CIRCULATE at Minnesota Fringe Festival Verges on Inconsistency

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(Photo: Courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival)

(Photo: Courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival)

Walking in to University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center Proscenium Theater for the return of Minnesota Fringe Festival “2013 Audience Favorite” Guittar Productions, I had high expectations.

On August 2, I attended the second performance of the company’s CIRCULATE.

Fringe regulars told me that word of mouth might be the best way to scope out stand-out shows, and the audience reviews for last year’s CLOCKED were stellar.

Walking out, I was neither altogether disappointed nor entirely blown away.

Under the direction of Renee Guittar, Sarah Jabar, and Benjamin H. Kolis, this nine-member company presented an hour of comedic dance and physical theater sketches that asked the question “Is ‘The News’ really newsworthy?”

The players alternated between improvisational comedy sketches that hinged almost exclusively on local humor — “Whose Line Is It Anyway? Twin Cities Edition” — to clownish, though unevenly venturesome acrobatics sequences — “MOMIX lite” —  and dance that, though composed of lackluster movement (mostly run-of-the-mill contemporary jazz arranged in elementary spatial patterns), touched on accessible themes like “The Fifteen Minutes of Fame.”

Blending real and fabricated headlines from international, variety, sports, weather, and health news, CIRCULATE demonstrated how information can be exaggerated, misreported, limited, and sensationalized — indicating that “The News” should be seen for what it really is.

CIRCULATE‘s central theme was arguably trite, but its broad scope of characters and their colorful presentation were strong.

My favorites were Rob Ward’s bluff, cigarette-sucking newspaper deliveryman from Brooklyn-ish; Ward’s and Kolis’ take on the earnest, overly accommodating intern; and Megan Myhre’s unlucky, but still upbeat, anchorwoman.

Kolis is a talented mover unafraid of risk-taking, even when that means leaping headfirst toward the floor.  It was satisfying to watch this really tall, lanky guy eat up space. A downside to Kolis’ investment in his movement was that it brought to light the unbalanced level of physicality across the ensemble, whose members are at varying levels of skill, athleticism, and precision of movement.

I found one section of CIRCULATE exceptionally creative. Six of the players stood upstage in a horizontal line, evenly spaced and facing the audience. Another was seated downstage center, a newspaper on the floor in front of her. As she wrinkled, flipped, and touched its pages, the six people upstage reacted as if their own bodies were being wrinkled, flipped, and touched, all the while shouting out increasingly absurd headlines like “Putin Receives Nobel Peace Prize” and “NYC Housing Crisis Solved with Hot Air Balloons!”

Periodically, after hearing a headline, the player downstage would point her finger definitively at the paper below her, as if to indicate particular interest in the headline she had read. The six performers upstage would respond by acting out the scenario just described, then reset and repeat the process many times over.

I only wish that about a third of the audience — myself included — had been able to participate fully.

The headlines were created through a game reminiscent of MadLibs, in which — I imagine — audience members filled in incomplete headlines handed out to them on sheets of paper. Not receiving a sheet at all detracted from my sense of belonging during this audience-centered moment. I’m not sure how they selected the audience members who did receive these sheets, nor whether they intended for some to be left out.

In one very brief segment, Kolis slowly walked backward toward the upstage wall, an overwhelmed expression on his face, as recorded voices read unsettling headlines aloud. Later, a group of the players touched on the current Ebola outbreak with a tongue-in-cheek rap number.

Should the makers of CIRCULATE continue developing this work, this aspect of their production needs serious consideration.

Overall, CIRCULATE was a collection of feel-good variety pieces that offered indirect and, as a result, limited commentary on the nature and quality of modern day journalism.

Yet, the creators’ stance on what all of this amounts to remains unclear, and the lack of clarity was a distraction. Do the makers of CIRCULATE think “The News” is ridiculous? Confusing? Unreliable? Inconsistent? A distraction? A burden? A necessity? A racket? I’m curious.

CIRCULATE’s mention of solemn news was disproportionately sparse compared with the attention it gives to stories about celebrities, politicians, and kale. Along with demonstrating clear bias on current events, it only superficially addressed ethical and practical issues about journalism that merit balanced, thoughtful consideration.

In other words, CIRCULATE committed the same fouls for which it criticizes journalists.

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