By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

When a theatre closes its doors for good that’s usually a cause for tears and lamentations.  The Temples and/or live theatre venues in the world can ill afford any more venue closings in the time of media cutbacks and their support for the Arts. Outside of hard cash, the media is the mother’s milk of continuing support for keeping the doors open.

But not to worry. CV REP, one of the finest Equity theatres in the Coachella Valley isn’t closing its doors but merely transferring from its cozy 88 seat venue location at the Atrium in Rancho Mirage, to their new home in the former IMAX Movie theatre in Cathedral City.

Producing Artistic Director Ron Celona’s dream of bringing Equity theatre productions to all of the Coachella Valley has been incubating for six years. On March 15, 2019, CV REP will debut its new 208 seat, state-of-the-art theatre, with the musical “Chess.” Stay tuned for more information. But first, we need to discuss the current production “White,” written by James Ijames, and deftly directed by Ron Celona.
 It’s a uniquely structured comedy with dark undertones that deals in how people relate to one another using the prism of skin color, sexual identity, racial diversity, privilege or lack of it. And that’s only part of the issues presented in this non-traditional comedy with a bite. 

It’s intensely provocative to be sure.  The question for me is what is playwright Ijames trying to say to his audiences?   What are the audiences expected do with this information once they have processed it? Which by the way, is excellently performed by its outstanding four-member cast If the play’s dialogue hit’s one as a bit enigmatic, does the story even as it unfolds then remain an enigma? Things to ponder…

When the lights, cleverly and neatly positioned for maximum effect, by Lighting Designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, come up, we’re at the prestigious Parnell Gallery, being welcomed by Gallery director Jane (Charlotte Munson).  The second scene takes place in a cozy apartment, designed by CV REP Emmy-winning resident designer Jimmy Cuomo.  It’s the home of mildly successful, young, gay, painter Gus (convincingly played by Paul David Story, and his schoolteacher partner Tanner (engagingly portrayed by Anthony Saludares).

Gus is ambitious and looking to climb another rung upward to further his career as an artist. Tanner is quite happy with correcting his students’ papers and essays while enjoying the companionship of Gus.  Ambition in creative artists is usually a good thing and necessary for success.  Gus’ friend Jane has been recently promoted to “New Visions in American Art” curator at the prestigious Parnell Galleries.   Jane has her Gallery’s mandate and intends to debut the necessary emerging artists that meet her goals of presenting artists of diversity, color, and gender, but must be relatively unknown.  Gus is confident that long-time friend Jane will present his latest canvases at the gallery opening.

Gus, yes, were friends, but I’m not looking for more works from a white dude, Jane explains.  It’s a shattering shot across Gus’ bow which deflates him and his relationship with Jane for a while until he experiences an astral visit from a god-like figure that suspiciously resembles Diana Ross.  Hippies of the 60’s often claimed of experiencing such voices and visions after spending a session with Harvard Professor Thomas Leary of LSD notoriety or late night mushroom snacks spiked with unknown ingredients.

 Gus ‘epiphany leads him to create a back-story, as cover, for his scheme of having his paintings appear in the exhibit at the Parnell Galleries by hiring Vanessa, an African American actress (a sensational Franceli Chapman) to submit his paintings, as her own.  There are echoes of Woody Allen’s 1976 comedy “The Front,” in Mr. Ijames’ plotline. Instead of blacklisted writers, we’re now dealing with reverse discrimination issues of white painters. 

I admit it’s not a very strong line of attack to really have legislation do what common sense could easily accomplish.  But it does achieve what playwright Ijames and others have complained about all along – “whiteness” is a definite advantage.  Perhaps, he wrote his play to bring the issue of discrimination to more people’s attention.   It’s long been said that before you begin blankly condemning or tossing rocks, try walking a mile in the other guy’s or gal’s footsteps.

Vanessa at first demurs to Paul’s proposition to be his alter-ego.  But later decides it’s just another acting gig, so why not.  Paul introduces Vanessa to Jane as a painter with talent recommended by some of Paul’s friends.  Vanessa charms Jane who is excited with finding a talented woman of color that she can introduce as one of many that will appear at her upcoming “New Visions in American Art” exhibition.

Things appear to be coming along as the exhibition nears.  Jane is super-excited with her project.  Paul is uneasy because of subtle twists in Vanessa’s behavior of late.  Signs begin to creep into the ploy about the paintings and their origin. Also, Paul’s relationship with Tanner is becoming strained because of Paul’s plan, and Vanessa’s strange behavior.  To divulge any further details about “White” won’t be coming from me. No spoiler alerts here. This I can say; however, this is a production that shouldn’t be missed.  It’s performed without an intermission and runs about 90 minutes.

When it comes to the actors in “White” and just how they grab hold of their characters and how they interact with one another, is terrific.  For example, they are always in the moment, always reaching and stretching their talent to draw the audience toward them. Always generous toward one another yet work as individual professional actors, who blend and work as a unit.  It’s good stuff.

The technical credits over the last eight years at the Atrium have always been outstanding. For the “White production:” Sets by Jimmy Cuomo, Lighting by Moira Wilkie Whitaker, Costumes by Aalsa Lee, Sound by Kate Fechtig, Hair and Make-up Designs by Lynda Shaeps, along with  Associate Designer Doug Morris, and Louise Ross, as stage manager, complete the creative team led by director Celona. 

This the last CV REP production that will be performed in the Atrium. I’ve seen and reviewed most of them. It has been a wonderful run with many outstanding productions and many memories to be savored from the last eight years. So, Goodbye Atrium.  Hello, CV REP in their new home in Cathedral City beginning March 15, 2019.

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