Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, currently playing at the Garfield Center for the Arts, is at first glance a play about actors and acting. But as the plot moves forward, it becomes obvious that much more is going on. Set during a six-week acting workshop in a small Vermont town, it follows its characters as they go through a series of games or exercises designed to give them tools to handle the special demands of performing in front of an audience. But beyond that surface story — the classic play-within-a-play — it’s an intriguing look at how the characters’ relationships evolve and how the various class exercises affect them above and beyond the workshop itself.
Circle Mirror Transformation, which was developed at the Sundance Institute in 2008, debuted off-Broadway in 2009, where it ran for three months. It gathered an Obie Award for Best New American Play and a special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. It was directed by Sam Gold, who was also instrumental in developing it at Sundance.
The Garfield production, directed by Bonnie Hill, is performed in the round, with all the action taking place on the main floor of the theater and a double row of seats on three sides of the floor. The stage is blocked off by a mirror wall, and the actors make all their entrances and exits from the theater lobby.
There are five characters: Marty, the director of the workshop; James, her husband, who is also an economics professor; Schultz, a recently-divorced furniture maker; Teresa, an actress who recently left New York for Vermont; and Lauren, a high school student hoping to sharpen her skills to get the lead in the school play.
Hill, in her director’s notes, comments on the theater games that are the main focus of the workshop. The games are centered on the concept of play, allowing the participants to “develop their own capacity for creative self-expression and self-realization.” These exercises were developed in the 1930s by Viola Spolin and published in her 1963 book, Improvisation for the Theater. They attracted wider attention after their use by Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, and are now common in acting workshops across the world. They have also been adopted for drama therapy in hospitals and counseling groups as well as in team-building sessions by businesses and other organizations. Anyone who has been in a group where they played “trust” or “introduce your neighbor” or other games to break the ice and develop skills will recognize the genre. People generally find this game or exercise approach both fun and effective though often a little awkward until you get into the spirit of it.
For example, in the play, we watch the workshop members playing scenes in which they speak only nonsense syllables or a repeated line of dialogue, using body language to convey the emotions and ideas they want to convey. In one exercise, they take the roles of the family members of one of the other participants, wordlessly expressing the relationships between the characters they are portraying. At the same time, the exercises reveal the changing relationships between the members of the workshop and their personal emotional states. It is fascinating to watch the interplay of these emotions as the workshop progresses. It may feel a little slow at first, but hang in there; the pace picks up and the workshop participants begin to uncover hidden — or not so hidden — aspects of their psyches as relationships and feelings develop then dissolve then surface again over the course of the six-week workshop.
Christine Kinlock takes the role of Marty, the workshop director. A regular performer in both the Garfield and Church Hill Theatre, as well as in Shore Shakespeare, she brings a wide range of experience to her role and is very good as the leader and true believer in the workshop’s approach to helping actors open up and develop their creative abilities. But she gets much more than she ever expected.
Bob Chauncey, another regular on the local theater scene, is well cast as James, the director’s husband. He effectively portrays an essentially likable character who we feel may have been pushed by his wife to take part in the workshop to fill out its numbers. But he’s good-natured if a bit lazy about it, that is until the games begin to affect him, too.
Bryan Zajchowski, most recently seen in Church Hill’s A Flea in Her Ear, plays Schultz, the furniture maker who is also an ardent Red Sox fan. Emotionally the neediest of the workshop members, he eagerly takes part in the exercises and quickly becomes involved romantically with another member of the group. The trajectory of that relationship provides much of the emotional energy of the play. Zajchowski does a fine job of showing Schultz’s rather swift mood and attitude changes, making them all very realistic.
Sharon Herz, in her first full-length play at the Garfield, takes the role of Teresa. Interestingly, she says that she was a participant in several theater workshops before moving to Chestertown. She brings enthusiasm and joy to the character as Teresa twirls her hula hoop and then urges the other workshop members to try it. In addition, Herz gives her character, who had an acting career in New York before moving to Vermont, a believable touch of sophistication mixed with vulnerability from her previous life in New Tork that Teresa has come to Vermont to escape.
The role of Lauren is shared by Brianna Johnson and Phebe Wood, who will be alternating weekends. Johnson, most recently seen onstage in the Garfield’ Short Attention Span Theater Festival, played the role on opening night. She nicely conveyed the character’s youthful impatience, at one point asking what the exercises have to do with real acting. She moves awkwardly at first then slowly opens up as her character relaxes and gains confidence through the group exercises – the very exercises whose value she has repeatedly questioned!
For anyone with an interest in the nuts and bolts of theater – what goes on behind the scenes and before the plays are even cast – this is rich material. It’s not the usual community theater fare of musicals, mysteries, or comedies, but don’t let that put you off. This play takes a serious look at human transitions and does it with both humor and sensitivity. Circle Mirror Transformation humorously and poignantly reflects on human nature and reminds us that, as the Bard said, “all the world’s a stage” and we are but the players on it.
The play is definitely aimed at mature audiences, with language and situations that parents may consider inappropriate for pre-teens. Younger audience members might also find it hard to generate interest in the plot – though some may find the theater games interesting in their own right.
Circle Mirror Transformation will be playing three weekends through Sept. 8, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $20, with seniors and members of the military eligible for a $5 discount, and student tickets at $10. For more information or for reservations, call the theater at 410-810-2060 or visit the Garfield theater website.