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.