Playing it safe: Theater in Santa Barbara 2014 was a chance to reconsider and regroup

he biggest news this year in the world of Santa Barbara theater was the loss of the Circle Bar B Ranch Dinner Theatre. It’s not that the small but lovable theater was in the red. In fact, by all reports it was doing well and had a hearty subscriber base. But the owners of the surrounding ranch wanted to take the location in other directions and so in October, after 44 years, the theater closed with Marc Camoletti’s “Boeing Boeing.” Directors Susan and David Couch put their heart and soul into the little space and made it a shining example of what is usually a disparaged style of theater. It was also a home to many of our town’s favorite comic actors . . . and it gave them gainful employment too. It shall be missed.

The Ensemble Theatre Company finished its first full season at the New Vic and began its second, beginning with David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” and bringing out the big guns for Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” showing off all the stage goodies the New Vic has at its disposal, including a reflecting pool. But the stage also benefits intimate shows with small casts, like John Logan’s Mark Rothko bio play “Red” and the campy Tallulah Bankhead-led comedy “Looped.” The year ended with a standby — Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” — and a U.S. premiere, the uproarious comedy “The Best Brothers.” Executive Director Jonathan Fox has been balancing the new with the popular these two seasons and hopefully he’ll continue to do so.

"Boeing Boeing," the final play of the season, closed the Circle Bar B Ranch Dinner Theatre for good. Photo courtesy Circle Bar B Theatre Lit Moon Theatre had an unusual take on "The Cherry Orchard." David Bazemore photo "The Heiress," an adaptation of a Henry James novel, was performed by the SBCC Theatre Group at the Garvin Theatre. The Rubicon Theatre brought Tom Astor, left, as Tom Hodges and Elyse Mirto as Leigh Hodges in Carey Crim's "Conviction." Jeanne Tanner photo
“Boeing Boeing,” the final play of the season, closed the Circle Bar B Ranch Dinner Theatre for good.
Photo courtesy Circle Bar B Theatre
Lit Moon Theatre had an unusual take on “The Cherry Orchard.”
David Bazemore photo
“The Heiress,” an adaptation of a Henry James novel, was performed by the SBCC Theatre Group at the Garvin Theatre.
The Rubicon Theatre brought Tom Astor, left, as Tom Hodges and Elyse Mirto as Leigh Hodges in Carey Crim’s “Conviction.”
Jeanne Tanner photo
Over at the Garvin Theater, this year’s SBCC Theatre Group played it a bit safe. “Noises Off” and “Arsenic & Old Lace” are classics, and a rite of passage for any nascent actor, but the latter is getting pretty dated. The cast swung for the fences, regardless. “The Heiress,” an adaptation of Henry James’ novel “Washington Square,” was fresher in the sense that not many people know the story. Meanwhile, the Jurkowitz Theatre is where the group experiments, bringing in Lisa Dillman’s immigration tale “Ground” and Mark Rigney’s “Ten Red Kings” was an actual premiere, a benefit of director R. Michael Gros’ friendship with the playwright. More foals, less warhorses, please!

UCSB’s theater department’s summer was devoted to LaunchPad, its playmaking workshop where challenging new works get the reading/rehearsal treatment, open to the public to check out. It’s an exciting glimpse into the world of the theater with the possibility of seeing some amazing future classics . . . perhaps. This year we had “°Soldadera!” by Jami Brandli, “The Velvet Weapon” by Deborah Brevoort and “Gun Play” by Barbara Lebow. There’s always a chance these will return to UCSB for a full production. Apart from that, their summer was bracketed by “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” by Meg Miroshnik and Irwin Appel’s collaboration with UCSB dance and movement specialist Christina McCarthy on an aerialist-filled “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The year ended in November with Will Eno’s “Middletown.” This is Santa Barbara’s second encounter (I believe) with the insanely talented playwright Mr. Eno, and no doubt will lead to more.

The first Will Eno in town turned out to be Genesis West’s only production this year: “Thom Pain: Based on Nothing.” Maurice Lord directed Mitchell Thomas in this one-man show produced at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in a parody of PowerPoint presentations.

While Genesis West took a rest, pop-up upstarts Elements Theater kept going despite losing its two founding directors to grad school on the East Coast. In numerous locations they mounted productions of Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s “King of Shadows” and Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” while having time to mount a musical revue (Rob Grayson’s Tony Award-worshipping “Aspirations”) and a new work by Stephanie Timm (“Sweet Nothing”). No theater space, no problem, should be Elements’ motto.

Lit Moon Theatre had a busy year dusting off some of their favorite shows, but as is John Blondell’s wont, he has a tendency to upgrade and remix. In September they brought back “Hamlet” and then mounted their odd take on “The Cherry Orchard” at the Porter Theatre. Then they toured China, of all places. Now back home, they returned for their twist on the classic, “Humbug! A (Lit Moon) Christmas Carol.”

PCPA kept it very populist with productions of “Noises Off,” “Forever Plaid,” “Oklahoma,” “Spring Awakening” and a “Hamlet,” yet they still had time to bring in challenging new work like the premiere of “The San Patricios” by José Cruz Gonz·lez, a historical play about the Mexican-American war and a prelude to the Civil War; and Naomi Iizuka’s “36 Views,” a tale of greed over priceless woodblock prints.

Likewise, the Rubicon Theatre also brought us “Noises Off” but brought back Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” gave us five weeks of varying cast members in “Love, Loss and What I Wore”; Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories”; another Will Eno play “Title and Deed” (see? he’s becoming popular); the world premiere of Carey Crim’s imploding suburban happiness drama “Conviction,” and the virtuoso “2 Pianos 4 Hands.” The Rubicon, dare I say it, pushes the boundaries more than anyone else.

Mask-wearing storytellers who would make Joseph Campbell proud, BoxTales celebrated their 20th anniversary this fall at the Lobero, mounting a weekend-long festival of their greatest hits. The cast may have changed a little bit over the years, but their stagecraft keeps getting more ambitious.

And over at Center Stage Theater, we got a grab bag of indie theater productions, although a majority of their calendar year got devoted to Speaking of Stories productions and dance recitals (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Out of the Box productions currently calls Center Stage home, and they put on the strong “Bonnie & Clyde” musical in April and “Bare: A Rock Opera” in November. But it also had time for a second Donald Margulies play, “Time Stands Still”; Sue Turner-Cray’s one-woman show “Manchester Girl”; DIJO’s Productions’ staging of Joshua Sobol’s “Ghetto”; Samuel Simon’s one-man show “The Actual Dance” about the (male) survivors of breast cancer; DramaDogs’ “Dance Me to the End of Love,” a collection of short plays by E.M. Lewis; the avant-garde performances during MCASB’s OnEdge Festival in September; Sexy Sandwich’s “The Wild Circus: Ember.”

So yes, there are companies and people out there pushing for more interesting, more experimental, more daring new theater, but 2014 was a retreat of sorts, into the familiar and the safe. Let’s see what 2015 has in store.

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