Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

The title Suddenly Last Summer has to be one of the most unforgettable, ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has revived this “Southern Gothic” one-act drama by Tennessee Williams, which was adapted into the amazing 1959 movie. That film gave me a permanent case of the creeps (and left me forever debating who was prettier: Elizabeth Taylor or Anthony Perkins?).

In fact, the show is actually referred to as a “horror story,” giving credence to my goose bumps. Here, producer Paul Taylor and director Jim Strait emphasize the music in those soft Louisiana accents and the rhythm of the drawling dialogue. “It’s free-verse poetry,” Strait told me, and he’s right.

The open set is a lush garden, in late spring 1936, burgeoning with life. It actually plays a part in the foreboding—using Venus flytraps, those plants which trap and devour insects, as a topic of discussion. Kudos to Allan Jensen for the lush set decoration and the plantation-style costumes.

The plot concerns a young man, Sebastian Venable, who has met a violent and gory demise while in Europe. His mother is an aging Southern belle, Violet Venable, played by Marjory Lewis, a wealthy society lady determined to cover up her spoiled son’s scandalous life and death. She firmly believes her money and her force of personality can wipe out the ghastly story. But her niece Catherine, played by Cat Lyn Day, remembers it clearly, as she was there, on vacation in southern Spain with him, and Violet is frantic to do something about her before she blabs the truth: What Violet really wants is a lobotomy to be performed on Catherine to destroy the part of her brain containing the story of Sebastian’s death. She schemes to bribe anyone standing in her way—relatives and doctors alike.(Interestingly, Strait informed the audience in his pre-show greeting that this topic was heavily on Tennessee Williams’ mind at the time of writing, as he was in deep therapy, and his sister Rose had actually had a lobotomy. Eek.)

The doctor, played by Cody Frank in the perfect seersucker summer suit, is full of Southern gallantry and determined charm. The relatives (who are actually related to Violet only by marriage, not blood, which does mean something in the South), are Catherine’s brother, George, a wannabe frat boy played by Winston Gieseke, and her mother, a wonderful ditz without portfolio, giddily played by Lorraine Williamson. As the poor relations who have caught an addictive whiff of money, they try to hide their greed and their wobbly moral compasses, yet keep their eyes firmly on their ambitious goals.

Rounding out the cast are Leslie Benjamin, playing the harassed maid, a professional worrier and the only one capable of running in that heat and humidity; and Alden West, playing the fragile nun Sister Felicity, an antiquated import from somewhere in the British Isles, who precariously accompanies Catherine from St. Mary’s Hospital, where she is being held prior to her possible surgery.

This is a women’s play: Unlike in the movie, we never meet Sebastian through flashbacks, so the conflict between Violet and Catherine becomes the center of the action. Marjory Lewis beautifully shades her portrayal of a fading but still fluttering Southern lady, hiding both her backbone of steel and her firm belief that her money can buy anyone. Her innocent lavender-dress-and-garden-hat façade belie a grim determination to rule her little world as if it was really important enough to circle the globe. Lewis gives us a powerful first-scene speech that will take your breath away. We gradually realize that she is driven by her strong conviction that reputation and social standing are everything, and that if faced with absent or weak men, she will control anything and everything necessary, from helming a debutante’s ball to a sailboat.

Cat Lyn Day, on the other hand, marvelously captures the opposing sides of the inner conflict Catherine experiences. She vacillates heartbreakingly between her helplessness when faced by older, wealthier or more-powerful people, and her shaky belief in herself. She hesitates to stand up to others—as Louisiana ladies are not supposed to make a fuss by challenging anyone. She wears a smart blue suit, but we see runs in her stockings. Her naturally elegant looks (great cheekbones!) can’t hide her insecurities. And yet she knows her truth, and no amount of medication or bullying will keep her from speaking it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime role, and Day has pulled out all the stops for it. Her masterful monologue will knock you out.

I wish the cast could have been spared the awkwardness of attempting to look like they were smoking, but it’s written right into the script. Sigh … The fabulous lighting by Phil Murphy, of course, makes the mood of this 95-minute (no intermission!) play a memorable experience.

Strait once again offers a definitive example of how to block stage movement, demonstrating his wonderful sense of balance as well as proving how action affects the mood of a show. He has pulled excellent performances out of his stars, and the commitment to the work makes this production shine. Even the descent into the morass is handled with care.

The audience stays firmly hooked as we are reeled in through this story. The feeling that a train wreck is about to happen before our eyes grows slowly and deliberately. We are in the hands of the unforgettable.

Suddenly Last Summer is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit

To be perfectly honest, I dreaded seeing The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has earned a sparkling reputation for its work … and then founding artistic director Ron Celona chooses to do an Edward Albee play? High risk!

Playwright Albee, of course, is best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he’s one of the premier names of Theatre of the Absurd. This began as a post-World War II movement, evolving out of the existentialist philosophy of the time. It grew on both sides of the Atlantic; the horrors of the war left people questioning the meaning of life and the purpose of their existence, which left them feeling futile and depressed. Interestingly, the term “theatre of the absurd” was coined by a theater critic named Martin Esslin. See? We’re not so bad.

So here is the absurd in this play: We meet Martin—not the critic; this is Martin Gray, flawlessly acted by Sean Smith—who seems to be a success in every area of his life. He’s an award-winning architect, healthy and in his prime, with a lovely wife and a nice, gay, teenage son rounding out the happy home front. The set (another terrific Jimmy Cuomo creation) reflects some of the minimalist style so loved by those in the world of design: Nice home. Nice life. But then he confides to his best friend—TV host/producer Ross Tuttle, played by the brilliant Arthur Hanket—that he is in love with … a goat! Really?

Well, imagine that this happened in your family. How would everyone respond? And that’s the essence of the Theatre of the Absurd: What would be the most unimaginable thing that could ever happen to you? And then it happens.

Ross reacts. Martin’s wife, Stevie, played by fascinating actress Sharon Sharth, reacts on several levels. Their son Billy, thoughtfully played by Ian M. White, is a teenager at an all-boys school, and he reacts. Gradually, we begin to lose hope that this is all a joke.

It would be impossible to overstate the quality of this cast. They are so learned in their craft, and perfectly chosen for their roles, that it is a pure pleasure to watch them move, listen to their exemplary clarity of their diction, revel in their magical and ever-changing faces, and feel them weave their spells through their masterful skills.

Guest director Joanne Gordon clearly had her hands full with this play, but working with such talented actors had to make this experience immensely satisfying. She has beautifully fine-tuned the electricity between the characters, and subtly ramped up the growing tension of the play to a climax that leaves her theatergoers stunned. The play delivers one sucker-punch after another, and the audience can only sit there, helplessly astonished.

Albee’s writing is genius, particularly with the dialogue, in which he cleverly captures the half-sentences and non-sequiturs that pepper our own conversations. We learn about the quality of intimacy in their relationships when we see the characters finish each other’s sentences. The verbal swordplay between husband and wife is delightful, intellectual and refreshing. The script must be peculiar to be read silently, but in the hands of these gifted interpreters of his work, it feels familiar, natural and realistic. There are some good solid laughs, some appreciative chuckles for the cleverness, and also some guffaws born out of shock … and there are tears. We see plenty of blame dished out, and rationalization, and confusion, and a real redheaded temper tantrum.

And there’s the Albee statement in the play that sums up the philosophy of the Theatre of the Absurd: “Nothing has anything to do with anything.”

The Goat offers moments that will live in the memory forever. One of the actors, face bare of makeup, flushes red before our eyes when freaked out—something usually only found in close-ups in the movies, and rarely even then. There are screams that would strip the vocal cords of us ordinary mortals. We sit humbly at ringside, being allowed to watch life-changing events take place before us. The audience rewarded this one-act work with silent and spellbound attention—it seemed like not a throat was cleared the entire time.

Hats off to the CV Rep team members—and, of course, to Ron Celona (celebrating his birthday, yay!), whose company has finally acquired a new home for the Coachella Valley Repertory Company: The former IMAX theater in Cathedral City has been secured for their expanded future. (When he started the fundraising, I said to him, “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to raise this much money!” He replied, “Me too.”) How wonderful to see a dream come true! It’s productions with the stellar quality of this one which have made this award-winning theater such a success.

From this theater experience, we learn that the only difference between Absurd and your life … is for it to happen. Think of the most surprising and unpredictable thing that ever happened to you in your life. Imagine that a goat …

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit

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

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

How auspicious to open a show on Chinese New Year. Gung hay fat choy, by the way, and welcome to the year of the dog. People born under this sign are loyal, honest, just, socially popular, helpful and decisive—and they keep all their worries and anxieties buried deep inside. Famous dogs include Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Elvis, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

That’s the good news. Election Day, presented by the hardworking, clever and talented people at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is our topic, but all the news regarding this play is not so good.

We now live in a world where humor, and particularly political humor, has changed drastically. Of course, who could ever have predicted that the show’s opening night would follow the ghastly reality of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., just two days before? With that and other recent horrors, in my mind, there just wasn’t much to find that’s funny about this play’s hostage mutilation, car bombs, violence or assault weapons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some amusing lines and situations in the show. I’m sure the script, by Josh Tobiessen, read well when DETC was making the decision about presenting this play. Many in the opening-night audience may disagree with my feelings, as the audience offered a lot of support and encouragement.

The greeter at the front door pasted cute little stickers on all of us as we arrived, reading “I VOTED TODAY.” It reminded me of all the kerfuffle and excitement and emotion of our 2016 elections. Election Day’s program-cover illustration was totally adorable. It set us in an enthusiastic if cautious frame of mind for the upcoming presentation. We were curious and intrigued to see what was to follow.

The story concerns a mayoral election in a northern California city. This is not a Republican-Democrat-independent political thing—this is about people trying to select a mayor from two choices: “the right guy” or the hated “Jerry Clark.” That was a relief—even for non-political me, as emotions still seem to run high every day on the news about American two-party politics.

The play opens on Brenda, an attorney, played by real-life TV weather person Kelley Moody, and Adam, her graphic-artist boyfriend, played by Sean Timothy Brown, who is moving into her apartment with her. The next scene introduces us to Adam’s sister, Cleo (Maricela Sandoval), and an activist hippie type, Edmund, or Eddie (Brian La Belle). Both are trying to look cool while slumped on a park bench and making plans for an act of protest about the election … with Molotov cocktails. None of these people come off as very likable, but when candidate Jerry Clark himself shows up for some desperate last-minute campaigning, the oily politician with his spiel of knee-jerk stock rigmarole, slickly played by Shawn Abramowitz, makes them look much nicer by comparison.

Directed by the legendary Rosemary Mallett, the action moves right along, and the actors are all on top of their rapid-fire lines. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and as the play bowls along, we watch some of the characters change—most notably Brenda, who ingests a batch of drugs and becomes hugely entertaining when high. In contrast, Sandoval’s Cleo—who loses some good lines through poor diction—comes off as an annoying teen rather than the young adult she’s supposed to be, despite drinking wine. (Note to young actors: It’s OK to turn your back on the audience, but not while speaking, especially in a room like the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, where the acoustics are so famously difficult.) Though Edmund smokes dope, he shows little change after—yes—inhaling, missing out on a great chance to mine the sure-fire comedy of portraying the stoned pothead, although his gravelly Nick Nolte-style voice is a great choice.

In contrast to that, observe Jerry Clark as he swallows a bottle of painkillers and shows us how it’s done, thanks to Abramowitz’ superb timing. Adam comes alive in a refrigerator bit, but otherwise stays pretty much the same. Good theater is all about the arc.

It’s interesting to see how the comedy that comes from the script compares and contrasts with the comedy that comes from the play’s director. Mallett has upped the pace with a lot of physical stuff, while the script throws out lines like the deadpanned, “You don’t need a truck to vote”—lines which come from situations and logic. Sometimes one works, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Unfortunately, sometimes neither.

Thirty years ago, this play probably would have been screamingly funny. How sad it is that today, at least for some of us, our laughs have been compromised by reality. Professional speakers tell me that about the only really safe topic to make fun of any more is yourself. While there are things to like about this production of Election Day—some of the humor does work, and Abramowitz is fantastic—there is just too much that rips the scabs off sensitivities to terrorism, bombs, victimization and harming other people to advance someone’s personal cause.

Election Day, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 25, 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

A ghastly, unimaginable tragedy can strike without warning—shocking you and changing your life in a moment, forever, beyond anything you ever envisioned for yourself.

But … why? Fate? Kharmic payback? Written on the wind from the day you were born? Are you destiny’s plaything? Or was there some random lightning bolt hurled by a careless deity, meant for someone else, that just happened to hit you instead? This desperate search for answers is the theme of Rabbit Hole, now being presented in a fine production by Dezart Performs, celebrating 10 years this season.

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, the play earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007, as well as five Tony nominations during its Broadway run. The script examines the pain and the different ways of dealing with the grieving process. Too little has been written about this experience, though there is certainly a lot more information about it now than there was 30 years ago, when all I could find were two soft-cover books and a “support” group that stupidly refused to let you join until you had suffered alone for three months. Whether or not you have yet been through the grieving experience, you might identify with someone in the family of this play, as it demonstrates how different your recovery may be from those around you.

The play is set in Larchmont, N.Y. Becca and Howie Corbett have been struck by one of those lightning bolts and are attempting to survive it. The mundane is counterpointed with unexpected shots of raw emotion as they struggle through their days. Inevitably, blame surfaces. Self-examination results in guilt, defiance and denial. Other members of the family are dragged in to the maelstrom—and then, so is a stranger.

The actors have had to turn on their very deepest method acting skills to make this play work. Michael Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director, plays Howie. He’s a New York broker who commutes and manages to leave his work behind when he comes home. His character is likable, and he makes us care for him, despite his serious demeanor. Most New York brokers I’ve encountered seem way more driven and obsessive than the quiet B-type personality Shaw gives us. His performance is thoughtful and sympathetic, but it might have been even more compelling with a dose of the slick and the cocky.

Yo Younger, as Howie’s wife, Becca, gives us a multi-layered performance that shows a lovely woman on the very edge of unraveling. Her fragility and her resilience are at war inside her, and her survival depends on which one wins. Younger makes interesting use of her mouth to convey so many emotions—and it’s something that acting students should carefully note, as Becca attempts to cope with her now-mountainous challenges, from a profound emotional healing to simply sorting the laundry.

Becca’s sister, Izzy, is played by Phylicia Mason; she’s a wild child and a loosely wrapped creature who lives for the excitement of club-hopping. She opens the play wearing an outrageous and dazzling outfit apparently left over from the previous evening’s excesses—but she, too, is forced to change her ways and try to accept a more conventional lifestyle, creating an unusual arc of growth. Mason is always fun to watch, and here, she cleverly uses her eyes to convey her character’s many facets.

Deborah Harmon is the girls’ mother, Nat. Whether or not Harmon was chosen because of her physical resemblance to Yo Younger, it is very refreshing to see a mother and a daughter onstage who actually look like they could be a real life mother and daughter. Her appearance and her impressive resume are only some of her skills; here, she gives us a solid and thoughtful performance that is a pleasure to watch. We know we are safe in the hands of a seasoned professional with her.

It’s rare to mention an actor’s age, but Jonathan Hatsios is just 19, which is indeed worth noting. He’s a College of the Desert student in the Theatre Arts program, and he is perfectly cast as Jason, the lightning bolt who changes everyone else’s life. He displays the slight awkwardness of youth as he attempts to handle a situation that requires a maturity way beyond his years. Bent on doing the right thing, he is at sea trying to deal with the adults in the room, and is very believable in this role.

Scott Smith directs Rabbit Hole—his first time directing with Dezart Performs, though he has been seen at many other valley theaters, in many capacities. Though I disagreed with some of his blocking choices, he has pulled performances out of his actors that make this play move. The rehearsals must have been exhausting. It’s all about the emotions, as we watch the characters make all the mistakes—focusing on others rather than on their own recovery, scolding to try to dominate each other, inappropriate behavior blurting out under stress, and so on.

Smith is aided by a plethora of skilled compatriots such as Thomas Valach doing set design (I hope you will appreciate the so-clever center-stage “painting” which becomes an entire room in Act II), costumes by Frank Cazares, stage management by Diane McClure, props by Cecilia Orosco, and lighting by the always-amazing Phil Murphy. Shaw shares a production credit with Clark Dugger, who also designed the sound. And as a salute to Dezart’s mission of involving and training young people, let’s mention the three working interns from Palm Springs High School: Sierra Barrick, Kaley Doherty and Sierra Johnson.

Rabbit Hole was made into a movie in 2010, starring Nicole Kidman, which I now look forward to viewing. I hope it contains the same emotional power and the serious investigation of the grieving process that this work from Dezart Performs does. And consider yourself warned: The last 60 seconds of this play will break your heart.

Rabbit Hole, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 21, 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

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday out of the way, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season—and one of the special seasonal events in our valley is always Desert Rose Playhouse’s ever-innovative holiday production. This year, the choice is Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel.

Set in New York (and heaven, do you mind), it visits Manhattan in 1948—a wild postwar world of swinging nightclubs, famous restaurants, jazz and a night life that goes on until dawn. The underbelly of the town contains a second world of mobsters and molls, gambling and gunplay, cheesy shows and characters … and that’s where we find ourselves, with everyone speaking thick Manhattan-ese.

Understand that everything in this light-hearted comedy is over the top—you will find no subtle gritty-realism method acting here. It’s all for fun and for the effect, and producer Paul Taylor has assembled a cast that fully comprehends this.

The show stars the extraordinary Loren Freeman as Irish O’Flanagan, a carrot-topped nightclub singer whose miserly, selfish and mean-spirited ways earn her some flashback visits to the past, plus a glimpse of her destined future, courtesy of a guardian angel. (I know, I know—you’re already seeing the parallels with Scrooge.) The angel, Albert, is played by Robbie Wayne, who has been named a “DRP artistic associate” for his ever-growing and varied list of jobs with the group, including creating the choreography for this “musical pastiche.” As Albert, he’s a slick, pinstripe-suited and smart-mouthed former performer in trouble with God for a batch of heavenly infractions who is facing expulsion to Hades. He bargains to get back into God’s Good Books by agreeing to go down to Earth and trying to convert Irish into a being who is also worthy of admission to heaven. Which, as you’ve guessed, she currently is not.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the lead actor in this show. Everything turns on Irish O’Flanagan’s magnetism and believability, as she is in almost every scene. Loren Freeman, with his astonishing aquamarine eyes, resonant foghorn bass voice and shapely legs, brings an arsenal of skills and talents more than equal to this task. (In fact, this entire show features many great gams, both male and female—if the Desert Theatre League ever creates a category for Best Legs, this show is the, umm, hands-down winner.) A consummate professional, Freeman actually takes a pass on opportunities to react when another actor is speaking, knowing that if he does, it would draw the audience’s eye away to him … yet when he does react, it’s flawless. His New York accent is perfect, and in that whisky-baritone voice, he relishes rolling his mouth around the script’s 1940s street-slang—like “a clop on the chops,” “doll,” “jawboning” and “stooge.” Even as Irish blusters and struts, we see the vulnerability beneath the surface, and when she sings, it can break your heart. It’s a case of absolutely perfect casting.

DRP seems close to forming its own repertory company with the return to the boards of such favorite actors as Terry Huber, Cat Lyn Day, Michael Pacas, Melanie Blue and Kam Sisco. Also included are some welcome new faces: Ruth Braun, James Owens and Karen Schmitt. A growing company is a healthy company, and they all get to fill the stage and show off their versatility by playing a delicious variety of multiple roles. Parker Tenney plays The Voice of God, which might surprise you.

There were a couple of understandable first-night fumbles and misfortunes, and in some places, the timing was a little bit off, but knowing Jim Strait, this will be fixed by the time you see the show. And some of the accents need work—they’re a little muddy. There were a couple of bewildering moments, possibly because of some anachronisms in the costumes and the music, but for “heaven’s” sake, who cares?

Among my favorite moments were Huber’s touching solo; some of the terrific quick changes; Sisco’s hilarious portrait of a drunken former Vaudeville star from back when drunks were still funny; extra touches like the antlers; some lovely harmonies; several moments of exquisite timing; and the expression “a case of the dismals,” which will promptly be absorbed into everyone’s current vocab. The first-night audience must have agreed, because they broke into spontaneous applause during and between the scenes. The 95-minute play is performed without an intermission, just in case your kidneys might want to know in advance.

The production is designed and directed by DRP’s founding artistic director, Jim Strait. He and Paul Taylor unabashedly adore Christmas, wearing outrageous Yuletide garb to welcome the playgoers. How refreshing is this? It makes you want to rush home and get out your Christmas decorations.

Playwright Charles Busch—whose name you will remember from other DRP productions including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/Coma—frankly admits A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as inspirations for Times Square Angel, along with the gangster movies of the ’40s, with those tough-talking chorus girls and thugs found in places like this show’s gaudy Club Intime.

Musical director Joel Baker has pre-recorded the accompaniment music, which mixes styles such as doo-wop, blues, gospel and, of course, some good old Christmas songs everyone knows. (You DO know “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaiian, right? Because they sing it here.)

Regarding the aforementioned repertory, returning costume director Mark Demry (who delights us with two-tone spectator shoes, perky hats and nostalgic fur stoles) and hair stylist Toni Molano (the wigs are hugely important in this show … though some are a bit weird) are again joined by the incomparable Phil Murphy as lighting director, whose contribution makes this his 49th show for DRP. Steve Fisher is the stage manager once again. How pleasant for this company to be able to rely on the same tried-and-true talents for every production!

This play is fun. It will make you feel good. It will infuse you with Christmas spirit. You will want to immediately rush home and dust off the Christmas tree lights—and maybe it will even inspire you to give Christmas gifts of theater tickets or even season subscriptions, thereby giving ideal presents to everyone!

Times Square Angel is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 17, at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit

The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has opened its new season with Venus in Fur. It’s a two-person, one-act show with no intermission—and it will knock your socks off.

It opened off-Broadway in 2010 and moved to Broadway in 2011; it was nominated for two 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Play. It’s currently running in the West End of London; Berlin; and … Rancho Mirage!

Director Ron Celona declared that the timing could not be more perfect for this play, due to the recent sexual-harassment scandals. It is set “today” (the cell-phone styles instantly reveal the era), and the show is about an actress auditioning for an unusual play set in 1870. She is facing a male playwright … a situation that puts us on edge right from the start, fearing the possibility of some sort of ghastly Harvey Weinstein-ian casting-couch calamity. A thunderstorm rages overhead, adding to the tension. The playwright is exhausted and disgusted after a fruitless day of tryouts, and the actress is late for her reading, soaked from the rain and furious. What could possibly go wrong?

Venus in Furs playwright David Ives, a Yale grad living in New York, has crafted an extraordinary work with this play. He’s most famous for his one-act plays, and garnered awards and honors for many of them. He has also created full-length plays, plus adaptations of both musicals and 17th- and 18th-century French plays. Here, multilayered and mercurial changes keep us off balance throughout, as we learn the playwright’s play is about the infamous 19th-century Austrian, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whom we have to thank for—you guessed it—masochism.

They say that the second you meet another person, there is a huge amount of psychic information exchanged about which person will control what in the impending relationship. Through this play-within-a-play, we deal with domination, submission, power plays, struggles, acceptance and rebellion. We see lies come to light. We see roles reversed. Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re seeing.

The actress, Vanda, is played by Angela Sauer, whose bouncy auburn hair sets off a beautiful face that shifts endlessly with her astonishing variety of emotions. You can’t take your eyes off her … not just because of the garters and lacy lingerie and black stockings and high heels, but because of her rapid switches from one personality to another. She snaps in and out of character: now a cranky actress and next a demanding director and then a radiant goddess Aphrodite and now a haughty countess and suddenly a smoldering dominatrix. Her vocal talents will surprise you—she gives each of her roles a special voice, with pitch, volume, speed, placement and even regional accents changing.

In contrast, Patrick Zeller—perfectly cast as the tightly wound playwright Thomas—internalizes and suppresses much of his emotions, though he never fails to let us know what he is thinking and feeling. He’s a thinking actor, whose subtleties provide the perfect foil for the high-energy and colorful Vanda. He morphs through his different roles, managing to be equally believable in each one. The abrupt switches of power between the characters catch us off guard every time, but Zeller rides every wave with ease. He is pitch-perfect in every complex part that he plays.

Ron Celona, also CV Rep’s founding artistic director, modestly credits the actors rather than his own directing skills for the success of this play. “They are smart and talented,” he said. “And sexy!” His steady directorial hand is evident, nonetheless, in the exquisite visual balance he maintains on this one-set stage. But it is the tension between the actors that is the most impressive part of this play. The undeniable chemistry between them increases unbearably as Celona gradually tightens the screws, making it impossible for us to guess what lies ahead. No director could have done more with the atmosphere … and when a completely unexpected plot twist occurs, we are suckered in helplessly. We know we will never be safe watching this play.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is simply designed, offering an ideal backdrop for the crackling energy onstage. He uses a palette of grays to contrast with the lightning and thunder storm viewed through the high windows, which echoes the electricity between the two characters. The set screams “crummy old lower East Side New York.” An innocent daybed sits center stage, making us nervous with its unspoken possibilities.

Moira Wilkie Whitaker gets credit for that lightning and thunder, along with Randy Hansen, the sound designer. Not an easy assignment! Add rain, and some finely timed effects, and you’ll see they had their work cut out for them.

Julie Oken’s costume design deserves a special mention, not the least of which was finding that bustier and those really high stiletto-heeled boots for Vanda to waltz around in … and those little S&M touches. Linda Shaeps’ hair and makeup design is, as usual, lovely, but what is especially astonishing is how Vanda’s makeup stayed on with everything she went through in this show. HOW? Audiences want to know, Miss Linda!

This is not a play for the faint of heart. It poses a lot of relationship questions and looks at social issues from both sides, causing us to examine our own deep-seated thoughts and beliefs. It brings us face to face with inequalities and prejudices and stuck ideas that still exist today. It peers beneath our surfaces to find what lies hidden far beneath. It is fascinating and confusing and a little scary, and there isn’t one dull moment in the entire show.

So gather your courage, and go see Venus in Fur. Besides, how often do you get to see a girl in garters?

Venus in Fur is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the show runs just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. There is no show on Tuesday, Oct. 31. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit

It’s a brilliant idea for a one-set play.

A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, now bring produced by Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, takes the tiniest slice of life and expands it into universal lessons, just as Gurney expands the four-person cast into a dozen characters in the show. It’s a terrific concept, and producer Ron Celona has invited guest director Luke Yankee to mastermind it.

Here it is: It’s 1993, and two people who were once briefly involved find each other, years later, at a party in Boston. They are out on the huge balcony away from the noise, where it’s easier to talk. As they discuss their long-ago relationship, other partygoers drift out into their space and interrupt with their own issues. The really interesting thing is that these 10 guests are played by just two other performers! It’s a golden opportunity for these two character actors to show off their versatility.

Playwright A.R. Gurney is the author of Love Letters (which I’ve seen four times). It’s an extraordinary play, and there is nothing else like it. Same with The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, and now Later Life. He is famous for plays about upper-class WASPs; we find that although their problems might be different from those of others, they are quite serious. Gurney’s mastery of dialogue removes the theater’s “fourth wall” and deeply involves the audience in their stories. The extraordinary feat of writing in Later Life is that Gurney gives each character his or her own voice—and I mean all of them: The 10 character roles each have personalities and appearances so wildly different from one another that if an audience isn’t alerted to this, they might believe there really are 12 different people in the cast. There aren’t many plays that give actors this kind of opportunity (though it happened to me last year when I played five roles in a play!). It’s important that the audience appreciates the extraordinary work being done here—and enjoys the fun of it.

Guest-director Luke Yankee has a stunning resume that speaks for itself—and he has tackled the challenge of Later Life with zest. The 90-minute show’s pace is brisk, despite the restrictions of one set and one act. (There’s no intermission—a great choice! It would have totally destroyed the timing.) His firm guiding hand is evident in the body language and the impressive variety displayed by the character actors as they morph from one role into another.

The play centers around Austin, played by William Fair, whom we meet immediately. The onion-layers of Austin peel away gradually throughout the play, revealing more and more of him and creating surprises right up to the very last second of the show. Our first suspicions of stereotype crumble away as he gradually reveals an unexpectedly complex and conflicted inner life. William Fair keeps us wondering as he juggles Austin’s instinctive self-protection along with his co-dependency and his longing to burst free from his shell.

Ruth is the lady who knew him Back When, and actress Barbara Niles achieves a sympathetic portrayal of a woman whose steel-trap memory contrasts with multiple mental games of, “What If?” as well as a huge need to be accepted and liked. Ruth combines her wounded past with a brave determination to be happy in the future; her struggles are thickly slathered over with what some will see as courage, and others will perceive as a dumb resistance to learning from her history. Niles gives us a deep portrait of a lovely, if sometimes exasperating, lady.

Gorgeous Teri Bibb plays five female roles who contrast wildly. We first see her as Sally, the party’s hostess—sweet and efficient, looking like a model in a women’s magazine. Next she is Marion, an older lady and the frustrated wife of the irrepressible Roy. Then she turns up as socialite Nancy, a sleek and stylish mystery lady who has just been dumped by her companion. As Esther McAlister, an aging Southern belle whose lively attitude makes her a perfect match for her fun-loving husband, she is trying to adjust to the culture shock of moving North across the Mason-Dixon Line. And as working-musician and personal friend Judith, she becomes a thin, tense and tightly wound redhead. She is beautiful in every role.

But it is Joel Bryant who knocks us out with his five male characters. His transformation from one role to the next is so complete that he is unrecognizable every time he comes through the door. He starts us off with an astonishing portrayal of a philosophy professor desperately trying to quit smoking. Then he transmogrifies into Roy, the cranky but feisty old bird driving his wife nuts. Next he changes into Duane, a nerdy computer whiz whose crackling internal energy (watch his blood pressure!) is about one minute away from a massive explosion. Then he switches to become Ted McAlister, an outgoing silver fox from the South with a charming interest in his fellow man and a sweet sort of breezy innocence. Last, he becomes Walt, a squash-obsessed Bostonian who is the loyal best friend of Austin, in a performance so completely realized that you will swear you know this guy. It is amazing work by Joel Bryant; I predict awards.

Let’s talk about the gorgeous set, another triumph from CV Rep’s award-winning resident set designer, Jimmy Cuomo. The beautiful, sophisticated decor sets us up for a fancy party overlooking Boston’s famous harbor, with the city’s tall buildings as a backdrop. The open stage features a patio with one door leading back into the house. Coming from there, we hear muted sounds of music and chatter; kudos to sound designer Terence Davis for keeping the background noise at the appropriate level where it’s heard, but does not not interfere with these conversations. Not easy—but the balance is excellent. Karen Goodwin, the assistant stage manager and sound tech, shares in these finely tuned choices. The clever contributions of stage manager and lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker are perfectly correct for this play, as are Aalsa Lee’s 1993-era costumes, reminding us of the colors and styles worn “way back” then. Production manager and associate designer Doug Morris contributed his talents and keen eyes to this show, while the incomparable Lynda Shaeps designed the makeup and hair styles; wait until you see her amazing work that transforms the character actors. Selene Rodriguez assists with Shaeps’ hair and makeup effects with great results.

Ron Celona’s production of this “dramedy” could not be better. It shows a huge amount of thought, and fascinating results. You will never see anything else like it—so make sure you do see it!

Later Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 21, at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit

Dezart Performs’ description of Chapatti, now playing at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, includes one actor, one actress, one dog and … HOW MANY cats? Oh, my aching allergies!

Of course, they don’t have actual cats on stage … remember that expression about “herding cats”? They’d be all over the room. And even a dog is … well, an unreliable performer. So fear not, my fellow feline-allergy sufferers: All the animals are mimed in this show. However, with great names like Prudence, Salvadore and Indiana, they seem very much alive and real. Chapatti is also a dog, named after an East Indian dish—and you’ll find out why in the play.

And you’re going to love it—the play, that is: Chapatti is the surprise of the season, a two-person show that will reach even the most hard-hearted, cynical, world-weary, super-sophisticated audience. It is an emotional shocker that only the Irish could create … and I can’t imagine any other two actors than Dana Hooley and Dale Morris playing these roles. Set in modern-day Dublin, Chapatti reaches deeply into the lives of two ordinary working-class people and their pets.

The author, Christian O’Reilly, has created a most masterful script. Just when you think you know everything about these two characters, he drops a bomb, and then another, and then another that changes everything, making the characters ever more complex and infinitely more precious. O’Reilly has brilliantly brought to life two characters you will never forget. He reminds us how much pain is hidden in most people, and how much our wounds define us. How often do we rush to judgment about people without knowing their full story? This play teaches us to look deeper before reaching conclusions. It’s a lesson worth remembering.

O’Reilly also gives us some very interesting information about pets. Having recently adopted an African spurred tortoise, we were most eager to learn these nuggets of wisdom, which hopefully apply to all creatures great and small.

Michael Shaw’s direction is perfect. He craftily unfolds the pace and intensity of the script so that we are rapt for the full 90 minutes. You can’t take your eyes off these actors because of the play’s flawless rhythm. You won’t consciously notice it, but you’ll sure feel it. The actors’ moves are minimalized and thoroughly motivated, and the blocking gets full marks.

Part of the reason for that lovely rhythm goes to the amazing lighting by Phil Murphy, who has truly surpassed his own genius with this work. He focuses the attention exactly where it’s needed, and as a result, the sweeps from one location to another are not just efficient, but enhancing. The rich colors are glorious, and I particularly loved his “warm” lighting when it was used.

Yet more kudos go to the set designer, Thomas Valach. His creation of a multi-use stage works magnificently with the lighting and the direction to create a variety of locales that blend smoothly and effortlessly. He expands the stage into a teahouse, a graveyard, a veterinarian’s office, a dark and lonely bachelor’s apartment, and a home overrun with cats—all seamlessly. I particularly loved the invisibly supported window.

But the actors! Let’s talk about the performances of Dale Morris and Dana Hooley. First, they have chosen to use that lilt in their voices that defines Irish speech, rather than affecting heavy accents—an interesting choice which works and makes every word understandable. Second, these are not gorgeous Hollywood-glamour types or dazzling feature-perfect TV stars. These actors look their parts: two simple people of humble means whose working life is now behind them. Everyday people, I guess they could be called. Great casting! Yet their spirits rise to make them so very special—and you will find them fascinating. Third, the script is nonstop verbiage composed of monologues or conversations, and the body of work is a feat of memorization—which these actors breeze through without breaking stride. The variety of emotions they, and we, experience are as many as The Emerald Isle’s famous 40 shades of green. We were not prepared to be so moved by these very skilled performers, and the experience is one that will captivate you. Bring a hanky.

Let’s also praise the work of Diane McClure, the production and stage manager; Jim Lapidus the costume designer (who has a surprise of his own up his “sleeve” in the final scenes); and Clark Duggar, a producer who also designed the sound.

Shaw tells us that Dezart is “moving on” and beginning to look for a new home of their own as the company concludes its ninth season of shows in the Coachella Valley. The Desert Theatre League has bestowed 147 nominations and 55 awards on Dezart, which has mounted four world premieres.

Afterward, I came home to hug my tortoise.

Chapatti, 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 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. The play is 90 minutes long, with no intermission, and tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit

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