Spent a lovely afternoon at the Storefront Theatre yesterday afternoon – this time, for Play Practice Collective’s Toronto premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, directed by Heather E Braaten.
Set in a windowless community centre space in small New England town Shirley, Vermont, three adults (James – Mark Whelan, Theresa – Pip Dwyer and Schultz – David Frisch) and one teen (Lauren – Laura Jabalee) set out together with instructor Marty (Jill Harland) on a six-week long drama class for adults. And throughout their time together, working through acting exercises and guided improv, they learn more than they bargained for.
For those who have experienced theatre school or acting class, it will come as no surprise that the exercises and techniques resemble a bizarre combination of psychotherapy and boot camp – often without rhyme or reason. Serious acting classes are not for the faint of heart. As the play unfolds, everyone in the class – including Marty – experiences an evolution of how they see themselves and the other participants as personal connections and relationship dynamics wax and wane. The transformation is gradual, with some intense and difficult – and comic – moments.
Braaten’s cast really brings it for this show. Instructor Marty (Harland) and student husband James (Whelan) are an affable, comfortable 50-something couple with an adorable meet cute story whose still waters run deep – and choppier than at first glance. Harland does a nice job with Marty’s supportive, earth mother acting teacher, whose calm presence is rocked to the core with past and present revelations. Whelan’s James is a real charmer, a good sport pal of a husband to Marty and a lovable guy with widespread appeal – maybe too much. As town newcomer Theresa, Dwyer (also one of the co-producers) gives a lovely performance that is both forthcoming and fragile; Theresa is an actress recently escaped from the insanely fast pace and chilly atmosphere of New York City, and one gets the sense that she doesn’t really need to take the class, but is looking for friendship and community. Frisch gives a nicely layered performance as the recently divorced Shultz, a sweet guy, perceptive and a bit naïve, and – like Theresa – feeling vulnerable and longing for connection. And Jabalee (another co-producer) is bang on as 16-year-old Lauren, awkward, ambitious and wise beyond her years, navigating her way through a class full of adults, some of whom are as old as her distracted, troubled parents. She’s the one who questions the validity of the exercises, wondering aloud if they’re going to get to do some “real acting.”
Everyone has a secret: from their past, or a present desire or fear. And all are profoundly affected and changed by the end of the class. And in a strange – almost magical – way, the room is a character in this story – a crucible in which the alchemy of transformation occurs, while remaining essentially unchanged itself. We see it in stillness and semi-darkness during the longer scene breaks that denote the passage of time from week to week – the atmosphere and barometer of the room only shifting due to the human presence and dynamics that play out within it.
With shouts to Laird MacDonald’s design work – the spot on community centre layout and lighting – and Blair Purdy’s sound editing on the moving and evocative pre-show and scene change music.
Circle Mirror Transformation is a beautifully understated, gradual unfolding of deep connection, intimacy and self-discovery, performed with truth and heart by an excellent cast. Get this into your theatre-going calendar.
Circle Mirror Transformation runs at the Storefront Theatre until October 18; you can purchase tickets in advance online. You can also follow the Play Practice Collective on Twitter and support it via its crowdfunding campaign (open till Oct 15).