There was a period a few years back when I was seeing a therapist, and one day she asked me if I’d trust her and participate in an unusual exercise. “I want you to take that martyr complex out and put him on the couch next to you,” she said. “Tell him what you think of him.” I tried for a couple of minutes before, feeling kind of silly talking out loud to a disembodied component of my psyche, I told my therapist that didn’t feel like the right approach for me. Multiple times since then, though, when going through moments of turmoil, I’ve found myself turning to the empty space next to me and barking, “Shut up!”
For almost the entirety of its two-hour length, playwright Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation has its characters engaged in similarly absurd exercises as they take an acting class led by a questionably qualified instructor in the community center of a small Vermont town. They improvise turn-taking in counts to ten (if any two people say the same number at the same time, everyone has to start over), they play memory games, they pretend to be furniture, they pretend to be one another, and so on. The more ridiculous the exercises seem, the more the exercises seem to be working—at least to help the characters battle their personal demons, if not become better actors.
And demons they have. Instructor Marty (Angela Timberman) is married to James (Chris Carlson), an economics professor who seems to have enrolled in the class at his wife’s behest and is trying to reconnect with an upset daughter from a previous marriage. Schultz (Bill McCallum) is a carpenter who’s recently divorced but hasn’t stopped wearing his wedding ring, and thinks a fling with fellow student Theresa (Tracey Maloney) might be a good way to get back into the dating game. Lauren (Ali Rose Dachis) is teenage and sullen, dealing silently with her feelings about her troubled family life.
|circle mirror transformation, presented through june 13 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($22-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.|
The characters’ emotional struggles are nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, but they’re the basis for the kind of melodramatic moments that even the most ordinary among us manage to have in our lives from time to time. The drama-class device could lead to a lot of the wrong kind of awkwardness, but Baker sagely leans into the punch by amping up the awkwardness. In the program notes she describes her fascination with silences in life and in theater, and director Benjamin McGovern has his cast closely obey the script’s frequent calls for long pauses.
Like a lover’s eccentricities, the protracted silences feel charming at first and later get a little annoying; still, on balance they’re refreshing, especially since the cast members in this production are such fine physical actors that we can see things happening even when nothing’s happening. Baker has the discipline to leave much unsaid, so we’re as curious as the characters are about what’s going on in the other characters’ heads. What really makes the play work so well, though, is Baker’s deft touch with character-driven humor. There are big laughs in every scene, and they rarely come when you expect them to. The best example is a scene in which the characters, by design, divulge one another’s written secrets; the scene is very funny with very few words spoken, because by that point in the play we know the characters so well that a little suggestion is all that’s necessary for us to understand the secrets’ implications.
The play is touching in its affection and sympathy for its characters and their simple human struggles, and the cast members draw empathy with their sincere performances. Timberman is the picture of blithe confidence as she sits cross-legged, beaming up at her students; and Maloney is warm and buoyant as the new girl in town. McCallum’s newly-single boyishness is overplayed, but nonetheless appealing.
There are some hammy moments (Carlson is least susceptible) that keep the production from really feeling natural, and the plot’s gears churn fairly predictably—as soon as we see that there’s going to be a romance between Schultz and Theresa we can guess how it’s going to end, and the happy marriage between Marty and James appears like a gun in the first act that you know is going to go off in the third.
Thankfully Dachis’s subtle acting grounds her character, because Lauren’s arc is the most predictable of all—and her predictable opening up is predictably mirrored in her costuming. She starts out hiding in the hood of her sweatshirt. Then, in the next scene, the hood comes down, and she smiles a little. Then the sweatshirt comes off, and she’s smiling more. Then her dark jeans are traded for a pair of capris, and she’s laughing and joking. If the play went on for a couple more scenes, the logical progression would have her jumping around twirling ribbons in a rainbow leotard and sparkly tights.
But those are theater-critic criticisms. Overall, Circle Mirror Transformation is a great time at the theater, with, scene for scene, a lot more crackle and pop than the average show. I talked about it afterwards with my martyr complex, and he said he didn’t care for it at all.