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REVIEW: "In Circles" — Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los Angeles

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"Non sequitur they may be, but never nonsense... "

“In Circles,” a rarely-seen musical by Al Carmines and Gertrude Stein, now playing at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble through November 10th, is a glorious celebration of the everyday moments of living.

If you have ever been curious about the work of Gertrude Stein, this would be the show to see, because it casts Stein directly into the spotlight. Based on her work, “A Circular Play: A Play in Circles,” which she wrote in 1920, “In Circles” is a nearly word-for-word rendering of her original play that has no character assignments or stage directions. Although they do not follow a linear narrative, both the play and musical offer cubist cuts of human dramas about loss – a young man killed in a war, several love stories, and the daily routines of everyday life, including eating, arguing, chopping wood, and even blowing one's nose. Some of the delightfully quirky numbers include, "Papa Dozes, Mama Blows Her Noses," “Cut Wood,” “Round as My Apple,” and “Mrs. DeMonzy Has Adopted a Child.”

Carmines fashioned Stein's libretto, creating a marvelous piece of musical theatre, full of entertainment and surprises, sentiment and humor, always enterprising in the extreme in its musical mix of performance art, klezmer, soft-shoe and show-tune. And quite faithful to the author – the way to read Stein is to hear Stein, and “In Circles” makes her very audible. The 88-minute piece is charming from the get-go, with a representative Gertrude Stein (Jacque Lynn Colton) center-staged, resting comfortably in an easy chair, directing her troupe of white-garbed parabolic puppets.

“So many new friends,” Gertrude beams, “How wonderful!” One almost expects her to give out homemade cookies, which, incidentally, does occur later. Filled with dance, amazing vocal performances by the cast, and wonderful 1920s-era costumes, it’s easy to be carried away by “In Circles.” And the music is just stunning – very simple, catchy on the surface, resonant and rich in its repetition, but without any element of high-flown presumption.

It is all about the sweetness and sadness of it all, made intimate from the moment the players enter the staging arena and begin greeting the audience. There is no story, only words dropped in the air like cylinders of tear gas. Words for the sake of words, words for the sake of beauty, words for the sake of half-forgotten associations, phrases acted, Proust-like, opening doors of lost perception. And, oh yes, sparkling with a sense of pure joy. Concerning the music, Al Carmines music is, according to a New York Times critic, “arrogantly eclectic, disgracefully tuneful and just right for the purpose. Influences of Verdi, Bizet, barbershop quartet, Weill, ragtime, spirituals and obviously “all that jazz” float around in his music with carefree abandon with no attempt to be influential.” A procession of dance numbers highlight the show, with traces of tango, waltz, can-can, charleston, cakewalk, Black Bottom, soft-shoe and folkish circle dancing with grapevine steps.

Nonlinear structure is a hallmark of avant-garde theatre, yet there has probably never been a production that celebrates the nonlinear like “In Circles.” Al Carmines' lively musical arrangement 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 revolutionary as it was back then, 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 David Schweizer (along with indispensable assistants Marissa Dubois and Bo Powell), what might otherwise come across as dated, instead enhances the play's other-worldly ambience. That ambience is strongly supported by Ann Closs-Farley’s delightfully all white 1920s-esque costumes, enhanced further by Chu-Hsuan Chang’s arrestingly beautiful light design, sparkling on an ingenious red set background by Mark Guirguis. The ensemble, stage-managed by Owen Panno, 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 the players, with characters loosely influenced from the years surrounding WWI. It's an inspired choice.

Other than Ms. Colton representing Ms. Stein, the show’s characters are made up of eight other players, including the Music Director, Kenneth J. Grimes, assuming the role of Dole, who plays the piano (they do not have a mechanical piano):

Cousins (He has an army in his room) – P.T. Mahoney

Mildred (Red and shiny as an apple) – Chloe Haven

Mable (She serves tea and circles) – Shelby Corley

George (He can think of kissing her) – Henry Arber

Sylvia (She can think of kissing him) – Ashley Dutson

Jessie (Cut wood) – Aaron Jung

Ollie (An Englishman from England) – Kyle G. Fuller

Composer Carmines, surprisingly a minister at New York’s Judson Memorial Church, promoted contemporary theatre and dance performances inside the Church itself. Also a gifted pianist, he wrote much of the music, and composed several other musicals afterward.

Premiering in 1967, the stage version was such a success it was transported to Cherry Lane Theatre the following year. When theatregoers heard the elliptic, ebullient numbers, mounted by an ensemble of performance artists, the irresistible melodies became allegorical vogue. At some point in the early 1970s, Juilliard student Charlemagne Palestine, using old recordings, was hired to write a piano voice score of “In Circles,” as a proper written score was not available from Mr. Carmines.

The songs vary from popular numbers and blues to gospel songs and moonlight sonata-ish Beethoven — falling somewhere between parody and pastiche and yet not quite either one. The dancing and vaudeville routines are accomplished by the characters ensembled together, yet each belongs to themself, and the actors who play them manage to be just anonymous enough, without ever quite losing their separate identities.

Miss Stein's quirky lines are not only terribly funny, but also rooted in wisdom and pure-heartedness. Non sequitur they may be, but never nonsense. There is always the awareness that tragedy is just a hairs breadth away.

If there is a moral, it would likely be that the words we use in talking with each other are almost ludicrously dependent on gesture and tone of voice for their emotional significance.

The onstage manifestation of how Stein perceived her world is a pleasure to watch. A sense of community pervades “In Circles,” from the performers' unified enthusiasm in executing Kate Coleman’s dizzying choreography to their inherent scintillating wit and touching eccentricity.

Even at the play's least comprehensible moments, the warmth of the performers and their dedication to the material keeps the audience enraptured. ”In Circles” oscillates between the inspired exuberance and the melancholic desperation associated with both the Lost Generation of the 1920s and the activists of the 1960s. Anyone nostalgic for such a time — or anyone simply seeking a powerful theatrical experience — would do well to see this show.

The evocative operetta, “In Circles,” will be spinning to Al Carmines' wildly eclectic, tuneful score through November 10th at the esteemed Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, West Los Angeles, now celebrating their 50th year. Congratulations to Producer Beth Hogan and Artistic Director Ron Sossi. For ticket information, please go to: This show is very highly recommended! 8/10

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report

Photos by Enci Box


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