Theatre review of Alberta Theatre Projects' The Circle; October 20 - November 7, 2015 at Martha Cohen Theatre, Arts Commons in Calgary, AB.
Alberta Theatre Projects misses the mark with The Circle.
Despite valiant efforts from the cast and creative team, The Circle lacks substance and feels hollow.
There has been a lot of hype leading up the opening of Alberta Theatre Projects’ (ATP) latest play, The Circle. Written by local playwright Geoffrey Simon Brown, ATP has promoted The Circle as being a brave, honest and provocative new work that gives audiences a glimpse into the dangerous time of youth.
I even wrote in a previous article, “…the Calgary theatre community is holding its breath for what promises to be one of the most explosive theatrical events this town has ever seen.” Well, on Friday evening, I attended the opening night performance and held my breath….and was very disappointed with the outcome.
The Circle tells the story of six Calgary teenagers gathered at a garage party on a fateful evening. According to ATP’s season brochure, the character descriptions are as follows: “Amanda’s a genius. Ily’s a drug dealer. Daniel’s a good kid. Will has ADHD. Kitt is a runaway. Mutt is a mess.”
At the very beginning of the play, we see all the characters on stage, with the exception of Mutt. They all look like they have something to hide, and one by one, each character allows Ily to use a hot branding iron to burn a circle into the skin of their forearm as they scream in pain.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s happening. Obviously something unfortunate has happened to Mutt (this really isn’t a spoiler, since this scene happens in the first ten seconds of the show), and now all the kids are swearing their eternal secrecy to the events that have transpired by having a circle branded on their skin.
Right off the bat, this doesn’t make any logical sense, because if they really wanted to keep their secret hidden, they wouldn’t get something as visible, obvious and suspicious looking as a circle branded on their forearm. But that’s how the show starts. A little overdramatic, but as an audience member, I was still intrigued into finding out what happened. So I watched in anticipation as the play flashed back to the events of the previous evening.
Amanda (Elisa Benzer), along with her boyfriend Ily (Joe Perry), who lives in Amanda’s family’s garage, host a social gathering and Amanda is very excited to have her friends Daniel (Brett Dahl) and Will (Daniel Fong), who are a couple, over. To Amanda’s displeasure, Ily has invited his long-time boyhood friend Mutt (Geoffrey Simon Brown) and his girlfiend Kitt (Leanne Govier), who are living on the streets.
The kids all show up, there’s a lot of drinking, smoking of weed and cigarettes, and fighting but no actual plot happening. As an audience member, I was actually very confused as to what the point of everything was.
Then, in an attempt to develop Daniel’s character, the play sees Daniel going into a sad monologue about the death of his mother and how it made him question faith and fate. It all seems very strange and awkward.
Further confusion ensues during the next scene, where we see boyfriends Daniel and Will trying to work out their relationship. Will is inviting Daniel to hang out with Will’s friends later that evening. Logically, I was assuming they were going to another party that night. It wasn’t until later that I finally clued in and realized that this interlude scene (and another one that later follows with Kitt and Mutt) is actually a prelude that happens before the garage party. It was very confusing, but still, I wanted to give the play the benefit of the doubt, so I went with it.
We then return to the garage party – which by the way appears to look like the worst party ever. The kids are dancing to strange music, they’re in a sketchy looking garage and no one is Instagramming or Snap Chatting, probably because they don’t want to embarrass themselves on social media by showcasing themselves at this odd event. There’s more pointless action that happens, still with no real plot. Sure, there are traces of rising conflict, particularly between Mutt and Amanda, but not enough to be compelling.
Finally, in the last section of the play, there’s a plot that materializes and it ties into the traces of conflict seen earlier. I could feel the audience breathing a sigh of relief that there was now an actual point to everything. Of course, we all pretty much knew how the play was going to end, so the rest was just a formality.
There are two types of audience members with whom The Circle may go over well with. The first, will be middle-aged audience members and up, who get swindled into thinking that the play is raw, edgy and a legitimate portrait of today’s youth. The second will be a small amount of teenagers thrilled at the novelty of seeing a play about fellow Calgary teens, and who will not care that the play lacks any kind of substance.
However, I feel that the majority of young audience members will feel this play is an insulting fraud. Sure, there are moments where you can relate to the characters, as they discuss adolescent problems that almost anyone can identify with. But almost everything about the way the show seems way off base.
For example, the costuming for Mutt and Kitt is very strange. Dressed in goth-like attire, it looks like Mutt and Kitt just arrived from 1995 via a time machine. It’s also quite bizarre that the characters are named Mutt and Kitt, names that are more appropriate for pets. I have a hard time believing any teenager would want to be known by either of these names. A quick Facebook search confirms my suspicions, as I literally couldn’t find anyone in the world named Mutt or Kitt.
As mentioned earlier, none of the kids use social media throughout the show. I dare you to find a social gathering of teenagers, where no one is Instagramming, Snap Chatting, Facetiming, Facebooking or texting. The absence of social media within the show is weird.
The music choice is also confusing. At one point, the characters all start dancing and partying to Eminem’s Without Me (from 13 years ago) as if it’s the latest hit. You won’t find any Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris or Taylor Swift at this garage party…even though in real life, that’s probably what you’ll hear at most high school parties.
There’s pretty much no character development, and the characters don’t even match their character descriptions. I find it very hard to believe that Amanda is a genius. And Will doesn’t really show traces of ADHD.
To their credit, the cast and creative team deliver valiant efforts. Daniel Fong shines as Will. His performance is full of energy and he engages you with the how genuine and honest his portrayal is. Watching Fong, you feel as though you could be watching a typical 15-year-old trying to fit in, figuring out relationship issues and fighting through adolescence.
In the role of Mutt, playwright Geoffrey Simon Brown delivers a tremendous performance so realistic that it’s actually frightening. As with Fong, when I was watching Brown, I could actually picture people I knew while growing up that had similar personality qualities as his character.
On that note, Joe Perry’s strong portrayal of Ily is also frighteningly realistic. Throughout my life, including now, I’ve encountered guys similar to Ily’s character, who like to smoke a little too much, lack ambition, and rely on their significant others to take the lead. Perry’s performance is spot on.
Elisa Benzer, Leanne Govier and Brett Dahl round out the cast and they all deserve applause for making their characters their own and delivering strong performances.
Director Ann-Marie Kerr has done a commendable job with her staging and keeps the rhythm of the show going at a steady pace. Set designer Narda’s McCarroll has created a garage that nicely fills the stage of the Martha Cohen and serves as an inventive playground for the characters.
When it comes to youth, there are so many stories to tell. The theme of adolescence has always captivated the interests of audiences throughout history, dating back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and following through to present day film and TV successes such as The Hunger Games and Pretty Little Liars. But audiences have been compelled by these stories because they have empathized for the characters. There’s so little substance in The Circle that it’s impossible to have sympathy or to be quite blatant, care about the characters or their situation.
In a day and age where we hear about so many real tragedies on the news each day, who on earth is going to care about the character of Kitt, who runs away from her family’s home in Mckenzie Towne to live on the streets, because she feels her parents don’t pay attention to her? You can’t tell me that kids these days are so oblivious to what’s going on in the world, that they will be emotionally invested in the characters on stage.
For all its hype as being a raw and honest portrayal of youth, The Circle falls flat. Back in 2006, a musical by the name of Spring Awakening opened on Broadway. Praised for its depiction of sexuality and teenage angst, Spring Awakening was gloriously stunning and genuine in its depiction of the turbulence of adolescence. The Circle on the other hand, is a hollow play that leaves you feeling empty and unsatisfied.
While I respect the efforts of the cast and the ATP team, I feel The Circle really misses the mark, because ATP is known for telling provocative and engaging stories that we can talk about. You would be hard pressed to have any kind of legitimate discussion about The Circle, as it offers very little of a story, and as I mentioned earlier, evokes minimal empathy for its characters.