Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is a piece about the theatre process. In a dramatic arts class at a community centre in Vermont, different acting games let the characters explore movement and emotion, perspective and language. When 16-year-old Lauren states in frustration, “Are we going to be doing any real acting?… Like acting out a play?” coach Marty doesn’t have a satisfying response. The process that transforms an actor into a range of characters happens in countless microsteps. Marty has her class focus not on the trees, but on the tiny veins that run up the leaves.
Thinking back to the last Beautiful City Theatre production I saw, The Fully Monty, that too was a show about process – the process of ordinary men transforming into (ahem) dancers. In interviews, the Beautiful City Theatre talks about how the process of putting the show together is more important than the show itself. Does this focus on process generate great productions? If Circle Mirror Transformation directed by Natalie Gershtein is any indication, I’d say yes.
The show follows five characters as they participate in their weekly class at the community centre. They are a disparate bunch, marked by an age range of 16 to 58, with notably different motivations. For example, femme fatale Theresa (Renée Hodgins) is an experienced actress getting over life in New York and a broken relationship. Lauren (Eleni Metrakos) has her eye on a part of Maria in the high school production of West Side Story. Stiff on his feet, but giving it the old college try, James (Gene Santarelli) is there because his wife is coaching. Through a series of acting games under acting coach Marty (Mary Liz Lewis) the characters reveal their hidden selves and vulnerabilities, causing a chain of real-life events.
The five characters come to life on the stage. Venue Studio 303 might be a factor to the realer-than-real-life feeling with its wooden floors, ambient noise of nearby studios, and the audience seated in folding chairs as if in the class itself. Everyone in the cast was stupendous. It is hard to say who is most riveting. Each time I start to name one, I quickly think of another. I’m inclined to go with Douglas Rossi as spaced-out, newly divorced woodworker Schultz. But maybe it’s because his character arc is the strongest: blossoming, crumbling completely, and finding stasis. But his pauses! Oh his pauses! Those masterful pauses with his face crumpling in introverted soul-searching! There was his agonized pause when he can’t think of an item in the “When I go to India game” but also the one when he thinks he’s said ‘yes’ to an important question (I won’t plot-spoil, but you won’t miss it). Then I think of just how perfectly Mary Liz Lewis captures aging free-spirit Marty and I find myself wanting to name every cast member.
While acting about acting might sound easy, it isn’t. The actors hold their characters with utmost integrity as they navigate both acting games and personal issues that arise. Everyone on stage is in motion, if only internally, reacting and responding to every stimulus: what is said, what was said, what might be said. It’s a very complete production in this respect. My gripes mostly go towards the playwright. Even though the actors sustain their characters during the games, I found myself longing for the scenes of their breaks when the interaction is at its most normalized. Ultimately, acting games are pretty tedious, and it sometimes feels like watching a session of absurdist expressive psychotherapy.
That said, Beautiful City Theatre has come through with an excellent show that scrutinizes what it takes to be a performer.
Circle Mirror Transformation plays February 6-8 at Studio 303 (372 ST Catherine W #303). 7:30 p.m. $20.