“Circle Mirror Transformation” ran at Playwrights Horizons, opening on October 13, 2009 and closing after several extensions on January 31, 2010. It was a remarkable debut for playwright Annie Baker, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her subsequent play, The Flick. Indeed, so many members of the cast, the creative team and the design team have gone on to greater glory that I am moved to resurrect the review I wrote at the time, published opening night in a now-defunct online newspaper:
Almost halfway through “Circle Mirror Transformation,” the terrifically acted and improbably entertaining new play by Annie Baker about a summer acting class, the glum-looking 16-year-old student named Lauren nervously approaches the free-spirited teacher Marty, all head-band and bangles, with a question: “Are we going to do any real acting?”
It is a hilarious question to an audience that has just spent nearly an hour watching five people in a dance studio walking around each other in circles; lying on the floor, closing their eyes and counting slowly — very slowly — to ten; posing as a bed and a tree and a baseball glove. Later, we will see two of them face one another and have a conversation that begins:
and continues the same way. These are theater exercises, de rigueur for actors (circle mirror transformation is the name of one of these games), and if you are unfamiliar with them, hunt up “A Chorus Line” and play the song “Nothing”, about one dancer’s inability to “get” what they are about.*
The exercises are what seem to be going on in this play about a six-week summer acting class at a community center in the small town of Shirley, Vermont, and it is slow-going at first. But what is really happening is that we are learning about the five characters as they learn about one another.
The teacher Marty (Deirdre O’Connell) and her husband James (Peter Friedman), who is a student in the class, met at a hippie wedding years ago, he has a grown daughter from a previous marriage who doesn’t speak to him (but speaks to her stepmother); they live in a colorful house with a three-legged cat named Coltrane; their marriage seems about to fall apart.
The marriage of Schultz (Reed Birney) has already fallen apart, although he still wears his wedding ring. He is a furniture-maker, he had to give up gardening when he moved from the beautiful house he shared with his wife to a corporate-feeling condo. He is drawn to Theresa (Heidi Schreck,) a professional actress and recent transplant from New York, recovering from a break-up with a boyfriend and training to become a massage therapist specializing in acupressure and rolfing.
Then there is Lauren (Tracee Chimo), who is not sure whether she wants to be an actress or a vet. All this and more is revealed during the breaks between the exercises, and in the exercises themselves, a clever frame and, as it turns out, an effective one for showing the characters’ shifting relationships and emotions.
If the play could have been shorter — it is an hour and 50 minutes without an intermission — its unorthodox structure works. “Circle Mirror Transformation” is not just a series of exercises; it’s a story. Above all, “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a showcase for five wonderful actors, whose simplest of gestures and facial expressions — the way Reed Birney as Schultz sips from his bottled water while talking to Theresa (Heidi Schreck); the way that Tracee Chimo as Lauren watches while two of the adults kiss — bring us into entire worlds.
The actors make this play funny and moving in a way that I don’t think could be possible in any other medium besides live theater. So, yes, Lauren, you will be doing some real acting.
Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker At the Peter Sharp Theater of Playwrights Horizons 416 West 42nd Street Directed by Sam Gold Scenic and Costume Design David Zinn Lighting Design Mark Barton Sound Design Leah Gelpe Production Stage Manager Alaina Taylor Cast: Deirdre O’Connell as Marty, Peter Friedman as James, Reed Birney as Schultz, Heidi Schreck as Theresa, Tracee Chimo as Lauren Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes without an intermission. Ticket prices: $50
*Excerpt of lyrics Nothing:
“Okay… we’re going to do improvisations. Now, you’re on a bobsled. It’s snowing out. And it’s cold…Okay…GO!” Ev’ry day for a week we would try to Feel the motion, feel the motion Down the hill. Ev’ry day for a week we would try to Hear the wind rush, hear the wind rush, Feel the chill. And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul To see what I had inside. Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul And I tried, I tried. And everybody’s goin’ “Whooooosh, whooooosh … I feel the snow… I feel the cold… I feel the air.” And Mr. Karp turns to me and he says, “Okay, Morales. What did you feel?” And I said…”Nothing, I’m feeling nothing,” And he says “Nothing Could get a girl transferred.” They all felt something, But I felt nothing Except the feeling That this bullshit was absurd!