There’s no treat for an avid theatergoer quite like the treat of seeing something absolutely fresh and original. Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is just such a treat.

Winner of the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play, Circle Mirror Transformation now gets its West Coast Premiere at South Coast Repertory in a production helmed by its original New York director and featuring a cast of some of Southern California’s finest talent. (Kudos to SCR for not seeing the need to do an actors’ search outside its own backyard!)

The play’s title comes from one of one of the “acting exercises” which the four Vermonters taking Marty Kreisberg’s Adult Creative Drama class find themselves forced to perform during the class’s six-week run at the local Community Center. It’s far from the only one.

We first meet Marty (Linda Gehringer), Theresa (Marin Hinkle), James (Brian Kerwin), Lauren (Lily Holleman), and Schultz (Arye Gross) lying supine, scattered around Center’s windowless dance studio and alternating voices as they count from one to ten, waiting five to seven seconds between numbers, not knowing who will be the next to speak. Should two voices say the next number at the same time, it’s back to the drawing board, starting once again from the number one. During Circle Mirror Tranformation’s hour and forty five minutes, the fivesome will attempt this exercise over and over again, finally prompting 16-year-old Lauren to ask Marty what the point of all of this is. When, wonders the teen, are they ever going to start acting?

Marty manages to calm Lauren down thanks to the support of Theresa, a 35-year-old former actress who has given up a not terribly successful stage career in New York to try life in Vermont (and study for a certificate in acupressure). Still, Lauren remains unconvinced, a feeling that many in the South Coast Rep audience may share amidst the frequent laughter that Marty’s concoctions provoke. Other exercises include having the group race round the room hither and thither, then slow down to shake each others’ hands and say their names with each handshake, again and again … and again; sitting in a circle attempting to make intelligent, intelligible sentences, one word, one student at a time; playing a game of tag in which the person tagged has to “explode” repeatedly until someone else is “it”; and pretending to be pieces of furniture and various paraphernalia in order to recreate a favorite childhood locale.

Whether these exercises will make actors out of high school student Lauren, lonely recent divorcee Schultz, and Marty’s husband James, or make more of an actress out of Theresa is open to question. There is no doubt, however, about their entertainment value, nor is there any question of what playwright Baker is up to in Circle Mirror Transformation.

Clearly this acting class is a means to an end, the end for us as spectators being to get to know these five disparate characters a bit better, and for them as characters to learn about each other, and perhaps more importantly, to learn about themselves.

Over the course of the six-week class, each character will be asked to portray one of his or her classmates, introducing “himself” or “herself” to the others, and we get considerable autobiographical information from these mini-speeches. The real learning, however, comes between exercises in the conversations we audience flies-on-the-wall are privileged to overhear. Two of the characters begin briefly to date, then not to date (to the consternation of one of them). A marriage reveals itself not to be quite as solid as it might have seemed at first. A teenager makes considerable progress on her journey towards adulthood.

I loved every minute of Circle Mirror Transformation—from the originality of its concept and the brilliance of its execution to simply getting to know these wildly different people that playwright Baker has created, especially as embodied by the production’s couldn’t-be-better cast.

South Coast Rep made a savvy decision in asking Sam Gold, director of the play’s 2009 World Premiere at New York’s Playwrights Horizon, to bring his understanding of Baker’s play and its characters to its very first West Coast production. Gold recognizes the importance of the pauses and silences Baker insists on in her script, and many of the best laughs come in those moments when absolutely nothing is being said.

Equally gratifying is seeing familiar SCR faces in these delicious roles. Gehringer combines ditz and depth in equal measure as middle-aged hippy Marty, and Kerwin does every bit as deep, delightful work as her rumpled, life-worn spouse James. Gross reveals to perfection all of Schultz’s befuddled longings, and Hinkle is iridescent as the equally confused (but considerably better put together) Theresa. Finally, Holleman is every bit the awkward, adorable, striving-for-growth teen that Baker has drawn in Lauren.

The play’s original New York scenic director David Zinn has created an expansive studio for the action to take place in, with a mirrored wall a la A Chorus Line, piles of exercise mats, and a big blue exercise ball which becomes almost a character itself. Also repeating from the New York production are lighting designer Mark Barton and sound designer Leah Gelpe, the former getting his chance to dazzle in the play’s final scene, the latter filling silences with precisely the sounds we’d be hearing from outside the studio’s open doorway. SCR’s Angela Balogh Calin costumes each character as they themselves would (and provides just enough costume changes and variations to make the course’s six-week length believable). David Roy is assistant sound designer, Jackie S. Hill production manager, and Jennifer Ellen Butler stage manager.

Circle Mirror Transformation makes it four winners in a row since Misalliance opened South Coast Repertory’s 2010-2011 season. No other Southern California theater gives its audiences so many superb West Coast Premieres as well as new visions of classics and some World Premieres in the bargain. Circle Mirror Transformation is East Coast-West Coast theater at its very best.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
January 16, 2011
Photos: Ben Horak/SCR

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