If it’s true that all the world’s a stage, then Circle Mirror Transformation at the Seattle Repertory Theatre (October 21-November 20) demonstrates that life is usually just drama, drama, drama! Written by up-and-coming playwright Annie Baker, Circle Mirror won the prestigious 2010 OBIE Award for best new American play (the OBIEs recognize the best in Off-Broadway theatre). Its current incarnation at The Rep captures the humor that made it a New York hit.
Circle Mirror follows five (mostly) strangers as they attend a six-week adult creative drama class at the local community center. The group participates in wacky acting exercises that have them rolling across the floor, speaking in gibberish, and posing as oak trees, baseball gloves, and beds. The title, Circle Mirror Transformation, refers to a theatre exercise in which participants pretend to be one another and recite “their” life stories. The absurdity of these activities is what keeps the audience laughing and compels one character to eventually ask whether they are ever going to do any “real acting.”
Marty, short for Martha, is the 55-year-old class instructor with no defined acting career, who leads this band of outsiders. Her husband, James, is also a student in an obvious and endearing effort to support his wife. Lauren, the youngest, is an emotionally hurting 16-year-old high school junior. Schultz, pushing 50, is a socially awkward, recently-divorced carpenter who forms an unlikely bond with Theresa, a 35-year-old (seemingly failed) former actress, who recently moved from New York to the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont, in hopes of starting a new life.
Shirley, Vermont, it turns out, is Baker’s go-to fictional setting. Circle Mirror is her fourth play set in Shirley, which she describes as a combination of her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and small Vermont towns that fascinate her.
Baker has commented that she likes the small-town state “of remoteness . . . the self-congratulation . . . the embracing of diversity and the fear of diversity and the beauty and good intentions.”
Set in The Rep’s more intimate Leo K. Theatre, the small-town feel is all the more enhanced. At times you feel so much a part of the classroom setting that you almost stifle your laughter for fear of hurting the feelings of the all-too earnest students — even when they’re comically running around in a circle chanting “ooga chaka.”
The theatre exercises initially seem superficial. Most of them are. Circle Mirror runs a bit over two hours (without an intermission) and it lags a bit during the first half. The absurdity is funny, but a minimal amount is revealed about the characters. You begin to wonder when you’ll get to scratch beneath the silly surface.
Lauren in particular, played by newcomer Anastasia Higham — an uncanny Anne Hathaway doppelgänger, spends most of the first half in the shadows of the action. It is only towards the second half of the play that both the characters and audience begin to dig for something more.
Soon enough though, authentic relationships begin forming courtesy of the contrived class exercises. Theresa and Schultz use each other, in both productive and unproductive ways, to break away from past relationships. Elizabeth Raetz plays Theresa with convincing neurotic quirkiness. She is the adult version of the overdramatic, wannabe high school drama star. As an adult, however, she conveys a palpable desire to mature into something more. Maybe there is hope for high school drama queens after all.
Schultz, played by Michael Patten, is deliciously odd. Unfortunately, the audience doesn't see his character evolve as much during the action of the play, but we do learn of growth through an expository, in-the-future discussion at the play’s conclusion. What Patten contributes most are awkward silences. These work to both hilarious effect and pensive reflection.
“When it feels like nothing is taboo anymore — we can have sex and violence on stage and no one blinks an eye — I think the one thing left that really makes people uncomfortable is empty space and quiet,” Baker has explained of her trademark tendency to include silences and pauses.
Peter A. Jacobs is the seemingly perfect, patient husband to Gretchen Krich’s spot-on portrayal of Marty, the hippy dippy class instructor. She clearly fancies herself both a teacher and spiritual advisor. Frequently dressed in flowing tunics and chunky jewelry, she flits about class directing everyone with a self-assured and slightly condescending maternal quality. She fancies herself able to free people’s “potential,” but eventually finds herself in over her head.
Towards the final act, a series of unexpected narrative shifts rapidly begin to unfold. Marty leads everyone in writing down their deepest, darkest secrets, which are exchanged and read out loud under the guise of anonymity. Without revealing the characters’ or play’s secrets, suffice it to say this leads to unintended consequences.
Circle Mirror Transformation has a youthful energy which may be attributed to the playwright’s own, relatively young age. At the end, Lauren asks Schultz how many times he has experienced life starting new, as if what happened before was a dream. For all the changes and transitions that occur, the conclusion looks forward more than backward.
If all the world is a stage, hopefully Circle Mirror is right that we all are constantly in the process of starting a new act - with a few laughs along the way.