‘Desert Rats’: TV or not TV? That is the question
From left, Walt Gray IV, Derek Chariton and Lila Gavares / Giovanni Solis of bracero

It’s common to refer to a flick as a good “date movie,” but Nate Rufus Edelman’s Desert Rats is a great “date play.” Another thing I’ve never written before in a theater review is that this tense 90-minute drama with sharp dialogue and behavior featuring underclass criminal characters would make for a perfect film directed by Quentin Tarantino, such as Reservoir Dogs. Indeed, the dramatis personae are very Tarantino-esque, and all of the twists and turns in this underworld milieu are reminiscent of an Elmore Leonard novel.

The setting would be right at home in a work by either of those talents who walk on the wild side: Barstow, best known as a desert outpost just this side of the California border while you’re en route to Vegas to lose your shirt (and inhibitions). A sense of place plays an important role in Edelman’s drama, which is tinged by gallows humor. The set by Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald, along with looming projections of an enlarged lunar surface, enhance the desert ambiance and help to turn scorched, sandy Barstow into another one of the production’s characters. As it turns out, this wasteland where Moses wandered for 40 years in the Old Testament is an apt metaphor for Edelman’s story.

The entire play occurs, without an intermission, inside a rundown motel room that’s more Norman Bates than Motel 6’s Tom Bodett. There, two would-be desperadoes are holed up in preparation for some sort of crime. As Jesse (Derek Chariton) and Frank (Walt Gray IV) banter back and forth it’s unclear what kind of caper it will be. A heist? A hit? Whatever they’re scheming to pull off, Frank and Jesse believe it’ll be their Big Score that will lift them out of hardship into a life of riches.

As Frank, who is the criminal mastermind of this operation, departs to drive back to L.A. as part of his master plan, his junior partner is left behind in the bare room to wait. Now, waiting around can get pretty tiresome, and cooling your heels in the desert heat when there’s no air con or fan only makes matters worse. Worst of all for Jesse is that the TV doesn’t work, either. So, as Jesse says, it’s “Africa hot”; he’s bored out of his skull playing solitaire; and oh yeah, he’s hungry, and this dump he’s lying low at doesn’t exactly offer room service.

To top it all off, Frank returns to Barstow hours late. And when he finally shows up late at night he deposits a young woman, bound and blindfolded, for Jesse to babysit in the morning while Frank pursues the next step of their grand scheme.

Amber (lithe Lila Gavares) may be all tied up (literally), but this high school cheerleader is no shrinking violet. She’s a shrewd cookie from the upper crust who sizes lowlife Jesse up and deduces that while she may be fettered and unarmed, and her two wardens have pistols, Amber has something else she can use to her advantage to empower herself. Sex can be the great equalizer and Amber cunningly conspires to use what was called in less “woken” times her “feminine wiles” to sextricate herself from her dire straits.

Sexual politics and class struggle are at the heart of Desert Rats. As the clever plot of Edelman’s three-hander unwinds we learn what the relationship is between Jesse and Frank. Even more importantly, as the story unfolds we discover exactly why the pair selected Amber, and precisely what the desperate duo’s relationship is to the elite high school senior. It all plays out and comes together neatly in this play chock full of surprises by a playwright who belongs to the Choctaw Nation.

As the down-on-their-luck, bickering twosome, Chariton and Gray IV are letter perfect, totally believable. Lila Gavares also delivers a powerful performance, but because of my preconceived ideas about cheerleaders I thought that Gavares—who, according to the playbill, is a “recent graduate of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television” and is presumably in her early twenties—seemed a tad too old to play a high school senior. Again, maybe I’m a victim of the stereotypes I have about cheerleaders (and females named “Amber”) and these could be tripping me up. On the other hand, the sly Amber is intended to defy expectations, so maybe this is a bit of canny casting after all.

Libby Letlow is credited as the “fight & intimacy choreographer” and I don’t recall seeing the latter job title before in a playbill, although I have heard of intimacy advisers on movie and TV sets. Perhaps this is a sign of our #MeToo and Time’s Up era of greater sensitivity regarding the enacting and depicting of scenes of a sexual nature.

From the use of a toilet (paging the intimacy choreographer!) to the arrival of a car, Ivan Robles’s sound design atmospherically expands the action beyond the threadbare motel bedroom to the offstage space. Angie Scott’s direction is taut where it needs to be, although her ensemble also provides moments of dark comedy. Extended from last year, theatergoers have until Jan. 20 to enjoy this rollicking ride that rocks and is choreographed inside of LATC’s most intimate space. Desert Rats was the first live play of the New Year I saw and is a kickass way to kick off 2019.

Latino Theater Company presents Desert Rats on Sat., Jan. 12 at 8:00 pm, Sun., Jan. 13 and 20 at 4:00 pm and 7:30 pm on Jan. 20, in the Los Angeles Theatre Centre’s Avalos Theatre, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. 90013. For more info: (866) 811-4111 or go to the theatre website.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.