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Circumference of a Squirrel

The Mark Taper Forum's subsidiary Taper, Too, concludes its four-play season at the Actors' Gang with the one-person play "Circumference of a Squirrel," a skillful, but not wholly successful, work by Texas playwright John S. Walch. The piece was performed quite charmingly by actor Chris Hogan, and directed inventively by Mark Rucker.

Chris Hogan

The Mark Taper Forum’s subsidiary Taper, Too, concludes its four-play season at the Actors’ Gang with the one-person play “Circumference of a Squirrel,” a skillful, but not wholly successful, work by Texas playwright John S. Walch. Performed quite charmingly by actor Chris Hogan, and directed inventively by Mark Rucker, the piece still never quite emerges from that indefinable gray area between theater and prose. Ultimately, “Circumference of a Squirrel” seems like a squirrel itself, caught in the middle of the road, jutting back and forth between a full-fledged play and simply a nicely realized presentation of a novella that will always be better on paper than onstage.

Along the way, Walch certainly demonstrates some genuinely witty language, and the ability to riff cleverly on a thematic image. At the start, he introduces us to the motifs he’ll juggle throughout the 80-minute running time, as the single character, Chester, tells us that the story “begins with a squirrel and bagel.” Sitting on a park bench on a university campus, soon after taking his microbiology graduate adviser’s condescending advice to take some time off, Chester observes said rodent attempting without success to carry the too-heavy bagel up a tree.

From here, Chester tells us the story of his family history with squirrels, which began when his father got bitten by one and developed a violent — even metaphorically rabid — hatred of the animal. In a series of anecdotes that jump forward and backward in time, Chester interweaves recurring squirrel incidents with his introduction of his Jewish girlfriend, later his wife, to his parents, including his anti-Semitic father.

Hogan voices all of the characters, although he doesn’t try to embody or fully imitate them. He’s not acting out these scenes, he’s relating them, in the past tense, as Chester. Just a touch squirrel-like himself, Hogan is exceedingly likable in this role. His face can be extremely expressive, and the most amusing moments of the play come when Chester reacts with bafflement to what the other characters have told him.

Throughout the play, the doughnut shape of the bagel becomes the dominant motif. Rachel Hauck’s austere, nicely nonliteral yellow and black set is properly dominated by a tire inner-tube that hangs from a hook. Along with a smaller tube, these round, holed “circumferences” become a very theatrical means of evoking both spaces and props, assisted ably by Geoff Korf’s lighting and Norman Berman’s music. The tubes can be a car wheel, a window into a hospital room, a fireplace and a chimney, a suitcase, a wreath. Walch weaves this shape into his story even more, with similarly shaped life-savers and washers playing a role in the narrative. The shape itself, with an emptiness in the middle, becomes the driving force of “Circumference of a Squirrel.”

Walch’s playfulness with this motif can be genuinely impressive and funny — such as when Chester compares his girlfriend to a donut that hasn’t yet been “dunked in the coffee of my parents.” And yet this shapely metaphor has a literary, rather than dramatic, quality. By the end, as Walch attempts to unify it all into a climactic epiphany, he comes up with a kind of generic psychological moment — when the character finally “lets go.” It’s not much of a climax, and the last 10 minutes seem to dawdle their way to a conclusion. There’s something particularly disappointing about a work that juggles microbiology, squirrels and bagel shapes, makes these non sequiturs seem inextricably interlinked and then comes up with such a vague denouement.

Circumference of a Squirrel

Actors' Gang Theater, Hollywood; 99 seats; $20

  • Production: A Taper, Too/Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum world premiere presentation of a one-act play by John S. Walch. Directed by Mark Rucker.
  • Crew: Set, Rachel Hauck; costume, Joyce Kim Lee; lighting, Geoff Korf; music, Norman L. Berman; sound, Adam Phelan; production stage manager, Bridget Kirkpatrick; casting, Joy Dickson, Nicole Arbusto. Opened, reviewed June 17, 2001. Closes July 1. Running Time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Chester - Chris Hogan