A merry band of classicists
THE OASIS THEATRE COMPANY
The Oasis Theatre Company
Brenda Lynn Bynum and James Jenner stand in an almost empty room of nearly a thousand square feet with a framework for lighting installed on the ceiling high above. They imagine characters who will soon be coming to life in this space, the new home of their Oasis Theatre Company. They hear schemers trying to get their mitts on somebody else’s inheritance in David Mamet’s The Shawl. They ponder how an actor identified only as Time will announce the passage of 16 years in Shakespeare’s The
Winter’s Tale, and how, in Molière’s The Miser, a pennypinching father will invite guests to dinner and then try to return the leftovers to the caterer for a refund.
The couple relocated to Santa Fe a year and a half ago, transporting not just the usual stuff but also three decades’ worth of theatrical sets, props, costumes, and technical gear. They packed it bit by bit into a 26-foot Penske rental truck that Jenner drove crosscountry eight times from New York to New Mexico. By the time they got here, the Oasis Theatre Company was nearly 30 years old. They established it in 1988 in New York City, carving a small theater out of what had been a manufacturing space in the East Village. For a decade they held their own against spiraling expenses and gentrification, producing more than a hundred classic plays. In 1999, they transplanted their company to Claryville, a hamlet in the Catskill Mountains about two hours north of Manhattan, but through it all they held a place in their hearts for New Mexico. Jenner was a Texan, born in Houston and raised in Dallas, but Bynum was a native of Farmington, and the couple were married in Santa Fe years ago at the Loretto Chapel.
In 2016, they began plotting their transition to Santa Fe, and in July 2017, they offered the first local glimpse of the Oasis Theatre Company, with a program of one-act plays by Shaw, Chekhov, and Molière. Those unrolled on the stage of Teatro Paraguas, where Oasis continued with further productions through this October’s run of
Uncle Vanya, which was directed by Bynum and starred Jenner in the title role. But Paraguas is a busy place, and when the opportunity to sublet its adjacent rehearsal area arose, Oasis seized the opportunity. Now Oasis Theatre Company has become Teatro Paraguas’ neighbor, and the two organizations’ signs hang only yards apart on the same building in the city’s burgeoning theater district off Rufina Street. The intimate space can accommodate an audience of perhaps 45, but Bynum and Jenner know from experience how much more satisfying it is to fill a small space than to play to a half-empty hall. “Through our history, we know the importance of starting small and building from there,” Jenner observed. It will be Oasis’ home at least for the current season, after which lease negotiations will determine the more distant future. “We’re kind of a ‘theater-in-a-box,’” Bynum said. “We moved it from New York, and we can move it to another space if that becomes necessary.”
The company envisions a specific role in the city’s ambitious theater scene. “We feel like there’s a niche for classical theatre,” Bynum said, “and that’s really what we like to do.” Jenner added, “Whether they be ‘old classics’ or ‘current classics’ ” — which is why Molière and Mamet are co-habitating a single Oasis season. “I really feel like, if we do it properly, we can help build Santa Fe as a theater destination,” Bynum said. “If they can do it in Spring Green, Wisconsin, if they can do it in Cedar City, Utah, why can’t we do that here in Santa Fe?”
In addition to its fully staged plays, Oasis hopes to attract audiences to related events. This month will be given over to works by Mamet. His 1985 grifter drama The Shawl, plus his 10-minute curtainraiser The Sanctity of Marriage, are currently running every Thursday through Sunday until Nov. 18. But on Monday evenings, the company invites theater lovers to join them for staged readings of other Mamet plays — The Woods, on Monday, Nov. 5; Reunion ,on Nov. 12; and A Life in the Theater, on Nov. 19. “A lot of people said to me, ‘Oh, Mamet — all those swear words! But these are the plays before that,” Bynum said. She hopes attendees will be interested in encountering a Mamet different from how they know him from his most famous blockbuster plays and his film scripts. In February, Shakespeare will be the focus — not only through the company’s production of The Winter’s Tale but also through staged readings of his Measure for Measure, an act or two on each of three Mondays. Post-reading discussions might be part of the plan at some point — but definitely not during Mamet month. Since 2017, licensing agreements for his plays have included the provision that no postshow discussion or “audience talkback” may take place in the theater within two hours of the play’s
end, with infractions punished by a $25,000 fine plus withdrawal of performance rights.
Pared to its essence, Oasis Theatre Company is Bynum and Jenner, who hark back to the actor-managers who built a following for theater in 19th-century America. But classic plays require casts, and all the theater companies in Santa Fe draw on a talent pool that is far smaller than what is available in more established theater hubs. “That is true,” Bynum acknowledged, “but there may be a difference in how we utilize them, in how these actors are being cast. Doing classic plays, an actor has a lot to show as a performer. The really cool thing about Santa Fe is that it’s a built-in ensemble, because a lot of actors have worked together with one another.”
That Oasis focuses on classic plays does not mean that everything they present will be traditionally staged. “For The Winter’s Tale,” Bynum said, “we are updating it to 1955 in Chicago in a Sicilian neighborhood, and then it [moves ahead to] the 1970s during the hippie movement. It starts in the era of McCarthyism, the definition of which is to accuse somebody without proof, so we felt that really fit in. I’m picturing a bare-bones set with movable walls and projections for setting the time period.”
One challenge Oasis Theatre does not face is a shortage of material. Jenner, who trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, has performed with such notable companies as the Arena Stage in Washington and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York, but with Oasis alone he has appeared in more than 125 plays, with Bynum serving as director. “We haven’t repeated a lot,” Bynum said, noting that there are always many more plays they would love to grapple with. Some titles leap to mind as particularly apt for Santa Fe — for example, Ibsen’s An
Enemy of the People, which is about the commercial development of a contaminated hot springs and the ethical dilemma that presents to the community. “Santa Fe would find that very relatable,” she observed.
Jenner hopes that the company’s engagement with classic theater can “shed new light on old perceptions,” as he put it. “We’ve had people come to Molière,” he exclaimed, “and say they had no idea — they had just seen these cartoon-like characters in the past. ‘I was moved,’ they say, ‘This was almost like a tragedy.’ Or Chekhov: They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know how funny he was, or how touching.’ Or Shaw, how engaging he is — it’s not just these words, but these people who are battling with ideas.”
The Sanctity of Marriage; Noah Segard and Zoe Burke in Brenda Lynn Bynum; left, James Jenner and Bynum photo
The Shawl; Lisa Foster, Marty Madden, and Tristan Van Cleave in photo Brenda Lynn Bynum