BWW Reviews: Why You Need to Drop Everything and See CIRCLE THE WAGONS
I had a very interesting experience in a theater the other night. I was sitting in one of Austin's traditional theater spaces waiting for a show to begin, and two ladies sitting directly behind me were talking about a different show, Circle the Wagons, The Exchange Artists' exploratory, original, site-specific scene cycle about car culture in the United States. I absolutely loved Circle the Wagons (more on that later), so naturally I listened in on the conversation behind me. "Ugh. I wanted to like it," one of them whined, "but I just didn't get it. The scenes were too short. I didn't really get what was going on in any of the scenes or who the characters were." Her companion, equally whiny, responded with, "Me too! And wasn't it weird sitting so close to the actors? Man, that was uncomfortable."
I swear, that has been the only time I've experienced road rage while not in a car. Granted, we're all entitled to our opinions regarding art and theater, but Circle the Wagons is so unique and yet still accessible that I'm shocked there's one person out there, let alone two, who "just didn't get it."
It's hard to describe Circle the Wagons other than to say it is a theatrical experience. When you arrive at the "theater," also known as the parking lot at Hyde Park Christian Church, you're given a program which contains a map of the performance area, a small section of the parking lot in which 8 vehicles are parked in a circle. Each car is numbered in the program, and you're given a number which will be your "starting car." When the show begins, you and two other audience members get in the car (the seats you're allowed to take vary depending on the car), and a five minute stand-alone scene plays out either in or around the car, meaning that the actor or actors are often within a foot or two of the audience. When the five minutes are up, you exit the car, move to the next one, and another actor or actors performs a different scene in your new vehicle.
The idea and execution alone are worth seeing. This is audience participation at its finest. It's impossible not to be impressed by how each actor must perform the same scene for eight different audiences over the course of an hour and always with an incredible physical proximity to their audience. It must take an incredible amount of dedication and focus to pull this off and do it well, and the entire cast handles the demands of the concept with an effortless ease. It's also impressive how, while each scene is performed in its own space and by its own company of actors, they all are in sync. A scream from car #6 may cue something at car #3, and the turning on of the stereo in car #5 might cue a moment at car #7. In addition the scenes, each by a different playwright or playwrights, are often surprising. Sure, with 8 scenes about cars, there are certain scenes that are somewhat expected, like one involving a carjacking and another involving two teenagers making out in the back of a minivan, but even those do not progress in ways you'd expect.
While all 8 scenes are strong, you're bound to walk away with a couple favorites. Karina Dominguez is hysterically funny in her scene, a monologue about her love for her Mini Cooper. Anne Hulsman is outstanding in the implausible but irresistible scene in which a woman talks to her car and, to her surprise, he talks back.
Between the dedicated cast, the outstanding writing, and the insanely fun concept, Circle the Wagons is a wild ride and one of the most enjoyable, different, and inventive evenings of theater that you'll ever experience.
Running time: Approximately 1 hour, no intermission.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS, produced by The Exchange Artists, plays the parking lot of Hyde Park Christian Church (610 E 45th St, Austin, 78751) now thru Monday, March 3rd. Performances are Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at 8pm. Tickets are $15-$20. For tickets and information, visit www.exchangeartists.org.