Emerson Collins stars in Coyote Stageworks' Buyer and Cellar.

Chuck Yates and his Coyote Stageworks are back!

They have a great new show, Buyer and Cellar, with a spectacular new script, in a gorgeous new venue—the theater at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center. Coyote Stageworks completely dominated the win list in last season’s Desert Theatre League awards, leaving all the rest of us coughing in his dust. When Coyote Stageworks suddenly found itself homeless at the end of last season, it made for a surreal contrast.

Thank goodness Yates landed on his feet.

Jonathan Tolins is the author of Buyer and Cellar, which was named “Best Unique Theatrical Experience” by the Off-Broadway Alliance. However, this information did not prepare me for the surprise of this play. None of the publicity gave away what we were about to see, either. Chuck Yates mentioned to me that although Tolins’ play is now running in New York, and will open soon in San Diego and Los Angeles, our little Coyote Stageworks is the second place to acquire the rights in the country.

Turns out Buyer and Cellar is a one-man show. The actor, Emerson Collins, currently appears as one of the stars of Bravo’s The People’s Couch. His extensive history with the infamous Del Shores is beyond interesting; Collins played Max in Sordid Lives: The Series and appeared in Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, plus he produced Shores’ play Yellow, and then directed AND produced DVD live tapings of Shores’ one-man shows. His credits go on and on.

It’s hard for me to keep quiet about the subject of this play; part of the fun is the surprise you’ll get, and I only hope other critics will not give away the topic. Let’s just say that Emerson Collins plays all the parts, including the female characters, and that the play is about an American “megastar” of stage, film and recordings. It was even more interesting to me because I just happen to be reading a book about this very megastar’s early years and influences. Go figure.

Collins starts off playing the role of Alex More, a luckless actor forced to seek other employment when he loses his job in Anaheim at The World’s Happiest Place, as a result of an indiscretion at work. Maybe this would be the time for me to slip in a small language warning—frankly, it’s hardly worth bothering with, and it’s used more for humor than shock. Alex comes out of the closet early in the show, and we soon get to meet his new boyfriend, Barry—also played by Collins, of course. The humor is often Southern California stuff, like cracks about “the 405” and Malibu, so the denizens of our area might find even more to appreciate than, say, a New York audience. We watch Alex go off to apply for a new job, which brings him into contact with more new characters, all played by Collins. It is an extraordinary job, which he gets. And so it starts.

Collins immediately grabs the audience and never lets us go. He keeps everyone on the edge of their seats with his rapid-fire delivery, instantly morphing from character to character—with no props, wigs or costume changes, do you mind. For almost two hours, without intermission, he bounces, slides, flops, struts, flirts, sashays and even dances. Every character has its own voice. The laughs are so original and surprising that the first-night audience broke into spontaneous applause three times—and this does not include his lengthy standing ovation at the end. The sole criticism I could offer is that he dropped his voice on the last words of a punchline a couple of times, so we didn’t get the joke. The other 99.9 percent is flawless.

How much of the performance was Emerson Collins, and how much credit belongs to director Larry Raben? Impossible to tell, as always, but both deserve the very highest praise for the results.

The brilliance is breathtaking. We have no sense of time going by, which speaks not only to the comfortable seats of the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center theater, but also to the brisk pacing, the wonderfully fluid writing, and the astounding memorization challenge of what is basically a two-hour monologue on an almost-bare stage: It’s dressed with only one armchair and one coffee table. Collins changes the scenes by changing the angles of the “furniture.” We should mention there’s some help from back-lit upstage panels which display sketches, too. The props consist of one book—everything else, he mimes. Emerson has a masterful command of facial expressions, amazing body language and—so rare for many actors—a fantastic use of gestures. Like in hula, his hands tell the story. It’s fun; it’s fascinating; it’s overwhelming to watch him work.

Yates, when asked about the new 600-seat Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, which is now Coyote Stageworks’ home, responded by enthusiastically praising the high school students who volunteered their time and effort to run the lobby and box office during their spring break to make this show a success. Throughout the year, he gives them the chance to learn from him. What an opportunity for these kids! The young lady who showed us to our seats admitted to being a junior, and hopes to spend her life in theater. Good luck!

By the way: Other attendees joined me in experiencing brief panic while trying to find the new Galen Theater. It’s so new that our GPS (we named her Amelia Earhart) hasn’t yet heard of the place! It’s north of Ramon Road, between Bob Hope and Duvall drives, at Rancho Mirage High School. Look for the traffic lights at Rattler Road.

Do find it. Not only is it the newest, cleanest theater around; it’s home at last for Coyote Stageworks and Chuck Yates. Huzzah!

Coyote Stageworks’ Buyer and Cellar is performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 5, at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, 31001 Rattler Road, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-6482, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Valerie-Jean Hume’s career has included working as a stage/film/commercial/TV/voiceover actress, radio personality/host, voice and speech teacher, musician, lounge singer, cruise-ship hostess, theater...