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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Another play about race?

Dezart Performs is bringing us White Guy on the Bus at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. Despite walking into a full house of patrons, I was dreading this; being lectured is not my idea of entertainment, thank you.

Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart and the director of the play, was gracious when I cornered him in the lobby before the performance to ask: Why?

“It’s written by Bruce Graham,” he explained, “and we produced another of his plays (in 2016), The Outgoing Tide. I follow him, and I have to see everything he writes. His script for this play is brilliant—brilliant. The theme is uncomfortable, because we have to address it. It’s the only way we’ll grow. We’re in a world where this is a topic of major importance.”

I can’t argue with that. But it was written in 2014, which places it during Obama’s presidency, not now … something to remember. The playwright hails from Philadelphia, Shaw explained, where the play is set, though he now lives in Chicago. (“Great,” I thought glumly, as I fumbled my way to my seat, wishing the play were safely about some innocent but witty cocktail party here in Palm Springs.)

Speaking of “set,” Thomas Valach’s beautiful and minimalist open stage doesn’t remotely resemble a bus (which I had gloomily expected). It sports only two sofas, six chairs and one leafy plant, in three loose groupings. The gorgeous lighting, designed by Matthew Garrett, plays on the stark angled flats that back the stage. But wait until you see what happens to those flats when the play begins!

And wait until you see this play.

We are swept up in the story of five people, one of whom is black. The lead character, Ray, marvelously played by David Youse, never leaves the stage. He’s wealthy, “a numbers man,” but we first discover him trying to convince his wife to sell everything and run off to the South Seas à la Gauguin. His spouse, Roz, played by Alexana Thomas, is a hard-voiced but soft-hearted teacher who is committed to helping kids in the ghetto better their lives, even giving special reading classes on her own time. She has no interest in running off—especially after being nominated for the prestigious Teacher of the Year award.

Their sort-of son, Christopher, played by Sean Timothy Brown, is preparing his post-graduate dissertation on his analysis of the portrayals by black actors in TV commercials. Despite being accused of pandering, he investigates the now-stereotypical roles and the reasons for them. His pretty redheaded girlfriend, Molly, is sweetly played by Bianca Stoker, and they, with Roz and Ray, share lively white-people debates on such ghastly topics as, “Who is really a racist?” with everyone delivering their point of view with varying degrees of passion.

One of the most fascinating and unusual aspects of Shaw’s stage direction here is an almost complete absence of movement. The characters enter, and then stand, or sit … and talk. Nobody moves around. Nobody goes off to get a drink or a tissue or a sweater—the better to focus on the words. So when Ray quick-steps his way stage-left to seats “on the bus” to change the scene, and we pick up part way through a conversation, it seems completely natural, even if those few strides take him from his own living room onto a bus.

Now on the bus, we meet single black mom Shatique, exquisitely played by Desirée Clarke. From her first words, spoken—while busily clipping coupons—to her new acquaintance Ray, we totally believe everything this actress says and does. Every one of her actions and reactions seem to be completely spontaneous and unrehearsed. It is an extraordinary experience to see this kind of believing in an actor, because her natural and comfortable-in-her-own-skin manner makes us feel that we actually know this person. It’s beyond Method acting. Her scenes with the equally talented David Youse are exceptional theater—together, they shine.

The lifestyle she reveals through their conversation, without a trace of self-pity, is astonishing. “Cops don’t come unless there are shots fired,” she simply informs Ray, in his business suit, about her life in the ‘hood, when he asks why she doesn’t complain about the next-door meth lab—and her struggles to improve her grammar will touch your heart. Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares for dressing the whole cast, but especially for Shatique’s outfits, which speak volumes.

But something’s … weird. A nagging question in the backs of our minds finally struggles to the fore: What is this rich white guy doing on the bus, especially this bus, and especially since he rides it to the end of the line, and then—when everyone, including Shatique, disembarks—he rides it back again, alone?

That’s the magic of this play: The story will drag you through a chasm of emotions and surprise you again and again before you can recover. Nothing in you can guess what’s coming. A twisting plotline like this is a great rarity.

Shaw was right: The script is brilliant—brilliant. It says things you may have never heard spoken out loud. It delves into a new-millennium threat to our privacy, where you can find out anything about anyone. It tests the buying power of money. It looks at the world of incarceration, and ponders how much of what we think we know came from Hollywood movies about prisons. It shines a light on how different people can pay differently for a similar crime. It reflects on revenge. It says things we thought people were forbidden to say.

It sounds heavy, but don’t be afraid of going to this play like I was. You will be rewarded with an awesome theatrical experience, an unforgettable story, and terrific acting. It will make you think about everything from people’s inherent rights in this country, to how people perceive events differently, to who gets to be sensitive about what.

I can’t reveal more without giving too much away … so go see White Guy on the Bus—and enjoy the ride.

Dezart Performs’ production of White Guy on the Bus is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 10, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Until now, I was always haunted by the line about “first-nighting” in that song “Autumn in New York.” But after seeing Coyote StageWorks’ newest show at the lovely Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs, The Understudy, I think we’ve got New York beat: Mix a gorgeous mellow fall evening, a packed house of enthusiastic theater-goers, the presentation of a citation celebrating the achievements of Coyote Stageworks from city of Palm Springs, and the excitement of opening night for a new play … can it get better than this?

The Understudy is the 10th-season-opener for Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director. The company has garnered more than 80 Desert Theatre League Awards—and if that’s not success, what is? Alas, not everyone goes to the theater—a pity, because no electronic experience can duplicate the thrill of live theater. When a show is a success, there is an electricity in the audience … and you will never feel that sitting in front of your TV or movie screen. If you have never gone to the theater, and would like to try it, The Understudy is a perfect place to start.

Of course, not everyone has been in a play, either—and this show will let you peek into the process of building a scene and a character, and the relationships and tensions among the actors. For those at the other end of that spectrum, it’s a wonderful luxury to watch others navigate the changing (and sometimes shark-infested) waters of a rehearsal.

So here’s the play: Harry (David Youse) arrives at a theater to understudy a role in an ongoing show … by Franz Kafka. Oh, stop groaning. We get to see snippets from the play as the actors work, but it’s not enough to make you Kafka-crazy. The ugly bare stage on which they begin their work slowly comes to life—and what a fabulous set Thomas Valach has designed here. Moira Wilke Whitaker’s lighting is just fantastic, and the two work together beautifully as the play unfolds.

Harry arrives to rehearse with Jake (Alex Best), a successful but minor action-movie star who is desperate to establish himself as a real and serious Actor by appearing in this play. The two men vie for alpha-dog rights immediately. The stage director, who is running the rehearsal, is Roxanne (Robin McAlpine), a feisty middle-aged former actress. Two characters we hear about but never see are Bruce, who has the lead role in this show and is a big-name movie star whose celebrity sucks in huge crowds nightly; and Laura, the evidently totally stoned lighting and sound tech up in the booth.

The Understudy is written by Theresa Rebeck, who has been showered with awards, teaches writing at Brandeis and Columbia, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Laughs abound in this comedy—on many levels. There is truly something for everyone’s sense of humor in this script, and your involvement with these very believable characters will grow as you giggle. The first-night audience roared and applauded with gusto throughout. The writing contains a magnificent arc, as the relationships among these characters grow and change.

The acting is simply superb. Yates’ always-formidable directing includes flawless blocking, which always balances the stage beautifully, and he moves his actors with perfect motivation—so that we never see it happen. The characters wear slightly grungy rehearsal garb, thanks to costumer Frank Cazares, but it adds to the realism. These actors show us their “acting,” as they have been schooled, in the play—with suddenly heightened voice projection, new and different posture, and exquisite diction … and then they break character to discuss what they are doing—while still, of course, acting for us! It’s wonderful. These skilled players augment the script with some marvelous touches, such as Jake’s constant filling of any spare time by dropping to the floor to do breathtaking push-ups; Harry’s layered and infinitely subtle facial expressions; and Roxanne’s spellbinding hand gestures. Bravo!

The play delves into some nearly-untouchable topics, such as: Are actors crazy? Who is really responsible for a play’s success or failure? What is the “biz” in Showbiz; is salary a true measure of an actor’s worth? The show flirts with personal and professional jealousies, every actor’s constant nagging worry about the future and the next job, and concern about how much of one’s success is due to one’s “contacts,” while how much is about their own real talent? Agreed, much of this applies to many other professions, but it all seems magnified in the theater.

Youse is a veteran actor, producer and director in his own right, and he brings a wealth of experience to his role as Harry. His complex character, who puzzles us a bit at first, grows to reveal a smart but unlucky aging thespian who hides his insecurities and personal flaws behind the roles he plays.

Best, a shining young tiger who works in stage, film, TV and commercials, shows us Jake, a creature of necessary vanity, who never stops fussing with his cell phone (“It’s my agent!”) or his obsession with the physical fitness demanded by action films—though he only flashes his rock-hard abs briefly. (Don’t blink.) He is unexpectedly likable, and is we grow fond of him as we see that even he can experience ups and downs in both his career and his personal life.

McAlpine, herself a successful Shakespearean actress, has created a fascinating character in Roxanne. We are initially impressed by her efficiency and her command of the frustrating and challenging job as stage manager. Murphy’s Law rules, however, and everything possible goes hilariously wrong. But as we get to know her, she reveals her self-doubts and her pain-filled past. I couldn’t take my eyes off her hands, which she brilliantly uses to tell us everything.

You will love this play, whatever level of theatrical experience you bring to it. In fact, I’m hoping you will gather up your friends and neighbors to visit this production, as Chuck Yates has created an ingenious 2-for-1 price for those who bring used ticket stubs to the box office. Take advantage of it! Enjoy!

The Understudy, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Spring has sprung, and here’s to yet another sneezy season of searching for allergy relief. Ker-choo! But to take our minds off our misery, Coyote StageWorks’ The Cocktail Hour has opened at the lovely Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Now, as for what happened on opening night …

Before the curtain parted, the director David Youse appeared and frankly explained to the audience that “one of the cast” had fallen ill a couple of weeks ago, and might have to carry a script to help him get through the show. When the play began, it became obvious that said actor was Jeffrey Jones, whom you will remember as the wonderfully dumb emperor in the overwhelming movie Amadeus. He was forced to rely on his script through almost all of the show—and to add to the problem, he had to don reading glasses to read its words. It’s a shame, as this threw off everyone’s timing, but he has to be saluted for being game enough to go through with opening night.

I’m sure that every alternative had been investigated by those in charge—alternative show dates, cancelling the whole play, finding some quick study to replace him—but the decision was made to go on with the performance, in the celebrated tradition of theater. (Cue Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”)

The supportive opening-night audience gave what they could, and the other three actors bravely soldiered on. The set—designed by Josh Clabaugh, stage-managed by Phil Gold, and lit by David Simpson—earned applause when the curtains opened up. The play is set in the 1970s, in the comfortable living room of an upper-class Eastern American home. The costumes by Frank Cazares; the sound designed by David Engel; and the props, by Chuck Yates himself—also the founder of Coyote and producer of this play—contributed nicely to the show.

But I am committed to honesty, so here it is: The play just simply wasn’t ready.

I’ve given nothing but raves to Coyote StageWorks for professionalism, so we must understand that the problem is not some inherent flaw in the mix. Nobody did anything wrong, and there is no blame attached. I’ve actually been in a play in which the lead character was unable to perform (which is a nice way of saying “tossed into the slammer,” ahem, but that’s another story), and the director stepped in to play the part with script in hand. So it can happen—not often, thank heavens, but it happens.

Jones is playing the role of Bradley, the stuffy family patriarch. His wife, Ann, is played by Lee Bryant, a petite dynamo just right for the role. Their privileged children are played by Chuck Yates and Yo Younger, winners of multiple Desert Theatre League awards; they are enjoying flourishing careers, and are well-cast in these roles. The resumes of all four actors are amazing.

The play is written by A.R. Gurney—and if the name doesn’t ring a bell immediately … is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen his play Love Letters? I’ve seen it four times, for goodness’ sake. His list of works is stunning.

The play is an incisive and comprehensive look at a family. They meet for cocktails before dinner every evening, and on this autumn day, their son, John (Yates), and daughter, Nina (Younger), join their parents at home. The dialogue mines their conversations to reveal their opinions and feelings about each other and about how they see themselves—both their place in the world and in this family.

John has come home to seek everyone’s blessing for a play he has written … about them. Of course, their reactions are as varied as their personalities. Bradley, the hypochondriac father who is convinced he’s dying, hits the ceiling. Nina, the neurotic and self-centered sister, feels she deserves to be celebrated in print, but wants it on her own terms. Ann, the mother and peacemaker, just doesn’t want any waves made. The “family feelings” become very complicated.

The play goes on to explore how memory works for some, and how one person can remember something differently from another—or might even have forgotten it. Of course, much depends on having all the facts, and when the façade is dissolved by alcohol, this turns out to be a family of secrets.

Yes, another invisible but always-present member of the family is booze. We see people trying to control alcohol by making rules about when and where one can drink, or by putting off drinking time as long as possible, or minimizing their drinking by referring to it as “just a splash.” We watch personality changes occur after drinking. We see opinions change, and we see secrets revealed. We see sibling rivalries emerge and “birth order” stereotypes challenged. We see their views of each other, and even of their servants, transform as cocktails are consumed.

Is it real life, or is it just another cocktail hour?

It’s a play that has considerable power, and is full of insights about the relationships in many families. It shows that even in a family which might look like it has everything, people can experience challenges, confusion, shame, misinterpretations and problems.

If this show can find its feet during its short run, it will most likely be terrific. As I said before, it’s nobody’s fault that it isn’t ready yet, and upcoming performances should be fascinating. (Oh, they should re-think some hair colors, as the son is a silver fox, but daddy still has brown hair.) It’s just that opening night wasn’t ready, and there is some work ahead for Coyote to fulfill this play’s potential.

And who knows—the cool, conditioned air inside the Annenberg Theater might even help with your allergies.

The Cocktail Hour, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is being performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 24; 2 p.m., Sunday, March 25; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 28; 2 p.m., Thursday, March 29; 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 31; and 2 p.m., Sunday, April 1, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Frankly, I was uncomfortable going to see Clybourne Park, Dezart Performs’ latest production.

The setting for this “Black (and White) Comedy by Bruce Norris,” as the play’s poster says, is Chicago—in 1959 for Act 1, then fast-forwarding 50 years to the same house in 2009 for Act 2. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, and it requires a cast of eight—a sea change for Dezart, which until previous show Casa Valentina, always kept the cast size small (possibly because of those dressing rooms?).

The play deals with the always-awkward topic of race and real estate. My husband, Ted, was born in Chicago, and we have discussed the way his city divided up into enclaves dominated by Italians, Greeks, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. For those who can remember the bad old days of segregated neighborhoods and the “blockbusting” that took place, this play could serve as an unpleasant reminder. Yes, it’s important for the generations who have followed to be informed of this country’s often-dark history, lest we romanticize the past by forgetting how life really was back then … but I concede I was uncomfortable seeing a play tackle such an awkward topic.

But … what a surprise: This production is amazing! The writing is just astonishing. The conversation is completely realistic, with people butting in, cutting each other off, misinterpreting and talking when they should be listening. Clybourne Park is a magnificent example of playwright Bruce Norris’ magisterial command of the language and his shrewd understanding of people.

The direction by Michael Shaw is incredibly impressive, with his steady hand guiding the actors to performances even and strong throughout. He gets credit for total success with the extraordinarily difficult lines. (He confided to me afterward that the greatest part of their rehearsals was spent perfecting the speeches and dialogue, some of which require a language warning.) Each of the actors was allowed to develop his or her character(s) so the “voice” of each role is clarion clear. But it is the director’s prodigious talent and multiple skills that create the play’s consistency of tone. The blocking is also textbook perfection. Wow.

And the acting … oh my! Everyone is a “character”—well, actually, two. The whole cast (with one exception) plays two roles: One in 1959, and a different individual in 2009. One of the delights of this production is seeing the characters the actors have developed. We watch a complete person in each act—the good, bad and ugly. We see their pain, their tempers, their sweetness and their struggles. We glimpse their past history and get to know them more intimately than you’d think the time would permit.

David Youse opens the first act and dominates it; he’s a lit fuse we fear will explode—but when? His Russ is a man-in-a-grey-flannel-suit type, but we see so much more danger simmering beneath his surface. We search for a clue about his repressed anger, but dread finding it. His second-act role of Dan is a chameleonic contrast—he’s a blasé construction worker with a totally different voice, stance and attitude. What fun! Now THIS is acting.

Playing his wife, Bev, in Act 1 is Theresa Jewett. She’s a perfect product of 1950s-era women’s magazines and advertising—not just in her voice and appearance, but also in her dizzy attitude and even her belief system. But watch that heart-shaped face manage an enormous range of emotions—the way she handles a distancing husband, her black housekeeper, or her painful memories. She transmogrifies for Act 2 into Kathy, a feisty blonde lawyer with attitude—a delicious contrast, and equally believable.

Desiree Clarke in Act 1, plays Francine, a black maid who expertly balances the subservience of a domestic with her own dignity and her inborn sense of right and wrong. She is beautifully complex, and she gains our respect. In Act 2, Clark becomes Lena, a new-millennium woman with power and a strong sense of self which she asserts fearlessly but quietly. Her flawless diction is lovely.

Robert Rancano is Jim, a hapless cleric whose rigid adherence to his teachings and rather poor understanding of his parishioners makes him, despite his great voice, an ineffective and predictable minister. Rancano creates this memorable character by making him forgettable. In Act 2, he’s Tom, who is supposed to be leading this meeting about the contract, but is preoccupied and distracted. Rancano gives a subtle performance that required a lot of thinking.

Robert Ramirez creates the role of Albert, the husband of Francine, striving to appear at ease in this Act 1 white household. Ramirez gives a multi-layered performance almost entirely with his extraordinarily expressive eyes. He draws our attention with few words but plenty of reaction. In Act 2, he becomes Kevin, married to Lena, a smart and confident professional with nothing left to prove about himself. You like him in both of his well-developed roles.

Rob Hubler appears as Karl in Act 1, and earns our great admiration thanks to his willingness to appear foolish. A well-meaning bungler, his friendship is almost a liability, despite his sincerity and his fine voice. Hubler adroitly switches to Steve in Act 2, playing a stronger person who comes to surprise us—and his wife—with his odd and previously unexpressed views.

The extraordinary role of Betsy, played by Phylicia Mason, gives us a dear character who is not only pregnant, but deaf. She is very credible, including the gentle forgiveness she shows her husband, Karl, as he misspells his sign language (yes, I caught that), and to people who thoughtlessly turn away from her while speaking—or who stupidly yell at her, hoping to be heard. Lovely acting! In Act 2, she is uncomfortably pregnant AGAIN, but this time as Lindsay, married to Steve, and now is a very vocal, assertive and even sometimes shrill creature.

The lone character who plays just one role is Sean Timothy Brown, who is Kenneth. He appears as a perfect military prototype—handsome, tall and fit, looking fabulous in uniform. We don’t know him long enough to appreciate all of his subtleties, but he is hugely affecting with his air of tragedy in this flashback. Again, we are reminded how effective even a small role can be.

Kudos to the cast, the director the entire supportive crew of this play for a job superbly done. Clybourne Park is the surprise of the season, with its controversial, occasionally offensive and sometimes hilarious script. Don’t doubt that you will be surprised by it, too.

Clybourne Park, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance