nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 14, 2008
Is there a more enchanting musical in New York right now than In Circles?
My guess is, probably not: if you crave simplicity and beauty and can do without narrative or convention, then Kaliyuga Arts' revival of this rare jewel of a show is for you. When I tell you that it has a text by Gertrude Stein, you will anticipate (correctly) that it will be abstract and off-kilter. These can be good things, I will tell you back. The genius of this show is how composer/creator/musical arranger Al Carmines found, inside Stein's spare but dense poetry, a vibrant and gorgeous celebration of the moment-to-moment pleasures and enervations of life. Paired with his melodies that sometimes sparkle and sometimes soar, and presented here elegantly by director John Sowle and a truly accomplished ensemble, the piece charms and amuses and teases and—catching us by surprise—moves us, deeply. Recall that Stein wrote a book called Everybody's Autobiography: should we wonder that with Carmines she can create for us something as ephemeral and fundamental as Our Town?
Now, don't think I'm even going to try to explain what In Circles is about. I'm too smart for that kind of thing. Instead, let me try to capture some of how it felt.
It is, in places, very funny. Carmines and Sowle have created characters to say Stein's words (something she had not bothered to do in her original text, A Circular Play, from 1920). Two of them are very clearly based on Stein herself and her partner Alice B. Toklas (although their names are given as Mildred and Mabel). There are also a piano player, a lovely young woman, a young soldier known only as Brother, a squabbling (married?) couple, another lady, a kind of majordomo named Dole, and another soldier who plays an astonishing variety of musical instruments.
There are fifteen circles in In Circles, each circle being as much like a "scene" as we will get in a show like this. Each has a very specific theme. In one, Brother speaks and sings of leaving (and we discover that he was, or will be, killed in the war). In another, everyone delights in different foods. In another, "a circlet of kisses," the lovely young woman sings of the first blossoming of romance ("Can you hear of kissing me" is how Stein puts it, confusing or superimposing the senses, as she is wont to do everywhere in this piece; a program note calls it cubist, and I think that's quite right).
In my absolute favorite song, the ensemble counts to fifty by moving up more than six octaves, one note at a time, five notes per person, from bass Anthony Wills (who plays Dole) to coloratura soprano Maureen Taylor (who hits a glorious very high note at "50").
Everyone in the company sings beautifully and they dance and move, constantly (in circles, of course, mostly); the flowing choreography is by Jack Dyville. The other eight performers not yet named are Paul Boesing (at the piano; the musical director), Sarah Ferro, Meghan Hales, Michael Lazar, Paul Lincoln (on guitar, accordion, bass, and more), Robin Manning, Noelle McGrath, and Steven Patterson. They are an exceptional group.
Sowle designed the simple set, virtually all of whose component parts are circles; evocative 1920s-ish costumes are by Mike Floyd and the picture-perfect lighting is by Joe Novak.
Before I expected I would—perhaps 10 minutes in, along about the time that Mildred and Mabel passed out little red paper plates loaded with chocolate chip cookies to the audience—I had completely found my bearings in the playfully undefined universe that Carmines and Stein have created for us. This is a musical to simply be at; to relax and appreciate. Slowly and subtly its undercurrent of relaxed appreciation for all the tiny things and the large things that constitute a life reveals itself. When it was done, I was startled at how much the piece had touched me emotionally.
Kaliyuga Arts is presenting In Circles at Judson Memorial Church, where Carmines first staged it more than 40 years ago. It will only be there one week more, which is very sad, because it's the kind of show I can imagine wanting to see many times—to be reminded, as we must, how fleeting is...everything.