BWW Reviews: Two Wild Works Confuse and Excite Audiences in Circuit Theatre's THE WALK ACROSS AMERICA FOR MOTHER EARTH and WELCOME TO ARROYO'S
Having graduated so recently, I often think about how challenging it can be for young artists to find and create opportunities that fit their needs and desires, especially in the theatre. I am constantly impressed by young professionals who, having struggled to get experience right away in the existing theatre scene, utilize what resources they have and make their own specifically molded, artistic opportunities. Such is the case with the Circuit Theatre Company, which was founded four years ago by a group of high school students and has since turned into a full fledged, professionally run, young and experimental theatre company. Led by Artistic Director Skylar Fox, the company takes on ambitious and devised works, not allowing for any limitations of imagination or reality.
The last production I saw at Circuit was The Valentine Trilogy, an epic combination of three fully produced plays, presented all in one stretch. What I experienced last night was similarly massive. The Circuit Theatre Company has a summer season of three shows, two of which are currently running in rep at the Oberon Theatre in Cambridge. Last night, I had the pleasure of experiencing both: The Walk Across America for Mother Earth by Taylor Mac and Welcome to Arroyo's by Kristoffer Diaz.
I will be honest. I have absolutely no idea why these pieces are presented in tandem. With three shows in a summer season, I would have guessed they'd be spread out; instead, the first two are performed in rep, alternating performance days, while the third will come in August. Stylistically and plot wise, the two shows are completely opposite, so experiencing them back to back made for a lot of jumbled thoughts and emotions on my end. I'm not complaining, as I'm happy to have had the chance to see two wildly different, enjoyable productions in one evening, but I'm just confused by the scheduling.
First off was The Walk Across America for Mother Earth by Taylor Mac, a noise filled, wacky and wild, highly devised piece centering around a colorful amalgamation of characters embarking on a protest walk across the country. The work is highly political, not only providing commentary on nuclear testing, the issue for which the walk was started, but also a variety of other controversial issues plaguing the discontented folk (specifically, Radical Faeries) of 1992 America. The piece reads like a Charles Mee work, with long stretches of absurdity littered with moments of insight and beauty. It is Hair mixed with Hedwig, glitter mixed with peace signs, and a wild collection of crazy characters. I mostly had no idea what was going on, but once I allowed myself to be transported into this supremely weird world, I didn't mind not being in control. I enjoyed the tornado ride.
Visually, the piece was just as wacky and unique as the writing. The set, designed by Adam Wyron, was made up of a crude, fragmented, woodworked map of the country, with illuminated red lightbulbs showing the casts' progress in their march. The costumes, designed by Anna Bodell, looked almost as if the cast ambushed a box of children's dress up clothes, as everyone wore bright colors, leather, sparkles, and feathers. There was immaculate detail paid to each character, down to writing on shoes or a jacket made of watches, but each outfit still maintained a reckless and almost childish vibe. My only criticism of the characters' appearance was the use of make-up. Having done my research of past productions, I know that the face paint (which covers each characters face in entirety) had a symbolic and important meaning, but I didn't follow. Instead of driving the point home about the emotion the character was to represent or whatever the goal was, I was distracted and distanced from the characters as individuals. Perhaps this is my own fault for not connecting to it, or perhaps the playwright's intention was not clearly represented, but either way, it wasn't my thing. Other than that, the craziness of the show's appearance worked very well.
This cast obviously worked extensively as an ensemble when putting this production together. Led by Director Christopher Annas-Lee, who had a particular knack for comedic timing and brilliantly eccentric moments, the cast maneuvered the choreographed madness with ease. I was particularly taken with Tom Mezger who played Rainbow Carl and looked like a sparkly clown version of the band Kiss. His overt masculinity mixed with his high pitched Belgian accent made for a hilarious caricature. I also quite enjoyed the duo of Angie and Kelly, best friends played by Talia Curtin and Kevin Paquette, whose lines overlapped at record speed and provided some of the most honest views of the action. Paquette specifically packed a punch, especially in a highly vulnerable, doubt filled monologue towards the end of the production. This cast was fearless and excited about their work, which made a world of difference in their performance.
This show was a circus, with loud music, crazy lights, and lots of emotions. It was incredibly blunt and I found myself laughing sometimes because what they were saying was so horrible and other times because what they were saying was so true, which is a great (and very different) kind of comedy. There was a substantial amount of toilet humor, of which I am not a fan, and some sequences were a bit sloppy, but that is to be expected in a production that is so weird and wild. I quite enjoyed this whirlwind.
After a lovely dinner out, I returned to the theatre to see Circuit's second production, Welcome to Arroyo's by Kristopher Diaz. Although in the same space, this was a complete 180, as it was a realism based story filled with turntables and cultural pride. It told the story of two grown siblings dealing with their mother's recent death and the lounge she bequeathed to them, while also crossing paths with a college student who has a theory to prove and a police officer conflicted between romance and the law. The piece is brilliantly narrated by two wannabe gangsters who act as somewhat of a Greek chorus, controlling and playing out the action as if they were DJing the story.
I am a huge fan of disruptive narrative, so I very much enjoyed the stop and start layout of the piece. It was wonderfully uplifting when it had to be, but mostly played on its comedy. The strength of this show was that it knew exactly what is was and didn't try to be anything else. It made fun of itself and did not pretend to be grandiose; rather, it reveled in the silliness and simplicity. Kudos to Director Jen Diamond for letting the jokes be jokes and making the story real. Speaking of humor, I have to mention red-headed Caleb Bromberg as Trip and lanky Fletcher Bell as Nelson, the brilliant comic relief of the show. Their parts are written to be funny, but few duos could play off each other and the language in the way Bromberg and Bell did. Additionally, I'm not sure if they were DJing live onstage, or if it was expertly choreographed, but either way I was impressed with their integration of the music.
Other than a few timing issues, my critiques are small ones. In a realism based show (or at least the parts that did not include Trip and Nelson), I think it is important to stick to realism. I found it odd that some things were done live, while others were pretend. For example, there was real painting of a wall and real drinking of beer, but the spray paint and eating of dinner was mimed. Because the majority of the piece was realism, these two pretend moments completely took me out of the action. Finally (and yes, I realize how nit-picky this it), the piece took place in 2004, but there was a joke made about the death of Steve Irwin...which took place in 2006. Silly, I know, but I figure the break from the world was worth a mention.
Both pieces utilized the space beautifully. The Oberon is a magnificent venue, full of levels and moveable furniture. I personally love an immersive theatre experience, as I feel much more connected to a piece when literally in the middle of it. I think both productions, and the Circuit Theatre in general, really took advantage of this wonderful space and managed to take their audience on a ride, rather than just presenting a play.
I think what separates the Circuit Theatre from other companies is the magnitude of their ideas. This is not a company that takes no for an answer and because of that, their works are wildly ambitious. Sure, there are things that could be tweaked or solidified further, but the important thing in my mind is that these ideas are being brought to fruition. This company has massive, epic plans and utilizes incredibly creative methods to achieve them. As far as I'm aware, there aren't many groups that do what Circuit does, and I am looking forward to seeing what this young company will do in the future.
A Walk Across America and Welcome to Arroyo's run sporadically through July 27th at the Oberon Theatre in Harvard Square. For dates, complete cast lists, production teams, and ticketing information, visit circuittheatre.com.
From This Author Alex Lonati