In Circles

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

The 1960s and 70s ushered in a particularly creative time in New York’s Off and Off-Off-Broadway scene. One of the leading lights in that movement was the composer Al Carmines. The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is offering local theatergoers a rare opportunity to see one of Carmines’ most celebrated musicals, In Circles, as a part of their Circa 69 season.

Based on “A Circular Play,” an obscure piece by Gertrude Stein, Carmines’ infectious songs celebrate Stein’s idiosyncratic experiments with the sound rather than the substance of the English language. A typical example is: “Let me amuse you. Round circles. Realize that you have to write a letter. And teeth. Teeth are sincerely regretted.”

Carmines was a devotee of Stein, musicalizing five other works by her during his career. And while Stein collaborated with Virgil Thomson on the operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, Opera gives pride of place to the music. It is Carmines’ downtown sensibility that more accurately captures Stein’s innovative style and showcases her humor.  His joyous and eclectic score also offers a kaleidoscopic survey of 20th Century popular musical styles.

David Schweitzer’s long history with experimental productions makes him an ideal director, or perhaps ringmaster is the more correct description, for the production. Understanding that visual simplicity is key, he strips away the conventional trappings of the playing space, exposing the walls and painting them and the few props a confectionary red. From there, he and choreographer Kate Coleman guide the performers in filling the space with 80 minutes of irrepressible exuberance.

An extraordinary stamp of authenticity comes from the casting of original cast member, Jacque Lynn Colton. Moving from 1967’s soubrette to 2019’s Stein, Colton mixes a wide-eyed naughtiness with authorial dignity and an antic spirit in a performance that is an unalloyed delight.

The youthful, strong-voiced ensemble is made up of Henry Arber, Shelby Corley, Ashlee Dutson,  Kyle G. Fuller, Chloe Haven, Aaron Jung, P.T. Mahoney, and Musical Director Kenneth J. Grimes. They all commit to the text as if it was a linear story rather than a curated jumble of sounds and images. Through this commitment and their musical skill, they are able to convince us that these images are meaningful and, eventually, to touch our hearts.

The cast is helped in no small part by Ann Closs-Farley’s superb all-white costumes which certainly pop against the red background. But, as the show goes on, slowly reveal themselves to be intricately designed pieces of wearable art that feature stylistic flourishes from several centuries of fashion.

I wasn’t around to explore the small theater scene in New York during the late ’60s, but In Circles is the rare production that truly feels like it captures the verve and idealism of theater creators during those eventful years.

Odyssey Theatre    September 14 – November 10, 2019