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.
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.
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.
For viewers in the front rows for Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, you might just get wet while watching “Metamorphoses.” But don’t worry, director Jonathan Fox has the audience covered … literally, with rain ponchos. It’s can’t be helped when a great part of the stage will be a wading pool, built per stage instructions included in Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s classic tales of myth and transformation.
This year’s big story was the end of Ensemble Theater’s run in the cozy Alhecama Theater and its move to the renovated and brand-spankin’-new New Vic, an $11.5 million-dollar adventure that took many years to finally happen and has brought Jonathan Fox’s company to a space on par with the Garvin and Hatlen theaters. With state-of-the-art toys to play with, it’ll be interesting to see what Director Jonathan Fox does with the space. So far, Santa Barbarans have seen the Stephen Sondheim musical, “A Little Night Music” with Stephanie Zimbalist and Piper Laurie, and it was quite lovely.
Their farewell performances at Alhecama were also worth noting: David Ives’ “The Liar” was one of their funniest productions in a long time, witty and silly in measure. “The Year of Magical Thinking,” with Linda Purl stepping in for the recently deceased Bonnie Franklin in the role of Joan Didion, was the kind of one-woman show for which the Alhecama space was perfect. “Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune” was a good revival, although maybe not a necessary one.
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.
“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.”