Circle Mirror Transformation

On Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons (Peter Jay Sharp Theater)

“The way human beings speak is so heartbreaking to me–we never sound the way we want to sound. […] Speaking is a kind of misery,” says Annie Baker in an interview with Playwrights Horizons Literary Manager Adam Greenfield. This idea of the misspoken is what anchors Ms. Baker’s plays in the painfully real. Awkwardness, wrong choices, and the temptation to say just one more thing propel the five characters through their six week drama class, peppered with authentic theater exercises, some of which are actually improvised onstage (most notably the eponymous “Circle Mirror Transformation.”)

It is very difficult to suggest that Circle Mirror Transformation has a plot so much as it has a journey. The twists are often predictable, but seeing them coming makes them all the more painful. Baker’s characters feel close to you. Failed actress Theresa describes middle aged Marty and James as the kind of couple that makes everyone happy they’re together. Yet as we watch Theresa tell James just that, something switches on in James so that when his secret that gets read aloud as part of an exercise, to the detriment of all, it comes as not so much a surprise as a painful betrayal that we were unable to prevent.

Baker’s characters continue on even when it’s not a very good idea, but not before a silence tailored carefully by director Sam Gold. The audience feels the buildup of teenage Lauren (Tracee Chimo)’s frustration with the class before any dialogue speaks to it thanks to this careful approach to the emotional life of the characters.

Chimo’s Lauren is one of the many highlights of the show. Her closed off body language and undulating speech make her stand out in an already very impressive and nuanced cast. (Her colorful and painfully authentic teenage wardrobe, designed by David Zinn, helps separate her as well.)

Zinn’s work on this play is remarkable in terms of its immersion. He creates a studio in a community center that slightly plays with perspective to accommodate a wall mirror on stage left. The wall is angled so the mirror never reflects the audience. It is an enclosed space for these characters, so when Lauren leans on the mirror and examines herself, we find ourselves wondering exactly what she sees. The prop selection is also spot-on from the exercise ball sent rolling across the room when the characters exit after a particularly painful class to the copy of Twilight that Lauren pulls out on her break.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a study of organisms in their natural habitat. There are no wholly “theatrical” elements of design here, save for the ending, and withholding the theatricality pays off beautifully. Lauren and Schultz participate in an exercise where they are supposed to have met each other ten years after the conclusion of the class. The dialogue begins as an exercise, but slowly becomes a bittersweet prediction, indicated to be true by the delicate simplicity of Mark Barton’s lighting taking us out of the world that Zinn has created to an era that is yet to come.

The general lesson theater artists can learn from Circle Mirror Transformation is that it does not take the magical realism of Sarah Ruhl to reach transcendence or the raw emotional violence of Mamet and Shepard to feel authenticity. Sometimes real, excruciating silence is golden.

The show’s been extended again to the end of January, so, needless to say, you’re gonna want to go to there.