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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

“Don’t sit in the front row!” director Jim Strait warned me before the show. So, of course, that’s exactly where I sat.

I thought he was maybe trying to protect me from too much, um, in-your-face nudity, which is a key part of Love! Valour! Compassion!, now at the Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage. Instead, the issue is that thanks to a cast of seven actors, smart blocking and the ingenious use of the small space’s set design, every square inch of the area is used—including the floor between the audience’s shoes and the first riser. Many times, those of us in the first row needed to quickly tuck our feet under our chairs as actors moved right by us. But it was a pleasure to help out in any small way.

The play is this year’s “Gay Heritage Production”: Desert Rose annually schedules a key play from gay theatrical history, and this, written by the amazing Terrence McNally, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1995. (It was also made into a film in 1997.) It is set in 1994, at a country house in upstate New York, over three weekends, each of which is featured in its own act: Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.

Beyond the front-row warning, the nudity warning and perhaps a “language” warning, you should know this: The play lasts more than three hours. Yes! But don’t think you’ll squirm and fuss: The show is fascinating, and you’ll be glued to your seat. You’ll get to watch seven men (eight, actually—more about that later) live their lives and react to each other and grow … or not. Is there anything better?

The tech side, as always at Desert Rose Playhouse, is wonderful, with lighting by the gifted Phil Murphy, stage-managing by the eagle-eyed Steve Fisher, and costumes by Tom Valach—yes, there are costumes; the boys are not running around in their pelts the whole time. A couple of the sound cues could be re-thought, perhaps, and the splash effects could use some tinkering, but otherwise, the work is most excellent.

With seven or eight characters, a mob scene of confusion could result if casting choices were poor. However, producer Paul Taylor cleverly chose actors who have such distinctive and strong individual personalities that once we paste the name onto the face of each role, the characters stand out as clearly and unforgettably as your own friends. How he managed to do that—plus find this number of guys who were willing to take their clothes off in front of a room full of strangers—we can’t imagine.

Gregory is a successful choreographer who has invited friends to his idyllic country home (including a pond or lake perfect for skinny-dipping) for the long weekend. They know each other in different ways, professionally or personally. His partner is Bobby, the sweetest and most spiritual guy ever, who is also blind. Perry and Arthur, a 14-year-married couple—it’s never explained how they pulled that off so long before the beginning of legalization of gay marriage—are a lawyer and an accountant, respectively. To all appearances, they are living comfortably in the straight world. Sharply contrasting this, Buzz is an over-the-top, outrageous and flamboyant character who lives for Broadway musical comedies, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge. John is a failed playwright, British and bitter—and he brings the snake into this Eden, a dangerously beautiful Puerto Rican dancer named Ramon. We get to sit back and watch the relationships, the feelings, the friendships of them all.

In the second act, we meet a surprise: John has an identical twin brother, James, who joins the group. Voila! There’s the eighth character we told you about. He is brilliantly played by the same actor (Terry Huber), switching back and forth with sometimes lightning-fast costume changes and attitudes. James is uptight John’s polar opposite; his personality is completely different—sunny and funny. He arrives because of the silent unspoken cloud hanging over everyone back in 1995—AIDS … which he has.

Every one of the actors must be lauded for learning these lines, which director Strait has timed magnificently—telescoping some, and using time-stopping pauses with the alacrity of a matador. This is not a project for the faint of heart, or memory. Over the three hours, someone is talking for about two hours and 55 minutes. But it’s the emotions you’ll remember, and the story of each person’s life—their struggles and triumphs and fears and joys.

Gregory is played by John Ferrare, the perfect leader of the group—he has a lovely presence with natural leadership. His frustration with his creative blockage is utterly believable—it’s eating away at him while he suppresses his fears and hopes it will magically go away. His partner, Bobby, is Jason Hull, fragile, warm, sensitive and alarmingly vulnerable—prey in every way. Mark Demry plays Arthur the accountant, and is totally convincing as a blithe but buttoned-down, successful, toeing-the-line gentleman. His partner, Perry, played by J. Stegar Thompson, is the lawyer—experiencing the feelings for both of them, and way more connected to everyone. He carries deep hurts and rails at the world over injustices and bad drivers. Buzz, impressively acted by Kam Sisco, gets a lot of the laughs, with his flighty effervescence and cute attempts to imitate the queens of Broadway like Gwen Verdon, whom he adores—yet his is the greatest arc, as he changes completely in Act 3, when we see his courage beneath the fluff. Richie Sandino is Ramon, the youthful Latino glamour boy who stirs up everything. He manages to achieve something rare and difficult for an actor: Most performers want to be loved and admired, and Ramon inspires neither in us. Impressive.

But Terry Huber is the standout, so smoothly playing the dual roles of John and James. Not only is the physical achievement of playing two parts impressive; it’s amazing to witness the instant psychological changes between them created with minimal costuming, achieved primarily by body language, attitude and voice. What an accomplishment! He has the most lines, with a couple of huge monologues delivered by each twin. Huber’s split-second changes between the uptight, sour, scary John and the adorable, bright, joyous James will leave you awestruck.

The writing, of course, is brilliant—McNally sets out to startle us. But the most shocking moment of the play comes not from the nudity or language at all, but when one character spits in another’s face.

This play runs for five weeks. Don’t miss it.

Love! Valour! Compassion! is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.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

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, or CV Rep to you, has launched its 2013-2014 season with Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

I was part of the very first audience of CV Rep’s new season. This little gem of a theater, located inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, tried out the idea of two “preview” shows before the grand opening. Not a bad idea. (The Independent would not normally review a preview performance, but we sent our November print edition to press before the grand opening. Therefore, the folks at CV Rep were kind enough to allow us to review the Wednesday-night preview.) CV Rep is also trying out a 7:30 curtain time, which, frankly, I love: 7 is too early, and 8 is so late, especially when you emerge from the theater in what feels like the middle of the night.

The open stage set which greets us, designed by Jimmy Cuomo, is charming. Stuart Fabel’s lighting is effective and creative. Aalsa Lee’s costumes are ideal. No changes needed here.

The play is set in 1971, at a “recital room” of Juilliard School, and Madame Maria Callas is going to teach a Master Class. We get to be the audience which is welcomed at such an event. Callas, at the time, was the most famous opera diva in the world, known for her tempestuous personality and style as much as her astonishing voice (which can reduce me to tears of awe within her first three notes).

But in the world of opera—whose mysterious, jealousy-ridden and colorful backstage we rarely see depicted in literature—the whispers have started: Is she losing her voice?

The role of Callas is a superhuman challenge for any actress, because of La Divina’s fame—and the circumstances which drove her to the top, both personal and historical. It’s also a challenge because of McNally’s script: It’s basically a two-hour monologue that demands emotional twists and turns you won’t believe. Marina Re plays Callas flawlessly, showing the naked pain, the unimaginable glory, the humiliation and despair, the obsessive perfectionism, and the dizzying excitement of her life—all on parade.

Her pronunciation of the many foreign languages which opera stars must command is very good. The gestures, facial expressions and body language fit. Her cheekbones are fabulous. She uses her eyes like Greeks do, and she moves like a once-overweight but now-thin woman. Re provides us with an astonishing amount of subtext.

How much of this is due to her interpretation of the role, and how much is due to the work of director Ron Celona? We’ll never know, but the results are stunning. Celona’s excellent work never calls attention to itself; every move is logical and natural—and this is the greatest compliment I can pay to a stage director.

The three innocent opera wannabes who have signed up for Maria Callas’ Master Class are absolutely delightful. Kara Masek plays Sophie; Mario Alberto Rios is Anthony; Nora Graham plays Sharon. These actors’ personal résumés go on for pages, and all three bring solid talents, serious training and surprisingly emotional interpretations to their roles. Opera, alas, is often filled with hackneyed gestures and stereotyped acting, leading to results that can be either hilarious or boring, but Callas demands Method-like research and deep thought from her students before even the first note is sung. The advice given to these aspirants by Callas is extremely worthwhile and important, and every serious performing-arts student could benefit from these teachings.

(Speaking of which: Some opera companies, in an attempt to educate that part of the audience that doesn’t speak the show’s foreign tongue, have set up an interpretive digitalized banner above the stage, which contains a running English translation. This has been met with mixed success. One of my friends attended an opera in which the chorus sang, over and over, a phrase which the banner assured the onlookers was: “We cry potatoes!”)

Steven Smith plays the role of Manny, the hapless piano accompanist who plays his music effortlessly and brings to the show another flavor—that of a steady working musician. Callas charms him, and then orders him around like a peasant; he bears both stoically. Michael Frank’s role of The Stagehand is played with more attitude, though he, too, is safe from La Divina’s storms, and he knows it.

We are overwhelmed by the gravitas and wisdom in McNally’s script—and by the emotional roller coaster through which Marina Re puts us. She recalls the height of Callas’ career at La Scala, and in the next minute, she is talking about having sex with the world’s richest (and power-mad, and abusive) man—and then she is a young girl again, an impoverished child in the middle of a war with nothing going for her but a fabulous voice and a burning determination to outwork anyone else. If you’re in the audience, you’ll need to brace yourself.

But do see this play, whether you’re a big opera buff, or you’ve never seen a live performance. Once you meet this volatile Maria Callas, you’ll never again fear a blonde valkyrie in metal breastplates.

Although the show I saw was a “preview,” all I can say is: Don’t change a thing.

Master Class, a production of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 10. The theater is located at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Is there anything more exciting than the prospect of an upcoming theater season? The offerings from the valley’s varied companies always provide a huge variety—and the 2013-2014 season is no exception. I can’t wait!

Below, you’ll find comments from the theater companies that had announced their schedules and shared their information with us as of our press deadline; we will add more at CVIndependent.com as other companies report back to us.

Don’t miss my reviews of many of these plays, both online and in the Independent’s monthly edition, launching in October!

Desert Rose Playhouse

HOUSE OF THE RISING SON, by Tom Jacobsen: Sept. 27-Oct. 27

THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD, by Paul Rudnick: Nov. 15-Dec. 22

NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL, by Dennis Deal: Jan. 10-Feb. 16

An untitled new play, by Dan Clancy: March 21-April 20

THE HAUNTED HOST, by Robert Patrick: May 2-June 1

Jim Strait and partner Paul Taylor report that the season for their LGBT playhouse begins with a Southern gothic, Los Angeles-New Orleans show; think “Anne Rice meets Tennessee Williams.” House of the Rising Son features ghosts, graves, special effects, and a post-Katrina/Rita all-male dynasty. Eek!

The Most Fabulous Story is a re-writing of the Old Testament. “It starts in Eden. Adam looks over the fence, and it all goes to hell in a handcart! They invent civilization, wind up in Noah’s Ark (where the bartender is a rhinoceros, and there is an amorous pig), get enslaved by a fabulous pharaoh, and wind up at the Nativity. The second act is in contemporary New York.”

Nite Club Confidential is “a film-noir musical, a cross between Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. Stars on the rise and a diva on the rocks! Very stylistic, with American songbook music plus new original music. … It takes place in the Eisenhower years.”

The Haunted Host was one of the very first gay plays in New York, and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Strait acted in a performance in San Diego in 1983, and it was reportedly the first show that Harvey Fierstein ever did.

In addition, Desert Rose will feature a special attraction in March: Dorothy Kirk, a 65-year-old monologist. Strait muses, “I love a storyteller. We don’t get a lot of lesbian participation, so this will change that. It is charming!”

Tickets go on sale in August; www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory

MASTER CLASS, by Terrence McNally: Oct. 23-Nov. 10

THE STORY OF MY LIFE, by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram: Dec. 4-22

A PERFECT GANESH, by Terrence McNally: Jan. 22-Feb. 9

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally: March 19-April 6

Louise Ross, the theater’s PR lady, is “really excited” about this season’s theme.

“McNally is one of America’s greatest playwrights, and we’re doing a collection of his work,” she says.

The 84-seat theater, raked for visibility, is the home of Ron Celona’s brainchild. The first Wednesday and Thursday of each show are considered preview nights (with tickets $30 instead of the usual $40); that first Thursday is also a “talkback,” featuring an audience Q&A.

“McNally has a way of being thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. He brings controversial subjects into life situations, and makes you want to talk about what you’ve seen afterward,” says Ross.

I saw Master Class, about a celeb teaching opera, years ago in L.A., and it was stunning, with everything depending on the role of Maria Callas. Frankie became a movie, marvelous with Pacino and Pfeiffer. Ross told me about a stage version with Stanley Tucci and Frances Sternhagen—and why this show has an audience advisory due to language and brief nudity, a first for CV Rep.

Ganesh is a search for The Exotic by two white ladies in India. “It starts with an ordinary situation and becomes this whole other world,” says Ross, “about your bucket list.”

More info at www.cvrep.org.

Dezart Performs

EXQUISITE POTENTIAL, by Stephen Kaplan: Nov. 22-Dec. 1

INVASION OF PRIVACY, by Larry Parr: Jan. 31-Feb. 9

SIXTH ANNUAL PLAYREADING SERIES, April 11-19

Artistic director Michael Shaw co-founded this 5-year-old group, known for its play-reading series on which the audience votes, with the winner produced the following year. Last season brought a tie—so both plays are being produced this coming season.

Exquisite playwright Stephen Kaplan came to the reading (and was very pleased), and intends to be here again for the production. “It’s brilliant, clever, one of the most interesting story lines ever,” enthuses Shaw. The comedy-drama deals with a man who believes his 3-year-old son is the Messiah—to the surprise of his rabbi and his pregnant wife.

The second play resonates with Shaw, who once lived in Central Florida, where it is set. Invasion is about a relationship that becomes a libel suit—one that really went to the Supreme Court in the 1940s. Shaw knows the life depicted in the play well. “I had alligator stew often, and my dad used to catch wild turkeys and snapping turtles for dinner. I want to hang moss for this show!”

Considering everything happening news, these topics are as timely as ever, Shaw says.

“Tickets will be on sale in July!” promises Shaw, who keeps the ticket prices to a sensible $18-$22; www.dezartperforms.com.

Desert Theatreworks

THE MOUSETRAP, by Agatha Christie: Nov. 1-10

MARRIED ALIVE, by Sean Grennan and Leah Okimoto: Dec. 6-15

BLAZING GUNS AT ROARING GULCH: Jan. 24-Feb. 2

THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK MUSICAL: March 14-23

The Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert is now home to the Desert Theatreworks, with Lance Phillips-Martinez at the helm. He tells me that Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the world—and it already had that distinction when I saw it back in London in 1966! It’s a whodunit murder-mystery, of course.

Married is a new musical which he describes as “zany,” with newlyweds and “oldyweds” looking at marriage. Blazing is an old-fashioned “mellerdrammer” in the Wild West, with songs, skits and a very hissable villain.

Trailer is a musical that is “the theatrical equivalent of a bag of Doritos,” says Phillips-Martinez, “at Armadillo Acres in Florida—a fun, fun, fun time!”

It’ll be exciting to watch this new company as it enters the desert’s theatrical community; www.dtworks.org.

Palm Canyon Theatre

THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Oct. 4-13

AVENUE Q: Nov. 8-17

SHREK: Dec. 6-22

LES MISERABLES: Jan. 24-Feb. 9

9 TO 5: Feb. 28-March 9

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: April 4-20

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE: May 2-11

SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL: July 11-20

This coming season, the downtown Palm Springs mainstay is focusing on big Broadway shows—and they’re throwing in a “classic series” of one-weekend shows as well. We’d tell you more, but nobody from the theater got back to us before our press deadline; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Watch CVIndependent.com frequently for updates, reviews and theater news. Enjoy!

Published in Theater and Dance