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‘Circle Mirror Transformation’: Small Acting Class With Lots of Personal Dramas

by Jerome Weeks 17 Nov 2010 6:19 PM

With “Circle Mirror Transformation,” WaterTower presents the area premiere of playwright Annie Baker, who’s only 29 but has already had a Boston festival of her small-town New England comedies.

Ted Wold, Lisa Hassler, Bill Jenkins, Lynn Blackburn and Kayla Carlyle (l to r) at WaterTower Theatre

Circle Mirror Transformation at WaterTower Theatre is a sweet, smart but frankly, rather slight comedy about acting-classes-as-group-therapy.  Because of her trio of plays set in Shirley, Vermont, playwright Annie Baker has gotten a lot of attention and praise back East — including an Obie Award, raves in New York and in Boston, where three different theater companies are currently staging a festival of her work.

And Baker is only 29.

I haven’t seen her other two Shirley plays — The Aliens and Body Awareness — so I can’t attest to the effect all three have together. But judging from Circle Mirror, the relevant New England comparison is not to Thorton Wilder and Our Town — it’s to Tina Howe (Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances). Less WASPy, less fun-with-wordplay than Howe, Baker has a similar small-scale realism, but her characters are often newcomers to the area, aging hippies, isolates — this is pine-tree-snowplow Vermont not Brahmin Boston.

But as with Howe’s plays, part of the beauty of Circle Mirror is its apparent simplicity, its narrow focus: We follow a six-week drama class at a community center. The play doesn’t venture outside the classroom; most of the emotional upheavals that happen here happen offstage and we have to infer from the characters’ actions in class what went on.

Just as we often have to figure out what’s going on in class.

Baker respects the theater games the students play, like lying in silence on the floor and intuiting when’s the right time to call out a number.  She doesn’t go after the usual dim-bulb-actress laughs or the egomaniac matinee idol-buffoon.  Like Howe, Baker has a gentle humor. Here, it often depends on puzzle-solving: What are these people up to? So we figure out the acting exercises just as the students figure out each other — and, a little bit, themselves.

Lynn Blackburn in ‘Circle Mirror Transformation.’

Directed with a deft hand by Amy Corcoran, Circle Mirror Transformation is splendidly cast — with Lisa Hassler as the New-Agey teacher, Bill Jenkins (in something of an enjoyable type-shift) playing her husband, a tongue-tied former hippie-lawyer-dropout. Ted Wold is a still-badly bruised divorcee, Kayla Carlyle plays a surly, mostly silent teen and Lynn Blackburn is a recent New York-actress escapee. There’s not a weak performance here, although I’d cite Blackburn especially for her seemingly natural ability to light up a stage and Carlyle for coming out of her character’s bitter shell with such affecting (even surprising) realism.

In fact, every actor gets to unwrap surprises. Which is a weakness of the script. It’s as if Baker didn’t have the courage of her modest minimalism, so she packs in an epiphany or major personal crisis in everyone’s lunchbag. She wants some weighty drama to offset the emotional noodling and nattering. So, where much of the play feels fresh and unaffected — and perfectly, sensitively balanced, as in Baker’s treatment of a blossoming affair that fails — it begins to seem a little contrived and crowded .

Doesn’t anyone attend an ordinary, community-center acting class — without some overwhelming change of life? It would have been a refreshing (and amusing) perspective for one student to remain pretty much unscathed and puzzled by everyone else’s angst. What’s the big deal? All we did was play games. Instead, we get A Chorus Line writ small, but with all the big crises intact.

I have a personal and professional aversion to theater class-as-therapy (drama teachers and your fellow students are usually not trained psychologists, so they have no business messing with your private life). But Circle Mirror Transformation will be popular with theaters for a long time. Not only is it inexpensive to produce (five actors and the simplest production in the world — a rehearsal room), it’s just flat-out flattering to actors and drama classes. We ultimately see this quintet as an average-but-appealing, even emotionally heroic handful of persevering neurotics, promising talents and damaged wannabes.

But ah, the power of acting-for-beginners. It’s granted them insight, both painful and rewarding. Plus, some inexpensive marriage counseling and even a bit of high-school career guidance.