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Sun08092020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Those of us who grew up in Canada were raised on it.

We knew The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Take It From Here on the radio; the Carry On gang’s outrageous ensemble movies; and, later, Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in theatrical revue, and the unforgettable Monty Python films.

So I felt very much at home with the British-humor outrages perpetrated in Desert Theatreworks’ “Noises Off!” at the Arthur Newman Theatre—as did the eager, nearly full house of supporters on opening night. They were probably all Americans, which is just fine; humor’s birthplace doesn’t matter. It’s all about having fun and being involved. Judging from the laughter and applause, it’s certain you’ll have a great time at this show, no matter where you were born.

The script, by Michael Frayn, starts with the final rehearsal of a play. We quickly see that it’s nowhere near ready to open, and the personalities of the actors are part of the reason why. The frustrated director, whom we hear only on a “God mic” from the audience, is desperately trying to control his nutso cast and get the show ready for the opening—which is only hours away.

The set, cleverly designed by Ron Phillips-Martinez, is a departure from the usual two-story setting of this show. “We create the illusion of two stories,” he confided to me, “and the way the set changes between acts leaves people saying, ‘How did you DO that?’ We wanted everything to be different, because this play has been done here before. … We didn’t want to re-do just another version of it.”

During the set change, the lights are left on so we can admire the super-efficient use of restricted space. When the scenery changes between acts, we find ourselves backstage at another performance of the same play—but now from the actors’ vantage point. Of course, the actors must not make the slightest noise during the performance, so everything is communicated in frantic mime.

Why would a small theater company like Desert Theatreworks, in an intimate space, even think of mounting such a production?

“I did it on a dare!” director Lance Phillips-Martinez told me. “They said this play couldn’t be done in this theater. There are 700 exits and entrances to deal with! It was a true challenge, and I spent six months thinking it through before deciding to do it. The actors were all open to it—though only two had ever performed in a farce before, so there was a lot of teaching involved.” 

Ah, the actors—the poor things were wringing wet by the end of the show, thanks to the astonishing amount of exertion needed. British comedy is indeed very physical, and Lance Phillips-Martinez has emphasized the importance of body language with this production, as he kaleidoscopes his constantly moving actors.

And what an ensemble! Everyone is physically transformed compared to other shows in which you may have seen them, and I don’t just mean costume and makeup changes—they talk, move and use their hair differently. They are, as the Brits might say, quite extraordinary. Farce lets a thespian get in touch with his inner ham, but make no mistake: This show is artfully disciplined, even though it seems like total chaos. Each actor has exquisitely developed his character fully, under Lance Phillips-Martinez’s guidance.

Stan Jensen plays the hapless director of this play-within-a-play (called “Nothing’s On”), and with that rich powerful voice, he’s perfect. His strained patience is conveyed in tones ranging from kindly coaxing to a bellow, and his authoritarian strut is exactly right. As in all caricatures, the exaggeration emphasizes rather than conceals his character’s qualities (and flaws).

Marjory Lewis plays actress Dotty Otley who plays Mrs. Clackett, the Cockney housekeeper. Lance Phillips-Martinez has nurtured and polished this gem of an actress to a high luster, with qualities we’ve never seen her display before. She is vibrantly alive, bright and multi-layered, and she runs through an astounding variety of emotions.

Stephen McMillen devours the stage as arrogant actor Garry LeJune, playing Roger in their play. A DTW staple, McMillen completely re-invents himself in every role, this time digging deep to give a complex performance as a talented but self-involved, neurotic and unintentionally hilarious thespian. He’s recognizable to anyone who has ever done theater at any level.

Mari Kerber is Brooke Ashton, playing Vicki (the “i” tells you so much), the troupe’s resident blonde glamour girl and idiot—but she’s street-smart enough to use her looks to fuel her ambition. Moody and vain, she shines as she prances and tosses her crimped hair artfully, constantly posing in calendar-girl fashion to show off her admirable figure.

Tanner Lieser plays Frederick Fellowes, who toils in the role of Philip Brent. A disaster magnet, he is instantly recognizable from his first lines: He’s the guy who puts himself down so you can’t do it. Hypersensitive and luckless—a terrible combination—he’s the epitome of insecurity. Lieser makes the most of this very funny role and actually enlists our sympathy.

Stacy Casaluci plays Belinda Blair, playing Flavia Brent in Nothing’s On, and she’s a sweetheart as the unsung heroine who is quietly keeping the cast together behind the scenes. She’s always upbeat, positive and there at the right time—one of those. She is convincing and pretty, and brings a lovely light to her scenes.

Garnett Smith is a seasoned actor—here playing the cast’s Selsdon Mowbray, acting as The Burglar—but we’ve never before seen him like this. He’s the cast’s old troublemaker and secret drinker, just this side of dangerous. He comes close to stealing the show with his unscripted monologue during a set change between acts, and his beautifully thought-out character gives us no end of delight. Smith knows his face, body and craft, and uses them all brilliantly.

Florentino Carrillo plays Tim Allgood, the overworked, youthful techie and stage manager of the troupe. His stillness gives us glimpses of his exhaustion, and contrasts delightfully with the rest of the high-energy group. He switches accents, a little confusing, but is delightful when he has to sub onstage, shaking in his shoes at being thrust into the spotlight.

Brittney De Leon-Reyes is Poppy, the assistant stage manager, the drab but sincere and hardworking little girl behind the scenes—almost every theater has one. She is a casting surprise in this role, a nervous nelly fearful of everything. It’s the mark of a true actress to be so versatile, and reveals a glimpse of her depth and her promise.

Curtain calls and applause! Go see this, and be prepared to laugh and be astonished. It’s a most unusual play, and whether or not you’ve ever actually been backstage for real, you will laugh out loud. A lot. I promise.

Noises Off!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 9 (with no show on Oct. 31) at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; or $23 seniors and students with ID. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

The Phillips-Martinez boys have done it again. Lance, the artistic director of Desert Theatreworks, and Ron, its executive director, have hammered out a hit with Seminar, the play that opens the company’s new season at the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center.

How did they do it?

Well, first, they chose a wonderfully written script, created by Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She created Smash on TV, if that helps with the bona fides, but her credentials fill up a whole page of the program. The lady holds a Brandeis doctorate, do you mind. This two-act comedy deals with a private writing class given to four New York wannabes who have each forked over $5,000 for the privilege of being critiqued by an actual working writer for 10 weekly sessions.

Second, the casting is superb. More on this later, when we discuss the actors.

Third, the support system—along with the stage managing of Kathy Taylor-Smith, with sound and lights assistance from Jeremy Goodlander, Stephen McMillen and Alex Updyke—is solid and secure. The importance of this can’t be overlooked. Without lights and mics and sound cues being perfect, nobody can do their job. As for the setting, most of the show takes place in one Manhattan apartment, with the last scene in a different apartment, and you’ll be delighted by the scenery change (and even more in the final bows).

Fourth, Lance Phillips-Martinez’s directing is beautiful. What he did to create such excellent timing in the cast, we can only speculate. But it’s the clever blackouts that create the variations in pace, to great effect. Lance Phillips-Martinez’ hard work with the actors makes this show worth seeing.

So let’s talk about the acting. Recently, in James Franco’s autobiography, he memorably said, “Everyone can act. Not everyone can act well.” And ain’t that the truth? Here, fortunately, they act well. Brittney De Leon-Reyes, playing Izzy, gives new meaning to curves. Luscious and raven-haired, she prowls the stage like a panther wearing 4-inch heels. Flashing eyes, glowing olive skin and a lazy but confident smile give her an uber-sexy air. Va-va-voom! As an actress, she has the ability to focus completely, making her very watchable.

Mari Kerber plays Kate. And if Brittney is Rose Red, then Mari is Rose White. They are polar opposites, yet both are totally believable. Kerber brings to the show a cascade of sleek golden hair, a lovely face (those cheekbones!) and an attitude of calm acceptance about her WASP character’s wealthy and privileged background, making Kate sensitive, generous and thoughtful. She radiates being well-bred and well-read, yet she struggles to find her own voice as a writer.

Gabriel Lawrence is Martin, our mystery-man. Though at first he seems stereotypical (the Latino bad boy/poet from the streets), we soon begin to wonder about what lies beneath his surface. His multi-layered performance keeps us guessing throughout the play, and he surprises us more than once. DTW imported Lawrence back here from L.A. for this role, and he shrewdly fleshes out this unusual character.

The role of Douglas is performed by Tanner Lieser. He dominates the opening scene and can take credit for the chortles that start early in the show. He captures the outrageous and sometimes-pretentious qualities commonly associated with New York intellectuals, although none of the actors use any “N’Yawk” accents at all. Lieser plays the high-strung and hypersensitive Douglas as flamboyant, affected and a big talker happy only when he’s the center of attention.

Then there’s Leonard, the teacher, towering above the others in physical height and with experience in the glorious world of writing to which the students aspire—perfectly played by Luke Rainey. He blathers and blusters, but brilliantly, dumbfounding both his students and the audience. His masterful monologues leave us awestruck, as he tackles such subjects as: Who gets published? Why? What does one have to do to get published? One minute, Leonard is an addled blowhard; the next, he snaps out penetrating insights and revelations. Not an easy task for an actor less talented than this one.

Mixed all together, the group gives us a rare feeling of spontaneity. We believe them. We become the proverbial fly on the wall, listening and watching, because it seems to be real. This is why people go to the theater: They hope to be taken out of their own skins for a while, and live someone else’s life for just a couple of hours. The extraordinary casting in Seminar at Desert Theatreworks combines with the amazing script to make this happen.

We do need to slap a language warning on the production: Do not take the kids, unless you don’t mind that they’ll leave the theater cussing like stevedores (or newspaper editors?). However, with these characters, it serves to make them more believable and emphatic, and it’s not offensive.

So what can we criticize about this production? The play is listed as “contemporary,” and kids I see nowadays appear constantly wired into their cell phones, blogs, texting, selfies—not one of which appeared in this play! Which is perhaps why we enjoyed it! What a pleasure to see something of people other than the tops of their heads as they bend over their electronic devices! Is this an alternate and tolerable parallel universe?

Go see Seminar, and let me know if you figure it out.

Desert Theatreworks’ Seminar is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, through Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73-750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

The season at the Desert Rose Playhouse doesn’t officially begin until September, so two-man-play 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night is what artistic director Jim Strait calls a “lagniappe,” a delightful Cajun word you rarely hear outside of the South—meaning a “little bit extra.”

While this extra play has its charms, in the end, it just doesn’t capture us.

Producer Paul Taylor’s choice of this one-act add-on has helped make Desert Rose a year-round theater. Many of us remember when the desert seemingly shut down completely in the summer; for anyone to open a play in August was unthinkable. But it’s 2014, and a full house of fans turned out to take in this lagniappe, which will run for three weeks. Good for Desert Rose!

Don’t think that DRP has scrimped on the energy and time always lavished on its productions because it’s the summer. This play is a tricky one … well, maybe it was a tad easier for costume designer Mark Demry, since the cast is nude most of the time. Maybe lighting director Phil Murphy got a break, too, as the whole play is in real time, about an hour and a half in the night, and indoors, in a New York apartment—he doesn’t need to supply sunrises, storms or other fancy effects. But imagine the challenges for stage manager Steve Fisher, not to mention the director, Strait himself. The set is, well, a bed. It’s in a corner of a tiny New York apartment, with not much opportunity for blocking—a director’s nightmare. (Some of those New York apartments were/are REALLY tiny!)

It’s important for the audience to understand the time factor: This play is set in 1987. It’s the post-disco era, and to be gloriously single was to own the world. Except … we were already under the shadow of the wings of that disease. People were starting to sneak off to be tested. Rumors abounded. Nothing was clear, except that it seemed to be mostly in the gay community. Mostly. This is not the topic of 2 Boys in a Bed, though, of course, it is addressed eventually.

We find Peter and Daryl in the aftermath of a casual encounter. And this is where it happens: Is this The Start of Something Big, or another meaningless and forgettable experience? Both gay and straight audiences will see something in this play, as it reminds oneself how everyone feels at the beginning of a relationship, when the clock starts ticking, and we don’t know when it will (ever?) stop.

Peter and Daryl are finding out each other’s thoughts about all the important stuff: How do you feel about your past? Your future? (OUR future?) How do you feel about your personal pain? What makes you shy? What are your goals? How important is sex in a relationship? Are you telling the truth or lying? Peter and Daryl wobble through all these topics and more, as we all did/do. Not many people are good at reading others instantly, so they have to trailblaze through the forest of each other to find out the answers. And that’s the show, folks.

The hard-working actors—Ryan Dominguez as Daryl, and Chris Horychata as Peter—bring a couple of valuable assets to the play. First, thanks to their flawless skin and nice bodies, they’re easy on the eyes—and they are not self-consciousness about waltzing around in their nakedness. Second, they have their lines down pat. 2 Boys in a Bed is a hugely talky play—words words words, nonstop. (How much action can you weave through the dialogue in a one-act play set in a bed?) This is where an actor really earns his salt, because timing, the interpretation of emotion and body language become paramount.

That said, here’s where it gets sticky: Does the audience believe? Do we disappear into the play and forget ourselves?

Peter is supposed to be a construction worker, and I didn’t believe that for a second. We’ve all gone past enough construction sites to know what those guys generally look like—and this guy is strictly indoors.  Daryl is supposed to be an artist, yet Dominguez never exhibited anything that would make us believe he’s an artistic type for even an instant. There are a few other credibility-killers, but you can discover them yourself.

Alas, we don’t believe. We do not disappear into the play and lose ourselves. We just don’t see the push-pull of a new relationship being born (or not).

It’s difficult to discern whether this is the fault of the players or the script—but there is a lack of chemistry here that leaves us cold. As cold, say, as a winter’s night.

2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night is performed at at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Sept 7, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69260 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

For a show to open during these longest days of the year, and attract a packed house, proves that there is wonderful community support for our local productions. That’s exactly what happened on opening night of Southern Hospitality: Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez and their Desert Theatreworks are clearly doing it right at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.

So here’s the question: Can life in the Deep South possibly be as much fun as it’s depicted in the plays written about it? From the hilarity of Sordid Lives and Steel Magnolias to the glorious nonsense of the “Tuna” series and the “Pecan” series, the best comedy of our times seems to be coming from somewhere in Dixie.

In Southern Hospitality, we’re welcomed to Fayro, Texas, where everyone is some kind of nuts. The stage is loosely divided into three different areas, and the first scenes—brief and separated with lighting blackouts, accompanied by instrumental music—make us wonder if this is a revue. However, the characters eventually join up; the story begins, and the relationships become clear. Well, sort of. The four Futrelle Sisters (Frankie, Rhonda Lynn, Honey Raye and Twink) take time from their complicated personal lives to despair at the imminent demise of their town and ponder how it can be saved. The local characters—and this is really simplifying the tangled, mangled plot—come up with the idea of “Fayro Days” … and the planning begins.

The script is marvelous. Dealing with everything from midlife crises to guns to imaginary friends to hot flashes, the characters philosophize wildly. There are references to the “Squat ‘n’ Gobble” restaurant, the “Beaucoup Bouquet” flower shop, and other colorful place names. Fun. Just fun!

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have combined their considerable expertise and experience to create a wordy but fluffy crowd-pleaser. The playwrights are credited as being among the most produced in America today, with more 3,000 productions … and this play is their newest.

Using a cast of 13 is a serious undertaking, and not for the faint of heart. Only a director with solid old-school skills like Lance Phillips-Martinez would even consider such a challenge. With a play like this, it’s more like “wrangling” than “directing” to move everyone around efficiently but logically.

Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez have created a company in which actors, when not onstage in a production, are given the chance to learn backstage/sound/lighting/management skills. This used to happen only in summer stock. It is fascinating for the audience to see these actors morph into different characters from one play to another; the company approach also offers a great way for actors to learn. For example, in this production, we see Don Cilluffo, as Raynerd, play the Southern-fried equivalent of a Shakespearean young Fool, though recently we saw him as a mysterious middle-age, dark-cloaked Italian in The Mousetrap. Alden West (is she the busiest actress in town?) appears here as a short-haired blonde in designer-frame glasses and tropical colors, though we last saw her sporting a high-styled tower of black hair and widow’s weeds as she snarled her way through Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch.

As for the acting: Hmm. There were some inconsistencies in the Southern accents. There were some timing issues, which reflect nothing more than being a little under-rehearsed or first-night jitters. West’s first entrance presented a blocking problem: She spoke her lines with her back to the audience, unlit. One actor’s diction was messed up, either by a sore throat or something going on with her teeth, but it’s back to speech class for her. And, a couple of times, actors tossed away parts of their lines by turning to face the upstage person to whom they were speaking, rather than finding a reason to face the audience. Hey, y’all: We learn nothing from watching the back of someone’s head! It’s one of the most common acting problems, because it is so contrary to real life, but if you want to sock that punch line, you’ve got to let the audience see you and hear it.

Those are the few negatives. Other than that, the mob of actors (Daniela Ryan, Shirley LeMaster, Kathy Taylor-Smith, Kitty Garascia, Hal O’Connell, Alexis Safoyan, Austin Schroeter, Peter Nicholson, Poppy Reybin, Jana Baumann and Domingo Winstead, in addition to Cilluffo and West) tackle their jobs with the brave and noble spirit of the South. It’s not easy to be outrageous: It requires an enormous commitment. You have to combine sincerity with comedic skills and timing, or it just looks like over-acting. Cilluffo is the one who shines at this, with a command of technique that makes him lovable yet hilarious at the same time. A lot of it has to do with his resonant voice and well-used wide eyes.

The cast will grow in confidence. I urge you to see Southern Hospitality regardless of the summer heat.

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Southern Hospitality is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, June 28, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; $23 seniors; $15 students; and $10 kids 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cast of dozens! And only four people onstage.

Pardon?

The ever-faithful fans of Coyote Stageworks and the Annenberg Theater were rained-on, wind-blown, warmly bundled and umbrella-toting on the opening night of The 39 Steps. Though I never actually took an oath with the Independent along the lines of “neither wind nor sleet nor rain shall keep me from my appointed critique,” the harrowing drive (The traffic! Is our valley turning into Temecula?) to the theater was bountifully rewarded by this terrific new show: The 39 Steps is a must-see, regardless of wet weather or any other excuse.

It’s an homage to Hitchcock, a murder-mystery that paradoxically rocks you with laughter and acting brilliance. Set in 1935 in England and Scotland, The 39 Steps echoes the growing pre-war paranoia of those times. Though we too often take for granted the special effects of a show, in this production, they are stars, as Coyote Stageworks uses beyond-clever techniques with shadows or silhouettes, and a pervading moodiness that hangs over the entire play, giving a contrasting background to the levity taking place onstage. Kudos, as always, to Phil Murphy for his lighting innovations!

It would be so interesting to know what percentage of the genius that we see here comes from the actors, the director and the script directions. We’ll never know; all that we see is the end result of this happy union. The damp but enthusiastic opening-night audience gave warm applause at the end of every scene. (This is the second stop for this production; a few weeks ago, it ended a stint at the Norris Center for the Performing Arts down in Rolling Hills Estates, near Torrance.)

The director, Ken Parks, must be celebrated for his energy, consistency and his devotion to wringing every possible bit of action out of the script. (His resume will make your eyes widen in awe.) He keeps things hopping (You try directing a scene that takes place on an old train!) with delightful surprises—such as a tiny train itself, which chugs its way across the stage, an amazing detail for just a few seconds of amusement: Where did they get these tracks? Who starts the train, and who catches it at the other end? And what about the doors? There are so many doors! How much rehearsal time did THAT take to figure out?

You think these are small details? The actors have their hands full every second, because except for smoothly handsome Jeffrey Cannata, as the world-weary hero Richard Hannay (and he actually manages to be funny, too, a rarity in a lead role of this sort), they all play multiple roles. What could be more wonderful for an actor than the chance to show off one’s skills by playing a dazzling assortment of characters? The result is an unforgettable demonstration of acting chops by brilliant thespians. Their energy alone is breath-taking.

Every acting student, every actor and every director in town should see this show. Too often in regional theater, people use the “it’s just” excuse: It’s just regional theater. But this play shows what can be done in the hands of highly trained, hard-working, classically educated actors. Every single character they create is fully realized; they don’t just switch costumes. Everything—from the accents (some incomprehensible, as certain British/Scottish dialects are to the American ear, unfortunately) to the footwork to the eyebrows to the gestures to the breathing—is shrewdly planned and flawlessly executed.

The company’s sole lady is Karen Jean Olds. She plays three roles, creating complete transmogrifications between them. Slender and pretty, she moves convincingly from a hard exotic German spy (with the weirdest accent ever uttered on a stage) to a heartbreaking downtrodden Scottish farm wife to a wide-eyed and innocent young blonde on a train; it’s impossible to discern which one is most like “her.” Terrific work.

The two character actors will make your jaws drop. Kenny Landmon and Louis Lotorto are billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2. No, they don't have red fright wigs and oogah horns; this is the classic definition of a clown. These two amazing actors demonstrate a variety of comedy shtick and lightning-fast quick changes, as well as a stunning number of voices, attitudes and details unique to each character. Each one also plays a female at some time in the play, and both bring a lovely grace to these roles that is beyond charming. They shamelessly steal from vaudeville, burlesque, revue and, of course, Hitchcock; they make the show pure fun even when they aren’t being funny.  My favorite scene—it’s almost impossible to choose one—is probably the “political rally,” with the “clowns” playing two doddering patriots who assume our hapless hero (who stumbles in seeking refuge) is their speaker for the evening. Priceless.

The bizarre plot twists help; you just can’t fathom what will happen next. However, it’s the string of characters who are created here that will astound you and make you applaud wildly.

Though the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, we can only hope the cast is not exhausted by it (Jeffrey Cannata, for example, is in almost every scene), because it’s totally exhilarating for the audience. A display of pure talent is always exciting, and it will raise your respect for the profession to see this show. 

Don’t miss it—even if you need an umbrella to get there.

Coyote Stageworks’ production of The 39 Steps takes place at various times through Sunday, March 9, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/palm-springs/performance/39-steps.

The famine is at an end: Our Coachella Valley may have been starved for melodrama, but relief has arrived at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, in Palm Desert.

Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is the first “mellerdrammer” presented here in the valley (that we can recall, at least), and if audience response is any gauge of its success, we need MORE! Desert Theatreworks, led by executive director Ron Phillips-Martinez, is offering this play by Shubert Fendrich through Sunday, Feb. 2, and it is an experience not to be missed.

More than any other theatrical form, the melodrama requires an audience—and not just warm bodies sitting there. Oh no! Here, you must boo and hiss the nasty villain, cheer the brave hero, and go awwww for the sweet little heroine. Some venues (but not this one, darn it) let you pelt the cast with popcorn at appropriate junctures. It’s the most engaged you’ll ever be at the theater—and I’ve never seen a desert audience laugh so hard or so often.

The strong and innovative directorial hand of Lance Phillips-Martinez is a lovely thing to watch. His cast is evenly matched, with everyone overacting wildly, delivering confidential asides to the audience, and executing elaborate reaction “takes.” His guidance results in extraordinary acting details, including shoulder work, hand placement and footwork—aspects so often ignored by busy directors. Try to sit where you can see the actors’ shoes, because there are some lovely and hilarious extra bits done with their feet—sometimes the most-neglected part of the actor’s repertoire. Lance Phillips-Martinez has obviously kept a sharp eye on every member of his large cast, resulting in a beautiful unity among the actors. For example, he has paid exceptional attention to the actors’ use of their eyebrows. Powerful! Acting students can learn much from watching this production.

Melodrama is defined by the staging. One set (the hotel lobby) is all that’s needed for both acts. Off to one side perches the glamorous Miss Kitty (Kitty Garascia), who acts as emcee, with big white cue cards that advise the audience when and how to respond to the action. BOO! says one. CHEER! says another. And we do. Interestingly, the word OLIOS shows up on a placard after intermission, and she explains that this means it’s an opportunity for the cast to demonstrate their other talents—which they then do, by telling jokes, performing magic and singing tearjerkers of the day such as “The Bowery” or “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now.” Yikes.

“Breaking the fourth wall” is the term given to the acting technique of stepping out of the onstage action to address the audience directly. It can be done with spoken dialogue or just a look. It is employed wonderfully in this production, resulting in the audience's continuing involvement with the action, even when not actually delivering boos and hisses or applause. The finest example of this comes from actress Alden West (the evil Widow Black, owner of the town’s sole hotel), who snarls in reply to the audience’s reactions. “Aw, stuff it,” she snaps at us after being booed, provoking screams of laughter. (Yes, a female villain!)

Rubber-faced young actor Austin Schroeter, playing the aw-shucks overalls-clad farm-boy ingénue role of Bill Filbert, is delightful. (“That’s weird,” he comments thoughtfully at one point, his beyond-blue eyes staring into space.) Savvy and thoughtful actor Hal O’Connell, as Barney Black, the hapless son-in-law who toils as the hotel’s clerk, almost steals the show at one point, and I’m not going to ruin the surprise on that one. But it’s crafty Stephen McMillen, who plays two roles (Snipe Vermin and Harry Heartstone—you have got to love those names) and seizes a double opportunity to impress us by switching between facial expressions/voice/gestures/attitudes, as well as from black Stetson to white Stetson. Yee-haw!

And wait until you meet Flora and Dora, played by Jana Baumann and Joyce Ellenson, respectively. They never break character, even with their high-energy antics. Watch what they do with their eyes. They play bizarre showgirls in the troupe of Colonel Crabtree, played by charming and suave veteran actor John Alex Houlton, always a solid performer—this time augmented with a terrific cape. Adina Lawson plays Martha Muldoon, an aging escapee from said troupe, who has been hiding out at Widow Black’s hotel for two years. She’s a petticoat-and-frilled-pantaloon’d flirt with long curls and a parasol, ready to tackle any available male who happens by. Then there’s the lady sheriff, Willie Lovelace, smoothly played by Hannah Ruzicka, with all the body consciousness of a Marilyn Monroe and the self-confidence of a Bette Davis—in a fabulous pair of iguana-skin cowboy boots. The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience!

The plot is more complicated than you’d expect from this kind of theater—with an interesting twist. The actors get to push their Western drawls over the top (along with everything else, except the furniture). The production team holds up its end beautifully. Bless them.

When he opens the show, artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez reminds us that Desert Theatreworks is entirely funded by ticket sales—with no sponsors or donors at all—and always uses local actors, definitely another important reason to support them. How else will regional theater grow?

But the best reason of all to see Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is that it’s fantastic. Imagine: You, at last, in the audience of a melodrama!

Desert Theatreworks’  Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors; and $12 children 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

If you don’t like to have fun, then you absolutely must stay away from Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers, at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater. Stay home; be a curmudgeon; be a grinch—because this show might get to you. Opening night’s nearly full house at the gently raked theater found itself whooping and applauding in fits of wild enthusiasm.

Let’s discuss why.

Part of it is the music: a live band! On the stage! True, we don’t get to actually see the musicians, who are parked behind a fence so they don’t distract from the action. (Bravo to the seven-piece group; they never missed a lick, despite their not being acknowledged, or even mentioned, in the program. Why aren’t they? They are performers too, right?) Nonetheless, nothing adds excitement like the thrill of live music. A gigantic YAY to Coyote for this decision!

Yes, The Andrews Brothers is a musical, written by Roger Bean, whose credits are breathtaking. It’s set in 1945 on a Pacific island where an evening USO show is planned for “the boys.” The plot is as flimsy as that of some 1940s movies, but nobody minds. The setting for Act 1 is a military camp (with a surprising amount of scenery for a stage like the Annenberg, which has such little room backstage), and Act 2 changes to “the stage” of the show. Also in keeping with Annenberg tradition, the sound is flawless, and the face microphones all function perfectly.

Coyote Stageworks’ artistic director, Chuck Yates, opened the show at exactly 7:31 p.m., observing military promptness rather than the theatrical tradition of starting five minutes late for the tardy. After a charming little talk, he invited all the veterans to stand so we could thank them with our applause. I hope this wasn’t just an opening-night thing, because it is lovely, and it is always very affecting. Whether or not this idea was lifted from the Palm Springs Follies, I don’t care—because we can never thank our warriors enough.

So we GI-jive into the show, meeting the three USO stagehands who are planning their upcoming production. They have been assigned to this job because they are “effies,” or 4F.  A lot of the humor in the play, incredibly, comes from the disabilities which kept them out of active duty; this may be hard to believe in the uber-correct 21st century, I know, but it works. Tall, slim Michael Paternostro plays Lawrence, who is helpless without his glasses. Sweet, youthful Larry Raben is Patrick, a stutterer. Crafty, bossy Jamie Torcellini is Max, and I won’t ruin the joke by revealing his problem (and it’s not what you’re thinking).

They are awaiting the arrival of Peggy—played by sweet, crisp-voiced Bets Malone—a contest winner and pin-up girl from Seattle who is nervous about launching her professional showbiz career with tonight’s presentation. All four of these actors are Equity professionals with stunning résumés, so it is no surprise when they trot out terrific vocal harmonies, fantastic footwork and knockout comedic timing. They are also awaiting the Andrews Sisters, who are scheduled to fly in and perform—but we soon find out they are not going to arrive. Horrors! Will the troops be sent off the next day without a show? Well, in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition of here’s-a-barn-let’s-put-on-a-show, the stagehands offer to step in as performers. Corny? Sure. Cute? Totally.

I’m not going to give away what happens, but I will report that the Hawaiian number drew actual cheers from the crowd, and the staging of the “Slow Boat to China” number was beyond clever, while the “Six Jerks in a Jeep” was inventive and adorable. Kudos to the director Nicholas DeGruccio, choreographer Roger Castellano, musical director Colin Freeman, and stage manager Jill Gold for their work. Nothing in the world is more difficult than comedy. (Remember the story of the dying actor who is asked “Tell me, is dying hard?” He snarls in reply: “Dying is easy. COMEDY is hard.”) However, this combination of perfect timing and superb craftsmanship hits a home run.

But ah, the music. You know many of the songs, from Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Billy Rose, Frank Loesser—the usual suspects. Some more-obscure tunes are thrown into the mix, giving us variety and laughs and keeping the show from wandering off into cliché.

This all gives the actors an extraordinary chance to show off. In Act 1, we see enough glimmers of their talent to acknowledge the finely honed skills of these four performers, but Act 2 really lets them cut loose. (By the way: The film clips that are run during the intermission, all from that era, are astonishing—everything from war-bond appeals, to a cartoon with a cow playing the flute in Bugs Bunny’s orchestra, to a three-little-pigs animation in which the wolf is wearing a swastika armband; I was left quite speechless!) The quality of their performances, with the beautiful sureness of their footwork and the hilarious sight gags, is wonderfully innovative. It’s two hours and 15 minutes of feel-good Broadway quality, right here in Palm Springs.

But don’t go if you don’t want to have fun.

Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers is performed at various times, Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/annenberg-theater.

What can you say about a Terrence McNally play? You know before you enter the theater that he’s waiting to spring a surprise on you. But truthfully … this time, I didn’t think it would happen.

The story is about “two middle-aged ladies who travel to India.” OK … that doesn’t sound very exciting. But then again, I have friends who travelled to India and were so traumatized by the experience that they still can’t talk about what happened to them there. So was this play going to be about something like tourist muggings or pickpockets? Not everybody’s cup of oolong!

I got to Coachella Valley Repertory early for the Wednesday preview (the folks there graciously agreed to let us review the first preview show so we could get this piece into the February print edition); I wanted to study the program. Inserted between the pages was a drawing of Ganesh or Ganesha (either is acceptable—I looked it up) with a microscopic-print explanation of the “symbolism of Ganesha.” It’s worth reading; it describes everything from his trident to his fruit basket to his busted tusk. During this preshow, the audience is treated to an endless earful of sitar music, which will either completely jangle your nerves or transport you off to imaginary India.

The set is basic East Indian. The characters are transported from one venue to another by portaging bits and props that symbolically change the locales between scenes. The lights come up on the Elephant God Ganesha himself, half-naked and wearing an elaborate elephant head … which, alas, creates a muffling effect. The actor, Mueen Jahan, enunciates carefully and speaks as loudly and clearly as he can, but the trunk cuts his vocal projection drastically, and imparts a hollow sound. It’s a conundrum: How do you design a mask of an elephant, trunk and all, but not cover the mouth of the actor behind it? This problem resonated through the whole play, as the actor switched from role to role, wearing the elephant mask throughout. It brings us to a question for our brave director, Ron Celona: Did Jahan need to continue wearing the mask even when he wasn’t playing Ganesh? If playwright McNally demanded it, then Celona’s off the hook. Otherwise, couldn’t Jahan remove the mask while playing those other parts, as well as changing his costume, dialect and vocal quality, as he does?

Sean Galuszka plays so many roles that we lost count. We see him switch effortlessly from a gay flight attendant to an Untouchable Indian beggar to a Dutch tourist to a blood-spattered accident victim/ghost to a suave ballroom dancer, and on and on. He owns each role beautifully, and gets to show off his repertoire of voices, accents and looks. This is a superb opportunity for any actor to strut his stuff, and Galuszka, the only non-Equity cast member, gobbles it up; it’s delightful to see the actor’s craft on display.

Then we meet the ladies. Margaret, with her amazing red hair and fine features, is played by Sharon Sharth. She appears at the airport at the beginning of the show, snarking and whining and trying to assert herself. We get to watch her grow in this play (playwrights call it “arc,” the loveliest word) as she reveals bits and pieces of her past, and we slowly begin to understand the backstories that made her the way she is—but she starts out as a control freak and your textbook American tourist from hell. Why?

Katherine, or Kitty, is played by Kathleen M. Darcy, a gentle brunette. She brings too much luggage, tries to ingratiate herself in India by using her few words of Spanish (implying that all foreign countries are basically just one Non-United States), and generally drives Margaret crazy. Yet she is the one who eventually launches the quest for “the perfect Ganesh,” and as we learn about the other side of her seemingly golden life, we grow in respect and sympathy for her. Arc, here, too.

The crucially important thing to remember is this: A Perfect Ganesh is set in 1992. Think about it. Where were you; what were you doing; what was happening then? That’s the whole key to this play. It was pre-political correctness, so it was open-season on minorities in some places. AIDS was stalking us. Life was dangerously different. That’s how McNally gets us: The shock of the contrast to today’s life.

Oh, sure, there are laughs in the script—McNally loves to be downright silly sometimes—but the universal themes that emerge are the real stars of this work. Meanwhile, the actors are so hard-working! These lines are bears. The writing is very cerebral, and the audiences will respond to the ideas rather than the emotion. Don’t look for a lot of action, if that’s your cup of Darjeeling.

On this preview night, there were stumbles; for example, a phone rang after being picked up, and a picture came down, but that’ll be instantly fixed by the time the show emerges from previews.

Once again, Terrence McNally sets out to surprise us, to make us remember, to think. That is the real reason for the play, whether or not that’s your cup of chai.

And, as always, he succeeds, as does CV Rep.

A Perfect Ganesh is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9; at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. $40 regular; $35 preview on Thursday, Jan. 23; $50 opening night on Friday, Jan. 24. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Married Alive! brings to the Desert Theatreworks stage one of the wittiest revue scripts you’ll ever encounter. The contemporary work examines the institution of marriage from the perspective of both long-timers and newlyweds. Rich though this topic may be, it is not to be mined by the faint of heart.

Author Sean Grennan has combined his dialogue and lyrics (the music, by Leah Okimoto, is nothing you’ll remember afterward, but it’s serviceable) to create a play that gives the audience laughs ranging from chortles to guffaws. Don’t be surprised if those laughs are sprinkled with one or two tears.

The style is vaudeville-like, with lighting blackouts between sketches and songs. Those blackouts, of course, are one of the most defining characteristics of a revue (along with running gags). Co-directed by the seasoned Lance Phillips-Martinez and newbie Ron Phillips-Martinez (he’s making his directorial debut), the pace is varied, as a revue must be for maximum impact. The set is stark (some revues use no sets at all) and recalls the Laugh-In set, with windows that pop open to reveal disembodied heads spouting one-liners. Of course, there is no actual story to this kind of show, but themes abound. As for those themes: Think of your own life, and how your opinions about relationships have changed through the years.

The opening number plunges us into a delicious satire about weddings and their clichés. We meet the whole cast at once in a number called “Suddenly/Stupidly in Love.” The young bride is Erin, played by Briana Taylor, a silky blonde with a lot of confidence, as revealed by some of her costume choices. Her groom is Paul, played by William Fernandez Jr., whose amazing comedic talents and timing will serve him well in the promising career before him. Karen Schmitt, a tiny, feisty dynamo playing the older Diane, attends the wedding with her longtime spouse, Ron, played by Lance Phillips-Martinez himself, a tall sophisticate who somehow manages to be world-weary and lively at the same time. The wedding officiant is Corbett Brattin (listed as “The Observer”), who slides in and out of scenes, providing links and transitions. He’s his usual solid self as he offers additions of subtle comedy.

As for the singing voices: The show features superb harmonies, and not a bum note in the lot. However, both ladies would do well to stick with chest tones rather than wandering off into operatic head tones—they’re not good for revue theater, anyway, and they’re fraught with dangerous weakness and possible lack of control. Speaking of sound: There were a couple of moments when the musical accompaniment was a little too loud, but mostly it was just fine. It’s always tricky working with soundtracks.

A couple of microphones stood at the front of the stage, and it was impossible to tell whether they were even turned on, because the sound carried with no added resonance or reverb (a singer’s best friend). The downside: The audience didn’t catch some dropped last words—or even whole phrases—delivered when the actors’ faces were turned away from the audience, or spoken too quietly, or maybe (horrors!) mumbled. Every word counts! (Let every actor write this phrase on his mirror so he sees it 18 times a day! I’m going to keep spanking the culprits until every word of every show in town is intelligible!) That said, there were some excellent examples of lovely diction in other scenes.

What really stands out in this show are the actors’ faces. Kudos in particular go to Schmitt (those eyes!) and Fernandez (those eyebrows!), whose flexible and expressive comedic mugs create some of the best and funniest moments in the play. I confess to howling in a most unladylike fashion as I watched these two in the eggnog bit called “Ding Dong Family”—appropriately, for now, about Christmas. Brattin adds sparkle with his facial reactions—always understated, often wry and always admirable.

The characters claw their way through situations that plague every relationship—money, time, families, sex, work, communication, aging—in songs and vignettes, in solos and group harmonies. With gay marriage now common, I wonder if we’ll ever see a gay version of this show. Gay divorces are happening, too; these are all truly universal relationship problems. Anyone can have conflict over watching sports on TV, or wondering which member of the couple will die first and how it will be handled, or Viagra, or credit cards. This revue deals with all of it.

We have to keep an analysis of this production of Married Alive in proportion: The problems here are so tiny that it’s tempting to ignore them altogether, because of the brilliance of the writing. (For example, Act 2 is better than Act 1, which contained a couple of timing glitches and seemed under-rehearsed in comparison. Big deal.) It takes a lot of nerve for actors to perform musical-comedy revue, and carrying off these outrageous scenarios is only possible with a terrific script. And, I can promise you, Married Alive! has it.

By the way: Painted in cursive on the back wall of the set is a mysterious invitation to “the wedding,” dated Dec. 15, 2013, at 2 p.m. Because this is never addressed in the show, I asked co-directors Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez (recently married themselves) about it. They explained that they were hoping to find a couple willing to be married on the stage at their last performance! This is not a publicity stunt, obviously, or it would have taken place at the first performance.

So … any takers?

Married Alive!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25, or $23 for students and seniors. The show runs two hours with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.