By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
E.M. Forster put it baldly: “Only connect.”
But connections between people do not happen so easily – not in Forster’s classic novels, and not in Annie Baker’s wry, elliptical new comedy, Circle Mirror Transformation. The connections between people are fraught with complications, as you’ll see in this sweet-tempered little play set in an adult-ed acting class in small-town Vermont.
At Mad Cow Theatre, director Michael Marinaccio doesn’t answer all the questions put forth in Baker’s enigmatic script, which was first performed off-Broadway in 2009. But he and five terrific actors fill in the blanks – not with words, but with emotions, both subtle and raw, that flicker across their faces.
Just watch Mark Edward Smith as James, the kind of middle-aged man who wears socks with sandals, as he tries gamely to join in theater games he doesn’t quite understand. Or watch Jay T. Becker as Schultz, recently divorced and trying desperately to cope with it, as he shoots an accusatory look at the class’s teacher after he’s spurned in an acting game.
The setting is the typically bland characterlessness of a rehearsal studio in fictional Shirley, Vermont, where the 29-year-old Baker has set three of her plays. There’s the floor-to-ceiling mirror partially obscured by curtains, a stray table or two, a balancing ball and a bit of sound equipment. And there are the five stray souls brought together for this class in “creative drama.” Along with Schultz and James, the class includes Theresa (Rebekah Lane), the sensuous would-be actress who’s trying to get over a recent breakup with a boyfriend; Lauren (Jolie Hart), a sullen 16-year-old with family troubles; and teacher Marty (Marty Stonerock), a hearty, upbeat soul who doesn’t recognize that her theater games are likely both to build bridges and to tear them down.
Audience members who’ve never lived through an intro acting class or a corporate team-building exercise may be mystified by the goings-on (and so is Lauren, who finally asks whether they’re ever going to act). In fact, playwright Baker shows little more than the exercises themselves, along with the tentative reaching out from one participant to another. Schultz falls for Theresa. Marty tries to help Lauren but is rebuffed again and again.
But somehow, each of them breaks through to the others, as you see most beautifully when they tell each other’s stories. “I’m an artist,” says the exuberant Theresa, speaking for Schultz, who crafts furniture in real life and is beaming from across the room. “I’m a really good artist!”
And you begin to feel that you know these people, in spite of all the information that Baker leaves out. Stonerock brings the mannerisms of a yoga devotee to the teacher, Marty, and makes her a woman whose airy-fairy enthusiasms don’t make up for the pain she encounters. Hart’s Lauren gradually emerges from her Gryffindor hoodie as her defenses fall. Lane shows the self-indulgence of Theresa, who plows ahead regardless of the consequences.
Smith makes an interesting kind of introvert of James, who uses the theater games to act out the anger he feels outside the rehearsal studio: This is a complicated man, with complicated reactions to this little class. And Becker brings great understated humor to his twitchy Schultz, a man content to sulk in a corner when he doesn’t get his way, but one who is also unafraid to open his heart.
Circle Mirror’s playwright doesn’t quite tell you how Schultz’s heart opens, or how Lauren comes into her own, and or exactly what happens to Theresa and James. But you can feel it nonetheless in the circle-mirror theater game – the game in which one person, and then another, creates a movement and the others all copy what the first is doing.
There’s a wonderful collective energy going on here, and a silent communication that reaches out and connects not only the actors in the circle but the audience as well. When the lights transform two of Circle Mirror’s characters at play’s end, you may feel as if you, too, have been just a tiny bit transformed.
‘Circle Mirror Transformation’
- What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Annie Baker comedy.
- Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through April 17 (also, 7:30 p.m. March 28 and April 11).
- Running time: One hour 50 minutes (no intermission).
- Cost: $27 general, $25 seniors and students, $15 Mondays.
- Call: 407-297-8788.
- Online: madcowtheatre.com.