Thursday, October 15, 2009

Circle Mirror Transformation


By Annie Baker. Directed by Sam Gold. At Playwright's Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater. (CLOSED)

Annie Baker's follow-up to Body Awareness shares the Vermont locale of that play and gives the playwright a sure-footed debut at Playwright's Horizons. The worst anyone can say about Circle Mirror Transformation is that it is "sneaky" (TONY, Backstage) and even that adjective gets deployed admiringly. A community-center acting class brings together a quartet of old and young locals to explore the craft of "being present." The content-less nature of the theatre games winds up channeling the real-life, off-stage drama of the characters in a masterful (perhaps sneaky) use of subtext over text. Tracee Chimo gets multiple shouts-out for her scene-stealing teenager Lauren and the ensemble, design and direction receive high marks as a whole, too. Some critics seem compelled to temper their enthusiasm in case their readers aren't as hip to the acting-class antics as the opening night crowd, but check out David Barbour at Lighting and Sound America to see how even non-actors are won over by this production's unpretentious charms. As Adam R. Perlman sees it, "Baker gives us the rare theatre-centric play that's not self-obsessed."

Backstage A+
(Adam R. Perlman) Smartly, sneakily, Baker gives us the rare theater-centric play that's not self-obsessed. "Circle" is about real people exploring their lives through tiny leaps of faith and creativity ... Sam Gold's direction is as effortless and excellent as the performances. Each actor has his or her time center stage, but here the smaller moments, the reactions, register just as much. I'll not soon forget Chimo's wide-eyed mix of disgust, embarrassment, and arousal upon encountering two classmates in an intimate moment. Just as memorable: Friedman visibly storing rage in his throat like some sort of a ticking frog bomb. That the play is slight, even shrinking in its aftermath, is among its many improbable strengths.

That Sounds Cool A+
(Aaron Riccio) The question is not whether Annie Baker’s new play circle mirror transformation is any good. The question is whether a play set entirely in a Vermont adult community center’s six-week creative arts class can connect with an audience of non-actors. The answer to the first question—it's not just good, but excellent, as in the best new play I've seen all year—is also a resounding answer to the second: work this honest and genuine is universal, regardless of theme ... Baker's provided an incredibly detailed script, flush with detail, but it's Gold who has figured out how to make all those details thrive, who has distilled an entire week of events into a piercing glare, and who has managed to make the simplest of acts--walking through a room--bustle with character. Everyone has to walk before they run, but Gold's direction here gives the entire cast (already marathon runners, each of them) a healthy head start. A
(Nathaniel Kressen) Baker creates a story that is often surprising, delicately crafting poignant moments not through theatrical fireworks but rather built on nuance ... The five-person cast is outstanding ... It is worth mentioning that Chimo's performance thrived on the night I attended the show, through her use of body language and facial expressions. In a final scene of the play Lauren emerges from her defenses and transforms into a confident, radiant young woman. With Chimo's masterful touch, the scene yields a huge payoff. Sam Gold's direction is more than capable. He employs pauses to great effect, especially noteworthy at the top of the play. Comedic elements are timed perfectly. Design from David Zinn, Mark Barton, and Leah Gulpe creates a naturalistic yet evocative world in which the action thrives.

New York Times A
(Anita Gates) Annie Baker’s absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny “Circle Mirror Transformation,” presented by Playwrights Horizons, shows us people doing deliberately wacky things in a dance studio. The artificiality of the acting games just emphasizes the naturalness of the characters’ real lives and feelings ... Sam Gold has directed with an uncommonly observant eye and ear. The cast is uniformly winning, but Ms. Chimo’s Lauren stands out as a symbol of childlike authenticity.

New York Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The production at Playwrights Horizons delivers on the promise Baker showed in 2008 in "Body Awareness," her Off-Broadway debut. Just 28, she's got an original voice, appealing quirkiness and an astute sense of what makes people tick ... It's a somewhat familiar story, but the writer's approach makes it fresh. The contributions of director Sam Gold can't be overstated. The cast inhabits their parts so completely it's like you're peeping on the actual class.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Watching them stumble through a variety of exercises that have them miming explosions or molding their classmates into scenes from their life may be hilarious, especially as rendered by an astute director (Sam Gold) and cast of effortless comedians. But when they all start accepting themselves and getting into character, the play pays off in a big way, going far beyond the belly laughs it spends so much time convincing you are its only goal ... Gold, working on David Zinn’s pitch-perfect dance studio set, guides his actors to raucousness and insight with equal facility - he makes the most of Lauren’s knack for always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, knows how to pull taut the invisible cords of tension that increasingly bind the characters, and transforms the sensitive, surprising final scene into an unexpected tearjerker. And his cast is superbly chosen.

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Director Sam Gold gives a light-hearted air to much of the production, garnering nuanced laughs out of the exercises and the students' insecurities. Baker develops her characters slowly through their interactions each week in class, which is the only place we see them. Naturally, their real, offstage lives gradually infiltrate the classroom, revealing insights and transformations both humorous and heartbreaking.

Variety A
(David Rooney) On the page, this might be amorphous, living and breathing only with the gentle massaging of a magic-fingered director and an intuitive cast. It gets both in Sam Gold's no-frills production for Playwrights Horizons ... The characterizations display a miniaturist attention to detail that goes down to the bone, and the actors convey as much in a look, a gesture or an awkward silence as they do in words. Baker is never blind to their weaknesses and faults, yet regards them all with a warm, empathetic eye. Arbitrary as it is to single out anyone in such a seamless ensemble, Birney ("Blasted") continues to impress as a gifted stage actor, his affectless delivery smartly contrasting his deep well of feelings. And Chimo is a real discovery; Lauren's puzzled sneer and deadpan judgments are responsible for many of the play's generous ripples of humor, but the actress never pushes for laughs. Real or imagined, her personal evolution in the final week-six exercise is extremely touching.

Time Out New York A
(Adam Feldman) The play’s organizing strategy is almost perverse: It depicts major life changes in the most low-key and off-angle ways imaginable. (The silences here—and there are many—speak louder than most of the words.) Sam Gold’s excellent production for Playwrights Horizons honors the painstaking naturalism of the script, greatly abetted by David Zinn’s perfect rehearsal-room set and an exceptional cast of five that also includes Heidi Schreck, Reed Birney and Peter Friedman.

Light & Sound America B+
(David Barbour) Watching this, I felt sentenced to hell. It didn't help that the audience was loaded with actors who greeted each bit with peals of laughter. I gritted my teeth in expectation of a nearly two-hour inside joke. Then, however, I start to chuckle a bit, then a bit more. It wasn't long before big laughs were coming with surprising regularity. By the halfway point, I had completed a circular transformation of my own, convinced that I was seeing a thoroughly original little comedy of artistic manners. The playwright, Annie Baker, has given herself a tough assignment, and darned if she doesn't just about make good on it.As expertly directed by Sam Gold, the untold embarrassment caused by these unwanted revelations detonates one appalled laugh after another. The entire cast is adept at Baker's deadpan humor, especially when they're following Marty's lead with something less than enthusiasm. The funniest is Chimo as Lauren, who is fast losing patience with Marty's controlling ways ... David Zinn's rehearsal room setting is a photorealistic representation of the real thing, and his costumes tell you something about each character without seeming like anything other than everyday wear. Mark Barton's lighting cleverly underlines the script's many jumps in time, and Leah Gelpe's sound design fill the tiny pauses between scenes with realistic effects, including traffic and birdsong.

Village Voice B+
(Alexis Soloski) Yes, Marty's sessions tend more toward Explosion Tag than serious scene study, but that does not trouble the splendid five-member cast—Reed Birney, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, Deirdre O'Connell, and Heidi Schreck. Under Sam Gold's direction, each offers an affecting, nuanced performance. These amateur dramatics resemble a master class ... As in Body Awareness, Baker treats her characters with compassion, almost to excess. The play's final scene is devastatingly gentle. I wish Baker wouldn't so quickly truncate awkward moments or curtail confrontations, yet it's this kindness, combined with a psychological acuity, that lend her plays their distinct voice.

On Off Broadway B+
(Matt Windman) In addition to highlighting the awkward, repetitive, seemingly pointless nature of most theater games, the play works well as a sincere character study taking place in a quirky context. While theater insiders will surely indentify with its contents, outsiders might find it all absolutely bizarre. Sam Gold's production is marked by strong performances displaying eccentricity and shared feelings of frustration and loneliness, but without feeling overplayed. One standout is Deidre O'Connell, as a 55-year-old acting teacher who attempts to be enthusiastic in spite of apathy, misunderstanding and betrayal from her students.

New York Post B
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Baker's tone and pace ultimately prove too gentle -- there is such a thing as killing a play with kindness. But the finely- tuned ensemble cast transcends the material. Under Sam Gold's sensitive direction, the quintet displays tremendous nuance and generosity -- in coarser hands, some of these characters could easily have been caricatures. Birney, Friedman and O'Connell are familiar local gems, but the other two are revelations. Schreck, a downtown regular, makes an assured transition to a mainstream stage. And Chimo ("Irena's Vow") turns out to be a master of the comic silent reaction.

Theatre Mania B
(Andy Propst) Classes in creative dramatics reveal more than talent for a group of relative strangers in Annie Baker's charming, but never completely satisfying, Circle Mirror Transformation, now at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre ... For anyone who's been involved in theater, Baker's play will provide no real revelations about the power of theater games. But anything that the work may lack in terms of insight into this subject is more than compensated for by the subtle challenges it provides the performers, whose main job is to create the inner lives of their characters ... Thankfully, the performers rise to the challenge in director Sam Gold's detail-rich production, ultimately providing theatergoers with a certain voyeur-like experience.

Curtain Up B-
(Elyse Sommer) Luckily for this no-frills little play, the cast couldn't be better. The always vibrant Deirdre O'Connell is terrific as the group leader, as is James (Peter Friedman who was also in Baker's first major Off-Broadway play, Body Awareness) as the husband who is also enrolled in the class and to whom she's no longer happily married. Reed Birney's Schultz and Heidi Shreck's Theresa, the group's star hoola hooper who actually worked as an actress before she moved to Vermont, are totally convincing. The fact that both are scarred veterans of recently ended relationship doesn't bode well for their attraction to each other. Tracee Chimo is a riot and so good that at times she threatens to steal the show ... The problem is that at almost two hours without an intermission, this is a case of stretching a comic conceit beyond it's limits. While director Sam Gold is well attuned to the playwright's quirky sensibility, he would have done well to curb her self-indulgently drawn out script. Consequently, the many long silences, and the repeat of the exercise that has the ensemble lie in a circle counting slowly from 1 to 10 tend to become tedious so that while some audience members will find it all endearing and hysterically funny, a few will make an unobtrusive escape around the halfway mark which is too bad as the last half is the best.

The New Yorker D+
(Unattributed) Annie Baker’s latest play is about five amateur actors taking part in a class of theatre games over a period of a few weeks. Through their minimal exchanges and their improvisational role-playing, Baker seems to think she is revealing subtext; what’s really on display is glibness. The aimless show doesn’t build or flow but trickles out in a facile and wearying jokiness. The revelations of character, when they are finally served up, are imposed, not earned. The trope of an acting class is potentially fascinating material; but even a solid cast, especially Tracee Chimo, who plays the sullen teen-ager among the confused adults, can’t save this evening from its suffocating smugness.

Backstage A+ 14; That Sounds Cool A+ 14; A 13; NY Times A 13; NY Daily News A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; AP A 13; Variety A 13; TONY A 13; Lighting & Sound America B+ 11; Village Voice B+ 11; On Off-Broadway B+ 11; New York Post B 10; Theatre Mania B 10; Curtain Up B- 9; New Yorker D+ 5. TOTAL: 186/16 = 11.63 (A-)


Anonymous said...

I have to admit - I'm not usually moved to comment, but I saw this (in previews, I admit), and thought it was one of the worst scripts I've seen produced Off-Broadway. Does an admittedly talented cast save it? Not for me, though it does show me how much talented acting can mask a script that ran two hours without break, without any real plot, and without any strong sense of language. It was as if a acting class was put on stage - credibly, but that in itself isn't dramatic. Is there no ambition anyone has about the quality of dramaturgy onstage? Truly, it feels like these reviews endorse not offensively bad as good and encourage people to put aside ambition in favor of the bland and comfortable.

Anonymous said...

What I thought was so compelling about the play is the way it told its story using the acting-class exercises as the vehicle. It was almost like a concept musical, except a play. I found it incredibly dramatic, and I loved the way the tension builds up very subtly between the characters throughout every scene. The monologues, the role-playing scenes, and the nonsense-language exercises tell you loads about who everyone is. I would say it actually represents high-quality dramaturgy and incredibly thoughtful character development, just of a very unconventional kind.

Aaron Riccio said...

@Anonymous #1: I know that American culture has been turning up the volume of "drama" for years now, with sharper language and shocking twists, but I find it hard to believe that that's made you deaf to the simple poetry of Schultz and Theresa's flirting, the ordinary way in which Marty and James fall apart, and the elegant shift in Lauren's recalcitrant heart. To say that these things do not merit the "high honor" of being called "plot" because they aren't exaggerated enough--do you realize the sort of theater that *you* are endorsing?

@Anonymous #2: Amen.

Theater of Ideas said...

I find myself siding with Anon 1 on this, Aaron. Not that I can dispute your experience or your review, which is, as it should be, an expression of your personal experience of the play. I don't demand strong plot or even any plot(though I feel that theater without strong plot needs something equally strong to substitute), but I do demand big ideas in theater--as you might guess from the mission of my company. I think every play should at least attempt to be extraordinary. The play seemed to be an attempt to create something very small, but very ordinary. It didn't completely succeed on its own terms for me, but obviously it did for others. But even if it did succeed, was that enough? I can't help but think of my recent experience seeing the revival of Our Town - a play filled with similar small moments of life. But what poetry was in those moments. And what implications those moments had, in the end, about our whole human philosophy. Of course, few plays can reach the level of Our Town. But theater is a business that demands such sacrifices - why do it unless you want to at least try, each and every time, to create a play filled with something that hasn't been said, something that hasn't been done, or something that hasn't been thought? Something extraordinary. Perhaps to fall short. But to try.

Anonymous said...

What is a bigger idea than how we love? Or how we live? In an effort to define the BIG idea, we forget that most of us live lives of quiet desperation. As this play accumulates, the characters individual experieces become universal. That's big in my book. I found myself three times as moved by the end then I did at August: Osage County. Which tried too hard to be big. A play that succeeds this well, with this much simplicity, has excellent dramaturgy and is anything but ordinary.

Theater of Ideas said...

I'm sorry, I guess I just disagree. If I may point out something I thought was terrible dramaturgy, poorly conceived, as an example: The actors enacted this exercise where they would lay on the floor saying numbers and try not to say them simultaneously. They would fail and they again, fail and try again. Then the scene would be returned to each week (the play covered six weeks of the class). So we were watching, in total, nearly ten minutes of actors lying on the floor and saying numbers. Miracle of miracles, by the final week [spoiler alert, I guess I should say, for the 2 people who might not see this coming) they succeed in getting to 10. I have to say that I found not just boring to sit through but cliched and completely predictable. Or maybe not - apparently a few of you liked it. But I'm just not in that camp.

Aaron Riccio said...

Edward, I get where you're coming from. I do wonder, however, whether you would also dismiss Beckett's plays--especially his shorter, repetitious one-acts--as dramatically unsound. Perfectly fine to do so--I do--but I'd hardly call that "unambitious."

In the case of the exercise, what impressed me about the production and Gold's direction, was how much character was revealed by it. The point is, look how complicated it is to do something as simple as being present, look at how much we fight against that, and look at the rewards for actually sticking with it.

Aaron Riccio said...

Also, a question to everyone. Based on the reviews I've read, everybody seems to think that the end of the play is an acting exercise . . . but from the shift in lighting, Lauren's voice, and the information they shared, I'm convinced that while it starts out as an activity, it ends up showing us these two ten years in the future. Am I alone in that?

joshcon80 said...


No, you're not alone. I also thought the ending actually took place ten years in the future. I suppose it's intentionally open for interpretation?

I loved, loved, loved this play.

Linda said...

The performance I attended was followed by a talkback with Annie Baker and Sam Gold and Aaron, you are right about the ending. Baker said that she intended it to start out in class and shift to ten years in the future, but when I was watching the play, I assumed that they were still in class and had learned to act and that actually works better for me than the ending she intended.

Edward Einhorn said...

Yes, that last moment was 10 years in the future. Actually, I found that aspect pretty clear and it was favorite element of the play, the subtle shifting of time. I might almost go so far as to say it was the only really interesting moment for me. Regarding Beckett, Aaron - I do think that some of his shorter plays fail, at least for me. But I suppose I'm forgiving because he was trying things no one had tried before. As he himself commented - "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." But yes, I do think his failures are more ambitious than Circle Mirror Transformation. I have always felt that sometimes plays are called well written because they're well acted and poorly written when they're poorly acted. This play was well acted, and there was nothing terribly wrong with the writing, but I suppose I demand more.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to this late, but yes, it was completely obvious to me that the final scene ended as a glimpse 10 years into the future. It starts out as an exercise, though, which I think may be where the confusion comes from.