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Reviews: Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" and Vaudeville in "The Circuit"
History, channelled.

The Hinterlands' "The Circuit"

For all its punk sensibility, there is a core of heartfelt and sometimes pungent nostalgia in The Circuit, the latest project by the imaginative Detroit-based performance group, The Hinterlands. And it wasn’t just the celebration of hometown soft drink, Faygo, which was served during an ad hoc intermission. The Circuit refers to vaudeville—the theater stops performers would make during the pre-cinema heyday of live variety shows. But as the show unfolds, it becomes clear there’s another “circuit” at play here—the connected history of all sorts of “acts” that share vaudeville’s democratic, inclusive spirit. Alverno Presents hosted the opening of The Circuit national tour this weekend.

Hinterlands founder Richard Newman—both teacher and emcee—sets the tone early, explaining that vaudeville means “voice of the city,” and linking it to the crush of immigrants that poured into the U.S. at the turn of the century. And the troupe lovingly recreates (and reworks) classic routines: the physical comedy of routines like “Slowly I turned…”, which inspired countless silent film routines—not to mention The Three Stooges (and Bart and Homer, too). And more “elevated” dance routines, like the butterfly dance made famous in Thomas Edison’s early silent film.

But the thrill of the show comes from the connections made between these acts and those of a later time (including the 21st-century vaudeville stage known as YouTube). Here, the sweet ukulele sing-song of the St. Clair Sisters (a real vaudeville pair known more for acrobatics than music) morphs into Riot Grrrl punk when the ukes are plugged in to buzzy pocket amps and the volume is cranked. The dazzling, sinuous dancing of “String” (recalling the physical feats of the Nicholas Brothers) lives on through the ages in Detroit-based “jit” dancing (all of it performed by the amazing Haleem Rasul). And in a climatic moment of anarchic individualism, Newman recalls a time when he personally felt a radical interconnection through art—the rave scene of the mid-‘90s, which in Detroit meant the painted faces and Faygo showers of Insane Clown Posse gatherings.

For all the DIY charm of the Hinterlands style—layered thrift-store costumes, makeshift stage curtains—there is plenty of virtuosity on display here. Rasul, his lanky and rubbery smooth steps, is a showstopper. But Hinterlands is built on a kind of physically disciplined blend of dance and theater. Watch Liza Bielbey—Yosemite Sam mustache and all—turn the slapstick of “Slowly I Turned…” into a little masterpiece of captivating in-the-groove movement.

The Circuit ends not with a slapstick bang, but with a tender plea. “Don’t close the door,” the cast sings to a simple ukulele accompaniment as photos and videos of legendary—and not-so-well-known--performers flash on the screen. With the internet turning into a massive repository of cultural memory, the song suggests, the opportunity to keep the past alive is greater than ever. Because if you look closely, you’ll see that it has never really gone away.

Emily Dickinson

It takes a while to get used to the old-fashioned rhythms of The Belle of Amherst, which Renaissance Theatreworks opened this weekend at the Broadway Theatre Center. William Luce’s one-woman “bioplay” first appeared (1976) when a dramatic “solo” was none too common, and it relies on conventions that have become all-too-common over the decades. Jenny Wanasek, playing Emily Dickinson, enters with an “Oh, I didn’t know we had visitors” glance at the audience—a gesture which seems right out of a “Second City” parody. And to tell the poet’s story, Luce relies on this kind of direct address, as well as dramatic scenes with invisible characters, which don’t always land (through no fault of this production) with persuasive dramatic impact.

But Wanasek and director Suzan Fete believe in and honor the old-fashioned virtues of Luce’s script, and you should, too. Primarily using the glories of Dickinson’s own words, the play transports you to a more measured, intimate and thoughtful world. With a poised and simple elegance, Wanasek brings Dickinson’s spirit to the stage—through language that deserves to be handled with care. And is.

She does so by never letting Dickinson’s voice disappear. Rather than flexing her impersonation chops to portray other characters, she tells stories in Emily’s voice, the way the poet would—with carefully, beautifully chosen words and deliberate thoughtfulness. This is a woman, after all, who celebrated the American language. “I lift my hat to them when I see them sitting on my page,” she says of her favorite words early in the play. She is a singer above all else.

The play’s words are so rich that it’s hard to tell when the poems begin or end. And Wanasek wisely doesn’t put quotations around them with her acting. Her conversation flows effortlessly into the rhythms and rhymes of the verse, and sometimes a familiar line surprises you. The play is beautifully paced—unrushed and rich with the music of language. It tells Dickinson’s life story in fits and starts, but ultimately, it achieves something far beyond simple biography—a glimpse of the lovely soul behind the beautiful words.

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