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Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater

Now running December 17-19 at the Palm Springs Cultural Center

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater
Alexana Thomas as Beebo Brinkier

Pulp fiction got its name from the low-quality, pulpy paper the stories were printed on, not the content. However, "pulp" became synonymous with trashy, back alley reading punctuated with cheap sensationalist thrills, fast-paced plot lines and bad writing. Tell that last bit to John Lange (aka Michael Crichton), Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man, and Sam Spade) who have all had off-shoot careers in pulp.

These "underground" publications were a safe space for queer stories that were offering the same thrills as their hard-boiled detective cousins: good, sexy fun, combined with tongue-in-cheek romps designed to titillate the audience's senses.

The Chronicles of Beebo Brinker, written by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman, is based on a series written by Ann Bannon that earned her the title "Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction". The play meshes together three of the books: I Am A Woman, Women In the Shadows and Journey to a Woman spanning the years in the lives of three main characters from 1951 through 1960.

It is the first production for Desert Ensemble Theater in their new space at the Cultural Center, the former home of Coyote Stageworks (RIP) that shuttered this past year.

It's a great space, and Thomas Valach's sparse, dusky set wedded with Nick Wass's creative image mapping felt like Baby Bear's bed, just right. The image mapping technique adds another layer to the utilitarian set, and it's a brilliant tool in the hands of Wass and Valach. Each location has a definitive illusion and you are whisked from a train station, to Beth and Charlie's house, to New York, The Cellar bar and more.

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater
Charlie (Miguel Arballo) and Beth (Phylicia Mason)

In fact, all of the technicals from lights (Ashton Bolanos) to sound design (Gus Sanchez) and Rosemary Mallett's costumes subtly support the play with a noir sensibility leaving the actors to shine their own light.

And now, for the plot:

Beth (Phylicia Mason) and Laura (Lizzie Schmelling) are college sweethearts. When college is over, Beth decides she no longer wants to be a lesbian, and leaves Laura on the brink of a life-changing adventure. Beth marries Charlie (Miguel Arballo) and does the standard two kids and a picket fence thing. She is massively unhappy and for nine years regrets her decision not to go with Laura to New York.

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater
Laura (Lizzie Schmelling) arrives in New York

Alone in New York, Laura gets tangled up in the bar scene, specifically the dingy Cellar where she meets Jack Mann (Brent Anderson), Beebo Brinker (Alexana Thomas), and Marcie (Tessa Gregory-Walker) who is her roommate.

Hearts get broken, dreams get shattered, and love - at least for Laura - becomes something else entirely. It is Laura's decision that sets everyone else's life on their final paths.

The first time I saw Schmelling was, ironically, on the same stage in Coyote Stagework's fantastic production of A Doll's House Part 2. I recall asking "Who is that? She's great." I also saw her as Magenta in Desert Rose Playhouse's The Rocky Horror Show. Here's the thing about Schmelling, she doesn't act, you'll never catch her doing that, she embodies whoever she is portraying and it's brilliant.

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater
Laura (Lizzie Schmelling) and Jack (Brent Anderson

Her growth as Laura, from heartbroken and fragile into a strong woman choosing a much different and safer path than the girl we meet in act one, and the transition seems as natural as breathing for Schmelling.

The play has some wonderful dialogue, with the best comedic lines delivered by Anderson's Jack. My favorite is when he is consoling a very confused Laura with: "We can't think straight because we always think gay." Anderson glides through the role as if it was written for him, and he and Smelling play off each other well.

Mason does a nice job as Beth but when you sum it all up, Beth is not a sympathetic character. Her love is not strong enough to live an authentic life and leave with Laura, she is not strong enough to live with her own decision, and not kind enough to the man she married who actually loves her.

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater
Charlie (Miguel Arballo)/ and
Beth (Phylicia Mason)

She is petulant and whiny, and in the grand scheme of things, the character ruins every life she touches. It's hard to feel sympathy for Beth, but Mason is such a likable actor, it softens Beth's fatal flaws. But Beth absolutely deserves what she ultimately gets - not that I feel strongly about it, or got invested or anything.

Arballo's Charlie has on-stage actions that are counterintuitive to his words. He is played as a stereotypical, oversexed, grabby dude, but Charlie is not a bad guy. He just wants his wife to love him back. The added grabbiness, I feel, is unwarranted. Beth is the disingenuous one in the relationship, not Charlie. I don't know if it's written in, if it was the actors choice, or the director's but I feel it was a misstep. Arballo also plays Burr who is also quite handsy, but it works well for Burr's slimeball of a character.

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF BEEBO BRINKER at Desert Ensemble Theater
Jack (Brent Anderson), Burr (Miguel Arballo) and
Tessa Gregory-Walker

Gregory-Walker as Marcie, Lili and Nina is having so much fun on stage it might just be illegal. She romps through all of her scenes with wild abandon, each character is nuanced and delightful. Terrific job.

I saw Thomas as Roz in Dezart Performs production of White Guy On A Bus, and she was terrific. There's nothing wrong with her performance here, but after 2 hours of theater, Beebo Brinker remains a pencil-sketch of a character, a butch lothario on the prowl for pretty, vulnerable young women to bed. She wanders through the set at various times with a tip of her Indiana Jones hat and a few winks at the ladies, and moves the story forward when it's her turn for exposition. The character is about as clear as a nebula (it's not clear) so don't expect to know any more about the titular character when curtain falls than you did when it rose.

Judith Chapman brings decades of acting experience with her to the director's chair, and she's given us a very good drama. Her staging of the sex scenes is very creative - both sexy and romantic without any nudity. However, her choice for the tone of the play is different that its original production. It premiered as a comedy (many reviews called it "hysterical!"), and I wish Chapman had sprinkled this production with a dash of camp, and a pinch or three of "melo." It's pulp fiction after all, some pulpy remnants would have been delicious.

All that being said, the play is absolutely worth the price of admission, and I'd like to give big kudos to Artistic Director Jerome Elliott and Executive Director Shawn Abramowitz for producing a lesbian-forward play. I write an events blog here in Palm Springs and try to include people of all flavors. With the exception of hikes and book clubs, lesbians are woefully under-served here. I even asked my lesbian friends where they go for fun, and the answer is always "Where the boys are."

This weekend it's time for the boys to go where the girls are, and if you're a smart cookie, it will be off to the theatah to see this production.

Desert Ensemble Theater

2300 East Baristo Road, Palm Springs, CA 92262

*all photography by Betsy Johnson



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