Midway through the new production of Circle Mirror Transformation, now playing at the Theatre Horizon in Norristown, shy and alienated teenager Lauren (Emilie Krause) has a pointed question.
“Are we going to be doing any real acting?” she asks the teacher of her community center acting class. Marty (an excellent Nancy Boykin) listens impassively.
“Um, no, probably not,” she replies.
The joke is on us, of course, because what’s going on in the acting class on stage is the highest form of acting — naturalistic, believable, and true. Marty, who runs a series of sometimes goofy theater exercises for the four-person class, is after a deeper truth as well — her desire that the participants learn to see themselves and others outside of their prepackaged identities. The joke, like the exercises themselves — playing a manic mimed version of tag, constructing emotional conversations with the words “goulash” and “Ak Mak,” rushing around the stage saying “hello” to one another and heartily shaking hands — is packed with subtext, since as the play progresses the seemingly inane exercises begin to communicate wordless moments of sorrow, anger, regret, misplaced hope, and even joy.
The play traces the class over a semester as a divorced carpenter, a failed actress, an insecure teenager, and an aging hippie (who also happens to be the teacher’s husband) gamely open themselves up to Marty’s acting lessons. As they connect and disconnect, they offer themselves a chance to move beyond where they are when they entered the classroom and are able, in the touching finale, to even imagine how they might change and pursue their lives.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. As Schultz, the carpenter, David Bardeen, schleps on stage, burdened by a recent divorce and a touching lack of self-confidence, only to be surprisingly redeemed by a compelling Theresa, played by Kim Carson, with a ballerina’s body and grace. James (Bob Weick) and Marty offer a convincing portrayal of a marriage in the process of unraveling, while Lauren (Emilie Krause) gives a strong performance as a teenager baffled, appalled, and confused by the world of adults.
Over the course of the semester, the participants are asked to play one another’s parents, act out pieces of a childhood bedroom (“Will you be my baseball glove?”), and count off numbers while lying on the floor, all exercises that on the surface, seem farcical, yet yield rewarding richness and humor.
What makes the play special is the thoughtful self-awareness that infuses the performances, the sense that while these exercises are in many ways ridiculous, they allow the characters to express some of their most hidden emotions, often without words. As the profoundly silly game of tag proceeds, for example, the audience leaned forward in their sets, moved not by any pyrotechnics or melodrama, but by the simple act of curiosity about other human beings, who were willing to expose themselves to us.
The playwright, Annie Baker, may not trust her newly minted actors to practice scripted words, but she puts her faith squarely in the power of self-expression, possibility, and growth.
For another review, by Steve Cohen, click here.