Out of the Box Theatre Company, now in its fifth season, is known to Santa Barbara theater-goers for edgy material choices and an unmistakable flair for pulling them off.
Artistic Director Samantha Eve, who also directs this production, is getting ready to bring something entirely new to Center Stage Theater with The Wild Party — a 1920s bash with live music and some audience members seated cabaret-style onstage, served Prohibition-era cocktails and snacks.
The musical, by Andrew Lippa, is based on a book-length poem Joseph Moncure March wrote in 1928. At the time, it was banned for its themes of drug and alcohol use, rape and same-sex relationships. The arc of the play takes place in one evening, as the party to end all parties is thrown by two tempestuous lovers, Queenie and Burrs, and multiple romantic liaisons simmer amid the drinking, dancing and debauchery.
We may think of this as a very different time from the one we live in, but is it?
Deborah Bertling, whose character, Madeline, is a lesbian, said, “There’s always that problem of wanting someone you can’t get — it’s universal. Madeline wants a relationship and can’t find anyone, so she’s a frustrated and lonely figure.”
“In this time it was more acceptable for my character and his lover to be living together as brothers than as a couple,” Donnie Ross said. “Like Liberace and his ‘son’ Scott Thorson had to do. They lived that charade for years. For our characters, even though we’re in the limelight, and we’re performers, and vaudeville is such a gay thing — it was still completely unacceptable, which I can’t imagine today.”
Justin Bryant Rapp plays Burrs, a reckless vaudeville clown.
“In any story,” he said. “You’re always trying to find the relevance, the truth for today in that time period.”
“A lot of the shows we do focus on character relationships and personalities,” said Eve, who also plays Kate. ”And those weird parts of humanity that are a part of our time now, and were also a part of the 20s. All these characters are really interesting. That’s why I picked this show and have wanted to do it for a long time — the characters are so rich and have a lot of depth to them. Nobody is one-dimensional.”
Rachel Short portrays Queenie, an entertainer and all-around party girl.
“The main difference I see between then and now for someone like my character is options,” she said. ”Hers were quite different from a woman of today. She had to be much more dependent on men.”
Interestingly, her husband, Chris Short, has appeared in many OOTB productions, but now he’s staying home with the kids so she can have her turn in the spotlight.
Of Queenie and Burrs, Short continued, “I love that they’re both in vaudeville. There’s such a rich history there, going back to Tin Pan Alley — we still sing those songs today. And as a dancer, a lot of those steps are still part of our standard repertoire. The physicality of these dances has been embodied through the generations.”
So, the folks sitting onstage will feel like part of the action?
“This is the perfect show to make interactive in this way,” Eve said. “Because of the period and the vaudeville element, and because the way it’s written, it’s almost like storytelling. There are times when the actors break the wall and tell the story directly to the audience. So having some audience right there onstage will make it even easier to tell them the story.”
“The play does take place basically the night of a party,” Rapp said. “So if there’s ever a show that calls for an actual party happening in its midst, it’s this one. It will allow us as actors to have a connection with the audience, for them to feel included, like they really are at the party. It’s really exciting.”
Also appearing in The Wild Party are Katherine Bottoms, J.D. Driskill, Musique, and Christian Watts. Musical direction is by Kacey Link, with lighting design by Theodore Michael Dolas and technical direction by Brad Spaulding.
The Wild Party runs April 8-11. For tickets and more information, call 805.963.0408 or click here.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.