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.