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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

We’ve reached the end of the season at most of the valley’s theater companies—sob! But what a year it’s been, and what a great way to end it: with Good People, at Coachella Valley Repertory.

Have you seen the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City? This is the second production here, and right away, you have to love the steeply raked levels of seating so that no head, no matter how tall, can blot out your view of the stage. Huzzah! And they serve coffee at the snack bar! Can it get better than this?

Well, actually yes. I hate to give this away, but nothing could dampen the surprise that awaits you when you see the scenery: The amazing Jimmy Cuomo, CVRep’s resident set designer, nearly steals the show. Wait until you see what he does with this high-tech new stage! The open set that greets the audience is a grotty and depressing back alley in South Boston’s lower end, with one lonely plain chair on the stage. Some jaw-dropping theater magic is in store for you thanks to Cuomo. It gave us goose bumps.

The playwright of Good People is David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. When this play opened on Broadway, it garnered all kinds of awards, including two Tony nominations. If his name seems familiar, it’s because he penned Rabbit Hole (which was given a riveting production by Dezart Performs in January 2018), and you might remember him as author and lyricist for Shrek the Musical. You are in good hands here.

The show’s guest director, Michael Matthews, has brilliantly aimed this script directly at your brain pan. Its gritty reality is played out, giving the audience a being-there feeling that never wavers. The dialogue is cleverly “telescoped” so that Matthews’ actors appear truly spontaneous, and it gives the show a spirit of breathless anticipation. There isn’t a great deal of movement onstage, but it is accomplished logically (except twice when an actor moved on someone else’s line … distracting, but not important.)

Remember the seedy back alley we mentioned? Our protagonist, Margaret, magnificently and utterly believably portrayed by Reamy Hall, is marched out the back of the dollar store where she toils, by manager Stevie, perfectly underplayed by Erik Odom, for a talking-to about her work performance. It does not go well. In the next scene, in a cramped kitchen with two friends—the cynical Dottie, unforgettably played by Barbara Gruen, and the fiery gossip Jean, delightfully played by Candi Milo—Margie bemoans her lot. We learn about the women’s relationships with their families, the neighbors and each other. We learn about their values like “Southie Pride,” the local spirit in so many places—here with a special defiance attached to it. We see some flashes of the infamous Irish temper. We learn about their lives in “the projects,” and attempts to escape—with various results.

How much does it matter where you come from? So many desert residents cheerfully admit to “re-inventing” themselves upon arrival here, without a trace of embarrassment about it. But back in Southie, it apparently matters a great deal. Those who do well are jeered at as being “lace-curtain Irish.” Those who never make it away from their ghetto will forever play desperate mind games of “What if?” How much does our environment really shape us?

But we also discover that, in looking back, two people can selectively remember the same incident very differently. Michael Matthys gives us a deliciously multi-layered performance as Mikey Dillon, who, through hard work and some luck, makes it out of the neighborhood. Now an upscale and successful doctor, he is married to his privileged, elegant and sophisticated wife, an African-American woman named Kate, played by the smoothly stunning Nadege August. When they find themselves confronted with Mike’s past by Margie, their attitudes about it show how memory can be affected by time. Kate, with her combination of high-society finishing-school grace—plus her phenomenal figure in a skin-tight knit, and her wicked eagerness to sneak into the wild side—is one of the most complex characters on any stage, and August shrewdly plays every card in her hand to create this fascinating role.

The play’s theme slowly emerges: the eternal conflict between truth and rationalization. How far can your moral compass wobble before you are no longer a good person? Can blaming someone else justify your actions? Are your choices the right ones? How far will you bend your morality to change someone else’s life? Whom do you “owe,” and how much? Whew …

Study the biographies of the actors (and staff!) in the hefty program. The full bios detail where you may have glimpsed these terrific performers elsewhere, in movies or on TV. These experienced pros know how to sweep you into their world. They will drag you through a bumpy mix of thoughts and emotions … and they’ll bring you to your feet at the end of the show.

This theater’s matchless brain trust, led by artistic director Ron Celona, has assembled a formidable staff. Kudos to lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, production stage manager Marcedes L. Clanton, sound designer Rebecca Kessin, sound engineer/audio technician Karlene Roller, costume designer Chandler Smith, hair/makeup artist Lynda Shaeps, and prop master Doug Morris. Flawless work!

Good People is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 19, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. (There is no show Tuesday, May 7.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

There is only one word to express the feeling one gets when entering Coachella Valley Repertory’s new digs: awe.

Artistic director Ron Celona and his board of directors have completely transformed the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a live playhouse worthy of Broadway. From the impressive “Wall of Donors” and the expansive refreshment bar with gracious bartenders, to the luxurious VIP Lounge (called the Producer’s Room)—complete with its own flat-screen TV, piano and automated sliding glass door—everything screams “class.” The lobby of the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City also features a rendering of the Cathedral City Downtown Arts and Entertainment District. With CVRep as a hub, if all goes according to plan, it will feature an outdoor amphitheater, an alternative transportation trail and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ new gaming/retail and entertainment center. As for the playhouse, the $3 million price tag was covered by private donors, a loan from the city and a grant from the Cathedral City Downtown Foundation.

Then there is the theater itself: Celona has more than doubled his seating capacity (208 versus 86 in his previous location) and installed a massive 2,700-square-foot stage.

It’s all the realization of a dream Celona said kicked into high gear when he left his position directing plays at the Joslyn Center 12 years ago. He took a year off and traveled the country, picking the brains of other successful theater companies. Celona’s goal was always to produce “theater of substance,” he said, adding that Coachella Valley audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, the timing was just right for CVRep to take the step up to the current location.

The company’s production of Chess—with the book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—was a wise choice to christen the new facility.

The musical tells the story of a world chess championship between brash American Freddie Trumper (Garrett Marshall) and dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (David Sattler); the characters are loosely based on Viktor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. Freddie’s assistant is the beautiful Florence (Gabriela Carrillo), who tries her best to keep him in line. Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Michael Dotson), is actually a KGB agent. The first game of the match does not go well, and a meeting is called to smooth things over. Florence and Anatoly eventually realize they have feelings for each other; this budding romance and Freddie’s erratic behavior cause Florence to leave her post.

The Russian wins the chess championship—and defects to the West. While defending his title year a later in Bangkok, with Florence by his side, Anatoly faces even more complications: His wife, Svetlana (Ashley Hunt), has showed up to watch the match. Meanwhile, Freddie’s agent, Walter (Glenn Rosenblum), suggests to Florence that her father, whom she has not seen since they fled Hungary decades earlier, may still be alive. I won’t give away more, but the plot is chock-full of betrayal, heartbreak and political intrigue.

The cast is stellar across the board. Garrett Marshall’s Freddie is spot-on—cocky, immature and full of swagger. As the somber Anatoly, David Sattler is excellent. He has a soaring singing voice and strong acting chops; both his romantic and patriotic conflicts ring true.

Michael Dotson is terrific as Molokov. Cold, calculating and sly as a fox, he embodies our vision of a Russian spy. The Russian accents used by both Dotson and Sattler are quite believable. As Freddie’s money-hungry agent, Walter, Glenn Rosenblum is a perfect fit, as is Jeremy Whatley as the arbiter, who enforces the rules of chess throughout the show, and keeps the matches moving along. Ashley Hunt is quite strong as Anatoly’s betrayed wife, with musical pipes that shake the rafters.

The ensemble (Sydney Clemenson, Brianna Maloney, Cassidy McCarron, Roman Skryabin, Daniel Sugimoto and Michael Rawls) adds the right touch to the proceedings. Each actor is featured in small speaking roles, and their group numbers are top-notch.

But the highlight in this superb cast is Gabriela Carrillo as Florence. Lovely and charismatic, she has us rooting for her immediately. We feel her frustration in trying to control Freddie, and then later, we relate to her true love for Anatoly. Her singing voice is flawless, and she has some of the best numbers in the show, including “Heaven Help My Heart” and her duet with Svetlana, “I Know Him So Well.”

“Chess” has a bit of a rock-opera feel, and some of the music is a bit dissonant. If you’re a big fan of Oklahoma! and hoping for tunes to hum on the way home, you may be a bit disappointed.

The orchestra, led by musical director Scott Storr on piano, is fabulous. The choreography, lighting, sound and costumes are all outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Jimmy Cuomo’s exquisite set.

But the biggest kudos of all have to go to director Ron Celona for assembling such an amazing cast and coaxing stellar performances from each actor. Chess is an impressive production that’s well worth seeing.

It’s amazing to see the dream that Celona has made come true. Thanks to him for providing the Coachella Valley with thought-provoking, quality theater—now in a gorgeous Broadway-style venue.

Chess is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance

At 69, Gina Bikales is the embodiment of the word “indefatigable”: She’s seemingly incapable of being tired out.

Gina leads Script2Stage2Screen (S2S2S), the theater company which presents staged readings of new works at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rancho Mirage. (Disclosure: I have acted with S2S2S before.)

“We (the Coachella Valley) have theater going on year-round now, (as opposed) to when I came to the desert in 2000,” Bikales says. “(We have) community theaters presenting ‘chestnuts’ (older hit plays that always attract an audience); professional companies doing edgier works; three great full-time companies; and S2S2S taking it a step further, doing only new, unpublished works. We want scripts that speak to current issues.”

Bikales came to her role with S2S2S—running the program as well as casting, directing and occasionally taking a role herself—with a lifetime of connection to the arts. Born in Topeka, Kan., and raised in Kansas City, Gina graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in theater education and language arts.

“I came from an artsy family,” she says. “My mom was a sculptor, and my dad, although a psychiatrist by profession, always designed and made jewelry. They provided an artistic education for all of us (an older brother, and a younger brother and sister). We started piano at 5, and by second-grade, we could choose a second instrument to learn.

“I’ve done theater since I was young. At 12, I signed up to go to the Midwest Music and Art Camp. Once there, I hurt my foot, and there was no way I could dance, so my dad talked to them and got me into the theater group. I was the youngest one, but they took me under their wings, and I fell in love with it.

“When I got to college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, because I loved science, but I hated math. When I realized how much math was required, I didn’t want to go forward. I now realize part of my feelings about math were associated with it not being a ‘feminine’ thing to be good at. Anyway, my college adviser literally stood in front of his office door and said, ‘You can’t leave until you declare a major,’ so I focused on theater education. After college, I left Kansas City for North Carolina to teach at a prep school.”

Bikales subsequently married and moved to Santa Clara in the Bay Area, and “put my husband through law school.” She later divorced and returned to Kansas City to raise her three sons, all of whom are now professional musicians.

“I worked as a teacher, but the arts were always an important part of my life,” she says. “At 16, my first summer job was teaching at the only performing-arts camp at that time in Kansas City, Camellot Academy. Just after college, they asked me to take over running it, and until about 2005, I went back to Kansas City and ran Camellot every summer.”

Bikales left Kansas City after marrying “a desert guy” and has been in the Coachella Valley since 2000, currently residing in Palm Desert.

“Much to my surprise, I fell in love with the desert and decided to stay after that marriage ended,” she says. “I was basically a retired lady, but one day, I went to a local meeting of the Coachella Valley Alumnae Panhellenic Association. I was seated with Jeanette Lyons and Lynn Talbot, who were doing a show at the Joslyn Center. I got cast, and from then on, I’ve been involved in theater here.

“Acting came easily for me, and I loved it. The first time I did it, I was hooked. I put acting on hold when my kids were young, but began doing community theater once they were old enough to be left at night.

“Once I left Kansas City and came to the desert, I still returned to the Camellot program, but I was ready to work with adults. Ron Celona had been running the theater at Joslyn Senior Center, and when he left, they asked me to take his place. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ Meanwhile, my divorce attorney was saying, ‘You need to get a job.’ His partner was development director with the Visiting Nurse Association, and he hired me as development manager to support the hospice program. You can’t get a better reason to be willing to ask people for money.”

Bikales’ experience as a teacher, actor and manager has influenced her ability to direct.

“When you’re acting, your primary focus is on character, and how that character relates to others on the stage,” she says. “When you direct, you have to pick up lots of other threads and concerns in a script: lighting, costuming and the ability to tie it all together with a bow so it works to communicate what the playwright intended. A show needs to look seamless and effortless to the audience. It’s both a creative and management kind of position.”

S2S2S began as a project to feature the work of gay Coachella Valley playwrights. Bikales began working with the group in its first season. After the two founders retired, she was asked to take over the program.

“We have so much talent here, from retired actors to accountants who’ve always wanted to act,” she says. “We have people who’ve never been onstage before, and some who’ve won awards for performing. Being in an S2S2S production only requires three weeks of evening rehearsals, and it’s fun.”

S2S2S, now in its 10th year, may be the most economical theater experience in the valley, at only $10 a ticket. Usually the playwright is in the audience to gauge reactions, as well as take questions and comments after the production. The number of shows presented each season depends on how many plays are submitted and considered worthy of a first outing. Play-submission information is at the website, www.script2stage2screen.com.

“It’s been my mission for the last few years to push women, especially women of color, into directing. For some reason, it’s difficult to find women who want to direct,” Bikales says.

“Because the plays we put on are new and unpublished, we can work with the playwright, something you can’t do with a published work. We get submissions from all over the country, and there are a lot of local writers who want to get an audience’s reactions to a work in progress. I’m in it from the submission phase to the final curtain call. I’ll do S2S2S as long as it’s a joy to do, and it is!”

S2S2S, under Bikales’ direction, has garnered 17 Desert Theatre League awards. She served as president of the DTL for eight years, and has been on the boards of other local organizations. Despite recent health issues, she directs individual plays, carefully casts local talent, scrounges costumes and props, and occasionally returns to the stage.

Gina Bikales is, indeed, indefatigable.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The 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.

Published in Theater and Dance

What better way is there to deal with heartache on a 4 a.m. subway ride than to immerse oneself in a crossword puzzle?

That’s the mindset of Janet, the female character in Jerry Mayer’s 2 Across, now playing the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre. But the buttoned-up psychologist can’t seem to get a moment’s peace once free-spirited Josh barrels onto the subway car just as the doors close; he keeps trying to chat her up.

So opens the two-character comedy that artistic director Ron Celona has chosen to close CV Rep’s romance-themed season. It’s fun, funny and, yes—romantic. The dialogue and pacing are a bit reminiscent of situation comedies … which is not surprising, given playwright Mayer’s many years as a writer for shows like Bewitched and Bridget Loves Bernie.

During the 80-minute Bay Area Rapid Transit ride, we learn a great deal about the backgrounds and life philosophies of Josh and Janet as they each tackle the same crossword puzzle. Their styles are very different: She is a by-the-book kind of gal who believes all rules should be followed, that “a library card is a contract,” and that cheating on a crossword puzzle is sacrilege. (Her childhood nickname was “Granite Janet.”) Josh, an unemployed ad exec, is the very definition of laid back. He feels calling the 900 number for help on the puzzle is no big deal, and when it all gets too frustrating, he simply throws it away. Though he’s Jewish, Josh has brought a barbecued pork sandwich on the train as a snack. “I don’t follow dietary rules” he explains, ignoring Janet’s horror that he would dare violate the “No Eating on the Subway” sign posted in plain sight.

They banter back and forth, argue, flirt and slowly strip away the masks we all tend to wear when meeting someone new. Josh is charming, funny and likable. He’s also persistent in his efforts to win over Janet. When Janet bluntly announces that “she’s not the least bit interested," he retorts, “Well, try harder!”

With a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry between the leads is essential. Luckily, there is plenty between Andrea Gwynnel (Janet) and Joel Bryant (Josh). Veteran actors with impressive national credits, both are attractive, charismatic and comfortable onstage. Every moment in the arc of their blossoming friendship rings true.

Local actress Deborah Harmon, who directed the world premiere of 2 Across at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2004, is guest director here and does a superb job.

Special mention should be made of the terrific set, lights and sound. The recreation of a BART train, complete with periodic announcements of stops, is spot-on.

Congrats to Ron Celona for selecting a perfect piece to end CV Rep’s 2017-2018 season. 2 Across is light-hearted, upbeat and fun.

2 Across is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona have a well-deserved reputation for offering first-rate theatrical productions—and the latest effort, Romance/Romance, does not disappoint.

To put it simply … the show is phenomenal.

With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, Romance/Romance was first produced in 1987, and received five Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

The show consists of two one-act musicals. The first, The Little Comedy, is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler; it’s set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Alfred and Josefine, both well-off but lonely, each decide that creating a less-affluent persona might increase their chances of finding true love. He pretends to be a nearly penniless poet, while her charade is that of a poor seamstress. They meet while walking in the park … and soon fall in love. The progression of their romance is detailed in letters each writes to friends. The question is: How long can they keep up the facade? And will their love endure if they come clean about their true identities?

Both Conchita Belisle Newman (Josefine) and Christopher Carothers (Alfred) are superb. Blessed with beautiful, robust singing voices, they take us on a lovely romantic journey. Their acting is quite good as well, and the onstage chemistry is palpable. The musical numbers, including the hopeful “It’s Not Too Late” and “I’ll Always Remember the Song,” are all memorable, but the highlight of the first act has to be Josefine’s poignant “The Night It Had to End,” exquisitely sung by Newman.  

Supporting cast members Eric B. Anthony (Him) and Robyn Cohen (Her) add the perfect touch to the first act, performing lovely, skillful dances that take us from scene to scene and tie it all together.

Act II, Summer Share, is based on Jules Renard’s play Le Pain de Ménage. Set in modern times, it introduces us to best friends Monica (Newman) and Sam (Carothers), and their respective spouses, Lenny (Anthony) and Barb (Cohen), who are on vacation together. Though Lenny and Barb have always been fine with the platonic bond between Monica and Sam, things seem to shift on this trip. Suspicions (and other things?) are aroused after Barb and Lenny retire to bed, and the friends are left alone to chat in the wee hours. They wonder if their relationship is really platonic (“Let’s Not Talk About It”). Could their respective marriages survive an affair? Every long-married woman can relate to the yearning for sweet nothings in “Words He Doesn’t Say” (flawlessly delivered by Carothers).

In this act, the chemistry between Newman and Carothers is not just palpable—it is electric. The audience almost feels heat coming from the stage; it’s a terrific example of damn-good acting.

Anthony and Cohen are featured more in the second half, and they are both triple threats—fabulous actors, singers and dancers, with great comic timing. Their duet “Small Craft Warnings” is particularly notable.

There is much to like about this production, but what really stands out is how everything just flows together. Before the first note is played, one is struck by the gorgeous set. The cast is uniformly excellent; kudos to Ron Celona for both his spot-on casting and direction. The costumes, hair and makeup and lighting are wonderful.

Special mention has to be made of musical director Jaci Davis and the band, featuring Davis on piano, Daniel Gutierrez on keyboards, Bill Saitta on bass and Dave Hitchings on percussion. Their perfect blend supports the singers without being overpowering.

Whether you are a hopeless romantic, a theater aficionado or someone who simply wants an entertaining evening out, Romance/Romance is the ticket.

Romance/Romance is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 11, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is a little more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has opened its new season with Venus in Fur. It’s a two-person, one-act show with no intermission—and it will knock your socks off.

It opened off-Broadway in 2010 and moved to Broadway in 2011; it was nominated for two 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Play. It’s currently running in the West End of London; Berlin; and … Rancho Mirage!

Director Ron Celona declared that the timing could not be more perfect for this play, due to the recent sexual-harassment scandals. It is set “today” (the cell-phone styles instantly reveal the era), and the show is about an actress auditioning for an unusual play set in 1870. She is facing a male playwright … a situation that puts us on edge right from the start, fearing the possibility of some sort of ghastly Harvey Weinstein-ian casting-couch calamity. A thunderstorm rages overhead, adding to the tension. The playwright is exhausted and disgusted after a fruitless day of tryouts, and the actress is late for her reading, soaked from the rain and furious. What could possibly go wrong?

Venus in Furs playwright David Ives, a Yale grad living in New York, has crafted an extraordinary work with this play. He’s most famous for his one-act plays, and garnered awards and honors for many of them. He has also created full-length plays, plus adaptations of both musicals and 17th- and 18th-century French plays. Here, multilayered and mercurial changes keep us off balance throughout, as we learn the playwright’s play is about the infamous 19th-century Austrian, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whom we have to thank for—you guessed it—masochism.

They say that the second you meet another person, there is a huge amount of psychic information exchanged about which person will control what in the impending relationship. Through this play-within-a-play, we deal with domination, submission, power plays, struggles, acceptance and rebellion. We see lies come to light. We see roles reversed. Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re seeing.

The actress, Vanda, is played by Angela Sauer, whose bouncy auburn hair sets off a beautiful face that shifts endlessly with her astonishing variety of emotions. You can’t take your eyes off her … not just because of the garters and lacy lingerie and black stockings and high heels, but because of her rapid switches from one personality to another. She snaps in and out of character: now a cranky actress and next a demanding director and then a radiant goddess Aphrodite and now a haughty countess and suddenly a smoldering dominatrix. Her vocal talents will surprise you—she gives each of her roles a special voice, with pitch, volume, speed, placement and even regional accents changing.

In contrast, Patrick Zeller—perfectly cast as the tightly wound playwright Thomas—internalizes and suppresses much of his emotions, though he never fails to let us know what he is thinking and feeling. He’s a thinking actor, whose subtleties provide the perfect foil for the high-energy and colorful Vanda. He morphs through his different roles, managing to be equally believable in each one. The abrupt switches of power between the characters catch us off guard every time, but Zeller rides every wave with ease. He is pitch-perfect in every complex part that he plays.

Ron Celona, also CV Rep’s founding artistic director, modestly credits the actors rather than his own directing skills for the success of this play. “They are smart and talented,” he said. “And sexy!” His steady directorial hand is evident, nonetheless, in the exquisite visual balance he maintains on this one-set stage. But it is the tension between the actors that is the most impressive part of this play. The undeniable chemistry between them increases unbearably as Celona gradually tightens the screws, making it impossible for us to guess what lies ahead. No director could have done more with the atmosphere … and when a completely unexpected plot twist occurs, we are suckered in helplessly. We know we will never be safe watching this play.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is simply designed, offering an ideal backdrop for the crackling energy onstage. He uses a palette of grays to contrast with the lightning and thunder storm viewed through the high windows, which echoes the electricity between the two characters. The set screams “crummy old lower East Side New York.” An innocent daybed sits center stage, making us nervous with its unspoken possibilities.

Moira Wilkie Whitaker gets credit for that lightning and thunder, along with Randy Hansen, the sound designer. Not an easy assignment! Add rain, and some finely timed effects, and you’ll see they had their work cut out for them.

Julie Oken’s costume design deserves a special mention, not the least of which was finding that bustier and those really high stiletto-heeled boots for Vanda to waltz around in … and those little S&M touches. Linda Shaeps’ hair and makeup design is, as usual, lovely, but what is especially astonishing is how Vanda’s makeup stayed on with everything she went through in this show. HOW? Audiences want to know, Miss Linda!

This is not a play for the faint of heart. It poses a lot of relationship questions and looks at social issues from both sides, causing us to examine our own deep-seated thoughts and beliefs. It brings us face to face with inequalities and prejudices and stuck ideas that still exist today. It peers beneath our surfaces to find what lies hidden far beneath. It is fascinating and confusing and a little scary, and there isn’t one dull moment in the entire show.

So gather your courage, and go see Venus in Fur. Besides, how often do you get to see a girl in garters?

Venus in Fur is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the show runs just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. There is no show on Tuesday, Oct. 31. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ron Celona got bitten by the acting bug in the first grade.

“I played a spider in Little Miss Muffet … and refused to take off my costume afterward,” he says. “I walked all the way home from school in my spider costume, and have been on the stage ever since.”

Celona, 59, the founding artistic director of the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, is a Rancho Mirage resident, along with his husband and partner of 32 years. Celona was born and raised in Philadelphia. He and his older sister lost their mom when Ron was just 7.

“My father was a tenor-sax player,” he recalls, “and although he gave up his career to have a family, he always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

Celona’s professional career began when he was in the sixth-grade, after he had already performed in many theater projects at school and at his local playground.

“I continued my education after high school in New York,” he says, “at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I graduated high school in June and moved that same September. After a few years working on East Coast stages, I moved to Los Angeles and continued theater studies at Cal State Los Angeles. While doing theater, I added television and film to my credits.

“But it wasn’t until I moved to the Coachella Valley in 1999 that I began my career as a producer and director. I produced the Joslyn Players in Palm Desert, and that turned into a successful community theater that thrived for nine years.”

How did CV Rep come about? In 2008, the stars were apparently in alignment.

“Frankly,” says Celona, “I was waiting for the right time in the valley’s growth. I modeled it after other companies, like South Coast Rep and Seattle Rep—companies that started out small and grew to be respected institutions in their communities. The board planned strategically so that we could grow slowly and successfully. The big goal was always to own our own theater building. … In the coming year, this dream is coming true, and we will be taking the next step toward creating a nationally recognized and respected theater company, for our communities’ residents and visitors alike.”

I love theater, and have been pleased to see the growth of several local theaters—each presenting a different experience that goes well beyond the old standard retreads. However, I became increasingly interested in CV Rep specifically because of its Youth Outreach Production program. Each year, CV Rep presents a play with a subject that is of particular interest to young people, and makes it available to students through the Coachella Valley—some of whom might otherwise never be exposed to live theater.

“This year, for the first time, we didn’t just bring students into the theater,” says Celona. “We were able to take the show on the road to local schools and reach over 3,000 students.”

This year’s show was Bully, a one-man show written and performed by actor, writer and producer Lee J. Kaplan, who explores his own struggle with bullying. Kaplan discovered his sixth-grade journal among some old boxes, and recalled the verbal, physical and emotional abuse he endured. His play includes him as several characters—his teacher, classmates, bullies, and himself—and examines how bullying can affect someone even well into adulthood.

The audiences are always able to talk with the cast and ask questions after the performances. Often, these questions don’t only explore the message of the play; many audience members share their own experiences.

The show I attended was not for students; it was an evening performance for the public. I was struck by those who shared their own memories and feelings.

Kaplan made it clear that bullying goes way beyond hurting someone’s feelings. It is the activity of repeated aggressive behavior intended to hurt or gain power over another. It is emotional, verbal and social abuse, and those bullied don’t know how to make it stop.

Kaplan’s lessons on how to defeat a bully: Stop caring about him. Tell somebody; don’t be ashamed, and don’t back down. Stop blaming yourself—it’s not your fault.

The one question Kaplan had to pause and think about was why bullying happens to one person and not another, even within the same family. He finally said, “I’ve known some people who seemed so sure of who they were, they seemed to walk straight forward through it all toward their own future. Somehow, bullying never affected them.”

Ron Celona, who clearly knew who he was and how to walk straight forward into his own future, had some influential mentors along the way. He first names the renowned Gordon Davidson, of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles: “His wisdom and advice gave me the confidence in myself that I needed.” Then he acknowledges Sheldon Epps, of the Pasadena Playhouse: “He is always there for me when I have a question or need advice on our growing pains. I’m very grateful for his friendship and support.”

The Coachella Valley should be grateful for Ron Celona’s vision and dedication to our burgeoning theater community—and particularly for his commitment to its students.

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

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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