Explosion tag, gibberish dialogue (“goulash, goulash,” “ak mak, ak mak”), memory exercises, sharing secrets, role-playing the personas of others in the class, reenactment of past life events — the setting is an adult creative drama class in the town of Shirley, Vermont. “The point,” the instructor asserts, in explaining their counting-to-ten exercise, “is being able to be totally present. To not get in your head and second-guess yourself. Or the people around you.”
Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), currently playing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is a low-key, idiosyncratic drama, humorous and also sad, about five individuals, in thirty different scenes over the six-week period of their community center drama class.
“Are we going to be doing any real acting?” a character asks the teacher after the first few weeks. The answer is no, and what transpires is less theatrical training than group therapy, subtle human drama and exploration of life and relationships. Ms. Baker, rising 31-year-old New York playwright, winner of numerous awards with a new play The Flick currently in its premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, describes Circle Mirror Transformation as “hopefully, a strange little naturalistic meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time.”
Winner of two Obie Awards for Best New American Play and Best Ensemble Performance, Circle Mirror Transformation seems to be about the five characters — all lost, all seeking connection — searching for themselves. The “circle mirror transformation” of the title is one of the drama exercises the group engages in, but it also evokes the themes of group interdependence and unity in the circle, of self-confrontation and reflection in the mirror, and of character growth, development, transformation. The back wall of Aryeh Stein-Azen’s skillfully rendered dance studio unit set is, appropriately, a mirror, which helps to create, realistically and thematically, the world of this play.
Ms. Baker’s dialogue is dynamic and convincing. Her characters are believable in their awkwardness, their frustrations, their wants and needs. The acting class proceeds, relationships between the characters develop, and a sort of plot does move forward. The style here though is at times exasperatingly slow, with seemingly very little happening — perhaps resembling the reticent style of Chekhov’s plays more than that of any contemporary playwrights. The major events for these characters have already happened in the past or they happen offstage between the weekly classes. Frequent silences of varying lengths seem to be the trademark of Ms. Baker’s playwriting. Major changes and small revelations in the lives of these characters come to light — subtly, surprisingly, often obliquely, sometimes through those powerful and eloquent silences — during the six class sessions.
Audiences might be divided between those who enjoy the interesting and rich characterizations, the subtle interactions, the silences, and the low-key, ultra-realistic style, and those who feel exasperated at the slow pacing, the pauses, and the frequent scene shifts. Ms. Baker’s The Flick, almost a full hour longer than Circle Mirror Transformation’s intermission-less 120 minutes, has received acclaim from the critics but mixed responses from its New York audiences. Last Friday night’s audience at Theatre Intime’s Circle Mirror Transformation seemed thoroughly engaged and entertained.
The Intime five-person undergraduate ensemble, under the thoughtful, able direction of Princeton University sophomore Annika Bennett, is well rehearsed and committed, but challenged by the difficult age stretches required here.
Ava Geyer as Marty presides over the group with an understated, pensive, almost maternal authority. A warm and sympathetic presence, Marty establishes a significant, positive relationship with each of the students in the class, though her long-time marriage to James (Kanoa Mulling) suffers serious setbacks during the course of the play. Ms. Geyer makes the 35-year character stretch here to create this character and her relationships with appealing sensitivity and credibility.
As her husband, Mr. Mulling is focused and articulate in his love for his wife, his interest in another woman and his difficulties with his grown-up daughter from a previous marriage. But, despite his greyed hair and some obvious aches and pains of a 60-year-old, Mr. Mulling’s youthful demeanor makes this character less than convincing.
Caroline Slutsky as 35-year-old Theresa, who has recently left a bad relationship and an acting career in New York City, successfully portrays a delicate balance of vitality and vulnerability, as she interacts dynamically with each of the other members of the group.
John Fairchild’s 48-year-old Schultz and Anna Aronson’s 16-year-old Lauren complete the ensemble with sympathetic, memorable characterizations. Schultz, in his fragility after a recent divorce and his infatuation with Theresa, and Lauren, in her adolescent shyness, her emergence from a troubled family, and her aspirations to become an actress, both manifest extreme awkwardness and insecurity. Mr. Fairchild and Ms. Aronson capture these qualities with mostly effective but uneven plausibility.
Annie Baker wrote about this play in 2009: “I wanted to explore how theater can actually happen to a group of people, not just through improvisation and movement exercises (which are, admittedly, pretty hilarious, whether they happen at Juilliard or in a basement in Vermont), but through the sound of sneakers skidding on the floor, the awkward silences during a bathroom break, the pain of an inappropriate crush. I’m happy, and honored, to show that strange little world to an audience, and to celebrate all the people who make art together and don’t stop to worry about whether or not their names will be remembered.”
Bravo to director Annika Bennett and her Theatre Intime ensemble for offering to us this fascinating new voice in American Theater with its idiosyncratic and irresistible ability to draw audiences into the silences, to care about these yearning human beings, and to care about their secrets and their difficult future lives even after class is over and the play ends.