Brenda Withers, Tonye Patano, & Keith Reddin in Circle Mirror Transformation. Photo by Bill Brymer
Circle Mirror Transformation
By Annie Baker
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright 2017 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved.
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker is enjoying a big moment on the national theatre scene, and the effects can be felt locally this month with Actors Theatre of Louisville’s excellent production of Circle Mirror Transformation.
Baker is a playwright of enormous skill, who creates deft characterizations and moving plots, but the most tangible and easily talked about aspect of Baker’s work is her use of silence.
Circle Mirror Transformation, a story that focuses on a beginning acting class for adults in a small Vermont town, is only Baker’s second play. It was first produced back in 2009, and its use of silence isn’t on the level of her later works, such as the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning The Flick.
But Circle Mirror is still a bold and assured work, and it starts its first scene with a nice long silence, letting the audience know exactly what’s up. It continues to use silence throughout the play, frequently in moments that illustrate the theatre games that make up many beginning acting classes and much of the action of the play, but also in personal moments between characters.
It’s the sort of play that demands a masterful production. In the hands of a less skilled group of collaborators, Baker’s work can be rife with empty and pointless pauses, but this production gives us meaningful, wonderful, awkward silence.
A perfect example: Jeff Hayenga’s performance as James. In that first moment of silence we see him participating in a theatre game, desperate to do the theatre game “right.” You see his lips quiver as he almost begins to speak, then he schools his face and stops, self doubt written across his worn features. You can also learn just as much from the way Lauren (Jeanna Phillips) pulls her hoodie over her face; you know she’s a disaffected teen, desperate to let everyone know she is waaaaay too cool to actually try. This silence is as revealing as whole monologues written by other playwrights, and Hayenga, Phillips, and the other members of the ensemble are adapt at putting their emotions on their faces and in their body language.
Those beginning silences also work as a recalibration for the audience. What follows that first tableau is slow, and small, and just strange enough to feel incredibly real.
I have to mention that the verisimilitude of the play starts well before the action, as the audience walks into the Pamela Brown Auditorium to see a very boring room onstage. It’s the sort of nondescript, shared space that exists in community centers and YMCA’s across the country. You can easily imagine a yoga class getting out just as the Tae Kwon Do kids come in to get started.
Dane Laffrey’s set is so realistic it’s almost eerie. Later, the lighting design by Paul Toben, and subtle but fantastic sound design by Lindsay Jones complete the picture, putting our ensemble in the most mundane of settings possible.
Once the show begins we are quickly introduced to James and Lauren, as well as Schultz (Keith Reddin), a divorcée who is trying to make something of his life now that it’s suddenly changed; Theresa (Benda Withers), who’s new in the small town; and Marty (Tonye Patano), the acting teacher.
They bounce off each other and interact, and through the course of the play learn what many acting students already know: that the very first step into acting is to remember how to feel and open yourself up to other humans. It’s no mean feat in a world that encourages us to build figurative and literal walls of fear between others and ourselves. Acting classes often form bonds of friendships that last lifetimes, because these games and this process reveal the depths of each participant’s humanity.
The genius of the play is that while the students reveal themselves to each other, we get to watch. The deep humanity lends itself equally to comedy and drama, and the audience seemed to experience a full range of emotions while opening up and letting these characters in.
It’s all too easy to forget there was a director for the show, because it feels like just watching a group of people show up in a room and be flawed but ultimately lovable. Of course that just means director Meredith McDonough understands Baker’s work, and did a really good job of making her fingerprints invisible.
Between social media, superhero movies, and the stunning rancor of our current political climate, the slow gentle sweep of Circle Mirror Transformation, feels as transformative for the audience as it does for those fictional students.
Circle Mirror Transformation
January 24 – February 12, 2017
Actors Theatre of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, storyteller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Derby City Playwrights, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”