Revelations from an acting class spark Kitchen Theatre’s Circle Mirror Transformation
By James MacKillop
If poetry is what’s lost in translation, a good case can be made that drama these days is what you can’t get from the page, or the screen. Oh, yes, you can read Shakespeare or Shaw, and Yasmina Reza is spectacular in print. What keeps that narrow fraction of American society going back to the live theater, medieval in origin and labor-intensive to produce, is to hear the throwaway line made hilarious by ingenious timing. Or to see the otherwise banal gesture transformed to poignancy through skillful direction and performance.
That’s why sellout houses at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company have loved Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. It doesn’t preach, shout at us, or tell gags. It lets us discover unspoken depths.
First audiences might have found Circle slight or enigmatic, but 2011 audiences have all that praise to help us along. Annie Baker, a slight, waif-like blonde, was all of 28 when Circle opened at Playwrights Horizon two years ago. Thunderously favorable reviews, flattering profiles in national publications and numerous awards (including an Obie) mean that she’s now perceived as a major young playwright.
And Circle Mirror Transformation is one of the most widely performed stage plays everywhere this season, although it might not do as well in a 499-seat regional theater like Syracuse Stage. All this while many people find it difficult to explain the action in a single sentence. To do so would misrepresent it.
According to the premise, four students and a teacher put in six weeks of a beginning acting class in the fictional Vermont college town of Shirley. The “circle mirror” alludes to the widely used practice of having students start voice and movement exercises before a mirror. Students form the circle, as it happens this time, by lying barefoot on the floor. Part of the training is interacting, eventually to mimic or otherwise evoke the other people. At the beginning of the action they count off, “One, two, three,” unprompted and without making eye contact. They have to determine when to call out the next number by listening to the breathing of the other persons.
And they can’t do it. In the first scene, two people call out “Four” at the same instant. Hmmmn, more work required.
As Baker is fleeting with exposition, she has to give us easy-to-recognize characters, if not exactly types. We quickly figure out their names, but it takes from 30 to 45 minutes (of nearly two hours without intermission) to realize how much baggage each is carrying. Teacher Marty (Camilla Schade) is a glamorous 55-yearold sporting a modish silver toe ring. A bit of a granola, she’s as bubbly and upbeat as a cheerleader. Her husband James (Greg Bostwick), an economics professor, appears to be playfully supportive. The rest of the students include the svelte, 30ish Theresa (Jennifer Herzog), a onetime actress who is fleeing New York City and a sour relationship; Schultz (Dean Robinson), a carpenter still wounded from a recent divorce; and sullen Lauren (Alison Scaramella), a teenager yearning to play Maria in a high school production of West Side Story, who ignores most cues and looks as though she wishes she were somewhere else.
In interviews, playwright Baker has described herself as the “anti-Oscar Wilde,” and, sure enough, her characters are devoid of savage put-downs and witty ripostes. Like people in life, they are often tongue-tied when they have something important to say, and even stylish Marty is frequently at a loss for words. There are still, however, many occasions for laughter. Then again, one reason why Circle is already popular with actors and may well have a long afterlife in university drama departments is that the players here have to do all the work with gesture, movement and timing. All those speak volumes.
Sometimes the class games are fun in themselves, as they might be as party ice-breakers. James and Theresa speak to each other in repeated nonsense words, which sound like “ac-mac” and “goulash,” so that all their communication is in alternating tones of voice, intonation and gesture. Instantly we get inferences of seduction, excitement and then withdrawal and regret. In terms of resolving emerging themes in Circle the exercise is no mere digression. For the moment, though, it’s too good. Performers Bostwick and Herzog are so proficient we find the game engaging and anything but amateurish.
The exercises that lead to the transformation of the title come when students must pretend they are another member of the group and take on that person’s voice after they have told us something about themselves. In a moment of intense discomfort for everyone, Theresa relays a nutcase, anti- Semitic conspiracy fable. True to Baker’s pronounced aesthetic, the four students are initially awful in trying to impersonate one another. At the same time, in the close space, they have made penetrating insights into one another, hinting at the unspoken.
As told in summary, Circle Mirror Transformation must sound a bit like a miniature version of A Chorus Line, where confession is a prelude to performance. With only five characters, however, Baker has the time and space to let her personalities move and evolve. Theresa, for example, is not a lunatic bigot, and Marty and James may not be quite the ideal couple we thought. The most startling reversals come when Baker borrows a device from group therapy for really discomfiting truth-telling.
Revelations of personal pain aside, Circle Mirror Transformation is really a play about acting. David Arsenault’s strippeddown, nondescript set might suggest trendy postmodernism, but Baker’s real master is Anton Chekhov. What people say does not tell us fully what’s on their minds. Schultz may look like he’s lusting after lithe Theresa, so provocative when keeping a hula hoop up on her shapely hips, but his unguarded assertiveness undercuts his intent.
In this ensemble piece, fabulously directed by former Kitchen theater honcho Norm Johnson, it’s impossible to rank the players as their tasks are so different. As Schultz, tall, balding Dean Robinson is probably the audience favorite for his character’s goodheartedness and willingness to shed dignity. Similarly, Camilla Schade’s Marty is such a lovable character we wince to see the pain coming her way. Baker is not a mean playwright. Greg Bostwick, a company favorite, gives the maximum effect to James, the character who turns out to be the least attractive. Jennifer Herzog’s Theresa has the power to drive the boys crazy, but she can’t escape a deeper fear.
Finally, Alison Scaramella as the scowling, nearly invisible Lauren has the biggest surprise. She grumps to Marty, “What’s the point of counting to 10?” And Marty responds, “This is how you become a good actress.” And in the final scene, that’s what Lauren does.
This production runs through Sunday, Sept. 11. See Times Table for information.