Boston College’s Theatre Department workshop production of Circle Mirror Transformation, directed by Maggie Kearnan, marks the beginning of my Annie Baker weekend (next up: Company One’s production of The Flick, at the Modern Theatre of Suffolk University).
Friday night found me back at the Bonn Studio at BC, and I found it hard to believe that I was in the same space that, a mere few weeks ago, had housed the less-than-pristine abode of Lane and Charles from Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House. The black box had been re-organized to form a thrust, and the set was simply yet richly detailed (my compliments to Alessa Natale, in charge of scenic design). A slightly dingy community center exercise studio, complete with hanging overhead fluorescent tubes, faded wooden floorboards, curtains drawn over a wall-length mirror, with a large exercise ball in one corner and cubbies in another. One could even spy a cluttered cork board in the “hallway” outside the studio, visible behind the glass of the studio’s door flanked by its EXIT sign and regulation fire alarm. Simple and rich.
The same could be said for the plot of Circle Mirror Transformation: a six-week adult creative drama class in a small New England town. Marty (Alexandra Lewis), the class instructor, leads the group in a variety of theater games with results varying from mildly awkward interactions to surprisingly poignant and painful revelations. The class consists of James (Colin O’Neill), Marty’s husband; Theresa (Sarah Devizio), a young former actress from New York; Shultz (Ben Halter), a shy divorcee hesitatingly seeking connection; and Lauren (Julia James), a reticent sixteen year-old skeptical of the creative process. This production managed to capture the spirit of Baker’s lovingly halting, pause-infused text without losing the audience’s interest; it was a very polished, tightly timed performance that managed to not sacrifice any false starts or hesitant groping.
This precarious balance is no mean feat, and depends largely on the scene transitions. Every scene was punctuated with precise blackouts, and the passing weeks were marked by a projection onto the studio floor (lighting design by Sara Komorowski). The lighting shifts during these transitional moments seemed to indicate shadow shifts, marking the passage of time even in this windowless, darkened community center room. These transitions were also marked with various indie songs of the kind you can find in the Juno soundtrack; hearing Sarah Bareilles and Cat Power crooning through and between scenes added a gentleness and a sadness that I wasn’t prepared for which drew me in (sound design by Marissa Manhart).
But of course, the play boils down to the characters themselves, and this cast was not found wanting. O’Neill’s James and Devizio’s Theresa were more-restrained foils to Halter’s hilariously abrupt and graceless Shultz. Halter’s embodiment of the middle-aged Shultz was particularly impressive, and I was thrilled that he wasn’t overly “aged”; Halter’s shambling gait and controlled physical movements evoked so much more than make-up face-wrinkles ever could. Props to the costume design of the show (Sarah Winglass); every character’s costume portrayed their age group and personality effectively, always a plus in a college production.
Lewis’s portrayal of Marty was both very moving and very funny. I was thrilled that she managed to capture Marty’s occasional tone-deafness with regards to her class’s responses to certain exercises, while still evoking the confidence a person like Marty would need to stick to her guns, to believe in herself. Lewis effectively conveyed Marty’s trust in the process, and that made it all the more painful to watch as her own personal world collapsed; we felt rather than consciously thought about the unfairness of Marty’s situation, about how following your heart doesn’t always produce happy endings. A remarkable thing to deliver so well with such economical dialogue.
I found James’ portrayal of Lauren to be the most delightful surprise in this show. At first, I wondered at how much she was pushing the sullenness of Lauren to the forefront: constant scowling, slumping, very shifty suspicious glances at others, and overt defiance in her quarrels with Marty. But James balanced Lauren’s sourness with innovative sparks: upon encountering Shultz and Theresa making out during a class break, Lauren literally jumped back out of the room in shock and discomfort with hilarious speed. Left to her devices during the same break, Lauren dons her iPod and begins to dance with surprising abandon until Marty walks in, a delightful deviation from Baker’s script. The cherry on the sundae was the final moment of the play: as Lauren speaks to Shultz and ventures to ask a difficult question with painful earnestness, we realize with a shock that this isn’t really a new side of Lauren. We suddenly realize that that earnestness was actually always there, beneath the reticence; we just failed to notice during the whole play.
How often do we fail to notice, really notice others? How often do we second guess ourselves and those around us? These were only a few of the many questions this production left me with. A very moving and effective performance that I was delighted to see.