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26 Mar 2016

A True Work of 'Art': Coyote StageWorks Returns to the Annenberg With a One-Act Comedy That's Perfect in Every Way

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Larry Raben, David Engel and Chuck Yates in Coyote StageWorks' Art. Larry Raben, David Engel and Chuck Yates in Coyote StageWorks' Art. David A. Lee

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

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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