SPECIAL EVENT : Your grandfather & grandson’s Granada – Santa Barbara’s arts and entertainment mecca reopens its long-shut doors


BY TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 29, 2008 12:42 PM

“This will not be the Granada you remember.”

Marketing Director Vince Coronado’s words are confident. For decades, the Granada Theatre has been the theater with an identity problem — stuck halfway between the 1920s and 1980s, reshaped, abused and partially used. But even those who might still be around to recall its early years will be in for a surprise when the remodeled, refurbished and refitted Granada parts its doors Thursday for its gala opening.
Everything good about the Granada of old has remained or been resurrected, from the Spanish mural that stretches high above the stage to the original reverse illumination chandelier that came out of storage and was returned to its original location in the center of the theater. Everything bad, outdated or unworkable has been replaced, including 21st century acoustic technology, separate entry access for those with special needs and additional restroom stalls for female patrons.
Of course, that will be secondary Thursday night when all eyes will be on the main attraction. A night of music, dance and song will help reintroduce Santa Barbara to the local companies that now have a shared home. To honor the Granada’s Spanish theme — granada means pomegranate, by the way — the evening will indulge in all things España.

In October, Granada Theatre Executive Director Peter Frische, far left, gave a tour to Granada and Santa Barbara Symphony officials, including conductor Nir Kabaretti, second from left. In July, EverGreene Painting Studios was brought in from New York to help during the final stages of reconstruction. Below, EverGreene artist Jim Ellis applies thin sheets of gold leaf to decorative shields.
MICHAEL MORIATIS, ROBBY BARTHELMESS / NEWS-PRESS FILE PHOTOS

Conductor Nir Kabaretti will lead the Santa Barbara Symphony in selections from Rimsky-Korsakov and de Falla in the first half, featuring Warren Jones on piano and Nina Bodnar on violin. Also calling the Granada home, the Santa Barbara Choral Society, backed by the Symphony will perform selections from Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”
The second half opens with a special appearance by relative newcomers Flamenco Ballet Pablo Pizano. Then with the Symphony relocated down into the pit, the State Street Ballet, Opera Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Choral Society will collaborate on a suite of excerpts from “Carmen.”
State Street Ballet director Rodney Gustafson compares these new collaborations to those that happen in places such as the Lincoln Center. “Opera usually has dancing within it,” he says, “but we were limited at the Lobero.” Now that won’t be a problem.
“Having a residence like the Granada will really help the profile of the company,” Gustafson says, adding the hardest audience to win over is always the home crowd. Maybe not so, as the company’s 15th anniversary will be spent in these new digs.
For Kabaretti, the sound of the Granada already has him rethinking programs.
“At the Arlington, we had to be aware of the acoustics,” he says. “There were certain composers we didn’t even program.” The Symphony no longer has to err on the side of pure volume to reach the far seats. “Next year we are planning more intimate pieces.” Some very delicate Mozart is on his mind.
Though Kabaretti leaves the Arlington with fond memories, he also remembers the lack of space backstage. There were nights, he recalls, when Choral Society members had to wait outside in the cold, waiting to go on. At the Granada, that problem no longer exists.

Jed Ellis of Evergreene brushes the gold plating off of a piece that will be displayed in the newly renovated Granada.
Robby Barthelmess/News-Press

In fact, the backstage area has been just as carefully planned and thought out as the public area. In a guided tour during construction a couple weeks ago, Granada Executive Director Peter Frisch pointed out the tiny corridor that used to be the Granada basement. The rest, he says, was dirt.
Now companies can indulge in 10 dressing rooms, all with showers and sinks; two large make-up rooms for choruses and ensembles (altogether a total of 48 make-up stations); sprung-board and sound-proof rehearsal rooms for dancers and musicians; a laundry room; a carpentry room for set maintenance; a wardrobe room; and private rooms for featured artists and conductors. For conductors and performers: brand new Kawai upright pianos for rehearsals. For the main stage: a Steinway grand that, at this time of of writing, was on its way from New York.
Helping move the Steinway is the above-mentioned hydraulic orchestra pit. At its basement level, the pit backs onto a storage area, where the heavy instruments will remain until needed. At its second level, the pit operates as its name suggests, flush with an area underneath the stage that accommodates 54 players — the largest of its kind between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, according to Frisch. At its top level, the pit is flush with the audience, allowing four rows, or 70 seats, to be added to the floor.
On regular days, pedestrians will be able to look into the front windows of the Granada and see all the way to the stage, part of an intentional design to make the Granada feel like it belongs to all of Santa Barbara, according to Frisch.
“It was a conscious decision: let’s do this right,” he says, adding he hopes the Granada will be the main entertainment theater on State Street for the next 100 years. There was no way they were going to come back in 30 years, he says, and add things. As costs started to rise after initial estimates, Frisch said he kept in mind the idea of a perfect arts environment. That included the restoration of a marquee that replicates the original 1924 design and bringing back a vertical neon blade that used to hang down the side of the building.
Opening night Thursday will close off a block of State Street to traffic, apart from vintage cars delivering flappers and their dates (actually members of State Street Ballet). Tickets range from $75 to $500, but March 9 features a free open house for the public to see what Frisch says is, for some builders working on the project, a cornerstone in their career. But while on a tour, as construction continued and not even the ground floor seats had been set in place, Frisch was asked how confident he felt in his deadline. As usual, he smiled. In his previous incarnation as a director, he knows all about deadlines and opening nights.
“If we have seats, lights and a stage, we’ll be opening.”

GRANADA GALA OPENING NIGHT
Where: Granada Theatre, 1216 State St.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Cost: $75, $250, $500
Information: 899-2222, www.granadasb.org

Post-Gala galvanizing
So the Granada Gala eluded your schedule/wallet/tastes. Don’t worry, plenty more events are in store on the upcoming calendar. More is soon to fill out the schedule, but here’s what is already available for purchase:
‘A Little Night Conversation with Stephen Sondheim & Frank Rich’: Legendary theatrical composer Stephen Sondheim will share the stage with New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich for what should be an insightful discussion. March 8. $22 to $68
Open house: Can’t get seats? This is your chance to see the new building. March 9. Free
Natalie Cole: The soul, R&B and jazz singer opens the Granada’s Preview Season with selections from her covers album “Leavin.’ ” March 14. $65 to $140
‘In The Mood: A 1940’s Musical Revue’: The music of the 1940s takes audiences for a trip back in time. March 18, 19. $30 to $55
NPR’s ‘Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me’: Sit in on a live recording of NPR’s nationally broadcast quiz program. March 27. $20 to
$40
America: Country-tinged rock, pop, and folk from the band that brought us “A Horse with No Name.” April 6. $50 to $70
La La La Human Steps: Award-winning choreographer Édouard Lock guides nine dancers and four musicians in a display of technique, structure and speed. April 8. $20 to $45
Mandy Patinkin: Tony and Emmy Award-winning Patinkin sings popular standards from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Harry Chapin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.April 11. $45 to $100
Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette: Grammy Award-winning vocalist McFerrin joins jazz veteran Corea, who boasts a four-decade career and nearly 50 Grammy nominations, and drumming legend DeJohnette, who is widely regarded as one of his genres greats. April 15. $22 to $68
Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular: Dance ensemble combine breathtaking movements set to live DJs and master percussionists. April 25. $30 to $55
The Fresh Aire Music of Mannheim Steamroller: Composer Chip Davis leads his ever-evolving pop classical group through an evening of multimedia and choreographed lighting. April 30. $47 to $57
Salvatore Licitra, tenor: This commanding vocalist continues to perform an impressive repertory that includes the works of Verdi, Puccini and more. Licitra will be joined by pianist Warren Jones, who is noted for his technique and accompaniment. May 8. $22 to $58
Diavolo: Los Angeles based dance company melds body and machine with use of oversized contraptions, structures, doors, stairways and more. May 10. $30 to $55
Marilyn Horne and Barbara Cook: Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne and Broadway darling Barbara Cook will perform what should be a dynamic duet performance. May 17. $22 to $68
22nd Annual Young Soloists Showcase: A tradition for 22 years, this annual concert features gifted young musicians who have earned the honor of appearing with a professional orchestra. May 18. $25
Mark Morris Dance Group: The Group brings the works of its namesake to reveal the depth of Morris’ talents in a display of creativity and masterful modern dance. May 20. $20 to $45
‘Carmina Burana’: The opening night selection was just a tease. Join the Santa Barbara Ballet Company for William Soleau’s choreographed version of the classic Orff opera, featuring the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Santa Barbara Choral Society. May 31, June 1. $20 to $50
–Ted Mills

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

DRINK OF THE WEEK : CAFÉ BUENOS AIRES’ OJOS NEGROS


NIK BLASKOVICH PHOTO
Ted Mills
February 29, 2008 12:02 PM

Café Buenos Aires may have the smallest bar out of all the ones our mixology crew has seen. With room for just four people, we were lucky to get a seat there on the Wednesday night when we turned up. Our timing, as usual, was impeccable — a half hour later the regular Tango dancers from the Carrillo Recreation Center classes turned up and the restaurant space behind us was turned into a dance-floor filled with sensual, interlocking bodies. I’ll drink to that.
Now small doesn’t mean barely stocked — bartender Geoff (no last name given, but ask for him by name, he’s been here a year) rules over all sorts of liquors and alcohols. If you’re lucky and it’s a bit nippy outside, he’ll offer up some mulled wine, full of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices, kicked up with a little bit of brandy.
But Buenos Aires means cachaça and cachaça means caipirinha, the cocktail that gets easier to pronounce the more you drink it (that’s kai-per-ren-ya…). Yes, I know it’s the national drink of Brazil, but Argentina likes it too. Anyway, their national drink is matte, and that’s the opposite of a cocktail. Moving on…
Geoff’s caipirinha is subtle and full of the interplay of bruised mint leaves and sugar and lime juice. Like a mojito, the mint should be muddled with the ingredients, but it shouldn’t be smashed beyond recognition.
A few weeks past Valentine’s Day, and Geoff can still whip up a romantic, sweet drink. You can ask for the Sweet Tart anytime, really, but it is sweeter than tart. For something that’s a mix of green Sour Pucker and purple Chambord, along with vodka and sweet ‘n’ sour, it’s amazingly red. How does the color wheel work again? With a rim of sugar, this drink is cute, so serve it to somebody who is.
Our drink of the week, however, has to go to the Ojos Negros. This is one of the few whiskey-based cocktails that hides its liquor well; as Geoff sums up, it’s a mojito but with Jim Beam and orange juice. For those unsure whether they like whiskey, the Ojos Negros makes a great intro. For those who love whiskey, you may order one after the other until it’s time to tango.

OJOS NEGROS
1-1/2 oz. bourbon (Jim Beam recommended)
Fresh orange juice
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
Handful of fresh mint

In a Collins glass, gently muddle mint leaves, sugar, and lime juice, making sure the flavors coat the glass. Top up glass with ice, add bourbon and top with orange juice.

Café Buenos Aires
1316 State St.
963-0242
www.cafebuenosaires.com

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

READY FOR THE SUN TO SET : Bob Potter’s ‘The Last Days of Empire’ looks to history

TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 27, 2008 10:22 AM
As in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” the desert seems an appropriate place for empires to fall. Those sands are metaphorical — they run through hourglasses, they run through our fingers, they wear down rocks and they corrode the best metal. Playwright Bob Potter returns us to the desert in new play, “The Last Days of Empire,” running through the weekend at Center Stage Theater, and to ask what America has done and where our country might be going.
Are we like the Romans, who overextended their empire, overspent militarily, let the gap widen between the rich and poor, and soon found barbarians at the gate? Are we like the Third Reich, with its secret camps and torturers and dreams of global domination? Or are we just Americans, after all, for good or ill, with an ability to change the experiment in democracy before it goes off track?
Mr. Potter’s optimism and humanism comes through in “Last Days,” more than it did in his last two plays, the dark and satiric “The Space Between the Stars” and “The Last Liberal.” Those two played like a requiem for a country hopeless and lost. “Last Days” manages a more reflective, philosophical tone. The three characters that stand in for their empires want no part in it, yet are all, in their way, working for the powers-that-be. And Mr. Potter collects them in a time warp to let them talk, on the verge of death.
Synesius of Cyrene (Tom Hinshaw) is long dead, anyway, gone to hang out with the shades in 4th century B.C. But he still hangs about his fallen villa in the Libyan desert, welcoming in a burnt and bleeding German tank commander, Karl (Matt Tavianini). The officer and his company were retreating to the ocean, giving up the war for good, when bombs destroyed the tank and his company.
Another explosion just over the horizon delivers Mindy (Tiffany Story), a worker for an American petrochemical company. She’s been blinded by an act of sabotage, a company-inflicted wound intended to start another invasion on the Middle East. (It’s only later in the play that we learn Mr. Potter’s “modern day” exists some 15 years in the future, when America is still battling for diminishing resources.)
For the better part of “Last Days,” these three meet, talk, play, and look for respite in the face of life. Mindy, blinded and made radioactive in the sabotage, shares Karl’s morphine and lets her rowdy Texan cowgirl loose. Karl envisions a visit from his wife, Petra (Devon Bell), a Berlin nightclub singer who bears bad news about herself, his city, and Hitler’s plans for the Jews. Is this what Karl was fighting for? He claims not to have known.
There’s not much in the way of plot in “Last Days.” Karl initially wants to leave, but as Synesius explains, there’s no way out . . . except one. Synesius plays cordial host, Karl suffers the pangs of regret and Mindy enjoys the morphine. Initial cattiness between Petra and Mindy evaporates, and a late visit from Synesius’ teacher and one-time lover Hypatia (Sylvia Short) pleases everybody — the wise and sarcastic older woman rules them all.
Mr. Potter asks questions but leaves us to answer them. The America-Reich connections might be there, but Mr. Potter has his eye not on Hitler, but on the complacency of a populace that allows a Final Solution or a Guantanamo Bay.
The weakness is the relative goodness of all his characters and the downside of Mr. Potter’s humanism. Karl seems to have no problem with the Jews — Mindy turns out to be one — and Mindy has long since finished with any crisis of faith in her country and, it turns out, is set on doing her best to make sure the truth will out. There are no general moments of disagreement in “Last Days,” just a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders. Yes, they all say, it had to come to this, and death is welcomed. There are certainly better parties there. Life, where is thy sting?
All the actors work with roles that bring them from symbol to individual. Ms. Story, who does best with comedic roles, brings the better laughs of the night, yet still comes out as a real character. If America must be represented in one person, her straight talking, life-by-the-throat Mindy reminds us what makes this country great.
Director Maurice Lord, taking a break from his usual dark preoccupations with Genesis West, works with an amiable, friendly hand, helped by clever abstract lighting from Theodore Michael Dolas. Ellen McBride Sheppard’s costumes give us a delightful Roman ensemble for the always-game Mr. Hinshaw, desert tones for the German and American, and a nightclub dress made for a funeral.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE EMPIRE
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo, upstairs
Cost: $15 to $18
Information: 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

Epic attempt fails the conquering hero : Westmont’s ‘Anon(ymous)’ mashes Homer, American immigrants in new myth


In Naomi Iizuka’s “Anon(ymous),” Anon (Tyler Leivo) becomes the amusing refugee to the spoiled Calista (Sarah Halford).
BRAD ELLIOTT PHOTOS, COURTESY OF WESTMONT COLLEGE

TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 27, 2008 7:24 AM
Stepping into the ring clutching a copy of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” playwright Naomi Iizuka joins a pack of artists, which includes James Joyce and the Coen Brothers, inspired by this epic ode. Her contemporary re-think, “Anon(ymous),” opened last week at Westmont College’s Porter Theater and attempts not only to update the tale, but also to pull it back into the mythic, and with varying results.
In Homer’s original tale, Ulysses’ journey home from the Trojan wars is fraught with diversions, dangers and temptations. Faithful wife Penelope waits and waits, with suitors jockeying for the position, should she be widowed. For Ulysses, he can and can’t go home again.
For Anon (Tyler Leivo), and other refugees in Ms. Iizuka’s work, home can’t be reached because it doesn’t exist. Having escaped from war and poverty, the wanderers find themselves adrift in a promised land that confuses and confounds them. Having washed up on a seashore (presumably Florida), Anon dreams of his mother and his homeland, knowing he can never reach them.
Elsewhere, in the play’s parallel narrative, Nemasani (Marie Ponce) plays the Penelope role, working in a sweatshop, knitting a shroud for the child she lost at sea. She spurns the advances of shop head Yuri Mackus (Nolan Hamlin) by pledging marriage only when she finishes the shroud (and then she unravels her stitching).
“Anon(ymous)” sets Anon on his journey, though his destination isn’t clear. Along the way he meets a raging Cyclops (Diana Small), barfly Lotus Eaters, Nausicaa (Beth Segura) and is watched over by the goddess Athena, here called Naja (also played by Ms. Segura).
Director John Blondell seems to like large ensemble plays, such as “Anon(ymous),” because it gives a seasonal display to the full range of Westmont’s drama students. With the play episodic in nature, students get a chance to ham it up — see Sarah Halford’s parody of a spoiled rich girl (Calypso in the play) or Ms. Small’s cannibalistic Zyclo — much to the delight of the audience. There’s also a chance an actor will stand out and be the one to watch this season — this evening it was Anna Lieberman, who breathed life into her brief role as Pascal, Anon’s traveling partner.
Mr. Blondell’s staging is, as usual, fascinating, with a convincing sweatshop made of chairs and repetitious movements from the actors, and a convincing train tunnel journey lit by flashlight and light bulbs. The simple but mysterious backdrop designed by Darcy Scanlin provides surprising exits and entrances, and the lighting by Jonathan Hicks complements with the appropriate atmosphere.
The play, however, is weak. Ms. Iizuka’s characters are all ciphers, stand-ins for the “immigrant experience” or one-to-one versions of their mythical counterparts. All the immigrants in “Anon(ymous)” are noble and goodhearted, and those they come across on land are exploitative, hypocrites and/or evil. There’s not much room for discussion after that.
“Anon(ymous)” attempts a mythic understanding of the journeys and experiences many future Americans undergo — the romanticizing of the home country, the mother worship, the comforts of home cooking, the dehumanization and the Otherness of the subject. “Mythic” here runs the risk of becoming clichè.
But then Ms. Iizuka forces this myth on top of the other, and things get tangled. No version of Ithaca exists for Anon to travel to, so Ms. Iizuka replaces the motherland with the mother. But Anon doesn’t know she exists, so where exactly is he heading again? Realistic economics enter into the story when it suits the myth, but disappear when they don’t. As for Penelope switching from wife to mother, that’s for Oedipus to sort out.
The character of Anon comes across as petulant and directionless. Standing in for everybody, Anon is precisely the “nobody” he claims in the play. But that leaves Mr. Leivo attempting to play a concept instead of a person, and halfway through the play it’s hard to find interest in his fate. When he acts the hero — as in the Cyclops sequence or in the video game fighting-style ending — the moment springs from nowhere and is never followed up. The rest is wandering.
It’s unclear what we are supposed to take from “Anon(ymous).” If we are to see our own stories as part of a collective narrative, then the interest lies where we divert from the story and not remain on the path. If this is a critique of First World exploitation, then it’s a cartoon polemic. If there is room for a new myth, a worthy hero needs to rise first.
‘ANON(YMOUS)’
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Porter Theater, Westmont College, 955 La Paz Rd.
Cost: $15 general, $7 students and seniors
Information: 565-7140
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

DRINK OF THE WEEK : COAST’S CHOCOLATE ORANGE MARTINI


NIK BLASKOVICH PHOTO
Ted Mills
February 22, 2008 11:33 AM

A few months ago we had thought of reviewing 31 West, the bar in Hotel Andalucia. But before the ink was dry on our list of watering holes, the place closed down. Suddenly, it was goodbye Hotel Andalucia and hello Hotel Canary, and by extension, goodbye 31 West and hello Coast.
For those who remember the old restaurant/bar layout, the Coast will surprise. There’s a more obvious division between lobby and restaurant, and the bar runs lengthwise upon entering, no longer at the far right corner. What feels like a mirrored wall is actually empty space looking out onto diners, Carrillo Street and beyond. No wonder we didn’t see our reflections ” for a second we worried we had become vampires “
Bartender Harry Congdon has been serving drinks here since the opening of 31 West, whereas his counterpart Jeff Shettler started his tenancy upon Coast’s opening in January, but has mixed at the Harbor, Dargan’s, and beyond. Both know how to whip up a fancy cocktail.
We started out with an espresso martini. There is a tendency in coffee cocktails to shy away from the innate bitterness of the bean by loading up with sweet additions, but Congdon played it quite close to a chilled espresso drink. The sweet came by way of Bailey’s, Godiva liqueur, Kahlua, and Absolut Vanilla. The espresso then balanced these out, allowing the flavor of the vodka to edge through.
A variation on the Lemon Drop came next, with a “crushed raspberry” spin. Delightful and pink, the cocktail starts off with muddled raspberries and lemon wedges where it meets sour mix and Absoluts Vanilla and Citron. The sourness again balances against the sugar around the rim of the glass. Neither sweet nor sour, the drink maintains its strong lemon identity.
Congdon made both these, leaving Shettler to finish us off with a real “dessert.” While the Coast offers plenty of such drinks on its menu (along with some yummy appetizers that almost — almost! — got delivered to us by mistake), Shettler went off menu to make us a Chocolate Orange Martini. Like his workmate, Shettler delivered a drink that toned down the potential sweetness and highlighted the flavors of the various alcohols. And so, with the recipe for our Drink of the Week, you can see what we mean.

CHOCOLATE ORANGE MARTINI
1-1/2 oz. Absolut Mandarin
1/2 oz. Bailey’s Irish Creme
3/4 oz. Godiva Liqueur

Mix together in a shaker over ice, strain into martini glass. Garnish with orange slice.

Coast Restaurant & Bar
31 W. Carrillo
884-0300, www.canarysantabarbara.com

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

ON STAGE : The sorrows of the young empire – Bob Potter’s play checks our nation’s dreams of grandeur


In “Last Days of the Empire,” Sylvia Short, left, plays Hypatia, a great intellectual, teacher and wife of Synesius. With her is Devon Bell, who plays Petra, a nightclub singer from Berlin.
COURTESY PHOTO

By Ted Mills, News-Press Correspondent
February 22, 2008 11:16 AM

Bob Potter disappeared for some time inside the coffee shop we agreed to meet at to discuss his next play. The delay, he says, is because he ran into an actor from his very first play, “Where Is Sicily,” produced in 1969. That play used the Athenian invasion of Sicily to discuss what was happening in Vietnam. And now, nearly 40 years later, Potter’s new play, “Last Days of the Empire,” opens tonight at Center Stage Theater, and in three historical eras in the Libyan desert, another unpopular war is discussed.
The difference, Potter explains, is the notion of empire. “In the ’50s and ’60s, if America was called an empire, people would argue about it,” he says. “Now it’s a given that it describes our situation.” But does Potter believe it? Are we like the Romans? And are we falling?
“In a way it’s a facile comparison,” he says. “Things move more quickly these days. But I think we are. We didn’t start being one until the Spanish-American war ” our expansion has been somewhat imperial. I’m trying to explore the period at the end of empires. This is when things go out of control. It becomes a dangerous period and a very dramatic period. All the old assumptions become questioned.”
In “Last Days of the Empire,” three figures meet in the Libyan desert, near the ruins of a Roman temple and the rusted-out shell of a German WWII tank. One is the philosopher Synesius (Tom Hinshaw), whose life as a slave- and landowner has turned upside down with the fall of Rome. Another is a German tank commander, Karl (Boxtales’ Matt Tavianini) who is the sole survivor of a battle following a decision to desert his tank command. Now he feels guilty about what he’s done, and the comrades that have fallen. The two meet a Texas woman, Mindy (Tiffany Story), who is working for an oil consortium. She is lost in the desert, having been blinded by an explosion. Sylvia Short and Devon Bell round out the cast.
For those who know Potter for his two previous Bush-era plays, “The Last Liberal” and “The Space Between the Stars,” the new play avoids those plays’ broad satire.
“This is more ironic and complicated,” Potter says. “It’s more of a conundrum and a series of questions ” I think America has lost its innocence, but in doing so, I hope it’s learning some wisdom.”
Director Maurice Lord managed to find space in his Genesis West schedule to work with Dramatic Women Theater Company. He and Potter had been meaning to work together for some time.
“He’s a generous director,” says Potter, but notes that while acting as producer on the project, he’s tried to keep the writerly intervention at a minimum. “I’ve had many years to think about this play. It came out pretty finished.”
Potter is an optimist at heart, he says. “To paraphrase Gerald Ford, our long national nightmare is almost over. This has been a very dangerous period that has fractured our (country’s) essentials. But we can come out smarter and wiser. Better times are ahead.”

‘LAST DAYS OF THE EMPIRE’
When: 8 tonight and Saturday, and Thursday through March 1
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo, upstairs
Cost: $35 opening night, $15 to $18
Information: 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

St. Vincent delivers a quiet riot at Velvet Jones : Small in stature, Annie Clark proved she can shred a guitar, even in a noisy bar

TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 19, 2008 7:42 AM

Annie Clark packs a loud sound for someone with such a tiny frame. Seeming almost lost behind three microphones and effects pedals, her four-piece rock ensemble and the monitors, Ms. Clark made her first visit Saturday to Santa Barbara, under the moniker St. Vincent, in an attempt to duplicate the intricacies of her self-titled album at Velvet Jones.
As a trial balloon, it only half flew. For those who know the album and are convinced Ms. Clark’s side project was one of the better releases of last year, only the sound mix stood between her and success. For those who had no idea about Ms. Clark (of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens bands), she had a hard time communicating her idiosyncrasies to the audience.
Take, for instance, the opening salvo on both the album and at Saturday’s concert — the swirling, pounding “Now, Now.” Despite the band’s hammering drums, Ms. Clark’s schizoid character-play had to be dropped for simplicity, as the dynamics between verse and chorus became lost in the wall of sound. Compared to Chuck Prophet’s rock show earlier that night at Lobero Theatre, St. Vincent seemed hampered by the venue. It was crowded onstage and even the music needed to spread out.
But as a guitarist, Ms. Clark has much to offer. Her fingers are nimble and spidery, and she often seems surprised by what her instrument says back to her. This quirkiness made St. Vincent endearing. And speaking of quirky, her between-song patter showed a preoccupation with cocktails she assumed Santa Barbarans might drink — Long Island Iced Teas with Kahlua.
The band — Billy Flynn on guitar, Daniel Heart on violin and Walker Adams on drums — expanded its instruments to play bells, melodica, bass pedals and samples (including Ms. Clark’s voice as backing vocals and snippets of Mike Garson’s piano work). Ms. Clark’s diversions into moments of ultra-reflective, quiet guitar work was lost on the crowd, who turned back to their drinks and friends and text messaging and what have you, despite having claimed space near the stage. Were these people fans or did they just want to be seen? Either way, a clueless and rude face was shown Saturday night.
But for those paying attention, Ms. Clark delivered a spot-on “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and her late-period Beatle-esque “Marry Me,” the title track on the St. Vincent album. Her vocals were strong, but overwhelmed by the thump of the drums and the heavy bass. Her effect-laden second microphone might have been turned off at times, too.
Ms. Clark’s band took a break while she played a solo, accompanied by her harpsichord-like guitar. But the crowd’s noise was overwhelming, and just one song in, she called the band back.
Ms. Clark then took the fiery “Paris Is Burning” and slowed it down to a frightening dirge. There was a little too much space in this arrangement, and the song needed a boost. That came in the form of show closer “Your Lips Are Red,” which recalls the scary thrust of Peter Gabriel’s earlier albums mixed in with the askance look of a Bjork or PJ Harvey. Finally letting go with guitar pyrotechnics, Ms. Clark finished the concert with her guitar left on the floor, feeding back among effects pedals and monitors.

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

Misery loves company, but three’s a crowd : Ensemble Theatre’s “Therese Raquin” brings out the heartache


Lauren Lovett, left, plays the title role in Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Therese Raquin,” alongside Jamison Jones as Laurent.
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO

TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 19, 2008 7:40 AM

When èmile Zola wrote “Thèrèse Raquin” in 1827, its tale of murder and guilt was seen as part of a new realism. Desperate living conditions, grim lodgings, unhappy marriages — these were subjects 19th century France hadn’t much explored in fiction.
But to our eyes, with its spiraling guilt, insanity and the occasional apparition, Zola’s work feels decidedly gothic. Maybe it was the oil lamps and the creaky floorboards. But whatever the outlook, Ensemble Theatre’s adaptation of Zola’s play succeeds with a slight uncomfortableness coupled with humor.
Thèrèse, played by Lauren Lovett, first appears as a stoic, blank-faced woman. At an early age, she was abandoned before being taken in by Madame Raquin (Barbara Tarbuck). The two live above a shop in a Paris apartment with Camille (Michael Matthys), Raquin’s milquetoast son, to whom Thèrèse is now married. As Thèrèse says of their arranged wedding night, she turned left to go into Camille’s room instead of going to her old room, and that was the only difference.
Frequent visits from Laurent (Jamison Jones), a starving artist and childhood friend who recently came back into the couple’s life, keep Thèrèse quiet through her miserable life. And when no one else is around, Laurent and Thèrèse throw themselves at each other with animalistic abandon.
Zola’s play, adapted by Nicholas Wright, kicks into gear when Laurent and Thèrèse wonder if an “accident” might take Camille out of commission and allow them to marry. And what do you know — Camille invites both out for a boat trip on the River Seine.
Anyone with a nose for noir can guess the plans don’t end well. Camille is pushed off the boat, and Zola surrounds his murderous lovebirds with an assortment of gullible characters and fortuitous happenstance that keeps them from becoming found out. If only Laurent and Thèrèse could have kept their guilt at bay, they would have been OK. But in “Thèrèse Raquin,” the characters wind up as trapped as they were at the beginning of the play.
But what keeps Zola’s play interesting is his astute view of fetish and desire. When Camille was alive, Thèrèse and Laurent would make passionate love, but once he was out of the picture and Thèrèse and Laurent married, their passion dissipated. At one point, Laurent leaves their wedding night chamber and turns up at the secret passage used for their early trysts. It works for a second, before Thèrèse moans, “We can’t even fool ourselves!”
Camille gets the first line of the play: “May I speak?” He’s sitting for a portrait that soon will be anchored in the bedroom. As Zola shows, Camille spends the rest of the play (alive and dead) trying to dominate the conversation, and he succeeds.
Director Jonathan Fox balances the play’s melodrama with comic relief from Camille’s oblivious friends, who are too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice what happened to their friend.
Ms. Tarbuck’s Madame Raquin dominates the stage — charming but suffocating, self-pitying and manipulative, and we are never too sure how to feel about her suffering. Ms. Tarbuck plays her role as straightforwardly as possible, and in her final act — frozen in bitterness and hatred — such a sad fate seems just as punishment.
As for Ms. Lovett’s Thèrèse, she does a lot to make us care about a character that never attains happiness and abuses those who love her. As Laurent, Mr. Jones conceals his motives well — as is briefly mentioned near the end, he may have struck up his relationship with Thèrèse because prostitutes became too expensive for his income. Put that way, Laurent may be the worst in the bunch — but Mr. Jones’ charisma distracts us.
Scenic designer Harry Feiner keeps the grimy realism coming in this meticulous set, with greens and browns dominating and never enough light.
If the play has a weakness, it’s in the third act, where bickering and unpleasantness threaten to turn Zola’s play into soap opera. But that is probably how Zola wanted it. Long before the kitchen even had a sink, he knew audiences would love that look inside their neighbor’s apartment, or even their own.

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

From Austin to outer space : Kelly Willis and Chuck Prophet expand Sings Like Hell’s horizons


Country singer Kelly Wills, center, was joined on a few songs by Chuck Profit and his guitar at Saturday night’s Sings Like Hell concert at Lobero Theatre.
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO

TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 19, 2008 7:39 AM

The Sings Like Hell concert series is slowly turning up the heat with its twofer lineups. With country singer Kelly Willis, we got a rock-solid set of sad tunes. And her small band didn’t prepare us for Chuck Prophet’s smoking hot pop-rock, which sent us out with our hair singed from Saturday night’s concert at Lobero Theatre.
Ms. Willis is rightfully punchy at this time in her life. She burst out of the gate in the late 1980s with an MCA recording contract, but she failed to get the sales she deserved. Many labels, a successful marriage and four children later, Ms. Willis now looks back on her early career as “several lifetimes ago.” But those experiences make her good-love-gone-bad tales reverberate now more than ever. One song, she noted, was co-written by both her ex-boyfriend and her current husband (she said both had left her at some point) — that kind of convolution “qualifies me as a country singer,” she laughed.
Ms. Willis’ guitar playing remained simple, but she was backed by two fine musicians — a steady bass player and an amazing lead guitarist who did some fine string-bending on just an acoustic, often sounding like Richard Thompson.
Highlights included a smart cover of the Cannonballs’ “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” with lyrics as good as the title sounds, and Jules Shear’s warm and poppy “The More That I’m Around You.” Ms. Willis also played songs written for her by husband Bruce Robison, including “Wrapped” and “Not Forgotten You,” both feeling like intimate glimpses into the couple’s home life.
With Chuck Prophet waiting in the wings, Ms. Willis brought him and drummer Todd Roper out to play a few songs, including the rockabilly tune “Teddy Boys” and the aching “Too Much to Lose,” for which Mr. Prophet played a sweltering solo.
Mr. Prophet produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Ms. Willis’ latest, but his own material only briefly checks in with the tropes of country music. Slide guitar might ring out, but, swathed in echo, the sound feels more psychedelic than anything.
In the ’80s, Mr. Prophet was part of the fondly remembered alt-country group Green on Red, and he has since continued to make music that drops hints of Lou Reed, ’80s-era Americana and a strange dash of Tom Robinson. In short, Mr. Prophet writes intelligent songs that would be chart hits in a just world.
“Small Town Girl,” the second song of his set, explained this musical gumbo — a funky bassline set against the syncopated rhythms of drummer Mr. Roper, and jazz chords in the chorus over which keyboardist and vocalist Stephanie Finch offered counterpoint. On “Soap and Water,” Mr. Prophet’s latest album, the song is intimate. At the Lobero, the band took it to an epic status.
The same was done with his two hypnotic numbers, “A Woman’s Voice” and the not-too-silly “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp).” Both rose and fell on increasing spaciness and ace guitar work from Mr. Prophet and his band members. Yet the band seemed to know exactly when to rein themselves in and let the words do the work, as they did on “Let’s Do Something Stupid.” Mr. Prophet’s band is so good, in fact, a live album from this tour would be a welcome addition to their discography.

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

Sweet from Sour : Journalist Sandy Tolan on the Middle East and training the reporters of tomorrow


“I’m not here to tell war stories, but to engage the students in a project and get them out in the world . . . I’ve always liked the idea of using the classroom as a newsroom. ”
Sandy Tolan, journalist and author

TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 19, 2008 7:33 AM
“Stay on the ground. Get your story from the ground. You’ll be okay, just don’t decide on what the story is before you go.”
Journalist and author Sandy Tolan received that advice from several of his mentors in his early education, including George Stoney, who taught him at New York University, and the New York Times’ Wayne King. Over 25 years, several books, award-winning radio shows, articles, and reports, Mr. Tolan has kept to the ground, trying to bring out stories of world conflicts through the people who experience them. His latest book, about which he lectures on Tuesday night, does so in the middle of the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The Lemon Tree” tells the tale of one house and one tree, and how the changing hands of ownership allowed Mr. Tolan to impart the story of the conflict through two families. Built by an Arab family, the house was inhabited by the al-Khairis until the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. The al-Khairis left and the house became home to the Eshkenazi family four months later. In 1967, Bashir al-Khairis visited the house and met Dalia Eshkenazi. As the decades passed, both Bashir and Dalia kept in touch.
“The book grew out of the 1998 radio documentary that I did on the 50th anniversary of the war,” Mr. Tolan says. “In all our coverage that I’ve read on the war, of all the forests fallen to make articles and the miles of videotape spilled, so much of it is about the blood and the conflict. There is too little of the human story. Many of us in the U.S., we grew up with the Leon Uris version of history, as in his book ‘Exodus.’ We learned how the growth of Israel came out of the Holocaust. What we didn’t learn was the other side. It doesn’t refute the Israeli side, but you must understand the roots of the conflict.”
That need led him to the story of Bashir and Dalia. But, he says, he had no idea how the story would evolve or what it might say about the conflict.
“I knew I was going on a pretty long ride. My opinion wasn’t changed, but it was deepened.”
Unlike in the movies, real life doesn’t resolve itself neatly. The lemon tree of the title seemed like a nice metaphor for the conflict — bearing bitter fruit, planted by Palestinians on Israeli land, etc. — but its fate ends abruptly, with nothing poetic about it.

When dealing with reality, how does Mr. Tolan know when a story has resolved?
“There’s always a deadline,” he says. “Thank God for deadlines, or we’d never get things done. This story has no neat and tidy end point. At some point I wanted . . . the ending to be told in the lives of those in which the story goes on. I got a chance to see those two people (Bashir and Dalia) finally meet again face to face. Something in their conversations was powerful and poignant. They were two old friends who disagree deeply, yet were so warm and genuine about their relationship. After seeing them argue and exchange a depth of grieving and kindness, I felt I had the ending.”
Mr. Tolan began his journalism career by reporting on the former uranium miners in north Arizona, most of whom were Navajo. He spent months living with and interviewing these men on the reservation, most now dying of cancer. Mr. Tolan says he comes out of an era that was still celebrating the power of journalism working for the public good. This was the post-Watergate era, he says, “when the words journalist and hero could be used in the same sentence. The public had a much better view of journalism in the mid- to late-’70s than they do now . . . There was the idea that you could be involved in making society better by digging for untold stories.”
A recent transplant to Los Angeles, Mr. Tolan teaches journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students, he helps them learn how to tackle large topics in a real-world setting. Some of th