Its Tuesday evening and I am sitting in the ProArts Playhouse watching Director Mark Collmer fine tuning scenes and lines with his actors in Other Desert Cities. He has the Patriarch of the play, Francis Taua, and his “daughter” Kathryn Holtkamp in front of a Christmas tree trying body motions, positions and lines, then later Shane Borge and and Marsi Smith going through a tender moment between “Mother” and “Son” on the couch. Collmer makes fleshing out details and gently pushing his actors to their best performances look like a cake walk, as stage manager Faith Harding calls time, and gets the nights dress rehearsal in full swing. Other Desert Cities kicks off the 2018-2019 season of shows for the Maui theatre group ProArts, and opening night is this Friday at their ProArts Playhouse in the Azeka Shopping Center Makai.
Managing Director Kristi Scott cherry picked this passionate drama that takes place in Palm Springs for the opener this year. She also picked Marked Collmer to direct it.
“Collmer was on the island 4 years ago and he directed for Maui Onstage and for MAPA, says Scott. “I have worked with him as an actor. He did a show at ProArts years ago called ‘And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little’. So when he returned I was really excited about him being back on the island and being able to bring him back into the directing mode. He is really meticulous and methodical, but he has a really nice way of bringing life to theatre. He does a lot of what we call “Secondary Activity” which brings a natural life to the stage, as opposed to things feeling stagey. I like his approach. He has his own beliefs but he is not super politically bent. He has a really easy way of communicating with actors and pulling out some of there more deeper sides. He is a very intelligent director, I always appreciate that.”
As I watched the play I was immediately captivated by the characters’ struggles. The relationships unfolded before my eyes and the chemistry with the actors was wonderful, rich with the dialogue set up in this contemporary play by Jon Robin Baitz. The five characters play a family, Taua is Lyman Wyeth, and Smith, wife Polly, mother and father to son Trip played by Borge, and Holtkamp in the conflicted lead as their daughter Brooke Wyeth. Carol Lem plays Polly’s sister Aunt Silda. The dynamics really worked, while the play was serious and exploring, it remained fun and entertaining.
The family clearly loved one another despite differences in philosophy, politics, and lifestyles, I really like how much the words “I love you” were used in the script by all family members. Despite the love, I have never enjoyed seeing grown ass kids telling their parents off as much as I did on the stage last night, it was spectacular when the sparks flew too.
I asked Scott what called her to this play by Baitz.
“This year I read this one play called ‘Other Desert Cities’ and it really spoke to me about our current times,” says Scott. “Due to the current climate people are being divided. Families are being divided. Friends are being divided. This play is about how our passions and beliefs can separate us from the people that we love. How do we find that way to communicate and stay connected to the people that we care about even if we disagree with their core beliefs? Reminding ourselves that we love them and that not making it be all of who they are. When I was reading ‘Other Desert Cities’ it felt topical but not political by any means. It is very relevant for the times that we are in, but it is told in a humorous and affectionate way as opposed to smacking you over the head with it.”
The set in ‘Other Desert Cities’ was done by Jim Oxborrow and Jennifer Rose. It actually transports you to Palm Springs with its mid-century modern aesthetic. The intimacy of the ProArts theatre works in favor of this play, you really feel like a fly on the wall in the living room of this family as you watch. Scott says the props were fairly simple so she pulled those from their existing pool but when they require something special Board member Jason Strahn builds them.
This year ProArts will try a few new things in their upcoming season.
“This year’s season is going to be different in that during the holiday seasons, Halloween and Christmas we are going to be doing some different events,” says Scott. “This Halloween we will have activities to support the haunted house that will be at the Azeka mall. So we will be doing things like zombie face painting, having a Rocky Horror night and things like that. There will be a like a Halloween festival happening in the mall itself. For Christmas we are going to be doing something called the Naughty Noel, a Variety Show directed by Sarah Loney Marks, Felicia Chernicki-Wulf. It will be something a little bit different to sort of balance the fun and sugary sweet Elf that is at the Iao Theatre. Elf is such a delightful family show, so Naughty Noel is going to be almost the opposite, you know, you might not want to bring your kids to this one. But it will be fun and holiday festive nonetheless.”
For the other upcoming shows there will be a comedy by Terrance McNally which is called ‘Its Only a Play’ in January.
“It is a lovely homage to theatre itself and the kinds of people that do theatre,” says Scott. “It is very funny. That will be followed by a farce called ‘Black Comedy’ which will also be shown with a Christopher Durang farce called ‘Dentity Crisis’. Those will be directed by Lisa Teichner, she is the queen of farce. Those are going to be very good. Then our musical this season will be ‘Avenue Q’ which is an adult version of Sesame Street directed by David Belew. It is done with puppets but it is not a children’s show by any means. We close our season with a piece called ‘Sleuth’ which is a two person mystery in June.”
ProArts also started a youth theatre which will do its second production, Aladdin Jr. in November directed by Kristin Otterson and Francis Taua. ProArts plans to also do a new youth production in the spring too.
Scott says she likes to keep the legacy of the founder, the late Jonathan Lehman, close while she works on the season, but she is also expanding what the scope of ProArts does to keep up with the community needs.
“I personally really appreciated Jonathan Lehman’s vision and I do my best to uphold it as we move forward and grow,” says Scott. “I want to keep the core of his vision but I would also like us to expand and blossom out. He supported Kamp Krazy Tales but he would not have done a youth theatre or something like that, so that is how we are growing. But I do like to uphold his vision of doing smaller, more intimate and occasionally edgier shows. He was willing to take some risks and I like to follow in those footsteps as much as I can, but also knowing we do need to sell tickets. It’s a little bit of a dance. You never really know. I like to take a risk every now and then but you have to be careful.”
‘Other Desert Cities’ is such an amazing play. At one point in act one Aunt Silda says “Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby,” as she supports Brooke on writing her emotional family memoir, but everything is not as it seems. When Brooke says, “I’m past the point of good manners” you really aren’t sure if the family can keep it together. This is one rollercoaster ride you need to see to the end, because the twist is so juicy and good.
“It’s a dramedy,” says Scott. “It’s very wittily written. It’s got some really fun moments and then it has some really dramatic moments. It’s like being with the family. Sometimes you laugh sometimes you cry, sometimes it’s all in the span of 20 minutes.”
Go see ‘Other Desert Cities’ opening this Friday and showing for the next three weekends. Tickets are available by calling 808-463-6550 or go to ProArtsMaui.com.
OTHER DESERT CITIES – Fri. Sep 21 – Sun. Oct 7. Brooke Wyeth returns home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence to celebrate Christmas with her parents, her brother, and her aunt. Brooke announces that she is about to publish a memoir dredging up a pivotal and tragic event in the family’s history – a wound they don’t want reopened. In effect, she draws a line in the sand and dares them all to cross it. Showtimes: Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm (no performance on Sep. 29) and Sunday at 3pm (two performances on Sep. 30, 2pm and 7pm). ProArts Playhouse, (1280 S Kihei Rd.); 808-463-6550; Proartsmaui.com