A FULL PLATE: 2010 in Theater: Santa Barbara Kept On Keepin’ On

David Bazemore
David Bazemore

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.

Meanwhile, over at UCSB’s own theater department, we got to see “The Trojan Women” in February, “Iphigenia 2.0” and “The House of Bernardo Alba” in May, and “How I Learned to Drive” in November, the last featuring a stunning performance by Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann.

Ensemble Theatre is still waiting to move into its new digs at Victoria Hall, and one wonders just how the larger space will affect the types of plays it stages. This year’s lineup benefited from its cozy space: the two-person shows of “Souvenir” and the current “Mystery of Irma Vep,” the hothouse domestic spaces of “The Glass Menagerie” and “The Housewives of Mannheim,” or the crowded drawing room farce of “Loot.”

With his hands half full with Westmont’s productions and the other half dedicated to Lit Moon, John Blondell is a genre unto himself. He even worked as director-for-hire for Santa Barbara Theatre Company’s “Our Town” at Lobero Theatre, and while it was not as crazed as a full-blown Lit Moon production, it would have unsettled Thornton Wilder. Lit Moon’s World Theatre Festival included the well-received “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils,” while Blondell also produced Westmont’s Fringe Festival.

Center Stage Theater celebrated 20 years of being the most experimental black box in town, and their hilarious, self-deprecating anniversary show was a reminder of what can happen when a city council supports the arts. Genesis West scored a hit with “Curse of the Starving Class,” their only production this year. The Sam Shepard play featured a very talkative living sheep who upstaged fine performances from Tom Hinshaw, Merlin Huff and Amanda Berning. Other companies found the time and budget to have a go at Center Stage, including Out of the Box’s surprisingly good “Hair” and “Reefer Madness,” Acting Up’s “It Had to Be You,” Rick Cipes’ “Bad Daddy,” Steve Kunes’ “Hopeless Romantic,” DIJO’s “Frost/Nixon” and plenty more.

Circle Bar B may be out of the way, and it may have one of the smallest stages, but by gum, it puts on a lot of plays and keeps folks happy. This year, it featured “The Cocktail Hour,” the Gilbert & Sullivan parody “Precious Nonsense,” “The Girl in the Freudian Slip,” and “Sherlock’s Last Case.” Who knows? Maybe a ranch is the ideal theater space.

The Granada continued to dip its toe into theater, alongside its concerts and musicals, bringing Proximity Theatre Company’s “Romeo and Juliet” in July. And UCSB began broadcasting HD plays live from the National Theater in London, really making you feel as though we’ve entered the 21st century.

PCPA gave another reason to travel north, with a gangbusters “West Side Story,” a mysterious “Curtains,” the odd “Sylvia,” “Hooway for Wodney Wat,” “Macbeth” and more.

Our city’s problem still remains in the lack of small spaces for theater companies to hang their shingles. Center Stage is great, but its busy schedule shows how one or two more boxes could offer even more variety. But money often wants to be seen and seen big. Again, we shall see.

This was also a year of loss. Ted Cheesman, the dapper gentleman and house manager who ushered us into SBCC, Lobero and Arlington events, passed away just before Thanksgiving from a massive stroke. He was 83.

And we also lost playwright Bob Potter, one of the few writers for the stage who Santa Barbara could call its own. His plays were political, funny, harrowing and satirical, usually at the same time. His last play, “The Last Days of Empire,” came out in 2008, and looked back with a wry smile at the havoc of the Bush Administration. For many actors, directors and producers, he was always there with advice, and now he is here in spirit.

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