Nonlinear structure is a hallmark of avant-garde theatre, yet there has probably never been a production that celebrates the nonlinear like – at the risk of sounding redundant – In Circles. Obsession with circles is one of few explicitly unifying themes in Al Carmine’s musical adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s A Circular Play. Stein wrote A Circular Play in 1920, early in her professional writing career; still earlier in her career as a playwright. Aiming to accomplish in text what her contemporaries achieved through cubist painting, Stein considered her writing to be an evolving experiment in structural manipulation. A playful early example, A Circular Play reads like a collection of loosely rhymed non-sequiturs.
Al Carmine’s lively musical arrangement of the text is a stunning achievement that earned him a 1968 Obie for Best Musical and helped usher in the experimental style that found a home in early Off-Off-Broadway. Such experimentation is no longer as revolutionary as it was in the 20’s or 60’s, and much of the production feels like something from another era. Interestingly, that’s not a bad thing for the piece. In the dedicated hands of director John Sowle, what might otherwise come across as dated instead enhances the play’s other-worldly ambience.
That ambience is strongly supported by Mike Floyd’s delightful 1920’s-esque costumes, which help audiences to distinguish between characters, and Joe Novak’s arrestingly beautiful light design, which helps to distinguish between scenes. Appropriately, the production is staged in the round, yet given the show’s singular emphasis on circles, it’s odd and frustrating that Sowle rarely has the cast play to all sides.
The ensemble is both playful and polished, a remarkable accomplishment given the apparent lack of specificity written into each role. Stein’s text lists no characters and contains no real dialogue; In Circles assigns lines to an ensemble of ten, with characters loosely influenced by Gertrude Stein and her circle of friends from the years surrounding WWI. It’s an inspired choice. The onstage manifestation of how Stein perceived her world is a pleasure to watch.
Even when the characters take their names from Stein’s real-life acquaintances, they are amalgamations. Mildred, for example, comes from a textual reference to Mildred Aldrich, Stein’s good friend and fellow expatriate, credited by the French government with helping to convince the United States to join WWI. Certainly, her understanding of the inter-related nature of the world makes a fitting lens through which to contemplate circles. Yet the character Mildred, played with grounded flourish by Noelle McGrath, is shaded with layers of Stein; she and Mabel (Robin Manning) play hostess to the rest of the characters just as Stein and Alice B. Toklas did in their Parisian salon.
As a key figure in the burgeoning Paris art scene in the early part of the 20th century, Stein’s circle included prominent international artists, among them Matisse and Picasso. Sense of community pervades In Circles, from the performers’ unified enthusiasm in executing Jack Dyville’s dizzying choreography to the delight they take in one another’s singing. Even at the play’s least comprehensible moments, the warmth of the performers and their dedication to the material should keep audiences not just at ease but enraptured.
Stein wrote A Circular Play just after WWI, with her displaced community struggling to put itself back together, and even as the characters of In Circles declare that they “must remain in a circle,” impermanence sets into their world. A soldier, identified only as Brother (Michael Lazar), is killed in the army. Does his absence leave a hole in the circle or make the circle tighter for those who remain? In Circles inexplicitly raises the question but doesn’t bog itself down in conclusions.
Other life cycle events inform the transience of In Circles as well. “Mrs. de Monzy has adopted a child” sings the cast in an early musical outburst while jovially encircling a baby. Much later family is brought up again in the context of a young couple (Megan Hales and Michael Lazar) whom audiences encounter first surrounded by the rest of the ensemble and then alone onstage together. It’s one of few times the stage holds only two performers, and as a result the intimate romantic moment feels strangely lonely; what will happen to the circle? It’s easy to miss the cohesion of the group even as it’s touching to see the beginnings of young love.
“Circles stretch,” say the characters in the face of change. Yet in the final moments of the play, a character notes in true Steinian fashion: “klim backwards is milk.” It’s not palindromic; not everything continues forever.
In Circles oscillates between the inspired exuberance and the melancholic desperation associated with both the Lost Generation of the 1920’s and the activists of the 1960’s. Anyone nostalgic for such a time – and anyone seeking a powerful theatrical experience – would do well to see In Circles.