It is possible that some of you are not actors by profession but may, however, have taken an acting class. In any event, it is also possible that you have heard about some of the basic and elementary exercises and games that are often played by beginning students and serve as a way to open up the imagination, loosen up the body, trigger emotional responses, and learn to relate to strangers with whom you will be closely aligned for as long as the classes continue. These activities are most often prescribed by the teacher for newcomers to the profession and require the student to be patient, receptive and demonstrate a willingness to look awkward, even attempt to assume the life of an inanimate object, like a broom or a teapot. All this and more is given a humorously dramatic form/forum in Annie Baker’s play “Circle Mirror Transformation.”
In this recent Off-Broadway hit, now at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, four people, some needy, some nervous, and some looking for something, don’t know exactly what to expect in a six-week series of classes in a Vermont community center. Set designer R. Michael Miller has created a large almost empty room with some folding chairs on a rack, a mirror, and a piano that might also be used for dance classes. It doesn’t take too much time for us to discover that each of the four students has his or her reasons and need for attending. Is it a need for self discovery, therapy, or just something to do?
In the play, we see how the classes become a catalyst for each student, including the teacher, to rethink who they are and where each may be headed. Sounds like a plan.
Under the stringently prescribed guidance of director Anders Cato, Sandy Duncan stars as Marty, the acting teacher who discharges the rules and techniques. She is, as expected, unwittingly drawn into the field of role-playing and make-believe thereby wherein her own personal marital problems come to the surface.
Duncan, who is making a welcome return to the George Street Playhouse after she became ill while rehearsing a play last season and had to be replaced, is now in a vehicle that isn’t exactly a stretch for this veteran multi-talented performer. While Marty, as it turns out, is the least interesting character in the play, Duncan reveals her as a patient, empathetic instructor, neither condescending nor intimidating.
A fine company of actors support Duncan and can be considered real contenders for the acting profession (just kidding). Consider the rural New Englanders attracted by the title of the course “Adult Creative Drama.” It’s a clever gimmick for a play in which the characters slowly and methodically become psychologically and physically responsive to the lesson plan. For a reason left unexplained, Marty’s husband James (Nick Wyman) takes part in the classes and becomes a potential provocateur within the supposedly therapeutic/artistic ambiance. Sixteen year-old Lauren (Sandie Rosa) is pathetically shy, insecure and short on funds to pay for the course. It’s fun to see her persevere and build up enough confidence to audition for the high school musical.
Theresa (Amanda Sykes) is a born up-stager who finds the perfect audience for her needy personality. Schultz (Tom Riis Farrell), a carpenter recovering from a failed marriage, is looking for love or something like it. The play is experienced through a series of short cleverly devised black-out scenes that comprise a rather rigidly structured play. Resolutely pretentious, it finds its unique voice in the students as they begin to relate to each other both within the games and between the games. Of course, you can expect a little hanky-panky along the way.
One of the more challenging games assigned requires the student to stand up and pretend to be one of the other students. Marty’s approach to teaching acting is astonishingly free of any reference to performing famous scenes or to any of the world’s great and even not-so-great dramatic literature. As Lauren asks, “Are we going to do any real acting?”
Most amusing is watching Schultz conjure up his childhood bedroom with James as his bed, Lauren as his baseball mitt, Marty as his pet stuffed snake and Theresa as the elm tree he can see out of his window. Marty’s theater games are geared more intentionally to stir up plenty of angst, anxiety, and even animosity.
If I found myself losing patience with the play as it seemed to move, as do the characters, in circles, there is a neat payoff that I won’t disclose. “Circle Mirror Transformation” is far from being transformative dramatic literature, but it does succeed in transforming the lives that Baker has invented just enough for you to have a relatively enjoyable time.
“Circle Mirror Transformation,” through Sunday, October 31, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. For tickets ($25-$62) call 732-246-7717. www.gsponline.org.