A merry band of clas­si­cists


Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

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

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