Sometimes the fearlessness of actors is truly awe-inspiring. The eight-member ensemble in Circuit Theatre Company’s world premiere production of John Kuntz’s “The Annotated History of the American Muskrat” is so versatile and imaginative they keep us locked in to the dozens of wild and wacky scenes that unfold.
Nothing is predictable in this epic adventure (it is in three acts, with two intermissions), from the seating arrangement on the stage of the Wimberly Theatre to the appearance of no fewer than five first ladies. Kuntz’s plays often skirt that delicate line between dark, emotional explorations and silly pop-culture references, but no matter what the scene calls for, his characters are always rooted in honesty, and his dialogue always sounds natural. That truthfulness is important since “The Annotated History of the American Muskrat” ricochets like a pinball between American history as seen through the lens of Wikipedia and the experiences of a group of subjects in a scientific experiment.
The play opens with eight patients in bed. When a bell rings, they awaken and begin relaying the story of American history from the perspective of the muskrat, starting with a hilarious creation myth, shifting to politics and race relations, with a side trip to the land of Little Debbie snacks. Kuntz changes focus effortlessly, moving from the reality of awkward office romances to a nightmarish dream landscape, from individuals trying to understand their place in the world to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. We are reminded again and again that this is history from the muskrat’s point of view, and are treated to a hilarious scene from the iconic film “Rebecca,” as played by muskrats, and brilliant production numbers to the tune of “Muskrat Love,” the 1970s hit by the Captain and Tennille.
But Kuntz also cleverly works the theme of powerlessness into the mix, whether it’s a poignant moment in which individuals find they are unable to connect or the parade of politicians who all seem disconnected to their actions. Are Americans simply test subjects unable to effect change, simply willing to be led around by masked keepers? Just when we start to wonder, the ensemble moves into an extraordinarily funny lip-synched production number to I Nine’s pop hit, “Seven Days of Lonely.”
While Kuntz has written the free-wheeling script, director Skylar Fox masters the flow. Fox, supported by Adam Wyron’s scenic design and Christopher Annas-Lee’s evocative lighting, really makes this script sing, moving simple set pieces around to create dozens of little worlds, staging appearances by the cast members in all sorts of unexpected places and using lighting to focus attention in specific spots.
But most of all, Fox deserves credit for guiding his cast through some very impressive paces. Every member of the company — Sam Bell-Gurwitz, Jared Bellot, Simon Henriques, Edan Laniado, Anna Nemetz, Justin Phillips, Alexis Scheer, and Allison Smith — deliver full-on, high-energy performances. Fox’s staging is fast-paced without ever feeling rushed, and he is remarkably creative with a spare stage. He is definitely a director to keep an eye on.
Watching these performers dig into Kuntz’s imaginative, emotional landscapes is an opportunity to see a theater company pushing dramatic boundaries in exciting new ways.Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.