CVIndependent

Fri10192018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Huzzah! The season has begun—and the only season that matters, of course, is the theater season—and it began with Rancho Mirage’s Desert Rose Playhouse, as usual.

Desert Rose’s season kickoff included a special event this year: the christening of the Phil Murphy and Robert McCracken Stage. You know these names; they’re the star supporters of DRP, and Phil has designed the lighting for the theater’s shows from the beginning in 2010. (They also own the cutest and most obedient theater puppy, a little darling who willingly attends every performance.) The theater’s founders, Paul Taylor and Jim Strait, held a special pre-show ceremony, praising Murphy and McCracken’s “matchless talents, generosity and friendship.” This kind of act gives a whole new meaning to “support for the arts,” because over the summer, the two donors financed, designed and built an entirely new lighting system for the theater. Inspirational. Congratulations, all!

So begins Desert Rose’s season as our area’s LGBT theater, this year to include five offerings. The first, Loot, by playwright Joe Orton, will run for five weekends. Director Jim Strait informed his packed house of first-nighters that the play had originally opened in England in 1966, where even the Brits were too shocked by it to let it live—despite the new freewheeling spirit in music, film and fashion. (Bell bottoms! Mini skirts! Carnaby Street!) Loot was revived several years later, when it became a huge hit.

Here’s the thing about British comedies: They’re like Beaujolais—they don’t always travel. For the life of me, I can’t understand why. I’m reminded of the experience of seeing a movie—also in 1966, in fact—in London, where I laughed so long and hard that tears poured down my face. Several months later, back in North America, the same film arrived in a theater, and I dragged a bunch of friends to see it, cautioning them not to hurt themselves from roaring with laughter. Everyone sat there pretty much stone-faced. WHY?? Who knows?

So for producer Paul Taylor to bring a play like Loot to American audiences is brave, indeed. Many aspects of the play need to be considered, not the least of which is what to do about the British accents. For Americans to understand the many dialects of England is not always easy, and we all know some people who would be lost without the subtitles while watching, for example, the addictive Downton Abbey on TV. Director Strait has chosen a safe and comprehensible “mid-Atlantic” accent, neither British nor American, for his actors. It means you can always perfectly understand them—but some of the comedy might be sacrificed without the hilarity or lilt of English speech.

It’s all about the choices, isn’t it? The posture. The timing. The comedic attitude. The costumes, by Mark Demry. The stage managing of Steve Fisher. The set design of Thomas L. Valach. And we’ve already mentioned Phil Murphy’s lighting, of course.

But the actors’ choices are most important of all. Wendy Cohen plays Faye, the only female in the cast, a chameleon-like character who constantly switches her relationships and her villainess/heroine attitude. (Confidentially, we wouldn’t weep if her first costume was replaced—it’s too large for her, and the color is just wrong.) Garnett Smith, the most physically comedic member of the cast, romps through his role as the bereaved husband, father and resident victim. Harold/Hal, his son, is played by Jason Hull, a terrific choice, since his body type is so like Garnett Smith’s that it makes their father-son relationship totally believable. Hal’s dangerous friend Dennis is played by Tim McGivney, and speaking of body types, he resembles Hal enough to make them seem like natural friends—great casting! Tom Warrick has the role of Truscott, a mysterious and bombastic creature who insists he’s from the Water Board, which hardly anyone believes, as we all watch him become progressively weirder. Meadows, played by Allen Jensen in his desert acting debut, is an offstage cop, about whom many references are made until, just when we think we’ll never see him, he appears at last!

Orton’s script is a talky one, full of the British Comedy Absolute Requirements of panic, lack of logic, misunderstandings, surprises, murky motivations, incessant entrances and exits with banging doors, contradictions, preposterous situations, plans going awry, shrieking, tears, cover-ups, absurdities, shifting alliances, reversals of fortune and general total outrageousness. The hardworking cast members have their hands full, because there’s a lot to master in this show, and that comedic timing is essential to making it work. They get more laughs in the second act (perhaps aided by an intermission during which we are bombarded with great ’60s music).

If anything, I’d like to see this cast give us more—bigger reactions, more expressive faces, wilder gestures and more extreme body work. I really hope they loosen up a bit, relax into their roles and enjoy the sheer fun of this brand of comedy. What would feel like overacting in America is routine style in England!

Like they say: A comedian is someone who says funny things, but a comic is one who says things funny. And this is a show made for comics—on either side of the Atlantic.

Loot is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Regional theater companies don’t often have historic events taking place on their stages, but our comfy, 85-seat Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage is now mounting a 50th-anniversary production of a play that holds an important place in American theater’s history.

Robert Patrick, the author of The Haunted Host, was there on opening night to watch the new production of what’s considered one of the first contemporary gay plays. “I never dreamed I’d be seeing this play 50 years later,” he confided to me.

The whole thing happened as a result of having a venue at which to perform such works: the now-famous Caffe Cino. Back in the ’60s, Joe Cino opened the place so playwrights and actors could create productions that offered the polar opposite of Broadway’s razzmatazz.

“We didn’t know we were pioneers,” said Patrick. “But four Pulitzer Prize winners (and finalists) came from the Cino. John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, was the first. Lanford Wilson, author of Talley’s Folly; William Hoffman, who wrote As Is, and who co-starred as Frank in the first Haunted Host; and Tom Eyen, who went on to create Dreamgirls—all got their start at Caffe Cino, along with the writers of Hair and Dames at Sea, and names like Al Pacino and Sam Shepard.”

This is where LGBT theater got its very start. Joe Cino’s thought-provoking motto was, “Do what you have to do.” And so in 1964, Lanford Wilson’s play The Madness of Lady Bright was the first ever gay play to hit the boards.

“We called him ‘The Mozart from Missouri,’” reminisced Patrick.

I inquired as to the critics’ response to the show. “They were completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of the writing—to the point that the subject simply didn’t matter. It wasn’t even mentioned in the reviews! All they could think about was the writing.”

So when The Haunted Host came along later that year, the road to success for LGBT theater had already begun to be paved.

Of course it takes place in the ’60s, in New York’s Greenwich Village. “The stage was so small,” remembered Patrick, “I was about a foot away from the audience.”

At the Desert Rose, the open stage that greets playgoers is instantly recognizable as one of those tiny apartments stuffed with comfortable clutter (mine was on Jarvis Street in Toronto), and includes set-designer Steve Fisher’s great touches, like a bookcase made with bricks and boards, which back then was mandatory decor. The bright colors, the plush cushions, the souvenirs and the overfilled closet (with drag items, never referred to—a wealth of boas, spangles and furs) are all flawlessly illuminated by lighting designer Phil Murphy. Costume designer Mark Demry continues the decade’s theme: It’s an instant trip down Memory Lane for those fortunate enough to have been there.

From a theatrical point of view, however, all of this creates a challenge: There just isn’t much room left in which to move. Under the always-deft direction of Wendy Cohen, however, the two actors maneuver cleverly in the limited space.

The three scenes are separated by live music. The play opens with a folksinger (so prevalent in those days; this one even sports a loud tie-dye T-shirt), soprano Lin Gillham, on guitar. She is also the production’s stage manager, and what a job that must be. The other two entr’actes use stubble-bearded (not the fashion back then!) musician/vocalist Miguel Arballo (whose diction could use a wakeup call), also on a six-string. Oddly enough, the songs have absolutely nothing to do with the action, plot, mood or characters of the play, and except for establishing the time period, they add nothing. But, then, it was the ’60s, when everything was puzzling.

From the moment the play begins, when Jim Strait bursts onto the stage, you can’t take your eyes off him. He played this part in the ’80s in San Diego, but even that doesn’t explain his magisterial command of the role of Jay. It is rare to see an actor so enmeshed with his character that you can actually see a thought dawn in his eyes. We can only hope that every actor in town will rush to see this play, to learn from a master like Strait. Of course, the wittiness of the dialogue and the opportunity to toss around such wonderfully funny lines helps. The script is peppered with one-liners and smart-mouth comments; you’d swear that Strait just made them up. Wait until you see him do his breathtaking monologues and make those stunning quips. The sole problem in this brilliant performance is, to be honest, his hair: The bangs are so long that they keep flopping into his eyes, and although Jay sometimes tosses his hair to great effect, Jim Strait sometimes unconsciously wipes his curls back. It’s like an actor unaware of his hands constantly fussing with an itchy nose. It’s great hair—maybe a simple trim of the bangs could cure this?

Jay is a writer. And one of his friends sends him a wannabe writer, new in town from Iowa: Frank, played by former ballet-dancer John Ferrare. The gorgeous Frank has never encountered an actual gay person before. And so it begins. Ferrare, beautifully playing a straight man (in both senses of the word) to Strait’s comic character, has to work indescribably hard to provide the setups and to control the timing of the lines—some delivered so rapid-fire as to make an Uzi envious. Frank needs a place to stay (didn’t we all back then), so the recently bereaved Jay provides his pull-out couch. Frank has an agenda: He wants help with his writing, so he hopes to use Jay’s experience and skills to improve a play he has already written and brought along. Ferrare hits just the right note with his seriousness, and then he shocks us (all too rarely) with one of his light-up-the-world smiles.

I asked Patrick what has changed with his play in its 50 years. “The attitudes of the period,” he replied. “It puts me through the meat grinder to see the play now. … Nobody today could be as ignorant as Frank was then about gays. People ask me if I am the real Jay. Actually, Jay was Joe Cino! And Frank is all of us writers. That’s why I combine the comedy with the drama, like Shakespeare. The play is really about relationships, about codependency—and that, unfortunately, never seems to change.

“I set out to give the audience absolutely every bit of entertainment I could give them.”

And does he ever. Run, don’t walk, to see The Haunted Host.

The Haunted Host is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, June 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Nudity! Four-letter words! Sex! Gosh, I thought, I may need to write about how shocking The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is.

But guess what? The Desert Rose Playhouse’s latest production isn’t all that shocking. Instead, it is FUN!

This fast-paced, swirling, millennia-spanning history of the world is actually funny! “Funny” is something we don’t associate with history class much, especially if you had teachers like mine, who not only made the topic dry and boring, but made it worse because the teachers were dry and boring themselves. This show skews those history lessons by asking: What if the world had started out gay?

The “Stage Manager,” played by Terry Huber with an authoritative British accent and a cool demeanor, cues the beginning of the world—which we get to actually witness, thanks to a well-used projection screen; sound, courtesy of multitalented director Jim Strait; and the legendary Phil Murphy’s lighting. The “real” stage manager, Steve Fisher, handles the show’s many changes from the tech booth with characteristic smoothness.

The play starts with Adam, the first man, popping onstage wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a fig leaf. (Well, how else did they keep those leaves pinned on? Did you ever really think about it?) He eventually meets Steve, not Eve, as we have been misled to believe. If you can possibly get your mind off the fact that neither one of them has an ounce of body fat, you can ponder the question of why Peter Mins is credited with the costumes. Costumes? These are costumes? Well, brace yourself for the rest of the show, when you’ll get costumes! (If you’ve seen any of Mins’ work during his 50 years of experience, you must see this, his farewell show, because he is retiring from the business after this production, alas.)

So we meet Ryan Dominguez, playing Adam, and Timothy McGivney as Steve. They manage to spend several thousand years in this play without aging a day, or ever getting cosmetic surgery. Both actors manage their difficult roles and speeches beautifully, and play their laugh lines with wonderfully straight faces. Most important of all, they are convincing. Re-writing the Bible is no small task.

They meet the girls: Wendy Cohen plays Jane, a self-confessed bull-dyke who tries to be mean, but whose sparkling blue eyes hint at vast depths of emotion and humor. Mabel, her femme partner, is played by Lorraine Williamson, a blonde Valkyrie who magnificently resurrects the genius of the late and much-mourned Canadian comedienne, Barbara Hamilton. Jane and Mabel romp through the centuries, reinventing themselves constantly and earnestly. They throw a multitude of surprises at the audience, particularly when Cohen bursts into song, in an astonishingly sweet and true soprano.

The rest of the world’s population is skillfully played by four quick-changing actors who transmogrify into countless roles. Pretty Phylicia Mason gets the girlie ones (Fluffy, Peggy), and she is a delight to watch in every one, including such challenges as a sympathetic Mormon. Mark Demry eats up his tall-guy roles with great flair, obviously relishing turns such as the wonderfully caped pharaoh, and a weary Santa. Jeremy Johnson struts his stuff by playing everything from a serious Bible-wielding priest to a skimpily dressed Christmas elf with a flawless tan. And scratchy-voiced Toni Molano confidently tackles her juicy roles, playing everything from a smug sow on Noah’s ark to a rich televangelist rabbi in a jazzy wheelchair.

Fun? You bet. So let’s talk about the script: If there were a cuss jar on the stage, it would be full by the end of the first act. It would be refilled in the second act (especially thanks to Cohen’s “delivery” scene). But somehow, the language isn’t offensive—it’s just there. Go figure. Park your prudery at the door, and enjoy the wit.

The humor comes mostly from social satire, which is not an easy chore to write or deliver. It targets everything from Greenwich Village to ABBA to fashion choices. Relationships, with their ups and downs and constant change, supply the heavier notes. The tragedies that befall all of us—losses, failures, health issues—present themselves here, too.

How did producer Paul Taylor choose this Paul Rudnick play for Desert Rose’s Christmas show, and how did Jim Strait ever direct it? One has to wonder how many light and sound cues alone are required to stage this. More than the Follies? It is an awesome achievement, gentlemen. The only downer is the stage itself: It’s not making those booming sounds as it was during Desert Rose’s last show, but now it’s creaking and squeaking under the actors’ steps, sometimes loudly enough to interfere with speeches.

If you are curious about what would have happened if the world had started out gay, run to see The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. And be ready to laugh out loud.

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Pecans! Who doesn’t love ‘em?

Playwright Stephen Bittrich, on a chatty program page, admits to being born in a pecan environment: Seguin, Texas, the setting for his two-act Home of the Great Pecan, now being performed in Joshua Tree. The Hi-Desert Cultural Center is hosting the play through Saturday, July 13.

The publicity hints at UFO sightings and other weirdness, and, of course, the play takes place in the South, whence come pecans. The play echoes Sordid Lives, Trailer Trash, and other wildly colorful spoofs of the South’s characters … in the 1980s, no less. Was there ever another time like that?

Huge kudos to director Wendy Cohen for even attempting this show—the cast contains 15 actors. Casting this, in a small town? I can’t even imagine the logistics of scheduling rehearsals, let alone wrangling such a mob. And the show is in a “black box” setting! The theater seats about 90 people (with preferred seating in the first two rows, which usually sells out) and is cozily edged in thick black curtains on three sides, surrounding the raked seating and facing an almost-bare stage with a giant screen upstage. The screen cleverly provides instant backgrounds of everything from a beauty parlor, to a starry outdoor country night, to a bathroom where a beauty contestant pitches hysterics and attempts hunger strikes. The actual physical scenery is conveniently minimized, making the quick setting changes a snap.

I kept thinking: Charming. From the warm greetings at the door from Anne and Carol, to the friendly audience welcome by center president Jarrod Radnich before the show, to the delightful servings of actual pecans at the intermission (plus gratis nonalcoholic refreshments in the lobby throughout), the theater exudes comfort and ease. The chairs relax you; the country-Western mood music makes you smile and tap your toes; the audience chats and hugs. The play is rated PG-13. Pleasant.

The basic plot swirls around the mysterious theft of the Great Pecan, a huge and heavy statue honoring the nut. The crime occurs on the cusp of Seguin's annual celebration and pecan harvest. We are treated to a look inside the minds of a homicidal bride, a sheriff who sleeps in his office, the town’s only gay guy (who almost steals the show), a Baptist preacher with more sins than his entire congregation, a Yankee juvenile delinquent, and on and on. And, of course, UFOs! Could it get any more strange?

It’s really all about the friendships, relationships, the community—and everyone’s emotional investments in each other.

So, the cast: They were surprisingly well fitted to their physical types, which include several decades of age difference, with the exception of Kathleen Anderson, whose great smile and pretty face were wasted unconvincingly on her playing a teenage boy. The women—Velma Demaray, Marge Doyle, Toni Molano, Becky Renish, Anja Homburg and especially Lorraine Williamson as “Rosy,” and Michaela Chambers as “Priscilla Rotweiler” (don’t tell me you don’t love that name)—were very believable in their casting. The men—Scott Cutler, Dave Jessup, Tim Kelly, Dennis Priest, Karl Weimer and especially Richie Sande—all bore good physical resemblances to their characters. Jack Kennedy contributes “The Voice of Johnny Johns,” the radio announcer, and is well-cast because of his fine voice.

Most of the cast could benefit from vocal training. Last syllables of words were dropped; some actors never mustered the volume to be heard by the entire room; accents were wildly varied. Too often in regional theater, voice is the last consideration. What a shame, because voice problems compromise the audience’s understanding of the play. And we have to smack the wrists of those who bobbled their lines—but give stars to the actors who kindly jumped in to save each other's bacon.

Yeah, there were a few debatable directorial choices, but in the end, that script shines through, thanks to plenty of laugh lines, bizarre predicaments and wild characters. You can learn more about the playwright at www.stephenbittrich.com.

It’s a one-hour drive from nearly anywhere in our Low Desert to get to Joshua Tree, but it’ll be at least 10 degrees cooler there! After all, it is the Home of the Great Pecan.

The Home of the Great Pecan takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, July 13, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday, July 7. The show is performed at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Highway 62, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 or $20. For tickets or more information, call (760) 366-3777, or visit www.hidesertculturalcenter.com.

Published in Theater and Dance