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Wed08122020

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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

So the name of the play is Cock.

All right, settle down. Even though the show takes place at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater, the name does not mean what you’re thinking. Think cock FIGHT. Like, roosters. OK?

Included in the printed program is an actual fight card, listing the adversaries in each round. The setting is the next surprise: The audience sits around a square ring, inspired by the illegal sport, and the actors represent their chicken counterparts. Frankly, it’s the best seating arrangement I have seen at the Desert Rose: Everyone is so close to the action, and the raked back rows are on risers so we all can see perfectly. It’s great! Not all plays lend themselves to this format, but we hope that clever producer Paul Taylor will use this style again when possible.

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play opened last weekend, and will be performed for four more weekends at the Rancho Mirage playhouse. Lighting director Phil Murphy has brilliantly lit this stark set. Stage manager Steve Fisher rings a bell between rounds, as in boxing. (Sorry … I have no idea whether there are bells in actual cockfights.)

Theater in the round brings with it a true challenge for a director, because in this format, the actors are always facing away from some of the audience, while facing others, so they must change position frequently. But here the actors can face each other, like real people talking! This almost never happens on a proscenium stage where actors “cheat forward” to present their faces to the audience. Thank heaven for the excellent natural acoustics of the Desert Rose, as the intimate size (usually 83 seats, but 65 in this style) helps us hear everything. Theater in the round can fail horribly in too large of a room, where the actors’ voices vanish because they seem to be always facing away from you, or in a room with a ceiling that’s too high, where the sound drifts up, up and away from your straining ears. A modified three-quarters circle format is frequently the compromise; think classic Shakespeare. Here, director Jim Strait has brilliantly choreographed the actors’ movements, with the seduction scene being the model example of this theatrical style.

If you expect that this rumble just involves two guys squaring off, think again: It’s a cast of four, each with an agenda to defend. John, played by Stephen McMillen, has been in a long-term relationship with “M,” acted by Robert Rancano. They break up, and John “accidentally” falls in love with a straight girl, “W” (Phylicia Mason; we guess that the letters stand for “Man” and “Woman”). Of course, there is much angst all around when John goes back to M. Then M and W both agree to wait for John’s decision: With whom will he live? M’s father, “F,” (for “Father,” right?) gets to act as referee, so we meet Terry Huber at a dinner party given to sort things out.

So is John gay … or straight? Hmmm? What will he decide?

By the way, we have to slap a “mature” rating on this show due to “frank” (a term I love) sexual language. We’re so PC! But truly, this show not for anyone easily offended, as the playwright clearly wants us to be shocked.

The set consists of just two lavender hassocks on which to sit. There are no props—no cutlery, china, wine glasses or even a dinner table. There are no costumes, except what the actors are wearing, and no scenery. And get this: The actors don’t even mime their eating/drinking/taking coats off. So, no distractions! The author’s words are all that matter.

And the words! There are British accents all around. The writing is a cross between free-verse poetry and real life, where sentences are only partially spoken and often unfinished. Strait’s artful direction all but eliminates pauses between speeches, and the tension rises or falls with the speed, pitch and volume of the actors’ voices. It’s a masterful demo of acting technique.

At the show we attended, the actors were rewarded with pin-drop attention, as the audience is so physically close to the actors that every flicker of an eyelash contains significance. Our attention is riveted.

McMillen, the quintessential beautiful blond boy, dithers and stews and not only seems incapable of making decisions, but has never even figured out who or what he is. Youth! So he is frozen, overthinking everything. He makes us want to either smack him into action, or hug him in sympathy.

Rancano, dark-haired and fashionably unshaven, with flawless skin, is like pepper to McMillen’s salt. More mature and powerful, but attempting to hide his sensitivity, he shows a confidence that comes with age while trying to cover his fragile feelings. His performance hits just the right note.

Mason lights up the world with her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. She struts a perfect figure that will make everyone in the audience silently swear to go on a diet and get back to the gym. Great legs, toned body, amazing hair, sweet face—she has it all. Her character is complex, and she knows how to show it. Now if she could only do something about those black bra straps showing at the back of that terrific coral dress … .

Terry Huber, perhaps the busiest actor in the valley this season, has a face you just never get tired of watching. The shades of meaning he can express are uncountable, and as a gifted actor with a pocketful of regional accents from which to choose, his choice of this British one is pitch-perfect. His second-act role here is too small—we always want to see more of him.

The concept of fowl fisticuffs is wonderful; the casting is perfect; the direction is genius; the script is astonishing; and the actors’ energies are beautifully balanced. Obviously I’m not going to give away the ultimate decision or reveal who is left standing at the final bell.

You’ll have to go to the next match yourself.

Cock is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 10; there is no show on Easter Sunday, March 27. The shows take place at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance