CVIndependent

Sun06162019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

It’s autumn, and again, the theater season begins. How auspicious that the beginning of our fourth season of theater reviews coincides with the opening of the fifth season of plays by the fabulously successful Desert Rose Playhouse.

With all the doom-sayers proclaiming that live theater is dead, and that newspapers are dead, we have both survived.

This year, Desert Rose’s artistic director, Jim Strait, tells us that he and producer Paul Taylor are “addressing the woes of the world by doing comedy.” What a great idea! Their plans for 2016-17 include The Santaland Diaries, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom with Coma, Southern Baptist Sissies and Clark Gable Slept Here. If these crazy titles are any indication, we’re in for a LOT of fun this year at our desert’s LGBT playhouse.

The initial offering, POZ, was written by Michael Aman. It’s set in 2003 in The City (as New Yorkers proudly call it), and later on a beach in Massachussets. The play was nominated for a Carbonell Award (a theater award in Florida) last year, and this is only the third-ever production of the show. The writing is fluid and filled with echoes, and instead of being plot- or action-driven, it’s a comedy-splashed investigation into the lives and relationships of some fascinating characters.

The show’s open stage, specially designed by Thomas Valach, is painted by Walter Lab into a bright-red sky with fluffy white clouds. Red? It’s a clue. The set is minimalist, with just a curving set of stairs, one low platform and an armchair—across which the sky and clouds are also painted. Brilliantly lit by the award-winning Phil Murphy, the set is where the actors move into a variety of settings which our imaginations can flesh out. (You will particularly love how Murphy lights the waterfront scene.) Steve Fisher’s clever stage management rapidly transports us from one place to another, and the actors efficiently bus the props in and out of scenes themselves. Robbie Wayne’s costumes reflect each character’s special personality, and the casting is perfect.

And what personalities they are. Adina Lawson opens the play as Catherine, a sort-of-retired and stylish actress, neurotic and malcontent about everything from her aging to her out-of-order apartment building. Her edgy voice and superior attitude disguise the gentle and generous person hidden underneath, we realize as we get to know her and watch her interactions with others.

But … who’s that silently watching her? Turns out he’s Arthur, an angel, sweetly played by John Fryer. Ballet-trained and rehearsal-clad Arthur swirls throughout the play, strutting with the grace of a premier danseur; he eventually breaks his silence by launching into a lengthy monologue. He knows and visits all the other characters, even though they are not all are aware of his presence. (Just like the angels in our lives, perhaps.)

Edison, a 23-year-old who has been diagnosed with leukemia, is an actor/singer currently working as a waiter (of course), played by Peter Stoia. His is perhaps the most serious role, because the irony of his situation is affected by politics in every aspect of his life: In 2003, the disease was 78 percent curable, but ruinously expensive to treat. His youth and apparent inexperience provide a contrast to the other characters—but he shocks us with unexpected and disturbing cunning that we just don’t see coming.

The role of Robert, a cynical and weary 50-year-old lawyer (yes, there are a couple of good lawyer jokes), is performed by Richard Marlow. Self-consciously determined to keep up with technology and the times, he can’t help reminiscing about the Olden Days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He struggles to find an elusive relationship, yet sabotages his chances by keeping everyone at arm’s length—only partly because he is HIV-positive.

Lorraine Williamson is a breath of fresh air as Maia, a lesbian psychic. (How often do we hear those two words together?) She fills the stage with her garish, outrageous outfits and larger-than-life personality, but we can peek behind the facade to see her hidden pain. She gives us a multi-layered performance, which is especially notable in her musically voiced monologue.

Her ex-husband, Oscar, is played by Terry Huber, who has thrown caution to the winds with this performance. Here, he’s an over-the-top old-school queen who loves to dish, but who becomes suddenly vulnerable and uncertain when he struggles to resolve his relationship with his father. Huber never disappoints, and he’s delightful here, relishing his chance to deliver some of the best lines in the play. He shows us how even the most outrageous of us have to sometimes face the horrors of reality.

All these characters know each other and affect each other’s lives. The complexity builds through the play; my favorite scene is probably the one in the disco bar. (You’ll love the lighting!) The monologues are shot through with references to the life and times—what was popular on TV, what was legal and wasn’t, what was new back then, and the shock of being reminded of Sept. 11. There’s plenty about ghosts, Arthur included, and a thread of mystery running through the play. Death is always lurking, which increases the intensity of comedy through the contrast. Historically, 2003 was a different time, and it’s interesting to be jolted back to there.

The audience visibly warmed during this show. Perhaps we’d like to see a little more passion in the love story, but the characters are unforgettable, regardless. Jim Strait’s blocking is flawless—nobody knows how to use a space like he can—and the timing is excellent. The plot definitely takes a back seat to the characterizations, and the story is simply the stories of the lives of these people at this time. Are their memories the same as ours? It’s an interesting reality check; after all, we are never aware of change while it’s happening.

The year 2003 feels like a long time ago … that is, it did until I saw this play.

Poz is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Sold out!

A wall-to-wall audience surged into the Desert Rose Playhouse for the LGBT theater company’s summer show: David Dillon’s Party. The play was originally created in 1992 in response to the heavy hearts of that time, weighed down by the stigma of being gay, plus the fear and loss created by the AIDS epidemic.

When it opened in Chicago, producers anticipated a run of several weeks—but it ran for two years! Next, it went to New York—specifically, off-Broadway—where it flourished before going worldwide. And now, it’s onstage in Rancho Mirage.

The timing could not be better: Opening night came 12 days after the Orlando shooting. With our hearts still aching and our tears not yet dry after the horrors at Pulse, Party takes us to a carefree evening where seven gay friends congregate. Is there anything more healing than laughter? This show gives us belly laughs, chortles, whoops, cackles, hoo-haws and snickers. The capacity audience roared and applauded freely throughout, then rose to a standing ovation for the artistry of the cast and crew. You must not miss Party … because this is how we all heal.

The one-act, 105-minute play (no intermission) is set in the cramped Manhattan apartment of Kevin. As his guests arrive, the introductions teach us faces and names—which could be daunting if the clever casting didn’t honor the wildly diverse characters with whom we will spend the evening. All are single. Light conversation fills us in regarding professions and some backgrounds. Former relationships are touched upon. (All you really need to remember is that one of them … is a priest!)

The show is produced by Paul Taylor, and Jim Strait directs. If you think blocking seven characters isn’t a task, just watch the movement on this stage. But Strait has also carefully mined each role to bring out the personality differences, and the result is a study in psychology. Steve Fisher masterminds the technical world of sound and the cues of Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting.

So let’s start the party. Kevin, the host, is a complex role brought to life by actor John Fryer. In his sleeveless shirt, Kevin weaves his story through the evening in scraps. We come to realize that he is still emotionally raw from the end of a very long-term relationship, though he never asks for pity from his friends … or from us.

Boldly dressed in black and red, his talky friend Ray is the priest, played by Kam Sisco. He grabs most of the laughs, including some uproarious ones about church life. Sisco’s bigger-than-life personality is ideal for portraying an older authority figure … but one who lives to let his hair down and “dish.”

Next is the arrival of Phillip, the creation of actor Jason Hull. This unforgettable young man with his lean body and sculptured face looks intense even while at rest. (Great profile!) His stage character seems to blend effortlessly with his real self, and his combination of laid-back and high energy is a fascinating mix.

Brian, played by Allan Jensen, is convincing as a type we know well: the skilled and talented individual whose life is the arts. Jensen romps through his demanding role with obvious pleasure—and what fun it is to see an actor relaxing into his role so completely … even when performing a strip tease.

Strip tease? Did I forget to mention the nudity? Well, take a look at the poster: Yes, these guys all eventually wind up in their pelts. I’ll explain later.

Miguel Arballo plays Peter, a beer-swiller whose personality blends the watchful and thoughtful with a tinge of the dangerous. He appears to be complete and self-satisfied—but then panics at the thought of taking off his clothes in front of a group of men, even if they’re friends.

James is marvelously played by Robbie Wayne. He swaggers in as the butchy, leather-vested, tattoed type. But then he smiles—and he lights up the stage and our hearts. That million-watt mega-grin transforms his handsome face over and over.

Jacob Betts portrays Andy, a youthful and nerdy newcomer whose role contains the greatest arc of all. We watch in astonishment as this young man sheds his shell as he peels off his clothes. As the evening progresses, he becomes another person, in a commanding and impressive performance.

Yes, the cast is filled with accomplished actors, and directed by Jim Strait, each produces a beautifully subtle and shaded portrayal of his character.

Here’s the idea of Party: The boys have gathered to spend an evening in a safe place where they can just be themselves. Someone brings along a game, a version of “Truth or Dare,” here called “Fact, Fiction or Fantasy.” So that’s how the clothes come off, as they win or lose at each turn, while we learn more about each one’s life. We gain insight as they describe an incident in their past or act out a challenge. It builds into an amazing and gleeful final scene which you will love.

You don’t have to be gay to enjoy this show (although it’d help; the script is sprinkled with underground vocabulary and references to preferences). The humor is universal, and that’s the most important takeaway. It’s a simple plot, and the show is devoid of any real action, which makes it perfect for this intimate stage.

It’s the laughter, that wonderful laughter with so many levels, which unites us all in the joy of life and the appreciation of our differences. This is an extraordinary show that offers a most important gift: Help for us all to heal.

Party is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30-$33, and the show runs one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s 87 seats were filled, per usual, with eager supporters who had braved a windstorm and the craziness of a full moon to be present for the opening night of 4000 Miles. Since this is the final presentation of CV Rep’s 2015-16 season—which had the theme of “identity: lost and found” and has certainly been the company’s best ever—we were all filled with anticipation.

The play by Amy Herzog debuted in 2011, and CV Rep’s founding artistic director, Ron Celona, informed us that it won an Obie Award in 2012 and was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deals with the attempts that of all of us make to try to bridge the generational gap—and considering some of today’s music, perhaps a larger generational gap has never existed. Speaking of music, classic Dave Brubeck sounds separate the scenes of this play. What a treat for the ears—that alto sax never fails to amaze.

The in-between-scene music is just one of the excellent details put in place by Celona, who assembled a tightly knit group to tackle all the technical aspects of the show. Jimmy Cuomo’s set, on this open stage, greets us with an eclectic, slightly run-down and old-fashioned Manhattan apartment. Aalsa Lee’s up-to-date costuming is exactly right. The sound, created by Randy Hansen, and the lighting, designed by Moira Wilke Whitaker, are flawless, and the fabulous Linda Shaeps has designed the excellent makeup and hair styles. Props were created by Doug Morris, and the techs are Karen Goodwin for sound, and Louise Ross for lighting (and stage managing). How can anything go wrong with a team like this?

The play opens at 3 a.m. at that pitch-dark Big Apple apartment, where Leo and his cross-country bike have arrived to crash at Grandma Vera’s. Awakened, she fumbles her way to the door without teeth (Was that acting? Was it REAL?) to admit her reed-thin grandson “for the night.” You guessed it: Three weeks later, he’s still there. 

Grandma Vera Joseph is played by Ivy Jones, who is convincing as an octogenarian who gropes for forgotten names and words, misplaces her hearing aid and frailly flits from the present tense to her sizable past. Leo Joseph-Connell is acted by Zachary Hallett, completely believable as he juggles his growing pains with the recent horror of losing his best friend and dealing with the confusing women in his life. These two dominate the play, and we watch Leo and Vera as they struggle to understand each other. They battle memories versus reality, truth versus lies, perception versus knowledge.

Two actresses make cameo appearances. Leo’s future ex-girlfriend Rebecca (“Bec”) is played by redheaded Megan Rippey; she’s filled with conflicts and doubts, torn in all directions at once … yet she invokes our sympathy. One night, Leo meets and brings home Amanda, a raven-haired tart played by Christine de Chavez, who very nearly steals the show. She’s a splash of color, a wind-chime of laughter and a whirl of excitement in an otherwise angst-filled journey.

Leo’s complicated family life crisscrosses through the dialogue, and we are slowly fed the details of the relationships, leaving us a bit stunned. Adoptions and divorces are mixed in, furthering the complexities. Politics dangle from some branches of the family tree. Feelings abound. Therapy is involved. Ooof!

The play is about co-existing with our families and the rest of the world. It’s about communication that spans the years and which can separate people. It’s about finding common ground between people instead of differences. There’s some gossip. There’s loneliness. There are huge contradictions within people—for example, Grandma Vera still uses a rotary-dial telephone, but she also owns a computer. 

Though Leo lives in St. Paul, Minn., he has made the journey by bike from the West Coast to New York—hence the play’s title. Yes, it was dangerous. In one brilliant and breathtaking monologue, he tells us about his trip. You might never forget what he said. I will certainly never forget learning that people making such a trip are supposed to dip the rear wheel of their bicycle in the Pacific upon departure, and when they arrive at the Atlantic coastline, they are to dip the front wheel in the waters. How lovely!

The writing is extraordinary. Each character’s speech patterns and verbal expressions are completely unique. Herzog has truly “found the voice” of each character—and she has been willing to step aside and let THEM speak. 

As the director, Celona has identified the big picture in this production, and the big picture is … small. It’s all about attention to detail, which is rich. (They use a real refrigerator!) Also, the actors speak in normal voices, not using projection. This can only be accomplished in an intimate theater like this one. It gives the show a realistic quality, as if we are sharing a nanny-cam moment of watching them. This show is a superb example of the method style of acting: Each actor presents us with a studied performance, in which every tiny gesture and breath and reaction has been thought out. It seems so natural and spontaneous that it looks like it is just happening. Nothing is harder than making something look effortless.

Congratulations to CV Rep on this astonishing season, and bravo to the cast of 4000 Miles. We already can’t wait for the next play.

4000 Miles is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48, and the play runs 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Coyote StageWorks, now back home at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, earned a richly deserved standing ovation from the opening-night audience at ART. This one-act comedy runs about 1 1/2 hours, and earns the highest marks in every aspect of the production: set, lighting, costumes, direction, sound and acting. It’s so great in every department that it leaves your mind free to explore its unusual and beautiful theme: friendship.

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?

Before the play even begins, we can ponder the eternal question of life vs. art, because we know the three characters in the play, all best friends, are also friends off the stage. Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director of Coyote StageWorks, is joined by fellow actors Larry Raben and David Engel, both founding members and original board members of CSW. This gives their onstage friendship just a little extra frankness and intimacy: There are some things that are beyond acting.

Read their résumés in the program. It shows experience beyond talent—and they’ve done it all: Broadway, films, TV, screenwriting, directing, acting, singing and dancing, regional theater. Whew!

The script of ART comes from Yasmina Reza, creator of seven plays and six novels. She’s based in France, and her original French language has been translated by Christopher Hampton. They both deserve credit for the success of the writing, which is witty, snappily paced and hugely satisfying.

Though the play is set in modern-day Paris, director Don Amendolia has chosen to completely Americanize it. There’s not so much as a Gallic shrug or a French lilt to his interpretation, and never a Gauloise in sight. But the theme of friendship is universal, so it plays perfectly anywhere in the world. Amendolia’s fabulous blocking keeps the stage magnificently balanced at all times, making marvelous use of Josh Clabaugh’s delightful set, which uses obtuse angles and clean lines. The décor includes only two modernistic white leather chairs and a matching hassock, with a white section rug. Upstage are two display shelves which can be lit from behind or can look solid. The versatile set rises up like a little mountain range upstage, with a riser running by in front to create two levels. The extraordinary lighting, designed by Moira Wilke, blends with Amendolia’s inspired direction, best of all by highlighting the monologues in pools of light on a suddenly dark stage, breaking down the Fourth Wall when the actors speak directly to the audience. Huge kudos to the actors, and stage manager Diane David, for everyone flawlessly hitting their marks in the dark … gulp.

We must also applaud the fascinating pacing that the director has masterminded. The hills and valleys of intensity give such variety that both chaos and peaceful times are intensified by their contrast. It’s classic, and it’s lovely to watch such professionally guided timing, especially in moments of rapid-fire AK-47 dialogue.

We get to know the three characters quickly. Part of this is due to Bonnie Nipar’s beautifully thought-out costumes, which immediately tell us a lot about them. The overall comic energy of the play is hugely appealing—the actors start earning hearty laughs early, and it never stops.

It’s worth it to take a moment to analyze the quality of the comedy in ART. If you ask comedians, “What’s funny?” you’ll get a variety of answers. Here, it seems that the amusement comes from this play holding up a mirror to humankind in general, because we are never more ridiculous than when we’re stubbornly defending our righteous point of view. This comedy plays off the three different personalities—their opinions, vulnerabilities and vanities. (Watch them each eat an olive.)

It starts when Serge (Larry Raben) buys a painting. There aren’t many topics that divide people like modern art does, and with these three friends, their feelings about this painting are strong ones. Interestingly, this painting is completely white. (One of my art professors actually did this! Through the year of studying with him, we grew to understand and appreciate what he was doing, and he taught us to see art with different eyes. His white-on-white work looked different to us at the end of the year. However the characters in this play didn’t get to learn from my teacher, and so their opinions are … well, theirs.)

What the painting actually does is this: It touches off discussions—OK, arguments—that whip away the thin veneer of civility that covers the unexpressed hurts, misunderstandings and misinterpretations that can occur between people. Emotions, which have been suppressed in the name of friendship, suddenly bubble up to the surface. Because they now disagree, this opens up old wounds about the past, as well as some surprising thoughts and ideas about each other’s present situations. For example, Serge is divorced; Ivan (David Engel) has a significant other/life partner; Mark (Chuck Yates) has a fiancée busily planning their impending nuptials. Opinions about each other’s partners blurt forth, too, with tragicomic results. We see the ebb and flow of power in their relationships, with which everyone in the audience will identify.

The highlight of the play is a breathtaking monologue by Engel that caused an eruption of spontaneous and gleeful applause from the entire audience. However, all three actors are wonderfully cast. Their perfect diction is so rare nowadays (alas) as to demand a mention. You’ll be treated to some delightfully inspired gestures. They are each well-schooled and creative, and every one of their theatrical choices is awesome. Their highly sharpened skills allow the audience to relax into the story of the play, because Raben, Engel and Yates are so very convincing.

There is absolutely nothing to criticize in this work—and that’s the stuff that earns spontaneous joyous standing ovations.

ART, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Wednesday; 2 p.m., Thursday; 7:30 p.m., Friday; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 3, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit annenbergtheater.org.

So the name of the play is Cock.

All right, settle down. Even though the show takes place at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater, the name does not mean what you’re thinking. Think cock FIGHT. Like, roosters. OK?

Included in the printed program is an actual fight card, listing the adversaries in each round. The setting is the next surprise: The audience sits around a square ring, inspired by the illegal sport, and the actors represent their chicken counterparts. Frankly, it’s the best seating arrangement I have seen at the Desert Rose: Everyone is so close to the action, and the raked back rows are on risers so we all can see perfectly. It’s great! Not all plays lend themselves to this format, but we hope that clever producer Paul Taylor will use this style again when possible.

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play opened last weekend, and will be performed for four more weekends at the Rancho Mirage playhouse. Lighting director Phil Murphy has brilliantly lit this stark set. Stage manager Steve Fisher rings a bell between rounds, as in boxing. (Sorry … I have no idea whether there are bells in actual cockfights.)

Theater in the round brings with it a true challenge for a director, because in this format, the actors are always facing away from some of the audience, while facing others, so they must change position frequently. But here the actors can face each other, like real people talking! This almost never happens on a proscenium stage where actors “cheat forward” to present their faces to the audience. Thank heaven for the excellent natural acoustics of the Desert Rose, as the intimate size (usually 83 seats, but 65 in this style) helps us hear everything. Theater in the round can fail horribly in too large of a room, where the actors’ voices vanish because they seem to be always facing away from you, or in a room with a ceiling that’s too high, where the sound drifts up, up and away from your straining ears. A modified three-quarters circle format is frequently the compromise; think classic Shakespeare. Here, director Jim Strait has brilliantly choreographed the actors’ movements, with the seduction scene being the model example of this theatrical style.

If you expect that this rumble just involves two guys squaring off, think again: It’s a cast of four, each with an agenda to defend. John, played by Stephen McMillen, has been in a long-term relationship with “M,” acted by Robert Rancano. They break up, and John “accidentally” falls in love with a straight girl, “W” (Phylicia Mason; we guess that the letters stand for “Man” and “Woman”). Of course, there is much angst all around when John goes back to M. Then M and W both agree to wait for John’s decision: With whom will he live? M’s father, “F,” (for “Father,” right?) gets to act as referee, so we meet Terry Huber at a dinner party given to sort things out.

So is John gay … or straight? Hmmm? What will he decide?

By the way, we have to slap a “mature” rating on this show due to “frank” (a term I love) sexual language. We’re so PC! But truly, this show not for anyone easily offended, as the playwright clearly wants us to be shocked.

The set consists of just two lavender hassocks on which to sit. There are no props—no cutlery, china, wine glasses or even a dinner table. There are no costumes, except what the actors are wearing, and no scenery. And get this: The actors don’t even mime their eating/drinking/taking coats off. So, no distractions! The author’s words are all that matter.

And the words! There are British accents all around. The writing is a cross between free-verse poetry and real life, where sentences are only partially spoken and often unfinished. Strait’s artful direction all but eliminates pauses between speeches, and the tension rises or falls with the speed, pitch and volume of the actors’ voices. It’s a masterful demo of acting technique.

At the show we attended, the actors were rewarded with pin-drop attention, as the audience is so physically close to the actors that every flicker of an eyelash contains significance. Our attention is riveted.

McMillen, the quintessential beautiful blond boy, dithers and stews and not only seems incapable of making decisions, but has never even figured out who or what he is. Youth! So he is frozen, overthinking everything. He makes us want to either smack him into action, or hug him in sympathy.

Rancano, dark-haired and fashionably unshaven, with flawless skin, is like pepper to McMillen’s salt. More mature and powerful, but attempting to hide his sensitivity, he shows a confidence that comes with age while trying to cover his fragile feelings. His performance hits just the right note.

Mason lights up the world with her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. She struts a perfect figure that will make everyone in the audience silently swear to go on a diet and get back to the gym. Great legs, toned body, amazing hair, sweet face—she has it all. Her character is complex, and she knows how to show it. Now if she could only do something about those black bra straps showing at the back of that terrific coral dress … .

Terry Huber, perhaps the busiest actor in the valley this season, has a face you just never get tired of watching. The shades of meaning he can express are uncountable, and as a gifted actor with a pocketful of regional accents from which to choose, his choice of this British one is pitch-perfect. His second-act role here is too small—we always want to see more of him.

The concept of fowl fisticuffs is wonderful; the casting is perfect; the direction is genius; the script is astonishing; and the actors’ energies are beautifully balanced. Obviously I’m not going to give away the ultimate decision or reveal who is left standing at the final bell.

You’ll have to go to the next match yourself.

Cock is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 10; there is no show on Easter Sunday, March 27. The shows take place at 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.

Any of us born after World War II have heard such a variety of stories about the conflict. They range from the terrifying first-person tales of Holocaust survivors to the darkly inspirational diary of Anne Frank. However, the astonishing I Am My Own Wife, now playing at the Coachella Valley Repertory Company, tells the tale of a completely different aspect of WWII: a German transvestite who actually SURVIVED the Nazis and East German postwar Communism! How could it be?

This extraordinary play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2004. Here, this one-man show stars New York-based actor Vince Gatton and is directed by Ron Celona. This is not fiction—it’s a true story, about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, written by Doug Wright.

The two-act play takes us through author Wright’s years of investigating Charlotte, with whom he becomes somewhat obsessed. Through the stories, we are taken on a journey in which we meet an amazing 35 characters—all played by this one actor! It is a dramatic tour de force. Celona confesses that after he saw the play in New York, he paced the streets for hours, unable to stop thinking about it. We felt the same after the play. The packed house at CV Rep gave this work a standing ovation at the performance we saw, so the other members of the audience evidently felt the same, too.

The more German language, or even Yiddish, that you know, and the more Deutschland accents you’ve been exposed to, the easier time you’ll have with this experience. There are quite a few untranslated words. You won’t be lost, but you will need full focus to follow it; this two-hour play covers a lot of ground. Frankly, it was the first time I’ve ever felt lucky for knowing the German language at all, since studying it was an absolute nightmare.

The gorgeous, richly decorated stage features warm-toned wooden shelves displaying a treasure trove of objects, from serious collectors’ items to kitsch. Two huge doors upstage center are topped by a screen which flashes the chapter titles as the play progresses. Serious kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for the design, and to Moira Wilke for the clever lighting, which creates multiple settings and mood changes.

Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde on March 18, 1928, and her realization that she is female, even though she was born a biological male, is a gradual one. She eventually adopts the name Charlotte, and creates her last name, von (meaning “from”) Mahlsdorf, using the name of the town where she was born. Kind of like John Denver, whose real last name was also a multisyllabic German one.

Charlotte wears a skirt and a string of pearls, but her style is a solid peasant look, all in black with clunky shoes and a black headscarf. She wears no makeup or cosmetics of any kind, which allows us to see the actor’s skin change with real emotion, always a rare and jaw-dropping experience. Vince Gatton’s uber-talent is that of a chameleon: He actually physically transforms with each character he plays, so that we are in absolutely no doubt about which one is speaking. He changes his posture, his gestures, his accents and his voice—for, yes, all 35 characters. Believe me.

The astonishing story reveals that Charlotte’s own father is a Nazi. With everything that happens, we are increasingly impressed that this person not just survived, but thrived, in this era. She became a “collector” of phonographs and clocks—even though she was lined up to be shot at one point. Even though gays were sent off to prison and concentration camps from 1933 on—including her best friend, Alfred—Charlotte lives. How?

The show’s program includes a helpful chronology of Lothar/Charlotte’s life. Despite the horror and stress and setbacks she goes through, there are several solid laughs in this show. We get to know her largely through the visits of the writer who is attempting to turn Charlotte’s life into this very play, so it’s sort of a play-within-a-play, a trick that Shakespeare loved to use. But considering Charlotte’s dealings with the storm trooper Nazis, the German police, the black market and the post-war Russian repression of subject matter, there’s no need to embroider the facts to create dramatic impact. Ron Celona’s exquisite direction, however, slides in a subtle worm of doubt: Is Charlotte telling the truth? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Any actor or student of theater must see this performance. It is epic. There are moments which are beyond description, such as hearing Charlotte name off the kinds of items in her collection, or the bit with a mob of journalists who question her—while Gatton plays each one. This is beyond brilliant—it’s a feat of memory and acting techniques that will leave any of us gasping. Occasionally, we might think we will actually glimpse the actor underneath it all … but then the chameleon changes again, and slips away from us.

Just when you think the play is over, you’ll discover that Celona has placed a surprise in the lobby which puts the cherry on the sundae of this experience. Don’t miss it as you exit.

The Coachella Valley’s theatrical season this year has thus far been a rich one. So how can we emphasize what a totally different experience this play will be for you? This standout show’s premise sounds a little weird, admittedly, but the actual experience is unforgettable. Don’t miss it.

When I was little, my older sister once was explaining to me what a chameleon does, in preparation for her acquiring one. She described the color changes of its skin after being placed on different colored backgrounds—turning red if it is placed on red, green on green, and so on. Always the precocious brat, I inquired, “What if you put it on plaid?”

Vince Gatton, the chameleon actor, shows us plaid.

I Am My Own Wife is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 27, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

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.

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.

A Class Act was nominated for five Tony Awards, and it won an Obie for Best Music and Lyrics. It’s now being presented locally by the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre—and founding artistic Ron Celona readily admits that it’s the most ambitious (and expensive) effort in CV Rep’s history.

Celona does keep raising the bar, doesn’t he? This time, he’s using an eight-member cast and a live four-piece band. Celona’s Little-Theater-That-Did is an inspiration for any start-up. This show, with music and lyrics by Edward Kleban (remember that name!) and book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price, takes us straight to Broadway musicals—an awesome topic for a regional theater. Here in Rancho Mirage, Ron Celona directs the show (of course), while Scott Storr is the musical director, and the choreography is by Mark Esposito.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: CVEP presents two nights of preview shows for audiences before the official opening. (Applause for that idea—there is nothing weirder than the first time in front of a real audience.) But for this review to make the deadline for our February print edition, the Coachella Valley Independent had to attend the very first preview of A Class Act. Obviously, a preview must be judged a little more gently than the “real” shows.

That said, the first preview’s packed house would agree: This show is ready.

The show opens with Kleban’s memorial service. (He died in 1987 at the age of 48 from smoking … a cautionary tale.) The rest of the show uses flashbacks to reveal his life, while his original music and lyrics weave through the story. You’ll enjoy such songs as his “Light on My Feet,” “Paris Through the Window,” “Follow Your Star,” “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and “The Next Best Thing to Love.” We watch him slave over his doomed show Gallery, and see his relationships ebb and flow. At the end of Act 2, we eventually return to the memorial service of this strange and talented man.

The plot, in a nutshell, focuses on Edward Kleban’s real-life creative struggle in the theater. That self-created struggle occurs simply because he is violently opposed to collaborating with anyone else, and wants desperately to be both lyricist and composer of his own Broadway musicals. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that he is best—really, ONLY—known, for his forced collaboration as lyricist, with the brilliant Marvin Hamlisch as composer, of A Chorus Line. In one flashback, we actually get to be present at the birth of such achingly magnificent songs as “At the Ballet,” “What I Did for Love” and “One.” These unforgettable pieces contrast with the rest of the music in this play, which was created solely by Kleban. It’s not bad music, but it’s just not up to the standard of the A Chorus Line work he did when he collaborated with someone else. Which he only did once. Go figure.

Kleban is played by Jeffrey Landman. He convincingly switches between Kleban’s varied neuroses, the vanity of the unsuccessful artist, and the stubborn belief in his own greatness. We see him go from attention-craving sniveling to genuine fear to lighthearted but sneaky charm. He’s complex character, well-played.

Craig Cady takes on two roles: Bobby, a fellow student, and Michael. The contrast between his two characters is fascinating, because he truly comes alive when he slaps on a moustache to play Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line, and he can use his lean dancer’s body to express every nuance of emotion.

Julie Garnye plays Sophie. As the curvaceous and luscious female lead and love interest (Yes! Kleban is straight!), Garnye has a quiet strength that serves her well, but it’s her powerful singing voice that you’ll remember.

Pretty Rachael M. Johnson is blonde Lucy, Kleban’s sweet friend and supporter. She’s a well-trained dancer and singer in the Broadway mode, and her trim, energetic moves are a pleasure to watch.

Craig McEldowney is Charley. He’s solid, gifted and reliable, and who wouldn’t like him?

Sal Mistretta plays Lehman Engel, the older-and-wiser teacher of the BMI songwriting class where his students meet. He brings a gravitas to the show with his thoughtful performance. Ironically, it is Kleban, not Engel, who gets to teach us “Lehman’s Rules” of showbiz.

Striking Christina Morrell is Felicia, ambitious and determined to live her dreams. She reminds us of when girls first began to succeed at working in all-male areas, and we like her for it.

Kristin Towers-Rowles plays Mona, a sexy redheaded singer/dancer out to conquer Kleban. She slithers and stalks seductively, but shows talent aplenty in her interpretation of this role.

I worried that stuffing this cast and all of the musicians into CV Rep’s space might prove to be what is called A Challenge. After all, CV Rep at the Atrium is basically a storefront. However, Jimmy Cuomo’s set—using dreamy rear-wall projections to transport us to locations such as Paris and Toronto, along with sliding panels that open to expand the area—give us a sense of greater space. This stage feels like the widest one CV Rep has created. Celona’s clean and clever direction uses every inch of the area; even in scenes using the entire cast, there is no feeling of crowding. The musicians—Jeff Barish on flute, sax and clarinet, Dave Hitchings on drums, Bill Saitta both bowing and plucking on bass, and Scott Storr on piano—find their home tucked in at stage left.

We must also mention Louise Ross as stage manager; Aalsa Lee, the costume designer; Eddie Cancel, who designed the lighting and technical effects; Randy Hansen as sound designer; Doug Morris as associate designer and prop master; and Karen Goodwin as sound tech. All did a terrific job in bringing this show to life. Because what this show tells us is this: In the theater, it’s ALL about the work.

Being preview-gentle: The only change I’d love to see in this show is for the first act to be as full of emotion as the second act. That will no doubt happen naturally during the play’s run. After all, it’s all about the work.

A Class Act is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, located in The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48; opening night (Friday, Jan. 22) is $58. The running time is 2 1/2 hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Playwright Charles Evered is sick of Christmas.

“There’s so little choice for theater!” he exclaimed. “There’s It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—and that’s about it.”

So Evered decided to do something about it. The result is his 90-minute one-act play called An Actor’s Carol—a take on Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol. It will have its world premiere at Joshua Tree’s Hi-Desert Cultural Center on the first two weekends of December. Emmy Award-winning actor Hal Linden (Barney Miller) and veteran TV and film actor Barry Cutler will star in the first and second weekends of the play, respectively.

“Someone HAD to write it!” Evered declared.

Evered is no stranger to the High Desert. His play Adopt a Sailor was presented at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center a few years ago, and his work Class was a fundraiser for the theater, which is still trying to rebuild after a devastating blow from Mother Nature: An unprecedented freeze in January 2007.

“What a wonderful venue this theater is,” he said. “There’s no pressure about money or audience size or reviews. The timing fits my schedule perfectly. And Jarrod Radnich and his fiancée, Anne, are marvelous to work with.”

Producer Radnich, the impresario of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, is equally enthusiastic about An Actor’s Carol.

“We all have a great relationship,” he said. “Our theater is a place where we can experiment with nontraditional staging. I instantly loved the script for An Actor’s Carol, and I love working with great, talented people. This play is really different.”

Charles Evered, here for the production from his home in Princeton, N.J., fully expects these six performances will result in re-writes of his script. I was lucky enough to be invited to a staged reading of the very first version of An Actor’s Carol, hosted in Palm Springs by serene brunette beauty Kim Waltrip, whose company produced Evered’s first two movies. She told me she and Evered had known each other “for years. Our kids went to the same school!” At the reading, four actors introduced us to the multiple-role script—an actor’s delight.

The story is about a bitter, nasty actor who plays bitter, nasty Scrooge in some little theater’s production of A Christmas Carol. Like the character he’s playing, he experiences visitations from the beyond when he passes out backstage. (Yeah, he drinks.) It’s a modernized version of the classic tale, with cell phones, texting and some hilarious references to the 21st century life we know.

Like many who have faced tragedy, Evered chose to deal with life through comedy.

“Art saved my life,” he confided. “I might have gone to Yale … or to jail!”

We race through his resume: Raised in Rutherford, N.J., he lost both his parents early in life. His four siblings have all faced serious challenges, and frankly, some didn’t make it. A deathbed promise to his mother to never start drinking has been the foundation of his success—along with some fantastic luck.

He aspired to a career in baseball, of all things, but sadly found he was not sufficiently mega-talented in the sport. Oddly enough, it was a job as a janitor while still in high school, which included cleaning up the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts, that started the wheels turning. It was a shock to find out there were serious rental fees for the script—so he decided to write the plays himself. He was 18.

He experienced instant approval and success—and then he really did get to study playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

After graduating in 1991, he received a fellowship that allowed him to work in a Hollywood program sponsored by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Spielberg advised him, “Don’t try to please us with your writing. Write from your own heart.”

“Great advice! It made my career!” Evered said.

He eventually went on to teach what he had learned, as a founding faculty member at our own little University of Riverside Palm Desert Center, before moving on to a full professorship at the main campus in Riverside.

So what’s the future for An Actor’s Carol? After the six high desert performances, the final draft will be printed as a book in January by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc.—and then it will be available for productions everywhere for Christmas of 2016.

“Christmas needs some fun,” he said. “… I hope An Actor’s Carol will exist forever. I’d like to see it done as repertory theater, so the audience can actually come to see Dickens’ play first, and then the next night, return to see An Actor’s Carol with the same actors, same stage and same set! Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

An Actor’s Carol will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, from Friday, Dec. 4, through Saturday, Dec. 12, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center’s Blak Box Theater, located at 61231 Twentynine Palms Highway, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 to $24. For tickets or more information, call 760-366-3777, or visit hidesertculturalcenter.org.