Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Oedipus at Palm Springs
Theatre Rhinoceros
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of Always...Patsy Cline and Patrick's reviews of Sunday in the Park with George and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Elaine Jennings and Jensen Power
Photo by David Wilson
If you've never been to Palm Springs, the resort town plunked on top of a giant underground aquifer in the scorching desert of California's Coachella Valley (or haven't been since it was the domain of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope), life there can feel like a reversal of the demographics of the rest of the country. More than half the full-time population are LGBTQ, the entire city council is LGBTQ, and the city is peppered with restaurants, bars, and resorts that cater to the LGBTQ community.

So it's no surprise that two lesbian couples—Fran (Eliza Gibson) and Con (Desiree Rogers), and Prin (Elaine Jennings) and Terri (Jensen Power)—have come to the desert mecca to enjoy a weekend at a women's resort. Despite the fact that it's August, when temperatures regularly top 110 degrees, the weather won't be the most scorching thing that happens in Oedipus at Palm Springs, which opened Saturday night in a Theatre Rhinoceros production at San Francisco's Gateway Theatre. No, the big heat here is coming from the romance that is still sizzling—after seven years!—between Prin and her much younger partner Terri, and from the blistering (though not terribly surprising) revelation that will come in the play's denouement.

While Prin and Terri have a hard time keeping their hands off each other, it's shocking that the pool at the resort hasn't frozen over, given the sexual cold snap radiating off of Fran and Con, who are deep in the throes of "lesbian bed death." Ever since she got pregnant with their son (more than three years ago), Fran's sex drive has withered into non-existence. They've tried therapy, but Fran still sees her breasts as primarily nutritious rather than erogenous. "I love your tits, and I can't touch them," Con moans in therapy-speak, "and that makes me sad."

Oedipus at Palm Springs was written by The Five Lesbian Brothers, a New York theatre collective whose best-known member is the Obie and Tony Award-winning (and Pulitzer-nominated) Lisa Kron. So it's no surprise the show is well-written. Kron and her collaborators have created a set of lovable and relatable characters (including the New Age-y resort manager Joni, played by AJ Davenport.) The Brothers also exhibit a tremendous level of insight into the nature of relationships, peeling back layers and exposing the intimacies and emotional vulnerabilities with which anyone who's loved someone for a long time can identify. The text shimmers with truth—and humor. And tragedy, for you can't have "Oedipus" in the title and not expect some dark turns of plot.

Within the essentially queer nature of the relationships, The Five Lesbian Brothers have placed their characters into almost stereotypically rigid male-female roles. It's a level of conventionality that would rival The Honeymooners. Prin and Fran are butch, Terri and Con are femme. While Prin and Fran play golf, Terri and Con go shopping at the outlet mall. When Con models her newly purchased low-rise jeans, Fran's clueless comment is "Is your crack supposed to be hanging out like that?"

The quality of the script alone is enough to make Oedipus at Palm Springs worth seeing, but the cast is—for the most part—sadly unable to find the rhythms in the text, or access the core humanity of the characters. While the five actors make a sincere attempt to do justice to both dramatic and comedic elements, ultimately we see them only as actors performing their roles, never—even for a brief time of suspended disbelief—as real people. This abates somewhat near the end of the play, when Elaine Jennings turns Prin from a swaggering (and besmitten) dyke into a vulnerable woman who is crushed under the weight of accumulated tragedies. Jensen Power, as Terri (an adoptee in the midst of a search for her birth mother), is the most consistently natural performer. Her first entrance, coming after several minutes of stiff, stagey line readings is like a hit of pure oxygen at high altitude. AJ Davenport's Joni is given some of the best lines (including the weirdly brilliant, "If you are squeamish, do not prod the beach rubble."), but she fails to truly embrace the prophetess nature of her character. (In another nod to the Oedipus myth, Joni is blind.)

The set by Bert van Aalsberg is fittingly mid-century modern, but shows the limited budget van Aalsberg had to work with. Still, paint isn't expensive, and the set could clearly use another coat or two.

Though ultimately enjoyable, thanks to the efforts of The Five Lesbian Brothers, the team at Theatre Rhinoceros fails to live up to the potential of the text of Oedipus at Palm Springs.

Theatre Rhinoceros' Oedipus at Palm Springs, through July 22, 2018, at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$40. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 800-838-3006.