PROSPERING INFANCIES, PROMISING REBIRTH

It wasn’t all that long ago that Santa Barbara wasn’t too happy a home for professional theater. What with closures, controversies and a lag in contributions, Santa Barbara stages faced some considerable challenges. But just look at us now.

John Blondell’s Montecito-based Lit Moon Theatre Company’s inaugural World Shakespeare Festival – the first of its kind in the country – just finished a terrific first season that can only be called an unqualified success. Nearly every production – including three world premiere presentations and several offered in foreign tongues – both filled every seat in the house and garnered great reviews by offering works that pushed the envelope of reinterpreting the Bard’s masterworks.

The Ensemble Theater has proven that it has weathered its mini-storm of management issues, launching its 27th season with a riveting production of Harold Pinter’s brilliantly incisive “Betrayal,” which just ended its run last week.

The Loose Affiliation of Artists – whose principals include two former Westmont students – recently concluded its debut production, a financially successful two-week staging of the Santa Barbara debut of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” that was remarkably polished and effective despite a spare set and the comparative inexperience of its players.

The “Theatrical Treats” presentations resumes its run of lunchtime staged readings of short plays at Victoria Hall as this issue goes to press. The first season evinced the workability of the informal approach that hovers between an initial dress rehearsal and a fully staged show and proved a forum for rarely seen shorter works from Broadway denizens and our own authors. The second season gets underway on October 25 with short offerings by the two Elaines – May (The hilarious “Hot Line”) and the Montecito-based founder of the company Kendall (“Gun Show Follies”).

The Santa Barbara Theatre Company stepped up to a bigger plate with the October 25 kick-off of its second full season with a five-day run the old off-Broadway chestnut “Forever Plaid” at the sizeable Lobero. Perhaps most surprising of all, the company recently announced that it actually turned a profit in its first season. That trick required a little restructuring, but remains impressive nonetheless.

Re-Genesis

Meanwhile, Genesis West is poised to launch its second season since resuming production following a four-year siesta. Last year, the company – which is based in nearby Summerland – offered three works by the rapidly rising British playwright Caryl Churchill, turning Santa Barbara into a mini-Mecca for post-Modernism. Now, Genesis West is undertaking perhaps its biggest challenge to date, mounting the Santa Barbara debut of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” at the Center Stage Theater November 4-18. (The Ensemble scotched a planned production of the play last season.)

“It’s definitely daunting to do Albee,” says Maurice Lord, who co-founded Genesis West with former Santa Barbara stage stalwart Michael Smith. “He’s definitely a ‘hundred-year playwright,’ one of those whose works will be talked about and debated one hundred years from now. And this one is definitely the most challenging and provocative of all his works. So it’s kind of a great treat to try to get it right.”

If past works are any indication, the task won’t be too terribly taxing. The company has won a baker’s dozen Independent Theatre Awards via its 11 previous productions spanning just five seasons, including three for Churchill’s “Blue Hearts.” Comprised of two one-acts firmly entrenched in the theater-of-the-absurd, the plays experiment with form, especially in the opening “Heart’s Desire,” which replayed the same scene over and over again for durations ranging from one to three minutes, each with a different path. The cast and crew executed it perfectly.

“It was almost like a military operation,” Lord recalls. “We had to re-set the stage each time. We had five people frantically setting it up, barely making it around on time. We knew there was no room for error, so we just rehearsed the hell out of it and somehow pulled it off. But backstage was scary. I don’t even want to see how narrow the margin for error was on some of that stuff.”

No gimmicks complicate the staging of “Goat,” but the work – which won every major award on Broadway in 2002 – has been described as Albee’s most controversial play since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” A 50-year-old thriving architect and family man confides to his best friend that he’s having an affair with a goat (Sylvia), setting off a chain of events that challenges notions of normalcy and the validity of values. Albee describes his work as “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”

“I love this play because it’s shocking,” Lord says. “It’s funny. It’s surprising. It’s totally unique. It’s unlike anything I’ve read or seen before. And it’s utterly memorable. No one who sees it walks away without some sort of reaction. People will either love it or hate it.”

Indeed, provoking the audience is one of the reasons Lord and Smith originally started the company, Lord says. He reads an average of one play a day, so a new work needs to stand out to make it to the Center Theater stage under Genesis West’s aegis.

“I’m only interested if it grabs me, if it’s unique, if it’s something worth doing,” Lord says. “Putting on a play is so hard. It takes such an effort to mount, so it’s got to really be worth doing. We don’t do plays just for the sake of it. And it’s not about what’s popular or what might make money. So it’s more whether it’s important and a play that needs to be done here, now.”

After the four-year break – which found Smith relocating to Oregon (he returns for each production to serve as lighting director) and Lord commuting to Los Angeles to mount plays – Lord says he’s thrilled to be back, rejoining Santa Barbara’s revitalized theater scene. The intermingling of the local companies – “Goat” stars Ensemble veteran Robert Lessor in his first Genesis West role, for example – gives the city’s thespians a community feel.

“The kind of thing I like to do is more experimental, a little more edgy,” Lord says. “Santa Barbara audiences are far more receptive to it than the TV mentality in LA. There, everyone wants to be on TV show, but here they really want to do a play. So the audiences here are far hipper and more receptive to it.

“Right now the scene is really alive,” he goes on. “It’s a great time. And the more companies doing stuff, the better it is for everybody. There can’t only be one good restaurant in town. You either have a whole bunch of them or none. And I think it’s the same way in theater.”

(“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” previews on November 3, opens November 4 and continues Thursday-Saturday November 9-18 at the Center Stage Theater. All performances are at 8 pm. Tickets are $20 general, $15 students & seniors. Call 963-0408.)