The "Orlando" cast, clockwise from left, Stephanie Farnum, Rob Grayson, Erika Leachman, Morgan Altenhoff and Tess Plant-Thomas
The “Orlando” cast, clockwise from left, Stephanie Farnum, Rob Grayson, Erika Leachman, Morgan Altenhoff and Tess Plant-Thomas

When Virginia Woolf published her gender-bending, time-traveling novel “Orlando” in 1928, her contemporaries initially put it down as frivolous, a distraction from the more serious work she was writing. And so it seemed doomed for decades to not be considered alongside novels like “To the Lighthouse.” That is until Sally Potter’s 1992 film version with Tilda Swinton revealed the story to be much more than fluff. “Orlando,” in a sparkling new adaptation by playwright Sarah Ruhl, continues the ascension of this work, and it closes Elements Theater Collective’s current season, starting tonight and playing in pop-up in several locations.

“This season our theme has been gender and sexuality,” says director Mary Plant-Thomas, who is marking this production as her last before she moves to San Francisco. “So it was a very explicit choice … But I also see that the play shares other core ideas with our plays, like time travel. I think that’s less a choice and more that we really value choosing new works that are also accessible.”

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In 2013 the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre presented Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Circle Bar B Theatre photo
In 2013 the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre presented Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Circle Bar B Theatre photo

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.

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One Step Forward, One Back – Elements Theater returns with a time-bending musical

Elisha Schaefer
Elisha Schaefer

In “The Last Five Years,” playwright Jason Robert Brown tells a typical love story: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they squabble and split. But here’s the twist: One character in the play lives out the story in linear time. The other character, sharing the same stage, tells the story in reverse order. They only overlap once, right in the middle. Oh, and it’s a musical.

That’s a DramaDesk-award winning musical, mind you, being presented by stage-hopping Elements Theater Collective tonight and running through April 28. As is the company’s wont, the play will be performed at various locations — a coffee shop, the Piano Kitchen, SHIFCO, the retirement community on the Mesa, and others — from Carp to Goleta. All shows are free with suggested donations.

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