Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]

This fine production at DET runs for one more weekend.

By: Apr. 17, 2023
Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
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Desert Ensemble Theatre (DET), has once again scored with its last production of the 2022-23 season. FUTURE THINKING, primarily a comedy albeit with serious moments, features fine acting and directing, a clever set and costumes, and a rich story.

DET's 2022-23 offerings are all recent plays by West Coast residents. FUTURE THINKING, by Connecticut-born playwright Eliza Clark [the original version incorrectly stated that Ms. Clark is a native of Canada -- that is a different Eliza Clark], takes on a favorite activity of West Coast geeks, namely attending fan conventions, colloquially known as "cons" (the more general of which feature sci-fi or fantasy topics, as well as comic book programming). The most famous con on the West Coast, if not in the entire United States, is probably San Diego's annual Comic Con, the apparent model for FUTURE THINKING, which Orange County's South Coast Repertory commissioned and premiered at Segerstrom Center almost exactly seven years ago.

Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
Security Manager Jim (Andrew Weiss) (right) and Peter (Raul Ramiro Valenzuela)
(left) discuss Peter's violation of a restraining order.

DET's production takes place behind the scenes during what it calls Phanta-Con. The play is a quintessentially Southern California tale, involving not only a convention, but a hit sci-fi television show named "Odyssey," Odyssey's most popular star, and a 51-year-old superfan named Peter. Peter seems to be using the show as an anodyne for his unhappy circumstances and his resulting depression; he is exactly the kind of individual that would have become offended upon viewing SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's famous (or infamous) 1986 sketch about a STAR TREK con. STAR TREK fans know exactly which sketch I mean - the one that featured host William Shatner as himself, telling the con goers to "get a life."

FUTURE THINKING starts as Peter (Raul Ramiro Valenzuela), dressed in a costume modeled on that of one of the characters from the show, finds himself being held in security after violating a restraining order obtained a year earlier by Chiara (J. Clare Merritt), Odyssey's now 23-year-old female star. The beautiful, immature Chiara does not particularly fear Peter. Instead, one of her concerns is feeling smothered by the protection of both her bodyguard (Nick Edwards) and her narcissistic mother (Alexana Thomas). Additionally, Chiara has decided that, despite her legion of fans, she is unlovable. Most of the action is divided between scenes of Peter trying to convince the head of security (Andrew Weiss) to release him without having him arrested and scenes of Chiara chafing against her outwardly charmed life.

Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
Sandy, Chiara's bodyguard (Nick Edwards) and her mom Crystal
(Alexana Thomas) try to chill out in Sandy's hotel room.

The acting and directing, as usual at DET, are superb. Veteran director Richard Marlow gets a great deal of energy from his talented cast. The pacing is perfect and every actor's characterization fits their character. When I attend a play to review it, I try to write down especially funny or important lines. At some point, I stopped taking detailed notes about FUTURE THINKING because I was completely taken in by what was happening onstage and did not want to divert my attention to my notebook.

Raul Ramiro Valenzuela, who plays Peter, has a rubber face, and his facial expressions provide a great deal of humor. [Disclosure: I have worked closely with Raul and consider him a friend.] As the play moves forward, Raul modulates Peter's vocal intonations and volume, sometimes suddenly; Peter goes from a reasonable-seeming individual to an angry, crazy-sounding man and back in a matter of seconds. Peter's teddy bear appearance helps the audience develop trust in him; his mild demeanor implies that the other characters are wrong about his being a threat to Chiara.

At first, Andrew Weiss plays Jim, the security manager who wants to become a police officer, as an everyman who is satisfied with the career stepping stones he has set up and with his humdrum life as a husband, father, and churchgoer. Jim's gratuitous advice to Peter, delivered almost in a bored monotone, sets up a strong contrast to the latter, who gets his life energy from Odyssey. Later, after Jim reveals key information about himself, we learn that his taciturn nature may be part of a façade designed to help him cope with life.

The other three actors, whose performances are also top-notch, ably lead their characters through a toxic three-way dance. Bodyguard Sandy, a family friend who has known Chiara since she was small, views her almost as a daughter. However, his devotion to Chiara keeps him from bonding with his own baby daughter, whom he rarely gets to see. Meanwhile, Chiara says she wants to get her mother and the bodyguard together so they'll leave her alone, but she may not mean it. The dysfunction among the three requires expert acting, and these three actors capably pull off the disturbing interactions. Nick Edwards plays the bodyguard, a retired police officer, as unflappable. Late in the play, Sandy decides to drop the calm persona to deliberately frighten someone, and his demeanor becomes chilling. Meanwhile, Alexana Thomas, as Chiara's mother, allows her hardened character to do fast flips between fury and neediness. Which is the real woman?

Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
Chiara (J. Clare Merritt) takes a selfie with the besotted Peter.

Chiara, the third leg of the family triangle, alternates between sympathetic and bratty. Chiara does more than reveal different aspects of her personality, instead making multiple transitions between childhood and womanhood and back during the course of the play. In the second act, Chiara engages in surprisingly mature and selfless behavior only to have something happen that seems to scare her into being controlled by her handlers again. J. Clare Merritt is fabulous as Chiara, whose role strikes me as the most difficult one in the play. Clare has recently returned to the Coachella Valley from Santa Cruz; Clare's presence here is a huge gain for local theatre.

According to what I read about the original South Coast Repertory production, it enjoyed the advantage of modern, high-tech facilities, which easily enabled scene changes among the three hotel rooms that serve as the locations for the action. One of the rooms is used as a makeshift security "annex," meaning that significant scene shifts are necessary for the office to turn into a hotel room and back. Those who have previously attended DET productions know that they take place in a converted movie theater with a small stage and very low-tech facilities. Set designer Tom O'Brien and design consultant Toby Griffin had to be creative to come up with a way to switch rooms on a stage that is far too small to allow separate sections for the security office and the hotel rooms.

Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
Chiara's bodyguard in a moment of fury.

Their solution is brilliant. The bed is freestanding, but nonetheless modeled upon a Murphy bed, with a shelf and fake books underneath. When the stage hands stand the bed upon its edge, the shelf becomes visible and can be used to signify a desk. The designers created two, similar sets that look like real, mirror image hotel rooms, with doors on stage left and right for the hall and bathroom. Although the doors themselves are identical, the one that signifies the exit contains the small information card that every hotel room displays. During scene shifts, the stagehands move the card back and forth between the door on stage left and the one on stage right - a clever way to convey which room is which. The stage hands also turn the two-sided art prints to the wall and back, depending on which room they are setting up; during the office scenes, they cover the prints with Phanta-Con posters. Rehearsals for the scene changes must have taken a significant amount of time and undoubtedly kept stage manager Sierra Barrick quite busy.

Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
Jim and Peter continue their heated exchange.

I also very much enjoyed Tessa Gregory-Walker's prop designs and Andrew Maclaine's costume designs - especially the latter's wholly ridiculous uniform for Chiara's space warrior "Odyssey" character. Feathers in her helmet? Really! Mr. Maclaine also created an amusing get-up for Peter's home-made costume. The metallic shoulder plates can never stay straight, and the helmet's protrusions look like Mercury's wings, making the helmet look more like an American Express card than a warrior's headgear. The sandals and socks might protect the wearer from a small stone, but good luck with an explosive. Both "uniforms" make clear how campy "Odyssey" is supposed to be - obviously we're not even talking "Lost in Space" in terms of seriousness. Yet, this show is Peter's life.

There were a few first-night glitches that have probably been repaired by now. At some point, the stage lights started blinking. Artistic director Jerome Elliott announced at intermission that the crew members had been unable to fix them, and the production went forward with white lights. Fortunately, this is not the kind of show that needs fancy lighting, and I did not find the inability to use lighting patterns to be distracting. A bigger problem was that the projections include a banner running around a screen, apparently intended to be hotel announcements on a television. These were too low on the screen, and, at least in the front rows, bled over into the walls. From what I could tell, the announcements would have added to the atmosphere, and I was frustrated that I couldn't read them. Other than these first night hiccups, Kevin M. O'Shaugnessy's lighting designs and Nick Wass's sound designs and projections are excellent.

Review: Desert Ensemble Theatre's FUTURE THINKING Is A Top-Notch Production [CORRECTED COPY]
Peter is in distress.

Although I was a bit confused by a few pieces of the script, and am still uncertain about which characters I like and which I don't, FUTURE THINKING tells an absorbing story in addition to its generating laughs. Serious elements include a reference to a tragic situation. The ending, after some shocking twists that I don't think people will guess ahead of time, may leave some unsatisfied, but others will probably enjoy trying to unpack what it REALLY means.

This is a well-written script and the performances and designs are superb. I recommend seeing the play.

FUTURE THINKING will run for one more weekend, from Friday, April 21st through Sunday, April 23rd, on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Performances take place at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (the Camelot Theaters), 2300 East Baristo Road, Palm Springs, CA. 92262 (across Baristo Road from Palm Springs High School). Tickets are $38.59 with service fee. Contact the theatre by email at DETCTheatre@gmail.com, call 760-565-2476 for tickets or more information, or consult the web site, www.desertensembletheatre.org. The snail mail address is PO Box 2885, Palm Springs, CA 92262.

PHOTO CREDIT: Nathan Cox



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