The Merry Wives of Brooklyn – Ensemble’s season opener is straight outta New York City

David Bazemore Photos
David Bazemore Photos

Theater is a living, evolving art, and that is aptly demonstrated this weekend when Ensemble Theatre Company opens its 2010 – 11 season with Alan Brody’s “The Housewives of Mannheim.” Brody’s play made it out of the 2007 writers workshops to the desk of director SuzAnne Barabas, whose New Jersey Repertory Company has since been living with the play, molding, creating and claiming the characters as its own.

In a rare move for Ensemble, the director and cast have come to Santa Barbara to mount this West Coast premiere.

The play, set in 1944 Brooklyn, follows three women whose husbands are away at war. May (Phoenix Vaughn), Alice (Wendy Peace) and the salty Billie (Corey Tazmania) all live in the same building and all know each others’ business. This has its benefits — community and solidarity — but also its problems, because people have their secrets.

Into their lives comes Sophie (Natalie Mosco), who is fleeing Europe and Nazism. Sophie will be the catalyst for change in everyone’s lives, particularly May, who is beginning to wonder about life in general and her position in society as a woman, housewife, worker and beyond. Behind her smile lies frustration and repressed feelings.

The title of the play comes from a Vermeer painting — though not a real one — that May sees at the Museum of Modern Art, and which becomes a symbol for her stasis in life.

Barabas has made it her mission to produce new work for the last 13 years, with the start of New Jersey Rep. After working closely with Brody on rewrites and rehearsals, Barabas premiered the play in 2009. The original run of five weeks was extended, and it toured Indianapolis, played New York and now comes to the Alhecama.

Despite a change in cast for the Indianapolis production, the original cast owns these characters, according to Barabas.

“They know them more than anybody else,” she says. “As you start to rehearse, the actors will start to say, ‘My character would never say that.’ They really take them on as themselves.”

With each production, Barabas discovers new things and can delve deeper into the play.

“The actors are like my children,” she says. “You work with them, give them suggestions, try to teach them. Really, 90 percent of a play is casting. You have to just trust them. A good actor will give you what you need. So you give what you can, let them out into the world and, hopefully, they will make you proud.”

The women come from Alan Brody’s own background — his mother’s generation — but these are also people the Flatbush, N.Y.-raised Barabas feels she knows, too.

“It was a world of community,” she says. “If you opened the hallway, everybody would come out. It was a sisterhood, something you don’t really have a lot of now.”

The play, Barabas stresses, is a comedy, despite some serious plot turns. It’s also the first in a planned trilogy by Brody, who couldn’t just leave these characters at the end of “Housewives.”

“We need these new plays,” Barabas says. “We need the new Tennessee Williams, the new Eugene O’Neill, but we can’t if we are just doing old plays. If we don’t have theaters that will open their doors to new work, then theater will just die.”

The Good, the Old and the New

With “The Housewives of Mannheim” opening this season, Ensemble Theatre Company has tried to mix the new with the classics in their selection of five plays. Here’s a quick overview of the other four.

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” (Dec. 2 – 26)

Director Jenny Sullivan, who has worked on three Ensemble productions (“The Memory of Water,” “The Clean House” and “Tea at Five”) returns to head this comedy by Charles Ludlam. Two actors play a dozen roles in a campy mix of Victorian melodrama, Hitchcock and “The Mummy’s Curse.” Joseph Fuqua (“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”) and Jamie Torcellini (from the touring production of “Billy Elliot”) star.

“Opus” (Feb. 3 – 27, 2011)

Based upon the volatile breakup of the Audubon Quintet, Michael Hollinger’s drama follows the dissolution of a classical ensemble from mental illness, Machiavellian maneuvering and sexual intrigue, along with selections from Bach, Beethoven and Bartok.

“Ghosts” (March 31 – April 24, 2011)

Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was controversial when it premiered in 1882, dealing with morality and venereal disease. Things have mellowed since then, but its scathing portrait of upper-class hypocrisy still resonates, along with its beautiful language. Michael Learned of television’s “The Waltons” stars.

“The Fantasticks” (June 2 – 26, 2011)

The season rounds off with a thrilling, classic musical with music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones. Based very loosely on a play by Edmond Rostand (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) this is a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-run-away-and-learn-about-life story, with breezy songs. Since its premiere in 1960, the show’s original off-Broadway production ran a total of 42 years and 17,162 performances.

‘THE HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM’
When: Through Oct. 31; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, special 4 p.m. matinee Oct. 16
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $30 to $50
Information: (805) 962-5400, www.ensembletheatre.org

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