Review by Dennis Kempton
Playwright Annie Baker, a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, may turn out to be a prolific, successful writer. Since 2008, she has written three plays (Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation, and The Aliens) all of which have had multiple award nominations and wins. Renegade Theater Company’s production of Circle Mirror Transformation, directed by Julie Ahasay, opened Thursday night to a full, enthusiastic house.
Theatre community-ed class? Group therapy? The line is thin when Marty (Ellie Martin) convenes a six-week acting class set in Shirley, Vermont consisting of her husband, James (Douglas Fifield); a recently divorced and vulnerable man by the name of Schultz (Jamie Harvie); Theresa (Sarah Zastrow), a cheerful, but disillusioned amateur actress; and a 16 year-old tough girl named Lauren (Kat Mandeville).
The script is painfully real. During the course of the “workshop” and through what may seem to the civilian as ridiculous or new-agey exercises, the aspiring actors give themselves permission or, in some cases, unknowingly, open themselves up to their own vulnerabilities.
The script itself isn’t totally engrossing, although there are key touch points in the show’s action that are more memorable than the sum of its parts. The writing cuts through what would be hours of detail as each learns about the lives of the others by having each participant rise in an exercise that marks each week in the class to talk about the background of another participant. Through these moments, we discover their weaknesses and triumphs. This bond building exercise within the structure of the “group” on stage lets the audience get drawn in to the depth of each character in an obvious shortcut.
The ensemble cast, itself, is the show’s greater asset. Ellie Martin, as the group’s leader, is a thoroughly well-conceived casting choice. Part careworn mother, part insecure wife, part frustrated performer, Martin’s movements, facial expressions, and, understanding of the material and the characters around her inform every moment on stage. To the surly and silently seething Lauren, Martin, through her character, manages to display remarkable understanding even though Marty, herself, is childless. In the scene where Marty is called upon to assume the identity of Lauren for the group, Martin creates palpable emotionality in her own take on a young girl’s life. In a group of competing personalities lurking in burdensome emotional shadows, Martin does subtle justice to the role her character has taken on–counselor, even while masking her own pain.
Sarah Zastrow, in a return to the stage, plays Theresa, a bubbly, but ultimately insecure and damaged aspiring actress, returned from New York, where she didn’t quite make it. Zastrow’s take on Theresa’s vulnerability is touching, eliciting heartfelt responses and laughs from the audience as she flings herself between two of the show’s other characters as fleeting romances within the six weeks she’s in class. Through her portrayal of uncertainty, anger over past hurts, we see how the acting exercises do, indeed, break down barriers. Paired with her performance, Jamie Harvey (Schultz) turns in a notable, nuanced, and, at times, heartbreaking role on the Teatro stage as a man recently on his own after a painful divorce, searching for something more not only in his activities, but in another woman.
Marty’s husband, James, played by Douglas Fifield, is perhaps the more obviously complicated person on stage and in the script, itself, for whatever reasons the playwright has. From winning husband in the opening scenes, the cool, calm, breezy James, through the rest of the show, begins to harden, crumble, and ultimately transform into a tragic figure, illustrated through the eyes of others and the lives of the other characters. Fifield handles the character shifts with grace, intensity, and skill, avoiding the pitfalls of dramatic overreaching in his interpretation of those important shifts in mood and action.
Kat Mandeville’s portrayal of the tough girl, Lauren, is a study in precision and restraint. Remarkably, even though her appearance (shorn locks, dark clothing, hoodie) demands distance from the outside world, Mandeville’s Lauren manages to become the underpinning conscience of the show…the class’s critic, the one holding others accountable, while, she, herself, pushes and then pulls the audience in not only to her own world but into the chaos being brewed in the room in ways both subtle and uncomfortably bold.
As a unit, there are no weak links in the casting. And there can’t be. With material that makes each character vulnerable and laid bare, there is no room for error or the entire exercise becomes laughable. Baker’s script, Ahasay’s direction, and the instincts and abilities of the actors on stage create meaningful touchpoints, especially during some of the exercises where one in the audience feels like an interloper and wants to turn away from the uncomfortable revelations happening between what feels like very real people–even ourselves. Lauren’s almost desperate question of Schultz in the show’s closing scene, “Do you ever wonder how many times your life is gonna end?” is a powerful statement in itself thrown up into the universe like a bomb.
The set design by Evan Kelly is a basic representation of a multipurpose room, although giving the set some more depth would have been a nice element in providing space for the actors and opportunities for eavesdropping called for in the script that seem unusually intimate in the space provided. But, as in every Renegade show, the production values are serviceable and do not compete with what’s going on onstage.
The show is a continuous two hours without intermission, in fair warning. That should be reconsidered. With a show packed with emotional vignettes, a chance for the audience to process and decompress would be a welcomed experience.
As a newer work, Renegade is to be applauded for the bravery it takes to bring unfamiliar shows to the area. With Circle MIrror Transformation, a chance at self-discovery through the eyes of others and through the facade of an acting class is a clever mix that finds a capable and welcoming home on the Teatro stage. A remarkably adept ensemble manages to take a heavily loaded script and turn it into profound moments that linger once the “class” ends and the house lights go up on real life, again.
CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. Written by Annie Baker. Directed by Julie Ahasay for Renegade Theater Company at Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior Street, Duluth. With Ellie Martin, Sarah Zastrow, Kat Mandeville, Jamie Harvie, and Douglas Fifield. The show runs Thursday-Saturday through September 24. Curtain time is 8 p.m. This review is based on the September 15 opening night performance.