Theater abounds in an artful community like Santa Barbara — productions by the university, private and community colleges, local theater companies, schools, youth theater projects and more, with original scripts, local actors and directors, and plenty of heart.

But from time to time, one stumbles across the ultimate grassroots theater experience. At Sunday evening’s production of boom by the newly formed Elements Theatre Collective, the audience literally felt the grass beneath their feet as they sat in the backyard of a stately home on the Eastside of Santa Barbara. A brick patio served as the stage, and the canopy of an avocado tree provided a cozy feel to the audience seating.

Founded just this spring by Sara Rademacher and Emily Jewell, who serve as co-artistic directors, Elements’ mission is to bring free, accessible and professional-quality theater to underserved communities. Yes, all shows are free to the public, and to keep costs down and interest level high, they make use of nontraditional performance spaces throughout Santa Barbara County.

For this inaugural production, such spaces include the aforementioned backyard, a bookstore, an empty swimming pool and Fishbon’s Pescadrome, among others.

Boom, written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and which premiered in New York in 2008, is the story of a young man and woman, played by Casey Caldwell and Megan Caniglia, who come together as the result of a Craigslist Casual Encounters ad. For these two, the earth may move, but not in the way you’d think.

Caldwell is an experienced actor and director who directs his own Ratatat Theater Group. Caniglia is a junior in the BFA Acting program at UCSB, and has trained in gymnastics and dance as well as acting in local productions. Both inhabit their characters deeply and thoroughly convincingly.

Jules is socially uncomfortable yet deeply passionate about his scientific studies, which prove a cataclysmic world event is about to occur based on the actions of fish. Jo, a journalism student, is hot-headed and cynical about life, though underneath longs for a meaningful human connection.

In boom, Jules' scientific studies prove a cataclysmic world event is about to occur based on the actions of fish.

In boom, Jules’ scientific studies prove a cataclysmic world event is about to occur based on the actions of fish. (Sarah Bennett photo)

The third character is a guide of sorts, Barbara, played by Jewell. Pulling levers behind the scenes and beating a kettle drum for emphasis, she steps forward intermittently to comment on the action, leading the audience through the experience while feeling the joy and pain of it deeply herself. Jewell portrays both the crisply businesslike and vulnerably raw aspects of Barbara with equal dedication and tenderness.

Boom has often been produced as a staged reading. Director Rademacher’s decision to present it as a fully staged production was a wise one — while the dialogue is razor sharp and often moves at a furious pace, the actors’ physicality and full embrace of time and place through movement and costuming add an important layer. From the first moments, they draw the audience into their world without a backward glance. Though the impending events of the play are serious, there is plenty of comic relief, and Sunday’s audience laughed loud and long at the many humorous moments.

The set design team, headed by Elisha Schaefer, is tasked with adapting the various performance spaces to the necessary stage setup. If Sunday’s show is any indication, they are rising to the challenge admirably.

With boom, this new company is off to an impressive start. For anyone who enjoys smart and well-produced theater and perhaps longs to experience it outside of the standard four walls, getting back to the basic elements is just the ticket. Which — did I mention? — is free.

Click here for more information, including a performance schedule, or email to make a free reservation. Click here to connect with Elements Theatre Collective on Facebook.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.