CVIndependent

Mon12092019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Honky Tonk Laundry, presented by Coyote StageWorks, has boot-scooted into the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs.

Are you ready, darlin’? Because the laughter, the music, and the sheer fun of this production will gallop off with you to Nashville.

Yes, it’s a romp.

The Wishy Washy Washateria (!) is owned by the overworked Lana Mae Hopkins (Bets Malone), and she hires redheaded Katie Lane Murphy (Misty Cotton) to help her out. What ensues is plenty of chaos, country Western music, soapsuds—ؙand a few surprising cleaning hints). A two-woman show is a great rarity in theater, and these actresses know how to use their special stuff to make us appreciate their differences.

The author of this wild ride is Roger Bean, who also directed the play. It gives a satisfying cohesion to a show when it is created and then directed by the same person—the voice is stronger and clearer when another person doesn’t “interpret” the words of the other. Artistic director Chuck Yates has already treated his audiences to Bean’s work via The Andrews Brothers, a delightful Coyote StageWorks success back in 2014, written about entertainers in USO shows during World War II.

The set, created by Tom Buderwitz, is the aforementioned Wishy Washy Washateria, and center stage is dominated by four looming washer-dryers of industrial strength and lemon-colored ugliness. The always-subtle lighting, created by Moira Wilke, provides some excellent effects.

Lana Mae and Katie Lane both struggle in the relationships with their men—well of course! It’s a prerequisite for country Western music, y’all. Both Lana Mae’s husband, Earl, and Katie Lang’s sort-of boyfriend, Danny, we learn, are cads unworthy of these good women, so the stage is set for the girls to burst into frequent song expressing their feelings. They manage to mix up the standards we all know, such as “Stand by Your Man” and “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” with some new titles such as “I Need a Vacation” and “Potential New Boyfriend.” Yee haw!

Both of these belles get to strut through some entertaining choreography, designed by James Vasquez. He gives a line-dance feel to these steps, and the girls move smoothly through their dancing.

But what truly fascinates is one major characteristic of this kind of music: close harmony. In this show, both gals have chosen to use a hard-edged voice, holding the end-of-phrase notes with admirable breath control before segueing into their vibrato—and when they blend their voices together, the effect is magical. They merge their sounds perfectly, and the timing and their attacks on the notes is flawless. It is a breathtaking and too-rare experience in music. Brava, ladies!

Katie Lane and Lana Mae, both facing relationship ruin due to the “moral flexibility” of both their men and certain predatory females (whom we never meet), elect to comfort themselves and satisfy Lana’s unfulfilled ambitions by putting on a show. They choose to use the laundromat as their stage. This gives costume-designer Renetta Lloyd a chance to bedeck our heroines in classic faux-cowgirl-style boots plus crimson and white-trimmed skirt outfits. Oh … and keep an eye out for some outrageous second-act hair styles; they’re more fun than a rodeo.

The girls’ show pays tribute to many of the queens of country-Western music such as Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette. Even during the intermission. we are treated to famous songs by Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. One of their showy numbers, in which Lana Mae and Katie Lane break out in yodeling—a mystifying skill if there ever was one—will leave you astonished.

The script features an endless barrage of charming country-fried sayings and intentionally adorable provincial slang. They inspired most of the play’s hearty laughs. There is some fancy cussin’ and a goodly amount of name-callin’, but the undercurrents of the solid values of these rural people permeate their songs with hints of gospel music and its beliefs, an influence never too far from country songs. Family is everything. Heartache is to be expected. But love can conquer all … and we’re all going to heaven. Yahoo!

Frankly, the show surprised on several levels. First, it is cute. Yes, cute … something it’s not possible to say about very many productions. You will leave the theater smiling, which also doesn’t happen that often, doggone it.

Second, you will definitely agree that these are two of the hardest-working actresses you have ever seen. Their handling of these vocally demanding songs is truly impressive—nearly entirely done using their chest tones, only sliding up into head tones on a rare couple of notes (and the yodeling). The energy level is relentlessly high, excepting maybe a ballad or two, one of which had some echo added to the sound—but these ladies sing and dance and banter and move almost constantly. They will lasso your heart.

Third, I had expected much more caricature—the names alone!—but Malone and Cotton turned in fairly realistic interpretations of these roles. Perhaps choosing over-exaggeration and outrageousness would have been the easy way out, if sometimes more hilarious. There is even a serious note injected into the script, with some pill-popping, drug abuse and drinking, about which nothing, alas, is funny, provoking, at best, some laughs borne out of shock. I guess it happens, even in country settings, but since it didn’t advance the plot, I couldn’t help wishing we had been spared this, as the current news about our opioid crisis has left us all so raw that it briefly depresses the energy level of the show.

Despite that, this is, as I say, a romp, and you will have a great time. On opening night, the theater rocked with satisfying belly laughs, and the actresses were awarded a joyous standing ovation.

And as Lana Mae and Katie Lane their ownselves might say: Dang! It don’t git better than that.

Honky Tonk Laundry, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

With the show White, the Coachella Valley Repertory Company is bidding farewell to its longtime Rancho Mirage location in the Atrium. In March, the company will move into its new home in downtown Cathedral City—the home of the former IMAX theater.

Artistic director Ron Celona has salted the internet with photos of the re-creation process, step by awesome step, and the new theater will be a dream come true. Kudos to managing director Gary Palmer, board president Joe Giarrusso and the entire company for giving birth to this theatrical wonderment.

As for White: The company offers a theme every season, and this season’s is “a hand full of -isms.” CV Rep never spells out for us which “-ism” is which, but White is a play that slogs into the quagmire topic of race in today’s America; specifically, the play, by James Ijames, tackles race while also examining the eternal question: What is art?

The more one studies art, the more baffling the answer becomes. Think about it: Many artists who were reviled in their time were later celebrated as visionary geniuses, and their works went on to command astronomical sums. Entire groups of artists who were scoffed at later became the pride of the cities that ignored their early work. Artists are often ahead of their time—hence, misunderstood—but sheer talent can often overcome the tastes of the times. Artists, gleefully busting through the limitations, force a reluctant public to grow up and appreciate their innovation. Think of painters Monet, Picasso and Jackson Pollock, sculptor Henry Moore, Alexander Calder’s mobiles, and so on

White tackles another, more-sinister aspect of the art world: popularity. Undeniably, fads come and go in that little universe. The artist who is the rave of the moment can be completely rejected by fickle peers tomorrow as “out of fashion.”

We open the play with Jane, played by Charlotte Munson, the redheaded curator of a big-deal gallery, under the gun to find The Next Big Thing. She decides—or those who pay her salary decide—that there are too many white males behind today’s paintings. Think about it: The field has been almost completely dominated by them for centuries. But she is going to change all that with a new show: She wants to create a “New America” presentation that will “truly reflect” America—in other words, with no white male artists.

Jane visits her friend Gus, played by Paul David Story, a handsome, blond, white, male artist. She admires his work but refuses to include him in her prestigious new show. He is stunned by her reverse discrimination but is helpless to fight it. He expresses his irritation to his partner, Tanner, an Asian school teacher, played by Anthony Saludares, moping that “you’d think that being gay would count for something.”

However, Gus is suddenly visited by Saint Diana, a goddess with great moves and a vague resemblance to Diana Ross, played by Franceli Chapman. Jane told Gus that if he were “black and a female,” he could easily be included in this “New America” show, and Saint Diana gives him an idea to make it happen: Gus remembers a black actress named Vanessa who worked with Tanner, and they contact her to see if she will accept the challenge of becoming the front for Gus’ art. Vanessa, also played by Franceli Chapman, refuses, but then—obviously for plot advancement—re-thinks it and accepts.

They set out to construct the character who will “revolutionize how people think about diversity.” Just dreaming up her new name becomes a whole event; building her backstory and family history is another. How will she walk and talk? What will she wear? What about her hairdo? Much to consider.

Of particular interest is the fact that Gus’ work is largely white in color! (This happens to be something of personal interest, because I actually had as an art teacher a guy who helped start this movement way back when. He painted only in white, but it turned out that white in one area of the canvas was tinged with pink; in another area, under close scrutiny, you could see some blue, or grey, or whatever—his point being that white isn’t really just white. It was actually very thought-provoking. None of this is much discussed in this play, however, lest we become too bogged down in the aesthetics and distracted from the social aspect of the author’s interest.)

You might gather by now that this is a play that appeals to your brain, not to your emotions. You won’t be dragged through a lot of personal feelings, even if the point about color in people, rather than paintings, is somewhat belabored by this otherwise witty writer.

Director Ron Celona has made the most of his workspace with clever blocking (sometimes managing to pose his actors against huge blank white panels, briefly making them into paintings themselves). We look forward to seeing what he will be able to create with the new theater that will at last liberate him from this venue’s rather challenging layout, which even separates one part of the audience from the other.

Art! In theater, in paintings, in our lives … it makes us stop and think.

White is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is no show Tuesday, Jan. 29.) Tickets are $53, and the show is 100 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Ah, the 1950s. The fashions alone … what a time!—and Dezart Performs has brought it all to life with Perfect Arrangement, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The two-week run is sold out—yes, the whole run! You might try phoning the company and seeing if there are cancellations, or whining to see if they will add extra chairs or performances (good luck).

Artistic director Michael Shaw welcomes the audience and reveals that Dezart has now become a recognized professional theater, joining the Equity union as small professional theater. Congratulations! Congratulations also for this show: Shaw produced and directed Perfect Arrangement with smooth and admirable skill.

Young people really should see this show to learn about the paranoia, the secrecy and the fears that bestrode the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Communism might have to be explained, but even more important would be learning about the conformity of the times, when everyone’s houses were supposed to look the same, when people’s behavior mimicked what they saw on the TV commercials … and when everyone smoked! Women wore hats, gloves and high heels just to go to the supermarket! Men wore entire suits and ties to business! Girls were supposed to giggle! Men made jokes about women’s inferiority, and people cooked with lard. The music, which you will hear at this show, was relentlessly perky. How exhausting it all sounds … and how it explains the 1960s!

As for being gay back then? Didn’t exist, at least not openly. Well … it didn’t until the State Department decided to ferret out “the fags,” as it called them, to expunge them from government jobs as an “undesirable influence.” And that brings us to this play.

Bob, Millie, Norma and Jim have secret lives: The two girls are gay, and the two guys are gay. They have intermarried and face the world as two straight couples, living in adjoining apartments with a hidden entrance through a closet (get it?) door.

Bob Martindale, even-handedly played by Adam Jonas Segaller, toils for the Personnel Security Board as one of the top people in his division at the Department of State. He has been charged with finding and firing anyone who even appears to be gay, and we come to realize his mercilessness is his shield against his own being found out. He gives a stellar performance.

His legal wife, Millie, is gleefully portrayed by Phylicia Mason, who parades the ’50s fashions beautifully. I really hope that she meant to have her slip showing in one outfit, and I wonder if girls today even know what a slip is. A stay-at-home “wife,” she outwardly conforms to her role by sweetly reciting recipes and touting cleaning products … but inwardly, she seethes at having to hide her relationship with Norma.

Norma Baxter, played by Olivia Saccomanno, works with Bob and lives with Millie. She brings a gravitas to both her role and her wardrobe statements; she’s especially gorgeous in the gown which she wears to the opera. Yes, they used to dress to go to the theater, people, NOT WEAR JEANS AND CAPS!

Sorry … I got a little carried away there. Anyhow: Saccomanno plays a thoughtful Norma which makes her attempts to imitate a squealing bubblehead even sadder.

Jim Baxter, portrayed by Hanz Enyeart, is a high-strung teacher who loves and lives with Bob but is married to Norma. He lives in terror of being found out but is determined to bulldoze through the nightmare. Enyeart gives a multilevel performance that draws the eye and rewards with the unexpected.

Theodore Sunderson, the State Department top gun, is solidly played by Hal O’Connell. He infuses this role with an edgy power, alerting us that his hail-fellow-well-met exterior might be covering up for his inner bully. He brings a believable Authority Figure quality to his part that makes us want to see more of him.

His wife, Kitty Sunderson, is brilliantly played by Deborah Harmon. She creates a ditzy character that you have to love, despite everyone’s opinion that she is a dope in a mink stole. She layers her performance with rare flashes of truth that glint through her mascaraed eyes and practiced lipstick smile.

Barbara Grant is a character who works at the State Department and is the subject of much gossip as a globetrotting slattern. So it’s quite a surprise when Yo Younger shows up playing this role, looking fashion-model stunning in sleek European fashions (Hats—why did they ever go out of style? There is nothing more flattering!) and radiating danger through her every move. Younger has to love playing this role, slithering through the troubled lives of the other characters and igniting change where it is least expected. Watch her stillness.

Written by Topher Payne, this award-winning play premiered off-Broadway in 2015. The script is bespangled with great belly laughs, while never veering far from the guilty terrors of those leading double lives. He has captured the vocabulary of the ’50s (“Goody!” “Phooey!” “Ta!”) as well as the awful obsolescent terms of this battle (“the latents,” “the deviants”) set in Washington, D.C.

Kudos to the loyal and hardworking members of the Dezart Performs company for this production. It runs two hours with an intermission, and if you can get in to see it, you won’t forget it. It will make you think about lies, shame, suspicion, security risks, fear, irony, hate, stereotypes … and also furniture polish, girl talk and sex.

Astronomers use light to look backward in time. We have theater to do that.

Dezart Performs’ production of Perfect Arrangement is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets, which were listed as sold out as of publication, are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Ah, yes, Christmas With the Crawfords … could the title sound any more Norman Rockwell-idyllic? But the very fact that Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen this play as its annual Christmas show should immediately arouse deep suspicion, because this theater has become known for twisting one’s head.

This offering, from producer and artistic director Robbie Wayne, was created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. It’s directed by Kam Sisco, Desert Rose’s managing director—and it is a romp. It turns out “The Crawfords” means the cobbled-together family of Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, so we are catapulted back to the early days of the movies. The play gives actors multiple opportunities for outrageous costumes and imitations of famous entertainers—all them happily in drag, flashing around in festively colored feathers, jewels, capes and some unusual accessories.

The more you know about those days of film and the fashions of the time, the more you’ll get out of the show. Oh … did I mention it’s a musical? All those familiar seasonal songs are trotted out for the cast members to belt out solos and combos and even harmonies with gusto. The costumes are wayyyyyyy over the top, with Joan Crawford sporting the most astonishing shoulder pads you’ll ever see—not to mention her red platform high heels, for which even a word like “awesome” fails. Toni Molano’s wigs give the actors opportunities for lots of delightful variety, and add extra fashion statements to the comedy. Phil Murphy’s lighting, as always, creates the proper pace and the mood changes. Kudos to the music director Jaci Davis, choreographer Daryl J. Roth and everyone who added their various and considerable talents.

The play opens in the living room Chez Crawford. Not only does Kam Sisco direct the show; he’s onstage for nearly all of it, playing Joan Crawford—a dual job he pulls off with impressive aplomb. He gives us a Crawford with layers of interpretation, from the frustrated and fearful actress whose career is skidding toward its end (fired by MGM Studio!), to the bizarre and sometimes even abusive mother we learned about in the tell-all book Mommie Dearest, to a suggestion of maybe a little alcohol abuse. She’s certainly feeling some pressure, as she is anxiously awaiting an interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros., which she hopes will revive her flagging career, as she is now reduced to playing an extra, sneaking in at rival RKO Studio.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, gossip-queen journalist Hedda Hopper (played with relish by Jacob Samples) has decided to broadcast live on the radio from the Crawford home. The children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Ruth Braun), are expected to be charming and well-behaved under Crawford’s harsh rule. Joan’s sister Jane Hudson, also played by Samples, has shown up like a bad penny to help fry everyone’s minds—yet she vanishes just in time to reappear as Hopper before you can even say “quick change.”

But the neighbors next door are hosting a high-profile party, and many of Hollywood’s brightest stars wander into the Crawford domicile by mistake. Judy Garland, played by Anthony Nannini, drops in and stays, giving us a skillful interpretation of the singer in a mellower mood than usual—with terrific fishnet-clad gams and that man’s-suit-jacket look which became one of her most memorable outfits. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell played by Ed Lefkowitz, shows up with Samba-dancing feet and a hilarious accent. He also shows up as slacks-clad and lock-jawed Katharine Hepburn, and can you possibly imagine two more different ladies? It’s a great stretch for any actor to tackle.

Sex-symbol Mae West briefly slithers in, played by Stan Jenson—and he, too, pulls off an impressive transformation, because we next see him as the dynamic and powerful Broadway/film star Ethel Merman. We would have loved to have seen more use made of Jensen’s amazing bass-toned voice. Tim McIntosh very nearly steals the show as the weird and intensely self-obsessed Gloria Swanson, whom you’ll remember from her dramatic and unforgettable Sunset Boulevard, spouting those immortal lines you will recognize. Then there are the three singing sisters you’ll know, LaVerne, Patty and Maxene, lost en route to perform at a USO show in their cute little faux uniforms and with their hairdos tucked into snoods … courtesy of Jenson, McIntosh and a very flirty-eyed Nannini.

Chaos ensues. But the music never stops, despite being punctuated by some delicious cattiness and misbehaving. The comedy styles juggle between parody, irony, drag humor and some good-old hamming. There’s even a salute to Hanukkah, with a dreidel song bearing the unforgettable title “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” It kind of turns into a revue with all of these performances … plus the fact that there is precious little plot in this script. (“Surviving the day” seems to be at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list, giving the wacko proceedings a very subtle undercurrent of desperation.)

This show is shorter than usual for Desert Rose—just about 70 minutes, with no intermission, and it moves along quickly. The producer has now added Thursday shows to the lineup, at 7 p.m. It’s a great idea to spread the Christmas cheer with the choice of an early show. I guess we should also give Christmas With the Crawfords a language warning, but few plays these days can escape having one, so I’m not going to bother with it any more unless the vocabulary is particularly vile—and here, it is not.

Enjoy this fun play—and, hey, Merry Christmas!

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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.

The season opener for Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is How I Learned to Drive. That’s a subject in which I am very interested, since I’m the only person I know who has never—since I got my driver’s license at 16—had an accident or gotten a traffic ticket.

However, no driving skill prepares you for this play by Paula Vogel. It won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1998, as well as Obies, Drama Desk Awards and an Outer Circle Award. Yes, the play is about learning to drive, and there are plenty of automotive references and sound effects … but, mostly it is about sexual abuse.

Back 20 years ago, things were different, yet eerily the same. Back then, we were reeling from the revelations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Today, look at our list of exposed predators, from Cosby to Moonves to Weinstein.

Founding artistic director Ron Celona took the stage to greet the audience, and was completely honest: This play was not the company’s first choice for season opener, but the writer of the other play is being sued by nine women over sexual harassment. However, Celona and his board decided that this all is a topic that should be addressed, so they chose How I Learned to Drive, and were even able to slide the first play’s actors into the new play. How great is that? (The show runs almost an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, so advise your kidneys of this beforehand.)

This is not a play that you will “like.” You might be stunned, maybe horrified, perhaps confused. You will not leave the theater with a song in your heart and a skip in your step. It is set in the 1960s, in a very rural setting—think hillbillies, crackers, hicks (their words, not mine) from the South.

The open set is creatively jumbled with imprints of maps rolled across the walls and angled risers topped by tables and chairs of various sizes and shapes. In fact, the set holds a surprise that doesn’t come out until the final scenes, so kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for that special and unexpected touch.

The cast members get to play multiple roles, always an exciting challenge for actors and an opportunity to show off versatility. It takes a while for the story to come forward as we see Uncle Peck, shrewdly played by Dennis Gersten, patiently stalking his niece “Li’l Bit,” intricately portrayed by actress Angela Sauer. The “Greek Chorus” roles are played by Charles Pasternak, Debra Cardona and Jillian Taylor, who delight us when they get to strut their stuff in a variety of other parts. Director Joanne Gordon has mined both the stage set and her actors for maximum effect, and she handles the potential awkwardness with taste. The lighting changes are terrific, and the sound effects are both legion and greatly effective.

The results of sexual abuse are dealt with by showing how the victim’s feelings inevitably shut down. We watch what happens to this girl and how she deals with it. Yet we are faced with her role in the seduction, too—is she part of the problem? She brokers a deal with her uncle that changes both their lives. Playwright Vogel squarely faces the role of alcohol and alcoholism in these characters, as well as their “addiction transfer” from one obsession to another, believing that they are cured from their first fixation by rationalizing a change to the second. But in this play, those shut-down feelings somehow come back when one is driving.

Wow, what a revelation. There are a lot of people who “love” to drive and see it as a time for the hands to be busy while the mind roams free. America’s love affair with cars is briefly touched on, too. The ’60s through the ’90s gave us some gorgeous and unique designs in the automotive world. Cars were considered sex symbols back then, and the inevitable relationship between cars and people-sex is obvious, emotional and complicated, both in this play and in life.

How I Learned to Drive is a thought-provoking work, no matter how distasteful the topic. We need to get real about this ongoing problem lurking in our society at every level—and only by facing it will we understand it. Then, maybe, we might actually learn how to fix it. Is it possible?

How I Learned to Drive is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is no show Tuesday, Oct. 30.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!

OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …

For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.

So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.

If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)

Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.

The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently--and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.

You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:

Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.

Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.

Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.

Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.

Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.

Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.

Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.

Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.

Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.

Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.

Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.

There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.

If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.

Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.

Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

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.

The title Suddenly Last Summer has to be one of the most unforgettable, ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has revived this “Southern Gothic” one-act drama by Tennessee Williams, which was adapted into the amazing 1959 movie. That film gave me a permanent case of the creeps (and left me forever debating who was prettier: Elizabeth Taylor or Anthony Perkins?).

In fact, the show is actually referred to as a “horror story,” giving credence to my goose bumps. Here, producer Paul Taylor and director Jim Strait emphasize the music in those soft Louisiana accents and the rhythm of the drawling dialogue. “It’s free-verse poetry,” Strait told me, and he’s right.

The open set is a lush garden, in late spring 1936, burgeoning with life. It actually plays a part in the foreboding—using Venus flytraps, those plants which trap and devour insects, as a topic of discussion. Kudos to Allan Jensen for the lush set decoration and the plantation-style costumes.

The plot concerns a young man, Sebastian Venable, who has met a violent and gory demise while in Europe. His mother is an aging Southern belle, Violet Venable, played by Marjory Lewis, a wealthy society lady determined to cover up her spoiled son’s scandalous life and death. She firmly believes her money and her force of personality can wipe out the ghastly story. But her niece Catherine, played by Cat Lyn Day, remembers it clearly, as she was there, on vacation in southern Spain with him, and Violet is frantic to do something about her before she blabs the truth: What Violet really wants is a lobotomy to be performed on Catherine to destroy the part of her brain containing the story of Sebastian’s death. She schemes to bribe anyone standing in her way—relatives and doctors alike.(Interestingly, Strait informed the audience in his pre-show greeting that this topic was heavily on Tennessee Williams’ mind at the time of writing, as he was in deep therapy, and his sister Rose had actually had a lobotomy. Eek.)

The doctor, played by Cody Frank in the perfect seersucker summer suit, is full of Southern gallantry and determined charm. The relatives (who are actually related to Violet only by marriage, not blood, which does mean something in the South), are Catherine’s brother, George, a wannabe frat boy played by Winston Gieseke, and her mother, a wonderful ditz without portfolio, giddily played by Lorraine Williamson. As the poor relations who have caught an addictive whiff of money, they try to hide their greed and their wobbly moral compasses, yet keep their eyes firmly on their ambitious goals.

Rounding out the cast are Leslie Benjamin, playing the harassed maid, a professional worrier and the only one capable of running in that heat and humidity; and Alden West, playing the fragile nun Sister Felicity, an antiquated import from somewhere in the British Isles, who precariously accompanies Catherine from St. Mary’s Hospital, where she is being held prior to her possible surgery.

This is a women’s play: Unlike in the movie, we never meet Sebastian through flashbacks, so the conflict between Violet and Catherine becomes the center of the action. Marjory Lewis beautifully shades her portrayal of a fading but still fluttering Southern lady, hiding both her backbone of steel and her firm belief that her money can buy anyone. Her innocent lavender-dress-and-garden-hat façade belie a grim determination to rule her little world as if it was really important enough to circle the globe. Lewis gives us a powerful first-scene speech that will take your breath away. We gradually realize that she is driven by her strong conviction that reputation and social standing are everything, and that if faced with absent or weak men, she will control anything and everything necessary, from helming a debutante’s ball to a sailboat.

Cat Lyn Day, on the other hand, marvelously captures the opposing sides of the inner conflict Catherine experiences. She vacillates heartbreakingly between her helplessness when faced by older, wealthier or more-powerful people, and her shaky belief in herself. She hesitates to stand up to others—as Louisiana ladies are not supposed to make a fuss by challenging anyone. She wears a smart blue suit, but we see runs in her stockings. Her naturally elegant looks (great cheekbones!) can’t hide her insecurities. And yet she knows her truth, and no amount of medication or bullying will keep her from speaking it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime role, and Day has pulled out all the stops for it. Her masterful monologue will knock you out.

I wish the cast could have been spared the awkwardness of attempting to look like they were smoking, but it’s written right into the script. Sigh … The fabulous lighting by Phil Murphy, of course, makes the mood of this 95-minute (no intermission!) play a memorable experience.

Strait once again offers a definitive example of how to block stage movement, demonstrating his wonderful sense of balance as well as proving how action affects the mood of a show. He has pulled excellent performances out of his stars, and the commitment to the work makes this production shine. Even the descent into the morass is handled with care.

The audience stays firmly hooked as we are reeled in through this story. The feeling that a train wreck is about to happen before our eyes grows slowly and deliberately. We are in the hands of the unforgettable.

Suddenly Last Summer is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

To be perfectly honest, I dreaded seeing The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has earned a sparkling reputation for its work … and then founding artistic director Ron Celona chooses to do an Edward Albee play? High risk!

Playwright Albee, of course, is best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he’s one of the premier names of Theatre of the Absurd. This began as a post-World War II movement, evolving out of the existentialist philosophy of the time. It grew on both sides of the Atlantic; the horrors of the war left people questioning the meaning of life and the purpose of their existence, which left them feeling futile and depressed. Interestingly, the term “theatre of the absurd” was coined by a theater critic named Martin Esslin. See? We’re not so bad.

So here is the absurd in this play: We meet Martin—not the critic; this is Martin Gray, flawlessly acted by Sean Smith—who seems to be a success in every area of his life. He’s an award-winning architect, healthy and in his prime, with a lovely wife and a nice, gay, teenage son rounding out the happy home front. The set (another terrific Jimmy Cuomo creation) reflects some of the minimalist style so loved by those in the world of design: Nice home. Nice life. But then he confides to his best friend—TV host/producer Ross Tuttle, played by the brilliant Arthur Hanket—that he is in love with … a goat! Really?

Well, imagine that this happened in your family. How would everyone respond? And that’s the essence of the Theatre of the Absurd: What would be the most unimaginable thing that could ever happen to you? And then it happens.

Ross reacts. Martin’s wife, Stevie, played by fascinating actress Sharon Sharth, reacts on several levels. Their son Billy, thoughtfully played by Ian M. White, is a teenager at an all-boys school, and he reacts. Gradually, we begin to lose hope that this is all a joke.

It would be impossible to overstate the quality of this cast. They are so learned in their craft, and perfectly chosen for their roles, that it is a pure pleasure to watch them move, listen to their exemplary clarity of their diction, revel in their magical and ever-changing faces, and feel them weave their spells through their masterful skills.

Guest director Joanne Gordon clearly had her hands full with this play, but working with such talented actors had to make this experience immensely satisfying. She has beautifully fine-tuned the electricity between the characters, and subtly ramped up the growing tension of the play to a climax that leaves her theatergoers stunned. The play delivers one sucker-punch after another, and the audience can only sit there, helplessly astonished.

Albee’s writing is genius, particularly with the dialogue, in which he cleverly captures the half-sentences and non-sequiturs that pepper our own conversations. We learn about the quality of intimacy in their relationships when we see the characters finish each other’s sentences. The verbal swordplay between husband and wife is delightful, intellectual and refreshing. The script must be peculiar to be read silently, but in the hands of these gifted interpreters of his work, it feels familiar, natural and realistic. There are some good solid laughs, some appreciative chuckles for the cleverness, and also some guffaws born out of shock … and there are tears. We see plenty of blame dished out, and rationalization, and confusion, and a real redheaded temper tantrum.

And there’s the Albee statement in the play that sums up the philosophy of the Theatre of the Absurd: “Nothing has anything to do with anything.”

The Goat offers moments that will live in the memory forever. One of the actors, face bare of makeup, flushes red before our eyes when freaked out—something usually only found in close-ups in the movies, and rarely even then. There are screams that would strip the vocal cords of us ordinary mortals. We sit humbly at ringside, being allowed to watch life-changing events take place before us. The audience rewarded this one-act work with silent and spellbound attention—it seemed like not a throat was cleared the entire time.

Hats off to the CV Rep team members—and, of course, to Ron Celona (celebrating his birthday, yay!), whose company has finally acquired a new home for the Coachella Valley Repertory Company: The former IMAX theater in Cathedral City has been secured for their expanded future. (When he started the fundraising, I said to him, “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to raise this much money!” He replied, “Me too.”) How wonderful to see a dream come true! It’s productions with the stellar quality of this one which have made this award-winning theater such a success.

From this theater experience, we learn that the only difference between Absurd and your life … is for it to happen. Think of the most surprising and unpredictable thing that ever happened to you in your life. Imagine that a goat …

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.