Circle Mirror Transformation
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
October 11, 2009
In Circle Mirror Transformation, a middle-aged hippie leads a handful of small-town locals (including her husband) in a six-week drama class. Playwright Annie Baker makes sure to hit the satirical elements of the theatre games and group warm-ups. However, beyond the inside jokes she exposes a tangled web of five personalities at odds with themselves, each secretly hoping that the class will provide answers.
Baker creates a story that is often surprising, delicately crafting poignant moments not through theatrical fireworks but rather built on nuance. In a clever stage convention, the students interview one another and then introduce each other to the rest of the class. We learn facts and figures, however more importantly we discover the connection between the interviewers and their subjects. As the class begins each character is nervous but eager, humble but craving attention. We glimpse them at their most vulnerable as they engage in the tasks, and we are reminded that the most simple exercises can sometimes lead to unforeseen outbursts of emotion.
The five-person cast is outstanding. Dierdre O'Connell embodies the aging teacher Marty, whose free-spirit is more of a memory than she would care to admit. Marty's husband James (a fantastic Peter Friedman) is a man's man dragged into the class due to lack of numbers. Perhaps not surprisingly, this character ends up displaying the greatest depth of emotion and the clearest delivery out of the set of would-be performers.
Reed Birney plays the conflicted Schultz with admirable restraint, only exposing the character's real wounds when all his defenses have been stripped away. Heidi Schreck plays Theresa, a passionate yet proper all-American girl on the run from a destructive relationship and a stalled acting career. And Tracee Chimo plays Lauren, a 16-year-old from a broken home looking to prepare for her school's upcoming mainstage show.
It is worth mentioning that Chimo's performance thrived on the night I attended the show, through her use of body language and facial expressions. In a final scene of the play Lauren emerges from her defenses and transforms into a confident, radiant young woman. With Chimo's masterful touch, the scene yields a huge payoff.
Sam Gold's direction is more than capable. He employs pauses to great effect, especially noteworthy at the top of the play. Comedic elements are timed perfectly. Design from David Zinn, Mark Barton, and Leah Gulpe creates a naturalistic yet evocative world in which the action thrives.