BWW Review: It's Reigning Cats And Dogs In Palm Springs! Dezart Closes Its Season With A Very Warm And Funny CHAPATTI!
Dogs and cats reign supreme - and, in fact, are the catalyst for all of the action - in Christian O'Reilly's warm and intelligent comedy CHAPATTI, the final production in Dezart Performs rather remarkable ninth season in Palm Springs. Dezart Performs, a long time "best kept secret" in Coachella VAlley Theatre, has found its voice and emerged as one of the finest theatre companies in the region with a performance season that can be summed up in one word. Flawless!
As my regular readers know, I do not do plot summaries in my reviews. I see my role as an opportunity to urge you to get out and see Great Performances without giving away the story and taking away the emotional surprises that lie in store. Especially in new and lesser known works. I want audiences to have the opportunity to let a new story "unfold before their eyes" without knowing where the playwright is going to take them. If you feel you need a plot summary before attending this wonderful production I will happily refer you to "google".
CHAPATTI is the witty and heartfelt "character study" of two lost souls who, by the grace of God -- and their pets - find love in the midst of very unique and unexpected circumstances and it appears, for each of them, just in time.
Michael Shaw's direction, once again, is a "triumph". He is the kind of director that I so respect and admire because he directs each production with such simplicity and ease as to leave his handprint on the production, but no fingerprints. His "invisibility" provides wings to the artistry of the actors and the words of the author and avoids all contrivance and artificiality. He has, once again, cast superbly capable actors who so deeply embody the characters that he is able to "guide them" rather than "mold them", giving them the freedom to experience rather than act, which is mesmerizing to watch. He has a way of consistently bringing truth to the stage and there is nothing more engaging.
Dale Morris (as Dan) delivers a nuanced, layered and sweetly vulnerable performance that allows us to feel the pain of a broken man without ever feeling pity. He gracefully maneuvers between the optimistic, humorous and gentle "surface:" side of Dan and the darkness that bubbles beneath. It is a very credible and intriguing performance.
Dana Hooley (as Betty) is remarkable. I would venture to say this could be the finest female performance I have seen on the desert stages! This actor is skilled, to say the least. Dooley's "Betty" is, on one hand, brash and bold and in completely in control of her world and then suddenly, on the other hand, broken and bent and seemingly beyond repair. She makes us feel sad for her circumstances, but never sorry. She paints her "Betty" with more emotional colors than seems possible - and then, in one expert turn, a new color emerges. Hooley's performance, alone, makes this "must see theatre".
As a pair, their unexpected emotional connection is what the entire show is about and the chemistry between the actors, these two people, is palpable. CHAPATTI is well crafted and well calculated. The best part. All of the craft and calculation is beautifully invisible to the audience as they are swept away into the journey of two average people desperately seeking someone to save them from their own lives.
Now the criticism.
The play is fifteen minutes too long. The subject matter doesn't sustain the ninety-plus minutes of running time and there are several moments in the play when there are just "too many words". It's a tricky play because most of it is done in monologue - the characters are "describing action" rather than living it. The general truth in successful theatre has always been "show don't tell" and O'Reilly's CHAPATTI is ninety percent "tell" and much less "show". The most successful scene is an awkward dinner party where the actors finally connect rather than reflect. The "tell" wears thin at times and can't help but breed restlessness. I think some thoughtful edits would greatly enhance the emotional momentum of the work. As an audience member you WANT badly to stay engaged but it's near impossible not to drift away. The two superb actors do their best to make every word count - there are, in fact, just too many words.
On the technical side - there are not enough lights! This is not the fault of, or a critique of, the designer. Phil Murphy did, and does, an outstanding job with the limitations of Dezart's performance space. There are definitive challenges in the venue. That said, there are numerous "holes" in the lighting plot where actors cross from "lit" through darkness to get to "lit" again - and it is highly distracting. It takes the audience out of the story over and over again. And every time the audience is taken out of the story it is a crime in the theatre. The Shadows here are not always for dramatic effect - it seems sometimes like it is a minefield of shadows and the actors have to battle their way through as the audience goes along for the ride. Phil Murphy is a brilliant and effective lighting designer! The Pearl McManus Theatre is not helping him in any way to do his job.
Additionally, when the character Dan visits the grave of the woman he loves and it is done on a "thrust" from the main playing area he is in more shadow than light (distracting) AND his "backdrop" is the exit door to the theatre and, instead of honing in on his carefully crafted dialogue, the audience is blatantly reminded that we are in a "women's club" and not in Dan's world at all. We are asked to work too hard to stay in the story and ignore the distractions around us.
This may seem like an unfair criticism since the company is forced to work within the obstacles and restrictions of their venue. True enough. But I would like to present it more as a call to action. Artistic Director, Shaw, has just announced a capital campaign to raise the monies to move Dezart into a better, more theatrical space. This might be one of the clearest incentives to get a desert community that loves professional theatre to get behind their effort. Dezart Performs is doing high quality, professional theatre. They deserve a space that lives up to the quality of their work. It does not.
High praise, as always, for the production team. Thomas Valach's scenic design is simple and effective. Clark Duggar's sound design supports the actors at every turn. Jim Lapides' costume design beautifully adds to the truth of each of the characters.
CHAPATTI plays four more performances, this weekend, at The Pearl McManus Theatre located at the historic Women's Club in Palm Springs. Do your self a favor - drop some other event you have on your calendar and get over to see this really lovely play. For more information or tickets visit www.dezartperforms.com.