Theater review: 'Circle Mirror Transformation' at South Coast Repertory
Creative drama class is in session throughout Annie Baker’s delightful Obie-winning play “Circle Mirror Transformation,” and the word “creative” is a tip-off that the rudiments of acting (you know, things like voice, movement and scene study) are going to be passed over for something a bit more touchy-feely and freewheeling.
Divided into workshop weeks, the play -- which is receiving a pitch-perfect production at South Coast Repertory under the direction of Baker’s frequent collaborator, Sam Gold -- is an indie charmer, if you’ll excuse the borrowing of a movie term for a work that is so uniquely theatrical. Baker understands, like Shakespeare, Molière and Beckett before her, that plays that are playful are doing what comes naturally to them.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” doesn’t just get its title from one of the theater games that invite adults to romp around like a bunch of overgrown children, but it is also composed almost entirely of such improvisational activities. It’s no knock on the class taught by bohemian middle-aged Marty (a superb Linda Gehringer) that anyone looking in from the outside would have to conclude that the lunatics are running the asylum.
The setting is a community center dance studio in small town Vermont. (Scenic designer David Zinn and lighting designer Mark Barton expertly establish the generic fluorescent reality.) The room is -- choose your metaphor -- a blank page, an empty canvas, an unoccupied stage. However you characterize the space, human beings have the opportunity to reveal themselves within it. (Note how dead the atmosphere becomes after everyone exits and the lights go out.)
It’s a credit to Baker’s playwriting that by the end of “Circle Mirror Transformation” we will intimately know -- and care about -- all five of the participants who give a little of their time each week to what on the surface seems like some kind of wacky New Age indulgence. Fragmentary in its style, the piece accrues meaning through a series of seemingly casual moments in which poignant truths about largely unnoticed lives leave the class momentarily speechless.
The conceit of the work may require an adjustment on the part of audiences, who probably aren’t accustomed to seeing characters engage in team-building counting exercises or scripted nonsense talk. And the production’s unhurried pace, slowed by purposeful pauses and weighty silences, demands patience. But for those willing to go along with the hippie-dippy curriculum, there are unexpected rewards of an emotional rather than satiric nature.
“I just ... I’m so excited to get to know all of you," Marty tells her four students, mumbling that she hopes they will feel “safe” and “open.” It’s a disparate group, and by the awkward looks being exchanged, it would seem that she has her work cut out for her.
One of the exercises involves class members swapping identities and introducing themselves to all present. First up is James (Brian Kerwin), who in pretending to be his wife, Marty, fills us in on her age (55) and a few things about her background: She is originally from New Jersey, never had children, is interested in nontraditional healing and would like one day to move to the Southwest. (Like all good teachers, Marty subjects herself to her own instruction.)
Baker wrings a disproportionate amount of feeling from throwaway details. For example, Schultz (Arye Gross), a carpenter still struggling to get over his divorce, grows in sympathy when he tells flirty, attractive Theresa (Marin Hinkle) that his wife is still living in the old house, the one with the garden he spent years working on, while he’s now in a condo. “The Brook is … very corporate. Very corporate-feeling,” he says about his current home, in a neutral voice that pierces the heart.
The play allows us to make discoveries of characters as we fit together the scraps of their biographies. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that James, who broods depressively over his estranged daughter, teaches at the college and that his marriage to Marty is not as idyllic as it initially appears. And it’s only over time that we sense something is not quite right about Theresa’s manic friendliness or begin to appreciate the sharply observing intelligence of Lauren (Lily Holleman), the youngest of the group. A socially remedial high school student, she's the only one brave enough to ask, "Are we going to be doing any real acting?"
“Circle Mirror Transformation” is a small play, but because it’s so genuinely alive, its stature ultimately seems larger than works with more ambitious subject matter. And let’s not underestimate the scope of Baker’s vision. In bringing together a cadre of ordinary characters drawn to “creative drama,” the playwright doesn’t just communicate something fundamental about theatrical expression. She manages, with the help of a first-rate ensemble led by a director who listens attentively to subtextual murmurings, to enact what makes theater the most human of all the arts.
-- Charles McNulty
"Circle Mirror Transformation," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends Jan. 30. $28-$66 (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Photos: Top: From left: Lily Holleman, Brian Kerwin, Linda Gehringer, Marin Hinkle and Arye Gross. Bottom: Gehringer and Hinkle. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times