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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts


Review: Elements Theatre Collective’s ‘Orlando’ a Gender Bending, Time Traveling Romp

From left, Stephanie Farnum, Tess Plant-Thomas, Rob Grayson, Erika Leachman (above) and Morgan Altenhoff (below) star in Elements Theatre Collective’s production of Orlando.
From left, Stephanie Farnum, Tess Plant-Thomas, Rob Grayson, Erika Leachman (above) and Morgan Altenhoff (below) star in Elements Theatre Collective’s production of Orlando.  (Rob Grayson photo)

By Justine Sutton, Noozhawk Contributing Writer |

Traveling across gender lines, through time, and covering quite a bit of ground geographically as well, Elements Theatre Collective closes its third season — on the theme of Gender & Sexuality — with Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s theatrical adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel.

Directed by Mary Plant-Thomas, the company’s artistic director, this is a clever interpretation of the material, making use of small, intimate and ever-changing venues.

The heart of Elements’ mission is to provide free theater to the community, and it manages this partly by using nontraditional venues that don’t come with the steep price of conventional theaters. And it does it oh-so-creatively, with minimal props and sets, but with a boundless capacity for evoking time and place.

Tess Plant-Thomas, who happens to be the director’s sister, is Orlando, a young man who eventually morphs into female form while experiencing a variety of centuries, adventures and lovers. Plant-Thomas has an incredible ability to project male and female — as well as androgynous — personas. She is very funny, but subtly so, with a knack for asides and throwaway lines delivered deadpan.

The Chorus, providing running commentary and playing a number of other characters, is designated by the playwright to number from three to 10. Here we have three, but they are all powerhouses, to be sure, and work beautifully together.

Stephanie Farnum is utterly hilarious, whether spouting one-liners in the chorus, as a crazed suitor of Orlando’s, or in any one of myriad madcap moments. Her movement, expressions and voice blend to make her one of the funniest actors this reviewer has ever seen. She has been performing with Elements for the past year, and I hope to see much more of her in the future.

Rob Grayson, also Elements’ executive director, steps into the spotlight here for the first time with the company and may he never go back. As a member of the chorus, he is versatile and fluid, with an impressive range of characters and comedy instincts that are razor-sharp. His Queen Elizabeth I is priceless!

In her first show with Elements, Erika Leachman proves to be a strong ensemble actor and fits right in like she’s been there all along. She also gets a chance to portray male and female characters, and is up to the challenge. Her comedy chops are also well-honed, and it would be wonderful to see her continue with the company.

Morgan Altenhoff, another Elements first-timer, plays the most “traditional” role in the production, Orlando’s first love. As Sasha, a Russian princess, she hits just the right notes of innocent, waifish and sultry to bring dimension to an otherwise fairy-tale type role.

This is a show with lots of laughs and bawdiness (not recommended for those under 16) but with enough depth and universal themes of human-ness — beyond gender and era — to appeal to just about everyone.

Upcoming shows will be at the Piano Kitchen at 8 p.m. July 18-19, at McDermott-Crockett Mortuary at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 20, behind the Santa Barbara Art Foundry at 8 p.m. July 24, at the Carpinteria Woman’s Club at 8 p.m. July 25, at Divinitree at 8 p.m. July 26 and at Better Days Yoga at 2 p.m. July 27.

All shows are free and open to the public. For further information and to reserve seats, click here.

— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.

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