Review: Circle Mirror Transformation at NC Stage

Photo by Melissa Hunsucker. Pictured left to right are Lauren Kriel (Lauren), Martin Rader (James), Michael MacCauley (Schultz) and Kay Galvin (Marty).

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:/// or 239-0263.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Circle Mirror Transformation at NC Stage

  1. Beth

    Wow! Wonder what play I saw. I enjoyed every minute of Circle Mirror Transformation and will likely go to see it a second time.

  2. Dramaturg

    Dr. Hopes’s view of the play is interesting, given that “Circle, Mirror, Transformation” won the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play, was voted one of the top ten plays of 2009 by The New York Times, Time Out New York, and The New Yorker, and was named one of the best plays of 2009-2010 in the latest edition of The Best Plays Theater Yearbook. Potential theatre-goers may have to see it and decide for themselves.

  3. Charles LaBorde

    Your reviewer really got this one wrong. Below is my take on the show, which was my first visit ever to North Carolina Stage Company. It certainly won’t be my last.

    “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a small gem of a play. It depicts six weeks of a community center acting class offered for personal growth/enrichment. You know, the sort of thing where you learn some field you’ve always wanted to try your hand at–photography, water aerobics, painting, horticulture, or theatre. This is fertile ground for hilarious comedy, as the cult film, “Waiting for Guffman” showed ever so clearly.

    But wait a minute. These people aren’t buffoons held up for our laughter. They aren’t delusional rubes who think their efforts are ready for prime time or even Broadway. They are going into this with eyes wide open. They each have their own reasons, which we (and they) learn over the course of the evening. My gosh, they actually remind us of people we know. They might even look a lot like each of us.

    This recent off-Broadway hit is a gentle, loving exploration of the five people who take or teach such “enrichment” classes. By the end of the evening they are enriched, but–miracle of miracles–so are we. But all this works only if the director and actors use a light hand, treating these people with the affection and subtlety they deserve. Playing these people for laughs will work for a scene or two, but will then break down into repetitive, boring familiarity.

    This is never the case in NC Stage of Asheville’s current envisioning of the script under the very able hand of Willie Repoley in his mainstage directing debut with that company. The thoroughly professional cast scores in every way possible. We almost instantly like these people. Surprisingly, we almost as quickly begin to see their flaws, their humanness as well. At first, watching these people do their crazy acting exercises is mildly engaging. (“Is that what actors really do in beginning classes?” Well, actually, yes.) Then the playwright’s vision begins to dawn on the audience. The play isn’t about the acting class but about the people who take the class. Their lives are enriched by the synergy of the other four people. (The whole premise seems to be a turning of Sartre’s “No Exit” on its head. Heaven is other people.) They grow, they love, they come together, they drift apart. Ultimately they move on with their lives and we (and the characters) can only imagine what happens to them down the years.

    What a treat spending six weeks with these people is. Do yourself a favor. Sign up for Circle Mirror Transformation. You just might learn something. About yourself. About your spouse. About your neighbors. Tuition is waived for this class. All you have to do is buy a ticket.

    Charles LaBorde, Charlotte area actor/director

  4. anon_theatrefan

    I saw Circle Mirror Transformation in its first week, and I agree with a few of of the reviewer’s points (Michael MacCauley is miscast, the play’s deliberate pace can be a bit slow and meandering – at least on the night I saw it).

    However, I utterly disagree with his analysis of the play, and it makes me wonder what he was watching.

    Yes, the setting is an amateur drama class (no one is preparing for a play – it’s a strange fact to get wrong in a review), and yes the characters do play theater games, but Circle Mirror Transformation is about an acting class the way The Glass Menagerie is about a dinner party.

    I agree with the commenter above that “The play isn’t about the acting class but about the people who take the class. Their lives are enriched by the synergy of the other four people.” I would go on to say, however, that some lives are enriched, some lives are broken and only eventually made whole, and some are simply crystallized in a moment in time. Life is made up of small moments and surprising connections, and that is what Circle Mirror Transformation excels in showing.

    I am glad the reviewer acknowledges the excellence of the acting, albeit in an offhand way. I frequently feel like reviewers take it for granted that NC Stage will have good acting (and they are usually correct). It’s a double-edged sword, thought, because the standard is generally so high at NC Stage that they seem to suffer from raised expectations.

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