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PerformanceStage Review'The Dignity Circle' is absolutely not a pyramid scheme

‘The Dignity Circle’ is absolutely not a pyramid scheme

Lauren Smerkanich's world premiere from Central Works describes a devastating cycle of exploitation that's also fun to watch

For someone marginalized, it’s frustrating to hear that we’re asking for “special treatment” when all we want is equality. We don’t want to shout, but we have to because no one will listen to us otherwise. So, it’s all the more distressing when we’re exploited not by the usual oppressor, but by one who resembles us. How do you think Oprah gained all her ill-gotten billions?

The second scene of Lauren Smerkanich’s The Dignity Circle—world premiere through July 30 from Central Works at the Berkeley City Club—introduces such an exploitation: the charismatic Angela S. (Sierra Marcks, in one of the year’s best performances) runs into Judith (Rebecca Pingree) at the Trader Joe’s-esque Green Leaf Market. The two have met before, but Angela is clearly drawn to the insecure Judith the way a tiger is drawn to a bleeding gazelle. When an anxious Judith wonders what she’ll make as a dessert for the night’s dinner party, Angela seems to have an ad hoc solution already in the holster.

Grateful to her new savior of first-world problems, Judith takes up Angela’s invitation to attend a meeting at the latter’s organization, The Dignity Circle. It’s a women-only org where members can vent their glass-ceiling frustrations, as well as financially support one another to fulfill their long-held dreams. It’s the very sort of thing Judith has been looking for.

Sierra Marcks as Angela S. in ‘The Dignity Circle.’ Photo by Robbie Sweeny

By the way, it’s totally not a pyramid scheme. Not at all. It just happens that members who recruit a large number of new members see their status instantly raise within the organization; rise so high that this single member is given elevated status—and a 40,000-dollar financial bonus—above all the other members still paying their way. But the name is “Dignity Circle,” which is not a pyramid. Ergo, it can’t possibly be a pyramid scheme, can it?

Also, everyone has to wear blank-faced masks like they’re cosplaying as Buckethead-without-the-bucket. They hang from the roof as the only initial piece of set dressing.

As directed by Central Works Artistic Director Gary Graves, Marcks is fascinating to watch as Angela S., a character who sees herself as somewhere between Stepford Wife and religious zealot. She’s so used to both smiling and making others smile that when something genuinely drives her to visible anger, it’s as if her body doesn’t quite know how to react to it. We later learn that she’s affluent enough that the money is a non-issue for her, but she speaks with enough confidence to sell ice to a snowman. Part of you wants this grifter—who is not the scheme’s founder—to go through with her schemes just so we can see if she’ll get away with them.

On the other side, we find Judith and all the contradictions her life represents: Her cruel husband Scott (Adam Roy) pays her little attention, but is quick to sniff out Dignity Circle as a scam; she thinks of herself as independent, but she’s the one who invites an acquaintance—Heather (Kimberley Ridgeway), mother to an ailing child and burdened with high medical bills—to a meeting, continuing the cycle of exploitation. And Judith is so eager to find recognition and support that she’s willing to pay for it.

Rebecca Pingree as Judith and Kimberly Ridgeway as heather in ‘The Dignity Circle.’ Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Smerkanich’s story, which runs roughly 90 minutes, is swift and compact, yet expository in a natural way. It adds touches of world-building here and there, but only when necessary: members of the Circle only share the initial of their last name, hence “Angela S.” Angela’s tales of her “inspiring” mother might not be as true as they seem. And the balance and contrast between Angela’s marriage to the supportive Parker (Dov Hassan) and Judith’s to the condescending Scott provides a subtle comment on our culture’s shifting gender norms when they’re still based on power dynamics.

Most of the cast are up to the challenge, with Marcks and Pingree working particularly well together. Equally adept is Ridgeway, whose one-way phone calls with her daughter and mother allow the blanks to be filled in about Heather without ever seeing her family members. Then there’s Heather Kellogg-Baumann as Katie C., a Circle member who seems to have joined for the sole purpose of kvetching—loudly and obscenely—about her co-workers.

Heather Kellogg Baumann as Kate C. in ‘The Dignity Circle.’ Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Having directed Kellogg-Baumann myself, I know how much fun it can be to simply watch her let loose on a character’s tangent, and this role is no different. Though Dov Hassan is fine as Parker, Adam Roy struck me as a bit out of place as Scott. I don’t know if it’s the direction or his choices as an actor, but he seems to be in an entirely different play than everyone else; as if he (the actor) were unsure about his lines, when everyone else simply plays (in)secure characters.

It’s a continued comfort to know that although the Berkeley City Club has no apparent COVID safety policy, Central Works has stuck with their mask mandate. Although some patrons walked into the theater without their masks, everyone had them on by the start of the show. With air purifiers on either side of the space, CO² levels on my Aranet4 still reached 2021ppm by the end of the show. Odd to think how that’s not the worst I’ve seen, but I’m all the more grateful for both the masking and the air purifiers.

Recognizing a devil you may-or-may-not-know makes them no less a devil. Yet, there will always be an appeal to watching someone conniving in the middle of the spiel, whether we tell ourselves that we could never fall for the scheme or vicariously living through the one pulling it off. Smerkanich’s script has both an appealing grifter and an empathetic hook in said grifter’s exploitation of traditional patriarchal abuse. The sort of con is sickening to imagine, but Central Works makes it a lot of fun to watch.

THE DIGNITY CIRCLE’s world premiere runs through July 30 at the Berkeley City Club. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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