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Before everything went to hell, the Coachella Valley theater community was enjoying, by far, its most successful season ever.

CVRep was reveling in its first full season in its gorgeous new home, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City. Dezart Performs and the Desert Rose Playhouse were in the midst of sold-out seasons. Coyote StageWorks was getting settled into its new digs at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, while Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks were packing people into shows in downtown Palm Springs and Indio, respectively.

“We started off our ninth season like a rocket,” said Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director and board president of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, which shares space at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Dezart Performs. “We had not just record attendance, but record donations—and we were really growing, which allowed us to invest more.”

The weekend of March 13-15 was going to the biggest weekend during this most successful season ever: Four of the six aforementioned companies were opening shows, while LGBT-focused Desert Rose was entering its second weekend of Beautiful Thing, which had received rave reviews, and Palm Canyon Theatre was embarking on the final weekend of a successful production of The Pajama Game.

But as that weekend approached, the reality of COVID-19 began to set in. The BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament was postponed, while Coachella and Stagecoach were delayed until October (before being cancelled altogether for 2020). Disneyland closed—as did all of the shows on Broadway.

Desert Rose Playhouse, Dezart Performs and Desert Ensemble Theatre Company (which, appropriately, was preparing to open a show called How to Survive an Apocalypse) chose to cancel the weekend’s shows, while Desert Theatreworks and Palm Canyon Theatre shut down after Friday’s performances. Only CVRep would make it through the weekend—and on Sunday, March 15, the company’s production of The City of Conversation would become the final full theatrical production the valley has hosted since.

The cancellations devastated the local theater community, both emotionally and financially.

“I will tell you, the amount of frustration and disappointment in coming right up to opening night and having to cancel—I do not want to go through that again,” said Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director of Coyote Stageworks. “We shut down The Velocity of Autumn the day before we were supposed to open. It’s too hard.”

Now, more than four months later, all of the valley’s theater companies remain in limbo. None of them know what the 2020-2021 season will bring—even though some companies have optimistically announced seasons starting as early as September.

In other words, the theater world is a mess—but the mess has had a silver lining, of sorts: It’s brought the local theater community together.

Some—but, notably, not all—of the desert’s theater companies have banded together to launch the Alliance of Desert Theatres, “a cooperative of producing theater companies in the Coachella Valley that network and take action in order to nurture a vibrant performing arts community,” according to the website. The effort started with a Zoom call back in May, and continues with weekly Zoom calls and subcommittees that look at various initiatives.

“I felt that (the alliance) was going to be a great resource and offer a sense of community and camaraderie to get through this horrible time,” said Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart Performs. “We’re sharing our woes; we’re sharing our strategies. This was an opportunity to really get a sense of what we need to do to survive as a theater community.”


David Cohan, the vice president of the board of directors at CVRep, serves as the Alliance of Desert Theaters’ spokesman. He explained that the alliance grew out of internal conversations taking place at CVRep.

“With everything that is (happening), we felt that this is the time and place where we need to come together,” Cohan said. “Joe Giarrusso, the president of the (CVRep) board, and I started discussing this. I suggested that if nobody was doing it, maybe we should be the ones to organize it. So we put out emails to all the other theater groups and set up an initial meeting. That was the starter.”

Cohan said the alliance’s weekly meetings give participants the opportunity to share information and ideas, and the group is working on possibly pooling some resources. As an example, Cohan said, the alliance has discussed the feasibility of filming productions and streaming them.

“That’s not as simple as it sounds,” he said. “For instance, for CVRep, we are a union theater company, and there are two different unions—one that covers live theater, and one that covers, basically, broadcast theater. … If you’re recording a live performance, but then wanting to stream it, you’re talking about two different unions and two different sets of rules.

“Then you get into technology—how could you do it? How do you do it in terms of equipment? A lot of theaters don’t have recording equipment—and how expensive is it? Besides cameras, what do you need? … There are some people who are much more technically oriented and have been doing research on recording. Could we buy some recording equipment and share it among the theaters? That’s one of the things we’re discussing.”

While it’s been helpful to exchange ideas and share information, Cohan said the sense of community the alliance has fostered has been its biggest benefit.

“The camaraderie has been nothing short of amazing and heartwarming and astounding,” he said. “We’re all working really well together—and it makes for a stronger arts community. We all have a much better appreciation for one another.”

Desert Ensemble’s Abramowitz agreed.

“It’s really a huge support system for theater companies,” Abramowitz said. “Even the groups that aren’t necessarily a part of the alliance, it doesn’t mean that the alliance wouldn’t have resources available for those other theater companies. There’s been a need for a very long time for groups to come together to figure out how we can combine resources in a way that is non-competitive and that allows us to grow. We’re all doing great work, and we all support each other, and we all love each other—even though we’re also all very competitive.”

Abramowitz said the Alliance of Desert Theatres fulfills a different purpose than the long-established Desert Theatre League—best known for its annual Desert Star Awards, honoring the best in local theater each year. (Incidentally, Desert Star nominations are slated to be announced on Aug. 1.)

“The Desert Theatre League’s mission is to highlight the work that is being done in the valley,” Abramowitz said. “What’s not a part of their mission is helping us expand, in terms of resources and availability.

“I think the common thread among all of us is … how can we best help each other out when we do not know what our reality is going to be like? The alliance itself is supposed to be equal in terms of participation. That there’s no specific leader; there’s no specific hierarchy. We’ve formed subcommittees to help each other out, whether it’s regarding fundraising, or what possible grants are out there for us, and who could possibly use them. What are the (standard operating procedures) for reopening? What do we think it’s going to look like? Where can we get the best deal on hand sanitizer?”

Shaw said one of the alliance’s goals is to help educate the public about local theater.

“The fact that we are speaking weekly, it’s good that all of our patrons and all of our donors know that we’re doing that, because what we’re also doing is educating the public,” Shaw said. “‘Did you know that there is a LGBTQ theater in the valley? Did you know that there’s a very successful theater in Indio at the Indio Performing Arts Center? Did you know that?’ There are a lot of people who don’t know that. It’ll help open the eyes and educate the public about what the offerings are in the community once we get back up and running. It would have been great to have something like this before, pre-COVID, but we’re all so busy.”

That busy-ness is one of the reasons some of the valley’s theater companies have declined to participate in the alliance—at least for now. Take Coyote StageWorks, for example; the company was listed as a member in the news release first announcing the formation of the Alliance of Desert Theatres, but Yates said he later decided that he needed to take a step back.

“I applaud them. We were in the first three Zoom conversations about setting it up and what it could be,” Yates said. “David Youse is my board president. We talked a lot about it. … It was taking away our focus from keeping our own business alive. It also seemed to be heading in a different direction from what we initially thought the alliance was going to be. We just decided that at this particular moment, it was imperative that we focus on Coyote.

“Some of the talk was in getting buying power on hand sanitizer and that kind of stuff for the theaters. Well, we already have that covered with being at the Cultural Center.”

Yates said he may at some point decide to rejoin the alliance.

“Things may change. I may go back to them and say, ‘All right, now we’re ready,’” Yates said. “But at the time it was all happening, there was too much unknown. We had people saying that they were definitely starting up in November, and I was like, ‘I can’t support that.’ An alliance means that you’re aligned.”


Meanwhile, the theater companies are all trying to figure out how to handle their 2020-2021 seasons—if the pandemic even allows a 2020-2021 season.

Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks, as of this writing, are selling tickets for fully announced seasons, starting in September. Desert Rose is in the midst of a move from Rancho Mirage into a new home—the former Zelda’s nightclub space, on South Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.

Most of the other theater companies have their eyes set on 2021.

“Gosh, we are definitely not opening up this year,” Desert Ensemble’s Abramowitz said. “There’s just no way, especially without state or federal guidelines on how a theater company or a performance-art center should operate. We don’t want to give hopes to any of our patrons and then cancel. Right now, we are thinking of the beginning of next year. We’re changing our gala event—which would normally be an event with food, and drink, and song, and a ton of people—to something a little bit more quaint.

“We are (hoping to do a season starting in the first part of 2021), but it will be very short. Instead of doing the gala event and then three full-stage productions, we would be doing a gala event and two stage productions. One of them would be (company founder) Tony Padilla’s show that we want to do for our 10th anniversary, that we did a reading on back in December of last year. Then, we also hope to redo How to Survive an Apocalypse. We have the set; we have everything.”

Dezart Performs’ Shaw is also setting his sights on a scaled-down season in 2021, starting with the show he was never able to open back in March—presented, perhaps, in an unconventional manner.

“Our goal is to produce three shows this season, and start with Every Brilliant Thing, where we left off; how we’re going to present it comes down to money,” Shaw said. “We are looking into various streaming platforms. We’re looking at filming it live and then streaming it as a recording.

“Our second show—for the first time, we’re actually producing a musical. It’s only two actors. … Then we’re doing a brand-new drama by Paul Coates called The End of It.”

Chuck Yates, at Coyote StageWorks, said the set for The Velocity of Autumn remains onstage at the Cultural Center.

“Our plan is, when it is safe for people to come back to a theater, we will do that show,” he said. “We have a couple of other titles in a holding pattern if we get to do more than one show—but at the moment, nobody seems to know when we’re able to do what we do.”

In the meantime, Yates said he’s working with the Cultural Center—which recently started hosting drive-in movies—to possibly hold smaller events outdoors.

“I won’t say they’re full productions, but they’d be some concerts and some other sorts of fun outdoor events for Coyote StageWorks,” he said. “All of that’s in the works right now, just so we can keep doing some things. … We’ve also talked about doing our play-reading series outdoors when it gets cooler.”

Over at CVRep, which has been hosting a steady series of virtual events, the plan is to reopen with The City of Conversation, hopefully in January 2021—but even if that can happen, Cohan said it will be a big challenge to actually pull it off, barring a miracle cure for COVID-19.

“We’re making all sorts of plans,” Cohan said. “We have multiple calls a week where we’re coming up with plans A, B, C, D and E; it just keeps going. One of our plans is, if it is safe enough, and if we think we’ll have the patrons to be able to do it, we will invite people to come back to the theater with enormous modifications to how we do in-person shows—with a very limited seating capacity and socially distanced seating. We’re also talking about making it safe for the actors by having their dressing rooms and rehearsal rooms separated with Plexiglass and all kinds of other things. We’re trying to figure all that out—and then having particular protocols for how people will actually come to the theater, everything from going to fully paperless ticketing to having people arrive at the theater at staggered times so people aren’t waiting together in our lobby.

“We’re thinking about everything. There are very extensive cleaning protocols to the actual seats and every surface, and restrooms, both during the shows, when restrooms will get cleaned multiple times before the show and intermissions, and after the show, as well as all the seats being sprayed down and disinfected between shows. … And then what happens as we approach a show, if an actor comes down with the sniffles, which is not an unusual thing? Can we still run the show? We used to be able to. An actor used to be able to muscle through. But now if an actor has the sniffles, can we still do that?”

Below: Josh Odsess-Rubin and Martha Hackett in CVRep’s The City of Conversation—the final show to be performed in the valley before the March shutdown.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ron Celona looked weary as patrons entered the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City for the Saturday, March 14, matinee performance of The City of Conversation.

This was supposed to be a bustling, packed weekend of theater in the Coachella Valley. At least four theaters were opening new productions, while two more companies continued successful shows.

But as of that Saturday afternoon, The City of Conversation was the only show still open. Before we entered the theater—not even one-third full—Celona confided that after the Sunday show, CVRep, too, would be going dark.

Barring a miracle, we were watching the last play to be performed in the Coachella Valley by our fantastic theater companies in quite some time.

The production of The City of Conversation was a fantastic. Thanks to a great cast, led by Martha Hackett as old-school liberal activist/socialite Hester Ferris, the play showed how political differences can rip a family apart. It was compelling and riveting—so much so that it managed to make at least some theater-goers temporarily forget the unprecedented weirdness going on outside.

That is, until one of the characters made a joke about an expired toilet-paper coupon.

Celona’s angst over whether or not to let the show go on encapsulates the dilemma our valley’s producers faced heading into the weekend: On one hand, out of an abundance of caution, they could do societal good by closing the theater doors and having people staying home. On the other, they could take precautions and let the amazing, expensive work they’d rehearsed, built sets for and toiled over for weeks and months be seen and enjoyed by people who badly needed a distraction from the outside world.

As of Thursday, March 12, when the Independent started reaching out to local theater professionals, all six shows were slated to go on as scheduled—with the aforementioned precautions.

“We are offering hand sanitizer to people who have bought tickets,” said Chuck Yates, whose Coyote StageWorks was set to open The Velocity of Autumn the next night in the company’s new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. “For those who haven’t bought tickets yet, we don’t know if they will come.

“It’s a huge financial impact. Theater is never easy, and this is particularly hard. … There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do. All of the small theaters here, like us—nobody is in a financial situation to handle this, so we are opening The Velocity of Autumn. … It’s got heart; it’s funny; it’s beautifully written. It’s perfect for our community.”

The play—about an 80-year-old artist who’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with Molotov cocktails (!) to keep her family from removing her—would have been a lovely distraction for people who needed it. But these are unprecedented times.

Yates called back later in the day on Thursday to let us know he’d changed his mind.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. “But we will try to figure out alternative dates. Right now, we’re biding time, waiting to see what the news brings. Maybe we can do it in a few weeks or months, or maybe next season.”

Robbie Wayne, the producing artistic director at the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, told us on Thursday he intended to continue the run of Beautiful Thing, which had opened to rave reviews the weekend before.

“You’re not given a class on how to do this. Nobody knows how to handle this, so we are learning as we go,” he said. “I’m trying to be as informed as possible about this—everyone’s trying to figure it out. We haven’t had a large number of refund requests, but we are trying to figure out how to do this—it’s a dilemma. We don’t want it to be about the money, but that has to be taken into consideration for the venue. As of right now, we are removing snacks; we offer hand sanitizers; we are scrubbing the place down; and we are telling people stay home if you don’t feel well. But we also want to keep some normalcy in our lives.

“We want to be responsible for helping to curb this outbreak … It’s a hard place to be in. I have the TV on all the time. I go with whatever my gut tells me at the end of the day, because 24 hours can change everything. It is minute by minute now, because there is so much to consider.”

Wayne’s words were spot-on: The next day, he made the decision to suspend the weekend’s shows.

“We have staff members and patrons with compromised immune systems, so I went with my conscience. There are no winners in a situation like this, unfortunately,” Wayne said.

Over at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, the same dilemma played out: After announcing on Wednesday that the “curtain will go up!” on the weekend’s opening of—yes, really—How to Survive an Apocalypse, the next day, executive director Shawn Abramowitz and artistic director Jerome Elliott announced the show would not go on, at least for opening weekend.

“We are so proud of our team for their magnificent work on this play,” they said. “This was a hard decision, but we feel it is the right call during this unsettled and confusing time.

That meant that as of Friday night, three of the six shows were still open: Palm Canyon Theatre’s The Pajama Game, and the opening night for Desert Theatreworks’ The Producers went on as scheduled, along with CVRep’s The City of Conversation.

“We have scrubbed the theater down,” Celona said on Thursday, March 12. “We have a cleaning crew coming in after every performance. We have purchased professional wall-mounted sanitizing dispensers for the lobby and the theater area. Our theater is 208 seats, so we are less than the 250-seat gatherings that are being cancelled, and we are about 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The bottom line is, when our accountants say we have to close, we close, and when the county of Riverside says we have to close, we close.”

The morning after those Friday-night shows, both Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks announced they would go dark. CVRep followed two days later.

“I hope if someone has a ticket to a live theater event, and the show is closed due to the virus, that they would consider donating the money to the theater instead of asking for a refund,” Coyote StageWorks’ Yates said. “This is the kind of thing that kills arts organizations.”

Published in Theater and Dance

Welcome to the first-ever Coachella Valley Independent Daily Digest. The goal for this Daily Digest is to round up reliable, vetted news related to COVID-19 and the accompanying societal changes. There’s too much unreliable information floating around on social media (and even coming out of some elected officials’ mouths)—and in this space, we'll sort through it all to get to truthfulness and sanity.

In addition to news updates, we’ll also highlight good things happening—specials from local businesses (that REALLY need your support right now), enlightening comments from members of the community, and so on. Please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have anything you think should be included.

And with that ... here's the news.

• As we were getting close to clicking send on this, the Palm Springs Unified School District announced it would be closing schools the next two weeks. They're moving up Spring Break, essentially. Parents are receiving this message right now: "Hello PSUSD families. This is Supt. Sandy Lyon. I wanted to provide you with an update on the coronavirus situation as it relates to our District. You may be aware that over the past day, there has been an increase in the number of confirmed cases here in the Coachella Valley, and there are a number of tests pending that could result in several other confirmed cases. Additionally, both the Riverside County Department of Health and Governor Newsom issued a directive to suspend gatherings of over 250 people. As a result, Palm Springs Unified School District is moving its two-week spring break. It will begin on Monday, March 16."

• Eisenhower Medical Center announced earlier today that visitors will no longer be allowed at EMC for the time being. More on what EMC is doing to protect the community can be found here.

• As of this writing, local theaters have made a split decision on whether to stay open or not. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, Coyote StageWorks and the Desert Rose Playhouse have cancelled or postponed shows this weekend, Palm Canyon Theatre, CVRep and Desert TheatreWorks are letting the shows go on. Read more about this in the second installment in the Independent's Pandemic Stories series tomorrow (Saturday).

As for that first Pandemic Stories installment: Kevin Fitzgerald talked to the owner of Piero's PizzaVino about the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tourney, and how that devastated her and her staff. Piero's is one of the few local restaurants to have a pop-up location at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, alongside big names like Nobu and Spago.

• As for closures and cancellations: The Palm Springs Gay Softball league has suspended practices and play through March, and the national NAGAAA Cup tourney the league was hosting at the end of March is cancelled. Other recent cancellations/closures include the Palm Desert Food and Wine fest, all Certified Farmers Markets through at least March 30 (though the Palm Springs Cultural Center remains open for now), the Palm Springs Library (though the Palm Desert Library remains open), and shockingly, The Abbey down in West Hollywood.

• From our partners at CalMatters: As the coronavirus toll rises, so do concerns about health-care workers' safety.

• Earlier today, President Trump declared a national emergency. The press conference was ... well, fascinating. At one point, after Trump said he didn't take any responsibility for the pandemic, a reporter from PBS asked him about his firing of the national pandemic response team. His response was that he didn't do it, and that this was a "nasty question." As for that firing, Snopes says it's true that it happened.

• Support local businesses! If you're comfortable with going out (while taking all the precautions that you should be), local bars and restaurants need you right now. If not, order food from a local restaurant on GrubHub or one of the apps!

• Alternately, consider buying gift cards from local businesses. Some places are offering 20 percent bonuses.

• If you found this email helpful, forward to a friend, or have them email us and we'll add them to the list. Please consider supporting the Independent, too ... we could use it!

Until tomorrow ... stay safe; support local business, and wash your hands!

Published in Daily Digest

Creating suspense has to be one of the most difficult effects for a play to achieve.

In movies, the complex use of sound effects, special lighting and music can all heighten that tension, along with some camera-lens trickery and a lot of cleverly timed editing. Yet at the Pearl McManus Theater in Palm Springs, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced one of the most jaw-dropping, edge-of-seat, suspenseful live plays you will ever see—with absolutely none of those fancy assists.

Adoption Roulette uses only three actors and a black-box theater setting … literally: There are four black wooden boxes that get shuffled around the stage to be used as imaginary chairs, a desk, or a seat on an airplane, against the black-curtained background. There is no scenery except a minimalist white-pipe impression of a couple of rooftops to imply an urban setting. The show uses the most basic lighting, zero sound effects, no props and few costume changes.

But Adoption Roulette will fry your mind.

To accomplish this kind of theater experience, you obviously require a great script—and artistic director Jerome Elliott can take credit for its discovery. At the theater, we were introduced to one of the playwrights, Joel Vig, and we chatted briefly about his bringing to life this true story, authored along with the woman who actually lived it, Elizabeth Fuller. The result is a magnificent and tightly written play that starts off so innocently that you can’t possibly dream of what lies ahead.

This nice American couple, Liz and Reuel (pronounced “rule”), want to adopt a child—specifically, a little girl. They find intolerable roadblocks and insufferable delays with the adoption system in the United States, so they investigate adopting a child from Russia, where it is apparently a little easier and faster. What happens to them during the winter of 2004 as a result is … unthinkable. This is truly one of the most surprising scripts you will ever see—and DETC is presenting it for the first time ever: This is Adoption Roulette’s world premiere!

Shawn Abramowitz directs this two-hour, two-act show, and for his cast, he has shrewdly collected the considerable talents of Yo Younger, Fergus Loughnane and Adina Lawson. Younger plays the key role of Elizabeth (Liz) Fuller, while Loughnane plays her husband, Reuel—as well as four other parts. Lawson gets to play a total of seven supporting roles.

The bulk of the work falls on the delicate shoulders of Younger. As the hope-filled Elizabeth, this actress must make us empathize with her decisions and accept her rationalizations, regardless of whether life is sunny or otherwise. She draws us in slowly but surely, gradually raising the tension of her frustrations to a pitch that becomes almost unbearable. Watching her, particularly in the second act, you forget to breathe; you forget she is an actress; and you forget you are watching a play. Some of Younger’s lines are spoken directly to the audience as a narration of the events, and she makes it seem perfectly natural for her to step outside the action and explain it to us, then slide effortlessly back into her role. Younger’s extraordinary performance is not to be missed—and I pray that her vocal cords can stand up through the run of the play. Just to watch her hands is a study; it is beautiful work.

Loughnane plays her husband as an engaged and reasonable man with naturally sound instincts and the good judgment that is born of experience. He is fully believable as Reuel, and his concentration and focus are admirable. In sharp contrast, he also plays Igor, a cab driver with attitude. He creates a colorful and likable character—a chain smoker and a Willie Nelson aficionado (Psssst! Don’t forget to exhale that smoke!)—who pops up frequently through the play. He also plays a smoothly handsome airline pilot and a scary agency official as well, though they are less-explored characters.

Adina Lawson has waaaay too much fun romping through her seven yummy roles. Some are better defined than others, but her strange blonde, Olenka, is unforgettable. It is her largest part, and she has mined it well, creating a rich character who keeps us baffled as to whether she is friend or foe. She also brings to life a briefly hilarious Nurse Blatovsky and a fascinating Russian judge (an homage to Judge Judy) we wish had more stage time. She also plays several American ladies and a spokeswoman, characters who appear too seldom for us to get to know very well. It’s fun to see an actress relishing her creations.

Abramowitz’s direction is to be admired. The skillful and measured increase in the play’s tension is meted out perfectly; I shudder to think of what the director and his cast went through in rehearsals. The only possible criticism to make involves the use of mime, a staple of black-box theater and staged readings. As they speak on the phones, some actors are “holding” a phone, while others are just talking out to the audience … in the same conversation. Usually, the actors all do it the same way, with “phones” or without. It’s a small point, but worth mentioning, as it happened frequently. Other than that, the blocking is beautiful; the actors speak clearly; the theater’s new lighting is well-used; and the show is … amazing.

If you have ever experienced what qualifies as a living nightmare, this play will wring memories and feelings out of you. If you haven’t, it will horrify you to observe what you luckily have been spared. Either way, you cannot watch this cautionary tale without reacting to it—it’s that involving.

As adoptive parents of an endangered (and darling) desert tortoise, we went to the theater expecting a play that would make us feel all warm and fuzzy about the good we were creating through participating in adoption, even with “just” an animal.

Wrong. Go see this play … and brace yourself for a goose-bump-raising experience beyond your imagination.

Adoption Roulette, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

It’s about math.

Oh no! Math was my worst subject in school, and here we are confronted with Proof, a play about real mathematical geniuses—the kind you see standing in front of an entire blackboard filled with incomprehensible squiggles. The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has brought Proof to the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club—but even if you are as bad as I am with numbers, there is nothing to fear.

Proof, written by David Auburn, won the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2001. The setting, here designed by Lauren Bright with lighting by Ashton J. Bolanos, is a modest Chicago home’s back yard. The house is inhabited by a math professor and his adult daughter, whom we meet in the first scene.

Robert (Larry Dyekman) emerges from the house to find his daughter Catherine (Kelley Moody) has fallen asleep outdoors at 1 a.m. She is dressed (by costume designer Frank Cazares) in awful moth-eaten sweat pants, bedroom slippers and an oversized cranberry cardigan. Her sulky attitude and slovenly appearance, however, can’t hide Moody’s flawless complexion and bountiful hair, and she gives us a finely tuned interpretation of her role. Dyekman, in a well-thought-out and underplayed performance that shows off his skills, is a believable father and mathematician. The two converse about their relationship, his “illness,” her inherited math aptitude and, oh yes, the fact that he is … how shall I put this … dead.

In the next scene, we meet Hal, played by a perfectly cast Sam Benson Smith; Hal is a former student of Robert’s who is now a math professor himself at age 28. He is the quintessential nerd, with all the assets of a genius—for example, he’s also a drummer in a rock band with other dweeb mathematicians by night, and he wears a red T-shirt with the symbol for pi emblazoned on the front. “I owe him,” Hal says about Robert, ferreting through the great man’s countless notebooks that were left behind, trying to discover what he was working on in his final years. The audience sees Hal only in profile for about 99 percent of the time he is onstage—an unusual choice. (See how I used numbers there?)

Fireworks explode between Hal and Catherine when she accuses him of theft, and we begin to unravel the story of her battle with higher education. (She dropped out.) There are many references to that unanswerable conundrum: How much of genius is inherited, and how much of it is affected by education and environment? And what, besides our brains, do we inherit from our parents? Their problems, too? Also: How insane do you need to be to warrant being locked up? Where does a savant’s eccentricity leave off and incomprehensibility start? What pushes brainiac people over the line into actual mental illness?

Enter Claire, Catherine’s sister now living in New York, to take charge, smoothly played by Lee Rice. Contrasts between sisters are endlessly fascinating, and director Jerome Elliott—also the company’s artistic director—has, with assistant director Sierra Barrick, made the most of the comparisons here. You will particularly like one scenario in which the two girls assume the exact same arms-folded position (always the default stance for Claire), with both staring forward like ancient Egyptian statues as they converse. Rice offers a masterful performance, with crisp gestures, keen focus, great diction, clever use of her eyes and some excellent “takes.”

Mathematicians, we are told, peak at about the age of 23, and feel it is all downhill from there. It is a closed community with plenty of jealousy and childish behavior … but they apparently really love to party, too! Each one is desperately searching for that special equation, formula or theorem that will help make their name historic. Their lives revolve around that search and discovery, and its “proof.” That, apparently, is the Holy Grail in this field—when all other mathematicians must accept and agree with your new truth. In this vein, Act 1 ends with possibly the best cliffhanger ever.

In Act 2, we are treated to a flashback from four years before—so Dad returns, bringing with him a couple of actual laughs, as opposed to the rather grim mood of Act 1. Robert is a silver fox with an expressive face and natural gestures—but Catherine dreads having to pay the same price that her father did for his gift. “The machinery,” he calls his mind. Yet how many of his issues might just be sleep deprivation, or other ancillary problems?

We wonder a lot about this very cerebral play. For example, why is the wife/mother never mentioned by Claire or Catherine or Robert—even once? Why are there so many F-bombs dropped? Although Claire is apparently a currency analyst, which would certainly require smarts, why did she not inherit the same size gift for numbers that Catherine did? What is the cost for each IQ point? Is it better to forgo the big gift and be better adjusted, more stable, in “real” life? “Mathematicians are insane,” declares one character.

There is very little action in this play; it all takes place above the neck. So the actors are given lots of difficult lines, which they all manage well. However, there are some errors being made onstage, such as shuffling feet—not a good idea on this stage’s squeaky floor boards—or pretending to drink but forgetting to also pretend to swallow, or dropping the volume at the end of a sentence.

Proof is a well-acted play—and you don’t have to be good with numbers to enjoy it.

Proof, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the play runs about two hours, 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

After the holidays, you may need some excitement to perk you up and recharge your batteries. Well, January features plenty of exciting events to help rejuvenate your spirit.

The McCallum Theatre has some great post-holiday hangover-busters. While many shows are sold out, tickets are still left for these shows as of our press time. Back by popular demand, at 3 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 13, the Capitol Steps will be performing. The Capitol Steps is a troupe of former congressional staffers who perform a comedy show based on current affairs. It’s a lot of fun. Tickets are $30 to $70. At 8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 22, the sons of the Okie From Muskogee, Ben and Noel Haggard, will be performing. Ben and Noel will be paying tribute to their late father in an intimate performance. Ben played in his father’s band, while Noel struck out on his own; this should be a great show and tribute. Tickets are $25 to $65. You have to love the amazing diversity of shows the McCallum offers; for example, at 7 p.m., Monday, Jan. 28, prepare to be mesmerized by the Golden Dragon Acrobats. They are the premier Chinese acrobatic touring company and have performed for audiences all over the world. Tickets are $22 to $48. McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert; 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Fantasy Springs Resort Casino has some great stuff going on. Do you miss the ’90s? Sure ya do, so mark your calendars for 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, when you can go Back to the ’90s with Vanilla Ice, Coolio, Tone Loc and C&C Music Factory! Go rollin’ with your homies to this one, and get down during the ninja rap. Tickets are $39 to $69. Do you like to party … hard? At 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 25, party hard to the smooth sax of Kenny G. I would think that being Kenny G requires a sense of humor, and he does indeed seem to be a good sport; all kidding aside, he’s one hell of a musician. Tickets are $39 to $69. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio; 760-342-5000; www.fantasyspringsresort.com.

Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa has two great events taking place at The Show. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach will be performing. Bacharach is a legend; like Neil Sedaka, he’s penned a lot of great songs that have become hit songs for others—and for himself. Tickets are $40 to $60. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26, the Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo will be doing her thing. Caputo is a fascinating figure, given she’s managed to stay wildly popular and usually sells out shows. Tickets are $75 to $120. Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage; 888-999-1995; www.hotwatercasino.com.

Spotlight 29 will have a residency every Saturday night in January at 9:30 p.m. by Banda SN LA Sin Nombre at En Vivo. There is a $15 cover at the door. Over in the Spotlight Showroom, at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 25, Queen Nation (upper right) will kick off a weekly series of tribute bands called The Next Best Thing. Tickets are $10 to $102. Spotlight 29 Casino, 46200 Harrison Place, Coachella; 760-775-5566; www.spotlight29.com.

Morongo Casino Resort Spa has a fun show in January to mention. At 9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 4, ’90s R&B group Bell Biv DeVoe will be performing. If you're unfamiliar, it’s basically three members of New Edition: Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe. They had that fantastic song “Poison” that you still hear on the radio. Tickets are $49 to $69. Morongo Casino Resort Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, Cabazon; 800-252-4499; www.morongocasinoresort.com.

Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has some big things going on in January. At 9 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, Dirtwire will be performing. Trying to explain Dirtwire is not easy, but I’ll give it a shot: It’s a fantastic band that fuses world music and bluegrass. The group has played around the world in some very odd venues, including a festival in Kazakhstan. There are a lot of different sounds incorporated, and the result is highly enjoyable. Tickets are $15. At 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 17, the grandson of Bob Dylan, Pablo Dylan, will be performing. Pablo Dylan has done a lot in music, especially in hip-hop—he was proclaimed “Bob Dylan’s rapping grandson” by some publications. He’s a great songwriter in his own right, and he’s moved on to a more folk-music kind of style. Best part about this show: Admission is free! At 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 31, murderfolk performer Amigo the Devil will take the stage. I highly suggest checking him out; he’s the darkest country music singer-songwriter you’ll ever hear, and he’s armed with a banjo. He’s a performer who can get a whole room of people to sing along to lyrics of “I Hope Your Husband Dies.” Tickets are $15. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown; 760-365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com.

The Date Shed has a January event worth noticing. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 19, reggae band The Green will be performing. Originally from Hawaii, this reggae band has traveled all around the world, playing dub-heavy roots reggae and combining it with Hawaiian roots. Tickets are $20 to $25. The Date Shed, 50725 Monroe St., Indio; 760-775-6699; www.facebook.com/dateshed.

The Purple Room Palm Springs has plenty to offer in January. At 5 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 6, Purple Room owner Michael Holmes’ regular Sunday The Judy Show will be a fundraiser for our friends at the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. Enjoy tons of laughter as Holmes performs as Judy Garland—for a good cause. Tickets are $25 to $30. At 6 p.m., Friday, Jan. 11, actress and singer Renee Olstead will be performing. Olstead is probably best remembered for the television shows Still Standing and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but she’s also a talented singer who has released three albums. Tickets are $35 to $40. Do you like a good battle? How about a Battle of the Bitches? At 6 p.m., Friday, Jan. 25, drag stars Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine (below) will be performing. These two are known for their epic insult wars with each other through song. It's hilarious, fun and no holds barred. Tickets are $25 to $30. Michael Holmes’ Purple Room, 1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 760-322-4422; www.purpleroompalmsprings.com.

Toucan’s Tiki Lounge and Cabaret will be having a fun event in January. At 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, cabaret singer Tori Scott will be performing. Scott is a big name in New York’s cabaret scene and is considered one of the top cabaret performers in the country. She’s also sang on shows such as Sesame Street and Cathouse: The Musical. Tickets are $25 to $35. Toucans Tiki Lounge and Cabaret, 2100 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 760-416-7584; reactionshows.com.

Published in Previews

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

He left Cuba at age 11—but Tony Padilla remembers the Revolution.

“We were in Santiago, near Guantanamo,” he said. “We could see fighting in the hills where Fidel Castro was hiding. At first, we were all Fidel fans. Then he said, ‘Now we are Communists.’ Everybody said, ‘What?’”

Today, Padilla is one of the Coachella Valley’s most renowned playwrights. In March, his Desert Ensemble Theatre Company will produce one of his newest plays, comedy The Thespian Radio Hour.

“I have to tell you, I’m glad he’s dead now,” Padilla said about Castro. “We weren’t in real danger then. … My dad was a barber; my mom was a singer. She was stunning!

“I remember seeing Che Guevara in Santiago. When he spoke, he was like Hitler, so charismatic. You could see how thousands would follow.” Ironically enough, Padilla would years later audition for the role of Che Guevara in Evita on Broadway.

Padilla’s family later fled to the United States, where his father was immediately drafted into the Army. The family went to Germany for three years, where young Tony learned to speak German (which he has not used since, he adds dryly). When the family returned to the States, they wound up in Monterey.

“I come from a long line of macho Latino men,” Padilla said, “until they face a major decision—which is then made by their wives! My mother hated Miami; she thought it was too pretentious and materialistic.” So, off they went to California.

Padilla watched plays for the first time on a high school field trip. The Trojan Women and The Madwoman of Chaillot convinced him his calling was up on that stage. His first onstage role was in The Crucible.

“I don’t think I had an accent, but I probably did. I had a great teacher, who taught me how to listen,” he said. Today, there isn’t the slightest hint of any prior language in his speech.

In college, Padilla majored in theater arts, and was accepted into the prestigious San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater on scholarship. “Within three days, I borrowed some money, packed and moved, and got a job. I knew how to sew because of my mom, so I wound up making costumes for the plays. I wore some of my own creations onstage! I was 19. My parents wanted us to be independent—not lazy, ever. It’s that immigrant work ethic.”

He later went to Chicago. “I loved it! Down-to-earth, but intelligent people,” he said. There, he met his partner, Jim, and they were there for more than 20 years. When they sold their business, Dover Metals, which made trays for caterers, they moved to the desert.

“We came to visit a friend who was doing detox alone in Palm Springs!” Padilla laughed. “I fell in love with the desert.” They bought a house, and sold large paintings and sculptures.

“It took a while to get into theater here,” he said. But in 2000, Padilla joined forces with Marilee Warner, who had founded Playwrights’ Circle. They did play readings, and created a festival featuring new playwrights, culminating in a full production of the winning play. Over 10 years, the company grew.

When Warner decamped from the desert, Padilla formed the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, or DETC. He is the founder and producing artistic director. The legendary Rosemary Mallett became artistic director; Shawn Abramowitz is executive director; and Jerome Elliott became communications director.

Padilla said DETC is different because it trains young talent for careers in theater—both onstage and behind the scenes. DETC was the first local company to offer student scholarships, he said, and recipients have gone on to notable success—teaching at Harvard University, lighting Broadway shows and late-night TV shows, and working with major Hollywood production companies.

Padilla was awarded the Desert Theatre League’s prestigious Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for being a theater pioneer in the Coachella Valley.

“Theater now is 4,000 percent better than when I arrived,” he said. “We had the Top Hat Theatre on Arenas Road, and the Palm Canyon Theatre. That was all there was! I love the way it has grown. CV Rep and Coyote (Stageworks) are now doing really quality work.”

In its early days, DETC presented some plays at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, but now productions are housed at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a space shared with Dezart Performs. Padilla directs (usually his own plays) with a “laidback” style, but writing remains his No. 1 passion. The playwright bug bit him when he saw Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. He wondered if he could come up with an idea that was both compelling and relevant. The goal was achieved with Endangered Species, about the reactions of people when they find a live baby abandoned in a public park’s trashcan. It was produced here twice, then several times in Italy, where it won the “Best Play” award at a theater festival in Rome. “It is the best compliment I ever received as a playwright,” Padilla said with a smile.

Padilla said he plans to stay here in the valley he loves, though he and Jim flee the summer heat by holing up in their house in Carmel. In the future, Padilla would love to see our valley host a theater festival similar to the Palm Springs Film Festival—complete with classes, seminars, play readings and full productions. For DETC, he hopes to add formal classes and a board of directors.

Sounds like a happy man. “This is what you’re supposed to do,” Padilla said. “This is America!”

The Thespian Radio Comedy Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 9, 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

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