Thursday 23 January 2020

The Circle - Theatre Review

What: The Circle
When: 21 - 26 January 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Jack O'Brien
Performed by: Bridget Charis, Stephanie Kelly, Jack O'Brien, and Luke Peverelle
Set by: Isabella Hunt
Lighting by: Marty Shlansky
Sound by: Ben Roy Keene
Stage managed by: Teri Steer
Stephanie Kelly, Jack O'Brien, and Luke Peverell
Melbourne loves a good stage horror, as evidenced in 2018's Night Terrrors and last year's The Yellow Wallpaper. 2020 brings us a new adventure into darkness and fear with The Circle, playing at La Mama Theatre this week as part of Midsumma.

O'Brien's tale of Eldritch horror and the rise of the arcane evil of Shaguaraka promised much, and I can attest that the opening moments of this play deliver with powerful promise and punch! Two young men feel the world needs a reboot and in a show which resembles something a demon who swallowed Charmed and The Rocky Horror Show then vomited all over the courthouse floor, they explore the last hour before the rise of the demon they have summoned within the magical circle.

Complete with possessions, incantations, zombies, police, gunshots and a satisfying amount of blood, Lance (Peverelle) and Cummings (O'Brien) set the wheels in motion for an apocalypse nobody will be able to control. Such potential, such promise, and the best opening I think I have ever seen on stage...

Sadly, as The Circle progresses, the story becomes silly and unfocussed and nothing in the writing or the production elements helps it get back on track. Perhaps the biggest problems lie with O'Brien's inexperience across the board.

As a writer he should have got on board with a dramaturg. I really wanted a scary horror (as promised in the publicity). The script, however, gets lost and winds its way between horror, parody, romance and farce. It is really hard for stage horror to not fall into parody and I do understand that difficulty. I also think romance can sit within the horror genre.

Less forgivable is the difts into farce and base humour. How do you maintain dramatic tension in a horror when the zombie is telling you to give the other guy a quick blow job?

In the program O'Brien talks about how The Circle was born of his love of building worlds in role playing games so I admit to being surprised he couldn't concoct a world with more drama and action. These characters just spend the whole time (an hour in the show, 50 minutes in real time) basically filling in time.

I am always nervous when I hear a show is written, directed, and acted by the same person and The Circle justified my concerns. O'Brien also needed to hand over the show to an outside director. The set (Hunt) is very simple with a green LED circle, an outer chalk circle and a jukebox (which indicates they are in a diner for some reason...). This set up doesn't leave a lot of props for actors to use to engage with and create shape so you really need to have good stage craft to use this well.

Sadly Peverelle and O'Brien are not yet at the level where they can work these problems out themselves. They spend most of the time sitting on the floor talking. The only other interesting thing are the two dead bodies (Kelly and Charis) who lie downstage. I found myself looking at the blood and a very annoying clock more often than I watched the living bodies in the space.

An outside eye director would have helped them used the space and their bodies in a more interesting manner. They could also have helped set the rules about the circles. Whilst there was a rule about not stepping outside the outer circle, I would have liked some sense of sacredness and intention for stepping into the inner circle to support the inferred importance which came with the glowing light.

Speaking of lights, it is evident that Shlansky (lighting) needs to do more research into horror. For most of the show, the lights were as bright as day. Yes, there was green mixed in with the open white (prosaic but it made sense), but it is night time...and what is the point of a glowing green circle if it is washed out by the stage lighting?

Ironically, I usually rail against the use of stage smoke but I would have forgiven it here and perhaps I am even asking for it! Actually, what I really wanted to see was the creeping menace of dry ice but nobody uses that anymore, sadly.

Keene's sound design was contextual although it could have been less diagetic and a little more terrifying. My biggest issue was the dynamics were missing so some really powerful moments - such as the tender dance which is interrupted by gunshots - lost their power because the music didn't swell to embue emotion which was to be so abruptly torn asunder...a moment lost on all levels.

On a bright note, Kelly was magnificent as the not yet dead victim who tries to escape, and Charis made a fantastic zombie. I can't blame them for the oddness of the show itself and the things they were asked to do. I can't talk about the sock puppets. I am trying to erase them from my mind forever!

I don't think the horror genre is beyond O'Brien as a writer, but he needs to learn discipline and curtail his self-indulgence. Both men have promise as actors but need to work with a director to develop their skills and get the detail and intention of the characters to emerge.

PRO TIP: Never put a clock on stage which is following real time because that is all the audience will be watching - especially if what you are doing is not the most interesting and engrossing thing to ever appear on stage.

1 Star

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