Pulitzer Prizing-winning dramatist Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” like many of her plays, focuses as much on what is not said and the awkward silences as it does on the snippets of dialogue that we do get. When I say snippets, I mean snippets. Conversation is sparse consisting of powerfully fraught moments that gradually reveal the dynamic between the various characters on stage. It is without question these characters that give “Circle Mirror Transformation” its tremendous staying power and the reason why this play is so widely produced.
…incredibly entertaining, unexpected at times, and the kind of show that after seeing it, might prompt you to look at the world and the people in it just a little bit differently.
The story is quite simple. The focus is not on any sort of in-depth narrative or plot twists other than what is teased out through the many vignettes we get. Rather, the focus is on five people who, for very different reasons, have decided to take an acting class in this small Vermont town. The structure is comprised of what you might call snapshot moments—acting instruction, one-on-one exchanges— some heated, some not-so-heated—and revelatory personal breakthroughs for just about every character.
Audiences go deep inside of this class setting and get to watch the many exercises in which the students engage. Some exercises make more sense than others and some just seem downright silly, perhaps written in for the comedic value. Then again, Baker is nothing if not deliberate about her process. Every sentence, every movement, and every opening and closing of a door (and there are many such door interventions) purposeful and meaningfully contribute to what plot momentum there is.
We quickly discover the instructor, Marty (Kathryn Falcone), is married to one of the students, James (Brian Ruff). Both seem outwardly happy while inwardly struggling to sustain the facade of what a happy couplehood is supposed to look like. There is Theresa (Shelbi Nelson), an aspiring actress who is fairly new to this Vermont town having moved from NYC. We learn that heartbreak had a lot to do with her Big Apple exodus. Another student, Schultz (William “B.J.” Darden), seems to be the kind of person who needs a relationship to define him, and he consequently falls fast and hard for Theresa. It really is utterly amazing what Baker can do with just brief interactions and very few words—she is truly a master of this aspect of her craft. Rounding out the class is Lauren (Elinor Bower), a 16-year-old occupied with 16-year-old things while being forced into the turbulent inner lives of her parents.
Given that Baker’s plays do tend to be so character-driven, it is critical that the cast be up to the task and this one most certainly is. They are the awkward, hopeful, utterly human inhabitants of this class, creating a universe of their own making for the duration of the play. All are fantastic at turning Baker’s succinct dialogue into mini-memoir moments, gradually revealing the essence of their characters. While the entire cast does a tremendous job of involving us in the emotional vicissitudes of their characters, it is Falcone’s Marty who magnificently centers and guides the group while slowly letting her vulnerability undo a more stoic, teacherly veneer. She’s the kind of actor here with whom you want to go and have a glass of post-class wine as you debrief, gossip, and laugh about the absurdity that is sometimes life.
Nick Cherone’s direction is done with a very subtle hand—exactly as it needs to be. With an Annie Baker play, that really is the only way to do it. Let the moments organically unfold and the characters develop in accordance with those moments. Before the audience’s eyes, the personae up on that stage evolve into individuals with problems, pasts, and facing emotional cliffs off which they must unwittingly jump.
Spotlighters’ space is absolutely perfect for this production—the intimacy of the theatre and thus the “classroom” made all the more so by the work of lighting and sound designer Michael Lentz. As presented by Spotlighters, “Circle Mirror Transformation” is incredibly entertaining, unexpected at times, and the kind of show that after seeing it, might prompt you to look at the world and the people in it just a little bit differently.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
Advisory: Adult language and references.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” runs through October 1, 2023 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online. Audience members are no longer required to wear masks in the lobby or theatre.