Circle Mirror Transformation
At the Victory Gardens Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – We’ve seen it many times in the theater. A dramatist brings a group of diverse individuals together and over the course of the play the audience gets to know each character as the characters get to know themselves. It seems simple and trite, but in the hands of a sensitive and knowing playwright, it can be absorbing, not to mention entertaining.
Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a small play (presented in one long act) in a single set, but it has a major dramatic payoff. Its five characters are average people, but thanks to Baker’s skill and a fine production in the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theatre, all this ordinariness blossoms into an audience-involving comedy-drama.
The action takes place in a community center dance studio in the town of Shirley, Vermont. A middle-aged hippie-ish woman named Marty is conducting a class called Adult Creative Drama, a six-week course that has attracted a 16-year old named Lauren, a carpenter named Schultz, and a wannabe actress named Theresa. The fourth participant is Marty’s husband, James.
Much of the play consists of acting exercises, like mime, role-playing, and improvisation. Outwardly there is very little acting. The class doesn’t do lines or scenes. Marty’s pedagogy is very much of the Method school, where individuals are encouraged to delve deep into their psyches, the better to bring characters alive on the stage when it comes time to actually perform.
Gradually, as the class members explore their inner selves, the audience learns about their lives, especially their backgrounds, which are mostly troubled. At the same time potent things are happening to the class in the present. Theresa and Schultz have a brief affair that ends badly, especially for Schultz, already unsettled by a difficult divorce. Marty separates from James. Only the withdrawn Lauren seems to bloom as the class moves from week to week.
Baker presents her play in a series of short scenes separated by blackouts as the narrative travels from the opening week to the final class. The playwright’s dialogue is realistic and the interactions among the characters are understated, with lots of pauses and silences as the individuals struggle to find the words to express themselves. The energy in the play comes primarily from Marty (Carmen Roman) as the controlling teacher and especially from Theresa (Lori Myers), the most animated person in the show and the one who throws herself into Marty’s acting methodology with the most commitment.
Schultz (Steve Key), James (Joe D. Lauck), and Lauren (Rae Gray) are virtually inarticulate as they struggle to express themselves. That creates something of a vacuum that Roman and Myers fill beautifully. Myers in particular delivers a three-dimensional performance that should attract some notice come awards time at the end of the season.
of quibbles could be raised. The revelations from the characters are almost too
schematic, especially the accounts of troubled, abusive childhoods. And Marty’s
exercises seem a little intense for a group of commonplace people who just walk
in off the street and have no expectation of being serious actors. Marty’s
exercises morph into psychotherapy, which may be standard for the Actors’
Studio but is a bit heavy for a community center in a small New England town.
Still, Baker is a spellbinder. After a few scenes, the spectators stop being an audience and turn into auditors of Marty’s class. We are engrossed in Marty’s teaching process and the personal information—comic, sentimental, painful—that emerges from these five very different people. The play’s scale may be small but the rewards in audience involvement are large indeed.
Dexter Bullard directs his superb ensemble with taste and insight. Everything on stage just seems to occur naturally and inevitably, the mark of fine directing. Grant Sabin’s set perfectly captures the sterile community center ambience. The costumes by Tif Bullard, the lighting by Jesse Klug, and the sound design by Joseph Fosco admirably complete the first-rate physical production.
The play’s title may be confusing to people entering the theater but it makes sense as the action enfolds. The characters often work in a circle under Marty’s guidance and a large mirror forms the back wall. And by the end of the evening the characters have been at least temporarily transformed, some maybe not to their liking, their lives touched by their fusion with each other during those six weeks of psychological investigation.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” runs through April 10 at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $50. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. March 2011
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