A Review

Playing Games

By R. J. Donovan

Directed by Melia Bensussen, "Circle Mirror Transformation" is one third of the Shirley, Vermont, Festival of Annie Baker plays being presented simultaneously by three theaters in town --The Huntington, SpeakEasy Stage and Company One. (All performances are taking place at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.)  Each play is set in the sleepy and fictional town of Shirley, Vermont. None of the stories overlap, nor do the characters. The link is merely the town.

What Baker has created in the five-person "Circle Mirror" is a series of snapshots of an "Adult Creative Drama" summer workshop spread out over six weeks' time.  Each brief glimpse of the class is separated by a blackout.

Marty, the new-age leader of the pack engages the group in a number of creative exercises during which they become inanimate objects, feign greeting each other over and over again, and role play, often becoming someone else in the class. 

While the acting exercises may click with those in the audience who have actually participated in such adventures at one time or another (i.e., theater folk), to the rest of the crowd, it may all come off as one long disconnect.  The goal of the fragmented exercises is never detailed, so it takes a while for the audience to put the pieces together and understand what's happening. (And yes, there are notes in the playbill about a variety of acting games, but the audience shouldn't be obligated to bone up with a study guide pre-show.)

Attending the class are: Lauren a high school girl who's bored with everything and everyone; Schultz, a lonely middle-aged guy who's coming off a painful divorce and looking to meet someone new; Theresa an actress who's supposed to be honing her skills; and James, Marty's husband.

Schultz (Jeremiah Kissel) shows an interest in Theresa (Nadia Bowers), who shines back, for a moment, before turning her gaze elsewhere.  Marty (Betsy Aidem) and James (Michael Hammond) are apparently having their own problems, and the class doesn't help.  Meanwhile, Lauren (Marie Polizzano) mopes through these seemingly mindless experiences before finally asking, with that withering tone only a high schooler can come up with, "Are we going to be doing any real acting?"

The most interesting and engaging exercises involve Marty and James assuming the characters of Lauren's parents. They wind up revealing more about themselves than they may have intended.  As well, a round robin of secrets revealed is heartbreaking.

This is a piece that sometimes says as much in its silence as it does in its dialogue, however, the dramatic pauses can go on far too long.  And the time shifts from week to week are interminable. 

So do the characters change over the course of the six weeks? Yes. The most marked transformation comes from Lauren, and Marie Polizzano (at left) does an exceptional job unveiling the girl inside the shell.

The most satisfying moment of the night is the final blackout.  This exercise finds Schultz and Lauren improvising a chance meeting ten years in the future. 

What starts off with an edge slowly becomes more comfortable as the stage lights gradually dim.  Suddenly, we have jumped a decade into the future, and the conversation that began as just an exercise is now reality.  Again, Polizzano shines as the nerdy girl who's matured into a lovely young woman.

It's possibly the most engaging exchange of the evening. But how unfortunate that it comes in the final five minutes of a production that runs almost two hours without an intermission.

"Circle Mirror Transformation" is at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center For The Arts through November 14. For information, call 617-266-0800.

Production photos: T. Charles Erickson

-- OnStage Boston




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