Circle, Mirror, Transformation
Realism can be a double-edged sword for drama. Realistic characters and situations can make a play resonant for an audience, allow them to more easily identify with the players. But portraying the everyday can be, well, boring. How many things do you do each week that are worthy of turning into a play?
Although Annie Baker’s comedy Circle Mirror Transformation, in a production by the Huntington Theatre Company, has its moments of the yawningly mundane, the play’s emotional pay-off is enormous and satisfying.
Set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont (you can check out two more of Baker’s Shirley Cycle of plays by the Speakeasy Stage and Company One in adjacent theaters in the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion), Circle Mirror Transformation is set in a thinly populated adult creative drama class at the Shirley community center. The title refers to an "acting game" - warm-up exercises that experienced actors do to loosen up and that beginning actors do to, in the words of instructor Marty (Betsy Aidem), to be "fully present" - where the students stand in a circle, one person mimes an action accompanied by a sound, the others mirror it back, and then one transforms it into another action and sound.
It’s a neat metaphor for the way the characters present themselves in the class and in their personal interactions with each other and then see their pasts and qualities (good and bad) mirrored back. Marty and aging hipster husband James appear to have the perfect, still romantic marriage. Big city and bad relationship escapee Theresa may appear to be the perfect tonic for morose divorcee Schultz, and teenager Lauren may appear to be entirely frustrated with the lack of any "real" acting going on in the class. All of these appearances are transformed as the characters go through their six weeks of class (portrayed sometimes as montage-like snippets of scenes).
Playwright Baker has a knack for realistic dialogue, the kind of conversations that most of us have where very little is said on the surface but if you know the players involved, there’s a lot of meaning being conveyed in between the words. This combined with the truthfully granola-crunchy-hippy acting games serves to make the early parts of Circle Mirror Transformation stretches of "what the?" and suitable for light napping, occasionally interrupted by some pretty funny moments (usually courtesy of Marie Polizzano as the pitch perfect "whatever" teen Lauren).
It’s therefore pretty stunning to realize that, as Baker nudges her characters to reveal their secrets, confront their present troubles and future hopes, that you’ve been completely caught up in their lives and are as moved by the nicely directed and lit (kudos to director Melia Bensussen and lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz) climax as you would be by a news of great sadness or joy from a loved member of your family.
Sure, Baker’s subtle script and Bensussen’s direction have a lot to do with that success, but the talented cast deserves most of the credit. They’re the ones who have to make the stretches of boredom in the early going bearable, not to mention realistically sketch in with looks and body language all the things Baker’s dialogue isn’t saying. To a person the cast is up to the challenge, whether it’s Aidem as the perennially hopeful teacher (saying, "OK...great!" to the lamest of her students’ efforts), Michael Hammond as her husband, swinging from impossibly stiff in each acting exercise to kindly in real life to betraying his frustration with several family relationships, or Jeremiah Kissel as Schultz, a divorced carpenter so awkward he’s nearly excruciating to watch but whose pain is so real it draws you in.
Nadia Bowers as transplant and apparent man-magnet Theresa and Polizzano as Lauren might have the toughest jobs. Polizzano succeeds in delivering on every stereotype of the disaffected teen without falling into cliché, but then trumps that with a lovely transformation at the play’s end. Bowers has to play a victim and a woman who may be unable to face being on her own without being a beige, forgettable doormat. She succeeds in walking this fine line, just as the play succeeds in veering back from boredom to arrive at a pretty transformative finale.
Circle Mirror Transformation continues through November 14 at the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston. For more information, visit Huntington Theatre Company.