Star rating: *** (out of four)
Annie Baker’s play about an amateur drama class in rural Vermont is a clever look at the way people reveal themselves while doing incomprehensible exercises that purport to teach acting.
It’s easy to see why Circle Mirror Transformation won the 2010 Obie Award for the best new American play. Baker capitalizes on the often absurd aspects of acting classes that demand students “become” inanimate objects, communicate emotions using only nonsense syllables, and use telepathy to prove they’re aware of their surroundings and their fellow actors.
And she increases the comic possibilities by enrolling an unlikely foursome in the acting class: Theresa (Kathleen McElfresh), a New York transplant recovering from an unhappy love affair who can’t resist seducing every man in sight; Schultz (Jeff Talbott), a carpenter wounded from a recent divorce; Lauren (Mackenzie Meehan), a sullen teenager who hopes the class will help her snag the lead in her high-school play; and James (Harry A. Winter), who’s in the class only because his wife, Marty, is teaching it. Marty (Jennifer Mendenhall) puts her students through their paces with hilarious intensity—there’s a madness to her method and her refusal to be deterred even when Lauren asks, “Are we ever going to do any real acting?”
This is the first production for David Muse, Studio Theatre’s new artistic director, and he pulls it off with aplomb. Muse deftly exploits the physical comedy of the play, particularly when it comes to the contortions required by the acting exercises.
We watch as the group meets for six weeks. Meehan is perfect as the skeptical kid who picks up far more undercurrents than the adults do. As Schultz, Talbott is delightful as he blossoms when Theresa smiles upon him and wilts when she doesn’t. Mendenhall has some delicious moments, including portraying a stuffed snake in a reenactment of Schultz’s childhood bedroom.
I just wish playwright Baker had given equal attention to all of her characters. Marty reveals details about Lauren’s home life and his own night terrors both in class and during breaks. Schultz has ample opportunity to bare his emotions and give a valedictory speech in which he predicts his future happiness. But when the play ended, I wasn’t sure I knew Theresa and James much better than when it started.
As part of a final acting exercise, each character writes down a secret. They’re revealed anonymously, leaving the characters and the audience guessing which person has which secret. It seemed like a gimmick onstage, but my husband and I talked about it all the way home—a sign that we’d been far more intrigued than we realized when leaving the theater. Baker had charmed us into her circle, forced us to look into her mirror, and transformed our impressions.