CVIndependent

Thu08132020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona are known for presenting challenging, thought-provoking theater pieces—and CV Rep has solidified that well-deserved reputation with Carmen Rivera’s La Gringa.

The Spanish version of the show opened at Repertorio Español in February 1996 and won an Obie that year. (CV Rep is presenting the English version.) It’s still in repertory and holds the distinction of being the longest-running Off-Broadway Spanish language play.

The story chronicles the journey of 20-something Maria (Ayanery Reyes), a Puerto Rican woman who was born and raised in New York, as she searches for her roots in her homeland. She heads to Puerto Rico at Christmas time to visit her aunt Norma (Marina Re), cousin Iris (Kyla Garcia) and uncles Victor (Robert Almodovar) and Manolo (Peter Mins). We also meet likable neighbor Monchi (Eliezer Ortiz), who owns a thriving vegetable farm.

Bouncing through the front door filled with enthusiasm and sporting a jeans-jacket adorned with a Puerto Rican flag appliqué, Maria hopes for a warm, fuzzy family reunion—and those hopes are soon dashed. Her hosts do not share her excitement about Puerto Rican life. They are blasé about the historical sites and irritated by the coqui frogs Maria considers charming.

Aunt Norma is bitter and filled with resentment that her sister Olga (Maria’s unseen mother) left the island to live in New York, and had their late mother buried far away from Norma’s home. Most of her anger is directed toward her niece, whom she calls la gringa (white girl), partly because Maria can barely speak Spanish. Norma is also filled with regret over opting for the ordinary life as a Puerto Rican housewife and mother over a once-promising singing career. Cousin Iris is frustrated over her as-yet unsuccessful job-hunting efforts, and she’s tired of island life in general. Though fond of Maria, she’s not thrilled about taking her on a tour of the island, and doesn’t really want to hear about the wonders of life in the Big Apple.

Norma’s brother, Uncle Manolo, is bedridden with an undisclosed illness. Norma treats him like a baby, yet she wields an iron hand, and is always on the lookout for the alcohol Manolo stashes under the bed. (Beer is one of the few pleasures he has left in life.) After all, he tells his sister: “I’m old, and I’m going to die. Let me drink!”

Norma’s husband, Victor, the good guy who tries to smooth things over, wonders why everyone just can’t get along. He spends most of the play attempting to get the family truck running … and eventually succeeds.

The cast is quite strong. Marina Re captures Norma’s self-righteous anger, which has been simmering for years. Her breakdown and eventual metamorphosis are quite moving. As Victor, Robert Almodovar is warm and appealing—the kind of guy with whom you’d like to share a drink. Peter Mins is very effective as Uncle Manolo; the audience genuinely feels his joy when he gets out of his sickbed. Eliezer Ortiz’s Monchi is fun to watch. We’re really rooting for his farm to succeed—and for Maria to fall for him. Kyla Garcia is quite good as Cousin Iris. She has great chemistry with Re and Reyes.

Though Ayanery Reyes is adorable as Maria—with a dazzling smile and great charisma—there were times when her acting came across as a tad shallow. Her transitions from deep sorrow to happiness (particularly after Uncle Victor announces he has made a stew out of the pet rabbit he recently gave her) sometimes don’t ring true. Reyes is dynamic onstage, and overall, she turns in a good performance; I’d just like to see her dig a little deeper emotionally.   

Ron Celona once again proves his skill as a director. He’s particularly good at casting, and elicits memorable performances from each actor. There were a few slow moments, though the pace does pick up in the second act.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is fabulous and creates just the right tone, as does the music. Cricket S. Meyers, Randy Hansen and Karen Goodwin do great work on the play’s sound, and Eddie Cancel’s lights are fantastic. Aalsa Lee’s costumes and Lynda Shaep’s hair and makeup are terrific.

La Gringa is particularly timely considering our country’s ongoing political battle over immigration. The play does make you think about what the word “home” really means. In the end, the play proves that the cliché is true: Home is where the heart is.

La Gringa is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

If you’re one of those poor souls carrying resentment about mistreatment by nuns in Catholic school—or if you just need a few good belly laughs—get to the Desert Rose Playhouse, pronto.

The Divine Sister, produced by Paul Taylor, may just be your salvation.

The play was originally conceived by actor, writer and longtime female impersonator Charles Busch as a star vehicle for himself. Known for his off-Broadway play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch once said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be.”

The Divine Sister is a demented tribute to films featuring nuns, from The Sound of Music to Agnes of God. The story unfolds at St. Veronica’s Convent and grade school in Pittsburgh. Mother Superior (Jim Strait) has many issues to deal with, including the fact that the school building is falling down. She’s dealing with a young postulate named Agnes (of course), who believes she has magical healing powers and that the Virgin Mary speaks directly to her; Timothy, a young boy in desperate need of baseball coaching who doesn’t yet realize he’s gay; and a newly arrived German nun who may not be all that she seems.

Throw in devout atheist Mrs. Levinson, who could fund a new school if she were so inclined, and a man from Mother Superior’s crime-reporting past who is still pining for her, and you can understand the need for a few extra prayers.

Strait, who also serves as Desert Rose’s artistic director, is tremendous here. Though The Divine Sister is an ensemble piece, Strait is the captain of the ship, and he skillfully leads his cast through this irreverent romp. He’s strong actor and a charismatic presence who seems very comfortable in drag—but his physical size and voice remind us that there’s some testosterone in the mix as well. Sporting a long, curly wig and heels, Strait’s first appearance as girl reporter Susan Appleyard gets a huge laugh. Strait seems to be having as much fun as the audience is, which really enhances the theater-going experience.

Allison Feist is perfectly cast as innocent Agnes, who truly believes she’s been specially chosen by God. She exudes both the religious fervor of Meg Tilly in Agnes of God and the girlish mischievousness of Julie Andrews in The Sounds of Music. The physical gyrations she goes through while “healing” others are laugh-out-loud funny. Keep an eye on Feist; she has a bright future ahead of her.

As Sister Acacius, Lorraine Williamson knocks the role out of the park. Big, bold and brassy, she shows off animated facial expressions and perfect comic timing that remind me of a combination of Jo Anne Worley and Lucille Ball. Sister Acacius has a lusty past, and her vow of celibacy sometimes seems to waiver. When handsome movie consultant Jeremy (the fabulous Timm McBride) begins describing his impressive manhood in great detail, Williamson’s efforts not to drool are precious.

Adina Lawson delivers an award-worthy performance as smug, privileged Mrs. Levinson. Early in the show, two nuns visit her in an effort to secure funds to build a new school. Mrs. Levinson explains her devout atheism while describing agnostics as “wishy-washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand. Give me religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity.” Later, while sharing memories of her late husband Morris (including sea creatures during a visit to Crete, and his fatal heart attack), Levinson peppers her stories with hilarious Vogue magazine-esque descriptions of what she was wearing. Her turn as 12-year-old Timothy is equally impressive. Lawson is a pro—she totally embodies each character and is clearly having a blast on stage.

The always-interesting Alden West is quite good as the mysterious German nun, Sister Maria Walburga. Like pretty much everyone else in the play, her character has secrets—including a randy side. Walburga’s not-so-subtle invitation to Sister Acacius to have a sexual threesome with another nun is a hoot. West manages to maintain distinctly different (and believable) accents as both Berlin native Sister Walburga and, later, as a Scottish housekeeper. Any actor will tell you that to accomplish such a thing within the same play is not an easy feat.

As both Jeremy (the well-endowed film consultant hunting for a good story) and sinister monk Brother Venerius, Timm McBride is excellent. Having each actor play two roles in a production doesn’t always work, but it does here—beautifully. There is not a single weak performance here.

Director J. Stegar Thompson gets the best out of his strong cast. He keeps the pace going, which keeps the laughs flowing. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Thomas L. Valach’s set and Phil Murphy’s lighting provide just the right mood, as does Thompson’s sound. In a show with so much cross-dressing and actors playing dual roles, costumes (Kathryn Ferguson) and wigs (Toni Molano and Timm McBride) are crucial. All are spot on. Stage manager Steve Fisher deserves a nod as well.

This terrific show did suffer through a couple of glitches on opening night. There was a stumble right out of the gate with sound cues. After a delightful recorded welcome to the show from playwright Charles Busch, opening music began … then abruptly stopped. Then we heard a repeat of Busch’s welcome … which also abruptly stopped. Then there was the music again … which stopped. Finally, the music began in earnest, and the play got underway. The performances were so good that the audience soon forgot about the sound snafu, but it was an unfortunate way to start the night. Another big goof: Toward the end of the show, there was a premature entrance by an actor during a very dramatic moment in the script.

No matter what your religious affiliation, you will enjoy Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Divine Sister. It’s funny; it’s raucous; and it’s one hell of an entertaining evening.

The Divine Sister is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets or more information, call, 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

You don’t have to be a gay woman or a fan of quiche to thoroughly enjoy 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, the 2014-2015 season-opening production by Dezart Performs.

Written by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, the five-character play opened in Chicago in 2011, then hit off-Broadway in 2012; it was named a Best Overall Production at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Set in 1956, the play opens in a church basement, which has been turned into a fallout shelter. (The simple set by J.W. Layne works quite well.) The members of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein have gathered for their annual quiche breakfast. The main event on the agenda: the judging of the quiches, to determine which is best.

Everyone in the audience is a member of the society, too; attendees are each given a nametag upon entering. (I was “Dorothy.”) Throughout the production, the five ladies onstage zing individual audience members, focusing most of their venom on Marjorie, the impeached former building-and-grounds chairman sitting in the front row.

The egg—the main ingredient in a quiche, of course—has been sacred to members of the society since the group was founded by a pioneering woman who came across a colony of hens in the woods. Their motto: “No men, no meat, all manners.” When a misguided member once showed up with a sausage quiche, she was unceremoniously thrown out of the meeting. Joyce Jenkins’ brightly colored costumes and Lyndee Goodall’s hair-and-wig designs perfectly capture the era, and help define each character.

Thankfully, the entire cast is superb. It’s a joy when members of an ensemble are evenly matched, as they are here. Allison Feist is quite effective as emotionally fragile Dale. Adina Lawson is an absolute hoot as no-nonsense Vern, who takes her job as building-and-grounds chairman very seriously. There were times when she reminded me of a young Barbra Streisand. As the society’s innocent secretary, Ginny, Phylicia Mason is charming, even if her English accent was a bit inconsistent. Kristine Waters is hilarious and a bit campy as Wren and Yo Younger once again delivers a flawless performance as the group’s fearless Southern leader, Lulie.

Kudos go to director/producer Michael Shaw for choosing this piece, and for eliciting such great performances from his cast. Both the sound (Clark Dugger) and the lighting (Phil Murphy) are spot-on.

Act One ends with a nuclear blast destroying the outside world, apparently leaving only the members of the society alive. As Act Two begins, and the meeting progresses, the comedy gets broader, and the sexual double-entendres become more blatant. At one point, Ginny loses control, jumps on the table and buries her face, tongue-first, in the winning quiche; another character comments on her “good technique.”

Confessions begin, and the truth comes out: These self-proclaimed “widows” really prefer romantic liaisons with each other. (This isn’t a spoiler if you know the name of the play.) Dale’s monologue detailing why she’s the way she is, and why she hasn’t spoken to a man since a rift with her father at age 3, is terrific. Since audience participation is a big part of this show, by the end of the night, we were all proclaiming to be lesbians.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche was originally conceived as a one-act. Having it morph into a two-act play works, since the pace is brisk. Including the 15-minute intermission, the total running time was about 90 minutes.

Once again, Dezart Performs has proven that it’s a gem in the valley’s theater scene. This production is wonderful: It’s fun, bawdy and, at times, touching. If you’re not offended by sexual humor or two women kissing, you’ll love this show—and you’ll never look at quiche the same way again.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, by Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Evening shows are $25; matinees are $22. A champagne brunch at Lulu California Bistro, followed by the show, begins at 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 16; tickets are $44. A benefit performance for the Desert AIDS Project takes place at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 16; tickets are $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

If you’re looking for an entertaining evening full of music and laughs, head over to the Desert Rose Playhouse to see The Stops (A Fabulously Fundamental Musical), by Eric Lane Barnes and Drew Emery.

Directed by Jim Strait, The Stops—the name comes from knobs on an organ, which when pulled out create different musical sounds—is the tale of three lady organists: Rose Rabinowitz Rigdale, a former Jewess turned Unitarian who’s just divorced her Catholic husband; Ginny Dooley, a bleached-blonde Baptist who’s never without her chardonnay; and Euglena Belcher, a pious Nazarene from Branson. They have formed an Andrews Sisters-style musical group at the urging of legendary church musical director Dale Meadows. He believes they have what it takes to spread his musical message to the rest of the world.

However, there’s a big problem: Meadows has lost his job and is about to stand trial after being outed as a homosexual by an overly righteous congregation member. The members of this trio, who met at a meeting of NALOG (North American Lady Organists’ Guild), are on a mission to free Meadows from jail and debut his songs. Though they have very different religious views, the three women are united in their determination.

A director friend of mine once said, “Knowing how to cast well is really the key.” Well, Jim Strait hit this one out of the ballpark: His cast is superb. All three have strong acting chops, excellent comic timing and great musicality. Their vocal harmonies are stellar.

As the holier-than-thou Euglena, Mark Ziemann is believable as a woman. His breakdown and dramatic solo toward the end of the show is actually quite moving. Terry Huber delivers as Rose, the wittiest and most down-to-earth of the characters. At one point, she asks what happens when you cross and agnostic with a dyslexic. The answer? “Someone who sits up all night wondering if there is a dog.” Valley favorite Raul Valenzuela nearly steals the show as the slutty, wine-guzzling Ginny. When Euglena goes on and on about her body being a temple, Ginny replies, “Well, mine’s an amusement park!” Her sexually charged “It’s All in Your Mind,” which includes onstage participation by two audience members, is one of the show’s highlights. Valenzuela’s simulated organ playing is also quite good. The real instrumental background is skillfully provided by musical director Steven Smith.

Men in drag can sometimes look overly cartoonish onstage, but not here. Mark Demry’s costumes and Art Healey’s wigs work well, and really help define each character. Kudos also to Phil Murphy (lighting), Steve Fisher (stage manager) and Paul Taylor (producer).

Desert Rose Playhouse bills itself as the “Coachella Valley’s LGBT and gay-positive stage company. It certainly is that, but even those who are new to LGBT theater will enjoy this production. Yes, it’s irreverent and bawdy, but not in an offensive way.

And the truth is, it’s a hoot!

The Stops, a production of Desert Rose Playhouse, is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Saturday, July 19, at 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30, and the running time is just less than 2 hours, with one 15 minute Intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Anyone who’s seen the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark vividly recalls the terror they felt for Audrey Hepburn as she fought for her life in the nail-biting final scene. In fact, the whole point of the film, and the play that preceded it, is to scare the daylights out of us.

Though it has wonderful moments, Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark doesn’t quite achieve that goal.

Frederick Knott’s plot involves a heroin-filled doll that makes its way into the life of blind New York housewife Susy Hendrix (Katie Pavao). Her husband, Sam (Gregg Aratin), has innocently brought the doll from Canada as a favor to a woman who turns up dead early in the play. Three bad guys—Harry Roat (Hal O’Connell), Mike Talman (Stephen McMillen) and Sgt. Carlino (Florentino Carrillo)—try to make Susy believe that her husband will be suspected of the murder, and the only way to protect him is to hand over the coveted doll. The drug-filled toy is actually in the hands of the little girl upstairs, Gloria (Vienna Lima and Scarlett Goodlander, alternating performances), who has stolen it after discovering it’s not a gift for her.

I won’t give away much more of the story, to protect those who have not seen the film, but it involves cops who aren’t really cops, phone booths (remember those?), the reappearance of the doll, knives, gasoline and lots of action on a stage plunged into total darkness.

The pivotal role in this play is that of Susy, and thankfully, director Lance Phillips-Martinez has cast the terrific Katie Pavao. Playing a blind person onstage requires great skill, and Pavao has it. Her eyes never actually focus directly on another character’s face, but she does not look too far to the side or too high—a common mistake by amateurs, who can come across as phony. Attractive, charismatic and endearing, Pavao makes us root for Susy from her first appearance to the final curtain. A touch of feistiness balances the vulnerability that comes with a lack of sight.

Though he has a nice stage presence, Hal O’Connell’s Roat doesn’t come across as truly menacing until the very end of the play; this is one of the main reasons the production lacks a consistent feeling of tension and suspense. The same goes for McMillen and Carrillo. They are the right types physically, and McMillen has some nice moments as he and Susy start to feel sympathy for each other, but as bad guys, they are just not quite scary enough.

Gregg Aratin does a nice job as Susy’s loving husband, who doesn’t coddle his wife because of her disability. Vienna Lima, who played the doll-pilfering Gloria in the opening-night performance, is appropriately bratty (and occasionally helpful).

Ron Phillips-Martinez re-creates a Greenwich Village basement apartment nicely, and the sound effects are fine. Lights—and a lack of them—are crucial in this production, and Andy Cavalletto is up to the challenge. The pitch-black final confrontation between Susy and Roat finally gives the audience the thrill for which they’ve been waiting.

The 1967 film version—featuring Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Jack Weston, as well as Hepburn—had the advantage of a score by Henry Mancini. Perhaps a more liberal use of music throughout the play would heighten the dramatic tension. (Imagine Jaws or Psycho without the soundtrack.) That, as well as a slight quickening of the pace here and there, and more sinister villains, would raise this production of Wait Until Dark to the edge-of-your-seat level at which it should be.  

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, May 17, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

For me, it was a one-shouldered floral pink tunic.

I wore it to the premiere of an independent film in which I was featured. Accompanying me that evening was an older female producer friend I was living with while she recovered from an injury.

The film, alas, was a bomb; the friend, who had always been competitive with me, seemed to enjoy my humiliation. At the after-party, I discovered she had betrayed me professionally in a huge way. We had a screaming fight on the way home. I moved out the next day, and our friendship was over.

I could never bring myself to wear that pink top again.

Nearly every female has a similar emotionally charged story or two about articles of clothing, which is part of what makes Coyote StageWorks’ Love, Loss, and What I Wore so satisfying. Men (straight men, at least) may not get it, but women do: What we’re wearing during a major life-changing event can never be separated from the event itself.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore, written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, is based on a book by Ilene Beckerman. The play is a series of monologues using a cast of five women. When it was produced off-Broadway in 2009, the cast included Tyne Daly and Rosie O’Donnell. In 2010, it won the Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite New Off-Broadway Play.

The five women, all dressed in black, sit on chairs downstage and occasionally refer to their scripts while relaying tales of first dates, bad marriages, divorce, death and fashion-challenged mothers.

Gingy (Gloria Loring) serves as the narrator. Gingy shares with the audience the way her wardrobe has marked important times in her life—starting with her Brownie uniform—and how easily such memories can be triggered. We learn of her three marriages, the death of one of her six kids (“Your son has expired,” the hospital tells her in a phone call), and her contentment in becoming a grandmother.

Loring—known to many as Liz Chandler on Days of Our Lives, to others for singing the hit duet “Friends and Lovers” with Carl Anderson, and to yet others as the mother of pop-sensation Robin Thicke—is wonderful. She exudes warmth and humor throughout the production, and pulls off the dramatic moments with skill. (Her breezy handling of a malfunctioning microphone at the top of the show on opening night set just the right tone.)

Mo Gaffney, who plays Gingy’s mother, among other characters, is hilarious. One of the evening’s highlights is her diatribe on purses, and how she can never keep hers tidy and organized. Her description of a friend who was trapped in a Paris café during a rainstorm so her $6,000 Grace Kelly handbag wouldn’t get ruined is priceless. Gaffney, a stage and film veteran, is the definition of a seasoned professional.  She’s magical onstage and makes it look easy.

Olympic gymnast-turned-actress Cathy Rigby is also terrific in multiple roles. She’s vulnerable and effective in a scene with Bets Malone as her lesbian lover, during which the two are deciding what to wear for their wedding. At another point, she recalls every stitch of clothing her character had on when she followed an abusive boyfriend to Seattle, begged him repeatedly to stay, and then finally mustered up the guts to dump the jerk.

Though not as well-known as the headliners, Malone is an amazingly versatile actress. She makes the most of a vignette comparing the loss of a favorite shirt to the end of a romantic relationship (“I just had to cherish the time I had with the shirt and move on”) and rivets us as a cancer survivor who decides to get a tattoo on her reconstructed breast.

Rounding out the cast is Elaine Hayhurst, also in several roles, including the girlfriend of a Chicago gang member. She shines in bits about choosing between wearing high heels or “thinking” shoes, and the trauma of having an unwanted audience of saleswomen help her buy a new bra. (All five women share amusing dressing-room angst: ”Oh my God, my butt fell!” and “This doesn’t fit, but I always lose weight in May.”)

Director Toni Kotite brings out the best in the cast. Each actress creates believable, likable characters whose stories draw us in, and the chemistry among the group is genuine. The tasteful lighting and simple set are perfect. Artistic director Chuck Yates once again has turned in a top-notch piece of theater, with a stellar cast and fabulous production values.

One of my pet peeves when attending plays these days is the tendency for audiences to jump to their feet at the end of every show, even when it’s mediocre or just plain awful. But the standing ovation Coyote StageWorks’ production of Love, Loss, and What I Wore received the night I saw it was richly deserved.

This play will make you laugh and cry—and perhaps make you wonder why you’re REALLY hanging on to those bell bottoms from junior high.

Coyote Stageworks’ Love, Loss, and What I Wore is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Saturday, April 5, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or go to www.annenbergtheater.org

Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, now being produced at the Indio Performing Arts Center, has some big credentials: It premiered in Chicago in 1990, before heading to runs both off-Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1992, it won both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and was adapted into a film in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.

At the center of the play are two sisters: Bessie, a woman who is taking care of her ill father and aunt; and Lee, a wise-cracking, somewhat slutty woman who has not helped out Bessie and the rest of her family much at all. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she is faced with her own looming mortality. Mortality is a topic that playwright McPherson knew all too well: He cared for his partner who died of AIDS, and later succumbed to an AIDS-related illness himself at the young age of 33, in 1992.

Lee comes to Bessie’s Florida home to see if she or one of her two teenage sons can donate bone marrow to save her sister’s life. They also must decide what to do with their infirm relatives if Bessie can no longer care for them. Lee and her 17-year-old son, Hank, have had a tense relationship for years; in fact, the boy has been sent to a mental institution after burning down the house. But Bessie’s wise, loving influence leads mother and son to warm to each other; the door to mutual understanding cracks open just a bit. As Bessie faces her own impending death, she embraces a new sense of gratitude for her imperfect family and for life itself.

Though the play’s main theme is death, there are lots of laughs; McPherson manages to find humor in some very dark places. Subtlety is not his forte, however; for example, the self-absorbed Lee is a cosmetician, a profession that seems to exaggerate her shallowness. Her generous, spiritual side does peek through as she helps a group of local nuns bake their supply of communion hosts each week. Meanwhile, Bessie is battling loneliness, as her one real boyfriend drowned while she and others watched from the beach, thinking his cries for help were laughter. And Bessie’s father, Marvin—confined to bed and seen only in silhouette through the blinds—is not only dealing with the after-effects of a stroke, but is also battling diabetes and colon cancer. We do hear Marvin moaning from time to time and laughing when family members play “chase the flashlight beam” on his bedroom wall.

Pretty much every cast member in IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room has a few memorable moments. Kirk Geiger, best known for his role in the cult film Sordid Lives, plays Dr. Wally, and is quite funny in the opening scene while trying to draw blood from Bessie, whose panic is rising by the second. Too bad he’s not onstage more often. The always-dependable Louise Tonti (Aunt Ruth) does not disappoint here; she’s hilarious and loveable, and makes us forgive her character’s sometimes-frustrating forgetfulness.

As 17-year-old Hank, Diego Valdez has a great stage presence and some real acting chops. The scenes in which he discusses his possible bone-marrow donation with Bessie, and begins reconciling with his mother, are particularly touching. As younger brother Charlie, Julian Jacobo is adorable and exhibits nice comic flair.

Valerie-Jean (V.J.) Hume (my theater-reviewing colleague here at the Independent) is quite good in her brief scene as the psychiatrist working to bring Hank and Lee together. Domingo Winstead, as Bob, is fine.

The two leads, Denise Strand (Bessie) and Tiffani Lobue (Lee), are strong throughout much of the show. We genuinely feel Bessie’s weariness from the task of caring for Aunt Ruth and Marvin, though we know she loves them dearly. She also skillfully portrays her fears about her terminal diagnosis. Lobue really captures the essence of Lee, and has some nice comic moments—like dumping at entire bowl of candy at a nursing home lobby into her purse. Also, the growing warmth between the two sisters as they get to know each other for the first time is palpable. But like many in the cast, Strand and Lobue occasionally seem to run out of steam. Director Jeanette Knight deserves kudos, though I’d like to see her push the entire ensemble to keep their energy up until the final curtain, as well as pick up their cues a bit.

The set, lighting and sound are all effective, particularly the song selection for set changes.

I recommend seeing IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room, to remind us that we’re all dying, one day at a time, and that family—and love—is what really matters.

Marvin’s Room is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $19 to $26, and the running time is just over two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.

The first thing you need to know about Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is that there’s nudity—quite a bit of full frontal nudity, right at the top of the first act.

The second thing you need to know is that the production is fabulous. Founder and artistic director Ron Celona has hit another one out of the park.

The two-character play by Terrence McNally was first performed off-Broadway in 1987. It tells the story of two lonely people, both in their 40s, whose first date ends with a mutually satisfying roll in the hay. While Johnny is convinced he will ride off into the sunset with Frankie, she has some serious doubts: She is far more cautious, and prefers to take things slowly. As the night progresses, they slowly bare their souls to each other … which may or may not lead to a viable relationship. The “Clair de Lune” referred to in the title is a piece of music by Claude Debussy. This fact is important to the plot.

When Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune made its way to Broadway in August 2002, it starred Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. It ran for 243 performances, and both the play (as a revival) and Tucci earned Tony nominations. I’m sure they were marvelous in the roles—but the CV Rep cast would give them a run for their money: Stephanie Dawn Greene (Frankie) and Joel Bryant (Johnny) are simply tremendous.

In a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry is vital, and Greene and Bryant have it in spades. From the second the lights come up as they’re exuberantly consummating their relationship, the audience believes that these two will—or at least should—somehow end up together. Greene is spunky yet vulnerable as waitress and failed actress Frankie. We feel for her when she doesn’t always understand the big words Johnny throws around—but we know, deep down, that she’s probably the wiser of the two. After their apparent one-night stand, Frankie becomes anxious for Johnny to leave. He resists, sometimes with charm, and at other times with a persistence that borders on creepy. (Some women in the audience may relate to this predicament.)

Like Frankie, Johnny (a cook who works with her) is longing for acceptance and hesitant to reveal all the details of his past. He’s divorced and has spent time in prison, while she is uneducated, can’t have kids and has survived an abusive relationship. Both had mothers who walked out on them as children. Bryant’s Johnny is funny and cocky, yet clearly desperate for love. There is one point in the second act when Johnny’s emotional breakdown seems just a tad over the top and whiny, but otherwise, both Bryant and Greene are flawless. (Both are also in great physical shape—a big plus when you’re running around onstage unclothed.)

Director Ron Celona elicits strong performances from the actors, and moves them around on stage quite effectively. Jimmy Cuomo’s set could not be any better, and the lighting (Stuart A. Fabel) and sound (Kara Masek) create just the right mood throughout the production.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, CV Rep’s final production of the 2013-2014 season, completes the theater’s retrospective of Terrence McNally plays. Congrats to Ron Celona for once again offering the Coachella Valley professional, high-quality entertainment. As long as you’re not squeamish about a little nudity and some salty language, this play is a must-see.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40, and the running time is two hours, with a 15 minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical debuted at the New York Theater Festival in 2004 and opened off-Broadway in September 2005. Today, the two-act musical, written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso—which examines the relationships between the tenants at the Armadillo Acres Trailer Park in Starke, Fla.—has made its way to the desert, thanks to the efforts of Desert Theatreworks.

There’s not much of a plot; some of the characters need more fleshing out; and many of the songs are weak, but the show has enjoyed moderate success over the past 10 years. If you’re a Jeff Foxworthy fan and like your humor on the crass side, this show is right up your alley.

If the only criterion for reviewing a show was the earnest effort of the cast, Desert Theatreworks’ production would get five stars. Director Lance Phillips-Martinez has assembled a group of energetic actors with great comic timing who do their best to keep the audience smiling throughout the production.

So what’s the downside? The show is a musical, and many of those onstage lack the necessary singing ability. 

As the show opens, we meet Betty (Adina Lawson), Pickles (Briana Taylor) and Lin (Kitty Garascia)—whose name is short for linoleum, since she was born on the kitchen floor. The rousing first musical number, “This Side of the Tracks,” sets the tone of the narration and the commentary on trailer-park life that the trio provides. Though it’s one of the better songs, right away, issues of pitch and shrillness became apparent. Excess volume is also a problem. Nearly everyone in the cast seems to follow the “if in doubt, sing louder” mantra—something director and vocal coach Phillips-Martinez should have nipped in the bud. (I once had a fabulous musical theater instructor who said: “Loud does not equal better; it’s just loud.”)

Lawson fares the best. She hits the notes a bit more often than her cohorts, and her street-smart, cigarette-puffing Betty keeps us laughing, especially during the talk-show-spoofing The Great American TV Show. Taylor is amusing as the not-too-bright Pickles, and Garascia has her moments as the wife of a death-row inmate (who tries to postpone his execution by sabotaging the prison’s electricity).

The strongest pipes in the cast belong to Ashley Hernandez, as stripper-on-the-run Pippi, who arrives at Armadillo Acres and promptly starts an affair with tollbooth-collector Norbert Gastecki (Shawn Abramowitz). Norbert’s wife, Jeanne (Stacy Casaluci), is devoted but agoraphobic, and hasn’t stepped out of their trailer in years. Hernandez has a strong, pleasing voice, and has clearly had vocal training—but even she occasionally pushes too hard. Abramowitz captures the essence of Norbert, who feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but is also frustrated by her neurosis. Sadly, he is not a singer. His duet with Casaluci (“Owner of My Heart”) just did not work, because the harmonies seemed off. Though she has a pretty voice well-suited to the quiet solo numbers, Casaluci becomes shrill at times.

Rounding out the ensemble, Stephen McMillen delivers a nice comic turn as Pippi’s marker-inhaling ex-boyfriend, Duke. 

Kudos go to Ron Phillips-Martinez for the sets and costumes, which are quite good. The lighting, sound and choreography are all fine. 

The opening-night audience seemed to enjoy The Great American Trailer Park Musical at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, though applause following many of the musical numbers was not always very enthusiastic.

The show is loud, colorful, tacky and, most important, fun. If you don’t go expecting beautiful singing, or songs you can whistle on your way home, you just might like it.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 23, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; and $23 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Many of us recall reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling, back in grade school. Her book Cross Creek, and its resulting lawsuit, are less familiar.

Written in 1942, Cross Creek chronicles the fishermen and other backwoods folks living near Rawlings’ home in Alachua County, Fla. Most of the 121 characters in the book were apparently fine with Rawlings’ descriptions of them, but one—Zelma Cason—took definite offense and decided to sue. The trial, which was the first of its kind in Florida, is the basis for Dezart Performs’ latest production, Invasion of Privacy.

In Cross Creek, Zelma is not pleased about being described as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary.” (I wouldn’t be pleased, either.) Rawlings goes on to say about Cason: “I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her ministrations think nothing at being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles.” Cason claimed Rawlings did not have permission to write about her and sued for libel and invasion of privacy. She requested an award of $100,000.

Larry Parr’s play is based on transcripts from the 1943 trial and interviews with Rawlings’ husband, Norton Baskin. It’s a bit of a Southern soap opera, filled with colorful, hard-to-forget characters.

The role of Marjorie is the glue that holds the entire production together. Gina Bikales captures the author’s strength and righteous anger over being told what she can and cannot write about, but her depiction of the Rawlings’ personal struggles—with booze and her often-absent husband—don’t ring as true. The opening scenes with Bikales and Peter Nicholson (Norton Baskin) lack chemistry. In fact, it’s not until near the end of the play that we see even a shred of Marjorie’s vulnerability. When she laments the death of her beloved dog and goes on about how much she misses him, we somehow just don’t believe it. Because Bikales has a strong stage presence and an animated face, the character would be more interesting and more likable if she toned things down just a bit; too much gesturing can get distracting. Sometimes, less is more. However, Bikales’ scenes with Louise Ross, as Zelma, are effective.

Ross—who stepped into the role three weeks ago when Blanche Mickelson (whose photo is featured prominently on the program and in press materials) had to withdraw for personal reasons—does a fine job. In her tacky, down-home outfits—the costumes are all terrific—Ross charms us as boozing, tough-talking Zelma, although Zelma could have used a bit more energy and fire at times (particularly in the courtroom scene at the end of Act 1). She shares some nice moments with Marjorie in her bathroom (it’s the only warm room in the house, you see) as the two women pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth and try to make up. Though Marjorie has come armed with an apology and a peace offering (a cake), the effort fails, and the former friends end up madder than ever.

Peter Nicholson holds his own as Rawlings’ other half, Norton. He’s likeable onstage, but he, like Bikales, could use a few more levels to his character. It occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Corbett Brattin is thoroughly entertaining as Rawlings’ good-ol’-boy lawyer, Sigsbee Scruggs. After failing to convince Rawlings and her husband to settle the case, Scruggs digs in to the task at hand, although he takes a brief detour from his dedication to the cause to flirt with his opposing counsel in the empty courtroom. His suggestion that she get to know the other male lawyers in town by going hunting with them brings a well-deserved laugh. Brattin’s performance is well-crafted and funny, and may well garner him the Desert Theatre League award win he’s so far been denied.

But the true jewel in the cast is Yo Younger as Zelma’s attorney, Kate Walton. Always a standout, Younger can command the audience’s attention simply by standing at the edge of the stage and gazing forward: You can’t take your eyes off her. Call it charisma; call it presence—whatever you call it, Younger has it. Her performance is passionate and strong, yet also vulnerable. When her character recounts the sting of being chastised by her family for even considering law as a career, and then being called a hillbilly by her law-school classmates, we feel every ounce of her pain. However, she’s always in control, and never pushes too hard. Younger splits her time between the valley and Los Angeles. Hopefully she will continue to share her acting talent with desert audiences for years to come.

In a small role as Judge John Murphree, Jason Lewis has some nice comic moments, particularly when he directs those in the courtroom to sit without uttering a word. However, he could pump up his energy level and vocal volume a bit.

The play is nicely directed by soap-opera and stage veteran Judith Chapman. She deftly captures the mood of backwoods Florida in the 1940s. The blocking seems to flow naturally, and Chapman generally keeps the action moving at a good pace (though a couple of scene changes lagged a bit). Having the audience double as the jury in the courtroom scenes, with the lawyers speaking directly to us, is quite effective.

The split set—one half Marjorie’s back porch, and the other the courtroom (and briefly Zelma’s bathroom)—works quite well.

Dezart and artistic director Michael Shaw have once again chosen an entertaining play that has a deeper message: Do we have a right to privacy? More than 70 years after the Cross Creek trial, the answer to that question seems more elusive than ever. Here in 2014—the “Age of Information”—privacy seems all but impossible.

The Rawlings legal case took more than four years with appeals. It also took a huge toll on the writer’s career—she only published one more full novel in the decade after the trial.

Dezart’s Invasion of Privacy is thought-provoking theater that will spark much debate on the ride home.

Dezart Performs’ production of Invasion of Privacy takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans’ Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22; or $18 for seniors, students and members of the military. Running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or go to www.dezartperforms.com.

Page 6 of 7