For many artistic media, preparation for the act is the act itself. A dancer's warmup is a kind of dance; a painter's sketches can be seen as distinct works. An actor's rites are less simulative. What actors do in acting class or during warmups before a performance have little to do with acting. They certainly have nothing to do with the coherent delivery to an audience of a play. Acting teachers say they do, of course, but an outsider, or even an impatient insider, will eventually cry, as does the character Lauren in the new production of Circle Mirror Transformation at North Carolina Stage Company, “Are we ever going to do any real acting?”
Actors stomp across the room making silly sounds or doing a characteristic walk; they lie on the floor randomly counting to 10, hoping that two people don’t say the same number at the same time; they carry on conversations with nonsense words. Yes, sometimes there are flares of recognition, moments of insight, but no more than could be achieved during a conversation with friends in a café. You do get “warmed up,” but a set of calisthenics carry far less pomposity and take less time. The insights born of these exercises are often trivialities made glamorous by the shared moment, and almost always have more to do with the actor than with the art of theater, a time consuming self-indulgence that appeals to certain kinds of people for reasons easy to guess.
So, this is the moment of Circle Mirror Transformation. Five rural Vermonters meet with a teacher in Montpelier once a week for six weeks to do theater games and talk about their feelings, indirectly, and with maddening hesitancy and inexpressiveness. They do not learn how to act; neither do they learn how to make plain what is in their hearts. Their stammering inexpressiveness is, I suppose, meant to evoke reality, where we are all stammering and inexpressive, but the stage is not the world, and some concession must be made to the brevity of human life. That a six-week acting class may seem like an eternity doesn't mean that a play about it must seem the same.
There is enough material in this script for a pretty fair one act.
A play about preparing for a play must have seemed a good idea when playwright Annie Baker sat down at the keyboard — it seems like a good idea now, when I look at the words — but something didn’t gel. Nothing comes of all this preparation — no extraordinary insight and not, at any point, surprise or delight. Such insight as there is barely rises above the level of gossip: who did what and to whom once upon a time, before our emotions withered. Montpelier comes off as a kind of convalescent ward for those who have retreated from the center of life. The acting class comes off as a refuge for those who must be tricked into engagement, and then only briefly, with their own situation. I left the theater grateful to skilled actors for making a limp script stand as long and as firmly as it did.
Whether it is the Immediate Theatre Project or a NC Stage production, acting at 15 Stage Lane is always impeccable. So it is with Circle Mirror Transformation. Michael MacCauley may be too intelligent and complex a performer to avoid being a little unsettling in the role of a simple carpenter, Schultz. (Schultz does make arty chairs, so perhaps that accounts for it.) We are told — if not exactly shown — he is an artist in the play and MacCauley delivers the tension and longing of the isolated workman without much support from the script. The back of his head is as expressive as some actors’ faces.
Kay Galvin is Marty, the teacher who spends her energy avoiding the actual craft she’s paid to teach. Why? What did Theater do to her that she avoids head-on contact with it? That's a play.
Anyway, her patient schoolmarm wears thin (not Galvin’s fault), and we are grateful for the moment, late in the action, when she is allowed real and momentarily electrifying emotion. Lauren Kriel plays the sullen 16-year-old, Lauren, the one in the group whom you imagine to have a future. Lauren is beautifully underplayed, which is pretty much the option given by the lines. Virginia Logan’s Theresa, the object of male desire in the play, is brittle and damaged after an unsuccessful try at New York Theater and the cataclysmic end of a romance. Virginia Logan is attractive but Theresa is not. Why do the men love her? Is it simple proximity? It’s clear she doesn’t love them, or anything but a private hurt which she guards without expressing.
Theresa and Schultz have a moment at the opening of Act II when their bickering and hurt feelings are real, heartfelt and important. One thinks, “Aha! This is where the real play begins.” But, alas, no. Back to the games a heartbeat later. Marty manages to destroy her marriage with a game she herself has initiated, and one would think there’s drama there, but it’s dropped, a mere plot point, a mere shuffle of a half-drawn character trudging toward an end. Circle Mirror Transformation turns out to be that nightmare when there is all theater games and no theater, or just enough theater, an insight there, a solid laugh here, to make you miss the real thing.
Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, directed by Willie Repolay, is a co-production of Immediate Theatre Project and North Carolina Stage Company. NC Stage is located at 15 Stage Lane, across from Zambra. Http:///ncstage.org or 239-0263.