Although now known as the Presidio Neighborhood, the area between Anacapa and Santa Barbara streets along Canon Perdido used to be both a Chinatown and a Japanese town back in the pre-war era, with Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens (now known as The Pickle Room) being the last remnant of that era. And for six years the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation has honored that heritage in several ways, their current one hosting the Asian American Film Series, three films over three Fridays, starting tonight.
Put together by a committee headed by Teresa Chin, the festival shares recent documentaries that illuminate the Asian-American experience, this year focusing on Filipino-, Chinese-, and Japanese-Americans.
Back in the early years of Santa Barbara, the Chinese community and Japanese community lived across the street from each other, a Chinatown and a Japantown, living in perfect harmony on the site where Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens looks out over the Presidio. Those days are long gone, with only a few remnants remaining, but the Asian-American experience continues. That’s the subject of “Sharing Our Common Ground: The Fourth Annual Asian-American Film Series” put on by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. The three-film series starts tonight and continues until July 26, with screenings at the Alhecama Theatre.
The three films are all documentaries on the Asian-American experience and take in adopted Chinese children, Bruce Lee (born in San Francisco), and a Japanese-American homeless man who has a painful history of the internment camps in sunny California.
Nearly a quarter-century old, Terrence McNally’s play “Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune” has several difficulties for any director that don’t seem so prevalent now in modern theater. Two people in a room, with action that happens in real time, going from a one-night stand to something that looks like full-time commitment. And though it joshes with the ideas of pre-1940s romance, it’s unabashedly romantic, just unglamorous. It presents us with earnestness and asks us to take it seriously.
Fortunately Saundra McClain is up for this task and has delivered a fitting curtain call for the Ensemble’s most recent season and for the Alhecama Theater. The next production will open in the Victoria, so regardless of this review, realize this is your final chance to experience the cozy ambience of the Alhecama.
In 1987, director Saundra McClain was living in New York City in Manhattan Plaza, the “Miracle of 42nd Street,” the 45-floor artist housing complex. Across the street was a small theater where a two-person play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” opened. “I have no recollection of it. I just remember two people on stage.” (Those two people, by the way, were Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham). She’s not being glib, just a statement of fact and a life filled with playgoing.
And it helps to not remember anything particular when you wind up directing your own version, set to premiere Thursday at the Alhecama Theatre.
Here are the facts: One day in 2003, author Joan Didion sat down for dinner with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. After some small talk he keeled over dead from a heart attack. This happened while their daughter, Quintana, was in the hospital in a coma from septic shock. Two years later, she too died.
More facts: Ms. Didion’s memoir of that time, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was released to great critical acclaim, placing it in the company of other noted writing on grief. After her daughter passed away, she adapted, lengthened, and changed the book into a one-woman show for Broadway, where it starred Vanessa Redgrave. And now Ensemble Theater Company, with Linda Purl starring and Jenny Sullivan directing, opened this last weekend.
When Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking” debuted in 2005, it gained accolades as one of the finest contemporary books about the grieving process. Written in 88 days, Ms. Didion took on a time of double tragedy: the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne from cardiac arrest, and the long illness of their daughter, who passed away just as Ms. Didion finished the manuscript.
Two years later, with David Hare directing and Vanessa Redgrave starring, “The Year of Magical Thinking” made its way to Broadway with Ms. Didion’s own adaptation of the book into a play. Five years and many accolades later, our Ensemble Theater Company, with Jenny Sullivan directing and Linda Purl starring, bring Ms. Didion’s one-woman play to Santa Barbara.
Currently, a very silly rap track about thrift store shopping holds the number one place in the pop charts. The newsworthiness of this event centers on its indie stature — breaking into a corporate dominated chart through new media means. But the other story — and why Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” got passed around Facebook and Twitter — is how we all still love the humor and thrill of rhyming, especially when it makes us laugh.
This thought bubbled up while watching Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, “The Liar” at the Alhecama this last Sunday. David Ives updating of Pierre Corneille’s Restoration farce has kept its iambic pentameter and its rhyming scheme, and earns so many of its belly laughs with rhymes.
It’s time for the Ensemble Theater Company to put on its big holiday show, and what can be more seasonal than… witches? With “Bell, Book and Candle,” opening tonight, you can have both yuletide fun and the casting of spells. This 1950 Broadway play from John Van Druten later got made into a Hollywood film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, their only other on-screen team-up apart from in “Vertigo,” along with Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacks. Its mixture of romantic comedy and witchcraft influenced the show “Bewitched” six years later, and its domestic nature still gets played out in shows like “Charmed.”
The setting is Manhattan, circa 1950, and it’s Christmas time. Gillian (Mattie Hawkinson) is the young woman who is working her charms on her upstairs neighbor Shepherd (Thomas Vincent Kelly, last seen here in “Opus”). And “charms” is right: she’s a witch, and he doesn’t know it yet. But there’s also a rule — perhaps it’s in the back of a book of spells, who knows — that if a witch falls in love, she could lose all her powers. Gillian has two relatives to help her through this troubling time: Aunt Queenie (Susan Ruttan), also a witch, and Gillian’s brother Nicky (Zachary Ford). Also on hand is Sidney (Leonard Kelly-Young) a crazy writer who is working on a book about witchcraft. Guest director Brian Shnipper is set to work this all up into a magical holiday brew.
Christmas shows at the Ensemble Theatre headquarters during Jonathan Fox’s tenure as artistic director have been well-meaning but slight. As an antidote to serious drama they have provided some polite laughs with plays that usually wear out their welcome by the second act. Last year’s “Tea at Five” was more successful, a Katherine Hepburn bio that worked precisely because it wasn’t about Christmas.
And now with “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Ensemble has a great show on its hands. There’s no mistletoe to speak of, just wolfsbane to ward off lycanthropes. But it is imbued with a very silly, crazed energy, just what we need as the year comes to a close.
Murder. Mystery. Mummies. Vampires. Wolfmen. Is this Christmas? At Ensemble Theater Company, it sure is, with the preview night Thursday of “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a very light, very ridiculous work of theater meant to bring some levity in the middle of a dramatic season. Featuring only two actors but over eight roles, the evening requires many quick costume changes behind the scenes (over 30!), and loads of gender switching. In other words, yes, we have men in drag. Deck the halls!
Charles Ludlam wrote 29 plays in his short life, most of them comedies. Many are considered by critics and companies to be unmountable, as they were so intertwined with Ludlam’s persona. But “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is not that kind of play. Possibly Ludlam’s crowning achievement, it provides a series of memorable characters as well as postmodern pastiches of everything from “Rebecca,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Gaslight” to penny dreadfuls and Universal horror movies. His company was called the Ridiculous Theatrical Company — located in Greenwich Village, New York City — and the name indicates what Ludlam was after.