Usually, it’s in bad taste for a reviewer to indulge in a first-person narrative, but in the case of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a bit of context can help.
I was an environmental science student at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s. My then girlfriend (now ex-wife and New Age psychologist) was a graduate dance student at Mills College. She and her friends were immersed in all “alternative” forms of art, music, philosophy, religion, food, personal relationships and medical practice. They swallowed an incredible array of stupid nonsense, provided it came from outside the mainstream culture. The “human potential movement” often came up in their conversations. Much like Taos, New Mexico as a mystical destination.
Their milieu was a mindless quagmire of astrology, yoga, bodywork, Rolfing, tarot, magic, meditation, spirituality, pseudoscience, subsistence economics, paranormal phenomena, and pop psychology. They were gushing from “breakthroughs” made during a 30-minute “contact improvisation” session, believing that a dance performance attended by a few classmates had somehow nudged the world into a smoother, smoother orbit.
Some fell in love with a failed local actor, who promoted his “drama therapy” classes as shortcuts to personal growth – a charlatan who couldn’t land a role if his life depended on it, but who had found a rewarding niche exploiting the insecurities of vulnerable young women. My girlfriend dragged me to a few of her classes and an Erhard Seminars training weekend in Big Sur which enraged me to the point of wanting to strangle its founder, another quack with the made-up name of Werner Erhard. I hated it all, partly explaining the “ex” in “ex-wife”.
Which brings us to “Circle Mirror Transformation” at Novato Theater Company through October 2.
Baker’s play debuted in 2009 and won the Obie Award for Best New American Play. With it, and her “Body Awareness” and “The Aliens,” the playwright must have annoyed a lot of people in Vermont, a larger, more rural version of Berkeley. Such alienation is understandable – “Circle Mirror Transformation” pokes fun at New Age pretensions and ways, but for those who have experienced full or partial immersion, it’s a welcome and hilarious catharsis. For those who haven’t, it may seem disjointed and incomprehensible.
Directed by Jesse Lumb, one of North Bay’s most charming and talented young actors, the show is a slice-of-life portrayal of five residents of the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont. Four of them attend an introductory theater course at the end of the summer at the town’s community center. The fifth is their teacher, a sensitive and well-meaning woman named Marty (Heather Shepardson) whose approach to teaching is a pastiche of sincerity, hope and the kind of patience usually reserved for preschoolers, the all lifted by a well-controlled undercurrent. of worry and exasperation.
Marty’s students include a high schooler, Lauren (Shayla Lawler, pursuing her BFA at New York University) who signed up because she wants to learn more about acting. The same goes for Theresa (Sabina Beachdell), a self-doubting 30-something immigrant from New York who fled to Vermont after some personal setbacks. Then there’s Schultz (Rob Garcia), a young, divorced carpenter whose reasons for taking on a novice acting class are never clear. Garcia paints a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a solitary man who perhaps seeks nothing more than social connections. Finally, there’s James (Ray Martin), the most mature of the bunch – at least, chronologically – and Marty’s husband. James has management duties at the Shirley Community Center and a few minor skeletons in his closet that he is not comfortable revealing. It’s a diverse and well-rounded cast.
The first act consists of short scenes in which Marty’s students attempt exercises designed to help them focus and center themselves, empathize with others, and shed their inhibitions by imagining themselves as inanimate objects – trees, baseball gloves and beds – and exploring emotions through having conversations. only using words that make no sense. They also recite first-person biographies in their classmates’ characters – as far as they can remember, that is. In one of the first scenes, James delivers a hesitant introduction as his own real-life wife. It’s embarrassing how much he doesn’t know.
Some of these scenes are short – a minute or less, each fading to black before the next begins. These are all brief descriptions of tactile exercises that may be more appropriate for group therapy situations than for budding actors. The randomness of the scenes and the apparent lack of relationship to each other caused a bit of confused grunt among the NTC audience, but they were all beautifully done and perfectly timed.
Breaks during class lead to a serious infatuation between Schultz and Theresa, which ignites almost as quickly as it started. Garcia is heartbreaking in his portrayal of the rejected Schultz. Another relationship also turns sour – that of James and Marty. Only the frank Lauren seems to have the nerve to denounce the uselessness of what they all do. During an interminable counting exercise, she ends up shouting: “I don’t understand! much to Marty’s dismay. It’s an important acknowledgment that whatever they do can be fun, but it doesn’t contribute anything to the acquisition of acting skills.
Baker doesn’t leave his audience hanging, however, there’s a sweet ending in which Schultz and Lauren cross paths years later and have a friendly chat about what they’ve been up to and what’s become of their comrades since then. their summer session at the Shirley. Community Center. “Circle Mirror Transformation” isn’t a piece that works for everyone, but for those steeped in drama – and for those still haunted by New Age demons – it works wonders.
Barry Willis is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theater Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What: “Circle Mirror Transformation” by Novato Theater Company
Where: Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato
When: Until October 2; 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sunday.
Admission: $15 to $27
Information: 415-883-4498; novatotheatrecompany.org
Rating (out of five stars): ★★★★