‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ captivates through characters

November 29, 2018

The Department of Theater Arts’ production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” explores the life and relationships of its characters through the unique setting of a theater class. Coming into the first scene of the play, the audience is given very little to work with in terms of exposition, just the cast sitting on the floor playing a theatre game. This is also mirrored in the description of the play in the playbill: a windowless dance studio in the town of Shirley, V.T. The lack of information can be initially off-putting as the audience might not fully understand what is going on or the context of the games they play. However, the lack of initial exposition does not take away from the audience’s ability to connect to the play. In fact, letting the cast develop their characters through theater games reveals their feelings, motivations and histories to the audience in a natural way without relying on clunky dialogue.

Initially the audience knows very little about any of the characters in the play. But through the games and activities they play on stage, the audience gradually learns more about each individual. For example, in the first scene, the cast members are laying down and playing a game where they count upwards. The goal of this game is to count as high as possible without two people saying a number at the same time. At first the character struggle with the activity; this reflects their initial discomfort with both the activity and each other. But as the play continues, and their characters develop, they become more and more in sync with each other and subsequently better at the counting game.

These theater games also help reveal more about each character and their relationships. This is shown in another acting exercise where each character tells the story of another character. The first character to do this exercise is James, played by Zach Garrity ’20, who tells the life story of his wife, Marty, played by Emily Pollack ’21, who is also the teacher of the theater class. Garrity does an excellent job portraying James as uncomfortable with acting and expressing his emotion. His retelling of the story of how Marty and he met, through his wife’s perspective, explains their relationship and backstory, while also demonstrating James’s discomfort in expressing his emotions, a flaw that would come back to haunt him later in the play. This exercise also showed changes in relationships such as Theresa, played by Haia R’nana Bchiri ’20, when she acts out James’ backstory. During this exercise, Theresa shows her admiration for James and also connects to him by playing a more positive and self confident version of James. By doing this, the audience gets a glimpse of James’ backstory and how Theresa views him. Theresa’s ability to connect with other characters is due in no small part to the onstage chemistry between all the cast members, particularly in the case of Theresa and Schultz.

Schultz, played by Pierce Robinson ’22, and his romantic entanglement with Theresa is both difficult to watch and impossible to look away from. Both Robinson and Bchiri do an excellent job portraying individuals scorned by love in the past. At first, it seemed like the audience was supposed to root for the awkward Schultz and beautiful Theresa to be together. However, both Schultz and Theresa’s past relationships and personal issues begin to erode their relationship. Robinson and Bchiri’s onstage chemistry is clear, but, more importantly, their ability to portray the flaws in their character’s relationship is a testament to their performances.

The excellent onstage chemistry is not limited to just Schultz and Theresa. In fact, the entire cast develops close bonds over the course of the play as they get to know each other. Another excellent example of this is Marty, the theater instructor. As the teacher of the theater class, Marty acts as the center of the group and her relationships with each character affects the dynamics of the group. Pollack’s performance as Marty is incredible. She completely captures the persona of a theater teacher but also balances this by having moments where she breaks her composure. During one acting exercise, Marty and James inadvertently confront the problems in their strenuous marriage. The usually calm and collected Marty momentarily drops her teacher persona to convey raw and heartfelt emotion.

The entire cast of “Circle Mirror Transformation” was excellent in their portrayals of the characters and their relationships. But one character in particular stood out as having the most growth and development: Lauren, played by Noa Laden ’20. In the play, Lauren is a shy high schooler and the youngest of the group. She represents a sort of innocence in the play as she has not yet been scorned by love like Schultz and Theresa or gone through relationship troubles like Marty and James. Lauren has her own problems at home, and the class, particularly Marty, serves as a support group for her. Laden’s portrayal of Lauren is captivating both physically and vocally. At first Lauren is too shy to even speak and physicality mirrors this. Lauren is often hunched over or points her toes in to represent her shyness. But as Lauren develops confidence and becomes more accustomed to the group, she physically changes her demeanour becoming more open, and she even vocally questioning the importance of the theater games. Laden does a fantastic job portraying Lauren’s growth and development over the course of the play.

The cast’s incredible performance was supported by excellent lighting and sound design by Deb Sullivan and Dewey Dellay respectively. The costume design by Chelsea Kerl is also fantastic. Although the cast wears normal, everyday clothes, their outfits change from scene to scene, demonstrating the passage of time between each scene without needing to specifically state that a week has passed. In particular, Lauren’s outfit changes from a gray sweatshirt to a more colorful and vibrant outfit by the end of the play symbolizes her newfound confidence.

“Circle Mirror Transformation” is truly unique because it uses theater games to create a cohesive and thought-provoking story. The theater games are not simply a gimmick or a backdrop; they express and develop the relationships between the characters. The cast’s excellent chemistry and performances made each character feel real and honest. This production is an excellent example of good storytelling and character development through action and dialogue rather than clunky exposition.

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