Once in a while, a show comes along that somehow circumvents the whole set of assumptions and standards I use to evaluate art. It’s almost impossible to predict beforehand whether a show will have that kind of effect, and even after the fact it can be hard to say why. In this case, though, I can answer the question of why. This show didn’t need me to sit back and hold up a yardstick; it called on me to shed my defenses as a viewer and become present to the performers, who were in a state of full self-expression. This is not about abandoning standards when assessing work made by artists with developmental disabilities, though Karsen Gould’s Arts for Humanity! does work with performers with various abilities and disabilities. This is about what happens when a human being creates something of beauty where there was nothing — creates it for no reason other than the joy of creating. Zabella’s Circle is really a series of small, joyful creations, each one of them the product of play, exploration, and openness among people.
The first half of the evening is a string of theatrical vignettes, some based in characterization, others in dramatic physicality. Some of the most effective — and affecting — consisted of actions as simple as walking and stopping. What makes a two-minute segment of theater like “Walks I” so compelling is the complete presence of each performer and the authenticity of the relationships between people, both of which were realized in Saturday’s show.
The eponymous second half tells the story of a young girl, Zabella, who uses the wrong standards to judge her own creativity until an outsider responds with joy to the drawings she has discarded. When Zabella stops evaluating her work by external standards and allows herself the joy of pure creation, she blossoms. As played by Maria Arroyo, Zabella’s metamorphosis from wilting wallflower to radiant star is wondrous to behold. It’s not just the characters in Zabella’s Circle who benefit when such a shift occurs; the actors experience a similar catharsis. If you’re open to joy and wonder, Zabella’s Circle will sweep you away, too.