Circle the Wagons

Exchange Artists' series of five-minute plays performed in and near cars boasts a lively party atmosphere

Paradise under the minivan lights: Bradley Silman and Bridget Farr in <i>Circle the Wagons</i>
Paradise under the minivan lights: Bradley Silman and Bridget Farr in Circle the Wagons (Courtesy of Roy Moore / Control Images)

Hyde Park Christian Church, 610 E. 45th
Through March 3
Running Time: 1 hr., 10 min.

A week into their run, the performers of this Exchange Artists production are pumped, and no wonder. They've been engaging sell-out crowds in this site-specific work with an energy level that rivals kegger camaraderie. Too active to be audience members, yet too passive to be participants, witnesses to this brand of voyeuristic theatre come away from the experience contemplating the role of the theatrical in transforming our perception of reality.

The concept is simple: Eight five-minute plays are performed in or near automobiles. Love 'em or hate 'em, cars are an inescapable part of our consciousness – particularly in the wide-open spaces of the Lone Star State. We eat in them, sleep in them, fuck in them. They give us freedom while keeping us enslaved. Kudos to director Rachel Wiese for realizing the ripe potential of the theme.

Despite the fact that it occurs in a church parking lot, Circle the Wagons boasts a lively party atmosphere, albeit one marked by temperance. Expect a little song and dance, along with some playful interrogation regarding your relationship and experience with cars. My first encounter was with performer Anne Hulsman, holding court beside a Toyota Matrix as a friendly moto-psychologist before entering her vehicle to execute one of the evening's highlights, "Charlotte and Charlie." Forgive me, reader, for being vague about the exact contents of these vignettes, as the element of surprise adds to the charm of each encounter.

I will say this: A wide range of genres and situations are on display here. Of the eight stories in this collection, four (including the aforementioned "Charlotte and Charlie") have been penned by playwright Katherine Craft. Although these works were intended to flesh out the show's collective vision, three of them are among the best in the bunch.

Interestingly, although the call for scripts was pretty open-ended, two of the stories not by Craft – "Bad Move," by Cleve Wiese, and "Love. Don't Judge," by Gwen Copeland – contain a noticeable amount of resentment toward privileged millennial "hipsters." You know, the kind whose "parents still pay for everything"? Copeland's luxury sedan-driving mom ironically asks us not to judge her even as she judges others, while refusing to grant that same pardon to the hipsters she scrutinizes, and Wiese's study of female frenemies includes a snarky reminder from one girl to the other that the driver's car actually belongs to Daddy. Perhaps this tension isn't such a coincidence after all in a city with a growing reputation as a haven for trust-fund babies.

Still, let's face it, the literary aspirations of a five-minute play are not exceedingly high. The focus here is on first impressions, poetic characterizations, and the intimacy of literally rubbing shoulders with performers in close quarters. While the work of Eric Bogosian or David Mamet is arresting and may germinate in your mind for days afterward, this is the kind of visceral theatre whose impact is immediate, if fleeting.

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Circle the Wagons, Austin theatre, Exchange Artists, Rachel Wiese, Katherine Craft, Sarah Saltwick, Anne Hulsman, Gwen Copeland

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