Terry Tocantins, Alexis Paxton, Sam Garas, Katie Graviss Bechtler, & Olivia Allen. photo: Bunbury

Circle Mirror Transformation

By Annie Baker
Directed by Skylar Vest

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Characters are revealed slowly and through a sneaky, elliptical structure in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. In Shirley, Vermont, Marty (Alexis Patton), an acting teacher, holds an “Adult Creative Drama” class at the local community center. Four people sign up for the class: Schultz (Terry Tocantins), a recently divorced carpenter; Lauren (Oliva Allen), a shy high school student; Teresa (Katie Graviss Bechtler), a former actress; and Marty’s husband James (Sam Garas). Marty takes the “students” through a series of acting exercises; they act like trees, beds, and baseball gloves. 

Because they act out monologues as each other, we might be tempted to think of transference, but the narrative comes at us in a sneaky, serpentine fashion that remains, in the end, linear. There is at least one romance, and at least one breakup, and things don’t even go the way Marty imagined they would. It all plays out with humor and a little heartbreak and the unusual structure keeps any of it from feeling predictable. We even learn secrets that are not clear who they belong to. The fluidity of the telling serves to make the story all the more intriguing, turning routine happenings into surprise developments.

Finally, Baker gives us a satisfying ending that may not qualify as “happy” but still feels complete. Except all of it is illusory, stories drawn from the minds of the students, but whether sourced from experience or imagination remains an open question. Kind of like a drama.

The intelligence and care behind this staging are undeniable, yet the opening night, as is so often the case, hadn’t found its final rhythm and the pace suffered as a result. Critics are somewhat obliged to be first-nighters, but the final ingredient in the fashioning of a production is always the audience, and succeeding performances benefit from that new relationship.

The cast delivers solid and thoughtful work here. Alexis Paxton seems a tad young for Marty, but brings a good balance of authority and empathy to the acting teacher, and carefully navigates the shift from a figure of power to an individual as vulnerable as the rest. Sam Garas as her husband, James, is genial and a little reserved, less developed in the writing but given good presence by this actor. Olivia Allen is the appropriate age for Lauren, and her appealing take is only limited by some restraint in projection. But Lauren is supposed to be understated, so it works more than it detracts.

Terry Tocantins and Katie Graviss Bechtler are especially impactful. The two characters might be the most fully written, but they are also here most fully realized in well-observed detail and delivery. Tocantins renders a delightful melange of whimsical eccentricity and flashes of focused deliberation that is entirely individual and engaging. Bechtler is a nice contrast as a woman full of confidence and intention whose choices carry little regret and absolutely no shame. Everyone was good; these two elevated the action onstage.

Gerald Keans’ set is occupied by a bunch of useful props, Paxton makes good use of lightly bouncing on a large exercise ball, but the mirrored wall is the signature feature for reasons that are completely obvious very quickly.

As a playwright, Annie Baker tests our patience, and Circle Mirror Transformation, while among her most accessible works, is no exception. The test comes in forcing us to engage with the narrative on decidedly unconventional terms. Originally produced in 2009, the same year as another challenging Baker play, The Aliens, it arrived as a part of the playwright’s ascension into the upper tiers on the craft. A post-modern clarion call for women writers as they began to dominate the field. Whatever desire the audience may have for easy tales of comfort, such playwrights require you to take a leap, nay, even a risk, before they deliver you back to the relative if questionable safety of real life.   

Circle Mirror Transformation

October 1 – 10, 2021

Bunbury Theatre
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.