All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In the last scene of Annie Baker’s craftily constructed “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a teenage student, the youngest by far in a five-week community center adult acting workshop, is assigned to improvise what would happen if she accidentally encountered another member of the class ten years hence and was asked to report on the fate and whereabouts of her three fellow students and their teacher.
While you’re thoroughly aware this teenage character is making up possible futures for herself and her classmates, her perceptions and projections, pronounced matter-of-factly in the easy manner of a street corner conversation, are so keen and so likely, you regard them as if they’re accurate, as if Baker included them as a sly way of telling you the end of all the characters’ stories.
This afterword of sorts is indicative of how subtly Baker’s play, and Matthew Decker’s production of it for Theatre Horizon, sneaks up on you and moves you from marveling curiously at theater games and other acting class folderol to knowing and caring about “Circle Mirror Transformation’s” several characters as people whose lives outside the class affect how they behave and respond within the class. Just as actors’ personal lives and experiences help to inform their portrayals and characterizations.
Life doesn’t imitate art as much as combine with it as Baker uses standard theater exercises as a way to acquaint her audience with her characters and as a method of having her characters interact as more than classmates sharing a common experience. Through various games and stratagems designed to make people into sharper, more trusting, more reflexive performers, Baker strips away the classmates’ facades and reveals their strengths and vulnerabilities as well as providing insights into their motives and ambitions. Dramatic truth and transparency are among the primary objectives of the theater exercises. Genuine truth and transparency are the result of the 100 minutes or so we spend with Baker’s characters, played with authenticity and detail at Horizon by Emilie Krause, Nancy Boykin, David Bardeen, Bob Weick, and Kim Carson.
Theater is not an everyday event in Shirley, Vermont, the fictional town in which Baker sets her play. At least theater is the sense of an organized play being performed on a stage by design. Individual drama is a different story.
Marty, played by Boykin, is the co-executive director of Shirley’s community center. In addition to being an administrator and raising funds, she schedules classes and teaches a few, one being a children’s acting workshop. Fulfilling a desire to offer an adult acting class, Marty attracts three students and enlists her husband as a fourth. More than just instructing, Marty participates in many of the exercises and assignments she gives her class to do. Among these exercises is one that asks students to discover things about another member of the class and speak to the others as if they were that person in a first-recitation. Marty’s husband, James, played by Weick, illustrates the exercise by going first and talking to his classmates as if he was Marty giving an introductory bio. We, the audience, learn much about the people we’re seeing based on these passages which grow much more personal and particularized as “Circle Mirror Transformation” proceeds.
Other theater games are less direct or revelatory. They deal with practical matters of the stage, such as the timing in which one responds to a line or situation, trust between two actors, how to touch or comment without being intrusive, imitation and mimicking, following through with a thought or action, and being limber and fluid in movement. At the beginning of Baker’s play, the audience may wonder, as the teenage character, Lauren, played by Krause, does whether Marty will ever get around to assigning parts and scenes so the student can practice actual acting. Marty’s answer is a clear and resounding ‘no.’ As it turns out, the games set up what happens off-stage and during breaks when the class is not in session. The openness the students realize they are being taught to express as actors translates to the personal lives of the characters, and we see Marty’s lessons take shape in several ways.
Only two members of the class are interested in acting as a possible profession, Lauren, who is vying for a part in her high school’s production of “West Side Story,” and Theresa, who has come to Shirley from New York, where she did some acting before her life in the city became intense and she sought a small country town as a place to regroup and plan her next moves. Theresa, played by Kim Carson, unintentionally brings some tension to Shirley because she is unusually attractive and friendly in an urban kind of way that is different from the Vermont norm.
James takes the course to help Marty reach a quota that makes holding it worth the community center’s while. The fourth member, Schultz, played by Bardeen, is a carpenter and artisan who comes to the class to help get over a recent divorce and, perhaps, find a new relationship.
While Baker leaves most information about the characters for us, and them, to glean during the theater exercises, she makes some of the action more direct, e.g. a romance that blooms between Theresa and Schultz and some of the closeness that germinates as characters confide in one another. This byplay between the classmates adds to the play’s tension.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” is a play that needs chance to breathe and evolve. At first, it seems like a collection of related but disjointed takes, almost blackouts that go from one exercise to the next exciting more confusion and curiosity than interest. Marty’s approach to teaching acting seems as mysterious to us as it does to Lauren, who may or may not have paid the fee for the course.
Things pick up as the characters become more individually defined, and some idea of the purpose of Marty’s teaching method emerges. Decker gives the opening sequences the pace and tone of a classroom, so the play seems sterile for a while. It appears to be more of a window to the world of theater training than a play about people who have traits or stories that can engage us.
These beginning passages don’t wear out our patience, but they do create wonder about whether something of more substance will emerge. Schultz’s flirtation with Theresa helps move the play to a more interesting level. At least it represents an interaction that is not directed by Marty as a classroom exercise.
It takes a while for the characters to give up their privacy, a conversation on a mobile telephone or a chance to read, during breaks. They seem to be people who want no society with or from each other except when working through something in class. Most of the characters resent someone watching them or intruding on their personal space when class is not in session. Even Theresa, with her city background, prefers to be left alone.
Things change when the class begins to relax and have fun with Marty’s assignments. They seem to like the game in which they relate each other’s bios. That’s one icebreaker. They also seem to respond well to a memory game, an exercise where a story is told by each person adding a word, and the game referred to in the title which involves one person making a sound or a motion and the rest of the group repeating it until someone, the next one in the circle, augments or varies it. The looseness the students begin to feel allow them to be more comfortable among one another, the way a cast would have to bond in the first days of rehearsal.
Throughout her play, Baker shows how more accepting response to Marty’s exercises leads to greater ease among the classmates. The familiarity they begin to share is realized in jokes or pathos that is suddenly incorporated in the first-person recitations and in one student intuiting what another might be feeling or experiencing outside of class. The students become attuned to each other the way actors must when they share a stage. In a way, Baker reinforces Shakespeare’s astute observation that “all the world’s a stage” in “As You Like It.”
Decker’s production proceeds at an easy, natural pace in spite of long blackouts between scenes that make the stage static while the audience waits for a surtitle to say “Second Week,” etc. In television, these blackouts would constitute “dead air.” While their function is understood, they don’t serve an important purpose and delay action. If Baker calls for the pauses in her script, I’d advise Decker or another director to ignore her suggestion.
Once a scene is underway, you feel as if you are an observer in an acting class. That is a tribute to Decker and his cast who make all seem so real. As the students become individuals, Baker’s play takes on more interest, in particular more curiosity about what’s going on in each classmate’s life and, even more to the point, how a classmate may react to another when their personal lives intersect more tightly or conflictingly.
While I was somewhat fascinated by the way Baker interwove her play, I sometimes felt more like a scholar analyzing a process than a person at the theater to be entertained. That feeling diminished as the play continued and I learned more about the individual characters. My reaction to “Circle Mirror Transformation” was always more intellectual than emotional, but the show’s entertainment value rises exponentially as Decker’s cast shows more and more what wonderful actors they are. When the lights came down on the production, “Circle Mirror Transformation” felt very satisfying, very fulfilling.
Emilie Krause’s character, Lauren, evolves the most during “Circle Mirror Transformation,” giving the actress the chance to show Lauren’s growth and how it turns her from an awkward and cynical outsider to a person with confidence and command.
Krause is spot on as the simultaneously shy and unimpressed Lauren we meet at the beginning. A 16-year-old among adults, the next oldest of which, the poised and beautiful Theresa, is 35, she can barely hold out her hand for someone to shake. She holds her elbow close to her ribs as she extends the hand, only so far, and she says her name in either a clipped way or with a question mark after it, as if she’s ashamed of it. Krause’s is a good take on a younger generation that feels a tad superior and more enlightened than her elders yet doesn’t have the grace or manners to be adult enough to deal with them on equal terms. Lauren is also miffed because she doesn’t want to pass around a medicine ball or concentrate on counting in turn. She wants to learn technique that, mousy though she is, will land her the part of Maria in her school’s production of “West Side Story,” something that seems far-fetched considering Krause, in maintaining Lauren’s character, covers her voice and doesn’t give her a tone that makes one think of an actress, less alone a singer that can handle the necessary vocal range for Maria.
Watching Krause’s Lauren blossom is fun. Even as you see the child in her lie to Marty about her mother sending in her fee for the acting course, you see Lauren take on some confidence. She has learned to communicate with adults. She has learned to play with them, in actual games and when the stakes are for real in improvisational scenes or in exercises that seem to be at least on the fringe of acting.
By the time Lauren gets to the improv in which she has to prophesy the fate of her cohorts, we see an accomplished confident ingenue on her way to womanhood and the future of her choice.
Nancy Boykin is all attentiveness as Marty. Her eyes are bright and appreciative as she sees her students responding to her exercises. Boykin makes sure you know Marty is observing everything. She is the one who knows the purpose of lying on a floor relaxing or following another actor into an imitation of an ape beating its chest, and Boykin, an acting teacher in her real life, conveys the joy of someone who is imparting her knowledge and seeing things develop as they should.
There is an immediacy to Boykin’s work. She is decidedly in the moment at all times. She also has the emotional intuition she wants to teach to the others. The one thing Marty misses is the part of the story that involves her, not as a teacher, but as James’s wife. Marty may be a leader and seems always to know the exact thing to say to calm a situation, change a subject, or take the sting out of a a student knowing he or she muffed an exercise or gave a bad performance. When she has to cope with something in her own life, she has to summon a different kind of strength, and Boykin skillfully shows Marty doing that.
Bob Weick is solid as James, a professor at the college situated in Shirley and a man whose humor and intellectual ease shows.
Weick’s James is avid about helping Marty make a success of the class. He is encouraging to others and obviously crazy about his wife as a leader and as a woman. You barely think Weick is acting. His performance is that casual and authentic.
When conflict arises, James is more stoic than ameliorating or contrite. Weick plays James’s more difficult scenes with the same core of reality as he carries out the role of the affable, supportive husband.
Kim Carson is radiant as Theresa. You can easily see how she could stir a libido or two among the men in Shirley.
More than just looking confident and pretty, Carson gives Theresa a modern young attitude that, coupled with her years in New York, allows her to sail through choppy waters that look as if they may scuttle some of her classmates.
Theresa has worked as an actress, so Carson has license to make the star of the class, the one, besides Marty, who understands where theater games may lead, and the one who is more polished when it comes to actually playing a scene. Carson is especially good when she steps into an improv in which Lauren is playing Theresa talking to her ex-boyfriend. Without being rude or intruding, she merely takes over and show, both how in real life and on stage, a woman of Theresa’s experience and history with men would take. Carson also shows how well Theresa can deal with the attention she receives from Schultz and James.
Carson uses her looks the way Theresa would, in an assured way to get what she wants, but never in a vain, self-conscious way. Theresa would avoid that, and Carson shows us she would.
David Bardeen has been missed, and it’s good to have him back on local stages. As Schultz, he is always the fish out of water even though Schultz, like the others, grows under Marty’s tutelage. The difference is Schultz is taking the class as a lark. He has no intention of being an actor, even in community theater. He wants a break from his carpenter’s shop where he makes chairs that are grabbed up by tourists to Vermont and a new start after ending a long marriage in a small town where everyone knows his business. Theresa, in particular, gets Schultz’s attention, and Bardeen is excellent at playing someone who is willing to ask for what he wants and fight to preserve it. He is also deft at playing hurt and a desire to get even.
Maura Roche’s set made me, a veteran of working at a community center, think of every all-purpose room I showed prospective members I took on tours. It had a mirror behind curtains, a ballet barre, exercise equipment on brackets against the wall, and a place for Theresa to put the hula hoop she seems to carry with her wherever she goes. (Carson does a great demonstration of how to keep a hula hoop gyrating around one’s hips.)
Lauren Perigard had to come up with several outfits for each actor, and she did a great job matching the clothes to each person’s station and personality.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” runs through Sunday, March 16 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Monday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $31 with discounts for seniors and students and can be obtained by calling 610-283-2230 or going online to www.theatrehorizon.org.