BWW Review: Two Terrific One-Acts, GRACELAND and ASLEEP ON THE WIND, at Desert Ensemble Theatre
My first visit to Desert Ensemble Theatre proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Their presentation of two one-act plays -- Graceland and Asleep on the Wind - harkened back to a purity of theatre which was so exciting to me in my college days. By stripping away full sets in favor of a few strategic prop pieces in front of black drapes, all of the focus was on the actors and the words they were speaking, and director Rosemary Mallett certainly found actors who skillfully rose to the challenge.
Graceland, the first piece, was set in 1982 when two women, strangers to each other, set up camp across the street from Elvis's Graceland three days before it is scheduled to open to the public. Each has arrived at 5 a.m. so that she will be the first to cross the threshold. The older lady, Bev (Bonnie Gilgallon), decked out in a huge bouffant blonde wig and pink polyester pant suit, has set up a pup tent, has a folding lawn chair, and a plastic cooler. The younger lady, Rootie (Maricela Sandoval), arrives in cut-off overalls, carrying just a bed pillow. The women set their lawn chair and pillow down on the grass at exactly the same moment, thereby setting up one of the major precepts of the script - who was actually first?
It's always interesting to see how a writer will handle two strangers meeting, and Louisianan playwright Ellen Byron has certainly picked a unique situation for them, but it works. The play was written in 1984, two years after its setting, and one of the characters is from New Orleans, the playwright's home, so perhaps there is some personal history. At any rate, the battle for who will be first through the gate feels fully credible, and the ebb and flow of dialogue between the women is very natural.
Gilgallon brings decades of experience to her Bev and it's reflected in her trust of a slight tilt of the head or adjustment of her lawn chair's position to convey frustration, anger, or recognition that she's in danger of losing her advantage in the contest. Young Maricela Sandoval is a treasure, keeping up with Gilgallon blow for blow. A woman/child with way too much make-up (this is explained later in the script) who has a flightiness and inability to stay still which hints lunacy. The parry-and-thrust of their competition goes through an Elvis trivia quiz, tic tac toe, and a sharing of stories of what Elvis meant to their lives.
The second play, which follows intermission, is Asleep on the Wind. It is set approximately 10 years before the earlier play, and explains the details of a story told by one of the women in the first play. I was so delighted by the playwright's decision to fully explore one of the stories told by the two bickering women in the first show, that I don't want to disclose too much about the plot of the second play, except to say that it features Sean Timothy Brown, the valley's go-to young hunk actor. This opening night was just two weeks after I saw him singing and dancing his heart out in Grand Hotel at another local theatre, and he left an indelible impression earlier this season as the new professor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's easy to see why he is so in demand, and his performance here is consistent with his earlier work.
One-act plays are the short stories of theatre and are at their best when they use a minimal number of actors, and one dramatic conflict which is set up, examined, and resolved. Graceland, the first show, does just that, and does it well. It can easily stand on its own, and would make a great acting exercise for any pair of female actors. On the other hand, Asleep on the Wind would make very little sense if presented without the first story. It basically just fleshes out a personal story one of the women tells in the first play. Either way, I realized when I first sat down in the theatre that I hadn't seen a one-act play in decades. What a joy to renew that acquaintance!
It was so nice to see the use of minimal sets, designed by Lauren Bright. Graceland features a 15' square piece of artificial turf with a small tent on it plus the aforementioned lawn chair and yellow bed pillow. That kept our focus completely on the two women. Asleep on the Wind has a tree, a tree trunk, and some steps with a portion of a plantation house column. The light color of these pieces gave them a stark contrast to the black drapes.
Ashton J. Bolanos's lighting design would have better served if had he had used side- and back-lighting to give dimension to the faces and popped them out from the background. His reliance on almost all front-lighting left the characters looking flat. In the second play, he lit the set, not the actors, so when Brown moves downstage right, as he often does, his face is shadowed. Frank Cazares's costumes kept us in 1982 and 1972, the dates of the two plays, and Gilgallon's pink pant suit was a hoot!
Director Rosemary Mallett, assisted by Eve Fromberg, selected her cast wisely, and steered them well. My attention never waivered from the action on stage, and the characters were all dimensional and convincing. Backstage chores were carried out by Gus Sanchez, Maiya Orosco, Abraham Ortiz, Rodolfo Rubio, and Elijah Torres. I noticed that Desert Ensemble uses high school students for many of their tech positions, even awarding scholarships to some when they complete their senior year. I heartily applaud them for offering this opportunity. I know that when I was in high school, going to my other classes was just something I had to do so I could follow my true love, theatre. I think that my passion would have been fanned even further if I had been given an opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with all ages of people in an environment not as regulated as schools must be.
Graceland and Asleep on the Wind will be presented at the Pearl McManus Women's Club in Palm Springs through Sunday, April 28. Tickets and further information are available at www.DETCTheatre.org, and next season's lineup should be available on their website soon. I know that I'll be coming back again!