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Friends and lovers: Ensemble Theatre Company’s play brings the laughs about a terrible relationship

 Playing the trio of emotionally charged 40ish divorcees from "Women in Jeopardy!" are, from left, Annabelle Gurwitch as Jo, DeeDee Rescher as Liz and Heather Ayers as Mary. Bruce R. Burr photo


Playing the trio of emotionally charged 40ish divorcees from “Women in Jeopardy!” are, from left, Annabelle Gurwitch as Jo, DeeDee Rescher as Liz and Heather Ayers as Mary.
Bruce R. Burr photo

Wendy MacLeod’s play “Women in Jeopardy!” started off with a familiar situation for many friends – watching their divorced friend find a new boyfriend “who we all thought was hideous. We could not fathom how she could be dating this man.” From there she combined the idea of the awful boyfriend with a crime story from her local paper, and out came this new work that previews Thursday, with an opening on Dec. 5, at The New Vic. The play is so new that, despite its premiere at Rochester, N.Y.’s Geva Theater, Ms. MacLeod is in town to work a little bit more on her play, trimming it down into a “lean, mean, comedy machine.”

The play stars Heather Ayers (“Sweeney Todd”) and Annabelle Gurwitch as Mary and Jo, two divorcees who do not like the new dentist that their friend Liz (DeeDee Rescher, last seen at ETC in “Good People”) has fallen in love with, called Jackson (Bill Salyers). His dental hygienist recently disappeared, and the two think that Jackson might be a serial killer. And Jackson’s swaggering arrogance only seems to confirm their suspicions. When he invites Liz’s daughter Amanda (Sophie Ullett) on a camping trip, the two friends need to both break the news to Liz and stop what they think is a crime about to happen. And that’s just the beginning of this whirlwind farce.

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A second slice: Ensemble Theatre takes on Sondheim and ‘Sweeney Todd’

 David Studwell and Heather Ayers are two of the actors performing in Ensemble Theatre Company's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." David Bazemore photo


David Studwell and Heather Ayers are two of the actors performing in Ensemble Theatre Company’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
David Bazemore photo

Last week Santa Barbara audiences sat transfixed by the odd blend of dance and theater that was Adam Barruch’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Lobero Theatre. In the audience watching the performance was Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox, who just that day was rehearsing his own version of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody and dark musical, set to open this coming Thursday. It was one of those weird coincidences in Santa Barbara theater than happens now and then – like two productions of “Other Desert Cities” in 2015, one at the Rubicon, one at PCPA – despite every company trying for a unique season.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” says Mr. Fox, just before rolling into a story of schedules, contracts, dropping a previous plan, and thinking of returning to the world of Stephen Sondheim. “A Little Night Music” was the first performance at The New Vic. Rick Mokler, some 20 years ago, had put on a production of “Sweeney Todd” at SBCC, but it had never returned to our city.

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Ensemble closes season with ‘Venus in Fur’

 Bruce Turk, new to Ensemble Theatre, plays writer-director Thomas and Annie Abrams plays Vanda in the two-character play "Venus in Fur." Bruce Burr photo


Bruce Turk, new to Ensemble Theatre, plays writer-director Thomas and Annie Abrams plays Vanda in the two-character play “Venus in Fur.”
Bruce Burr photo

Ensemble Theatre finishes this season with “Venus in Fur,” the David Ives-penned hothouse of a play that joyously blurs the line between actor and role playing, befitting a story that takes as its inspiration the 1870 novel of the same name (minus the plural letter s) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. (Yes, that’s where we get the word Masochism.)

After the large cast and inventive sets of “Woyzeck,” Ensemble is seeing out the season with that most modern of set-ups: two people in a room, and a relationship that changes completely over the course of its runtime.

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Ensemble Theatre stages Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s daring musical ‘Woyzeck’

The "Woyzeck" cast includes Matt Gottlieb (Doctor), Stephen Van Dorn (Woyzeck) and Matthew Henerson (Captain). David Bazemore

The “Woyzeck” cast includes Matt Gottlieb (Doctor), Stephen Van Dorn (Woyzeck) and Matthew Henerson (Captain).
David Bazemore

When writer Georg Büchner died at 23 in 1837, he left behind the fragments of a play that had no ending and no official structure. Yet out of all his works, the “working-class tragedy” of “Woyzeck,” about a soldier gone murderously mad with jealousy, is the most read, most performed, and most interpreted. There have been operas, movies, a ballet and many stage adaptations. It is extremely open to interpretation.

Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox has taken on one of the most popular recent adaptations of the play — a musical by Tom Waits and his wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan — and brought it to the New Vic, opening tonight. And even that is an interpretation: Mr. Fox has ditched the other third of that 2002 production: Robert Wilson’s direction and production design.

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The Powerhouse : THE NEW VIC AND ITS NEW SEASON REDEFINES SANTA BARBARA THEATER

The exterior of the New Victoria Theatre

The exterior of the New Victoria Theatre

A pool and a splash zone for an upcoming Ensemble Theatre show? Who would have thought? But in the beautiful new space for one of Santa Barbara’s oldest theater companies, anything is possible. Called The New Vic, the $11.5 million remodel of the building on the corner of Victoria and Chapala Streets opened this month, a mixture of state-of-the-art theater construction and a devotion to preserving this former church and its 92-year-old original structure.

When the mayor cut the ribbon at the opening several Fridays ago, it celebrated the end of a construction process that had its high and low points, as well as a new chapter in Santa Barbara’s performing arts district. Mayor Helene Schneider called it the “jewel in the crown” and with its refurbished, stained glass windows glowing during a performance, the comparison is apt.

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Ensemble ends an era with McNally romantic comedy

 Dee Ann Newkirk as Frankie and Rick Gifford as Johnny. PHOTOS COURTESY DAVID BAZEMORE


Dee Ann Newkirk as Frankie and Rick Gifford as Johnny.
PHOTOS COURTESY DAVID BAZEMORE

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.

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Grieving from New York City : Ensemble presents Joan Didion’s play about death

Linda Purl DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO

Linda Purl
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO

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.

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Year Staring Death in the Face : LINDA PURL PLAYS JOAN DIDION IN ENSEMBLE’S ONE-WOMAN SHOW

 Director Jenny Sullivan, left, and Linda Purl David Bazemore photo


Director Jenny Sullivan, left, and Linda Purl
David Bazemore photo

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.

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All in the Rhyming

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.

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Closing the Book on 2012 – Ensemble Theatre gets witchy for December

Clockwise from top, Leonard Kelly-Young,Thomas Vincent Kelly, Susan Ruttan, Mattie Hawkinson and Zachary Ford David Bazemore photos

Clockwise from top, Leonard Kelly-Young,Thomas Vincent Kelly, Susan Ruttan, Mattie Hawkinson and Zachary Ford
David Bazemore photos

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.

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