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“Circle Mirror Transformation” at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley CA

“Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker Presented by Marin Theatre Company
A Bay Area premiere, co-produced with Encore Theatre Company of San Francisco

From Left: Marissa Keltie, Robert Parsons, L Peter Callender, Arwen Anderson, Julia Brothers

Intelligent, Magical “Mirror” Reflects the Familiar in Unique Ways

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

To launch its 46th season, Marin Theatre Company presents “Circle Mirror Transformation”, an accidental journey to self-discovery. It’s an engagingly honest, tenderhearted story in which we can see ourselves clearly reflected in each of the five characters, much like the “Mirror” of the title. Celebrating our all-too-common moments of frustration, social ineptness, awkward pauses and regrets, it embraces a subtle comedy, the kind that arises from real-life human interaction.

The setting is a small college town in Vermont. In a dingy basement dance studio, five people are participating in a “Creative Drama” workshop, a series of six weekly sessions intended for beginning actors. Together they discover the theatre games and exercises that help them to capture and use their innermost creativity and awareness. The very nature of these exercises forces them to get to know themselves, and each other, in sometimes painful, sometimes funny and sometimes lovely ways.

The story unfolds in a series of short vignettes separated by blackouts, and combined with the extended pauses in dialogue that happen in everyday conversation, it allows us freedom of imagination to wonder about the moments being lived onstage and what might happen next. The style is starkly naturalistic, with a spare set and elemental lighting. The costumes could be the actors’ own very casual clothing.

Acclaimed young playwright Annie Baker won an OBIE Award for Best New American Play for her “Circle Mirror Transformation” after its premier Off-Broadway in 2009, also receiving a Drama Desk nomination for Best Play. Her work, which includes her two other plays “Body Awareness” and “The Aliens”, has been produced with great success here in the Bay Area, around the U.S. and worldwide. In an interview before the premiere of “Circle” in September 2009, she described her original style of writing, where less is so much more: she writes a rough draft of her story, and then records herself speaking each of the characters’ parts. Admitting “I’m a pretty bad actor”, she said “It’s so important to me that I capture the cadences of painful, ordinary speech and it’s hard to tell if it’s believable on the page.”

Stripped of artifice, such natural dialogue requires especially skilled actors able to translate the sometimes inarticulate words and pauses for the audience. It’s almost like musicians playing a jazz musical score, relying on the improvisational instincts and connectedness of the performers. Julia Brothers brings emotional dynamism to her role as Marty, the magnetic but vulnerable workshop instructor who ultimately learns more than she teaches. Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, Marissa Keltie as the introverted sixteen-year old Lauren keeps her character petulant and subdued, gradually revealing life-changing secrets. The renaissance-man James, Marty’s charmingly intense husband, is played with subtle power by L Peter Callender. In perhaps the most moving performance of the show, Callendar’s character recognizes the painful truth in his own life during a role-playing exercise that will have unintended consequences later on. The role of Theresa, on the run from an abusive relationship, is gracefully played by Arwen Anderson, displaying a fine sense of timing and nuance when interacting with the other characters. Robert Parsons as the dejected Shultz, freshly wounded by a divorce, delivers a performance that will resonate with men everywhere. The brief, stormy romance between Shultz and Theresa forms the sweet hub of the story. All five characters in turn grow and transform, sharing the experience with the audience right through to the surprising ending.

L Peter Callender, Robert Parsons, Julia Brothers

New York director Kip Fagan has an impressive background developing new plays, teaching and directing at the Julliard School, NYU and countless regional workshops and theatres all over the country. In “Circle”, his first play at MTC, he shows unmistakable skill at drawing out the very best improvisational talents of his cast. His vision brings truth and relevance to the stage, perfectly realized in his deceptively simple, almost invisible staging. The success of “Circle” relies in part on his faith in Baker’s unique storytelling style with regards to her special use of blackouts, dialogue and blocking of characters. Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce and Lighting Designer Gabe Maxson recreate the drab, utilitarian workshop with uncanny accuracy. Musical compositions and Sound Design by Cliff Caruthers provides understated, atmospheric support to the performers.

Almost reflexively, we react to the experiences of the actors onstage with a suddenly increased awareness of ourselves and others. It’s a truly refreshing and liberating effect from such a simple concept, like breathing in pure oxygen. The magic onstage comes not from seeing fancy stagecraft, but from recognizing and sharing our human connection. This is priceless, and it makes “Circle” irresistible.

Photos by Kevin Berne

When: now through September 2, 2012

8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays

2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays

2 p.m. Saturdays August 11 and August 25

1 p.m. Thursday August 16

Tickets: $36 to $57

Location: Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941

Phone: 415-388-5208