You’ve got to admire the courage of actors. In classes and workshops, in auditions and productions, they put themselves on the line, body and soul. Acting’s not for wimps: it requires the deepest vulnerability as you inhabit a character, and the thickest of skins as you deal with the fallout. It’s the rare actor who can manage both of these consistently.
Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, currently offered in a fine, brightly attractive production by Stageworks, is about the world of actors — more particularly about their training — and if it doesn’t show much insight into the lives it exposes, still it has the originality to let us learn about them through the games and exercises of a typical acting class.
The premise is that we’re watching such a class in Shirley, Vermont. Leading the way is Marty (short for Martha), who has four students: Theresa, a young beauty who once performed in New York but then decided to try her luck elsewhere; Schultz, a dangerously sweet young man trying to get over his divorce; Lauren, a high school student anxious to get past the exercises so she can actually read some lines; and James, Marty’s middle-aged husband with a wandering eye.
In scenes that are sometimes only a few seconds long, these five throw themselves into acting games designed to teach neophytes and remind veterans how to live on the stage. They pretend to be one another; they tell true stories about their lives; they play the parts of each other’s families. Naturally all this honesty threatens to turn embarrassing and maybe even life-changing. And when you add the extra-curricular activities that the five indulge in — for example, when Theresa and Schultz begin to seduce each other outside the exercises — a real calamity becomes possible. Too much reality can be a dangerous thing.
The problem with the play is that after alerting us to the difficult shapes of the actors’ real lives, it has nothing to say about them. A case in point: James’ penchant for adultery. Little by little we come to see that this has been a problem in his past and may be a problem right now — and there the story ends. There’s no interpretation, no analysis: it’s just a fact about James and the only interesting thing is how we come to know it. In fact, if the very roundabout way in which we learn about these characters didn’t exist, there’d be only enough material here for a 20-minute one-act. But Circle Mirror goes almost two hours without intermission, and it simply lacks the substance to justify its existence at that length. Yes, people fall in and out of love, have dysfunctional families, troubled marriages. But then what? Unfortunately, playwright Baker’s inspiration seems to have failed after she imagined her play’s ingenious structure.
The acting is solid. Best of all is Dawn Truax as teacher Marty, a confident, enthusiastic soul who knows her job and is — in most cases — unflappable. But Diane Dehn as Theresa is persuasive as a woman who rushes into romance a little too thoughtlessly, and Kibwe Dorsey as her latest love object is affectingly gentle and oh-so-easily damaged. Jim Wicker as James is a recognizably modern man, unthreatened by his wife’s power in both a good and a bad way; and Lizzie Kehoe as adolescent Lauren could have walked in from Hillsborough High. Karla Hartley directs with an impressively light touch, and Melinda Kajando’s costumes surely belong in this, or any, community center acting class. Hartley also designed the rehearsal room set with its enormous ball and two mirrors.
Many years ago, an actress friend said to me: “We actors spend all our time learning to be real, and meanwhile the audience is learning to act.” At its best, Circle Mirror is about the dangerous job of performing, a job in which one has to risk everything — in front of a crowd.
Bravo for "New Swirl Order" Megan!
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