By Annie Baker.
Directed by Scott Weinstein.
Produced by Redtwist Theatre, Chicago.
A Tender Glimpse Into Broken Lives.
As their press release reads, “tiny wars of epic proportions are waged” in Redtwist Theatre’s current production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. Ms. Baker’s slice-of-life drama gives us a voyeuristic glimpse into an assorted group of students taking an introductory acting class; aside from showing that indeed not everyone is called to be an actor (or an acting teacher), the play shows how the vulnerability, trust, and connection demanded of acting preparation can blur the boundaries between performance and real life, to the end that stirred emotions may lead to actions and discoveries with defining consequences.
Six weeks, four strangers, and one instructor make up the introductory acting class now taking place in Shirley, Vermont. Theresa (Emily Tate) is a new arrival to the small town, having recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend before leaving New York City where she was an amateur actress. Schultz (Michael Sherwin) is a divorcee in the midst of what one might call a “mid-life crisis” who still wears his ring on his finger—as well as his heart on his sleeve. Lauren (Talia Payomo) is a 16-year-old high school student with a reserved and skeptical disposition who has a troubled home life and a dream to become an actress (or maybe a veterinarian, who knows).
James (Adam Bitterman) is the husband to the instructor, Marty (Lynda Shadrake); currently in his second marriage, the ex-hippie struggles with a (off-stage) estranged relationship with his daughter—who, as it happens, shares a strong relationship with Marty, a not-so-ex-hippie whose effusive, positive vibes (and wild and colorful attire) slowly work on her students to open them to interconnection.
For various reasons, these people have decided to take this class, and over the course of six weeks (depicted in short, episodic scenes) their broken lives come together to heal and grow—then to quickly fall apart as new relationships and old marriages end.
Circle Mirror Transformation is a quiet and subtle study of broken lives—not unlike a condensed time-lapse of the imperceptible migration of landmasses across the oceans. It is not the raucous dramas of the 20th century with defined and high-stakes conflicts. The stakes and conflicts here are personal and hidden, like an iceberg below an ocean surface (if I may stretch the geographical analogy just once more).
That is not to say the play is boring, but, just as the eye that conceived it was keen, so too must the sensibilities of its audience be. Despite the characters being of various ages, this is very much a contemporary, Millennial play, from its acting-class premise (whose studio is vividly realized by designer Elyse Balogh), to its more inferred characterizations, to its awkward moments and pedestrian conflicts.
And, from what I’ve seen and read, it’s the best of its kind. In defiance of its slow pacing, Redtwist’s production is curiously engrossing—and much (if not all) of that is due to Director Weinstein’s cast’s ability to pick up on Ms. Baker’s subtleties and embody them internally: indeed, I felt the characters the most in their silences, only sometimes losing them in their over-gesticulated dialogue.
Emily Tate’s Theresa is a brilliantly complex portrait of a 30-something woman whose words and actions belie her own lack of self-understanding. Michael Sherwin’s Schultz is wonderfully understated and delightfully comedic in his desperate, middle-aged bachelor turned spurned, adolescent lover. Adam Bitterman lives his character James best in his silences and mute reactions, but altogether his pathos comes through in his painful and pathetic end. Lynda Shadrake as Marty is colorful and impassioned, yet finds a sincerity in her portrayal to ground a character that otherwise risks stereotype. And Talia Payomo as the taciturn Lauren captures the awkward eyes and mannerisms of her character, only to then surprise us with a fuller range of her acting ability in her last-scene transformation.
Redtwist’s production of Circle Mirror Transformation is an engrossing and sometimes uncomfortable glimpse into the quiet lives of awkward desperation. Timely in the best of ways, it shows us the private selves that peek through the cracks of our public images. For those with sensibility and appreciation for the understated, this is a fine production of a tender and gently sobering drama.
Reviewed on 15 April 2017.
Playing at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W Bryn Mawr, Chicago. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets and information, call 773-728-7529, or visit Redtwist.org. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through May 14th. Running time is 110 minutes with no intermission.