If you’ve ever taken one of those Learning Annex-type acting classes or even something more ambitious, you know that they can be a helluva lot of fun. You play theater games, leap blindly into improv skits, make primal noises and tumble around a stage like the kid you used to be. Watching other people having all the fun, however, is another story entirely, and that’s the dilemma with New Village Arts’ Circle Mirror Transformation. Annie Baker’s play unfolds over six weeks in a community-center drama class in Shirley, Vermont. (Two of Baker’s other plays, Body Awareness and The Aliens, were also set in this fictitious burg.) Five people – instructor Marty (Dana Case), her husband James (Tom Stephenson), recently divorced Schultz (Eddie Yaroch), teen-aged Lauren (Sophia Richards) and recently broken up masseuse Theresa (Rhianna Basore) – congregate to contort their bodies, play word games and role-play each week. Surprise of surprises, over the course of the six-week class each learns something revelatory about himself or herself, and about the others. As such, Circle Mirror Transformation feels formulaic and offers only one U-turn you don’t see coming.
You can’t help but get caught up in a couple of the students’ narratives. Theresa is such a limber, likable and clearly talented person that you hope she does become a working actress (though the flash-ahead at the end of the play suggests she won’t). Rhianna Basore already has, and her future looks bright. Though it’s not clear why James is in this class, he’s on board with all the stage antics and head games – until one of ‘em messes with his head, and with Marty’s. Tom Stephenson brings tension and restraint to the role. It’s harder to invest oneself in Eddie Yaroch’s Schultz, who is intermittently needy, neurotic and borderline strange. On second thought, maybe Schultz is a viable candidate for a David Lynch film.
Circle Mirror Transformation runs 110 minutes and, oddly enough, without an intermission. Don’t know why it couldn’t have paused after “Week 3” of the drama class. As is, it’s a considerable sit in spite of the lightness of the fare.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat