Review: The Odyssey’s ‘In Circles’ stylishly revives a ’60s Gertrude Stein musical experiment
“The business of Art,” Gertrude Stein theorized, was “to live in the actual present, that is the complete actual present, and to completely express that complete actual present.”
To that end, Stein’s playwriting privileged the presence of the actor over character, landscape over plot and the sound of words over their sense. Those wanting a logical through line had better look elsewhere. And anyone with an aversion to wacky repetition (“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is one of Stein’s signature lines of poetry) is advised to beat a hasty retreat.
Music has been a great complement to Stein’s playfully unorthodox theatrical imagination. The collaboration with Virgil Thomson on “Four Saints in Three Acts” represents perhaps the fullest realization of her stage vision.
“In Circles,” a 1967 work created by composer Al Carmines, a seminal figure in the off-off-Broadway movement, was inspired from Stein’s 1920 “A Circular Play.” This gamboling musical adaptation, in which words spin freely as both spoken and sung non sequitur, celebrates circularity in all its manifold resonances.
David Schweizer has directed a tantalizing revival at the Odyssey Theatre as part of its 50th anniversary “Circa ’69” season. A lush, almost delirious red permeates Mark Guirguis’ scenic design. Ann Closs-Farley has dressed the singer-performers in elegant all-white get-ups that are at once old-fashioned and strikingly modern. White makeup eye masks accentuate the otherworldly impression.
Joshua Harmon’s family comedy “Skintight” has its West Coast premiere with a strong ensemble led by musical theater star Idina Menzel, proving her comic chops.
A piano player called Dole (musical director Kenneth J. Grimes) tickles out Carmines’ frolicsome melodies. The agreeable score manifests a whimsical smile while lightly suggesting gravity as needed.
Jacque Lynn Colton, who is seated on a chair with wheels as the audience files in, plays Gertrude Stein as the conductor of words. She encourages and corrects the actors, lends a welcome hand, hectors without apology and listens with rapturous concentration for something perhaps only she can follow.
The opening line, “Papa dozes mamma blows her noses,” becomes a curiously delightful harmony performed in various configurations by the seven singers. The rhyme turns nonsense into lyrical enchantment. The austerity of “In Circles” is unusually amiable: Imagine Dr. Seuss as a cubist poet with a taste for avant-garde performance and a love for old-fashioned musical showmanship.
The skillfulness of the singing is captivating, but equally so is the adventurousness of the actors. They seem game for anything, and not just game but committed. Schweizer has created a theatrical ensemble that lives in and for the babbling, warbling moment.
Imagine Dr. Seuss as a cubist poet with a taste for avant-garde performance and a love for old-fashioned musical showmanship.
Character and story are jettisoned for something more fluid. Stein skeptics won’t be convinced, but she really did know what she was after. The counterintuitive arrangements of words entice even when they frustrate.
Apropos of nothing: “A Neapolitan noble is a neapolitan noble. And women are that.” “Tuberculosis” crops up quizzically in a sequence on dancing. Puerile jokes are delivered with a wink: “Why do the Indians make China. They make Indo china.” The name “Alice” (presumably a reference to Stein’s life partner, Alice B. Toklas) ripples with a melancholy affection. Is that death ambling alongside the silliness?
Proper punctuation isn’t Stein’s style. She likes things blurrier. The production follows suit by rejecting clear-cut lines. Kate Coleman’s choreography glides about in unpredictable ways. The movement is nearly as surprising as the verbal cartwheels — no easy feat.
Fall theater season highlights for Los Angeles include a musical version of “Almost Famous,” Bill Irwin in “On Beckett,” a revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and a new stand-up show by comic Mike Birbiglia.
Can I confess that part of me wanted “In Circles” to be more geometrically circular? I wanted the security that comes with a pattern. It’s dizzying when you don’t know the rules. Also, there’s that nagging feeling: What am I missing?
My head was going round and round, but I relaxed into the experience because of the talents of the performers. P.T. Mahoney could be working on Broadway; Chloe Haven, Shelby Corley and Ashlee Dutson are united in the crisp clarity of their gifts; Kyle G. Fuller has a dusky vocal allure; Aaron Jung seizes each of his moments with vivid spryness; Henry Arber lurks with mystery. Colton and Grimes seem like cronies in a delightful artistic conspiracy.
“Let us encircle let us encircle graciously.” Schweizer and his team follow through on Stein’s merry exhortation.
Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 10 (additional weekday performances; full schedule online)
Info: (310) 477-2055. Ext. 2;
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
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