‘Circle Mirror’ Shows Promise for Direction of Studio Theatre



-David Muse makes his official debut as the new artistic director of the Studio Theater (he succeeds founder and long-time A-D Joy Zinoman) by directing “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

This is not a debut accompanied by trumpets blaring, and neither is Annie Baker’s muted but ingratiating play about a group of people who are part of an acting class in a small community in Vermont. But the play and the production send out several promising signals about the future,
each in their own way.

“Circle Mirror Transformation” signals a new voice, for one thing, in playwright Annie Baker, who’s made it a point to transform the often inarticulate way we speak and communicate today into a kind of music and poetry — a revelatory method that leads, like acting, to a kind of truth.

It’s an understated play with a little bit of this and a little of bit that. It has soap opera elements, theater stuff, acting stuff, and it’s both contemporary and naturalistic in its look and sound and old-fashioned in its dramatic elements. Baker seems to suggest that acting arrives at difficult truths by way of artful, hard-learned artifice, much in the same way that literature arrives at the same destination by way of fiction.

While the production often seems loosey-goosey and unformed, Muse’s direction and Baker’s writing keep things directionally focused: “We and the folks at the acting class are going somewhere here, and the road and destination seem uncomfortably familiar.”

In the program, Baker says that “the way human beings speak is so heartbreaking to me—we never sound the way we want to sound. Speaking is a kind of misery.”

You can see that observation in action in “Circle Mirror Transformation.” This is especially true for the three students: Schultz, a yearning, confused, recently divorced man full of inarticulate, shiny wounds; Theresa, the bright-eyed, sexy former actress and especially Lauren, the quiet, painfully shy teenager who wears her hoodie like a turtle wears its shell.

The school is run by the insistent, work-it, risk-taking Marty and her husband James, who’s middle-aged, phlegmatic, and a walking disappointment.

We see all of them right at the beginning, lying in a circle at the studio, which is lightly cluttered with a mirror. They’re doing an exercise, an acting exercise, in which they try to count to ten one at a time without anyone counting at the same time, interrupting, or jumping in. In other words, it’s a clean, nearly-impossible exercise in team-work and empathy.

Throughout the play, which is preformed without interruption for nearly two hours, you get exercises which resemble a kind of group therapy, as opposed to anything to do with the theater. The group takes turns “being” each other, hence the initially startling appearance of Jim talking about “my husband.” They try telling stories along a string that is taking a story word by word from one place to another. Interspersed are moments of reality, where the characters interact and relate, and those interactions reverberate in the exercises and vice versa.

That’s especially true of Theresa, played with almost anything-goes, playful energy by Kathleen McElfresh. She’s bounding, bouncy, mobile, and uses every part of herself — the flouncy hair, the long legs, arms, fingers, body — to become a kind of focus point, a magnet for the two men and wary distance for the other two females.

Things happen that probably shouldn’t, but the process itself is what counts. There’s a five-point build-up to the play as we do what they do: at first we keep following Theresa around, then Schultz’s plaintiff voice makes itself heard, and then we note the tensions and old hurts that are part of James and Marty’s marriage. We barely register Lauren’s goth-ish, quiet ten and her voice, barely audible at first. She’s closed in.

But it’s with the final two exercises — a risky write a secret on a piece of paper, then pick out of a hat and read it, and an imagination of what happens after – that we realize that it’s Lauren who’s been paying attention the most, not the least of which was an earlier comment asking, “when do we start acting?”

If MacKenzie Meehan, who plays Lauren with thorough, skinny-teen authenticity and stops-and-starts, is a stellar surprise, Jennifer Mendenhall as Marty is the play’s elastic but tough glue — it’s center and heart and soul. She holds everyone together, even when she comes close to falling apart. We’ve known and seen Mendenhall a long time, especially at the Studio and the Woolly Mammoth, and we’re always struck by her particular brand of guileless, sexy and open-faced naturalness. She doesn’t hide much and can therefore wound you at the oddest moments.

For Muse, it’s a solid start — a bid for a long relationship with the audience worth building. (“Circle Mirror Transformation” runs at the Studio Theater through October 17.)

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