Santa Barbara’s theater scene marked anniversaries, said goodbye to some well-loved people and maintained high-quality shows in difficult times in 2010.
For companies, it was a year of stasis. The city college’s theater group is still waiting for Garvin Theatre renovations to finish, but that has led to some interesting work in Interim Theatre, converted temporarily from a classroom. Alan Ayckbourn’s “Time of My Life” featured some of Santa Barbara’s best actors Ed Lee, Katie Thatcher, Brian Harwell, et al. for a twisted dagger of a comedy, while “Machinal” and the “The Suicide” featured nothing but SBCC’s drama students onstage, and both productions (revivals of 1920s plays) were brave and daring. The Ayckbourn play also marked the farewell production of Rick Mokler, who had been directing for 20 years. Katie Laris has big shoes to fill, and one can already see she’s ready to take the department in a new, vibrant direction.
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.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” said L.P. Hartley in his opening lines to “The Go-Between.” Joe Orton’s “Loot,” which opened this past weekend at the Alhecama Theatre, is very foreign indeed. The farce makes traveling back to the Swinging London of the mid-1960s feel as long a trip as one to Oscar Wilde’s 19th-century Britain. As they say about traveling in new cars, your mileage may vary.
Orton was the enfant terrible of the new playwrights of his time, busting genres like Tom Stoppard but poking the establishment where it irritated them most. With his life cut short at age 34, we wonder where Orton might have gone — more political like Stoppard or Harold Pinter? Would he have been an ambassador of bad taste, like our filmmaker John Waters? Or just petered out?
During the original stage run of Joe Orton’s “Loot,” which features a dead mother as a plot device that spurs the action, the playwright’s mother died.
Orton went to Leicester for the funeral, then returned to London and the production. There is a scene where the dead mother’s false teeth are played like castanets. Backstage, Orton handed his mother’s real set to the actor Kenneth Cranham, who blanched.
First thoughts upon entering the Alhecama Theatre for this production of “The Glass Menagerie” — has the stage ever contained this much depth? By its use of sliding doors, three levels, and some beautiful floor lighting, we get taken back to the dark and dank St. Louis tenement where playwright Tennessee Williams exorcised the ghosts of his past and reincarnated them as unforgettable characters.
On walks Tom Wingfield, played by Joe Delafield. He stands outside the tenement he shares with his mother and sister, lights a cigarette and leans against the wall, looking like the anti-hero in a film noir. But he’s no gumshoe, and his staccato Southern accent — young, fast, clipped, like George W. Bush, but with 10 times the vocabulary — lays out the rules of the play: Memory, spirits, exaggerations. And then there are the things that we realize he is not telling us about: shame, guilt, betrayal, and regret.
There’s a lot of dust and funk that has covered “The Glass Menagerie” in the 65 years since its premiere. The campy parodies, the popular and “definitive” portrayals of the Wingfield family by stars like Katharine Hepburn, John Malkovich and Karen Allen. The celluloid amber of Anthony Harvey’s 1973 version. But if any company in town can polish and make this classic look brand new, it’s Jonathan Fox and Ensemble Theatre.
“The characters have become iconic and the lines are so well-known, like ‘Hamlet,’ ” says Fox, who directs. “It becomes a challenge to figure out what might be fresh.”