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.
The SBCC Theater Department offered Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and William Inge’s “Bus Stop.” The season featured fine performances by students and pros alike — one of the best things about productions in the Garvin.
UCSB’s department gave us productions of “Eurydice” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but more importantly, it premiered “Appoggiatura,” a new play by James Still, produced from UCSB’s LaunchPad series about three American tourists in Venice. Santa Barbara needs more fostering of new plays, and Risa Brainin, who chairs LaunchPad, should be commended.
Out of the Box Productions continues to bring edgy and hip musical productions to town that would otherwise pass by us. Samantha Eve and her company brought another slice of history with Michael Friedman’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and of horror with the blood-soaked “Carrie” musical. But before one pigeonholes the company as too arch or too pop-culture obsessed, they turned around and produced the bittersweet “Next to Normal” about a mother (Deborah Bertling) suffering with bipolar disorder. Now in their fourth season, Out of the Box is making a real go of it.
Elements Theater Collective had a good run the first half of this year. “The Last Five Years” was a musical that played with time and narrative by having one lover tell her story in reverse, while the other told his linearly. And Liz Duffy Adams’ “Or” unearthed a true character from history: Aphra Behn, Britain’s first female playwright, who was also a spy. Elements’ pop-up, free-theater aesthetic works with their barebones productions and hopefully will inspire other companies to explore alternatives to Santa Barbara’s lack of indie theater spaces. But with both co-founders Sara Rademacher and Emily Jewell having moved to the East Coast (grad school, you see), it’s unsure whether Elements will continue. (Their website still shows it is planning readings and auditions for the new year.)
The man who started pop-ups in Santa Barbara, Genesis West’s Maurie Lord, only appeared later in the year to bring us one production. “The Designated Mourner” is his second Wallace Shawn play; his first, “The Fever,” being the reason Mr. Lord left the box theater behind in the first place. (A one-person show, Mr. Lord has produced shows in living rooms and wineries, even sending his actor to England on “tour.”) This dark, political tale once again reunited the director with some of his favorite actors: Brian Harwell and Tom Hinshaw, who were so good together in last year’s “Endgame.” And it added Jenna Scanlon to the mix, resulting in a great run. But Mr. Lord’s attentions these days are elsewhere. (He’s obsessed with magic and can run a good card trick), so Genesis West too, may be fading away. (Say it isn’t so!)
The opposite of Mr. Lord’s only-when-the-mood-suits-him-itis surely has to be Circle Bar B Theatre, which is as reliable as their steak dinners. (If only their stage was slightly bigger than its current bookshelf size.) Actor Brian Harwell took a shot at directing with “Return Engagements,” Bernard Slade’s less-popular variation of his same-location, different-time comedy-dramas like, “Same Time Next Year,” while Miller James directed “The Importance of Being Earnest” with Jenna Scanlon putting her all into Lady Bracknell’s “a hannnnndbag.” “The Fox on the Fairway” was another meat ‘n’ potatoes, British farce that the Circle Bar B does so well. They ended the season with “Noises Off,” another classic, but hard-to-pull-off farce. Robert Higbee stole the show as the actor with a penchant for the booze. (SBCC will mount its own production next year with Rick Mokler returning to direct.)
Lit Moon Theater was busy this year — just not in Santa Barbara. They took their stellar production of “The Tempest” on tour to the Balkans, where Director John Blondell has found a theater scene in simpatico with his own aesthetic. He did manage a performance at Center Stage Theater as a send-off to the tour. With Stanley Hoffman as Prospero, it was inventive as all get-out, and the third time the company has performed the play. In his role as Westmont Theater instructor, Mr. Blondell returned to co-direct “Pirates of Penzance” with Michael Shasberger — their production just as unlikely as when Mr. Blondell directed Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in 2010. (But he did!) Westmont’s 2013 season offered their annual, Fringe Festival, as well as Randall VanderMey’s “Platinum Circle: A Play in Three One-Acts,” written by the college’s own English professor over ten years and directed by Mr. Blondell.
Center Stage Theater continued to be a venue for local artists to experiment, with composer Brad Fiedel bringing us his life story set to music in “Borrowed Time;” DramaDogs fun “Circle Mirror Transformation” and the not-so-fun “Defying Gravity;” DIJO productions offered “Freud’s Last Session;” Peter Frisch debuted his new theater company, Producing Unit with “God of Carnage,” which had to compete with the film version; Boxtales brought “Popol Vuh” to life; Josie Hyde returned with another trip ’round “Ayahuasca Visions;” and father Bill Paxman’s play for and starring his daughter, Allison “Fighting the Invisible” about life with fibromyalgia.