Theater Shepherds

Santa Barbara has a lot of small theater companies, and there’s no dearth of one-offs and other short run ventures either, especially in the summer, when college kids home for vacation also get in on the act. But when Montecito couple Marilyn Gilbert and Nathan Rundlett decide to put together something new, the output normally cuts right through the clutter.

After all, this is the team that more than a decade ago created Opera Santa Barbara, virtually single-handedly reviving an art form that had vanished entirely from the city, a venture they birthed, nurtured and prodded into financial solvency and artistic worth. Next, they spent more than a year serving as associate producers for (and investing in) Richard Alfieri’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” helping to shepherd the comic-drama from its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in 2001 to Broadway two years later to its planned November opening in London.

Along the way, Gilbert and Rundlett have also managed to put together an annual benefit for the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara, staging a different production each year. It’s under those auspices that their latest project is coming to fruition, a three-night run of two one-act comedies by James Saunders – “Alas, Poor Fred” and “A Slight Accident.” The pair has tapped recent Montecito émigré Ed Giron to direct the plays, which will be performed at the Center Stage Theatre September 7-9.

As with most Gilbert-Rundlett productions, there’s some back story involved. It turns out Gilbert has acted in the two-character “Fred” once before, some 30 years ago in Geneva when she was a young lawyer interning with the International Labor Organization.

“Our English reading club put on two plays and I was asked to perform the role of Ethel,” she recalled just before an early rehearsal at Center Stage in mid-August. “Through all these years I thought it was one of the funniest plays I’d ever been involved with. So when we were looking for something for Legal Aid for this year, it just popped back into my mind.”

“Alas, Poor Fred,” written by Saunders at age 33 in 1958, was his first to be produced, and the playwright added the subtitle “A duologue in the style of Ionesco.” Indeed, Saunders borrowed as much from the Ionesco-influenced Beckett in constructing the play, an absurdist comedy that finds a husband and wife discussing a violent murder as casually as they consider a cup of tea, eventually and somewhat illogically unearthing their involvement in the deed.

The deluge of non sequitur dialogue proved a challenge for the two actor-producers.

“I’m much more comfortable with opera and musical theater, where we started,” Rundlett said. “I’ve never done a completely dry play with just all text, no singing. It’s hard to learn lines that are absurd, with people saying things you wouldn’t expect.”

But the rewards and riches in the words are priceless, director Giron suggested. “There are a lot of layers in this piece. The play is very funny, first and foremost, but it’s also about differing versions of reality and how they combat boredom.”

Since “Fred” clocks in at only 55 minutes, they’ve added the short one-act “A Slight Accident,” which Saunders composed as a companion piece, to open the evenings (Barbara Tzur and Marion Freitag star). Each night also features a different special event, with a pre-performance wine and cheese reception on Thursday, a post-performance Q&A with the cast and director on Friday and a closing night desert gala following the show on Saturday. All proceeds are earmarked for Legal Aid.

“I started my career as a Legal Aid lawyer,” Gilbert said. “So we’re going to do something for them every year as long as we can.”

Toasting Brubeck

Pianist Dave Brubeck has been an international jazz superstar for so long – in a recent trip to Geneva he was the fifth composer saluted in a weeklong tribute that started with Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Strauss – that it’s easy to forget his strong ties to the local community. Brubeck’s older brother, Henry, was the longtime chairman of instrumental music for Santa Barbara City Schools, and Dave’s first local concert came way back in 1942. So it was entirely fitting that the Lobero decided to honor the pianist following his August 23 concert by permanently naming one of the dressing rooms in his name. Mayor Marty Blum read a letter of recognition in which she noted that Brubeck was the subject of her first-ever public speech in junior high school when she was told to speak about “something you love.” “I’ve always wanted to tell you that,” she told Brubeck, now 85, adding “I got a ‘A.’”

Brubeck – who was exhausted after his thrilling two-hour concert, but still appreciative of the gestures – returned the sentiment, telling listeners, “If I were smarter, I’d live here.”

Theater and Adult Ed

Santa Barbara Theatre Co.’s second season doesn’t get underway until late October, but nearly all of the company’s principals are involved in other projects before then. First up is a bus tour down to the Los Angeles production of “Hippolytos,” which is being directed by Stephen Sachs, the company’s co-artistic director. The play is the first production in the new outdoor amphitheater at the Getty Villa in Malibu and is running in conjunction with the exhibit “Enduring Myth: The Tragedy of Hippolytos and Phaidra” at the museum. Morlan Higgins, who starred in two of Santa Barbara Theatre plays during its inaugural season, plays Theseus in “Hippolytos.” The bus trip is slated for September 16, at a cost of $200, which includes a box dinner at the Getty, a pre-show talk with Sachs, a tour of the exhibit, tickets to the performance, transportation and a $100 (tax deductible) contribution to the theater company. Call 963-7282.

Meanwhile, the producing director, Albert Ihde, who previously taught at the American Film Institute and Catholic University’s Drama Department, is taking over the Santa Barbara theater class at SBCC’s Adult Education this fall. The survey of the local theater scene features discussions and analysis of plays from the page to the stage, and features excursions to local outlets including Rubicon, Ensemble, SBCC, UCSB and PCPA theaters as well, of course, Santa Barbara Theatre Co. The class, which takes place from 7:30 pm to 10 pm on 10 consecutive Thursdays starting September 14, has no charge, but the theater tickets will set you back a discounted $80 for the run. (Adult Ed’s full slate of fall classes, which range from exercise to psychology, begin the week of September 11. Call 687-0812.)