For an abstract story, Circle-Machine is awfully literal.
For this story about the self-imposed prison of politics, adapted from Charles Mee's Full Circle (itself inspired by the folk tale at the heart of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle), Oracle Theatre constructs an in-the-round set of chain-link fences and mobile iron bars. Actors frequently appear from within boxes or luggage, and move in circles to change the scenery. The set slowly closes around its characters until they’re in a literal prison—a direct assault on the central metaphor.
When the wife of the First Secretary of the Communist Party abandons her infant son in the arms of an American tourist (DeChantel Kosmatka) while fleeing the state, the tourist, Pamela, finds herself stuck in East Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wealthy Pamela sets out to prove just what money and manners can get done, recruiting young revolutionary Dulle Griet (Stephanie Shum) as an au pair and guide to help her sneak out of the country with the child.
The play is politics made personal. Each character invests in a certain worldview and care for the state, just as they become emotionally connected to the baby. This investment restrains imagination and vision until everyone is required to want the same things you do.
It’s a notion that could get under an audience’s skin and prompt some reflection, if you measure the success of a play by such things. But a surfeit of complexity endlessly occludes the point. Circle-Machine often explodes at the audience with music, multiple languages, long monologues and shouting and startling noises. For a story that builds a prison, it's determined to break free of its confines and go after our skulls.
This is not just paradoxical to the theme of entrapment; it never works. Discomfort from a story can be excellent; discomfort from a presentation isn’t. When I could focus on Pamela and how her seemingly innocuous Western ideals undid her, I could reflect on those same qualities in myself. I didn’t need the added discussion of the anus and phallus as social metaphor to drive home the experience. Nor the occasional masturbation.
Between Pamela’s sometimes comedic struggles and some other dark humor, I’ll admit Circle-Machine grew on me as it went along. Eventually its central theme comes into its own despite the efforts of the firecrackers and the accordions. But to swallow such heady, defiant idealism in theater, and such a reorganization of political thought, might have asked for a subtler act; one that picked at our brains rather than slamming them with a hammer made of cardboard.
Oracle Theatre. By Emma Stanton, Nigel O’Hearn and Thom Pasculli. Directed by Pasculli. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.