October 3, 2009

A Full Cycle with "circle mirror transformation"

I've heard it said that choosing the right cast can account for more than half of a play's  success. If that's true, circle mirror transformation, the new show at Playwrights Horizons, should be a big hit.  Because it's got the finest ensemble I've seen in a long while. 

The play, a genuinely warm-hearted comedy that runs nearly two hours but is performed straight through, centers around the group of people who sign up for an acting class at a community center in a small Vermont town.  The participants include the predictable misfits—a smugly happy married couple (Deirdre O’Connell and Peter Friedman), a free-spirited single gal who’s new in town (Heidi Schreck), a recently divorced guy who’s clumsy around women (Reed Birney), and a spaced-out but precocious teen (the scene-stealing Tracee Chimo).

Nearly all the actors have been with the play since playwright Annie Baker workshopped it at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab a year or so ago. And the result, under Sam Gold’s excellent direction, is that they inhabit these parts with such unaffected attention to detail that superficiality morphs into individuality and you feel as though you’re watching real people through one of those two-way windows they like to feature on cop shows.  (Click here to listen to an interview with Baker and Gold.)

Costume and set designer David Zinn deserves kudos too. His attention to detail extends to differentiating the kinds of water bottles each character would choose and making sure that there are used tape marks on the walls of the rehearsal room where the group meets.

Baker’s wistful message is that following your bliss doesn’t always take you where you want to go.  But she’s not heavy-handed about it.  Each scene, which represents one of the six summer weeks over which the action unfolds, cleverly mixes the group-dynamic style theater games that are common in so many acting classes with the personal dramas of the students in circle mirror transformation (the lower case title seems a tongue-in-cheek homage to "eat, pray, love,"  Elizbeth Gilbert's self-actualization bestseller).

But you don’t need to know the difference between Viola Spolin and Jerzy Grotowski to have a good time at circle mirror transformation.  The uptight businessman sitting next to me started the evening off sighing and looking as though he were thinking of ways to make his wife pay for dragging him to the show. But in no time at all he was throwing his head back and guffawing with the rest of us.  Proving Baker’s other point that theater really does have transformative powers.

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