Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is one of those plays that's easy to appreciate, admire and even recommend. But it's hard to love. A production like the one at WaterTower Theatre, where it's having an area premiere, makes that easier, though.
Baker sets her plays in the fictional hamlet of Shirley, Vermont (recently written about in the New York Times), and this one takes place in a dance studio at a community center, where Marty (Lisa Hassler) teaches a six-week nighttime drama class. The students are her husband James (Bill Jenkins), the recently divorced Schultz (Ted Wold), New York transplant Theresa (Lynn Blackburn) and spaz high school student Lauren (Kayla Carlyle).
In six segments, representing each week of the class (and each of those is broken up into several scenes), the group does exercises that a hippie-dippy person who has taught drama, but has probably never done theater professionally, would come up with: improv, role playing, problem solving, lying on the floor and counting as a collective unit.
As the ensemble participates (on Terry Martin's spare dance-studio set and in his character-appropriate costumes), we learn about their personal lives and the relationships that develop and transform, for better or worse, any time there's a group dynamic. Some of these students really have no business in drama class, but sometimes, especially in a small town, there's a need to connect.
That's the thing about drama class, notably in high school and college: Mixed in with the students who know that that's what they are supposed to do in life, there are those who signed up for easy credit, or because the cooler classes were filled, or perhaps because theater types are perceived as interesting characters. In other words, for the introvert who wants to break out of a shell, perhaps there's something to gain from being around the drama kids. Just a theory.
This play could easily become tedious and in-jokey, but guest director Amy Anders Corcoran and her cast avoid that, thanks to performances that are never smug.
Theresa, an actress who attempted a career in theater in the Big Apple, is the character who is most difficult to like, and Blackburn has that icy quality without going as far as being a you-know-what. Perhaps she's the villain because of what happens between her and the most likable character, Schultz. Really, can Wold ever play a character who isn't instantly loved by audiences?
Hassler and Jenkins bring in their respective characters' baggage, and are convincing as spouses who strive to be an exemplary couple in public, even though we can tell there are problems below the surface.
The best performance comes from Carlyle, as a teen who needs to escape home life, and who wants to learn about acting so she can audition for Maria in West Side Story at her school. But she finds, much to her irritation, that this particular drama class isn't about monologues and saying "three free thugs set three thugs free" over and over. Or, whatever diction exercises they're doing nowadays.
No, this drama class is about connections, on basic and deeper levels. Ultimately, that's what theater is supposed to do. Right?
In the end, Circle Mirror Transformation is about those associations we make all throughout life. Some are fondly remembered, others forgotten, and a few actually last. The play probably takes about 20 minutes longer than it should to get to its point—it's a tough sit-through for nearly two hours with no intermission—but it's still an entrancing and surprisingly emotional experience.
It might not be for everyone, though. Especially anyone who isn't human.
Bonus: In the video interview below, director Amy Anders Corcoran tells why she fell in love with the play, what it has to say, and why you don't have to be a drama geek to get it.