Actors Transform and Transfix in 'Circle Mirror'

Anyone who has ever been in an acting workshop can attest that what happens in these classes—improvisational exercises where actors, for example, produce bizarre noises and tell stories one word at a time—bears few similarities to a final product onstage. Yet, these silly exercises and games often contribute invaluably to an actor’s performance.

Annie Baker’s Obie Award-winning “Circle Mirror Transformation” takes this idea one step further. The play—which runs through November 14 in a Huntington Theatre Company production at the Calderwood Pavilion's Wimberly Theatre—suggests that these games tap into the spirit not just of performances, but also of the people behind them. A compelling conceit to engage in profound character exploration, this concept becomes theatrically lethal as the play goes on. The Huntington production suffers from this slow pacing, but otherwise proves to be a sturdy version of an ultimately absorbing show.

Presented as part of the Shirley, Vt. Plays Festival in conjunction with the SpeakEasy Stage Company (“Body Awareness”) and Company One (“The Aliens”), “Circle Mirror Transformation” follows six weeks of a community-center acting class run by enthusiastic instructor Marty (Betsy Aidem). As the weeks go by, Marty and her four students connect with each other—as well as learn about themselves.

The theater games they play prove to be a window into these relationships, sometimes blurring the line between acting and reality. At the start of each class, a character delivers a monologue about one of the others, often providing as much insight into the speaker as the subject. Marty, nurturing and motherly, comforts distressed teen Lauren (Marie Polizzano) as she discusses the girl’s troubled past. Divorcé Schultz (Jeremiah Kissel) gushes about former actress Theresa (Nadia Bowers), with whom he went on a recent date, and reveals his penchant for over-enthusiasm that only comes back to hurt him.

Yet, these exercises and games grow tiresome and repetitive. Not all of them make for gripping onstage moments—the “counting” activity repeated each week takes up too much stage time—and cause the show to drag. Director Melia Bensussen brings an understandably natural feel to this world, allowing pauses to linger—but without the tension to sustain such silences, they fall flat.

Still, such introspection framed by relationship dynamics is by and large fascinating to watch, particularly due to the generally strong performances delivered by the small cast. Baker provides an unusual temporal scenario—six weeks in the characters’ lives depicted only during class and select short breaks between games—through which these actors can slowly reveal their characters. Some do so more effectively than others.

Kissel’s performance in particular is heartbreakingly authentic, positioning Schultz as less a caricature of a hopeless sad sack than a man desperate for renewal and excitement. As Marty, Aidem sometimes does fall into caricature. However, her final moments in the play almost make up for earlier superficiality when she gains sudden depth as a woman broken by her marriage to husband James (an excellent Michael Hammond).

Polizzano’s Lauren starts as easily the most forgettable character on stage; she barely speaks, let alone interacts with the rest, and quickly sinks into the background. Yet by the play’s stunning conclusion—well worth the repeated tedium that occasionally precedes it—Polizzano is entrancing.

This ending, which leaves its nature to the opinions of the audience, proves an exercise itself in the metamorphic power of theater. Lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz beautifully shifts the dance studio set—designed with precision by Cristina Todesco—into an abstract reality, and the characters feel at last whole and real. Just as the game of the play’s title suggests, they have transformed.

—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at aleskow@fas.harvard.edu.

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