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After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

How far should spousal loyalty go when your mate’s creative expression causes you emotional pain? When does a risqué hobby become deviancy—and who decides what’s deviant, anyway?

These are the questions examined in Dezart Performs’ production of Casa Valentina. Harvey Fierstein’s provocative play earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best New Play, in 2014. The time in Casa Valentina is 1962—a more innocent yet much less tolerant era. A group of professional heterosexual men gather at a bungalow in the Catskills to relax and blow off steam. They eat, drink, dance and laugh—all while dressed as women.

This haven for transvestites really existed, at a resort called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th-century cross-dresser. The story was revealed when antiques dealer Robert Swopes stumbled across a box of pictures at a Manhattan flea market. Each photo captured these men in all their feminine glory: Bewigged and clad in dresses, heels and pearls, group members were shown doing mundane things like sipping coffee and playing cards. Intrigued, Swopes purchased the photos and put them together in a book called Café Susanna in 2005.

In the play, the establishment (here called “Casa Valentina”) is run by George (aka Valentina), played by Scott Smith, and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Tammy Hubler). As the show opens, they are preparing for yet another weekend of hosting men who relax by taking on their female personas for a few days. The couple is anticipating the arrival of a new guest, Jonathan (Cameron Shingler), also known as Miranda.

The strong bond between Rita and George is apparent. They banter back and forth while she lovingly pins on his wig cap as he begins his transformation into Valentina. It’s clear that Rita long ago accepted her husband’s predilection, and adores him in spite of it. “There’s no secret to being popular with men … just never say no,” she says. Smith is excellent as Valentina. You can feel both his devotion to Rita and his compulsion to express his feminine side.

Soon we meet Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Norman), resplendent in an over-sized housecoat and hot pink turban. A plus-sized cross-dresser, Bessie relishes every moment as a woman. Norman is a hoot as he tosses off some of the best lines in the show. When someone brings up the inadequacies of the male form, Bessie quips, “I once had a male form; I filled it out and mailed it back!”

A pivotal character in the play is the judge (the exceptional Bruce Cronander), who strides in with a shotgun. His professional position and penchant for firearms are irrelevant when he slips off his robe to reveal a floral satin dress and coos, “Hello, Amy, I’ve missed you!”

When Theodore/Terry (the fabulous Garnett Smith) must jump up shortly after perching on a chair, he complains, “Just when I got my skirt to lay right on the first try.”

Cameron Shingler ably captures the awkwardness and insecurity young Jonathan feels as the newcomer to the group. Getting settled in his room, he clutches a flowered frock, seemingly not knowing what to do with it. The other “girls” soon rally around him, giving him a proper makeover, complete with phony breasts and hips, cosmetics and jewelry. Their enthusiastic efforts to transform him into Miranda are touching.

The cast is excellent across the board, but San Diego resident Dale Morris as Isadore/Charlotte deserves special mention. Looking stunning in his gold lame blouse, designer suite and heels, he clearly revels in the freedom to express his inner diva. But he also knows the risk involved in theses activities, and chafes at society’s disapproval. As he admonishes one of the group’s younger members, “I’ve gone to jail so you don’t have to!”

Kevin Coubal (Michael/Gloria) is the most traditionally attractive woman of the group, by far. Statuesque in his heels, he flips his long auburn curls constantly and really works it. He is the standout when the girls perform a cute lip-synced version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with the jukebox.

Louise Ross appears briefly toward the end of the play as Eleanor, the judge’s daughter. The always-dependable Ross ably conveys the pain, anger and resentment as she deals with her cross-dressing family member.

Things turn serious when Charlotte announces that the “sorority” has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and needs to appoint officers. Some members aren’t thrilled about that, preferring to just keep things as they are. Their weekend escapades are harmless, they say, and the fewer people who know about them, the better. But Charlotte argues that secrecy is the enemy. Then things really get crazy when Charlotte asks each member to sign a document barring homosexuals from joining the group. In 1962, it seems, cross-dressers believed that putting on a dress was OK, but actually having sex with a man was true deviancy. The guests at Casa Valentina are divided on the issue. Since the gay community often accepted “the girls” when no on else would, they feel the need to return that loyalty. The booze-fueled tension finally explodes in an act of violence.

The costumes, makeup, wigs and lighting are all right on the money. There was only one problem with Dezart’s Casa Valentina on opening night, but it was distracting: There were many occasions when some of the actors could not be heard. In a theater the size of the Pearl McManus, one would not think that body microphones should be necessary. The hum of the building’s air conditioning unit was a factor, but it really comes down to projecting: Actors of this caliber know how to project, and did so during much of the show. But at several dramatic moments, the actors were inaudible. It was particularly annoying when much of the audience could not hear the last two or three lines of the play, delivered by the otherwise-superb Tammy Huber.

This an important play and a terrific production. Michael Shaw’s direction is spot-on. I only hope he corrects the sound issue so valley audiences can enjoy Casa Valentina in its entirety.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater (inside the historic Palm Springs Woman’s Club), 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in downtown Palm Springs. Tickets run $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Dezart Performs has developed a reputation for presenting bold and avant-garde theatrical productions—so it means something when artistic director Michael Shaw says that the 2016-2017 season is Dezart’s boldest yet.

Shaw says he has a fondness socially relevant yet “wacky” plays. Casa Valentina, Dezart’s season-opener, certainly fits that bill.

Written by Harvey Fierstein, Casa Valentina received four 2014 Tony Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Play. Set in the Catskills in 1962, the play offers a peek into the lives of heterosexual men who enjoy dressing up and behaving like women. During the week, they pursue respectable careers as ad execs, lawyers and sales reps—but when the weekend rolls around, they cut loose and take on their female personas. Casa Valentina is owned and operated by George—whose alter ego is Valentina—as well as George’s wife, Rita.

The play is based on a real-life haven for heterosexual transvestites that was originally called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th century cross-dresser and spy. The story of the place, later named Casa Susanna, came to light when antiques dealer Robert Swope bought a box of 100 photographs at a Manhattan flea market; the pictures all depict men dressed as women watering the lawn, playing bridge, etc. In 2005, Swope published the pictures in a book, Café Susanna.

Shaw says the play intrigues him, because he learned a lot from it—especially about transvestites.

“It’s a community that I am totally naïve about,” Shaw says. “I think there’s a perception that transvestites usually relate as gay. That’s not the truth.”

Shaw says authentic, realistic hair, makeup and costumes are crucial to the play. He cites a quote from the character of Bessie, talking to newbie Jonathon/Miranda: “… Our goal is to assimilate. The more you look as if you just stepped away from a bridge table, the higher we grade you. Passing undetected is our zenith.”

There’s no dress or makeup in the play that’s over the top. Wig and costume fittings were done early in the rehearsal process, and the actors have been working in high heels and skirts since the rehearsals began. The male cast members got lessons in how to apply makeup with a softer touch—the way real women do.

Dezart Performs received a huge assist from the Pasadena Playhouse, which produced Casa Valentina earlier this year: The renowned company is lending Dezart all of the costumes and jewelry used in the play.

Shaw says that due to the show’s rich dialogue and well-written characters, Casa Valentina is one of the strongest season openers Dezart has ever produced.

“It teaches us that it’s very important to learn about those around you,” he says. “The transvestite group saw themselves as normal while viewing the gay community as deviants. They saw what they were doing as simply creative expression; they were fulfilling a desire to show their feminine sides. The crux of the play is the conflict between two factions of the transvestite society—one sympathetic to the gay community, and one most definitely not.

“One of (character) Charlotte’s lines is quite telling: ‘Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as every-day as cigarette-smoking.’”

Casa Valentina also marks another first for Dezart: The nine cast members make up the largest cast the company has ever had. Shaw also says the cast is one of the best.

The second he saw San Diego resident Dale Morris, Shaw says, he knew Morris would be perfect as Charlotte; Shaw even applauded after Morris’ audition, he said.

Morris says that being cast in the play is a blessing—although he added that playing an unlikable character can be challenging. A theater veteran, Morris lists performing in His Girl Friday at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as two of his career highlights.

Though Morris claims there has been no competition among the male cast members as to who is the best-looking “woman” onstage, he admits he wanted to look pretty when he first got the gig.

For what it’s worth, he apparently pulled it off: Shaw says that when Morris first walked across the stage in high heels, he was impressed with the actor’s calves, and notes that Morris is “stunning” in his gold lame blouse.

Shaw says there are two good reasons Palm Springs theater-goers should see Dezart’s production of Casa Valentina. One is the superb cast. The other?

“If you think you’ve seen cross dressing before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” he said.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Nov. 4, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org. Below: Actors in Casa Valentina pose for a photo in a rehearsal scene that includes Garnett Smith, Kevin Coubal, Dale Morris, Scott Smith, Jeffrey Norman and Tammy Hubler. Photo courtesy of Clark Dugger.

Published in Theater and Dance