print explanation of the “symbolism of Ganesha.” It’s worth reading; it describes everything from his trident to his fruit basket to his busted tusk. During this preshow, the audience is treated to an endless earful of sitar music, which will either completely jangle your nerves or transport you off to imaginary India.

The set is basic East Indian. The characters are transported from one venue to another by portaging bits and props that symbolically change the locales between scenes. The lights come up on the Elephant God Ganesha himself, half-naked and wearing an elaborate elephant head … which, alas, creates a muffling effect. The actor, Mueen Jahan, enunciates carefully and speaks as loudly and clearly as he can, but the trunk cuts his vocal projection drastically, and imparts a hollow sound. It’s a conundrum: How do you design a mask of an elephant, trunk and all, but not cover the mouth of the actor behind it? This problem resonated through the whole play, as the actor switched from role to role, wearing the elephant mask throughout. It brings us to a question for our brave director, Ron Celona: Did Jahan need to continue wearing the mask even when he wasn’t playing Ganesh? If playwright McNally demanded it, then Celona’s off the hook. Otherwise, couldn’t Jahan remove the mask while playing those other parts, as well as changing his costume, dialect and vocal quality, as he does?

Sean Galuszka plays so many roles that we lost count. We see him switch effortlessly from a gay flight attendant to an Untouchable Indian beggar to a Dutch tourist to a blood-spattered accident victim/ghost to a suave ballroom dancer, and on and on. He owns each role beautifully, and gets to show off his repertoire of voices, accents and looks. This is a superb opportunity for any actor to strut his stuff, and Galuszka, the only non-Equity cast member, gobbles it up; it’s delightful to see the actor’s craft on display.

Then we meet the ladies. Margaret, with her amazing red hair and fine features, is played by Sharon Sharth. She appears at the airport at the beginning of the show, snarking and whining and trying to assert herself. We get to watch her grow in this play (playwrights call it “arc,” the loveliest word) as she reveals bits and pieces of her past, and we slowly begin to understand the backstories that made her the way she is—but she starts out as a control freak and your textbook American tourist from hell. Why?

Katherine, or Kitty, is played by Kathleen M. Darcy, a gentle brunette. She brings too much luggage, tries to ingratiate herself in India by using her few words of Spanish (implying that all foreign countries are basically just one Non-United States), and generally drives Margaret crazy. Yet she is the one who eventually launches the quest for “the perfect Ganesh,” and as we learn about the other side of her seemingly golden life, we grow in respect and sympathy for her. Arc, here, too.

The crucially important thing to remember is this: A Perfect Ganesh is set in 1992. Think about it. Where were you; what were you doing; what was happening then? That’s the whole key to this play. It was pre-political correctness, so it was open-season on minorities in some places. AIDS was stalking us. Life was dangerously different. That’s how McNally gets us: The shock of the contrast to today’s life.

Oh, sure, there are laughs in the script—McNally loves to be downright silly sometimes—but the universal themes that emerge are the real stars of this work. Meanwhile, the actors are so hard-working! These lines are bears. The writing is very cerebral, and the audiences will respond to the ideas rather than the emotion. Don’t look for a lot of action, if that’s your cup of Darjeeling.

On this preview night, there were stumbles; for example, a phone rang after being picked up, and a picture came down, but that’ll be instantly fixed by the time the show emerges from previews.

Once again, Terrence McNally sets out to surprise us, to make us remember, to think. That is the real reason for the play, whether or not that’s your cup of chai.

And, as always, he succeeds, as does CV Rep.

A Perfect Ganesh is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9; at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. $40 regular; $35 preview on Thursday, Jan. 23; $50 opening night on Friday, Jan. 24. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, this season is all about tolerance.

“We live in a society that isn’t tolerant,” says Ron Celona, the CV Rep artistic director and the director of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, which opens Wednesday, Jan. 22, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 10.

That intolerance (undeniably a bad thing), combined with the increasing diversity in our not-so-little-anymore community (undeniably a good thing), led CV Rep to make tolerance the theme for the three adult plays (plus one children’s show) the company is presenting this season.

And how does Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks—a comedy by Richard Alfieri focusing on the widow of Southern Baptist minister and her gay dance teacher—fit into that theme?

“It brings up issues in the community that need to be addressed,” Celona says. “(The play) sort of pushes the tolerance of both of the characters.”

The woman, Lily Harrison (played by Bobbi Stamm), grew up in the South and has conservative, biblically rooted beliefs. The man, Michael Minetti (Sean Galuszka), came to Florida from New York City to take care of his mother; she has since died, and Michael feels stuck in Florida, an aging gay man trying to find his place in the world.

“They both have preconceived judgments about each other,” Celona says.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks had a brief—four weeks, to be exact—stint on Broadway in 2003, with Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill in the lead roles. Six Dance Lessons has since been performed on stages large and small around the world.

Celona says the play was appealing to him because it’s a comedy that addresses tolerance, and was a nice fit in between CV Rep’s other two plays this season, both of which are more dramatic: Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, which was onstage in October and November, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, which opens in March.

In fact, the tension between Six Dance Lessons’ more dramatic elements and its comedic parts led to one of the biggest challenges for Celona as a director, he says.

“It was extra tricky to work around the very dramatic parts of the play, and to keep it a comedy,” says Celona, who had not seen a live version of the play before. “If I was not careful to choreograph and maneuver (through the more dramatic parts), it could have become a drama. We have to remind ourselves this is a comedy.”

He praised both of the actors for dedicating themselves so fully to the roles. Galuszka has been in a number of TV shows and films, including a large role in recent indie film Crossroad. Stamm has a background as a nightclub singer/comedian, with various stage and screen roles to her credit.

“When you have actors who are so committed to a role and the growth of a new company, it’s just so appreciated,” Celona says.

CV Rep is indeed one of the valley’s newer theatrical organizations, in its second year in its home at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, Celona says. Celona, of course, thinks the future of CV Rep in the ever-diversifying Coachella Valley is bright.

“The time has come for a professional regional theater, where thriving, working artists can perform,” Celona says.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks takes place at 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10. Tickets are $40. The Coachella Valley Repertory theater is located at The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For tickets or more information, call 296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance