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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

To be perfectly honest, I dreaded seeing The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has earned a sparkling reputation for its work … and then founding artistic director Ron Celona chooses to do an Edward Albee play? High risk!

Playwright Albee, of course, is best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he’s one of the premier names of Theatre of the Absurd. This began as a post-World War II movement, evolving out of the existentialist philosophy of the time. It grew on both sides of the Atlantic; the horrors of the war left people questioning the meaning of life and the purpose of their existence, which left them feeling futile and depressed. Interestingly, the term “theatre of the absurd” was coined by a theater critic named Martin Esslin. See? We’re not so bad.

So here is the absurd in this play: We meet Martin—not the critic; this is Martin Gray, flawlessly acted by Sean Smith—who seems to be a success in every area of his life. He’s an award-winning architect, healthy and in his prime, with a lovely wife and a nice, gay, teenage son rounding out the happy home front. The set (another terrific Jimmy Cuomo creation) reflects some of the minimalist style so loved by those in the world of design: Nice home. Nice life. But then he confides to his best friend—TV host/producer Ross Tuttle, played by the brilliant Arthur Hanket—that he is in love with … a goat! Really?

Well, imagine that this happened in your family. How would everyone respond? And that’s the essence of the Theatre of the Absurd: What would be the most unimaginable thing that could ever happen to you? And then it happens.

Ross reacts. Martin’s wife, Stevie, played by fascinating actress Sharon Sharth, reacts on several levels. Their son Billy, thoughtfully played by Ian M. White, is a teenager at an all-boys school, and he reacts. Gradually, we begin to lose hope that this is all a joke.

It would be impossible to overstate the quality of this cast. They are so learned in their craft, and perfectly chosen for their roles, that it is a pure pleasure to watch them move, listen to their exemplary clarity of their diction, revel in their magical and ever-changing faces, and feel them weave their spells through their masterful skills.

Guest director Joanne Gordon clearly had her hands full with this play, but working with such talented actors had to make this experience immensely satisfying. She has beautifully fine-tuned the electricity between the characters, and subtly ramped up the growing tension of the play to a climax that leaves her theatergoers stunned. The play delivers one sucker-punch after another, and the audience can only sit there, helplessly astonished.

Albee’s writing is genius, particularly with the dialogue, in which he cleverly captures the half-sentences and non-sequiturs that pepper our own conversations. We learn about the quality of intimacy in their relationships when we see the characters finish each other’s sentences. The verbal swordplay between husband and wife is delightful, intellectual and refreshing. The script must be peculiar to be read silently, but in the hands of these gifted interpreters of his work, it feels familiar, natural and realistic. There are some good solid laughs, some appreciative chuckles for the cleverness, and also some guffaws born out of shock … and there are tears. We see plenty of blame dished out, and rationalization, and confusion, and a real redheaded temper tantrum.

And there’s the Albee statement in the play that sums up the philosophy of the Theatre of the Absurd: “Nothing has anything to do with anything.”

The Goat offers moments that will live in the memory forever. One of the actors, face bare of makeup, flushes red before our eyes when freaked out—something usually only found in close-ups in the movies, and rarely even then. There are screams that would strip the vocal cords of us ordinary mortals. We sit humbly at ringside, being allowed to watch life-changing events take place before us. The audience rewarded this one-act work with silent and spellbound attention—it seemed like not a throat was cleared the entire time.

Hats off to the CV Rep team members—and, of course, to Ron Celona (celebrating his birthday, yay!), whose company has finally acquired a new home for the Coachella Valley Repertory Company: The former IMAX theater in Cathedral City has been secured for their expanded future. (When he started the fundraising, I said to him, “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to raise this much money!” He replied, “Me too.”) How wonderful to see a dream come true! It’s productions with the stellar quality of this one which have made this award-winning theater such a success.

From this theater experience, we learn that the only difference between Absurd and your life … is for it to happen. Think of the most surprising and unpredictable thing that ever happened to you in your life. Imagine that a goat …

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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