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The script is the star.

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced eight plays written by Tony Padilla during its eight seasons. And get this: English is his second language!

There are precious few authors who can achieve this kind of success, let alone in a second language. Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness, which later inspired the movie Apocalypse Now, spoke Polish as his cradle tongue … and frankly, I can’t think of another example off the top of my head. Padilla comes from Cuba, where at age 11, he and his family escaped during the historic exodus from Castro’s fiefdom. Today, he not only speaks flawless English, but writes as playwright-in-residence for DETC.

At the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a venue the group is sure to outgrow soon, award-winning Padilla’s newest work is titled For a Reason. “It’s very different,” he said about the new work. “It’s not personal—I didn’t experience this. It comes from research, from becoming passionate about the subject of relationships, from reading and seeing other people in their relationships, and learning about them. That’s what moves me.”

Frankly, isn’t how we treat our fellow man the essence of our development? Look at how you act when you’re mixed in with other people—and that will show you who you really are, especially in intimate relationships. Look at how many court cases there are because of the problems! In the case of For a Reason, Padilla’s script sparkles with not just brilliant writing, but also with his tremendous insights about people and how they interact.

A glance at the printed program might make one anticipate a musical, since these actors are so well known for their singing—but no, it’s a straight-up play, despite well-known local music-biz names like Charles Herrera, Leanna Rodgers and my dear colleague, the Independent’s own Bonnie Gilgallon. Interestingly, Shawn Abramowitz directed the play (with Sierra Barrick as assistant director), and then had to step in to play a role on the stage—which he does perfectly, never missing a word. In other words, everyone in the cast boasts multiple talents.

The open stage shows us a casual and slightly messy living room/den, designed by Lauren Bright, containing a big globe and souvenirs, artwork and tchotchkes from around the world. Artistic director Jerome Elliott greets the audience and informs us that this is a world premiere! The lights, designed by Ashton J. Bolanos, come up, and we begin. Sandra (played by Rodgers, an actress with the most beautiful eyes and smile), is the live-in daughter-in-law of the aging but successful writer Pablo Luna (a cane-stumping, grey-haired, grumpy but lovable Hererra). They are interviewing for a position of companion/caretaker for him, as he suffers from an unnamed degenerative disease. Aaron Watson, cleverly played by a black-bearded Abramowitz, is the last applicant of that day.

It is revealed that Pablo is “isolating,” and we see that the patient is indeed trying to push everyone away from him. But Aaron proves to be bright and feisty, and the verbal jousting begins. Pablo is deemed “a difficult client,” but Aaron is more than a match for his wit and wisdom. The two actors swat lines at each other with complete believability, on the topics of happiness, loneliness, choices, success, mothers, artistic virtue, social masks, balance, sex, youth versus age, writer’s block, men’s animal magnetism, and movies. There is great charm in their mind games, and this is where Padilla’s script shines brightest. He manipulates the language joyfully and curiously, giving us inventive and refreshing results. The two actors have mined the script deeply, and their shades of meaning, even when trading some rude insults, are beautifully thought out.

The men eventually arrive at an impasse in their philosophical swordplay, and have to call in an adjudicator. Enter Gilgallon as Gisele. She’s a dream girl in stiletto heels, black hose on her long legs, and a clingy scarlet dress that hugs her eye-popping curves. (Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares.) We are led to believe that she is a Lady of the Night … but watching her moves and listening to her talk, we begin to wonder. She is way too shrewd, too literate, too thoughtful. She keeps us guessing. Gilgallon’s focus in this role is beautiful to behold, and she is totally believable as this mystery woman (with the exception—forgive me—of the wig). Her warm and musical voice is shown to its best advantage in this role.

There are some smart theatrical choices made in this play, such as bringing in the champagne already poured instead of the time-wasting, not to mention dangerous, pouring in front of an audience … but we need to hear the offstage POP! of the cork to make it real.

This is an extraordinary play, and it runs smoothly. The theme of the play—relationships—posits the idea that people are brought together to affect each other’s lives with the chance that they will be better persons as a result. It is a lovely thought—even though some of us might be able to think of a few people we wish we’d done without. All these characters do experience an arc as a result of meeting each other, with Sandra’s change possibly being the most dramatic.

The play runs 60 minutes with no intermission, and says everything it has to say with such lovely conciseness that it makes you wonder why other plays have to go on for hours to achieve the same results.

Angelantonio Padilla’s words and thoughts will stay in your head. Whose lives have you met and changed … for a reason?

For a Reason, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A play set in a 1940s radio station in Chicago—now, how much opportunity for fun is that?

Playwright Tony Padilla is directing the world premiere of his The Thespian Radio Hour at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, on behalf of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. Padilla has been lauded for his plays, receiving the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Writing and the Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for his impact on local theater—and he’s received international recognition as well.

The writing here is solid. Padilla uses the stereotypes of early radio personalities to make his case. Linda Cooke, for example, plays crusty producer Agnes Cohen, who fusses and worries about everything, endlessly bossing everyone around. Her sidekick, the youthful Steve Randy, played by Nick Wass, is the unappreciated kid who directs the actors and narrates the broadcast and writes the scripts and commercials (while trying to date every girl in the cast) … because that’s how it was done back then. Larry Dyekman is Hamilton Sterling, the suavely aging debonair matinee idol, complete with ascot. Bonnie Gilgallon (an Independent contributor—my fellow theater reviewer!) is Ellen Haze (not Helen Hayes, as everyone has to find out), a voluptuous but fading femme fatale actress with the greatest legs who is battling the passing of the years, but who has learned bags of showbiz tricks along the way. Kelley Moody is cute and perky newcomer ingénue Lilly Darling—talented, ambitious and untroubled by scruples that might prevent her from forging ahead in her career. Hal O’Connell very believably plays a serious businessman, Waldo Burns, whom we don’t meet until the second act—but he is the great hope of the rest of the cast, as he is considering sponsorship of the show which would save all their jobs (and sponsorship is still a huge concern in radio even today). 

While the writing in this world premiere play is indeed solid, Padilla missed a great opportunity for comedy through revealing these radio actors’ real names. Some can be terribly funny. Perhaps the best example ever was author Paul Gallico’s character, a wannabe actress called Pamela Penrose, but whose mail still came addressed to “Enid Snite” (say it out loud). It’s no secret that most of our old movie stars changed their names to WASP pseudonyms. We all know that Tony Curtis was Bernie Schwartz, Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch, John Wayne was Marion Robert Morrison, Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and so on. Plus, in the world of radio, it was (and sometimes still is) customary for announcers to use “air names” rather than their real names, so they could change monickers when they changed jobs.

Just a thought—because we need more from this cast. The characters need to be more vain, self-obsessed, selfish and ruthless if they are to excite our horror at the way they all try to seduce their possible sponsor. But here, we got the feeling that this was business as usual, ho hum. There was a lack of depth in these portrayals—which is too bad, as this new play is rife with possibilities.  Maybe the cast needs to research some old ’40s movies like the “film noir” ones that gave us such unforgettable performances (think Bogie/Bacall). They need more and brighter colors in their palettes. Because now, the play’s only real surprise comes from something that happens to Gilgallon’s character. Well, that and Waldo’s little secret …

Another thought: Back then in radio, a professional actor’s diction was hugely important. Actors enunciated every word super-flawlessly, even in their real lives. However, in this play, some of this actors’ pronunciations were inconsistent, and occasionally just lazy lipped.

My most serious question about this script is the use of vulgarities which would surely have gotten a radio station turfed off the air back then. To call someone an “old bastard” on the air would have brought the screaming censors running … and to say into a microphone that someone was “talking out of your ass”—besides it being an anachronism—would have shut down the station immediately. WC Fields once got a radio station permanently closed for saying something like that. (Don’t ask.)

Other concerns: Could a woman really have been a producer back then, in what was an almost completely male-dominated field? Also: Why was the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” included? It added nothing to the plot and it interrupted the timing. Moody did it nicely, but, try as we might, we can’t find a reason for its inclusion.

It’s important to note, again, that this show is a premiere—meaning there’s time and room for this brand-new play to be tightened up and improved as it moves forward. There are some clever and delightful comedic touches in this script. For example, the name of the former sponsor of the radio show is SHM, or Still Here Mortuary. Yikes! And the title of the play these actors are performing is The Last Nail in His Coffin, which is perfect melodrama. More, please!

Also, gratitude goes to Tony Padilla for choosing to not having his characters smoke, which apparently EVERYONE did in the mid-1040s … cough, hack, gasp … although with these new e-cigarettes the actors could possibly have strutted the look without suffocating the audience.

So what this play needs more of is what’s called “comedic attitude.” Director Padilla may have to surrender his famously laid-back style and lean hard on his cast to bring out the silliness and fun in them that would enhance playwright Padilla’s script. Right now, they’re taking themselves seriously, when what they need is to find the funny.

This play has so much potential, and I hope the actors can rise to the challenge of doing the work to take it from “amusing” up to maybe even “hilarious” on the comedy scale.

The Thespian Radio Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 18, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

He left Cuba at age 11—but Tony Padilla remembers the Revolution.

“We were in Santiago, near Guantanamo,” he said. “We could see fighting in the hills where Fidel Castro was hiding. At first, we were all Fidel fans. Then he said, ‘Now we are Communists.’ Everybody said, ‘What?’”

Today, Padilla is one of the Coachella Valley’s most renowned playwrights. In March, his Desert Ensemble Theatre Company will produce one of his newest plays, comedy The Thespian Radio Hour.

“I have to tell you, I’m glad he’s dead now,” Padilla said about Castro. “We weren’t in real danger then. … My dad was a barber; my mom was a singer. She was stunning!

“I remember seeing Che Guevara in Santiago. When he spoke, he was like Hitler, so charismatic. You could see how thousands would follow.” Ironically enough, Padilla would years later audition for the role of Che Guevara in Evita on Broadway.

Padilla’s family later fled to the United States, where his father was immediately drafted into the Army. The family went to Germany for three years, where young Tony learned to speak German (which he has not used since, he adds dryly). When the family returned to the States, they wound up in Monterey.

“I come from a long line of macho Latino men,” Padilla said, “until they face a major decision—which is then made by their wives! My mother hated Miami; she thought it was too pretentious and materialistic.” So, off they went to California.

Padilla watched plays for the first time on a high school field trip. The Trojan Women and The Madwoman of Chaillot convinced him his calling was up on that stage. His first onstage role was in The Crucible.

“I don’t think I had an accent, but I probably did. I had a great teacher, who taught me how to listen,” he said. Today, there isn’t the slightest hint of any prior language in his speech.

In college, Padilla majored in theater arts, and was accepted into the prestigious San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater on scholarship. “Within three days, I borrowed some money, packed and moved, and got a job. I knew how to sew because of my mom, so I wound up making costumes for the plays. I wore some of my own creations onstage! I was 19. My parents wanted us to be independent—not lazy, ever. It’s that immigrant work ethic.”

He later went to Chicago. “I loved it! Down-to-earth, but intelligent people,” he said. There, he met his partner, Jim, and they were there for more than 20 years. When they sold their business, Dover Metals, which made trays for caterers, they moved to the desert.

“We came to visit a friend who was doing detox alone in Palm Springs!” Padilla laughed. “I fell in love with the desert.” They bought a house, and sold large paintings and sculptures.

“It took a while to get into theater here,” he said. But in 2000, Padilla joined forces with Marilee Warner, who had founded Playwrights’ Circle. They did play readings, and created a festival featuring new playwrights, culminating in a full production of the winning play. Over 10 years, the company grew.

When Warner decamped from the desert, Padilla formed the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, or DETC. He is the founder and producing artistic director. The legendary Rosemary Mallett became artistic director; Shawn Abramowitz is executive director; and Jerome Elliott became communications director.

Padilla said DETC is different because it trains young talent for careers in theater—both onstage and behind the scenes. DETC was the first local company to offer student scholarships, he said, and recipients have gone on to notable success—teaching at Harvard University, lighting Broadway shows and late-night TV shows, and working with major Hollywood production companies.

Padilla was awarded the Desert Theatre League’s prestigious Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for being a theater pioneer in the Coachella Valley.

“Theater now is 4,000 percent better than when I arrived,” he said. “We had the Top Hat Theatre on Arenas Road, and the Palm Canyon Theatre. That was all there was! I love the way it has grown. CV Rep and Coyote (Stageworks) are now doing really quality work.”

In its early days, DETC presented some plays at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, but now productions are housed at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a space shared with Dezart Performs. Padilla directs (usually his own plays) with a “laidback” style, but writing remains his No. 1 passion. The playwright bug bit him when he saw Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. He wondered if he could come up with an idea that was both compelling and relevant. The goal was achieved with Endangered Species, about the reactions of people when they find a live baby abandoned in a public park’s trashcan. It was produced here twice, then several times in Italy, where it won the “Best Play” award at a theater festival in Rome. “It is the best compliment I ever received as a playwright,” Padilla said with a smile.

Padilla said he plans to stay here in the valley he loves, though he and Jim flee the summer heat by holing up in their house in Carmel. In the future, Padilla would love to see our valley host a theater festival similar to the Palm Springs Film Festival—complete with classes, seminars, play readings and full productions. For DETC, he hopes to add formal classes and a board of directors.

Sounds like a happy man. “This is what you’re supposed to do,” Padilla said. “This is America!”

The Thespian Radio Comedy Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 9, through Sunday, March 18, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Remember those many old adages about walking a mile in another person’s shoes, or being a fly on the wall in someone else’s house—all sayings that basically mean you never know what goes on behind closed doors? Well, Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Lovesport, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theatre in the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, gives you a chance to be the fly.

An original work by DETC founder and producing artistic director Tony Padilla, Lovesport is the latest in a series of his creations as an award-winning playwright, director and producer. Basically, it’s a gayer, less-warped homage to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Here it is: A couple arrives at their San Francisco-area suburban home where they’ve lived for many years, after a ghastly dinner party. One of them has invited another couple, whom they have just met, to join them for a nightcap. Bzzz bzzz … we get to watch what happens.

It’s a play all about relationships, and about commitment. Here we have four gentlemen, all nice-looking and successful in their chosen fields, but the biggest concern of their lives revolves around their partner and how they are getting along.

Jerome Elliott, who always is working at either a play or a cabaret show, plays Josh, a mature and world-weary misogynist. He is in a longtime committed relationship with Marty, a former actor, played by Alan Berry. Their guests are Gary, a painfully young hi-tech designer working at what is hinted to be Google or someplace like it, played by Cameron Shingler; and his husband of two years, Ben, who is an older and sophisticated architect, played by J. Gazpar Ascenio.

Other than a few jokes about what to wear for Halloween drag, the four converse about the same things everyone, everywhere in a suburban living room might discuss, gay or straight: relationships, making sacrifices, making mistakes, the future, romance, doubts, what the wedding was like, a partner whose sense of humor is beginning to fade, making a decision about whether or not to have a baby. We get to watch the four interact, and we see secrets and revelations about each of them revealed … accidentally or not.

The play is listed as a comedy, but there are not a lot of chortles. Do you know the defining difference between a comedy and a tragedy? No, it’s not counted in laughs. In a comedy, the protagonist, or lead character, gets what he wants. In a tragedy, he doesn’t. So this is a (rather dark) comedy, but the script contains some beautifully memorable lines like: “My fears keep me from making stupid mistakes.” Or: “He who listens, wins.” Or: “It smells like a Rastafarian hippy hut” after two of the characters light up a joint. Padilla’s writing is most interesting. He makes each of the personalities distinctively different—not an easy task when the cast consists of four males—and each has his own very individual voice. The author really knows people. (But a few more laughs wouldn’t hurt!) This is the fortunate result of the author acting as the play’s director also—the message becomes the star of the show.

Act 1 ends with a shock. There are two acts, and the running time is about 90 minutes. The actors all have to be complimented on their lovely diction. This is a difficult room to play, because its textures are so soft—carpets, curtains—and the sound gets soaked up. But despite excellent diction, the occasional last words of a sentence got lost through dropped volume and pitch. Watch that projection please, boys!

As far as the acting goes, there was a sense of stiffness that never went away. I was hoping that it was just initial first-night nerves, but the stiffness didn’t vanish as the play progressed, alas. We found the characters interesting, intellectually speaking—but they never moved us emotionally.

The other little problem is some overly busy and unmotivated blocking … one got the feeling that the characters had been told to move here or there, rather than being impelled by their emotions to move themselves. This is not a large deal, but it was enough to cause the occasional wrinkled brow. Director Padilla always keeps his stage balanced, but at the risk of chess-boarding the characters a little much.

The basic problem was believability—we just are not convinced that the actors are really that person going through those feelings, or that they are affected by their drinking wine or smoking pot … which is tricky to portray, admittedly, but the audience needs to see a change and not just hear about it. When they indulge in some gossip about a woman at the dinner party, the words are there, but the delivery falls a little flat—we neither savor it nor are taken aback by the bitchiness, because the characters don’t fully reveal how they feel. Acting is, alas, all about feelings, not just saying the words.

Don’t get me wrong: The play will definitely hold your attention, even if it’s partly the universal schadenfreude that sees someone else having problems while you sit there comfortably, relieved that it isn’t your life that’s being exposed for all to see.

What we are looking at here is something that seems to take most of a lifetime for people to learn: You can put two perfectly nice people together, but the bottom line is that it isn’t guaranteed to work, because it’s the relationship itself that is wrong. A relationship has its own life, separate from the individuals in it, and a relationship can be as vulnerable as the people involved in it. It’s endlessly challenging trying to guess who in life will make it and who won’t—just like in this play. Secrets and scars are not always readily apparent.

As one character in Lovesport wisely asserts, “Relationships are not for sissies.”

Lovesport, a performance by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre in the Palm Springs Woman's Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Squabbles over family heirlooms following the death of the patriarch are not new—but they are taken to a whole new level in the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, Bad Jews.

Written by Joshua Harmon, the play received an Outer Critic’s Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2012-2013. It’s set in a New York City apartment the evening after the funeral of Poppy, the aforementioned patriarch. His three grandchildren—Diana (she prefers her Hebrew name, Daphna), her cousin Jonah, and his brother Liam (who does NOT like his Hebrew moniker, Schlomo)—are spending the night, as is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.

The word “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe the dynamics of this group. Things start out tense and deteriorate steadily from there. Diana is angry at Liam because he and Melody (a shiksa!) missed the funeral after Liam dropped his iPhone from an Aspen ski lift. But the bad blood between the two cousins goes way back: Diana professes deep devotion to her Jewish faith, while Liam takes a much more casual approach. His propensity to date non-Jewish women really sticks in Diana’s craw; she thinks they’re “beneath him.” Liam, on the other hand, mocks what he calls Diana’s temporary religious fanaticism, and does not believe that her Israeli fiancé truly exists.

But the real drama of the play centers around a piece of jewelry Poppy wore for most of his life. It’s a chain with the Hebrew word “chai” (living) spelled out in gold. He kept it safe from the Nazis while in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. He later proposed to his wife with it, because he could not afford a ring. Diana desperately wants this memento of her grandfather, and feels that it’s rightfully hers—especially since she’s always been a devout Jew. What Diana doesn’t know is that the chain has already been passed down to Liam (sent to him by his mother), and that he intends to give it to Melody this very evening when he proposes.

Each member of the four person cast is terrific. Though he does not have many lines, Cameron Shingler skillfully portrays Jonah’s anguish and discomfort at being thrust into the middle of his family members’ battles. He sits quietly absorbed in his iPhone or with his head in his hands as the verbal artillery flies around him. You get the sense he’d rather the floor open up and swallow him. Actively listening onstage and believably reacting (or NOT reacting as appropriate) requires great acting skill. Shingler pulls it off.

Kyrsten Watt is equally as good as Melody, the meek, squeaky-voiced former opera student. After just two professional auditions, Melody bagged a classical music career and is now working for a nonprofit—but she sports a tattoo of a treble clef on her calf (which Diana describes as “the size of a tumor”) as a sentimental reminder of her former life. Like Jonah, Melody tries valiantly to avoid being drawn into the Diana-Liam war. In an attempt to relax everyone when the yelling gets too intense, Melody sings an absolutely hilarious, off-pitch version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s one of the highlights of the show.

As Liam, Sean Timothy Brown ably captures the character’s shallow, smug and entitled demeanor, and matches Diana insult for insult. Some of their verbal sparring is quite loud and sometimes frightening. Being Jewish does not seem to mean all that much to him. We learn that once during Passover, Liam apparently consumed a forbidden cookie, proclaiming “I’m a bad Jew”—hence the play’s title. But Brown also shows a tender side; he makes Liam’s love for Melody seem quite genuine.

The MVP Award for this production of Bad Jews goes to Jordana Simone Pepper as the verbose, hot-tempered Diana. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, when she could have used a little more vocal projection, she’s nearly flawless. Once this girl gets started talking, it’s hard to get her to stop. (You know the type.) Whether she’s shouting at Liam over their religious differences, chastising Jonah for not taking her side, or grilling poor Melody about where her people were from “before Delaware,” Pepper makes every note ring true. She’s often a hoot, sometimes irritating, occasionally touching, and always real.

Rosemary Mallett’s direction is spot-on. She gets strong performances from everyone, while a terrific set and great costumes, sound and lighting all help bring this thought-provoking play to life.

Kudos to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s founding director Tony Padilla and executive director Shawn Abramowitz for another excellent production. (Full disclosure: I acted in Desert Ensemble’s previous show.) Bad Jews is not bad; it’s damn good.

Bad Jews, produced by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 17, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets, call 760-565-2476 or go to www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Stormy weather! We squished our way through wild spring winds and swirling rain, grateful that traffic on “The 10,” as we call it, held steady and accident-free on Friday night, March 11. But arriving at the theater, we were immediately transported to a calm, lovely evening in New York’s Central Park … and people with storms inside them.

Tony Padilla, always bursting with creativity, directs his own play Endangered Species at the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. It plays only this weekend and next, so if you are committed to supporting original local theater, hurry over to the Palm Springs Woman’s Club to see it in the Pearl McManus Theater. It’s a one-act play which has been produced in Italy, and, amazingly, that translation won the International Medal at the Schegge d’Autore playwriting festival in Rome, in 2009. Go Tony!

It’s easy to like the one-act format. Like a short story, it embraces one-ness: a single setting, one plot line, a small cast, one theme and atmosphere, and a streamlined journey to the climax and conclusion. These plays are generally clean, neat, brief and easy to follow. What’s not to like? Here, the stage is appropriately dressed with just a single park bench and one trashcan (marked NYC!). Simplicity personified.

The four-member cast consists of Bonnie Gilgallon (my Independent colleague) with Alan Berry in the first scene, and Yo Younger with Denise Strand in the second. In a nutshell, the plot consists of these people finding an abandoned baby in a park trashcan, and their reactions to it.

Unthinkable! That’s the genius theme of Padilla’s play—ordinary people tossed into an unimaginable situation that has the power to change lives completely. Screenwriters call it the “inciting incident.” It’s the defining moment of a story … and how do the characters react to it? How would you?

Scene One. Enter: tourists from “outside Chicago,” a longtime married couple (Gilgallon and Berry) enjoying the view and weather, and reminiscing about previous Big Apple visits. Through their conversation, we learn about their backstories and personalities. Then they discover this baby. What to do? Ignore it, or get involved? What is the right action? What’s legal? How does each really feel? What does this event dredge up from the past? What do their moral compasses dictate?

Scene Two. Enter: two casually-dressed ladies, tourists—we never find out from where—but they immediately let us know they have lived together for 10 of 11 years. Lesbians? We watch attentively for clues. I won’t ruin it for you by revealing all … but now they find the baby, and the ensuing discussion and conflict tells us much more about them. Stress will always reveal the weak spots in any relationship.

One of my most influential theater instructors once demanded of me, “What is the most important thing you can learn about a person?” (I gave the wrong answer. Well … I was young.) But the right answer is: their work. It determines schedule, income, dress code, address—everything. True! Point being, in this play, we don’t learn this. Strand’s character turns out to be a teacher, and Gilgallon’s became a frustrated housewife. But ... more info, please? This is important—and very easy to fix.

The play is a talky one, with zero opportunity for action. The direction compensates for this by moving the characters around their little space a great deal. Too much? Well, not if and when the actor is motivated to move. Some of the actors here should re-think their gestures, and cut out any that make pointless circles or drop with a plop. But our largest discomfort was watching Alan Berry walk backward several times—something nobody does, and certainly not a middle-aged man in an unfamiliar/dangerous location. Alas, we are made overly conscious of every actor’s move because of the unfortunate hollow space underneath the stage, creating a distracting drum-like boom with every step—worst with high heels. And speaking of shoes: I once wore an ivory suit with ivory shoes onstage, and an internationally famous actress in the audience later raked me over the coals for it, proclaiming that white shoes must NEVER be worn onstage, as they draw the eye (and also can make feet look unduly huge). Enough said. There are other colors that scream “summer.” Another small problem with this theater: The extreme overhead lighting can create shadows, and blank out the eyes of any actress wearing heavy bangs … and the eyes are the most important tool an actor owns.

These little glitches aside, the acting is lovely, with admirable pacing and variety in delivery. The emotional arc is pleasingly handled through the rising tension in both scenes.

What we liked best: Gilgallon’s exquisite diction. (Hey, she’s been in radio for years.) Learning about the characters through their arguments. The emphasis on sharing in a relationship. The line “the luxury of your compassion.” How pretty Strand and Younger looked together onstage. The debates about fate. The moment when we are emotionally moved. The endlessly interesting discussions about the choice of having children, or not … and when is the timing right? When is the money enough? The question: Do morals change with the times, or are they forever?

Tony Padilla has forced each of us to confront our own answers to these questions. We are all involved, just by realizing our own positions for or against each character’s beliefs in this play. Isn’t this the most important task of theater—to make the audience THINK?

It’s not an easy task for a playwright, but with Endangered Species he has done it … beautifully.

Endangered Species, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 20, at Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Imagine you are walking down the street, and suddenly you see … YOU, yourself, coming toward you. Your hair, face, hands, height and weight. It’s not a trick or illusion. It’s you.

What do you do?

A Number, presented by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, has opened at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. It’s a one-act, five-scene, two-man, 55 minute play, written by Caryl Churchill and produced by Tony Padilla. Which fact is most surprising: A female playwright created a work for two men? The provocative topic of the show? Or the fact that you’re back out on the street before 8 p.m., when some other theaters’ curtains are just going up?

The actors, Shawn Abramowitz and James E. Anderson III, work on a bare stage with only two tan leather chairs as the set. The color palette is limited to blues and some earth tones. Director Jerome Elliott has made the most of the space, with clever blocking that keeps the action natural-looking and emotion-motivated. The play is a talky one, with lines that interrupt each other and “telescope,” bedazzling us with speed and brevity. Yet thanks to the actors’ good diction, we rarely miss a word. (Learning these lines had to be a labor of love, for sure.) Everything looks simple—but your earth is about to be shaken.

For the audience: Don’t worry if you are confounded. The playwright delights in using half-sentences and incomplete thoughts. Interesting writing … very much like the way people really do talk. The actors accordingly have adopted a natural and realistic acting style.

We open with an ongoing conversation between two gentlemen: One younger, dark-haired, in jeans; the other silver-haired and silver-bearded, wearing glasses and a cardigan. We see them slouch, swipe at the nose (the “allergy salute,” so common in our desert), sulk, snark, get in each other’s faces—in other words, we are the fly on the wall watching the real-feel action as we struggle to understand the meaning of their conversation.

Finally, it becomes clear, and I will reveal it to you so you don’t have the duhhs quite as long as we did (and seeing as this information is included on the ticket-purchase website, it’s not a spoiler): The conversation is about cloning. Gasp! This play premiered in Britain in 2002, back when Dolly, the cloned sheep, was still alive. But A Number is about human cloning. Even creepier! In the play, some people are referred to as “The Others,” and as the conversation progresses, we find out who “they” are. Paranoia abounds: Why?

We eventually face another psychological conundrum: the “nature versus nurture” argument. Which is more important: what you inherit before birth, or the way you are raised? What determines how we turn out? The characters, whom we learn are father and son, walk us through all the stuff moaned about on a psychiatrist’s couch: the bitterness from unfair treatment, the differing memories of remembered cruelties, the new facts that alter one’s history. So who gets the blame for the flawed person that we all turn out to be? Genes, or environment?

The son has had the experience of seeing “himself” on the street, and confronts his father. The father, it is revealed, is not without problems of his own: He lies about the boy’s mother; he drinks too much; he plots lawsuit revenge. So how does his son react to events or information: the same as dad, or differently? Now it gets really interesting, because in the next scene, we get to meet the other son, physically identical to the first—and we see his personality interacting with the same father. What created those differences?

We won’t reveal any more, so that you can be surprised by what happens … and you will be surprised. If you enjoy intimate theater, this is an excellent example of it. The Palm Springs Woman’s Club is an appropriate size for such a show (now if only we could do something about those creaky floorboards onstage), as presenting such a work in a huge arena would be unthinkable: The closeness of the audience to the actors is mandatory for our involvement in, and concentration on, the play.

The actors do a wonderful job of luring us into their characters’ lives, with all of the complexity, denial and peculiarity. The play throws us into a world where we probably will never go, yet forces us to think about it: What if you found out you had been cloned, without your knowledge? How would that feel? What would you do? See, this is what theater can do: permanently expand our consciousness in a way that nothing else can.

Kudos to Jerome Elliott for his lean-and-clean style of directing, and to Abramowitz and Anderson for their memory of the lines and their shrewd interpretation of this script. Thanks also to Padilla for finding this thought-provoking play and bringing it to our valley.

The only possible change I could suggest involves wardrobe: The audience might understand more easily that Son No. 2 in Scene No. 2 is actually another person if he wore a jacket with a contrasting color. Here, both sons wore blue—obviously to make a statement about how they are The Same In So Many Ways—but although the actor even changed shoes, it wasn’t readily apparent that this wasn’t just another scene with the same actor at another time, dressed differently. This point is successfully addressed in Scene No. 5, which I’m really trying to not give away.

A Number is a very cerebral experience, but then, thought always precedes action, so you must see this show to clarify your thoughts about it. It’s a must-see play about, maybe, YOU.

So … Imagine you are walking down the street, and … ?

A Number, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. The show is 55 minutes long, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

As a child, my older sister was scared to death of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. My sister would flee the room in terror when the old green hag appeared onscreen. Sis is not alone: The witch, and her alter ego, the bicycle-riding, dog-hating Almira Gulch, have been feared and reviled by scores of little ones for years.

But what if Miss Gulch had a softer, more vulnerable side? The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company explores that possibility in its latest production, Miss Gulch Returns, a one-man show featuring local cabaret performer Jerome Elliott in a delightful performance.

The show, written by New York singer/pianist Fred Barton, became a hit 20 years ago, and holds up well. The premise is that Miss Gulch feels disrespected after her big musical number was cut from The Wizard of Oz movie, so she hits the cabaret circuit in search of showbiz success—and love.

The show opens with Elliott, looking quite dapper in a black tux, detailing in the first musical number how he met Miss Gulch in a bar (“You’re The Woman I’d Wanna Be”). Moments later, he morphs into Miss Gulch herself, losing the tux and appearing in a long black dress and a black hat adorned with a large bow. (Elliott pulls off drag quite well.)

He warns us that if we’re not careful, “Miss Gulch is what every one of us is going to become”—old, bitter and frustrated (“I’m a Bitch”).

There are lots of laughs and plenty of suggestive lyrics (“Pour Me a Man”) as Miss Gulch struggles valiantly to find true love, singing torch songs for a living and hitting the bottle a bit too much. One of the highlights of the evening is one of the few ballads, the poignant “Everyone Worth Taking’s Been Taken.”

Elliott is a solid, seasoned performer with a strong voice. He seems right at home onstage and is reminiscent of an old song-and-dance man like Donald O’Connor. He possesses great comic timing and can really throw out a zinger, as he does to a lover who’s just dumped him: “One look at you, and I knew you were one of those guys who thinks monogamy is a game put out by Parker Brothers.” Later, he compares lovers to dentures: “You don’t want them in your mouth all night, but you do want them within arm’s reach first thing in the morning.”

This material isn’t earthshaking—there are no big show-stopping numbers, and there are slow moments here and there—but the lyrics are clever, and there’s just the right amount of raunchiness to keep us entertained. The piano-bar set is simple and just right, and musical director Charlie Creasy provides excellent keyboard accompaniment. The production runs just about 90 minutes, which is perfect for a one-man musical show.

Desert Ensemble Theatre’s production of Miss Gulch Returns is funny, bawdy, touching and worth seeing. Kudos to director Tony Padilla, who has helped Elliott create a believable, three-dimensional character in Almira Gulch. Even my sister would like her.

Miss Gulch Returns, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 16, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Running time is about 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $22; and $18 for students, seniors and military. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.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

The word “inspiration” came up a lot.

I was talking with composer and orchestrator Saverio Rapezzi, and Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, about the creation of a one-night-only production of a new musical which has taken 10 years to bring to life.

Desert Ensemble will present Esperanza: The Musical of Hope as a concert performance at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24.

How did it all start? Writer Ken Luber, a TV and movie writer living in Idyllwild, began writing Esperanza’s book and lyrics in 2005—about sports figures, of all things. The work deals with the falls from grace of these once-worshipped creatures and their hopes to return to their former glory. When Saverio Rapezzi arrived in Los Angeles, Luber was one of the people he contacted while looking for work. The rest, of course, is history.

Shawn Abramowitz came into the picture when Luber contacted the DETC, because of the company’s interest in performing new works.

DETC started years ago as a theater-and-writing group, headed up by Tony Padilla and influenced by Rosemary Mallett, a legendary name in Palm Springs theater. The group offered students not only technical training, but also scholarships—a unique approach. As a theater company, DETC is now in its fourth season.

Esperanza has been in rehearsals since October, and Abramowitz promises theatergoers “a polished piece, with great music and a compelling story.” The cast includes Keisha D., Charles Herrera, Theresa Jewett, Phillip Moore and several others.

Saverio Rapezzi—don’t you love the name?—lives in Los Angeles half the year. The other months are spent in Italy’s Tuscany region, where his musician wife conducts choirs and teaches at the conservatory where they met. In L.A., his company Film Scoring Lab creates music for movies. On his website, he offers examples of various sounds to express the different moods of the films; it’s a great tutorial on this very special skill.

Rapezzi cut his teeth on short films, but has gone on to score feature-length movies as well. “If it’s a good film, it’s easy,” he muses. “It inspires you—you pick up on the rhythm. And if I like the story, each scene’s music is already in my mind by the time it’s finished. I play the scenes back two or three times, and then start writing it out.”

Rapezzi is one of those rare and special composers who can hear music in his head and write it down without having to pick it out on an instrument. His main instrument is the guitar, and he holds degrees in classical guitar and composition from the Royal Philharmonic Academy of Bologna. He also studied film-scoring with stellar names including Ennio Morricone, and continued his graduate studies at UCLA. But his first influence, as with so many musicians, was his father. He was a classical guitarist, and at age 13, young Saverio followed his papa’s lead, eventually using the guitar “to compose what was in my heart.” Rapezzi then became a respected concert performer.

However, writing music for the movies was always his goal. His first big film was a Mexican psychological thriller, The Echo of Fear.

“It was so exciting to see my name on the screen in a cinema!” he remembers. The same director hired him again for his next movie—the ultimate compliment. He recently finished scoring Ignatius Lin’s The System Is Broken. In 2015, Rapezzi’s new opera will debut—in Hungary, even though it’s in Italian.

When Rapezzi teamed up with Ken Luber to create Esperanza, he wrote about half the show—just enough to use in an audition. When they brought it to DETC, and the answer was a resounding, “YES!” he immediately wrote the rest of the music.

What’s in store for the future of Esperanza? Abramowitz, who also works both as an actor and as an account executive for KESQ-TV, dares to dream: He wants to take it all the way to Broadway!

“Even if it changes one person’s life, that makes a huge impact,” he said.

Summing up, I couldn’t resist asking Rapezzi what he thought of Americans. He took time to reflect seriously, and announced, “They are the best at getting things done. They know how to make things work. Italians are creative, but … .” Then he shrugged.

Will the performance become the first step on the long road to Broadway? “It takes time,” Abramowitz said. “But the message is strong—it’s one of hope, no matter where life takes you.”

Can’t wait. It sounds like … an inspiration.

The concert reading of Esperanza: The Musical of Hope takes place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance