BWW Review: Coachella Valley Repertory Starts its Season with a Spirited Production of ANNAPURNA, a Comic Drama with Heart
Coachella Valley Repertory's (CVRep's) first play of the 2016-17 season, ANNAPURNA, is a finely acted and directed, intelligent comic drama that generates plenty of laughs on its way to a moving ending. ANNAPURNA, which tackles CVRep's theme for the season, "love, marriage, and life changing events," with heart and grit, will satisfy theatergoers seeking a play with intellectual and emotional depth.
Playwright Sharr White's two-character, one act play, named for the tenth highest mountain in the world (located in Nepal), takes place in a far more mundane place - a filthy trailer in a filthy trailer park in a remote town in the Colorado mountains. The story is not a mystery in the sense of a "whodunit," but Mr. White slowly feeds key tidbits to the audience in much the way a mystery writer would. Although the script is talky, the method of storytelling holds the audience members' attention throughout the play.
From the moment Emma (Anna Nicholas) surprises Ulysses (Eric Charles Jorgensen) in his old, squalid travel trailer, after twenty years apart, it is clear that, at some point, they were more than good friends. But how can this neatly coiffed and dressed, well-spoken woman ever have entered into a relationship with a man who liberally employs the word "ain't" and whom we first see barefoot and shirtless, with matted hair, and wearing a grease-stained apron, while he cooks sausages for his dog? Why has she driven straight here after leaving her husband, and why has her adult son, Sam, hired a private investigator to find Ulysses, who is clearly ill?
The audience soon learns there is still a strong emotional connection between these two middle-aged people, both of whom life has dealt hard knocks. But, why did they split up? And why did Emma sneak off twenty years ago in the middle of the night, never to see Ulysses again - till now? As the story progresses, some theatergoers may recognize parallels to a lovely Scottish movie named DEAR FRANKIE, starring Gerard Butler and Emily Mortimer, which was released in 2004 - it is as if Mr. White took the back story to that film and imagined it moving forward in a different direction. The playwright appears to be reminding the audience that sometimes good people do bad things, but redemption is possible.
Director Ron Celona and the two actors do a fabulous job with a play that seems to be an especially difficult one to direct and perform, both because of the long monologues and the range of emotions that the characters experience. Mr. Celona and Mr. Jorgensen resist the temptation to turn Ulysses into a cartoon. They find the right time to allow Ulysses to crack his first smile, and manage to make him sympathetic despite some dark deeds earlier in his life. Mr. Celona and Ms. Nicholas also manage to keep the suspense going regarding whether Emma is merely a shrewish control freak or whether there is more to her. During the first half of the play, when the comedy is abundant, both actors deliver their lines with excellent timing. It is a pleasure to watch the professionalism of these talented Equity members.
As usual at CVRep, the technical aspects of the production are also fabulous. Jimmy Cuomo (assisted by prop designer Doug Morris) has designed a set so evocative of an aging trailer owned by a slob, that I paused to explore its rich details as I walked into the theater. I spoke to Mr. Morris after the performance, who explained that the designers know someone who is restoring an old trailer, and were able to obtain discarded pieces to use for the set. The results are extraordinary - the design even includes a front and rear wheel on the sides of the stage, a round window, and simulations of the jalousie windows common on vintage recreational vehicles.
The rest of the technical team also deserves individual mention - lighting designer (and stage manager) Moira Wilkie Whitaker's creation sets exactly the right mood; Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers and sound tech Karen Goodwin have conjured a barking dog so annoying that even a dog lover such as myself would be driven crazy; costume designer Aalsa Lee's grease-stained apron is thoroughly revolting; and hair and makeup designer Lynda Shaeps has given one of the characters realistic bruises and Mr. Jorgensen horrendously matted hair. (Disclosure: Ms. Shaeps will be my instructor next semester at one of my theater classes at the College of the Desert).
Mr. Celona told the audience that, because CVRep has extended its performance schedule for this season's offerings, the run has not yet sold out. When word gets out about the quality of the production, that seems likely to change.
ANNAPURNA will run through November 20, 2016. CVRep's 2016-17 runs are now four weeks long instead of three, and now include some Tuesday evening performances and an additional Saturday matinee. Evening shows start at 7:30pm, and matinees (Sat. & Sun.) start at 2:00pm. Individual ticket prices are $43 for previews, $58 for opening night, and $48 for all other performances.
CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69-930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets for individual shows can be purchased by telephone at 760-296-2966; online at www.cvrep.org/tickets/; or in person at the box office. Box office hours are Mon-Fri 10:30-2:30 and 2-hours prior to each performance. To order a subscription for three or four plays, please call the box office at 760-296-2966; there are no online subscription sales at this time. For general information, go to www.cvrep.org.
This season's other offerings are:
Music by David Shire, Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., Book by Sybille Pearson
January 18-February 12, 2017
Three couples on a university campus deal with the painful, rewarding and agonizingly funny consequences of the universal experience of pregnancy and upcoming parenthood: The college students, barely at the beginning of their adult lives; the thirty-somethings, having trouble conceiving but determined to try; and the middle aged parents, looking forward to seeing their last child graduate from college when they receive unexpected news about the results of their night of passion.
DISGRACED (Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama)
By Ayad Akhtar
March 8-April 2, 2017
Mr. Celona calls this play, which examines Islamophobia, "my edgiest and most challenging of the season," both for him and the actors, and for the audience. A successful Pakistani-American lawyer and his white wife host a dinner party for an intermarried Jewish-Black couple, and the gloves come off. There will be a talk back session following every performance.
By A.R. Gurney
April 26-May 21, 2017
Comically, and sometimes painfully, two people rediscover each other and themselves later in life while a bevy of free-spirited people rally behind them and remind them of the infinite possibilities that life holds.
CVRep, a 501(c)(3) organization, is the only theatre in the Coachella Valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with Actors' Equity. As well as presenting its main stage productions, CVRep operates a conservatory and a children's program. CVRep is currently raising funds through a $6-million capital campaign to purchase the IMAX theater in Cathedral City, at the corner of Route 111 and Cathedral Canyon Boulevard, and to construct a 200-seat, modern theatrical venue on the site.
To contribute to the capital campaign, contact:
Andrea Spirtos, CFRE, Vice President of Development
(760) 296-2966 ext 107
To contribute for CVRep's annual operations, contact:
Barbara Wolser, Director of Development
(760) 296-2966 ext 103
PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Cox