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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The final offering of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s 2018-2019 season is an unusual show, composed of two one-act plays.

Written by the same author, Ellen Byron, they’re connected by a character who appears in both. The first is called Graceland, and the second one—which actually takes place a decade earlier and provides a backstory for the first play—is called Asleep on the Wind. You needn’t fear that you’re in for a lengthy marathon: With an intermission, the plays total an hour and 35 minutes.

Both plays are directed by local legend Rosemary Mallett, who during her time teaching theater at Palm Springs High School produced over 80 shows (!); here, she’s assisted by Eve Fromberg.

Graceland opens on designer Lauren Bright’s stark set, lit by Ashton J. Bolanos. We see only a pup tent and a giant cooler resting on a square of grass, and one fold-up lawn chair. We eventually realize that this is across the street from Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home, which opened to the public on June 4, 1982—and this is the night before that opening.

Enter the owner of said tent: Bev Davies, played by Bonnie Gilgallon (a longtime Independent contributor and friend, we should note). She is dressed in a very 1980s outfit of pink and white polyester, clunky heeled sandals, and the most amazing hairdo: Blonde, curly and teased-within an inch of its life, it looks fit to withstand hurricanes or possibly any natural disaster. (Can you believe we really dressed like this in the ’80s?) Bev speaks with a country twang and a hard-edged attitude. She is an Elvis worshiper—she even refers to Graceland as a “sacred place,” and she has staked out the first spot to enter the mansion at the appointed hour.

However, her status is challenged by Rootie, played by Maricela Sandoval. Rootie is a young and diminutive brunette in faded cutoff overalls, a plaid work shirt, and cute little designer running shoes. (Costumer Frank Cazares has done some thinking about this play.) The heavily made-up Rootie loves Elvis, and needs to be the first one through the gates of Graceland for a variety of weird reasons.

Why do these people go through such an effort to salute their idol? Their emotions go way beyond fandom; they pin a lot of feelings onto the object of their obsession. It’s not just memorizing the words to his songs or reading an occasional article about him: They know him. They feel they can actually communicate with him. They buy and hoard souvenirs and mementos and paraphernalia. Hey, it keeps the economy going, so how bad can it be? But … why?

The two women clash, each vying to be first in line—but inevitably they talk to each other, and we learn that Bev’s husband, Tyler, is an Elvis lookalike … at least to her. Both ladies are married, and the backgrounds are sketched in as we learn about Rootie’s messy life and her family tree, whose limbs are dangling with relatives who suffered untimely deaths and tragedies; we also learn about Bev’s peculiar marriage. They find some common ground as well, and actually enjoy some Mallomars together, which Bev just happens to have brought along in her giant cooler. (In a thoughtful touch, they’re also available for the audience at the concession table.)

In Asleep on the Wind, the scene changes to a night of stars and singing crickets, featuring one twisted bare tree and a stump, along with a partial ruin of a pillar left over from grander times. We are now in the Louisiana bayous, and the time is 10 years before Graceland. We meet a much-younger Rootie, still played by a now-almost-unrecognizable Sandoval, here a barefoot child with no makeup, no sass, no curves. Here, her tiny stature works for her, especially since she is dwarfed by her much-older brother, Beau, played by Sean Timothy Brown. They are Cajuns, with their own music and vocabularies enhanced by French expressions and attitudes. Rootie and Beau have created their own world, a sibling relationship based on playful teasing, warmth, talking nonsense and great affection. The two are oddly isolated from their other relatives. Through their conversation, we learn about their lives and values—and begin to pick up clues as to why Elvis matters so much in their rocky existence.

The playwright slowly reveals to us the recipe that creates an obsessive fan. It seems that Bev, Rootie and Beau all derive great comfort from their adoration of Elvis because it fills a huge hole in their lives. All three of them have a lack of direction, and no feeling of past accomplishment; otherwise, they have little to live for or look forward to. They see no clear path for themselves, so instead, they transfer their energies to their hero, and relish his successes. They may not have found themselves, but they have found Elvis, and it works for them. Their lives may have little opportunity for change—but look at what Elvis got to have, spend, appear in, sing, eat, drink and enjoy! It’s an interesting and curious life lesson—because we all know people who are similarly adrift on the thin surface of life.

Our wish list for this production would include a deeper understanding Cajun culture—the music of their speech, the lilt and better French pronunciation. Becoming a convincing denizen of the bayous takes way more than just slapping on a generic Southern accent. Also, we’d love for the actors to be less stiff, and not telegraph their next moves—Bev’s most-dramatic moment is bumbled because of this—and more passion regarding obsessive fandom, as they don’t convince the audience to care about their feelings. That said, they are amazingly word-perfect on their often-difficult lines. Frankly, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better to reverse the order of these one-acts and keep the chronology correct.

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company promises an interesting season for next year—and we can’t wait to see what comes next from them.

Graceland and Asleep on the Wind, productions of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, are performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 28, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the plays runs about an hour and 35 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The script is the star.

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced eight plays written by Tony Padilla during its eight seasons. And get this: English is his second language!

There are precious few authors who can achieve this kind of success, let alone in a second language. Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness, which later inspired the movie Apocalypse Now, spoke Polish as his cradle tongue … and frankly, I can’t think of another example off the top of my head. Padilla comes from Cuba, where at age 11, he and his family escaped during the historic exodus from Castro’s fiefdom. Today, he not only speaks flawless English, but writes as playwright-in-residence for DETC.

At the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a venue the group is sure to outgrow soon, award-winning Padilla’s newest work is titled For a Reason. “It’s very different,” he said about the new work. “It’s not personal—I didn’t experience this. It comes from research, from becoming passionate about the subject of relationships, from reading and seeing other people in their relationships, and learning about them. That’s what moves me.”

Frankly, isn’t how we treat our fellow man the essence of our development? Look at how you act when you’re mixed in with other people—and that will show you who you really are, especially in intimate relationships. Look at how many court cases there are because of the problems! In the case of For a Reason, Padilla’s script sparkles with not just brilliant writing, but also with his tremendous insights about people and how they interact.

A glance at the printed program might make one anticipate a musical, since these actors are so well known for their singing—but no, it’s a straight-up play, despite well-known local music-biz names like Charles Herrera, Leanna Rodgers and my dear colleague, the Independent’s own Bonnie Gilgallon. Interestingly, Shawn Abramowitz directed the play (with Sierra Barrick as assistant director), and then had to step in to play a role on the stage—which he does perfectly, never missing a word. In other words, everyone in the cast boasts multiple talents.

The open stage shows us a casual and slightly messy living room/den, designed by Lauren Bright, containing a big globe and souvenirs, artwork and tchotchkes from around the world. Artistic director Jerome Elliott greets the audience and informs us that this is a world premiere! The lights, designed by Ashton J. Bolanos, come up, and we begin. Sandra (played by Rodgers, an actress with the most beautiful eyes and smile), is the live-in daughter-in-law of the aging but successful writer Pablo Luna (a cane-stumping, grey-haired, grumpy but lovable Hererra). They are interviewing for a position of companion/caretaker for him, as he suffers from an unnamed degenerative disease. Aaron Watson, cleverly played by a black-bearded Abramowitz, is the last applicant of that day.

It is revealed that Pablo is “isolating,” and we see that the patient is indeed trying to push everyone away from him. But Aaron proves to be bright and feisty, and the verbal jousting begins. Pablo is deemed “a difficult client,” but Aaron is more than a match for his wit and wisdom. The two actors swat lines at each other with complete believability, on the topics of happiness, loneliness, choices, success, mothers, artistic virtue, social masks, balance, sex, youth versus age, writer’s block, men’s animal magnetism, and movies. There is great charm in their mind games, and this is where Padilla’s script shines brightest. He manipulates the language joyfully and curiously, giving us inventive and refreshing results. The two actors have mined the script deeply, and their shades of meaning, even when trading some rude insults, are beautifully thought out.

The men eventually arrive at an impasse in their philosophical swordplay, and have to call in an adjudicator. Enter Gilgallon as Gisele. She’s a dream girl in stiletto heels, black hose on her long legs, and a clingy scarlet dress that hugs her eye-popping curves. (Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares.) We are led to believe that she is a Lady of the Night … but watching her moves and listening to her talk, we begin to wonder. She is way too shrewd, too literate, too thoughtful. She keeps us guessing. Gilgallon’s focus in this role is beautiful to behold, and she is totally believable as this mystery woman (with the exception—forgive me—of the wig). Her warm and musical voice is shown to its best advantage in this role.

There are some smart theatrical choices made in this play, such as bringing in the champagne already poured instead of the time-wasting, not to mention dangerous, pouring in front of an audience … but we need to hear the offstage POP! of the cork to make it real.

This is an extraordinary play, and it runs smoothly. The theme of the play—relationships—posits the idea that people are brought together to affect each other’s lives with the chance that they will be better persons as a result. It is a lovely thought—even though some of us might be able to think of a few people we wish we’d done without. All these characters do experience an arc as a result of meeting each other, with Sandra’s change possibly being the most dramatic.

The play runs 60 minutes with no intermission, and says everything it has to say with such lovely conciseness that it makes you wonder why other plays have to go on for hours to achieve the same results.

Angelantonio Padilla’s words and thoughts will stay in your head. Whose lives have you met and changed … for a reason?

For a Reason, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A play set in a 1940s radio station in Chicago—now, how much opportunity for fun is that?

Playwright Tony Padilla is directing the world premiere of his The Thespian Radio Hour at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, on behalf of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. Padilla has been lauded for his plays, receiving the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Writing and the Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for his impact on local theater—and he’s received international recognition as well.

The writing here is solid. Padilla uses the stereotypes of early radio personalities to make his case. Linda Cooke, for example, plays crusty producer Agnes Cohen, who fusses and worries about everything, endlessly bossing everyone around. Her sidekick, the youthful Steve Randy, played by Nick Wass, is the unappreciated kid who directs the actors and narrates the broadcast and writes the scripts and commercials (while trying to date every girl in the cast) … because that’s how it was done back then. Larry Dyekman is Hamilton Sterling, the suavely aging debonair matinee idol, complete with ascot. Bonnie Gilgallon (an Independent contributor—my fellow theater reviewer!) is Ellen Haze (not Helen Hayes, as everyone has to find out), a voluptuous but fading femme fatale actress with the greatest legs who is battling the passing of the years, but who has learned bags of showbiz tricks along the way. Kelley Moody is cute and perky newcomer ingénue Lilly Darling—talented, ambitious and untroubled by scruples that might prevent her from forging ahead in her career. Hal O’Connell very believably plays a serious businessman, Waldo Burns, whom we don’t meet until the second act—but he is the great hope of the rest of the cast, as he is considering sponsorship of the show which would save all their jobs (and sponsorship is still a huge concern in radio even today). 

While the writing in this world premiere play is indeed solid, Padilla missed a great opportunity for comedy through revealing these radio actors’ real names. Some can be terribly funny. Perhaps the best example ever was author Paul Gallico’s character, a wannabe actress called Pamela Penrose, but whose mail still came addressed to “Enid Snite” (say it out loud). It’s no secret that most of our old movie stars changed their names to WASP pseudonyms. We all know that Tony Curtis was Bernie Schwartz, Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch, John Wayne was Marion Robert Morrison, Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and so on. Plus, in the world of radio, it was (and sometimes still is) customary for announcers to use “air names” rather than their real names, so they could change monickers when they changed jobs.

Just a thought—because we need more from this cast. The characters need to be more vain, self-obsessed, selfish and ruthless if they are to excite our horror at the way they all try to seduce their possible sponsor. But here, we got the feeling that this was business as usual, ho hum. There was a lack of depth in these portrayals—which is too bad, as this new play is rife with possibilities.  Maybe the cast needs to research some old ’40s movies like the “film noir” ones that gave us such unforgettable performances (think Bogie/Bacall). They need more and brighter colors in their palettes. Because now, the play’s only real surprise comes from something that happens to Gilgallon’s character. Well, that and Waldo’s little secret …

Another thought: Back then in radio, a professional actor’s diction was hugely important. Actors enunciated every word super-flawlessly, even in their real lives. However, in this play, some of this actors’ pronunciations were inconsistent, and occasionally just lazy lipped.

My most serious question about this script is the use of vulgarities which would surely have gotten a radio station turfed off the air back then. To call someone an “old bastard” on the air would have brought the screaming censors running … and to say into a microphone that someone was “talking out of your ass”—besides it being an anachronism—would have shut down the station immediately. WC Fields once got a radio station permanently closed for saying something like that. (Don’t ask.)

Other concerns: Could a woman really have been a producer back then, in what was an almost completely male-dominated field? Also: Why was the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” included? It added nothing to the plot and it interrupted the timing. Moody did it nicely, but, try as we might, we can’t find a reason for its inclusion.

It’s important to note, again, that this show is a premiere—meaning there’s time and room for this brand-new play to be tightened up and improved as it moves forward. There are some clever and delightful comedic touches in this script. For example, the name of the former sponsor of the radio show is SHM, or Still Here Mortuary. Yikes! And the title of the play these actors are performing is The Last Nail in His Coffin, which is perfect melodrama. More, please!

Also, gratitude goes to Tony Padilla for choosing to not having his characters smoke, which apparently EVERYONE did in the mid-1040s … cough, hack, gasp … although with these new e-cigarettes the actors could possibly have strutted the look without suffocating the audience.

So what this play needs more of is what’s called “comedic attitude.” Director Padilla may have to surrender his famously laid-back style and lean hard on his cast to bring out the silliness and fun in them that would enhance playwright Padilla’s script. Right now, they’re taking themselves seriously, when what they need is to find the funny.

This play has so much potential, and I hope the actors can rise to the challenge of doing the work to take it from “amusing” up to maybe even “hilarious” on the comedy scale.

The Thespian Radio Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 18, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Stormy weather! We squished our way through wild spring winds and swirling rain, grateful that traffic on “The 10,” as we call it, held steady and accident-free on Friday night, March 11. But arriving at the theater, we were immediately transported to a calm, lovely evening in New York’s Central Park … and people with storms inside them.

Tony Padilla, always bursting with creativity, directs his own play Endangered Species at the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. It plays only this weekend and next, so if you are committed to supporting original local theater, hurry over to the Palm Springs Woman’s Club to see it in the Pearl McManus Theater. It’s a one-act play which has been produced in Italy, and, amazingly, that translation won the International Medal at the Schegge d’Autore playwriting festival in Rome, in 2009. Go Tony!

It’s easy to like the one-act format. Like a short story, it embraces one-ness: a single setting, one plot line, a small cast, one theme and atmosphere, and a streamlined journey to the climax and conclusion. These plays are generally clean, neat, brief and easy to follow. What’s not to like? Here, the stage is appropriately dressed with just a single park bench and one trashcan (marked NYC!). Simplicity personified.

The four-member cast consists of Bonnie Gilgallon (my Independent colleague) with Alan Berry in the first scene, and Yo Younger with Denise Strand in the second. In a nutshell, the plot consists of these people finding an abandoned baby in a park trashcan, and their reactions to it.

Unthinkable! That’s the genius theme of Padilla’s play—ordinary people tossed into an unimaginable situation that has the power to change lives completely. Screenwriters call it the “inciting incident.” It’s the defining moment of a story … and how do the characters react to it? How would you?

Scene One. Enter: tourists from “outside Chicago,” a longtime married couple (Gilgallon and Berry) enjoying the view and weather, and reminiscing about previous Big Apple visits. Through their conversation, we learn about their backstories and personalities. Then they discover this baby. What to do? Ignore it, or get involved? What is the right action? What’s legal? How does each really feel? What does this event dredge up from the past? What do their moral compasses dictate?

Scene Two. Enter: two casually-dressed ladies, tourists—we never find out from where—but they immediately let us know they have lived together for 10 of 11 years. Lesbians? We watch attentively for clues. I won’t ruin it for you by revealing all … but now they find the baby, and the ensuing discussion and conflict tells us much more about them. Stress will always reveal the weak spots in any relationship.

One of my most influential theater instructors once demanded of me, “What is the most important thing you can learn about a person?” (I gave the wrong answer. Well … I was young.) But the right answer is: their work. It determines schedule, income, dress code, address—everything. True! Point being, in this play, we don’t learn this. Strand’s character turns out to be a teacher, and Gilgallon’s became a frustrated housewife. But ... more info, please? This is important—and very easy to fix.

The play is a talky one, with zero opportunity for action. The direction compensates for this by moving the characters around their little space a great deal. Too much? Well, not if and when the actor is motivated to move. Some of the actors here should re-think their gestures, and cut out any that make pointless circles or drop with a plop. But our largest discomfort was watching Alan Berry walk backward several times—something nobody does, and certainly not a middle-aged man in an unfamiliar/dangerous location. Alas, we are made overly conscious of every actor’s move because of the unfortunate hollow space underneath the stage, creating a distracting drum-like boom with every step—worst with high heels. And speaking of shoes: I once wore an ivory suit with ivory shoes onstage, and an internationally famous actress in the audience later raked me over the coals for it, proclaiming that white shoes must NEVER be worn onstage, as they draw the eye (and also can make feet look unduly huge). Enough said. There are other colors that scream “summer.” Another small problem with this theater: The extreme overhead lighting can create shadows, and blank out the eyes of any actress wearing heavy bangs … and the eyes are the most important tool an actor owns.

These little glitches aside, the acting is lovely, with admirable pacing and variety in delivery. The emotional arc is pleasingly handled through the rising tension in both scenes.

What we liked best: Gilgallon’s exquisite diction. (Hey, she’s been in radio for years.) Learning about the characters through their arguments. The emphasis on sharing in a relationship. The line “the luxury of your compassion.” How pretty Strand and Younger looked together onstage. The debates about fate. The moment when we are emotionally moved. The endlessly interesting discussions about the choice of having children, or not … and when is the timing right? When is the money enough? The question: Do morals change with the times, or are they forever?

Tony Padilla has forced each of us to confront our own answers to these questions. We are all involved, just by realizing our own positions for or against each character’s beliefs in this play. Isn’t this the most important task of theater—to make the audience THINK?

It’s not an easy task for a playwright, but with Endangered Species he has done it … beautifully.

Endangered Species, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 20, at Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance