‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ is uncomfortable in all the right ways

Circle Mirror Transformation

Riverside Theatre — through Nov. 5

Jessica Link, Tad Paulsen and Sydney Speltz in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Circle Mirror Transformation.’ — photo by Rob Merritt

Annie Baker has found the perfect setting for her brand of awkward, uncomfortably human dark comedy: an acting class. What’s so interesting about her writing is the amount of space it tends to leave, how the abandoned half-sentences and runs of miscommunication express this sense of a great void between two people. Her hallmark is this image of humanity that is at once pathetic and charming; a collection of deeply damaged characters lurching desperately about the stage trying to find even an inch of common ground. If that’s the game, it stands to reason that putting them in a warm-up circle is rife with both comic and dramatic potential. Circle Mirror Transformation proves this idea handily.

Riverside Theater opened its production of Circle Mirror Transformation last weekend, with Angie Toomsen directing. The piece takes place in an acting studio where a rather dysfunctional group of amateur students has gathered. One of the students, James (Tad Paulsen) is married to teacher (Nina Swanson), the revelation of which sets the tone for what is to be a play that is funny on the surface but extremely uncomfortable underneath. During a break we meet Theresa (Jessica Link), an actress who came back home from the big city and has a tendency to fall into manipulative relationships with older men. Schultz (Matthew James), a recently divorced carpenter, takes the first opportunity to chat her up, of course. Rounding out the ensemble we have Lauren (Sydney Speltz), a quiet but bright teenager who just wants to get past all the silly bonding games and get to the real acting.

There’s a lot of careful detail that goes into making a piece like this both interesting and realistic, and the actors have done the work. Swanson and Paulsen have a fun little game at the beginning of Paulsen checking in nonverbally for approval throughout exercises he obviously views as silly, and this tension shifts from comic to tragic as it grows throughout the piece. Speltz is already emphatically present before Lauren does much of anything, and she is completely natural while sitting in the crowd giving sarcastic takes, so that the awkward amatuer-actor stance of her first monologue is colored by her earlier performance.

James shows us Schultz is a little off at first by his awkward gait, his noncommittal tone of voice; he then maybe becomes a little dangerous in the way he looks at Theresa, and finally his quiet strength at the end shows us there might be a good person underneath all of that. Link plays Theresa’s problems with boundaries with a very clear physical presence: First she’s closed off and protective with Schultz, then flirty, then warm and giving. Near the end she’s exploding in self-loathing in front of the whole group.There’s a moment when Theresa’s uncomfortable honesty nearly trainwrecks an exercise, and the group stutters, adjusts for her, and moves on; that involves some real intense energy from Link and a lot of generous feedback from the ensemble.

Much of the success of this production is how focused, attentive and giving this cast is with each other. Really, it would be hard to do a play set in an acting class if it were otherwise.

The cast of ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ at Riverside Theatre. — photo by Rob Merritt

Toomsen sees the strengths in each of these performers and musters them to work quite well as a unit. This production is a perfect marriage of script and director. Baker’s script has a lot of room to breathe, many moments where the plot rests and a bit of very significant nothing happens; Toomsen’s skill with the details of a moment flesh out these beats very clearly and keep the tension building. After a bitter breakup between Theresa and Schultz, for example, we shift to another acting exercise: Theresa is giving a monologue and the rest of class is watching her. It’s a simple but powerful scene, but it starts really slowly. While Theresa is doing her bit, Schultz is hammering her with his gaze from upstage. The two play a very tense silent scene while not exchanging a single word. Under the play’s artificial skin of “this is just another acting exercise,” Link and James are furiously acting. And it’s brilliant. When Baker might seem to a lesser director to be taking her sweet time, Toomsen understands exactly why, and, with the placement of bodies and the energy of her ensemble, doesn’t waste a moment of it.

This very focused approach really honors the setting, and the setting of Circle Mirror Transformation is really key to its themes. If you’ve never been in an acting class before, it’s somewhere between a sleepover and a therapy session. You’re in a room you’ve ostensibly chosen to be in but you’re trapped between your own baggage and the eyes of others, and you can either go home, open up or shut down. You’re not going to get anything out of the work if you’re not ready to be yourself completely and unapologetically. But these people, who spend a lot of their time onstage looking at physical mirrors as well as metaphorical ones, have been doing everything they can to avoid looking carefully. And the acting circle really only reminds them how they’re all using each other in one way or another. So it’s not surprising they can’t finish a simple acting exercise without some form of hostility flaring up. Is there healing to be had in this room? Kind of. But it seems Baker wants to remind us that if we want a better world, we first need to acknowledge how awful we’ve been being to each other.

It’s maybe not a real feel-good message, but it’s one that’s more honest than most, at least. And there’s something beautiful in Baker’s depiction of emotional growth, in treating the character who has just made a great realization as still clumsily human and not some just-hatched butterfly. It’s a lot more real; it’s often a lot more funny. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, is touching while not quite being sentimental, but the journey is the real joy. Annie Baker is one of the best playwrights we have working today, and her work is treated with honor and energy by this team. Go see it. Circle Mirror Transformation runs through Nov. 5; tickets are $12-30.

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