'Circle Mirror Transformation' Is Waiting for Guff, Man

The five characters in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation are anything but dramatic. The set-up of her 2009 play isn't very dramatic, either: a six-week acting class taught in the rec room of a community center in a small Vermont town. But the way Baker manages to mine gold from these apparently prosaic characters and situation is simply astonishing.

The 100-minute play, which blends plenty of crackling comedy with some undeniably powerful moments, takes its name from one of the quirky lessons taught by Marty (Linda Gehringer), a New Age-y acting instructor who guides her four students through a series of off-the-wall games and movement exercises to tap into their creative powers. The exercises would be absurd if they weren't exactly the type so often taught in beginning-acting classes: conducting a conversation with only two words repeated over and over (in this sense, goulash and something that sounds like “acmac”); using human bodies to replicate a 50-year-old man's childhood bedroom; actors standing in a circle and mirroring, and then transforming, one another's movements (the exercise from which the title comes). And—most powerfully and for all the wrong reasons—five people writing down a secret they've never shared with anyone else, anonymous secrets that are distributed among the class, then read aloud to disastrous results.

Joining Marty in the class are James (Brian Kerwin), a middle-aged former hippie who is taking the class primarily because Marty is his wife; Theresa (Marin Hinkle), a former actress from New York who has fled the city for the serenity of small-town life; Schultz (Arye Gross), a recently divorced carpenter desperately looking for connection; and Lauren (Lily Holleman), an introverted 16-year-old who dreams of playing the lead in West Side Story. This could easily be a spoof or a send-up of an amateur-acting class, but there is no Waiting for Guffman or Hamlet 2 at work. Though the exercises seem silly or tasky at times, and not one word from an actual play is read in the entire six weeks, all five characters eventually learn that the process of exercising one's creative energies through acting often means exorcising, or at least confronting, one's emotional baggage.

The beauty of Baker's play is that even though it's about theater as much as any play could be, it becomes spell-blindingly theatrical and grippingly dramatic through her use of one of the most underutilized weapons in a playwright's arsenal: the relationships between characters. All drama is, on some level, about relationships, but most playwrights portray those relationships through loaded dialogue. They tell and don't show. Baker shows, warts and all, and the result is ingeniously effective.

It doesn't hurt that this production features an excellent cast. Baker doesn't give us a whole lot of details about these people's lives. If there is any information dump, it comes when the students are asked to portray their classmates, creating an off-the-cuff portrayal based on things they've learned about one another in the class. But even though we're not given exhausting biographical detail on anyone, every character seems thoroughly fleshed out. And as the play proceeds, with secrets revealed and emotions laid bare, they become intimately familiar. Most notable is Gehringer, a frequent face on SCR's stages over the years. Infectiously idiosyncratic, her Marty is utterly in love with the idea of acting and is convinced these wildly eccentric exercises do matter, even though her class is constantly bewildered.

If there is a flaw to the production (directed by Sam Gold, who directed the 2010 Obie Award-winning production in New York), it's the glut of pregnant pauses. While effective at times, they tend to stall the play's momentum. Like any great play, what's really going on in Circle Mirror Transformation is beneath the surface. A fitting example is when Marty and James pair off to re-enact a scene from the teenaged Laura's life. Marty plays Laura's mother, James her father. They stumble around a bit at first, but as the exercise continues, things grow progressively more heated, and by the end of it, we realize that what is truly being dissected here has nothing to do with Laura's life: It's about Marty and James.

Moments like that permeate the work, magically transforming this play about simple, ordinary people into a wonderful piece of theater. As Baker writes in her author notes, she set out to explore how theater can actually happen to a group of people, not just through improvisation and movement exercises, but in the simple—and infinitely complex—dynamic of interpersonal relationships, from sneakers skidding across a floor to the awkward silences of a bathroom break. She does so admirably in Circle Mirror Transformation, proving, once again, that there are no boring or mundane subjects, merely boring and mundane writers. Fortunately, Baker is not one of them.


This review appeared in print as “Waiting for Guff, Man: Mining the richness of the relationships of characters in Circle Mirror Transformation.”

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