The Independent is starting our seventh season of theater reviews—and the first of this new season celebrates the emergence of a new theater company.
Well, the Encore Theatre District isn’t really “new”: For two seasons now, Encore has been quietly performing at the Black Box Theatre at the Palm Springs High School. For the 2019-2020 season, Encore has moved to the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres), where it is rumored that the popcorn is most excellent. (BTW, why is it that popcorn makes a movie better? Regardless, I can’t bring myself to take it in to a live performance.)
The group’s artistic director, Tiffanie Patscheck, is ETD’s inspiration and driving force. She was born here and studied with the legendary Rosemary Mallett before moving to Connecticut for five years; she returned after marinating in its enormously successful theatrical community.
“I see us as different,” she told me about Encore. “Most of our productions are not what the other theater companies in the valley would do. We are minimalists. You won’t see us doing Peter Pan here! But the advantage is that we can work practically anywhere.”
Many of Encore’s shows feature actors playing multiple roles; in her upcoming Alice in Wonderland, six actors will play about 60 parts. For most thespians, that’s a dream come true. Each show is cast separately; Tiffanie and her son, Jeremiah Rhoads, alternate as directors of the plays. The company opened in 2017 with Lydia, which immediately established a reputation for tackling unusual, controversial and difficult theater pieces.
Now, in the cozy 100-seat Cultural Center room, Encore has opened this season with 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. Oy vey! The title alone … !
The play, written by Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan, uses only two actresses. Katrina Dixon plays a standup comedian—as well as about 20 different Jewish mothers. Audrey Liebross is the stereotyped Jewish mother whom we know as the star of so many hilarious and dreadful jokes. Here, she bludgeons us with the most indescribably irritating over-the-top whine of a voice ever to hit any stage on the planet. She also gives us—delivered in her own voice, thank heavens—the offstage introductions to the different roles played by her partner. The show is directed by Patscheck, and Rhoads is the stage manager for this production.
It’s as if we are seated in a comedy club, with a bespectacled lady comic wearing fancy boots ranting away into a microphone (which, in this case, isn’t hooked up, oddly enough). She ends each section of her spiel by posing a question to us, her audience, and then she morphs into one of the Jewish mother characters to answer that question.
This is not easy! Dixon’s feat of memorization is amazing. The show is basically a monologue, with some cues thrown in. The stories become increasingly interesting and varied through the play. The emotional toll of morphing in and out of the various characters must be huge—but Dixon has done her homework, and gives each and every part she plays distinctive looks, attitudes, gestures, voices, postures and facial expressions. At one point, I could swear she even changed her face’s shape. Watch for it: That’s acting. We might like to see her wearing a solid color rather than her shirt’s distracting design, and she needs to avoid dropping her volume on final syllables—but Dixon turns in an impressive piece of work. She starts off by asking her audience, “What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” Her performance is the answer.
Audrey Liebross relishes her outrageous comedy bits in this sometimes-awkward play. She earns the chortles as well as the show’s only belly laugh. Alas, some of her lines are delivered while she stands on the floor in front of the stage, outside the lit area—which different blocking could easily correct. An actor needs to find the light! Otherwise, it is fun to watch her swagger and declaim, and it is always delightful to see an actress so thoroughly enjoying her role.
The show deals with sensitive topics. Some—such as the definition of kosher, the importance of tradition, and bat mizvahs—are educational for anyone (including the surprising date of the first-ever female rabbi). It can be a little discomfiting for anyone to hear discussions on such topics as anti-Semitism, Jewish stereotypes and the Holocaust, but this show is unsparing in its investigation into the private lives and private thoughts of the characters it presents.
The show’s pacing is to be complimented. The seats are super-comfortable, as they were built to anticipate lengthy stays for films—and they even include drink holders. From the time when the Camelot was the only movie house around, it has always been freezing cold inside, and that tradition continues—so bring a sweater, and don’t say you weren’t told.
There is much to like here, and it is important for us all to encourage a new theater company, so we hope you will support this show. It runs only two weekends—so get to it.
25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, a production of the Encore Theatre District, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, visit www.facebook.com/encoretheatredistrict.