Theater Review: WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME (Dezart Performs in Palm Springs)

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by Jason Mannino on January 22, 2024

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley)


Dezart Performs kicked off 2024 this past Friday with a compelling production of Heidi Schreck‘s What the Constitution Means to Me. When I saw the direct-from-Broadway production at Mark Taper Forum in 2020 it stood as a profoundly relevant tour de force. Astonishingly, since then, we have witnessed an escalating imbalance within the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a notable surge in banned books, laws passed that make saying “gay” and the existence of drag queens in specific locations illegal. All of these developments further heightened the urgency of the play I experienced on opening night. Describing the play as a theatrical experience seems more fitting than labeling it a conventional play, as Schreck, who in this production is masterfully played by Robyn Cohen, integrates various elements that are distinctive to live performances.

Robyn Cohen and Craig Wroe

Interwoven with Schreck’s life, the one-act chronicles the playwright’s maternal lineage, spanning from her great-great-grandmother to present day. It delves into how the Constitution, with all its intricacies, played a significant role in shaping and, at times, devastating their lives. Shifting seamlessly between the present and the past, the narrative kicks off with fifteen-year-old Heidi recounting how she financed her college tuition by winning Constitutional debate competitions nationwide.

Robyn Cohen

However, the story takes a turn as the “psychotically polite” young Schreck, harboring a crush on Patrick Swayze, merges with enlightening consequences, exploring the “penumbra” of the “hot and sweaty document.” Throughout the play, Heidi emphasizes that the Constitution acts as a crucible in every sense — impacting her family and continuing to guide generations of families, shaped by the cisgender white men that wrote the document.

Robyn Cohen

The play’s plot unfolds in three distinct sections. In the initial part, Cohen directly engages with the audience, explaining that without any performance shift she will become Schreck as a 15-year-old and then as a grown-up, before she will eventually drop the character to become herself.

Tia Laulusa and Robyn Cohen

The final section is the changing aspect to each performance that comes at the end, when Cohen invites a local student to debate her on whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. A coin flip determines the sides they take, and an audience member chooses the winner. Debater Tia Laulusa adds grace and poise to the production, offering inspiration for what lies ahead for the future of the constitution and this country.

Craig Wroe

Throughout the play Schreck is accompanied by the stoic, charming debate moderator, a Legionnaire deftly portrayed by Craig Wroe who in the latter sections of the play strips away the character to become Schreck’s warm, gay friend Mike. As Schreck, Robyn Cohen is masterful on every level. She keeps the audience fully engrossed as she toggles between adult and adolescent Heidi. She beautifully engages us emotionally, physically and vocally as she straddles the delicate balance between pathos and humor.

Robyn Cohen and Craig Wroe

Director Craig Wells skillfully maintains a dynamic pace on Jimmy Cuomo’s well-designed representation of the Legion Hall (Schreck came upon the idea for her Tony-nominated, Pulitzer finalist from the discourses she presented to American Legion halls while in high school) complimented with effective lighting by Rick Bluhm. Constitution delivers an entertaining, thoughtful, humorous, insightful, and sometimes disturbing examination of the United States Constitution, not just its its glories but what the playwright sees as the document’s shortcomings. For 105 minutes, it is a concise but thought-provoking play — entertaining, literate, informative, often disturbing, and never dull.

photos by David A. Lee

What the Constitution Means to Me
Dezarts Performs
Pearl McManus Theater
at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S Cahuilla Road in Palm Springs
Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2 & 7:30; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on January 28, 2024
for tickets ($48), call 760.322.0179 or visit Dezart Performs

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