Pretending becomes a pretext for change in Annie Baker’s subtly engrossing Circle Mirror Transformation, which unfolds with verite veracity at Rep Stage under the direction of Suzanne Beal.
The ensemble is so good at portraying a miscellaneous crew of small-town Vermonters enrolled in a summer creative drama class you often feel as though you are eavesdropping on the goings-on at the community center.
And if you’ve ever taking a local drama class or—if you are of a certain age—participated in encounter groups during the 1960s or 70s, the play will have added frisson. Sometimes anxiously so. Some of the exercises Marty (Meg Kelly, pitch-perfect as a New Age-y drama guru) leads her students through brought back flashbacks of teambuilding sessions where coworkers are forced to stand in a circle and toss out facial expressions to one another or compose a story one volunteered word at a time.
Marty, with her tie-dyed tunics and touchy-feely vibe, seems a permanent resident of the Summer of Love. Rather than memorizing monologues or learning vocal projection, Marty takes a more therapeutic approach meant to free the body and spirit. The students swap identities when telling each other’s biographies, pretend to be trees and baseball gloves and perform scenes saying only “goulash” and “ak-mak.”
It takes the youngest member of the group—over-pressured and under-certain teenager Lauren (an affecting Natalie Collins)—to finally speak up and ask “Like, are we ever going to do any, um, real acting?”
Their machinations are alternatively cringingly funny (you are really glad that’s not you up on stage), poignantly earnest, and as individual as their reasons for taking the class in the first place. Lauren, who wants to be either an actress or veterinarian, wishes to hone her skills before trying out for the fall musical, West Side Story. Theresa (Beth Hylton, marvelously actressy in the play’s most gregarious role), who left an acting career in New York along with a controlling boyfriend, seeks an outlet for her natural show-off self—who needs to walk across the floor when you can leap like a gazelle in yoga pants?
The men’s reasons are a bit more elusive. Schultz (a wounded Yury Lomakin) is a recent divorcee still raw with pain over the split up. James (Tom Byrn, laconic and wry) is the spouse of teacher Marty so you can only conclude that his presence in the class is a favor to his wife.
CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION
March 4 – 22
Rep Stage – Horowitz Center
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD 21044
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: PWYC – Wednesdays and Thursdays
$40 all other dates
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 443. 518 . 1500
As the students become more assured with the acting exercises, they become less convincing at pretending their lives are just fine. Fissures begin to emerge in Marty and James’ all-is-groovy marriage, while Theresa’s extroversion seems less warmth and more aching want. One of the last exercises, the airing of anonymous secrets in a safe forum, cracks everyone’s facades for good, leaving the group without anything to hide behind, not even the trappings of the acting trade—a mask, a role, a stock character.
Baker is an astute observer of human behavior, capturing quirks with a rush of words or an unfinished sentence. She uses silence expertly—at times uncomfortably awkward, at other times a gentle pause for breath and space.
Director Beal is mostly successful handling the silences and bursts of activity, but you wish she had picked up and varied the pace a little since every vignette seems to have the same exact rhythm. The epilogue, however, gets it right. In the final exercise, Lauren and Schultz have to project 10 years into the future and their observations about what happens to themselves and the others strikes a shimmery note of hope—that we can change, we can become the hero in our own play.
Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker . Directed by Suzanne Beal . Featuring Tom Byrn, Natalie Marie Collins, Beth Hylton, Meg Kelly, and Yury Lomakin . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.