In ‘Tape,’ Be Careful What You Say

One of the great surprises of last fall’s theater season was the debut of the Loose Affiliation of Artists. Given the high concentration of institutes of higher learning and the plethora of arts organizations and patrons in Santa Barbara, theater companies come and go fairly often around these parts, often to mount a single issue-oriented production and then disappear into the wind. The surprise was that this fledgling little outfit – comprised of three recent college graduates (including Kate Paulsen from Westmont College) and a single more veteran thespian – put on a truly terrific production of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things.”

Mounted at the intimate Center Stage Theater, where exits and entrances are complicated by the stingy size of its wings while overall miscues are magnified by the smallness of the space, Loose Affiliation’s “Shape” was crisply directed by Sarah Martinovich and offered quite fine acting from fellow company founders Paulsen, Brendan Fleming and Michael Conrad. The timing and performances were strong enough to keep the audience enthralled until the surprise ending. That success was all the more shocking upon discovering that the entire company had done it all for free.

Now the group is back just a few months later for its sophomore staging of “Tape,” a three-character play by Stephen Berber, with Martinovich again directing and Paulsen and Fraser in the cast.

“It was never our intention to break into and compete head on with the Santa Barbara theater community,” explains Martinovich, who had worked with all of her co-founders at Ensemble’s Storybook Theater. “We just really wanted to get some more work and do theater that was more modern and edgy.”

But the success of “Shape” and positive press motivated the group to step up its pace.

“I realized we were filling a niche that wasn’t being addressed in town – the post-college, pre-middle-age stories,” says Martinovich. “They’re great for younger actors and perhaps that’s also the target audience, although they do have universal themes, ones everyone can relate to.”

Indeed, like “Shape,” “Tape” mines the same territory of deceit, jealousy, manipulation and overall psychological warfare. Aspiring filmmaker Jon reunites with his high school best friend, Vince, who over the course of the night gets him to admit that 10 years ago he committed a dubious act with Amy, a girl they both dated a decade back. What’s worse, Vince has secretly taped the conversation, and Amy is coming over to meet them.

“It has the same sort of twists and turns as Shape to keep you on the edge of your seat,” says Martinovich. “It’s very psychologically interesting, which is what I like to explore.

“I’m not much for plain and simple with neat tidy endings,” she continues. “I’d much rather get in there and mess around with complicated relationships that aren’t easily resolved – they reflect real life more accurately.”

Jon is portrayed by Justin Stark, a full-time engineer with a theater background who won Loose Affiliation’s first audition after Conrad withdrew because of a scheduling conflict. The company’s next offering is likely to be Eric Bogosian’s “Humpty Dumpty,” another tense drama with the same target.

“We have every intention of keeping on,” Martinovich said. “If we keep picking good plays and do quality theater that focuses on the story and acting, I think we should be able to keep it going.”

(“Tape” plays at Center Stage Theater March 29-31 and April 5-7. Tickets cost $10-$20. For more info call 963-0408.)