CVIndependent

Wed08052020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might think a critic’s worst nightmare is seeing a show in which there is absolutely nothing to criticize. You’d be wrong.

Here I am, smiling, while writing to tell you about a musical revue you’ll love, because Vitamin Q at the Desert Rose Playhouse is a total joy.

It’s perfect summer fare, because it’s light and fun and pokes gentle, sly, affectionate humor at the gay community. It’s filled with clever lyrics, interesting melodies, terrific comedy and—yes—even dancing! The theater is deliciously cool and comfortable, unlike some establishments which freeze us out with violent, sniffle-inducing air conditioning, thinking they’re doing us some kind of favor by giving us cold fingers and running noses. In other words, you are in for a total treat at this show. Savvy producer Paul Taylor has scheduled Vitamin Q through the last weekend in July, so you can see it more than once.

Staged and directed by the uber-talented Jim Strait, who modestly doesn’t credit himself as the show’s creator, it’s written by Eric Lane Barnes. Taylor and Strait approached the playwright after the success of last season’s The Stops, and suggested a musical revue of Barnes’ work. Apparently the result was a deluge of Barnes’ material; Strait, along with musical director Steven Smith—another gifted workhorse—pored through it and picked out the numbers that created the resulting work. Although this production is not credited as an original or first-time event, you won’t see it anywhere else on the planet—another reason to see this show.

Costumer Mark Demry has evidently located the longest orange feather boa in the entire world, among other treats. The show also features the always-perfect lighting of Phil Murphy, and the flawless timing of stage manager Steve Fisher. Their work combines to add to the professionalism invariably found at DRP.

For this show, DRP has added the mastery of dancer-choreographer Randy Doney to create the afore-mentioned hoofing. Did you know that he directed Barry Manilow’s shows for 25 years? Plus, he worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus (which occupies a special place in my heart, as they once let me spend a whole day with their immortal Coco the Clown). Plus he performed in the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies for 15 seasons. Wow. Though I suspect none of the actors in this show are professional dancers, Doney has guided them through a creditable performance which includes moves from disco, Latin music, country-Western, polka—and even, to our astonishment, an all-cast tap routine!

Of course, in revue theater, casting is crucial. Well, casting is always crucial, but this form of theater demands talented characters with all the necessary skills (they each must be actors, comedians, singers, dancers and sometimes even models, and must LOOK like a group), but above all, they must contrast each other, and stand out as individuals. The same, but different. Not easy. Here, however, the sharp eyes of Jim Strait have selected a cast that achieves exactly that.

We meet them, all together, when the show bursts open with its theme song, “Vitamin Q,” whose meaning you have doubtless figured out already. We are immediately impressed with their amazing five-part harmonies and their heads-high energy. The remaining numbers are shrewdly chosen to provide maximum variety in all areas, to get the most out of every scenario.

There are several defining features of revue: a bare stage which can be anything in scene after scene, blackouts after every “bit,” a high-energy pace, wide musical contrasts between numbers, live music, quick changes and a running gag that occurs throughout. It happens to be my favorite form of theater. Revue steals shamelessly from vaudeville, improv theater and anybody else who isn’t looking. In this show, the running gag is “Tomorrow Never Comes,” in which each actor gets to do a send-up of a diva you’ll have little trouble recognizing.

The show romps through such numbers as “Pansies,” “Drama Queen,” “I Don’t Like Show Tunes,” “It’s All in Your Mind” and “Homomotion,” all of which provoke great hilarity, and then one beautiful ballad that will stick with you, “Save Your Sundays for Me,” which could be done even by straight singers. Contrast.

Onstage, we get to see new sides of some actors we’ve watched before. Timm McBride, with his lovely silvery hair and charming gravitas, gets to play everything from a doo-wap ’50s backup singer to a saloon singer on a stool. Terry Huber, with sleepy eyes, sophistication and a snake-slim figure, surprisingly appears as a snotty cowboy in “Garbage,” and frolics through several dance routines. Raul Valenzuela unleashes his rich powerful voice and considerable dance skills and then gets laughs just by appearing in a babushka or wearing inexplicable lime-green socks. Andrew Knifer demonstrates his exquisite diction and expressive face, and then pops our eyes with a wild falsetto in some songs. Jeffrey Norman stands out by wearing a goatee and glasses on stage and adds his solid baritone skills to complicated harmony vocals such as those in “Mr. Satan” (done in dazzling outrageous red choir gowns). Great group. They are accompanied by Steven Smith on piano.

They have all mined the maximum out of this marvelous material, and created an evening of fun, variety and delight. This is what revue should be, but its breeziness masks the huge amount of planning, skill-stretching challenges and just-plain-hard labor of creating such a show. It’s too easy for an audience to be swept away by the laughter, and forget how much effort goes into the second-by-second timing that a revue demands. But what a pleasure to see it done so right!

Kudos to everyone at Desert Rose Playhouse for Vitamin Q. You’ll leave feeling oxygenated from laughing—and as energized as if you had just taken your vitamins.

Vitamin Q is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 26, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.