CVIndependent

Tue08222017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

E=MC2.

Can one famous formula-turned-phrase make a man? What does that recognizable formula say about the character of the person who created it?

The one-woman play The Life and Times of A. Einstein, coming to the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre Friday through Sunday, July 21-23, explores these questions. Directed by Paul Gersen and starring playwright/actress Kres Mersky, the off-beat fictional comedy centers on Ellen Shoenhammer, the secretary to Prof. Einstein—although she is far more than just his secretary.

The character is loosely based on Einstein’s real secretary, Helen Dukas, whose duties included chauffeur, bodyguard and media liaison. She worked to keep his public image clear of scandal. She kept track of his dalliances and hid all of this damaging information protect his family. She was also the manager of all his business affairs—not a small feat, especially when dealing with a busy “genius.” After her death in the 1980s, much of her correspondence was uncovered—and that’s when so much was discovered about Einstein’s illicit affairs.

Mersky told me that The Life and Times of A. Einstein is a slice-of-life play, taking place on the great physicist’s birthday. He is supposed to be holding a press conference—but he is somehow unavoidably detained, so Ellen has to stand in for him.

“Einstein was a celebrity then,” Mersky said. “People hid in the bushes to get photos of him—like modern-day paparazzi.”

The play covers Ellen’s long association with the Einstein family, including how she came to meet the great man. Most importantly, she talks about his extraordinary research that changed our perception of the universe. Ellen also perfected the art of answering and evading questions—often better than the talking heads on today’s TV news.

“I always wanted to do a play about Einstein because of what he stood for,” Mersky said. “He was a complicated, great man who whose ethos and belief in the imagination helped shape science.”

How did the play finally come about? “It’s actually a play I have been working on for 15 to 20 years. I loosely based Ellen on the real secretary,” Mersky said.

I asked Mersky why Einstein remains such a popular figure today. “He is the world’s most famous refugee,” she said. “He is also known for all his humanitarian work. In 1933, he helped create the International Rescue Committee that, even to this day, is active. He will always be relevant.”

Mersky said she enjoyed creating a character who is strong yet funny. That description could apply to Mersky as well; she’s a Los Angeles-based actress who has enjoyed visiting the valley over the years. Her acting credits include Revenge of the Nerds and the Charlie’s Angels TV series. She even appeared on the legendary yet short-lived The Richard Pryor Show.

The Life and Times of A. Einstein is just one of CV Rep’s varied summer offerings, which include other one-person plays—including The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Linda Purl and based on Joan Didion’s riveting memoir; that takes place Aug. 11-13.

CV Rep is also hosting various musical performances. One Tuesday per month, “Jazz at the Rep” will spotlight various talented musicians. If jazz is not your thing, CV Rep’s summer offerings also include a Cabaret Series and a Classical Music Series.

The Life and Times of A. Einstein takes place at 7 p.m., Friday, July 21 and 22; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 23, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30. For tickets, more information and a complete schedule of summer offerings, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Michael Shaw, the artistic director and co-founder of Dezart Performs, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he helped start the theater company back in 2008.

“I was living in Los Angeles, so I was running the theater with my co-founder at the time,” Shaw said. “I went back and forth … and was still holding down my job in Los Angeles. I realized for it to grow, I needed to be here full-time. I needed to be entrenched in the community, because in order to be successful, you need to be in the community and get support for a nonprofit.

“I thought going into it that it was an avenue to explore new scripts. I really went into this thinking, ‘No stress; it’ll be fun. It’ll be an outlet to explore my creative side as an actor’—and the first four years, it was exactly that. But when you decide to take it to the next level, there are responsibilities that come with that. Things mushroomed and grew.”

Things mushroomed and grew so much, in fact, that Dezart Performs is outgrowing its home, the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. That’s why Shaw recently announced Dezart was embarking on a campaign to raise money for a new and bigger theater to call home.

Dezart Performs is not alone. Coachella Valley Repertory announced last year it had agreed to purchase the Desert Cinemas movie theater building in Cathedral City and turn it into the company’s new home, after outgrowing spaces in The Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage. Meanwhile, Desert Theatreworks outgrew its space at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert and just moved into a new space at the Indio Performing Arts Center.

Yep: Local theater companies are on the move.


Michael Shaw (far left) and the company of Dezart Performs' Casa Valentina watch as makeup artist James Geier demonstrates makeup techniques on actor Dale Morris. COURTESY OF CLARK DUGGERWhen Shaw (pictured here, at the far left) and co-founder Daniela Ryan began Dezart Performs, the company placed an emphasis on finding and developing brand-new plays. However, in recent years, Dezart Performs has shifted its focus away from new plays, and toward edgier fare. For example, the 2016-2017 season included Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, a play based on a real-life haven for transvestites in the 1960s, and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a play that tackles issues of race, housing and gentrification.

“Our season has an obligation to deliver socially relevant and provocative story lines. We’ve always tried to do that—and our audiences didn’t expect that in our little town a few years ago,” Shaw said. “They say, ‘I really love A Chorus Line,’ and didn’t expect to see Clybourne Park, which not only uses the F-word quite often, but also uses the C-word. When I read the script, I thought, ‘Oh my God! They’re going to pull out pitchforks and torches!’ (But audiences) loved the fact they were challenged and, in the context of the storyline, felt (such language) was necessary. The audience is there with you. That’s exciting. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done Clybourne Park, and wouldn’t have expected that.”

Shaw said he’s enjoyed watching the Coachella Valley theater world grow and prosper.

“All of the theater directors are friends,” he said. “We all communicate; we all get together and see each other’s shows; and we all support each other. We make an effort to support each other, because we need more than one theater. You can’t have just one hamburger joint or one grocery store. We all have that same belief in supporting theater in the community.”

Dezart’s fundraising campaign for a new facility is in its initial stages, Shaw said.

“What we’re doing is announcing the pledge drive and setting in motion the path to achieve all of the things we need to for us to say, ‘We have now secured a facility, and we’re now in renovation,’” he said. But we’re a few years off from that. We’re establishing a position for a director of development, fundraising, and consulting to put us in a place where we, as an organization, can solidify the foundation and the people we need to make it happen. It means bringing on more staff, funding that staff, and taking a number of things off my plate so I can continue to grow in my role as the artistic director. I wear many hats, but I’m also only one person. Even with the support of volunteers, we need to start thinking ahead and ask, ‘What do we need to do to allow us to grow our programming?’”


CV Rep's Ron Celona and Gary D. Hall (left) sign the option agreement to purchase the former IMAX theater in Cathedral City with city officials Joe Giarrusso and Tami Scott (right).The Coachella Valley Repertory, currently based at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, was also founded in 2008. It’s the only company in the valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with the Actors’ Equity union.

Founder and artistic director Ron Celona said the theater has grown well beyond what was originally planned.

“We were 2 years old, using outside venues, before we were able to rent our own space,” Celona said. “Our first big milestone was moving into (a space in) The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, which was an empty shell. We hired a contractor to build our 86-seat theater, lobby and box office. We expanded to the next unit, building offices for staff. … The first hire was a box-office staff member, and little by little, we have grown to be an eight-full-time-staff company. It might be called show business, and it’s certainly a business—and it needs to be run like a business.”

Celona said business success led to CV Rep’s current status.

“We started as a non-union theater that contracted Equity actors. A few years back, the accomplishment of the company as a business allowed us to become a full-fledged Equity house. It makes Coachella Valley Repertory the only Equity house in the Coachella Valley,” Celona said. “What that does is gives us national coverage.”

Celona said the CV Rep production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 2013 marked a key moment in the company’s history.

“That particular production was a turning point for Coachella Valley Repertory. Why? Because of the recognition of its production values and the cast,” Celona said. “Basically, we got a wide word of mouth, and it spread like wildfire. People who had never heard of us started to check us out. Prior to that, it was very much a small, contained following. Our subscription base was around 300, and afterward, we shot up to 700 to 800 subscribers the following year. Each year since, we’ve grown by about 200.

With that increase in subscribers, and 8,000 people attending the 2016-2017 season shows—in an 86-seat theater—it’s time for CV Rep to move into a bigger space.

“We have signed an option with the city of Cathedral City to purchase the old IMAX movie theater and two adjoining restaurants—the building and the land,” Celona said. “We have until June 2018 to execute that option. Basically, what that means is we’ve had a capital campaign since October 2016 to raise the money we need. The total campaign is a $6 million campaign. We’re just shy of our first $1 million as of right now. We need at least a percentage of that ($6 million) campaign to enter the agreement and break ground and build a state-of-the-art playhouse.”

Celona said he’s proud of the mark that CV Rep and the valley’s other theater companies have left on the valley.

“I think any arts organization in the community … we’re all making a difference,” Celona said. “The difference is to enlighten, inspire and educate our community to be a better place to live in, and (for us to be) better human beings in the world. Theater has always been a mirror to its community.”


Desert Theatreworks has grown in popularity and size since the community-based theater company was formed 2013, in part because the company produces a wide variety of shows, according to artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez.

“In our first season, we had around 2,000 people who came through and bought tickets. Last year, we had 8,000 people who bought tickets,” Phillips-Martinez said. “We’ve tried to do a diverse amount of productions, and not just things that are interesting to us. What we try to do is broaden our audience with every show that we do, or pick a different type of show in our season that will bring in different audiences and keep them coming back.”

Phillips-Martinez cited a 2015 production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone as a show that furthered Desert Theatreworks’ reputation.

“We did it in September that year, when the audiences aren’t always bountiful, and it was nice to get that critical response—and the audiences just kept coming back,” He said. “It was a big hit for us, and it was a different type of show. … We staged and choreographed nearly every number and theme transition. It was all original and a lot of fun.”

Phillips-Martinez said he’s had to battle commonly held assumptions about community theater.

“The public perception that community theater is of a lesser quality is a challenge,” he said. “… The work will speak for itself. If you focus on quality, you can put on whatever you want in your space, and your audience will trust you. That’s what the original challenge was—changing the perception of what community theater is.”

I could hear the excitement in Phillips-Martinez’s voice when he talked about Desert Theatreworks’ move from the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center to the Indio Performing Arts Center.

“We had outgrown the (Desert Theatreworks space at the Arthur Newman Theatre). We had asked for more space, and they had more to give, but for whatever reason, they were not willing to do that, and it’s fine,” Phillips-Martinez said. “Our customers wanted us to stay there and wrote more than 700 letters to the city of Palm Desert, but after much deliberation and trying, it didn’t happen.

“The city of Indio offered us the space. A solution was made quickly, and the show must go on. We love the space, and the city of Indio is our partner in producing our shows. They’re helping us promote our shows as well. It’s very nice to get a municipality’s support in producing shows, because it gives (us) some new support that we didn’t have before.”

The Indio Performing Arts Center has long had challenges attracting tenants and audiences. However, Phillips-Martinez said that it’ll work out just fine for Desert Theatreworks.

“One of the advantages that we have is we have such a good track record of producing shows, and (a large) number of shows we’ve presented, which is 32 main-stage productions,” he said. “Most theater companies that are local only do three or four a year; we produce eight to 10. If you’re looking for viability and sustainability, (the larger number of shows) is more attractive in sustaining a place like that. The possibilities are good.”

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s a brilliant idea for a one-set play.

A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, now bring produced by Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, takes the tiniest slice of life and expands it into universal lessons, just as Gurney expands the four-person cast into a dozen characters in the show. It’s a terrific concept, and producer Ron Celona has invited guest director Luke Yankee to mastermind it.

Here it is: It’s 1993, and two people who were once briefly involved find each other, years later, at a party in Boston. They are out on the huge balcony away from the noise, where it’s easier to talk. As they discuss their long-ago relationship, other partygoers drift out into their space and interrupt with their own issues. The really interesting thing is that these 10 guests are played by just two other performers! It’s a golden opportunity for these two character actors to show off their versatility.

Playwright A.R. Gurney is the author of Love Letters (which I’ve seen four times). It’s an extraordinary play, and there is nothing else like it. Same with The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, and now Later Life. He is famous for plays about upper-class WASPs; we find that although their problems might be different from those of others, they are quite serious. Gurney’s mastery of dialogue removes the theater’s “fourth wall” and deeply involves the audience in their stories. The extraordinary feat of writing in Later Life is that Gurney gives each character his or her own voice—and I mean all of them: The 10 character roles each have personalities and appearances so wildly different from one another that if an audience isn’t alerted to this, they might believe there really are 12 different people in the cast. There aren’t many plays that give actors this kind of opportunity (though it happened to me last year when I played five roles in a play!). It’s important that the audience appreciates the extraordinary work being done here—and enjoys the fun of it.

Guest-director Luke Yankee has a stunning resume that speaks for itself—and he has tackled the challenge of Later Life with zest. The 90-minute show’s pace is brisk, despite the restrictions of one set and one act. (There’s no intermission—a great choice! It would have totally destroyed the timing.) His firm guiding hand is evident in the body language and the impressive variety displayed by the character actors as they morph from one role into another.

The play centers around Austin, played by William Fair, whom we meet immediately. The onion-layers of Austin peel away gradually throughout the play, revealing more and more of him and creating surprises right up to the very last second of the show. Our first suspicions of stereotype crumble away as he gradually reveals an unexpectedly complex and conflicted inner life. William Fair keeps us wondering as he juggles Austin’s instinctive self-protection along with his co-dependency and his longing to burst free from his shell.

Ruth is the lady who knew him Back When, and actress Barbara Niles achieves a sympathetic portrayal of a woman whose steel-trap memory contrasts with multiple mental games of, “What If?” as well as a huge need to be accepted and liked. Ruth combines her wounded past with a brave determination to be happy in the future; her struggles are thickly slathered over with what some will see as courage, and others will perceive as a dumb resistance to learning from her history. Niles gives us a deep portrait of a lovely, if sometimes exasperating, lady.

Gorgeous Teri Bibb plays five female roles who contrast wildly. We first see her as Sally, the party’s hostess—sweet and efficient, looking like a model in a women’s magazine. Next she is Marion, an older lady and the frustrated wife of the irrepressible Roy. Then she turns up as socialite Nancy, a sleek and stylish mystery lady who has just been dumped by her companion. As Esther McAlister, an aging Southern belle whose lively attitude makes her a perfect match for her fun-loving husband, she is trying to adjust to the culture shock of moving North across the Mason-Dixon Line. And as working-musician and personal friend Judith, she becomes a thin, tense and tightly wound redhead. She is beautiful in every role.

But it is Joel Bryant who knocks us out with his five male characters. His transformation from one role to the next is so complete that he is unrecognizable every time he comes through the door. He starts us off with an astonishing portrayal of a philosophy professor desperately trying to quit smoking. Then he transmogrifies into Roy, the cranky but feisty old bird driving his wife nuts. Next he changes into Duane, a nerdy computer whiz whose crackling internal energy (watch his blood pressure!) is about one minute away from a massive explosion. Then he switches to become Ted McAlister, an outgoing silver fox from the South with a charming interest in his fellow man and a sweet sort of breezy innocence. Last, he becomes Walt, a squash-obsessed Bostonian who is the loyal best friend of Austin, in a performance so completely realized that you will swear you know this guy. It is amazing work by Joel Bryant; I predict awards.

Let’s talk about the gorgeous set, another triumph from CV Rep’s award-winning resident set designer, Jimmy Cuomo. The beautiful, sophisticated decor sets us up for a fancy party overlooking Boston’s famous harbor, with the city’s tall buildings as a backdrop. The open stage features a patio with one door leading back into the house. Coming from there, we hear muted sounds of music and chatter; kudos to sound designer Terence Davis for keeping the background noise at the appropriate level where it’s heard, but does not not interfere with these conversations. Not easy—but the balance is excellent. Karen Goodwin, the assistant stage manager and sound tech, shares in these finely tuned choices. The clever contributions of stage manager and lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker are perfectly correct for this play, as are Aalsa Lee’s 1993-era costumes, reminding us of the colors and styles worn “way back” then. Production manager and associate designer Doug Morris contributed his talents and keen eyes to this show, while the incomparable Lynda Shaeps designed the makeup and hair styles; wait until you see her amazing work that transforms the character actors. Selene Rodriguez assists with Shaeps’ hair and makeup effects with great results.

Ron Celona’s production of this “dramedy” could not be better. It shows a huge amount of thought, and fascinating results. You will never see anything else like it—so make sure you do see it!

Later Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 21, at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you’re not a Muslim, imagine being a Muslim living in America today.

Would you be brave enough to wear traditional garb? Would you discuss your heritage openly? Or would fear cause you to change your name and hide who you are? These are some of the questions CV Rep’s fantastic production Disgraced addresses.

Though Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in 2012, it could not possibly be any more timely than it is now. The fear, anger and bigotry our current political climate has stirred up make this play with a Muslim protagonist painfully relevant.

The tight, 80-minute production centers around Pakistani-American lawyer Amir Kapoor (Arash Mokhtar), and his American-born artist wife, Emily (Elizabeth Saydah). Amir has abandoned his Muslim upbringing: He has changed his name from Abdullah and calls himself an apostate. He passes himself off as Indian in order to get ahead in the world of corporate mergers.

Emily, meanwhile, is drawn to the exotic nature of Islamic art, and embraces Islam far more than her husband does. As the play opens, Emily is completing a portrait of her husband. She hopes the piece will be reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave. The comparison, she explains, came to her after a waiter was rude to Amir at a restaurant. Emily laments the man’s inability to see her husband for who he really is, while Amir himself shrugs off the incident as just part of the racism he deals with every day.

Soon, Amir’s nephew (Kamran Abbassian) arrives. He has also turned his back on his heritage, having changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen. Abe is seeking Amir’s help in defending a local imam who is facing charges of terrorist activity. Amir is not keen on the idea, fearing professional reprisals for getting involved in the case. When Abe tries to guilt his uncle into helping the fellow Muslim, Amir insists that he no longer practices the religion. But eventually, Amir relents and meets with the imam, though his firm is not officially defending the man. The meeting is mentioned in a newspaper article, which Amir worries could damage his professional future.

Soon, Emily gets a visit from Isaac (Joel Polis), a Jewish art gallery owner who is married to one of Amir’s colleagues, an African-American woman named Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson). He is impressed with Emily’s work, and is considering putting some of her pieces in an upcoming show.

Things come to a head three months later, during a dinner party at the Kapoor home, attended by Jory and Isaac. Amir is in a foul mood. His involvement in the Imam case has caused his law partners to question his heritage, and they are now accusing him of misrepresenting himself. The dinner conversation soon gets heated, as Amir ponders his Muslim heritage.

This production succeeds on every level. The cast is superb. I agree with an audience member who, during the post-show Q&A, called it one of the best examples of an ensemble cast he’d ever seen. However, each actor also stands out.

Mokhtar’s Amir is flawless. (Frustrated at the inability to find the right person after seeing 20 different actors, director Joanne Gordon finally struck gold and cast him via Skype.) Mokhtar’s striking good looks and charm initially hide the animosity and conflict boiling just beneath the surface. We feel for him as he struggles with questions of loyalty and cultural identity, as well as the possibilities of losing both his wife and his career.

Saydah, as Emily, is both stunning and a dynamite actress. The strong chemistry she has with Mokhtar makes us root for them as a couple. We want to see her achieve her dreams of stardom in the art world, and to live happily ever after with Amir.

Polis’ Isaac hits all the right notes as a typical New York art dealer. His intense, climactic scene with Amir hits the audience in the gut, as it should.

Abbassian holds his own as the young, earnest Abe.

Perhaps my favorite member of the cast is Maya Lynne Robinson as Jory. A strong, charismatic dramatic actress, she also provides most of the evening’s comic relief. When Isaac turns to her during a heavy political discussion and says “Honey, it’s racial profiling,” she snaps back: “I know what it is!”

I applaud artistic director Ron Celona’s choice to hold a Q&A immediately after every performance. It allows the audience to share some of the intense emotions the play stirs up, and to get to know the players a bit. Perhaps the most enlightening moment during the opening-night Q&A was the revelation that director Joanne Gordon grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. She vividly recalls that in those days, it was literally against the law for a white person to touch a black person. Perhaps that’s why she handles this play with such skill.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is exquisite, while the lighting and sound are also spot-on.

Disgraced brings up important questions. Who are we, really? Is cultural bias in our DNA? The time to find these answers is now.

Disgraced is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 2, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, March 14. Tickets are $48, and the running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission, followed by a Q&A. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory artistic director Ron Celona has put on some fabulous productions since the theater opened its doors in 2008—but he has truly outdone himself with his current offering, Baby—The Musical.

The show, with book by Sybille Pearson, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., ran on Broadway in 1983-1984. It tells the story of three different couples and how they each react to the news of impending parenthood. College students Lizzie (Melody Hollis) and Danny (Caleb Horst) have just moved in together, and seem much more at ease with the prospect of having a baby than with the commitment of marriage. Thirty-somethings Pam (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and Nick (Perry Ojeda), coaches at the same college, are facing the heartbreak of apparent infertility. The oldest couple, 43-year-old Arlene (Janna Cardia), a stay-at-home mom of three grown daughters, and 48-year-old university staff member Alan (Tom Andrew), are stunned by a surprise pregnancy. The audience goes along for the ride as each couple faces the trials, tribulations and joys involved in bringing a new life into this world.

One of the most impressive things about CV Rep’s Baby is director Celona’s success in fitting 10 actors and five musicians on his intimate stage without them looking like a can of sardines. Everyone moves on and off the stage smoothly, and it never appears crowded. That is no easy feat.

The excellent band features some of the valley’s best musicians—Daniel Gutierrez on the keyboard, Dave Hitchings on percussion, Doug MacDonald on guitar, Bill Saitta on bass and Scott Storr (also the musical director) on piano. A musical play is always a richer experience with live music rather than recorded backgrounds.

The cast is superb across the board; there is not one weak link. The excellent ensemble—Jaci Davis, Jeff Stewart, Giulia Ethel Tomasi and Joseph H. Dahman—serves as a sort of Greek chorus, moving the story along. Each of them also shines in minor roles, particularly Tomasi as a fertility specialist having trouble with her contact lenses, and Stewart as a snooty real estate agent.

The leads all exhibit impressive voices and strong acting chops. As empty-nesters Alan and Arlene, Andrew and Cardia ably convey the conflict over whether they really want to become mired in the formula-and-diaper routine again later in their lives. It felt as if the audience was collectively holding their breath as the two danced around the subject of terminating the pregnancy.

The sexual chemistry between Hanrahan-Ball and Ojeda, as Pam and Nick, is palpable. We share the pain they feel about not being able to conceive. While the singing is uniformly superb, Ojeda’s soaring voice stands out.

Hollis and Horst are perfect as college sweethearts Lizzie and Danny. Just starting out in life, they are trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the new life they’re creating. Hollis can really sing.

Baby has a difficult score, with many songs written in minor keys, but the cast handles them well. Some of the more memorable numbers include the rousing “Fatherhood Blues” featuring all the men, Danny’s romantic “I Chose Right,” “I Want It All” featuring the three female leads, and Lizzie’s hilarious “The Ladies Singin’ Their Song,” her lament about strange women patting her growing belly and sharing their own childbirth experiences.

Ron Celona’s direction is spot-on here, as are the costumes, set, lighting and sound.

It’s wonderful—and not all that common—to have absolutely nothing negative to say about a show. I had that experience watching CV Rep’s production of Baby. It’s not just about childbirth. It’s about life, love and the complexity of human relationships. This show will touch your heart … even if you have no kids—or don’t even like them.

Baby—The Musical is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Tickets are $48, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966 or go to www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

They call it synchronicity when similar events coincide.

I had no idea what the word “Annapurna” meant—and yet I stumbled across its name and discovered its meaning just a couple of weeks before seeing the play of that title at Coachella Valley Repertory. Synchronicity! Turns out Annapurna is the Nepalese name of one of the 14 “over 8,000 meter high” mountains in the world—and it is listed as the deadliest of them all: One out of every three climbers of this rock has been killed.

At CV Rep, the play’s director and the company’s founder and artistic director, Ron Celona, chose Sharr White’s Annapurna to start the company’s sixth season—and congratulations on succeeding in a business where so many theaters fail.

However, this show is not about mountain-climbing. It’s about relationships—which can certainly be as dangerous, given the mortality rate of marriages these days. Ulysses and his wife Emma split up about 20 years ago, but now she’s tracked him down … to the icky Colorado trailer park where he resides. Why? CV Rep’s theme for this season is “Love, Marriage and Life-Changing Events,” and this two-actor play provides much food for thought.

The play stars Anna Nicholas as Emma and Eric Charles Jorgenson as Ulysses. Both actors boast impressive resumes, but the crucial factor in casting such a play has to be the chemistry between them. Nothing else—not the writing, the directing nor the technical support—will matter unless the actors can make believable their situation. You can put together two individually successful and skilled actors, yet still the show is compromised if there’s a lack of chemistry.

Technically, the play is fantastic. Let’s take a moment to recognize the work of Jimmy Cuomo as the set designer, Moira Wilke Whitaker as stage manager and lighting designer, Doug Morris as production manager and associate designer, Karen Goodwin as assistant stage manager and sound tech, Aalsa Lee as costume designer, Cricket S. Myers as sound designer, and Lynda Shaeps as hair and makeup designer.

Author Sharr White’s bio offers a big list of accomplishments and a rather prolific list of plays. Here, he combines comedy with drama. (They’re calling it “dramedy,” but I’m not totally sure that’s a real word yet.) We have to tack a language warning on to this work, which didn’t bother me until we realized that there were children in the audience on opening night. You might want to think twice before bringing them to this show. The laugh lines may not be everyone’s cup of, um, chai.

Should I also mention the partial nudity? Should I brace you for The World’s Most Annoying Dog barking nonstop in the background? If you’ve ever lived in a neighborhood with one of those, you will find yourself gritting your molars over the backstage woofing. Shall I warn your delicate sensibilities about the squalor in which we find Ulysses living? What about his being a published author, yet speaking with the most dreadful grammar? Well, consider yourself advised, and forge ahead if you will.

The dark quality of this show completely overshadows any laughs it might initially provide. As Ulysses and Emma finally lock horns over their failed marriage, the inevitable differences in how any situation is viewed by each party emerges: He says, she says. Memories fade, change, distort ... or do they? What other influences come into play? What about the influence of drinking? Health issues? Other people? What gets forgotten? Has time caused changes in how we see, or saw, life? How has the very world changed, and has the new technology affected memories of the past?

They say that when two people first meet, there is a wealth of information exchanged psychically, without a word. The bottom line is whether the relationship will or won’t continue past “hello.” We’ve all met people to whom we are immediately attracted, as well as people whom we instantly dislike—with nothing other than a gut feeling to explain it. Well, Ulysses and Emma met and were attracted and began a relationship and married, and now they haven’t spoken for 20 years when she shows up at the door of his rickety rural trailer. Thus, the actors now face a 90-minute (with no intermission) challenge to explain their situation to us. The very lines and cues of the script had to be daunting to learn, in a two-person show that takes place in one cramped space. It’s a feat of memorization by Nicholas and Jorgenson, and both rise to the occasion. Both characters go through a variety of emotion and mood changes in their time together. Though every actor deep down wants to be liked by the audience, these characters are essentially unsympathetic ones.

How you react to their reunion will obviously depend on, well, you, and what you bring to the play. Will you be moved? Will you believe it? Will you see chemistry between them? Will you laugh, feel tears, gasp, sprout goose bumps? I was not feeling much chemistry between Nicholas and Jorgenson on opening night. However, every theater-goer experiences his or her own responses to a play, and that is the special value of live theater.

A lot of hard work is evident in Annapurna—fortunately, though, not quite as much as climbing a real mountain.

Annapurna will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A great theater experience allows us to see our human selves reflected back—in a way that moves, informs and enables us to relate to the realities of the lives of others.

When I was 17, my father threw me out because I had stayed out all night. Shortly thereafter, I got pregnant out of wedlock and contemplated suicide. I remember despondently standing in front of a bathroom mirror, ready to slit my wrists, and suddenly saying out loud to my reflection, “If it’s that bad, it can only get better.”

And it did.

Those feelings were overwhelmingly brought back when I attended the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre production of Push, written by George Cameron Grant, and directed by Cathedral City resident Jeanette Knight. The play was this season’s Youth Outreach Production. I first experienced this CV Rep program last year, when the focus was on female bullying.

The theater buses in students from throughout the area to see a one-act play about issues to which they can personally relate. After the production, the audience discusses the play’s themes with the actors and the director, to explore their own reactions and experiences. It’s more than a learning experience: For some students, it’s the first time they have attended dramatic theater and realized its ability to impact an audience.

Push revolves around a young man who comes out as gay to his parents and faces immediate rejection by his stern father. After the boy is thrown out, he subsequently suffers another rejection—by the boy he has fallen in love with—and commits suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming subway train. The play follows the anguish suffered by his sister, who runs away from home and is discovered at the same train station, contemplating ending her own life. As she struggles with her own feelings, she questions whether her brother made a choice, or whether he was “pushed” by others to feel he had no other options.

The performers in Push were almost all students, some of whom have never acted before. Their ability to inhabit the roles and then discuss with the audience the impact of those roles as it relates to their own lives and experiences was not only educational, but also very moving.

Ron Celona, the founding artistic director of CV Rep, participated in the after-play discussion. He noted that the 1,400-plus students who had seen Push were not so focused in the after-play discussions on the bullying and rejection of the boy’s sexuality; instead, their focus was on the suicide, an issue they and their friends had already encountered, either personally or through troubled acquaintances.

Jeanette Knight, originally from Michigan, has been in the desert since 1997.

“My mother dragged me to dance classes, and I now thank her every day for it,” she says. “I stayed with dance, and that’s how I got into acting.”

Knight began doing musical theater, and “I fell in love with the whole theater crowd.” She completed a degree in theater at UNLV, but says, “I’ve learned so much more from doing it outside of college.”

Knight’s local experience includes working at McCallum Theater as the education program manager, running the Beaumont Actors Studio, teaching acting and improvisation at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, and teaching classes in improv at CV Rep. “I’ve learned so much about acting by teaching it,” she says.

When Ron Celona approached Knight about directing Push, she jumped at the chance. “I really like doing this kind of theater,” she says. “We can’t sweep these issues under the carpet. The kids who come to see these shows are our future.”

There are two local efforts devoted to assisting young people who feel unsafe or who are aware of someone else who feels threatened or hopeless: Sprigeo is an anonymous reporting and investigation service to deal with bullying, harassment or intimidation in or out of school, with which the Palm Springs Unified School District is affiliated. SafeHouse of the Desert helps teens in crisis; those who feel threatened can go to any Sunline bus stop or McDonald’s and get free transportation to SafeHouse.

My parents finally allowed me to return home, but only if I gave my child up for adoption. In those days, there was no real way a teenage unwed mother could make it, so I lived with the hope that my son had indeed been able to live a better life than I could have given him. My first-born son and I were happily reunited after over 40 years. He is a gay man.

At the end of Push, when the sister decides her life is worth living, and her father apologizes for having rejected his son and contributing to his death, I was overcome with tears. All I could think was: I am so thankful that something inside of me knew it would get better, and that my son was adopted into a family where he was loved and accepted.

CV Rep is truly making a difference. In Jeanette Knight’s words: “It’s rewarding to have a hand in art not just for art’s sake, but to be a part of theater that can help make the world a better place.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The Coachella Valley and High Desert are blessed with a variety of unique and ambitious local theater companies.

But you would not necessarily know that’s the case in August: Not one of the Coachella Valley companies had a single regular show scheduled during the month. However, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned over at Desert Rose Playhouse: The company just extended its run of Party by three weeks thanks to brisk ticket sales, so instead of ending on July 31, the comedy will now run through Aug. 21.

In other words … there is indeed a theater audience around during the summer. Well, at least there is if a show involves nudity.

Anyway, here’s what local theater-lovers can look forward to from the valley’s most prominent theater companies during the upcoming season.

Coachella Valley Repertory Company

cvrep.org

CV Rep made headlines in July when it was announced that the theater company, which currently resides in the Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage, had agreed to purchase the Desert Cinemas theater in Cathedral City.

Wow!

But for now, CV Rep has a season to put on, and every season, founding artistic director Ron Celona chooses a theme. So what can theater-goers expect this coming season? A lot of “Love, Marriage and Life Changing Events.”

The valley’s only Equity Small Professional Theatre will launch its sixth season at the Atrium with Annapurna, by Sharr White, running Oct. 26-Nov. 20. Talk about a life-changing event: “Twenty years after leaving her husband, Emma tracks him to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere for a final reckoning.” From Jan. 18-Feb. 12, things will get a little lighter with Baby. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, “Baby is about three couples on a university campus dealing with the painful, rewarding and agonizingly funny consequences of the universal experience of pregnancy and upcoming parenthood.” The 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to Amir Kapoor’s Disgraced, about a Pakistani-American lawyer who is distancing himself from his roots. Meanwhile, his wife, Emily, is a white artist influenced by Islamic imagery. Hmm. The play runs March 7-April 2. The season concludes April 25-May 21 with A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, a story about a romance being rekindled 30 years after it began.

Coyote StageWorks

www.coyotestageworks.org

The last couple of seasons have been turbulent for founding artistic director Chuck Yates’ renowned company. After losing its home at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2014-2015, the company returned to the theater for the 2015-2016 season for Art and Agnes, both of which received rave reviews.

As for the upcoming season … well, Coyote StageWorks is the only company in town that has yet to spill any of the figurative beans. When I reached out to Yates via email for information as deadline approached, he politely responded: “I am still securing rights to our new season. It will celebrate Legendary Ladies, who have made their marks in the world. All of the shows are comedic, but legally I can’t announce titles until everything is sewn up.”

Yates would also like you to know that between now and Labor Day, any gifts the Equity professional theater company receives, up to $30,000 total, will be generously matched by Emmy Award-winning television producer and writer David Lee, best known forFrasier and Cheers. So … give!

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company

www.facebook.com/DETCStage

Now entering its sixth season, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company—which shares the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Dezart Performs—in recent years has kept things in the family by producing a lot of company members’ own works, and the 2016-2017 season will be no exception.

DETC’s third annual season-opening gala will take place Nov. 18. Boys Night Out, conceived and directed by Jerome Elliott, features popular local singers such as Charles Herrera and Doug Graham. The season will kick off in earnest with Expressions, a new drama by DETC’s Shawn Abramowitz, focusing PTSD and its effect on both veterans and their families; it runs Feb. 3-12. From March 17-26, the company will produce artistic director Tony Padilla’s Lovesport, a fast-paced comedy: “When middle-aged couple Josh and Marty invite home the younger Gary and Ben for after-party drinks, the wine flows, the weed blows, and relationships are changed.” A third, yet-to-be-announced play will be performed April 21-30.

Desert Rose Playhouse

www.desertroseplayhouse.org

It’s been a turbulent year for the valley’s LGBT-focused theater company. In January, founders Jim Strait and Paul Taylor pulled off the seemingly impossible: The company mounted an amazing production of the elaborate Angels in America, Part One, in the playhouse’s barely-bigger-than-a-black-box home in Rancho Mirage.

Problem is, few people wanted to go watch such heavy fare: The show tanked financially. That, combined with a drop in donations, jeopardized Desert Rose’s 2016-2017 season.

However, the company has been saved by a boost in donations over the summer—and by a Party: Desert Rose’s nudity-laden summer comedy has been a wild success, so much so that the company just extended its run by three weeks, through Aug. 21.

Artistic director Jim Strait got a late start on the 2016-2017 season due to the financial uncertainty, but here’s what he’d confirmed as of our press deadline: The season will kick off with Poz, by Michael Aman, running Sept. 30-Oct. 23: “A delightfully unlikelycomedyset in 2003, (Poz is) the story ofEdison, a young actor/waiter with leukemia, and Robert, an older HIV+ man.” The company’s annual holiday show has not yet been nailed down, but it’ll run Nov. 18-Dec. 18. From Jan. 20-Feb. 12, Desert Rose’s annual “Gay Heritage Production” will be Charles Busch’s campy and hilarious Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, along with its companion piece, Coma, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. That will be followed up by Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, running March 17-April 9. The final show of the season, scheduled for April 28-May 21, can’t quite yet be announced.

Desert Theatreworks

www.dtworks.org

The theater company that calls the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert home has already kicked off its packed-with-shows fourth season: Artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez does things a little differently, running his company’s “season” from May through April. So what’s in store for the rest of the season? The Realistic Joneses is a comedy about two small-town neighboring couples who share more than the same last name; that’s slated for Sept. 16-24. Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced will be performed Nov. 4-11, followed by Christmas My Way: A Sinatra Holiday Bash Dec. 9-18. Desert Theatreworks will kick off 2017 with a dose of Neil Simon: 45 Seconds From Broadway is on the boards Jan. 27-Feb. 5. Musical The Drowsy Chaperone will take the stage March 9-19, and the season will conclude with the musical Next to Normal April 21-30.

Dezart Performs

www.dezartperforms.org

Dezart Performs shifted its focus for the company’s eighth season in 2015-2016: Gone was the annual Play Reading Series. That means that for the company’s upcoming season, for the first time, artistic director Michael Shaw will not be producing any world-premiere shows.

However, the 2016-2017 season lineup is a doozy nonetheless. Coming off of Dezart’s most successful season ever, Shaw and company will kick off at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Harvey Fierstein’s dramedy Casa Valentina, running Nov. 4-13. The stars of this show: Straight men who happen to enjoy dressing up as women. That will be followed on Jan. 13-22 by Clybourne Park, the 2012 Tony Award winner for Best Play and a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, which “takes a razor-sharp jab at race and real estate in a fictional Chicago neighborhood. The two explosive outrageous acts are set 50 years apart.” Dezart Performs’ popular one-night-only live-radio-show fundraiser, On the Air!, will return to the Camelot Theatres on March 9. Dezart Performs’ ninth season will conclude March 31-April 9 with Chapatti, an “unlikely love story” between two animal-lovers by Irish playwright Christian O’Reilly.

Palm Canyon Theatre

www.palmcanyontheatre.org

The granddaddy of local theater companies usually offers an ambitious mix of one-week productions and longer-running fare, and that will again be the way things are done during the 2016-2017 season. It all starts with farce Noises Off, running Sept. 15-18. There’s trouble, right here in River City, when the classic The Music Man hits the stage Sept. 30-Oct. 9. Changing things up is Jekyll and Hyde, on the slate from Oct. 21-31. Palm Springs Pride always brings the fabulous Bella da Ball’s Broadway in Drag! pageant; this year, mark your calendars for Nov. 4. Del Shores is huge in the Coachella Valley this year; get in the mood for Southern Baptist Sissies happening later at Desert Rose with Sordid Lives, running at Palm Canyon Nov. 11-20. Based on the famous movie, Meet Me in St. Louis runs Dec. 2-18, followed by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Jan. 20-Feb. 5. Head to Argentina—figuratively, of course—for Evita Feb. 17-March 5; that will be followed You Can’t Take It With You, running March 16-19. Sweet Charity brings Neil Simon’s words to the stage March 31-April 16; Ira Levin’s Deathtrap follows April 27-30. Get down with Rock of Ages May 12-21, before Palm Canyon concludes the season with its summer show, In the Heights, running July 7-16.

Theatre 29

www.theatre29.org

Community-theater company Theatre 29 flies under the radar—even though the company often turns out excellent productions up in the High Desert, which anyone can see for a low, low price: General admission tickets are usually just $15. The company produces “seasons” based on the calendar year, and has thus far only announced shows for the remainder of 2016. The Summer Youth Theatre gets the spotlight in Aladdin Jr., running Aug. 5-7. The musical The Secret Garden will take the stage Aug. 26-Sept. 24; that will be followed by Theatre 29’s annual “Halloween Haunt,” Resurgence, taking place Oct. 14-31. Perhaps this show will win a major award: A Christmas Story will be performed for your enjoyment Nov. 18-Dec. 17.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has built an excellent reputation as a place to see thought-provoking theater since it was founded in 2008.

But this summer, as CV Rep takes its annual seasonal break from plays, founder and artistic director Ron Celona decided to try something new: a summer jazz series, in association with world-class bassist Bill Saitta.

It all began when Saitta was hired as part of the band for CV Rep’s production of A Class Act early this year. (Ron first met Saitta through a common friend, Yve Evans, herself an amazing local jazz musician.) One day during rehearsals, as the story goes, Saitta suggested a summer jazz series.

Celona had already incorporated cabaret shows into the theater’s summer offerings, but CV Rep was looking for a way to increase revenues to cover rent for recently acquired additional space.

Thus, the Summer Jazz Series was born.

The two men hammered out the details during several brainstorming lunches. The concept was inspired by Fitz’s Jazz Café at the McCallum Theatre, which is curated by local musician and longtime radio personality Jimi “Fitz” Fitzgerald. This prompted Celona to tell Saitta: “I want you to be my Fitz!”

Celona said his appreciation of jazz—one of his favorite singers is Dinah Washington—began as a child. His father played the tenor saxophone, but gave it up to get a “regular” job to support his family. Celona himself—a talented singer, actor, dancer and director—studied piano briefly as a child.

“It didn’t stick,” he said.

Saitta began playing piano at the age of 7 and added the Fender bass at age 14. He studied bass and guitar with Carol Kaye and earned a degree in instrumental performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the season, Saitta is featured every Tuesday night at Backstreet Bistro in Palm Desert, jamming with great talents like Yve Evans, Doug MacDonald and Deanna Bogart. He’s also the staff bassist for the Jazz in the Pines Festival in Idyllwild every August.

Saitta will be featured on bass throughout the jazz series, with Tim Pleasant on drums. Saitta compared the process of collaboration between singers and musicians to the collaboration within an a capella group.

“Everybody’s pitching in and contributing to the harmonic sound,” Saitta said. “The conversation should reach out into the audience, yet I’m always striving for intimacy.”

Celona said he has “absolutely” achieved the goals he set for himself when he founded CV Rep back in 2008. He predicts that by this coming October, the theater’s season-ticket subscriber base will reach 1,400. CV Rep is also the only Equity theater in the valley.

Next season’s CV Rep lineup will feature guest directors, larger casts and extended runs—each show will be performed for a full four weeks.

As for rumors that CV Rep is moving to a new location, Celona would only confirm that the theater will definitely be in its current location, inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, during the upcoming season. (Watch for a mid-summer news release regarding the theater’s future.)

What makes CV Rep different from other live theaters in the valley?

“I try to choose plays that will challenge the audience—educational, thought-provoking fare that is not being offered elsewhere locally,” Celona said. His goal is to tap the passions of audience members, and perhaps have them look at the play’s subject matter from a different angle. 

Both Celona and Saitta hope the Summer Jazz Series will be a rousing success. If it is, Celona said he’ll bring in similar artists throughout the season in between plays.

The lineup:

  • The Sherry Williams Quartet: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, June 23-25.
  • Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton: 7 p.m., Thursday, July 21.
  • Josh Nelson: 7 p.m., Friday, July 22.
  • Carl Saunders and his quartet: 7 p.m., Saturday, July 23.
  • Jennifer Leitham Trio: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 25-27.

CV Rep’s Summer Jazz Series takes place at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for each show plus a post-show reception sponsored by Gelson’s Market. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Previews

Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s 87 seats were filled, per usual, with eager supporters who had braved a windstorm and the craziness of a full moon to be present for the opening night of 4000 Miles. Since this is the final presentation of CV Rep’s 2015-16 season—which had the theme of “identity: lost and found” and has certainly been the company’s best ever—we were all filled with anticipation.

The play by Amy Herzog debuted in 2011, and CV Rep’s founding artistic director, Ron Celona, informed us that it won an Obie Award in 2012 and was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deals with the attempts that of all of us make to try to bridge the generational gap—and considering some of today’s music, perhaps a larger generational gap has never existed. Speaking of music, classic Dave Brubeck sounds separate the scenes of this play. What a treat for the ears—that alto sax never fails to amaze.

The in-between-scene music is just one of the excellent details put in place by Celona, who assembled a tightly knit group to tackle all the technical aspects of the show. Jimmy Cuomo’s set, on this open stage, greets us with an eclectic, slightly run-down and old-fashioned Manhattan apartment. Aalsa Lee’s up-to-date costuming is exactly right. The sound, created by Randy Hansen, and the lighting, designed by Moira Wilke Whitaker, are flawless, and the fabulous Linda Shaeps has designed the excellent makeup and hair styles. Props were created by Doug Morris, and the techs are Karen Goodwin for sound, and Louise Ross for lighting (and stage managing). How can anything go wrong with a team like this?

The play opens at 3 a.m. at that pitch-dark Big Apple apartment, where Leo and his cross-country bike have arrived to crash at Grandma Vera’s. Awakened, she fumbles her way to the door without teeth (Was that acting? Was it REAL?) to admit her reed-thin grandson “for the night.” You guessed it: Three weeks later, he’s still there. 

Grandma Vera Joseph is played by Ivy Jones, who is convincing as an octogenarian who gropes for forgotten names and words, misplaces her hearing aid and frailly flits from the present tense to her sizable past. Leo Joseph-Connell is acted by Zachary Hallett, completely believable as he juggles his growing pains with the recent horror of losing his best friend and dealing with the confusing women in his life. These two dominate the play, and we watch Leo and Vera as they struggle to understand each other. They battle memories versus reality, truth versus lies, perception versus knowledge.

Two actresses make cameo appearances. Leo’s future ex-girlfriend Rebecca (“Bec”) is played by redheaded Megan Rippey; she’s filled with conflicts and doubts, torn in all directions at once … yet she invokes our sympathy. One night, Leo meets and brings home Amanda, a raven-haired tart played by Christine de Chavez, who very nearly steals the show. She’s a splash of color, a wind-chime of laughter and a whirl of excitement in an otherwise angst-filled journey.

Leo’s complicated family life crisscrosses through the dialogue, and we are slowly fed the details of the relationships, leaving us a bit stunned. Adoptions and divorces are mixed in, furthering the complexities. Politics dangle from some branches of the family tree. Feelings abound. Therapy is involved. Ooof!

The play is about co-existing with our families and the rest of the world. It’s about communication that spans the years and which can separate people. It’s about finding common ground between people instead of differences. There’s some gossip. There’s loneliness. There are huge contradictions within people—for example, Grandma Vera still uses a rotary-dial telephone, but she also owns a computer. 

Though Leo lives in St. Paul, Minn., he has made the journey by bike from the West Coast to New York—hence the play’s title. Yes, it was dangerous. In one brilliant and breathtaking monologue, he tells us about his trip. You might never forget what he said. I will certainly never forget learning that people making such a trip are supposed to dip the rear wheel of their bicycle in the Pacific upon departure, and when they arrive at the Atlantic coastline, they are to dip the front wheel in the waters. How lovely!

The writing is extraordinary. Each character’s speech patterns and verbal expressions are completely unique. Herzog has truly “found the voice” of each character—and she has been willing to step aside and let THEM speak. 

As the director, Celona has identified the big picture in this production, and the big picture is … small. It’s all about attention to detail, which is rich. (They use a real refrigerator!) Also, the actors speak in normal voices, not using projection. This can only be accomplished in an intimate theater like this one. It gives the show a realistic quality, as if we are sharing a nanny-cam moment of watching them. This show is a superb example of the method style of acting: Each actor presents us with a studied performance, in which every tiny gesture and breath and reaction has been thought out. It seems so natural and spontaneous that it looks like it is just happening. Nothing is harder than making something look effortless.

Congratulations to CV Rep on this astonishing season, and bravo to the cast of 4000 Miles. We already can’t wait for the next play.

4000 Miles is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48, and the play runs 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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