Long ago and far away, I was party to a conversation between two multi-talented and wise women of American drama, Corinne Jacker and Patricia Cobey. Lingering by a stone wall, gazing at the Atlantic Ocean in the fading light of a long summer day at the O'Neill Center playwrights conference in Connecticut, they talked casually about the importance of theatre in their lives. "Whenever someone I know is having problems," Cobey said, "I tell them to take an acting class. It always straightens you out. That's where you learn that you can't lie."
In Circle Mirror Transformation, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, four members of a small Vermont community gather for a creative acting class. We soon learn that Theresa (Wanda Stamp) is a recently transplanted would-be New York actress trying to get over an obsessive love affair. Schultz (Dmitry Tokarsky) is a recently divorced local, a bit awkward and secretly artistic. Lauren (Mira Eagle) is a high school student buried in her hoodie who wants to try out for West Side Story. James (Gary Sommers) is the still handsome gray-haired husband of the instructor, Marty (Adina Lawson.)
After a few classes Lauren pointedly asks Marty if they are going to learn to act in a play. Marty says probably not. It's fair warning for the audience, too. This is not the usual stage storytelling. But during the offbeat exercises as well as encounters before and after the six classes we witness, characters are excavated and discovered, relationships change, and there are consequences to revelations and self-revelations.
Circle Mirror Transformations is one of four plays by contemporary American playwright Annie Baker that are set in this Vermont town. Three of them were staged in the Bay Area in the past year -- this one just closed at the Marin Theatre. After successful productions in New York (where it won a couple of Obies), Washington and Los Angeles, it is becoming a regional theatre favorite.
This play invites and also requires a different kind of attention. The actual plot is fairly simple, and even predictable in TV reality show outcomes. But the story is told by every movement, every stutter and change in body language. It's in the silences, and the odd and sometimes wildly funny exercises. These are theatre games -- the play's title is the name of one. Some involve one character pretending to be another. Some involve creating a group story. Others look like a cross between actors' warm-ups and group therapy. Director Nathan Emmons and the cast make the necessary precision of depicting this look natural.
There are short fragments and sustained scenes. The dialogue is mostly banal, laced with psychobabble. Some liken Baker's work to Chekhov because nothing apparently happens, but I see more of Mamet and Pinter in the way the characters use dull received language as masks that reveal them anyway. (Considering my last column it is a coincidence however that Baker's adaptation of Uncle Vanya was one of its New York productions this year.)
It's a different kind of comedy. But it is a comedy. At the end of all the accidental honesty there's a happy conclusion of sorts. And it's funny (despite the reluctance of the small preview audience I saw it with to join me in laughing).
I had problems with both the play and the production, but as long as audience members let go of conditioned expectations, this is an unusual and enjoyable two hours. The cast is skillful and endearing. I'd expect this is one that people will talk about.
Daniel C. Nyiri designed the intentionally drab set (though maybe it didn't have to be that drab). Lighting is by Calder Johnson, the interesting sound design by Nathan Emmons, costumes by Laura Rhinehart.
Circle Mirror Transformation continues at Redwood Curtain on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 29, at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on Sept. 23.
Coming Up: Fox on the Fairway, a tribute to the stage and film farces of the 1930s and '40s by Ken Ludwig, opens at North Coast Rep on Thursday, Sept. 20.
More about upcoming seasons: Ferndale Rep is going through a management shakeup but early indications are that they are sticking with their season as announced. This Saturday, Sept. 15, Ferndale Rep presents Seth Kinman: Alive n' Kikkin' a one man show starring Charlie Beck as the bearded, grizzled Humboldt County mountain man and chair maker.
At HSU, students are back and preparations are under way for Theatre, Film and Dance Department productions. The first is on Nov. 1, a special one-night reading of 8: The Play by Dustin Lance Black, about the court case that overturned California Proposition 8 and its ban on same sex marriages. That case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Clint Rebik directs a cast from the North Coast theatre community.
In late November, Rae Robison directs the classic Sanskrit love story Shankutala in a new adaptation by Margaret Thomas Kelso. In February, Michael Fields directs Hater, Samuel Buggeln's 21st century adaptation of Moliere's The Misanthrope. Then after the spring dance production and the Humboldt Film Festival in April, Michael Thomas directs David Auburn's Pulitzer and Tony-winning play Proof.