Circle Mirror Transformation
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Circle Mirror Transformation

Actors stand in a circle. One waves both hands up and down. The others mimic the movements. Someone says “transform.” Another actor initiates a new gesture, maybe grunts something. The others follow suit in the “circle mirror” exercise.

To someone without a theater background, the practice looks monkey-see, monkey-do goofy, which the outsider wouldn’t be caught dead doing.

But to a performer, it’s one of many games that work toward being in the moment. You can’t plan the next step, or think about the last one. Your mind must de-control, surrender to the Now. It’s the theatrical equivalent of Buddhist meditation.

In Annie Baker’s spare drama, four aspiring actors take Marty’s six-week acting class. They play so many touchy-feely games that, the youngest asks Marty if they’ll ever do “any real acting.”

“We are acting,” Marty replies.

Marty’s fairly new at her job. Her husband, James, runs the community center where the classes take place in Shirley, Vermont. He’s also one of the students. The couple appears to be doing fine. In one of the script’s many twists, they’ve been “acting” from the start.

It also appears that the students have miles to go before striding on the boards. They don’t finish sentences. They squelch feelings. Some have had recent trauma. But then again maybe a class in creative expression — of mind and body — might open them up better than a therapist’s couch.

The playwright relies on short scenes, sketchy dialogue, and blackouts. And the point of a scene may not make sense until later. As we come to know them, they come to know themselves. The subtexts weave the story.

The difficult text takes major risks, in particular with fractured speeches and stillness. And — a radical choice in this day and age — it trusts the audience to make their own connections.

The risks abound, but director Annie Hinton does such a terrific job you wonder why this is her “professional debut” — and want to shout “bring her back soon!”

Part of her achievement: the characters are so different, with very different “issues” and speech patterns. Yet they flow as one in every scene.

Circle Mirror is a definitive ensemble show with first-rate performances. Beneath Marty’s nervous laughter, Dana Case suggests levels of discontent. As do Tom Stephenson as her nervous husband James and Rhianna Basore as free-spirited Theresa. Sophia Richards, a new face, does full justice to emotionally shut-in Laura. And Eddie Yaroch finally — finally! — lands a role worthy of his gifts. He gives Schultz a heart-rending fragility.

All five grow like flowers, almost imperceptibly.

Cheers for Brian Redfern’s excellent set: an authentic community center from double doors to fitness balls; to Valerie Henderson’s costumes, Chris Renda’s lighting, and Justin Lang’s appropriate music (one minor complaint: if you’re going to play Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help from My Friends” at Woodstock, turn that volume up!).

Toward the end, all five write down a personal secret on a piece of paper. Among the memories that linger from the show: which secret was whose?

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