Review: IN CIRCLES Brings the Free-Spirited 1968 Off-Broadway Scene to the Odyssey Theatre
Greenwich Village in New York City was a neighborhood and era of political and cultural revolution in the 1960s, the hub of revival in art, music, politics, literature, and ideas. This was the time and place of Bob Dylan, of Allen Ginsberg, of Andy Warhol, of The Velvet Underground, of protests against the Vietnam War, and the Stonewall Riots. And at the center of the Village was Washington Square, with its Judson Memorial Church a popular spot for contemporary theatre and dance performances inside the Church itself. Its Reverend Alvin Allison (Al) Carmines, a gifted pianist who was a great admirer of Gertrude Stein's writings, set her texts to music and in 1967, premiered the musical IN CIRCLES which is based upon a collection of short texts Stein published in 1920, infused with an obsession for circular forms. It was so successful, it transferred Off-Broadway to the Cherry Lane Theatre the following year.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is reviving the 1968 off-Broadway hit as part of its 50th Anniversary "Circa '69" Season of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the company's 1969 inception. Its current production of IN CIRCLES, directed by David Schweizer, musical director Kenneth J. Grimes and choreographer Kate Coleman, features a versatile ensemble starring original 1968 off-Broadway cast member Jacque Lynn Colton, and talented ensemble members Henry Arber, Shelby Corley, Ashlee Dutson, Kyle Fuller, Chloe Haven, Aaron Jung and P.T. Mahoney.
"For me, it is truly a 'circular' experience to be reunited with Gertrude Stein, Al Carmines and my wonderful memories of the New York production," says Colton. "The original was a unique collaboration between Al, director Lawrence Kornfeld and the cast. We gathered in Al's living room with just 12 typewritten pages. We were encouraged to develop our own characters and to take any line we liked - if another cast member felt attached to that line, they could repeat it. We did it at the Judson Poet's Theater for a while, then moved to the Cherry Lane Theatre where we ran for nearly a year. Everyone who does the show has to reinvent it according to who's in it and what the relationships are. This production is very creative, just as much so as the original. We have a very young, talented well-trained cast and they sing and dance deliciously. And this time, I get to play Gertrude Stein."
IN CIRCLES takes Stein's nonlinear prose, based solely on her pleasure at the way certain words sounded together, and sets them to a splendid musical score featuring ragtime, tango, waltz, opera, barbershop quartet, jazz and other musical styles. A landmark in the "over the top" theatre scene in New York of the late '60s, the play was described by the Burns Mantle Yearbook as "a complete arrangement of words and song and dance effects, each one conceived as if describing its own circle, without convention, story or subject line." The result, wrote Jack Kroll in Newsweek, is "a madly meaningful tea party which composer Al Carmines has turned into a gemlike operetta."
With praise like that, I knew the experimental Odyssey Theatre would do justice to the spirit of the avant-garde musical. And from the moment I walked into Mark Guirguis' all-red scenic design with Colton sitting center stage as Gertrude Stein reading a book and occasionally glancing around the audience as we filed in, I set aside all my expectations and just let the "happening" evolve before my eyes.
As ensemble members entered, each one dressed completely in stylish white costumes designed by Ann Closs-Farley with their eyes highlighted as if wearing white masks, their non-stop energy launched into a Stein fest of circle-inspired prose set to music with titles pulled from her texts. Conducted by musical director Kenneth J. Grimes onstage as Dole, the play's pianist, each song featured fabulous harmonies and Kate Coleman's continuously creative choreography with the ensemble frequently circling Colton as Stein seated in the center on her red-covered swirling desk chair.
Quirky musical numbers from this Obie award-winning musical/operetta romp include "Papa Dozes... Mamma Blows her Noses," "A Morning Celebration," "Round as My Apple," "Cut Wood," "Crimson Rambler," "How Old is America," "Writing to a Girl," "Mrs. DeMonzy Has Adopted A Child," "The Balcony is Airy," "Nose Kisses," "Messages Are Received," "Believe Me to Be an Offender," "Do Not Despair," "A Little Boy in a Large Circle," "Strawberries," "Realize (Write a Letter)," "How Do You Recognize Hats," "The Singing Bird," "Oh How We Love to Knead Bread," "He Have No Noon," "I Need Not Give Her Flowers," "Mr. Lambert Appears," "Can You See The Moon," "A Circlet of Kisses," and "I Can Hear Alice,"
IN CIRCLES is a feast for the eyes, even if the lyrics seem nonsensical at times. Just go with the flow and let the atmosphere of the 1968 theatre scene set your mind free! If only Stein's lover Alice B. Toklas was there to hand out her special recipe brownies to enhance the 80-minute experience!
Performances take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through Nov. 10 with additional weeknight performances at 8pm on Wednesday, Oct. 16; and Wednesday, Oct. 23. Tickets range from $32 to $37; discounts are available at select performances for seniors, students and patrons under 30; call theater for details. There will be "Tix for $10" performances, on Wednesday, Oct. 16 and Friday, Nov. 1. On Friday, Oct. 18 enjoy complimentary wine and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Enci Box