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Review: THE DRAG at Desert Rose Playhouse

Mae West Classic Has Legs at 100!

Review: THE DRAG at Desert Rose Playhouse

I've got to admit that I was a bit leery about attending a play that was almost one hundred years old. Maybe that made me even more appreciative of The Drag, the current production at Desert Rose Playhouse. The Desert Rose team has polished this forgotten gem into a bright, enjoyable jewel.

When the curtain opens, we see a man and woman in an office, chatting as he works at his desk and the woman shelves books. However, we are watching a black and white movie, or so it seems. The set is painted in shades of gray, the actors wear black and grays, and they sport white makeup and white gloves. The two skilled actors in this scene tear through what is probably several pages of dialog with comfortable skill and ease. My eye kept going back to the tall woman (the man's sister or wife, never quite figured that out), when suddenly it dawned on me. "She" was Terry Ray, the playwright and star of Palm Springs' longest running play, Electricity. The doctor, played by Steve Rosenbaum, was the director of Electricity so I had seen him onstage at the Q & A's which followed the three times I saw the show. Of course they were at ease performing across from each other.

Soon a youngish boy (Joseph Portoles) comes in the see the doctor, confessing that he has been roughed up by some men. The doctor's daughter (Jaqueline Lopez) enters and we learn that there may be issues in her marriage to Rolly (Jason Reale). Frank Catale makes an appearance as Rolly's father, and eventually Rolly himself shows up. The whole production is visually a film noir. That style of film started a decade after this play was written, but director Robbie Wayne has mined the style delightfully.

The actors play with a stylized intensity, but it never extends to melodrama. I'm a great fan of B&W films and I immediately felt at home with the niche. A highlight was Jason Reale's Rolly. His dark hair is combed back and he sports a pencil-thin moustache, a perfect look for the period. His darting eyes and insecurity would tell the balcony that he has a secret, and we can pretty accurately guess what that secret is.

Things get interesting in the second act which is set in Rolly's mansion, a triumph of deco design by Matthew McLean. Rolly's butler (Art Healy) brings in two of Rolly's queenie friends (Terry Ray as a male this time and Johnny Pelto) to meet with Rolly and they enthuse about the upcoming drag ball. Then Rolly's architect friend Grayson (an almost unrecognizable Nick Wass) stops by to show Rolly some plans he has drawn. Rolly expresses his sexual interest in Grayson, but Grayson tells him "Nah, I don't swing that way." Rolly also confesses that he has never slept with his wife so Grayson plans to tackle that role, asking the wife to accompany him to the opera.

The butler then appears in a much more festive coat as he arranges the Rolly Mansion for a big party of drag queens. It's all fun - until it isn't. Mae West's script was surprisingly prescient in that many of her themes resonate today, but the ending was seemingly added to placate the censors.

Top marks (as always) go to artistic director Robbie Wayne. His vision of the whole story as a black and white film noir was highly effective and brought to life by very lush settings by Matthew McLean and costumes by Bill Kates. The cast was universally strong, with especially high marks being set by Terry Ray and Jason Reale. Alexa Ottoson, Laura Martinez-Urrea, and Kevin O'Shaughnessy rounded out the dramatis personae, and several names overlap the acting and technical pages.

The production is described as "A Mae West Double Feature," though the second play, Sex, wasn't performed the first week. Frankly, The Drag runs about an hour and forty-five minutes which is plenty, but the first week audience was invited to return to see Sex the following week (and when's the last time you received an invitation for that?). I plan to see that show, and suspect that one play at a time is plenty for me. My days of double features at the cinema are long gone.

The Mae West Double Feature continues through June 12 at Desert Rose Playhouse, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs (the former Zelda's Nightclub, close to Revivals). Tickets and further information are available at

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From This Author - Stan Jenson