Wednesday, October 14, 2009

circle mirror transformation

Photo/Joan Marcus

The question is not whether Annie Baker’s new play circle mirror transformation is any good. The question is whether a play set entirely in a Vermont adult community center’s six-week creative arts class can connect with an audience of non-actors. The answer to the first question—it's not just good, but excellent, as in the best new play I've seen all year—is also a resounding answer to the second: work this honest and genuine is universal, regardless of theme. “The point,” says the free-spirited "teacher," Marty (a terrifically comfortable Deirdre O’Connell), “is to be totally present," and it's everyone's struggle to do so, from Marty's husband, James (a strong Peter Friedman), to the young, awkward Lauren (Tracee Chimo), that is so engaging.

The traditional tropes of drama are here--romances that bloom and wither, secrets are revealed, family issues are confronted--but the presentation is unique. By setting everything in an acting studio, Baker has taken on the much harder task of emphasizing not just actions, but reactions, and while it's not exactly as subtextual as Chekhov, it is grippingly nuanced. The truth is, we don't need to actually be knifed to feel as if we have--in fact, one of the reasons for going to theater is to live vicariously, at least for a few hours, with other feelings. To that end, Baker fills her play with scenes in which nothing actually happens, and yet in which everything is revealed.

It's no surprise that the exercise Baker keeps coming back to is one in which the cast lies starfished on the floor of a dark room, attempting to count to ten--a different person on a different number each time--without overlapping. This neutral scene serves as a marker through which we can observe the growth of the characters and check in on their moods as the play jumps from week to week. The same goes for the budding relationship between lonely Schultz (Reed Birney, as impressive here in a gentler light as he was in Blasted) and the overachieving Theresa (Heidi Schreck, playing a more grounded, realistic version of the Tracy Flick-archetype); sure, there's some overt flirting in the class, thanks to a hula-hoop, but for the most part, we only see their feelings reflected in their acting-class physicalizations. One of the most affecting scenes in the play--whether you've taken a Meisner class or not--comes from a conversation consisting only of "I want you to go" (Theresa) and "I need you to stay" (Schultz). Now that's embedded emotion.

Baker also has a lot of sweet humor, most of which comes, ironically enough, in a sour form: Lauren, in her youth, is skeptical of the work they're doing, and frequently huffs in exasperation, sulks her way through activities, and interrupts to ask "Are we going to do any actual acting?" (She serves a meta-purpose, too, for she directly addresses the observations of skeptical audience members, keeping them engaged enough to transform as she does.) Chimo performs the part with a genuinely humbuggish charm, and one wonders what sort of facial exercises she performs in order to have such range: has anyone ever embodied a more sullen baseball glove?

Despite this being performed at Playwrights Horizon, this review would be remiss not to lavish praise on Sam Gold, who was already a master of subtlety before he took on the task of directing last year's Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and its larger-than-life miniature puppets. Baker's provided an incredibly detailed script, flush with detail, but it's Gold who has figured out how to make all those details thrive, who has distilled an entire week of events into a piercing glare, and who has managed to make the simplest of acts--walking through a room--bustle with character. Everyone has to walk before they run, but Gold's direction here gives the entire cast (already marathon runners, each of them) a healthy head start.

There's an old saw that when showing up to a party, "your presence is the best present," and that's never been more applicable than here. For nearly two straight hours, the cast of circle mirror transformation is entirely present, and I can't think of a better gift to theater fans than that.

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