The Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre is an idiosyncratic, endearing, and enduring Santa Barbara institution that’s located deep in the recesses of Refugio Canyon, and, especially if you have an interest in the ecology of theater, you owe it to yourself to go. Circle Bar B regulars and season subscribers will need no prompting to secure their seats for Return Engagements, the first play of the 2013 season, as it features many of the theater’s most beloved performers, and it is directed by Brian Harwell, the multiple Indy Award-winning performer whose theatrical résumé reads like an almost comically comprehensive list of the top plays in recent Santa Barbara theater history. Although Harwell has acted in shows with virtually every high-profile theater artist in the area, from Genesis West’s Maurie Lord to Lit Moon Theatre’s John Blondell, he remains intensely loyal to Circle Bar B, where he has done more work than in any other single venue.
When I asked Harwell about what makes Circle Bar B special, he immediately warmed to the topic. “I always tell people that this is the place for honest, blue-collar theater,” he explained. “When an actor wants to know what it’s like to work on a show in the barn, I let them know about everything … because there’s no sugarcoating it. But what I also say is that it’s a place where I feel very closely in touch with what I believe theater is all about. Circle Bar B offers a tremendous opportunity for actors to really focus on what matters.”
With a four-play season that begins in April and runs until the end of October, the programming is as ambitious as, and the performance schedule perhaps more taxing than, that of any other theater in town. Producers Susie and David Couch pour heart and soul into selecting and casting each of the year’s choices. They draw from a broad but specific set of playwrights, frequently returning to the work of a small handful of sometimes underappreciated artists like farceur Ken Ludwig and the author of Return Engagements, Bernard Slade. Nevertheless, despite an understandable reliance on the comfortable familiarity of genre plays for the bulk of the schedule, Couch always throws in a wild card to raise the stakes. This year that show is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which opens at the end of May.
In the meantime, though, there will be comedy filled with clever remarks, touching moments, and psychological insights, as Harwell assures that Return Engagements is “classic Bernard Slade. He’s best known for Same Time, Next Year, and this show is similar to that one in some ways, but I actually like this one better.” Four actors will play eight characters as we track the life stories of four couples who all happen to have stayed in the same room of a Canadian resort hotel at one time or another. Act One shows the initial state of these parallel, but as yet un-intertwined, relationships. In Act Two, vignettes that take place 15, 20, and 30 years later reveal what has happened to each of the pairs, and the unexpected ways in which all their lives have begun to overlap. It’s a tour de force for the actors, who must not only play two distinct characters, but must also play them at very different times in their lives. Harwell acknowledges the challenge, but he sees it as an opportunity, saying, “The physical representation is as important as the verbal one in this show, and so the actor has to use his or her whole toolbox.” And what could be more fitting for the actors — George Coe, Tiffany Story, Heather Heyerdahl, and Sean O’Shea — of this blue-collar theater than to use their whole box of tools?
Return Engagements opens on Friday, April 12, and runs through Sunday, May 19, at Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre (1800 Refugio Ranch Rd.). For tickets and information, call (805) 967-1962 or visit circlebarbtheatre.com.