ARTIFICIAL MORALITY at Desert Ensemble Theater Company

afib. Exaggeration. White lie. Falsehood. Whopper. The Big Lie. It’s no wonder we have so many terms for prevarications in our vocabulary. Desert Ensemble Theatre’s current production, artificial morality, examines the practice and ramifications of altering the truth (among many other observations). A tight 80-minute script, a strong quartet of actors and a capable director keep us completely entertained, at the same time asking ourselves “At what point does exaggeration or bending of the rules stop being okay?”

The first character we meet is Rufus Foster (or at least the character who presents himself as Rufus Foster). This character was rehearsed by Fergus Loughnane, but the actor went into quarantine for the first weekend of the show due to Covid exposure, so DET Executive Director Shawn Abramowitz played the role with script in hand. I certainly wasn’t a disappointment. It was easy to ignore the script in his hand because his characterization of it was so believable. The show opens with him sitting in a tight pool of light rehearsing a job interview. After 90 seconds describing his background, he stands up, walks around the chair, sits back down and gives a totally different interview, citing totally different “facts” about his personal history. And then he does it again. Which one of these interviews was his actual story about him?

The next scene uses the entire room as Edwina Carson (a very in-control Bonnie Gilgallon) interviews Eddy Carter (Scott DiLorenzo). Gilgallon is always a delight, and there is no doubt that she is in control of the interview. She asks Eddy if he likes to be called Ed, Edward, or Eddy? He says that it doesn’t matter. She tells him that she will only answer Edwina. Not Eddy, not Ms. Carter. I loved the playing with the similarity of their names, and the contrast of strength and weakness in what they want to be called. DiLorenzo, the interviewee, is new to me, though apparently he has a history in the Coachella Valley, and a healthy resume elsewhere.. His Eddy was reminiscent of Jonah Hill – appearing a bit lightweight and malleable but with an underlying solid foundation. He will give you an honest day’s work; never more, never less.

That scene is followed by an interview with Rufus, the character who started the show, for the same job. He gives one of the three approaches he used at the beginning of the play, explaining that he has moved home to take care of ailing family members. Through both interviews, Gilgallon has several papers in her hand which she frequently looks down at. Ostensibly they are the interviewee’s resumes of her, though she looked at them so frequently, it looked like she might be checking the script. This was especially true in her interview with Rufus when the substituting actor did indeed have a similar set of papers in her hand, the script. It felt a bit like a staged reading.

Both men end up getting hired as associate editors, starting on the same day and sharing the same office. This is significant when we catch up with them in their office six months later and compare where they have gotten with the company.

The cast is completed by Laura Martinez-Urrea as Lola Lopez, a quiet staffer who has done some background checks on one of the two associate editors, revealing that he has exaggerated. Or fibbed. Or told outright lies. How does this revelation affect the credibility of all the work she has done as an employee?

I’m a rock-solid fan of Thomas L. Valach’s set designs, and his work here is up to his bankable standards. The set is a wall of different height blue-grey flats, making up “any room” in a modern business. He has designed a logo panel for the publishing company, Unitech, where the play is set, and like the room, it tells the viewer nothing specific but looks authentic. The set is used for different locations around the company by moving a table and two plain chairs, so it is clean and simple, but as with all his sets, I found my eye wandering to contemplate each of his design choices.

Cameron Keys directed the play. He is currently a student at COD, and has been an intern with DET for several years, earning a $1,000 scholarship two years ago. To be handed a position like this with a company like this is akin to offering a kid the keys to a Porsche. Fortunately, he rose to the task very well. The play has a very believable quality, moves at a brisk, even pace, and the blackouts are kept very short. Keys is a man to watch as he has built a solid foundation in acting with various local companies, turning in some outstanding performances. I was not aware of his technical background, but not surprised. Now, he’s capable of handling the director’s reins, the coordinator of all the components of the show.

artificial morality is written by company founder Tony Padilla. It is in fact the eighth of his scripts from him to be presented by the company, and indeed it is a world premiere. The 80-minute script gives the viewer plenty to gnaw over, and I admire plays without intermissions.

Desert Ensemble Theater is now in residence at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (Camelot Theatres), set up in former Cinema Three. Artistic Director Jerome Elliott told me about some of the changes they are planning to the auditorium to improve its functioning, but it works surprisingly well as it is, even if there is no traditional backstage or dressing room area.

artificial morality plays through January 30 with evening performances Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:00 pm and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 pm Tickets and further information are available at www.desertensembletheatre.org. Desert Ensemble Theater requires that all individuals show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to gain admittance to the theater when attending performances during the 2021-2022 Season, and masks are required.

Photo by Beckie Johnson

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