For writers, intimate theater spaces offer a mini slice of heaven: while remaining unobserved, writers are free to discourteously listen to and inspect all sorts of human conditions without being called upon to reveal any of their own.
Unless, of course, the writer will be writing a review about the production.
For “Circle Mirror Transformation,” currently playing at the Bothwell Arts Center, I find I must forsake my beloved anonymity to say . . . I loved these characters, all five of them – a multigenerational group of small-town Vermont residents enrolled in a community center acting class; I loved their desire and their hope, just as I ached for their pain and empathized with their faulty attempts to mask it.
“I love intimate theater spaces; you become a fly on the wall watching these lives unfold in front of you,” says Director Misty Megia. “It allows for greater connection to the play for audiences and actors. The stolen glances, the touch of a hand, the pain someone is trying to hide – these are much more exposed, more raw and tangible when an audience is within breathing distance.”
Circle Mirror Transformation, written by Annie Baker, won an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2010. It gets its title from an acting workshop game in which everyone stands in a circle. One person starts the game by making a sound and a motion, and everyone in the circle mirrors it. Then the next person transforms the gesture into a new sound and movement, and so on. The game is often used as a warmup to help students get used to fully using their bodies and voices without feeling self-conscious. (A quick side note: this is the only game in the play that is actually improvised by the actors during each performance.)
Upcoming shows are on Friday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 23, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 24 at 3 p.m. Tickets, ranging from $20 to $50, are for general seating.
The fun begins at the Bothwell itself – an inviting old character draped in black feather boas with portraits of Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a far cry from community center where parents stood in line before dawn (and before the internet) to make sure they’d be able to register little ones into the right classes. Today, the Bothwell is warm and quirky, with ballroom dancers two rooms down, and someone learning computer skills in another room.
For Circle Mirror Transformation, a double row of 60 seats create a crescent around the circular stage, with its main prop: a three-sided, full-length mirror.
The one-act play takes place over six-weeks with around 30 brief scenes — so brief, in fact, that some of the silences seem longer. In Megia’s deft hands, the pauses are potent.
“This play’s story is told through the subtext as much as the words. The silence provides the breathing room needed to tell the story that words can’t communicate,” Megia says. “The pauses allow for the experience of real-life awkward moments, they provide the space for romance to bloom, and to see the powerful moment when someone digs up the courage to break their circular habit for the first time. Everything in the pause is as important as the word that disrupts the quiet.”
Typically stage productions travel along at breakneck speeds, but this show has the confidence to give audience members a chance to absorb and process what’s happening.
“This show has a 20-second pause with no one on stage, or 30-second pauses with no words, just action or deep reflection,” Megia adds. “It can feel as if someone missed their cue. That’s rare and awkward, but it’s purposeful. That silence sets up the moment that follows so well, you feel rewarded for the wait! There are other moments when the pause allows the audience to sink into the story. My approach is to help find the story in the silence so the pauses feel justified, understood and appreciated.”
The synopsis of the play goes like this: In the small town of Shirley, Vermont, five people gather in a community center studio to embark on a journey together in a creative drama class for adults. Taught by Marty (Rhonda Taylor), their free-spirited and supportive leader, the group consists of Schultz (John Girot), a recently-divorced, emotionally vulnerable carpenter; Teresa (Rebecca Davis), an earnest and vibrant former actress; James (Ray Renati), Marty’s quiet and genial husband; and Lauren (Emma Nelson), a reserved and self-conscious high schooler.
Together, in this one small room, the group moves through a series of acting exercises, ranging from the heartbreaking to the ridiculous. Yet through these seemingly trivial games, quiet wars are waged, emotional wounds are nursed, and healing is finally, slowly, able to begin. In these characters, we see glimpses of ourselves – of the pain we would do anything to be rid of, the desire to be desired, the yearning to be understood, and the longing to be respected.
Heavy stuff. But even in the darkness, this play somehow feels luminous and light: there are many laugh-out-loud moments that ensure the show does not become maudlin or self-indulgent.
As for the five actors – they are superb. And Megia, who also directed “Red” at the Bankhead last year, has a profound way of neither over- nor under-doing it.
In Annie Baker’s quiet masterpiece, Circle Mirror Transformation, the audience takes a transcendent journey through the mundane into the profound. In the end we are left feeling closer to the characters, and more charitable toward others and ourselves.
For tickets or to learn more, visit lvpac.org or call 925-373-6800. The Bothwell Arts Center is located at 2466 Eighth St., Livermore.