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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Work: Love it or loathe it, it determines everything about you. It affects where you live, what you drive, how you dress, the hours you keep, how you shop, who shares your life, whether you rent or own, your taxes (yes, it’s that time of year), your environment … and the list goes on.

Dezart Performs’ production of Sweat is about work. The peculiar title suggests physical labor—a fact that’s confirmed when you find out that the setting is the steel town of Reading, Penn.

The author, Lynn Nottage, won her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this script (the only woman to win two!). The play’s great director/producer, Michael Shaw, told me that Ms. Nottage spent five years researching what happened to these hardworking folks caught in the ghastly triangle of struggle between The Union, The Management, and The Workers of the plant which employs them. Yet her script contains a few welcome laughs along with the gritty realism of words like scab and lockout.

The scenes bounce back and forth between the years 2000 and 2008. A fascinating addition to the onstage action: news headlines appearing on the proscenium between the scenes, including the temperature that day in Reading—and these headlines rocket us back to the names and events of those days. The play begins in 2008, then flashes back to 2000, but the changes in the time are handled beautifully by the cast of nine.

The main set is a neighborhood saloon. Created by the amazing Thomas L. Valach, who has given us so many fabulous and varied play designs, it is the quintessential cozy bar—and Shaw confided that it is a functional one, too! Watch the bartender! The stage is expanded when the actors chase down the aisles, and later, an extra hidden set pops out, too, courtesy of the show’s most excellent lighting by Phil Murphy. Kudos to all the techs who contributed their brilliance to the success of this play, all aided by Shaw’s flawlessly balanced blocking. Terrific work, all.

Conflict begins with the play’s first words. This solid cast of actors, some whom Shaw has imported, have all done their backstory research, so we meet fully realized characters. These people take pride in working with their hands and in being multi-generation factory workers. This is a life so far removed from our sunshiny world in the Coachella Valley that it’s spellbinding. This play’s dark atmosphere implies the gloom and grime of the steel mill where these people toil, but the neighborhood bar is a familiar haven that promises light, music, warmth and relaxation. Alas, it is also the setting for gossip, heartache, blame, jealousy, frustration, injustice, revenge and eventual violence.

Let’s look at the actors in alphabetical order, like your program does. Miguel Arballo plays Oscar, a Puerto Rican barback with ambition. A lot goes on behind his watchful eyes. He eavesdrops on the customers whom he resents because they ignore him—though he learns from them. Arballo brings multiple layers to his creation of Oscar, and he surprises us with this character’s growth.

Melanie Blue plays Jessie, a brunette who frequently finds herself “over-served” at the bar. This fearless actress uses her expressive face and subtle gestures to build a character in whom we see opposing thoughts existing together inside her head … except, of course, when she is passed out.

Desireé Clarke is Cynthia, a smart girl whose intelligence is layered with sweetness. She is keen to advance at work, yet is highly sensitive to injustice, favoritism and the feelings of others. This actress, as always, turns in a beautifully focused, believable and thoughtful performance.

The role of Tracey is played by Theresa Jewett—an assertive single mom, worried sick about her job, finances and her tattooed son. “I was never any good in school,” she says, dismissing the possibilities of union retraining. Alarmingly, we see her spiral downward faster than anyone else once their plant locks them out. Yet Jewett’s strong character never indulges in self-pity.

Cortez Johnson plays Chris, Cynthia’s son, a young man determined to free himself from the factory’s problems by pursing a teaching degree. He skillfully creates a complex role layered with a wide variety of emotions as he deals with his parents, his choices, his mistakes, his joys, his fears and anger.

Corydon Melgoza is Jason, Tracey’s son (and his tattoos actually play a role, too—watch them). When we first meet him, he is a sullen young felon, but when we next see him, it’s eight years earlier, when he was a high-energy boy with exuberant hopes. In Jason, Melgoza has carefully created a multifaceted character who runs the gamut of emotions.

Eddie Stephens opens the show with his character, Evan, an authority figure who is a parole officer or counselor for Jason. Interesting to watch, this actor chooses to play his part largely with downturned eyes—an amazing choice which works for him, though it is rarely seen onstage. Brave and unusual!

Cary Thompson plays Brucie, a character who can break your heart. His relationships are always subject to his con-man habits and a firm belief that everyone is a sucker. Thompson shrewdly layers this over a thin film of desperation, then tops it with an irresistibly sweet smile, creating a character that we both love and hate.

Mike Truelock is the bartender, Stan, who gives his role a greater arc than any other character in this play. “Shaken, not stirred,” he smiles to Jessie, handing her a martini like 007. The affable, philosophical former factory worker presents as a charming and friendly guy, which is why his story is such a shock. Truelock is unforgettable in this deceptively simple role.

Some performances are already sold out, but see Sweat if you can. Believe me: After what happens in Sweat, you will leave the theater shaken AND stirred.

Dezart Performs’ production of Sweat is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Any professional critic worth his or her salt strives to be fair, tactful, entertaining and, most of all, honest. To regularly gush or fawn over productions would cause us to lose our credibility. But every now and then, a play comes along that leaves us no choice but to gush.

Such is the case with Dezart Performs’ current production of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband.

The story is riveting, and the acting is some of the best I have seen on a local stage in the past 20 years. Though centered around the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide, the play is about so much more than that. It hits a whole lot of hot-button issues—commitment-phobic mates, overbearing mothers, age-inappropriate dating, dashed career dreams and navigating the legal system as common-law partners.

The play opens on a dinner party at the home of Daniel (Michael Shaw), a successful architect, and his partner, Mitch (David Youse), an equally successful author. Their guests are Mitch’s agent, Barry (Chuck Yates), and his new boy toy, Trip (Hanz Enyeart). The after-dinner small talk gets heated when Trip innocently asks why Daniel and Mitch aren’t married. They’ve been together for seven years and seem very happy, and gay marriage is legal now, so, Trip wonders … why not get hitched?

It is an issue the couple painfully wrestles with often. Daniel desperately wants to get married, while Mitch is adamantly against it. He loves Daniel deeply but does not respect the institution of marriage. He finds it old-fashioned and unnecessary—a concept foisted on mankind by religious zealots that has morphed into a money-making scheme. When pressed, Mitch fires back, “When did it become important for the gay community to be like everyone else?”

Meanwhile, Daniel is dreading the upcoming week-long visit by his mother, Lydia (Deborah Harmon). Widowed, wealthy and pushy, Lydia’s life is shallow and empty. She claims to love both Daniel and Mitch, “her boys,” and would also like to see them married—but underneath her smile is a controlling woman who can’t resist a veiled barb or two. Upon arrival, she invites the lesbians across the street to dinner, and insists that her son whip up a chicken dish he’s made in the past, because “everyone knows lesbians love chicken!” The tension between Daniel and Lydia is based largely on Daniel’s belief that his narcissistic mother is responsible for his late father’s failure to become a famous artist.

Without giving too much away, a sudden tragedy turns everything upside down, and brings up the old debate over whether blood is thicker than water.

Once again, Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, has made a brilliant choice with this play. Casting is always crucial, especially in a small ensemble piece like this, and here, it was spot on. Director Darin Anthony elicits amazing performances from each of his actors.

Shaw’s portrayal of Daniel is fabulous. He is sweet, funny and likable. The raw pain and desperation he feels over Mitch’s refusal to wed is palpable. What he’s on called to do as an actor is quite challenging, but Shaw pulls it off beautifully.

I have never seen Deborah Harmon be anything but terrific onstage, but she outdoes herself here as Lydia. Her breezy entrance, while dressed in pearls and perfectly coiffed, is memorable. Early on, she is hilarious, but her switch to a devious, cut-throat matriarch is quite effective.

Chuck Yates is equally as good as Barry. While his dating life is problematic—his attraction to decades-younger guys has not worked out well—he is the steadying presence in the story. Actors in less-flamboyant roles can sometimes get lost on the stage. Yates does not. Even when silently observing the action, he commands our attention.

As Trip, Hanz Enyeart is tremendous. Young, ditzy and flamboyant, the character of Trip is written to be a bit over the top, and Enyeart delivers, big-time. Yet later on, his poignant moments are authentic as well.

If I had to single out one performance, it would be that of David Youse as Mitch. We see immediately why Daniel loves him. He’s tall, rugged and affable. Both his passion for and commitment to Daniel are believable, as is his stubborn resistance to tying the knot. In the dramatic scenes toward the end of the play, Youse is simply stunning. Often one of the toughest things for actors to do onstage is just be still—to listen, absorb and just BE. Everyone in this cast nails that challenge, but Youse is outstanding.

Everyone on the production team did a bang-up job here. Special mention needs to be made of Thomas L. Valach’s set, which is simply perfection.

Love IS love—and Daniel’s Husband is magnificent.

Dezart Performs’ production of Daniel’s Husband is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Great theater should do more than just entertain us. Ideally, it challenges us, uplifts us—or stuns and outrages us, and perhaps forces us to re-examine some of our core beliefs. Dezart Performs’ production of Robert Askins’ Broadway hit Hand to God does all that—and more.

The story is set in a church basement in suburban Cypress, Texas. Just-widowed Margery (Yo Younger) has assembled a small group of volunteers to put on a Christian puppet show. In attendance are her troubled teenage son, Jason (Eddie Vona); his secret crush, Jessica (Brenna Williams); and local bad-boy Timothy (Danny Gomez).

Jason’s anger and grief over the loss of his father are raw. He blames Margery for not being able to provide the emotional support his dad apparently needed. Instead, the man turned to food for comfort—and ate his way into a fatal heart attack. Margery is also adrift; the loss of her husband—with the emotional and financial support he provided—has left her anxious. Compounding Margery’s stress are not-so-subtle sexual advances from both teenage Timothy and the church’s pastor, Greg (Roy Abramsohn).

Things start spinning out of control when Jason’s sock puppet, named Tyrone, begins describing Jason’s attraction to the mild-mannered Jessica in a lewd manner. Mortified by Jessica’s embarrassment, Jason attempts to muzzle Tyrone—to no avail. Seemingly possessed by the devil, Tyrone becomes increasingly obscene and violent. No one is spared: Every character gets a taste of the puppet’s vitriol, even Jason himself. It’s as if every bitter, hateful thing Jason ever wanted to say, but was afraid to, is now coming out of Tyrone’s mouth.

Jason’s ongoing battle with Tyrone is intense, often ugly, and almost always hilarious. At one point, Jessica shows up with a female sock puppet, which she offers up for therapy. Of course, chaos ensues.

Once again, director Michael Shaw has assembled a stellar cast. Each actor delivers a dynamite performance, but special mention must be made of Eddie Vona. He deftly conveys the angst of a boy mourning his father, who’s also conflicted about religion and his burgeoning sexuality. Vona’s puppeteering skill with Tyrone is outstanding, especially in the rapid-fire exchanges Jason and Tyrone have with each other. The audience becomes absolutely convinced that Tyrone is an autonomous being, not just a sock with felt hair being manipulated by someone else.

The always-superb Yo Younger does not disappoint. Prim and proper early in the play, and outwardly displaying the appropriate religious devotion, we see the sadness in her eyes—the fear and loneliness of widowhood, the regret over her rocky relationship with her son, and the worry about where life will take her next. When it all explodes, we are momentarily stunned … but then it suddenly all makes sense. No one can stay that buttoned-up forever; something’s got to give. Younger gives Mrs. Robinson a run for her money in a true tour de force performance.

As sneering, bad-boy Timothy, Danny Gomez is fabulous. Tall and well-built, he’s a physically imposing presence onstage. Think of a foul-mouthed, more brazenly sexual Vinnie Barbarino.

Roy Abramsohn is perfect as Pastor Greg. He exudes a fantastic combination of smarmy piety and barely concealed lust, with great comic timing. When the pastor suggests an exorcism to get rid of Tyrone, Jason asks, “Isn’t there supposed to be a young priest and an old priest?” Greg replies: “We’re not Catholic!”

Brenna Williams is quite good as the innocent Jessica. She, too, has some memorable comic moments. Early on, she chides Timothy: “You are so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia!” Her facial expressions during a lengthy puppet sex scene are priceless.

The colorful, whimsical set is excellent, as are the sound, lighting and costumes.

Congratulations once again to Shaw for choosing yet another provocative, entertaining play that pushes the envelope. Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is hilarious, but not for the faint of heart. It touches on subjects some may find uncomfortable—good versus evil, demonic possession and rough sex. But then again, isn’t touching on uncomfortable subjects what good theater is all about?

Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov, 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40, and the running time is just less than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Cathy Schenkelberg is coming to the valley to perform her renowned one-woman show, Squeeze My Cans: Surviving Scientology, for one reason: Scott Smith.

“He’s been my friend since (we both lived in) Chicago,” Schenkelberg said during a recent phone interview. “We did Hair together, the Midwest tour. He was Berger, and I was Crissy. Scott is gay, and he knew that I loved him. I was like, ‘Oh, why are you gay? I want you to be my lover.’ We made a pact that if either of us reached a certain age, and neither of us had kids, we would have a child together. I remember when I got pregnant with my daughter, I said, ‘Well, too late. I’m pregnant.’”

Scott Smith, a beloved local performer who was on the board of Dezart Performs, died suddenly last year, after suffering a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

“I was literally getting on a plane to Ireland; it was March 1, 2018,” Schenkelberg said. “I got a call from Michael (Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director). That loss was so great to me, because I had never lost anybody close to me, aside from family members. When I flew back from Ireland to be at his service, I said to Michael Shaw, ‘If you get together some kind of scholarship fund, I will make sure that I come and perform for you.’”

Schenkelberg will perform Squeeze My Cans on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 7 and 8, at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The proceeds will go to Dezart Performs and the Scott Smith Scholarship Fund.

The show tells the true story of how, in Schenkelberg’s words, a girl from a large Catholic family in Nebraska wound up having her life nearly destroyed by spending 14 years as a Scientologist. Oh, yeah, it also discusses that one time she auditioned to be Tom Cruise’s girlfriend.

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Schenkelberg said. “I take you down the rabbit hole of Scientology, but I also do it with humor, because how else is there to get past this loss of almost two decades and a million dollars, than being able to laugh at yourself? It was like being in a job for 18 years that you hated, or being in an abusive relationship, and going, ‘How do I get out of this thing?’ I find humor in loss.”

It all started when Schenkelberg met a Scientologist while she was in her early 20s.

“I was a successful actress in Chicago,” she said. “I did a lot of voice-over work, and I was the first female clown at The Bozo Show. I had a steady income, but I felt like I wasn’t contributing. So when I found Scientology, it was the right thing for me. Someone mentioned to me this morning: ‘You know, you wouldn’t have been in this for 18 years if there wasn’t something good about it.’”

At first, Schenkelberg said, Scientology made her feel special. “They love-bomb you,” she said. But as Schenkelberg’s career and income grew, the church took notice.

“On every step through the Scientology Bridge to Total Freedom, it’s called, I went to a higher level, and in this process, each level costs you more money, until (you reach) the point where you’re in ‘dianetic clear’—you’re clear of your reactive mind,” she said. “It’s an indoctrination, but it slow-burns. … I got to the point where I was afraid to lose (Scientology), because I thought I would die, or something bad would happen to me, or I would lose my friends, and my agent, and my doctor. All the people I was connected to, suddenly, were Scientologists. They isolate you in that way, but it was very slow. … If they’d have introduced the aliens early on, I probably would’ve been out of there in two seconds.”

Schenkelberg finally decided to make a break with Scientology for two reasons: She was running out of money, and the church started to come after her daughter.

“People who see the show will see, in 75 minutes, how someone can be indoctrinated,” she said. “Keep in mind (that when I started in Scientology in the 1990s), I didn’t have Google; I didn’t have the internet, and once you’re in the church, you can’t look at the internet.”

Schenkelberg said that although the show is about her experience in Scientology, its themes are universal.

“Each time I perform, I realize that this isn’t just about Scientology. It’s about anything anyone is afraid to leave,” she said.

I had to ask: What’s the story behind the name of the show?

“I was having a drink in L.A. with my agent. I said, ‘Eric I need a name for my show.’ And he says, ‘Squeeze My Cans.’ He used to always mock me when I was auditing … where you use the e-meter, which is like a lie detector, and connected to the e-meter are two metal cans. So it’s a play on words,” she said with a laugh.

Squeeze My Cans: Surviving Scientology will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 7 and 8, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Admission is $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Dezart Performs Artistic Director Michael Shaw is ending the company’s 11th season on a perfect note with Audrey Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin.

Set in rural Alabama, this charming story follows the burgeoning romance between new neighbors Lizzy Nash (Kay Capasso) and Jack Key (Joel Bryant). Lizzy has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher to mourn the loss of her husband in a roofing accident.

Jack, a physics teacher at the same school, has just moved in next door. He purchased the house not knowing that the previous owner died in the front bedroom, mere months after the man’s wife passed away. After Lizzy reveals this fact, Jack—a widower himself—becomes convinced the house is haunted, and takes to sleeping out on his back porch for safety. Featured prominently on that porch is a Maytag clothes dryer that Jack stubbornly refuses to move inside. Lizzy chooses to dry her laundry the old-fashioned way, on a clothes line, and finds the appliance an irritating eye-sore.

The neighbors discover a bag of old love letters the elderly tenant had written to his wife during their decades-long marriage, and they read them throughout the play. The tenderness of the letters helps Jack and Lizzy deal with the grief of losing their own spouses, and to slowly discover their feelings for each other.

In a two-hour play with only two characters, casting is crucial. If the performers don’t have strong acting chops and onstage chemistry, the audience is in for a long night. Thankfully here, director Deborah Harmon made excellent choices: Both Kay Capasso and Joel Bryant are superb.

Capasso’s Lizzy is conflicted, sexually frustrated, warm, likable and hilarious. The term “motormouth” does not adequately describe her penchant for chatter: The woman simply doesn’t shut up. Jacks sums it up perfectly, “You say it all out loud, huh?” When explaining why she can’t fall in love with a Catholic, Lizzy quips: “It’s just not done!” Her special meditation to “keep the dark thoughts out” is priceless. Capasso exquisitely captures all of Lizzy’s nuances. Her acting is flawless, and her Southern accent is spot-on. She has several long monologues in this production—hundreds and hundreds of lines to memorize—and I did not notice a single flub. Quite impressive.

As Jack, Joel Bryant is equally terrific. I’ve seen Bryant in several other valley productions, and he’s set the acting bar quite high for himself. He does not disappoint here: Attractive, well-built and charismatic, he commands the stage. Funny, friendly and kind, his Jack is the guy men want to be, and women want to be with. His attraction to Lizzy is apparent right away, but he realizes she is fragile and that he must tread carefully. Bryant’s comic timing is marvelous, and he handles the serious moments equally well. Not every actor could pull off the scene in which Jack breaks down when recalling his wife’s death. Bryant nails it.

It’s such a joy to see truly gifted actors ply their trade onstage. That is what you’ll see in this production of Maytag Virgin. I would encourage any acting student to check it out for that reason alone.

The production values are equally as good. Thomas Valach’s set could not be better. Every detail—from Lizzy’s collection of wind chimes to Jack’s statue of the Virgin Mary—seems just right. The costumes, lighting and song selection during the swift set changes are all fabulous.

Special mention should be made of the director: Deborah Harmon chose her actors well and then guided them expertly through the script. Even outstanding thespians need someone who knows what he or she is doing at the helm of the ship.

As a theater reviewer, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when you can’t find even a minor flaw in the production of a play: “Isn’t there something wrong here that I can write about?” But the truth is, there isn’t.

Maytag Virgin is a magical time at the theater. Go see it.

Dezart Performs’ production of Maytag Virgin is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 14, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35, and the running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Another play about race?

Dezart Performs is bringing us White Guy on the Bus at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. Despite walking into a full house of patrons, I was dreading this; being lectured is not my idea of entertainment, thank you.

Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart and the director of the play, was gracious when I cornered him in the lobby before the performance to ask: Why?

“It’s written by Bruce Graham,” he explained, “and we produced another of his plays (in 2016), The Outgoing Tide. I follow him, and I have to see everything he writes. His script for this play is brilliant—brilliant. The theme is uncomfortable, because we have to address it. It’s the only way we’ll grow. We’re in a world where this is a topic of major importance.”

I can’t argue with that. But it was written in 2014, which places it during Obama’s presidency, not now … something to remember. The playwright hails from Philadelphia, Shaw explained, where the play is set, though he now lives in Chicago. (“Great,” I thought glumly, as I fumbled my way to my seat, wishing the play were safely about some innocent but witty cocktail party here in Palm Springs.)

Speaking of “set,” Thomas Valach’s beautiful and minimalist open stage doesn’t remotely resemble a bus (which I had gloomily expected). It sports only two sofas, six chairs and one leafy plant, in three loose groupings. The gorgeous lighting, designed by Matthew Garrett, plays on the stark angled flats that back the stage. But wait until you see what happens to those flats when the play begins!

And wait until you see this play.

We are swept up in the story of five people, one of whom is black. The lead character, Ray, marvelously played by David Youse, never leaves the stage. He’s wealthy, “a numbers man,” but we first discover him trying to convince his wife to sell everything and run off to the South Seas à la Gauguin. His spouse, Roz, played by Alexana Thomas, is a hard-voiced but soft-hearted teacher who is committed to helping kids in the ghetto better their lives, even giving special reading classes on her own time. She has no interest in running off—especially after being nominated for the prestigious Teacher of the Year award.

Their sort-of son, Christopher, played by Sean Timothy Brown, is preparing his post-graduate dissertation on his analysis of the portrayals by black actors in TV commercials. Despite being accused of pandering, he investigates the now-stereotypical roles and the reasons for them. His pretty redheaded girlfriend, Molly, is sweetly played by Bianca Stoker, and they, with Roz and Ray, share lively white-people debates on such ghastly topics as, “Who is really a racist?” with everyone delivering their point of view with varying degrees of passion.

One of the most fascinating and unusual aspects of Shaw’s stage direction here is an almost complete absence of movement. The characters enter, and then stand, or sit … and talk. Nobody moves around. Nobody goes off to get a drink or a tissue or a sweater—the better to focus on the words. So when Ray quick-steps his way stage-left to seats “on the bus” to change the scene, and we pick up part way through a conversation, it seems completely natural, even if those few strides take him from his own living room onto a bus.

Now on the bus, we meet single black mom Shatique, exquisitely played by Desirée Clarke. From her first words, spoken—while busily clipping coupons—to her new acquaintance Ray, we totally believe everything this actress says and does. Every one of her actions and reactions seem to be completely spontaneous and unrehearsed. It is an extraordinary experience to see this kind of believing in an actor, because her natural and comfortable-in-her-own-skin manner makes us feel that we actually know this person. It’s beyond Method acting. Her scenes with the equally talented David Youse are exceptional theater—together, they shine.

The lifestyle she reveals through their conversation, without a trace of self-pity, is astonishing. “Cops don’t come unless there are shots fired,” she simply informs Ray, in his business suit, about her life in the ‘hood, when he asks why she doesn’t complain about the next-door meth lab—and her struggles to improve her grammar will touch your heart. Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares for dressing the whole cast, but especially for Shatique’s outfits, which speak volumes.

But something’s … weird. A nagging question in the backs of our minds finally struggles to the fore: What is this rich white guy doing on the bus, especially this bus, and especially since he rides it to the end of the line, and then—when everyone, including Shatique, disembarks—he rides it back again, alone?

That’s the magic of this play: The story will drag you through a chasm of emotions and surprise you again and again before you can recover. Nothing in you can guess what’s coming. A twisting plotline like this is a great rarity.

Shaw was right: The script is brilliant—brilliant. It says things you may have never heard spoken out loud. It delves into a new-millennium threat to our privacy, where you can find out anything about anyone. It tests the buying power of money. It looks at the world of incarceration, and ponders how much of what we think we know came from Hollywood movies about prisons. It shines a light on how different people can pay differently for a similar crime. It reflects on revenge. It says things we thought people were forbidden to say.

It sounds heavy, but don’t be afraid of going to this play like I was. You will be rewarded with an awesome theatrical experience, an unforgettable story, and terrific acting. It will make you think about everything from people’s inherent rights in this country, to how people perceive events differently, to who gets to be sensitive about what.

I can’t reveal more without giving too much away … so go see White Guy on the Bus—and enjoy the ride.

Dezart Performs’ production of White Guy on the Bus is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 10, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ah, the 1950s. The fashions alone … what a time!—and Dezart Performs has brought it all to life with Perfect Arrangement, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The two-week run is sold out—yes, the whole run! You might try phoning the company and seeing if there are cancellations, or whining to see if they will add extra chairs or performances (good luck).

Artistic director Michael Shaw welcomes the audience and reveals that Dezart has now become a recognized professional theater, joining the Equity union as small professional theater. Congratulations! Congratulations also for this show: Shaw produced and directed Perfect Arrangement with smooth and admirable skill.

Young people really should see this show to learn about the paranoia, the secrecy and the fears that bestrode the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Communism might have to be explained, but even more important would be learning about the conformity of the times, when everyone’s houses were supposed to look the same, when people’s behavior mimicked what they saw on the TV commercials … and when everyone smoked! Women wore hats, gloves and high heels just to go to the supermarket! Men wore entire suits and ties to business! Girls were supposed to giggle! Men made jokes about women’s inferiority, and people cooked with lard. The music, which you will hear at this show, was relentlessly perky. How exhausting it all sounds … and how it explains the 1960s!

As for being gay back then? Didn’t exist, at least not openly. Well … it didn’t until the State Department decided to ferret out “the fags,” as it called them, to expunge them from government jobs as an “undesirable influence.” And that brings us to this play.

Bob, Millie, Norma and Jim have secret lives: The two girls are gay, and the two guys are gay. They have intermarried and face the world as two straight couples, living in adjoining apartments with a hidden entrance through a closet (get it?) door.

Bob Martindale, even-handedly played by Adam Jonas Segaller, toils for the Personnel Security Board as one of the top people in his division at the Department of State. He has been charged with finding and firing anyone who even appears to be gay, and we come to realize his mercilessness is his shield against his own being found out. He gives a stellar performance.

His legal wife, Millie, is gleefully portrayed by Phylicia Mason, who parades the ’50s fashions beautifully. I really hope that she meant to have her slip showing in one outfit, and I wonder if girls today even know what a slip is. A stay-at-home “wife,” she outwardly conforms to her role by sweetly reciting recipes and touting cleaning products … but inwardly, she seethes at having to hide her relationship with Norma.

Norma Baxter, played by Olivia Saccomanno, works with Bob and lives with Millie. She brings a gravitas to both her role and her wardrobe statements; she’s especially gorgeous in the gown which she wears to the opera. Yes, they used to dress to go to the theater, people, NOT WEAR JEANS AND CAPS!

Sorry … I got a little carried away there. Anyhow: Saccomanno plays a thoughtful Norma which makes her attempts to imitate a squealing bubblehead even sadder.

Jim Baxter, portrayed by Hanz Enyeart, is a high-strung teacher who loves and lives with Bob but is married to Norma. He lives in terror of being found out but is determined to bulldoze through the nightmare. Enyeart gives a multilevel performance that draws the eye and rewards with the unexpected.

Theodore Sunderson, the State Department top gun, is solidly played by Hal O’Connell. He infuses this role with an edgy power, alerting us that his hail-fellow-well-met exterior might be covering up for his inner bully. He brings a believable Authority Figure quality to his part that makes us want to see more of him.

His wife, Kitty Sunderson, is brilliantly played by Deborah Harmon. She creates a ditzy character that you have to love, despite everyone’s opinion that she is a dope in a mink stole. She layers her performance with rare flashes of truth that glint through her mascaraed eyes and practiced lipstick smile.

Barbara Grant is a character who works at the State Department and is the subject of much gossip as a globetrotting slattern. So it’s quite a surprise when Yo Younger shows up playing this role, looking fashion-model stunning in sleek European fashions (Hats—why did they ever go out of style? There is nothing more flattering!) and radiating danger through her every move. Younger has to love playing this role, slithering through the troubled lives of the other characters and igniting change where it is least expected. Watch her stillness.

Written by Topher Payne, this award-winning play premiered off-Broadway in 2015. The script is bespangled with great belly laughs, while never veering far from the guilty terrors of those leading double lives. He has captured the vocabulary of the ’50s (“Goody!” “Phooey!” “Ta!”) as well as the awful obsolescent terms of this battle (“the latents,” “the deviants”) set in Washington, D.C.

Kudos to the loyal and hardworking members of the Dezart Performs company for this production. It runs two hours with an intermission, and if you can get in to see it, you won’t forget it. It will make you think about lies, shame, suspicion, security risks, fear, irony, hate, stereotypes … and also furniture polish, girl talk and sex.

Astronomers use light to look backward in time. We have theater to do that.

Dezart Performs’ production of Perfect Arrangement is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets, which were listed as sold out as of publication, are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

When a reviewer puts down her pen because what’s happening onstage is just too darned riveting to take any more notes, you know you’ve got a hit—and such was the case with opening night of Motherhood Out Loud, the final show of the season for Dezart Performs.

Conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein, the show consists of 19 short stories about the trials, tribulations and exquisite joys of being a mom. Starting with the painful, messy birthing process itself (“Fast Birth Fugue” by Michele Lowe), the play covers just about every aspect of parenthood imaginable, including foreign adoption, surrogacy, step-parenting and dealing with autism.

This was one of those magical nights at the theater when everything worked. First, artistic director Michael Shaw (who also directs this production) has once again chose a superbly written play—and then he cast it extraordinarily well. Finally, he seemed to find just the right touch as a director … not too heavy-handed, but not too laid-back, either. Obviously, the audience knows a director was involved, but the performances seemed to flow from each actor organically.

Desiree Clarke gets to show off her comic chops early in the show while sharing advice on how to minimize the damage childbirth can do to a woman’s body and her sex life (“Squeeze, Hold, Release,” by Cheryl L. West), and then much later, when her grown-up daughter brings home a questionable suitor for Thanksgiving dinner: “Sierra says Conrad is vegan, so we’ll have to carve the turkey in the mud room, under a sheet.” (“Thanksgiving Fugue” by Michele Lowe).

The always-impressive Melanie Blue shines brightest as a Muslim mother helping her daughter deal with her first menstrual period (“Nooha’s List” by Lameece Issaq), and a mom driving her 15-year-old autistic son to the movies with his new girlfriend (“Michael’s Date” by Claire LaZebnik).

Leanna Rodgers has great stage presence, and really draws us in as an elderly woman being interviewed about motherhood by her 12-year-old great-grand-daughter (Melanie Blue). When asked what she likes best about being a mother, Rodgers replies, “I never really liked being a mother,” and admits to loving some of her children more than others.

James Owens, the one male in the cast, mostly pops in here and there to support the female scenes. But he provides one of the evening’s highlights with “If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m The One With Morning Sickness?” by Marco Pennette. It’s a funny, moving look at what gay men must go through to become parents. Owens commands the stage and handles the scene with great skill.

The cast is superb across the board, but if I had to pick one standout, it would be Theresa Jewett. She is most memorable portraying the conflicted mom of a young boy who likes to dress as a girl (“Queen Esther,” by Michele Lowe), and breaking our hearts with the maternal anguish over a son sent off to war (“Stars and Stripes” by Jessica Goldberg). Jewett is an exceptional actress. Every emotion rings true, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

The other vignettes are penned by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice and Annie Weisman. Thomas L. Valach’s minimalist set works very well here, as do the costumes (Frank Cazares), the lighting (Phil Murphy) and the sound (Clark Duggar).

Motherhood Out Loud runs just more than 90 minutes with no intermission. The outstanding acting and the seamless flow of one scene to the next makes the production fly by. It never drags, which is always a blessing for a theater-goer. Congratulations to Michael Shaw and his company for ending their 10th season on such a high note.

If you are a mother, there are sure to be many relatable moments in this show. If, like me, you chose not to have kids, it may evoke a few twinges of regret. Dezart Performs’ Motherhood Out Loud will make you laugh and cry—and it will also make you want to go call your mom. Do yourself a favor … go see it.

Motherhood Out Loud, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbit Hole, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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