Fort Worth — Like that old joke about not being born in Texas, Circle Theatre’s season-opening Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love) didn’t open on Valentine’s Day…but it got here as soon as it could.
This is a mixed bouquet of love stories, adapted with a light, lively touch by Aaron Posner from a trio of short works by Kurt Vonnegut. (The energetic Posner, in fact, had two shows running in Fort Worth for one weekend: his wry riff on Chekhov, Stupid Fucking Bird, closed at Stage West the same weekend Who Am I? opened.) Funny, poignant and offbeat, these aren’t Disney-fied romantic yarns, but tales of couples caught in the twisting, turning throes of “love pure and complicated”—and touched now and again by a quirky kind of magic.
"All this happened, more or less.” A young man and woman, friends since childhood, meet again at a critical moment. Will their awkward stroll end at the next corner, or turn into “The Long Walk to Forever”? A shy guy and the new girl in town are thrown together as characters (“Who Am I This Time?”) in a community theater production. (This story was made into a charming 1982 short film with Jonathan Demme directing and a very young Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon in the lead roles.) And a movie star stirs up trouble in more marriages than her own in “Go Back To Your Precious Wife & Son.”
Director Steven Pounders lets the cast have plenty of fun with the show’s structure: these stories aren’t just acted by the members of a small-town Texas theater group; they also are about some of these folks. The line between life and theater here is amusingly blurred. Actors talk to (and tease) the audience, chat amongst themselves, and pop in and out of stories with cheerful abandon.
Our chief explainer and commentator is Tom Newton (Patrick Bynane), a local contractor directing his first play for the company. Bynane brings a genial Our Town-ish vibe to the stage, and grows in the role as we come to know the many ways he’s connected to the action.
All but two cast members play multiple roles. Jeff Wittekiend and Julie K. Rhodes score in Who Am I’s showiest roles, as Harry Nash, the hardware store clerk who only comes alive for his roles onstage—notably Stanley in Streetcar—and Helene Shaw, the newcomer whose pulse-pounding onstage encounters with Harry/Stanley leave her limp…and wanting more. Marisa Diotalevi gives a dry, funny performance as the theater group’s longtime director, eager to pass the buck (er, baton) to Tom; she trades sensible shoes for a swishy peignoir to play a “difficult” movie queen in the night’s last story.
Thomas Ward makes us laugh as hardware store owner Verne, jealous of his own clerk’s “star” status—and later in the proceedings is quietly moving as the movie queen’s fourth husband, a writer wondering just how he got here, minus a wife and son he loves. Sherry Jo Ward plays Tom’s wife Kate as the kind of woman who anchors every situation she’s in—full of humor and wise advice, we’ll get to know her from several points-of-view before the evening is over.
Matthew Holmes (like most of the cast a familiar face from area theaters, but new to Circle) is fun to watch as a busy, time-obsessed stage manager—but he brings a winning sweetness to the role of Newt, a young soldier who’s come to take a girl he once knew for a walk. Catharine (Rhodes again) is surprised and nervous at his sudden appearance—but Newt has the calm of a fellow who knows what he’s doing.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ set design evokes the shabby clutter of a well-used theater space, and Brittny Mahan’s costume choices add a nice mid-century feel—especially the diva’s pink peignoir and her husband’s satin smoking jacket. (Vonnegut’s short stories were written in the 1950s and early ‘60s.)
Posner does a lovely job of bringing out the open-hearted quality that infuses Vonnegut’s early short stories—not something we think about in relation to much of his later work. It’s a literary misdemeanor, of course, to think too much about a writer’s life in relation to his/her fiction. But for me personally (critic’s hat off for a moment), these stories pack more emotional depth if we recall they were written only a few years after the end of World War II.
During the war, Vonnegut was a POW in Germany, starved and nearly worked to death by the Nazis. He was a prisoner in Dresden during the Allied firebombing that reduced the city to ashes. Vonnegut survived to tell the tale—but it took him more than 20 years to work up to his brutal and absurdist depiction of those events in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). I like to think of him back from the war like other young GIs, looking to shed loneliness and find comfort, stability, goodness, and the kind of love that will last. Not much to ask for—but surprisingly hard to get, as these tales full of comedy and heartache make clear.
James Sugg’s original song for the show might seem a bit offhand at first—but in repetition becomes a neat little mantra that links the actors onstage and the people in the seats with the everlasting nature of love:
And so it goes
And so it goes
And so it’s always gone and going still.