Vinny DePonto in Dezart Performs’ presentation of Mental Amusements.

It had been 10 months since the Independent reviewed a theatrical production—and I am worried about future of theater.

The pandemic has affected every part of our lives with masks and social distancing—and these two things don’t work at the theater. How would we keep straight faces while Romeo shimmies up the tree to Juliet’s balcony … with both of them hollering, through muffling masks, those immortal Shakespearean words? How ridiculous would Evita look with all those Argentinians running around, straining to warble through appropriate face coverings, and smearing everything touched with hand sanitizer? What would happen to theater-goers if they had to sit three seats apart, and the magic of that wonderful unanimous response when an entire audience shares a laugh or a gasp, in perfect unison, can’t happen?

Well, Dezart Performs has the answer. Last night, I saw the future of theater—the immediate future, at least—and it is bright and beautiful. Just like other unforeseen advances that have resulted from this pandemic, theatrical technology has been hard at work behind the scenes. The result? We can now stay home in comfort and watch a live production from New York! No more driving across town in the cold and dark to be entertained! Who could have imagined such a thing even a year ago—a production on your tablet or computer screen that retains the spontaneity and freshness of a live performance?

The show is called Mental Amusements, and it is available for all of us to enjoy via Dezart Performs at select times through Sunday, Jan. 24.

The one-man performance stars “mentalist” Vinny DePonto. Vinny is a combination of special talent and sharply-honed skill—plus great personal appeal. His dark-brown shock of curly hair, his beard and his arched eyebrows set off green eyes which he knows how to use. He is warmly introduced by our own Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart, from right here in Palm Springs … and then suddenly, we are in New York with Vinny, his magic, his sense of humor and his gifts as a performer.

We have been instructed to bring certain items, which sit in a little pile next to my laptop as I stare at the screen with no idea of what I have gotten myself into this time.

Vinny promises to take us on “a virtual carnival of the mind.” The theme permeates each section of the show, which includes a special Ferris wheel, mentions of snacks from popcorn to hot dogs, a fortune teller, a psychic, Tarot cards and a “Fool the Guesser” segment. Vinny, it turns out, is an award-winning performer who has worked as a consultant for Broadway productions, Netflix, The Discovery Channel, and the Lincoln Center—when they want special effects.

How does Mental Amusements work? The “front row” consists of about eight people from all across the country who purchased special tickets, and their faces pop onto the screen at Vinny’s command. Lucky me, I got to be part of the “front row,” along with Chantal; Chet and Pamela; Annie and Matt, with their daughter Maren; and frozen Gerard, from Minnesota, where he reported they were struggling with 9 new inches of snowfall. (Some of my family members tuned in, as part of the general-admission audience, which is neither seen or heard—all the way from Canada!)

We have all experienced online doctor appointments or group meetings by now—but this is virtual video cubed, and I’ve never had more fun in my life. Those of us in the “front row” met and exchanged quickly typed self-introductions in the “backstage” chat room before the performance, while background Ragtime piano set the mood. We were all enthusiastic, though a little apprehensive, about putting ourselves in Vinny’s hands—but this “mentalist” is not a classic, slick, pencil-mustachioed mindbender. He has a sweetness about him that is very reassuring, and we feel safe. Vinny is in command of all things high-tech, and he moves his performance along smoothly, getting us to use text messaging and calculators, to draw things on paper … and who knows what next? I had worried about my lack of technical know-how, but it was all easy and successful. Fear not.

The show transformed us all into wonderstruck children, as he pulled out surprise after surprise, making us laugh and clap our hands and shake our heads in amazement. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt like that.Can you?

Our “front row” radiantly enthused: “The first theater of 2021!”

“So appropriate for the times, isn’t it?”

“We always adapt. It’s a primary function of what we do.”

“Theater lives through the pandemic!”

The show transformed us all into wonderstruck children, as (Vinny DePonto) pulled out surprise after surprise, making us laugh and clap our hands and shake our heads in amazement. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt like that.Can you?

My niece in Calgary texted me: “That was really fun! My brain is blown! So cool that we could be there—almost like living in the same city and being able to hang out together!”

How beautiful, to survive and thrive despite the odds we face these days. I myself have lost three friends in the last two weeks, and the relief it gave me to participate in an event like this and not think about politics/ vaccines/headlines/statistics for a whole hour felt like two weeks at the beach. The power of theater to restore, rejuvenate and educate is nothing new—but after nearly a year without any of it, we all felt sort of … reborn.

If you have the coronavirus blues, here’s your antidote. Whether you are part of the “front row” or the general audience, you will love it. (Michael Shaw tells me “front row” tickets for Dezart’s remaining performances are nearly sold out.) Every show is new and live; Vinny is getting a real workout with this gig. Because each show is indeed live, there were a couple of little sound glitches, and the video may have frozen here and there for a couple of seconds—but, hey, who cares? This whole new tech experience is in its infancy, and we are … pioneers.

Kudos to Vinny DePonto and Dezart Performs for this incredible experience. Don’t miss it; it may just be the future of theater.

Dezart Performs’ presentation of Mental Amusements takes place at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Friday; and 4 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 24. Tickets to the hour-long live show are $39 to $54 per household, and the virtual lobby opens one hour before showtime; there are no late admissions. For tickets or more information, visit dezartperforms.org.

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

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...

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