In selecting plays for a season of theatrical productions, Jonathan Fox, Ensemble Theatre Company’s executive artistic director, enjoys the materialization of a rich theme. Last season’s offerings — including a striking, bare-essentials Sweeney Todd, the West Coast premiere of Women in Jeopardy!, the complex and arresting I Am My Own Wife, the brazen, unapologetic Bad Jews, and the recent, sparkling comedy Fallen Angels — all featured prominent female leads exploring emanations of their own power. Now, with the curtain closed on 2015/2016, Fox and Charlie Rohlfs, Ensemble’s director of marketing, are considering the thematic implications of the 2016/2017 lineup of plays. “Last season was about strong women,” Fox said. “This season is about couples. We should call it conscious coupling.”
The slogan isn’t completely off the mark; the upcoming works certainly delve into what it means to be part of a romantic partnership. Audiences will be witness to the Macbeths’ vaulting ambition; the emotional struggle of New York divorcés in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two; the raw intensity of Porgy and Bess’s jazz-fueled folk opera; the fetish and emotional disconnection of Baby Doll; and, in the final production, the blossoming romance between a butcher and a seamstress in early 20th-century New York City.
Ensemble’s mission includes the intention to bring provocative work to the Santa Barbara stage. The challenge in devising a season that adheres to this broad guideline is choosing socially relevant plays that incite interest and opinion while also taking into account the varied taste of your audience base. In some cases, the works inspired decisive partisanship in viewers. Bad Jews, for instance, was a fast seller despite the vigorous divergence of audience reaction. Some viewers found strong emotional relatability with the scenario, while others felt the portrayal of Daphna, the confrontational female lead, reinforced an unflattering stereotype of strident Jewish women.
“There have been few shows as polarizing as Bad Jews,” Fox said, but added that the upcoming production of Baby Doll, in which an infantilized, virgin bride is used as emotional leverage in a business dispute, may raise some eyebrows. “It’s not sex for polite society,” Rohlfs admitted.
Fox is gratified to know that these water-cooler conversations about theater are occurring all over town. It’s an indication that these shows are presenting themes and concepts that incite discussion. “It shows we’re pushing buttons,” Fox said.
Ensemble’s 2016/2017 season is also intended to expand awareness of the work of recognizable playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Simon, Gershwin, and The Bard. Baby Doll and Chapter Two are certainly less commonly produced works of Williams and Simon, and it will be interesting to see unexpected versions of classics like Porgy and Bess (against a jazz quartet). And, as it is an election year, a politically minded audience will be keenly aware of the thematic issues presented in Macbeth, the story of a man who seizes power by any means necessary after being prophesized to ascend the throne of Scotland.
Ensemble’s reach into the community includes a variety of opportunities to enjoy drama outside of the theater. Beyond the five upcoming productions, ETC offers enhancement programs that immerse enthusiasts more deeply into the world of the plays. To experience the story on the page, Ensemble and the Santa Barbara Public Library have partnered to host a play-reading book club led by dramaturge Anna Jensen. Ensemble also presents social mixers post-performance and talkbacks with production members.
And while many of the performers at the New Vic hail from Los Angeles, Fox and Rohlfs have an eye for continuing to include the Santa Barbara community in the Ensemble Theatre experience. For example, there is a program of youth performance classes in development, as well as the possibility of a future commission for new works by area playwrights. With this on the horizon — as well as the murmurings of new, cutting-edge technical effects for Macbeth to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death — no Santa Barbara theatergoer’s schedule can be complete without tickets to Ensemble’s 2016/2017 season.