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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

When a reviewer puts down her pen because what’s happening onstage is just too darned riveting to take any more notes, you know you’ve got a hit—and such was the case with opening night of Motherhood Out Loud, the final show of the season for Dezart Performs.

Conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein, the show consists of 19 short stories about the trials, tribulations and exquisite joys of being a mom. Starting with the painful, messy birthing process itself (“Fast Birth Fugue” by Michele Lowe), the play covers just about every aspect of parenthood imaginable, including foreign adoption, surrogacy, step-parenting and dealing with autism.

This was one of those magical nights at the theater when everything worked. First, artistic director Michael Shaw (who also directs this production) has once again chose a superbly written play—and then he cast it extraordinarily well. Finally, he seemed to find just the right touch as a director … not too heavy-handed, but not too laid-back, either. Obviously, the audience knows a director was involved, but the performances seemed to flow from each actor organically.

Desiree Clarke gets to show off her comic chops early in the show while sharing advice on how to minimize the damage childbirth can do to a woman’s body and her sex life (“Squeeze, Hold, Release,” by Cheryl L. West), and then much later, when her grown-up daughter brings home a questionable suitor for Thanksgiving dinner: “Sierra says Conrad is vegan, so we’ll have to carve the turkey in the mud room, under a sheet.” (“Thanksgiving Fugue” by Michele Lowe).

The always-impressive Melanie Blue shines brightest as a Muslim mother helping her daughter deal with her first menstrual period (“Nooha’s List” by Lameece Issaq), and a mom driving her 15-year-old autistic son to the movies with his new girlfriend (“Michael’s Date” by Claire LaZebnik).

Leanna Rodgers has great stage presence, and really draws us in as an elderly woman being interviewed about motherhood by her 12-year-old great-grand-daughter (Melanie Blue). When asked what she likes best about being a mother, Rodgers replies, “I never really liked being a mother,” and admits to loving some of her children more than others.

James Owens, the one male in the cast, mostly pops in here and there to support the female scenes. But he provides one of the evening’s highlights with “If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m The One With Morning Sickness?” by Marco Pennette. It’s a funny, moving look at what gay men must go through to become parents. Owens commands the stage and handles the scene with great skill.

The cast is superb across the board, but if I had to pick one standout, it would be Theresa Jewett. She is most memorable portraying the conflicted mom of a young boy who likes to dress as a girl (“Queen Esther,” by Michele Lowe), and breaking our hearts with the maternal anguish over a son sent off to war (“Stars and Stripes” by Jessica Goldberg). Jewett is an exceptional actress. Every emotion rings true, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

The other vignettes are penned by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice and Annie Weisman. Thomas L. Valach’s minimalist set works very well here, as do the costumes (Frank Cazares), the lighting (Phil Murphy) and the sound (Clark Duggar).

Motherhood Out Loud runs just more than 90 minutes with no intermission. The outstanding acting and the seamless flow of one scene to the next makes the production fly by. It never drags, which is always a blessing for a theater-goer. Congratulations to Michael Shaw and his company for ending their 10th season on such a high note.

If you are a mother, there are sure to be many relatable moments in this show. If, like me, you chose not to have kids, it may evoke a few twinges of regret. Dezart Performs’ Motherhood Out Loud will make you laugh and cry—and it will also make you want to go call your mom. Do yourself a favor … go see it.

Motherhood Out Loud, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Frankly, I was uncomfortable going to see Clybourne Park, Dezart Performs’ latest production.

The setting for this “Black (and White) Comedy by Bruce Norris,” as the play’s poster says, is Chicago—in 1959 for Act 1, then fast-forwarding 50 years to the same house in 2009 for Act 2. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, and it requires a cast of eight—a sea change for Dezart, which until previous show Casa Valentina, always kept the cast size small (possibly because of those dressing rooms?).

The play deals with the always-awkward topic of race and real estate. My husband, Ted, was born in Chicago, and we have discussed the way his city divided up into enclaves dominated by Italians, Greeks, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. For those who can remember the bad old days of segregated neighborhoods and the “blockbusting” that took place, this play could serve as an unpleasant reminder. Yes, it’s important for the generations who have followed to be informed of this country’s often-dark history, lest we romanticize the past by forgetting how life really was back then … but I concede I was uncomfortable seeing a play tackle such an awkward topic.

But … what a surprise: This production is amazing! The writing is just astonishing. The conversation is completely realistic, with people butting in, cutting each other off, misinterpreting and talking when they should be listening. Clybourne Park is a magnificent example of playwright Bruce Norris’ magisterial command of the language and his shrewd understanding of people.

The direction by Michael Shaw is incredibly impressive, with his steady hand guiding the actors to performances even and strong throughout. He gets credit for total success with the extraordinarily difficult lines. (He confided to me afterward that the greatest part of their rehearsals was spent perfecting the speeches and dialogue, some of which require a language warning.) Each of the actors was allowed to develop his or her character(s) so the “voice” of each role is clarion clear. But it is the director’s prodigious talent and multiple skills that create the play’s consistency of tone. The blocking is also textbook perfection. Wow.

And the acting … oh my! Everyone is a “character”—well, actually, two. The whole cast (with one exception) plays two roles: One in 1959, and a different individual in 2009. One of the delights of this production is seeing the characters the actors have developed. We watch a complete person in each act—the good, bad and ugly. We see their pain, their tempers, their sweetness and their struggles. We glimpse their past history and get to know them more intimately than you’d think the time would permit.

David Youse opens the first act and dominates it; he’s a lit fuse we fear will explode—but when? His Russ is a man-in-a-grey-flannel-suit type, but we see so much more danger simmering beneath his surface. We search for a clue about his repressed anger, but dread finding it. His second-act role of Dan is a chameleonic contrast—he’s a blasé construction worker with a totally different voice, stance and attitude. What fun! Now THIS is acting.

Playing his wife, Bev, in Act 1 is Theresa Jewett. She’s a perfect product of 1950s-era women’s magazines and advertising—not just in her voice and appearance, but also in her dizzy attitude and even her belief system. But watch that heart-shaped face manage an enormous range of emotions—the way she handles a distancing husband, her black housekeeper, or her painful memories. She transmogrifies for Act 2 into Kathy, a feisty blonde lawyer with attitude—a delicious contrast, and equally believable.

Desiree Clarke in Act 1, plays Francine, a black maid who expertly balances the subservience of a domestic with her own dignity and her inborn sense of right and wrong. She is beautifully complex, and she gains our respect. In Act 2, Clark becomes Lena, a new-millennium woman with power and a strong sense of self which she asserts fearlessly but quietly. Her flawless diction is lovely.

Robert Rancano is Jim, a hapless cleric whose rigid adherence to his teachings and rather poor understanding of his parishioners makes him, despite his great voice, an ineffective and predictable minister. Rancano creates this memorable character by making him forgettable. In Act 2, he’s Tom, who is supposed to be leading this meeting about the contract, but is preoccupied and distracted. Rancano gives a subtle performance that required a lot of thinking.

Robert Ramirez creates the role of Albert, the husband of Francine, striving to appear at ease in this Act 1 white household. Ramirez gives a multi-layered performance almost entirely with his extraordinarily expressive eyes. He draws our attention with few words but plenty of reaction. In Act 2, he becomes Kevin, married to Lena, a smart and confident professional with nothing left to prove about himself. You like him in both of his well-developed roles.

Rob Hubler appears as Karl in Act 1, and earns our great admiration thanks to his willingness to appear foolish. A well-meaning bungler, his friendship is almost a liability, despite his sincerity and his fine voice. Hubler adroitly switches to Steve in Act 2, playing a stronger person who comes to surprise us—and his wife—with his odd and previously unexpressed views.

The extraordinary role of Betsy, played by Phylicia Mason, gives us a dear character who is not only pregnant, but deaf. She is very credible, including the gentle forgiveness she shows her husband, Karl, as he misspells his sign language (yes, I caught that), and to people who thoughtlessly turn away from her while speaking—or who stupidly yell at her, hoping to be heard. Lovely acting! In Act 2, she is uncomfortably pregnant AGAIN, but this time as Lindsay, married to Steve, and now is a very vocal, assertive and even sometimes shrill creature.

The lone character who plays just one role is Sean Timothy Brown, who is Kenneth. He appears as a perfect military prototype—handsome, tall and fit, looking fabulous in uniform. We don’t know him long enough to appreciate all of his subtleties, but he is hugely affecting with his air of tragedy in this flashback. Again, we are reminded how effective even a small role can be.

Kudos to the cast, the director the entire supportive crew of this play for a job superbly done. Clybourne Park is the surprise of the season, with its controversial, occasionally offensive and sometimes hilarious script. Don’t doubt that you will be surprised by it, too.

Clybourne Park, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 22, 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.

Published in Theater and Dance

Anyone who’s worked as an office receptionist knows it can be a thankless job, but it’s not normally all that dangerous.

Well, danger certainly lurks in Dezart Performs’ current production, The Receptionist, a dark comedy by Adam Bock.

In the first part of the play, the title character, Beverly (Deborah Harmon), goes about her daily duties with great efficiency. It’s a seemingly normal day at the North East Office, as Beverly cheerfully handles the phones, relegating unwanted callers to the voicemails of co-workers. She sorts mail, tidies her desk and dishes out romantic advice to officemate Lorraine (Theresa Jewett). Beverly’s maternal warmth is clear as she calms her upset daughter over the phone—as is her irritation when her husband announces he has spent the money allocated for the family phone bill on yet another collectible teacup. It’s the boss’ birthday, so Beverly takes on the job of ordering a cake, and proudly shows Lorraine the card she’s purchased, which features a pony smoking a pipe.

Everything seems to be running smoothly until Martin Dart from the Central Office arrives to see the boss. Dart (Lou Galvan) appears to be a likable guy. He chats amiably with Beverly and responds to Lorraine’s blatant flirting with gusto. When the boss, Mr. Raymond (Hal O’Connell), finally shows up, the two men disappear into his office. After several minutes of shouting behind a closed door, the grim-faced pair emerges—and Dart escorts Mr. Raymond out of the building.

Apparently Mr. Raymond did not follow proper procedure when torturing and interrogating a client. He’s now facing the consequences.

As Act I ends, the audience is left wondering whether Beverly and Lorraine might also be marched down to the Central Office for questioning. And just what does this company do? It certainly seems ominous. Given the threat of worldwide terrorism (especially with opening night coming on the same day as the horrific attacks in Paris), this play seems quite timely.

Under the masterful direction of Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, the cast is uniformly excellent. Like an evenly matched tennis foursome, they volley the dramatic ball back and forth with great skill. As Beverly, Deborah Harmon is perfect. There is not one false note in her performance. Early on, she’s funny, witty and totally in control of the kingdom that is her reception desk. Later, as the reality of what her fate might be sets in, we see her composure melt away into a puddle of fear.

Theresa Jewett is fabulous as Lorraine. Vampy and flirty, yet insecure, she reminds us of that one woman we’ve all worked with who just can’t get it together in the romance department.

Lou Galvan is spot-on as the mysterious Martin Dart. After initially coming across as a friendly guy, he sends a chill up our spines when his menacing side emerges. Equally as good is Hal O’Connell as the beleaguered Mr. Raymond. He also strikes us as a nice guy who got caught up in his company’s dark business, and is ultimately resigned to his fate.

Thomas L. Valach’s set is superb, while Phil Murphy’s lighting and Clark Dugger’s sound are just right.

The Receptionist is a relatively short play—just 75 minutes—but it will keep you pondering its themes for days.

The Receptionist, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28, or $24 for matinees. The show runs just less than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For many years, Coachella Valley audiences have enjoyed the works of award-winning playwright Tony Padilla. He was co-founder of the Playwright’s Circle with Marilee Warner, and is now enjoying success with his own company, Desert Ensemble Theatre.

A member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Tony has won many local awards, including the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing for his play Becoming Ava. Knowing his impressive background, I always look forward to seeing a new play by Tony with great anticipation. His latest offering, Two by Tony, is a couple of one-act plays now on stage at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The first is Family Meeting, directed by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director, Rosemary Mallett. It’s a drama peppered with dark comedy which takes place in the home of Daniel Mann (Alan Berry), a bitter, washed-up playwright now reduced to writing B-movie scripts. He’s planning to relocate to New York to get back into the live-theater scene, where he feels he belongs. Daniel’s 20-something grandson, Jason (Shawn Abramowitz), has stopped by to ask if he can move in for a while. Armed with an Internet law degree, Jason is also planning a long-distance move to get his career rolling. He’s anxious to move out of his parents’ home, because their constant bickering is driving him crazy.

Soon, his father, Ed (Rob Hubler), shows up, looking for advice from Daniel on whether or not to divorce his wife, Karen (Denise Strand). Ed calls Karen to join them, and the whole clan is soon gathered in Daniel’s study, swigging red wine and trading barbs. The marriage between Karen and Ed is beyond strained—he’s got an Internet porn addiction, and she’s banging the contractor. Everyone has buried resentments and baggage, but the animosity between Karen and her father-in-law is particularly intense.

The acting is uniformly strong, though there were some volume issues at the top of the show. At first, I thought Berry seemed a tad too young to be cast as Ed’s father, but that reservation faded eventually away. Berry’s Daniel clearly bears the scars of having been beaten up by life over the years. Abramowitz is quite likable as Jason; he spends a lot of time engrossed in computer games on his cell phone, partly to drown out the sound of his battling parents. As Ed, Hubler ably communicates the disappointment and frustration many of us face in middle age. Nothing’s going right—and now his son wants to get away from him. Denise Strand is terrific as Karen. The energy picks up noticeably when she enters the scene. She has fabulous mother-son chemistry with Abramowitz in some of the play’s few tender moments. Occasionally uncomfortable because it mirrors some of our own dysfunctional families (this group sure does drink a lot!), Family Meeting is thought-provoking and worth seeing.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, the second play, The Comeback, would get my vote. A farce directed by Padilla set in the mid 1950s, it’s reminiscent of 1940s films like Blithe Spirit and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The play tells the story of Nora Raymond (Lee Rice), a Norma Desmond-esque, aging film actress attempting a comeback with the help of her loyal assistant, Thelma (Theresa Jewett). Nora receives a mysterious message urging her to contact a Count Orca (Theo Nowicki). The count later arrives at her home to conduct a séance in hopes of contacting Johnny Bellini (Stephen McMillen), Nora’s long-missing and presumed-dead husband. When Johnny appears, much hilarity ensues. There’s lust, greed, schemes-within-schemes and characters who are not who they seem to be. Everything’s a bit over the top, and laughs abound. The cast is uniformly terrific.

As the dramatic, self-important Nora, Rice is perfect. Cute and petite, but exuding the egomania typical of Hollywood, Rice has the audience routing for Nora’s success, both in the movies and in love. Jewett is a scream as Thelma. Wise, wry and wary, she trusts almost no one, and does not suffer fools gladly. At one point, she advises Nora’s man-servant, Morgan (Nowicki, in a dual role), “Don’t try to be mysterious; you’re no good at it.” Jewett is known to many as an amazing singer; she’s one hell of an actress as well. This is an award-winning performance.

Equally as funny is Nowicki, particularly as Count Orca. Sporting a heavy accent and an obviously fake mustache, Nowicki romps through the role, having a great time onstage, and tickling the audience’s funny bone nonstop. McMillen is quite good as Johnny; he has just the right mix of good looks and comic acting chops.

Kudos to director Tony Padilla … and to playwright Padilla, for a nice evening of theater.

Two by Tony, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, or $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. The running time is just more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance