Character exploration in the round at Live Arts

Actors go head-to-head on personal issues in Live Arts' Circle Mirror Transformation through March 24. (Courtesy Live Arts) Actors go head-to-head on personal issues in Live Arts’ Circle Mirror Transformation through March 24. (Courtesy Live Arts)

Anyone who has ever taken an acting class knows that it can be a bit like group therapy. Such is the case in Annie Baker’s play, Circle Mirror Transformation now playing at Live Arts. The plot line rotates around a community center acting class for adults in which four students and an instructor engage in common theater games designed to aid would-be actors in their craft while often revealing personal issues. Baker deftly delivers these revelations in a blackout-sketch narrative style depicting moments extracted from six weeks of a course titled “Adult Creative Acting,” marked by lit titles depicting the week number on the upper back wall of the stage.

The setting for the play is a mirrored workout room in a community center in Shirley, Vermont, beautifully envisioned by set designer Jeff Bushman with thoughtful details such as green and white linoleum tiled floor, a dance bar, and a large painting of the yogic symbol Om along the wall beyond a door in the set—a nod to the self-discovery aspect of the play. The placement of large mirrors along the back wall allows director Ray Nedzel to play with reflection in his blocking, the actor’s expressions captured even while facing away from the house seats.

It is in this mini-gym that five very different people converge. Marty (Geri Schrimer) leadsthe group through a hippy-dippy, touchy-feely course of acting curricula featuring exercises like recreating your childhood bedroom using the other students as inanimate objects. Her students include new to the area Theresa (Kate Adamson), an exhibitionist with previous acting experience; shell-shocked divorcee Schultz (Koli Cutler), who seems to be venturing out into the dating scene via the time-tested method of “taking a class”; and Lauren (Sarah Edwards), a typical apathetic teenager wanting to better her chances at landing the lead role in her high school’s musical. The fourth student, James (John Holdren), is Marty’s husband, seemingly in the course simply to meet the required attendance numbers for the class.

The group never once even glances at a script during the six weeks. Instead they practice greeting, lying on the floor attempting to count to 10 without overlapping voices, creating a story where each person contributes a word sequentially, and (my favorite) personification, where one person tells another person’s life story as though she is that person.

Circle Mirror Transformation
Live Arts, 123 E. Water St.
Through March 24

Part of Baker’s genius is the subtle way she reveals each character’s particular personal issues, weaving reality with pretend to create a tapestry of emotional revelation. Nedzel shows respect for Baker’s art while nurturing his cast’s natural talents to evoke credible performances. In one well-orchestrated scene, the audience learns of Marty and James’ marital stress as the couple portrays Lauren’s parents in an acting exercise. Schrimer and Holdren seamlessly transition their respective characters from play-acting to venting private gripes, demonstrating the emotional interweave that makes the play so poignant.

Another highlight of directing and acting technique is a scene in which Lauren as Teresa, and James as Teresa’s latest ex, play out a fictitious break-up conversation. Teresa becomes so wrapped up in the play-acting that she jumps up and takes over the conversation herself, generating a self-liberating catharsis. Adamson commands this moment and takes the audience into it with her. As she dives in to James for a grateful embrace, the audience smiles in envious empathetic approval.

Circle Mirror Transformation may be a bit self-indulgent to those of us who have endured similar acting classes, but non-theatrical types certainly relate to the personal journey each of these characters takes.

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