By David Faller
Circle Mirror Transformation was ostensibly a collection of exercises for beginning actors, which, considering that it clocked in at over 100 minutes, likely wouldn’t entice any but the most dedicated warm-up game enthusiast. What ensued, however, was an intimately connected series of nuanced and progressing events that allowed for a delightful exploration of character.
Five individuals gathered for a six-week acting class in this sharp comedy by Annie Baker. Marty (Alice Stites ’17), the facilitator, led them in a variety of games designed to encourage introspection and emotional actualization. The group varied in levels of investment: some, Shultz (Henry Quillian ’17) and Teresa (Julia Weinberg ’17), committed to all of Marty’s unorthodox methods, while another, Lauren (Charlotte Herzog ’17), thought she signed up for “a real acting class,” and James (Spencer Huffman ’17) was just there to support his wife, Marty. One activity had them write an introduction for another person, and then deliver it to the group from that perspective. Acting ability was not assessed or even mentioned. These introductions also served as one of the only instances of true exposition. Even then, the characters rushed nervously through the facts, leaving a dearth of memorable details, but providing surprisingly comprehensive impressions of their subjects.
The characters were broken in their own ways, trying to find something or someone to reinvigorate their lives. One of the beauties of the piece was how this fact never came to the forefront of the action. Motivations weren’t important — people were. Baker gave her characters few opportunities to employ strategies that in another play would become the backbone of the plot.
Instead of scenes based around characters achieving or discovering something, Transformation set each activity as a vignette, in which nuance and change predominated over objective. Games repeated and progressed, and as the group grew, both as individuals and as a unit, the nature of their interactions grew as well. Another game had them lying about the floor trying collectively to count to 10 without any two speaking at the same time. We returned to it several times throughout the camp. Marty’s presumption was that, as they became more in tune with one another, they would be able to get all the way to 10.
This could have easily turned gimmicky as, in any given scene, a single character might have the only explicit shift, but director Ben Fisher ’17 kept the focus on the current iteration of the group, letting developments speak for themselves. Instead of the game emphasizing a personal drama from the previous scene, we’re backed out of that scene, and the group recombined as a whole, not quite getting to 10, due to a lapse in the group, not the drama: issues of individuals contributed, but were not the cause of failure.
Baker’s script was funny, and Fisher aptly gave the humor the same amount of attention as any other facet. The result was five very human characters. While preparing for the final day’s events, Marty realized she needed paper and pens for everyone. She stood, crossed to her bag, and sifted through, struggling to find enough. Several others offered utensils or got up to search for themselves. The materials were gathered, and Marty returned to disclose the procedure. Utterly mundane, yet our focus never faltered for an instant.
These people were fascinating in and of themselves. Seeing them exist was a joy, and it became clear just how crucial this was when the illusion slipped. Unfortunate occasions shelved human quality to further a plot point or make a joke. These situations were heavy-handed and broke an otherwise airtight reality. Luckily, the recovery was short. The ensemble consisted of five stand-out performances, under solid direction. Theater veterans Stites and Quillian took potentially trite and flat characters and made their underlying truth pop. Herzog and Weinberg toed lines between immaturity and overconfidence without losing likability. Huffman, as Marty’s husband, James, impressively conveyed the tragedy of struggling to keep a marriage together when new, exciting affections threatened to take hold.
The course reached its conclusion, its participants irrevocably altered.