The famine is at an end: Our Coachella Valley may have been starved for melodrama, but relief has arrived at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, in Palm Desert.
Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is the first “mellerdrammer” presented here in the valley (that we can recall, at least), and if audience response is any gauge of its success, we need MORE! Desert Theatreworks, led by executive director Ron Phillips-Martinez, is offering this play by Shubert Fendrich through Sunday, Feb. 2, and it is an experience not to be missed.
More than any other theatrical form, the melodrama requires an audience—and not just warm bodies sitting there. Oh no! Here, you must boo and hiss the nasty villain, cheer the brave hero, and go awwww for the sweet little heroine. Some venues (but not this one, darn it) let you pelt the cast with popcorn at appropriate junctures. It’s the most engaged you’ll ever be at the theater—and I’ve never seen a desert audience laugh so hard or so often.
The strong and innovative directorial hand of Lance Phillips-Martinez is a lovely thing to watch. His cast is evenly matched, with everyone overacting wildly, delivering confidential asides to the audience, and executing elaborate reaction “takes.” His guidance results in extraordinary acting details, including shoulder work, hand placement and footwork—aspects so often ignored by busy directors. Try to sit where you can see the actors’ shoes, because there are some lovely and hilarious extra bits done with their feet—sometimes the most-neglected part of the actor’s repertoire. Lance Phillips-Martinez has obviously kept a sharp eye on every member of his large cast, resulting in a beautiful unity among the actors. For example, he has paid exceptional attention to the actors’ use of their eyebrows. Powerful! Acting students can learn much from watching this production.
Melodrama is defined by the staging. One set (the hotel lobby) is all that’s needed for both acts. Off to one side perches the glamorous Miss Kitty (Kitty Garascia), who acts as emcee, with big white cue cards that advise the audience when and how to respond to the action. BOO! says one. CHEER! says another. And we do. Interestingly, the word OLIOS shows up on a placard after intermission, and she explains that this means it’s an opportunity for the cast to demonstrate their other talents—which they then do, by telling jokes, performing magic and singing tearjerkers of the day such as “The Bowery” or “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now.” Yikes.
“Breaking the fourth wall” is the term given to the acting technique of stepping out of the onstage action to address the audience directly. It can be done with spoken dialogue or just a look. It is employed wonderfully in this production, resulting in the audience’s continuing involvement with the action, even when not actually delivering boos and hisses or applause. The finest example of this comes from actress Alden West (the evil Widow Black, owner of the town’s sole hotel), who snarls in reply to the audience’s reactions. “Aw, stuff it,” she snaps at us after being booed, provoking screams of laughter. (Yes, a female villain!)
Rubber-faced young actor Austin Schroeter, playing the aw-shucks overalls-clad farm-boy ingénue role of Bill Filbert, is delightful. (“That’s weird,” he comments thoughtfully at one point, his beyond-blue eyes staring into space.) Savvy and thoughtful actor Hal O’Connell, as Barney Black, the hapless son-in-law who toils as the hotel’s clerk, almost steals the show at one point, and I’m not going to ruin the surprise on that one. But it’s crafty Stephen McMillen, who plays two roles (Snipe Vermin and Harry Heartstone—you have got to love those names) and seizes a double opportunity to impress us by switching between facial expressions/voice/gestures/attitudes, as well as from black Stetson to white Stetson. Yee-haw!
And wait until you meet Flora and Dora, played by Jana Baumann and Joyce Ellenson, respectively. They never break character, even with their high-energy antics. Watch what they do with their eyes. They play bizarre showgirls in the troupe of Colonel Crabtree, played by charming and suave veteran actor John Alex Houlton, always a solid performer—this time augmented with a terrific cape. Adina Lawson plays Martha Muldoon, an aging escapee from said troupe, who has been hiding out at Widow Black’s hotel for two years. She’s a petticoat-and-frilled-pantaloon’d flirt with long curls and a parasol, ready to tackle any available male who happens by. Then there’s the lady sheriff, Willie Lovelace, smoothly played by Hannah Ruzicka, with all the body consciousness of a Marilyn Monroe and the self-confidence of a Bette Davis—in a fabulous pair of iguana-skin cowboy boots. The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience!
The plot is more complicated than you’d expect from this kind of theater—with an interesting twist. The actors get to push their Western drawls over the top (along with everything else, except the furniture). The production team holds up its end beautifully. Bless them.
When he opens the show, artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez reminds us that Desert Theatreworks is entirely funded by ticket sales—with no sponsors or donors at all—and always uses local actors, definitely another important reason to support them. How else will regional theater grow?
But the best reason of all to see Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is that it’s fantastic. Imagine: You, at last, in the audience of a melodrama!
Desert Theatreworks’ Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors; and $12 children 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.