Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Circle Mirror Transformation @ Hyde Park Theatre: Yes, Yes, Yes!

Today, class, let us discuss Circle Mirror Transformation, which is currently playing at the Hyde Park Theatre. But first, I want you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine you are in a rather rundown multi-purpose room in the bowels of a small town community center. Okay ready. Innnnnnn and ooooooooout.

Good. Now you are in the right space, the same space in which this wonderful show unfolds.

As ever with these sporadic reviews of mine, I am hard pressed to give a good description without giving away too much. For those of you in a big hurry, here’s your answer: Yes, GO SEE IT. Wonderful show.

And now, the details:

Circle Mirror Transformation was written by Annie Baker, a young, fabulous, award-winning playwright who, if we’re lucky, will continue writing for the stage for a long, long time to come. Baker also wrote Body Awareness, the last show I saw at Hyde Park Theatre. Both were directed by Ken Webster. He also acts in the play, as does Katherine Catmull, who starred in Body Awareness and happens to be married to Webster. Getting to see just one of them perform in a play is beyond a treat. Getting to see them together pushes any production over the top. And honestly, you don’t even need to know about their personal relationship to get a huge kick out of their onstage chemistry, but that’s a nice little lagniappe.

Catmull plays Marty, who leads classes at the community center, in this case a beginning acting class. If you’ve ever taken an informal acting class, you likely know that these non-credit, 101 surveys draw in all sorts, from those who believe they were born to star on Broadway to those just seeking escape from some big troubles in their real lives to those looking to make new friends to those dragged into the endeavor unwillingly.

We’ve got one of each of the aforementioned. Schultz, played by Kenneth Wayne Bradley, is technically divorced, but not yet ready to give up his wedding band, which tells us much of what we need to know about his character. Theresa, played by Rebecca Robinson, hasn’t been in town too long, and gets to play the delicious role of accidental (or not) instigator. Lauren, played by Xochitl Romero, is the dorky withdrawn teenager hoping to pick up pointers so she can win the star role in her upcoming high school musical. And then there’s Catmull’s Marty, who really is trying her best to enlighten and enrich her charges, including James (Webster) who is her husband and, we get the idea, not totally thrilled to be in on the acting action but likely got strong armed into attending.

Let me pause for a moment to offer a brief comparison to Body Awareness for those of you who saw it and are wondering if the two bear a resemblance. Yes and no. You’ll get references to a toothbrush, a woman named Phyllis, and child molestation. And you’ll get further evidence that likely Baker spent her youth immersed in the political correctness she lovingly and searingly parodies in both shows. Beyond that, there are plenty of differences. I was trying to come up with an analogy. You know how the Beatles did both Revolution and Dear Prudence? And the former is all in your face and the latter is all floaty but no less profound? Okay, same deal here. Circle Mirror Transformation seems to unfold more slowly (though at 100 minutes with no intermission it’s barely longer than BA). There’s not a lot of big, loud, action as with BA. We spend the entire time in the community room, during the classes.

What keeps the pace moving here is that the show is presented as a series of demi-vignettes that take place over six weeks. Marty has her work cut out for her with such a diverse group of students, and things aren’t made any easier when interpersonal relationships start bubbling up like 8th grade chemistry class experiments gone awry. One exercise repeated throughout involves trying to get everyone to cooperate in a sort of intuition that, Marty says, is all about staying in the moment.

Really, though, no one seems able to ever stay in the moment, at least not the present one. The Mirror in the title could reference how Baker deftly reflects back through her characters the cyclical way all of us seem doomed/compelled to forever reach backward and forward, hoping to rearrange our pasts and fashion our destinies, never really able to just be fully present—a point further emphasized by the constant appearance of cell phones. Speaking of mirrors, the set is really wonderful, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the one mirror in the room is mostly obscured—anyone bothering to look into it is bound only to see a partial view of self, and certainly not the one others see in them.

I worry this all sounds glum, like a petri dish of fucked-upedness. Let me assure you, there’s way more comedy in this play than tragedy. The piece as a whole is rendered like a poem acted out, each snipped delivered like a tightly wrought stanza that could almost stand on its own. It’s very, very funny and very, very thoughtful.

I also love the great meta moments here, and there are many. In fact, the whole show is one big meta moment if you consider we are watching outstanding actors portraying not-very-good actors and doing so perfectly. That is, until they stop being not very good. There is a transformation here, and without knowing it, and likely little thanks to the direct lessons Marty tries to deliver, each player manages to transcend, as the actors who play them move from being believable as not believable to being believable as believable.

I especially love the ending here, which hinges on the transformation and is triggered by an exercise Marty hastily delivers, one which backfires terribly. I honestly didn’t see where the characters were going to wind up, which is always a delight, that edge-of-seat-til-the-last-scene feeling. And when-- in a closing scene during which Romero and Bradley shine very, very brilliantly-- Baker’s conclusion is revealed, I just sat back and did a little jaw drop. You will, too.

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