From L to R Michael Patten, Anastasia Higham, Peter A. Jacobs, Gretchen Krich, Michael Patten and Elizabeth Raetz.
If the idea of a group of actors, onstage, acting about acting sounds meta, well, it is; but that doesn’t stop the cast of Annie Baker’s Obie-winning Circle Mirror Transformation (running through November 20 at Seattle Rep’s Leo K. Theatre) from fully (and for the most part convincingly) embodying their roles. The play, running high with humor, takes a story that risks being a gimmicky cliché and turns it into a powerful vehicle that explores the secret inner lives of a group of strangers.
Set in the fictional small town of Shirley, Vermont, Circle turns the mirror to focus on a group involved in a creative drama class at the local community center. Taught by middle-aged bohemian Marty (the talented Gretchen Krich), the group consists of her husband James (Peter A. Jacobs) who can skillfully undermine her with his furtive looks; the shy, troubled high schooler Lauren (Anastasia Higham); a pathetic-yet-lovable divorcee’ Schultz (brilliantly played by Michael Patton), and the over-the-top (and most cliché’ of the group) former New York actress, Theresa.
The set (designed by recent Gregory Award recipient Matthew Smucker) replicates the ubiquitous dance studios found in community centers across the country, complete with cubbies, a blue yoga ball and smudged mirrors. Each character does their own turn in the mirror, sometimes when they are alone before class, sometimes in the presence of their peers.
As the class passes through its eight-week course, Marty enthusiastically puts her students through creative movement drills, story-telling sessions and other various and bizarre acting exercises (encouraging them to embody baseball gloves, trees and each other’s families), and they start to slowly drop their protective barriers. The kooky games seem futile to Lauren, who asks, “Are we going to be doing any real acting?”
Several weeks into the class it becomes apparent that no real acting is needed. Each exercise serves to bring out real, raw emotions, and in one particularly poignant scene James and Theresa yell the gibberish words “goulash” and “ak-mak” back and forth with such conviction that their emotional state is apparent, perhaps detrimentally so with James’ wife looking on, to everyone in the class.
For an opening night, the on-stage connection between the actors was impressive, and therein lays the production’s success. Just as in the gibberish exercise between Therese and James, emotional explorations are the heart of the story. By the end of the play the emphasis is no longer on acting. Each member of the class may take their turn in the mirror at the end of the studio, but the emotions, fears and hopes they see reflected through each other provide the most revealing images of all.
Tickets available here.
Image by Chris Bennion, courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theatre.