Theater Review: “Circle Mirror Transformation”
Circle Mirror Transformation begins in silence and dim lighting with 5 Vermont residents lying in a circle engaged in a counting exercise. This game kicks off a series of repetitive improvisational activities that construct playwright Annie Baker’s chronological, yet discontinuous avant-garde plot. Without an intermission, audiences experience this Actors’ Equity cast romp around like bad acting students for an uninterrupted 2 hours.
As for plot synopsis, this disparate group signs up for what they expect to be acting class, but instead get six weeks of what turns out to be therapy sessions. Acting teacher Marty’s (played by an instructive Kelly Kennedy) marketing of her course speaks to Baker’s subject matter that acting techniques can facilitate the therapy process. Disillusioned by week three, Lauren (portrayed by the up and coming VCU sophomore Maggie Horan) musters up the chutzpah to ask the play’s iconic question: “Are we going to be doing any real acting?”
The answer is No (…this is not a plot spoiler…), and so we are introduced to each character’s narrative and personal trauma through a workshop of role playing, team building activities, and gibberish dialogue that at times made me ask, if this is what unrehearsed life looks like, are we really this boring? Albeit an Obie award winning play, this Off-Broadway extract feels dreary, glacial, and flat out tedious.
Barksdale’s production is a humble attempt to achieve the repute Baker’s source material received less than a year ago. Steve Perigard’s direction, tending toward ruminative silent moments during class and prolonged class recesses, is a notable undertaking to grapple with Baker’s new age minimalism. The result, however, assembles emotionally halfhearted performances from an ensemble that seems to forget that individual transformation is Baker’s ultimate – and obvious – goal in this piece.
Yet, one scene almost drew me to an emotional catharsis. Marty and her estranged husband James (played by Daniel Moore) role-play Lauren’s dysfunctional parents with moderate dramatic depth. But to no avail, the cast’s sustained proclivity to default on autopilot looses the discourse’s sturdy exploration into creative self-help.
Erin Thomas-Foley, who plays Theresa, has the murmurings of an awkwardly, funny distraught young woman struggling with a broken-up relationship, but in this particular performance her static expressions from her fling with classmate Schultz (portrayed by Ford Flannagan, inconsistently rendered) to her confession of boyfriend abuse remain unmoving. Also, during multiple scenes, the blocking kept her facing upstage, and so I who was sitting downstage missed a moment of comic relief when she partakes in an object embodiment activity.
Back on the Willow Lawn stage is the winsome Maggie Horan lately seen in Barksdale’s production Legacy of Light. Her character this round is monotone, goth-like high school student Lauren, who has registered for this acting series to prepare her for an audition of Maria in her high school’s production of West Side Story. Although her character’s apathetic personality doesn’t exactly leverage her charming precocity, Horan skillfully squeezes some of her appealing, hopeful temperament at the show’s end. Ms. Horan has that rare ability to add humor to humorless lines, and she is a delight to see on the Richmond stage.
Another VCU standout is set designer Chris Raintree. His expert design transforms the Willow Lawn stage into an actor’s workshop – it brings a meditative, aerobic feel throughout and permits the cast to make good use of the stage in their impromptu exercises. Matthew Landwehr’s subdued lighting adeptly draws this therapy/acting session to a close in the final scene highlighting the cast’s hope for a more stable, promising future.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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