BOTTOM LINE: That rare piece of theatre that is excellent in every respect, Circle Mirror Transformation is must-see theatre, especially if you enjoy a play that is quiet, subtle, and unassumingly profound.
One of my favorite theatre experiences is going to a play about which I know absolutely nothing, and from the moment it begins, finding myself completely enthralled. In these rare instances, I enjoy every second, and as the play is ending, I find myself grasping at time, thinking “please, just one more minute…slow down…don’t end just yet…let me savor this final moment.” If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll know just how blissful I felt after leaving Circle Mirror Transformation. And you’ll also know that such an experience is extremely rare, and something to be treasured.
With Circle Mirror Transformation, Annie Baker has written one of my favorite new plays of the past several years. Not because the characters are extremely witty, or talk super quickly, or because the plot takes sudden turns. Circle Mirror Transformation is far more subtle, and because of this, more profound. Much of this is due to Sam Gold’s elegant direction; Gold is not afraid of silence, and he knows how to use it. Normally, when someone says a play is “well-paced,” they mean it moves along fairly quickly, and there is almost constant talking or movement. So to call Circle Mirror Transformation well-paced (which it is) is a bit misleading, since so much of this play’s beauty lies in the richness that happens in the pauses of people who are getting to know each other, in the awkward silences that occur between two people when everyone else has left the room during a bathroom break, and in the sudden conversation shifts that happen when someone unexpectedly returns to the room. Yet it is never boring; indeed Gold and his outstanding cast of five actors somehow even manage to make a group of people counting to ten seem fascinating, even suspenseful.
I’m hesitant to say much more, and instead just urge you to see Circle Mirror Transformation as soon as you can. Yet I also realize that, depending on your experience in theatre classes, you may not get what is happening at first. For example, two minutes into the play, after watching five people lying on the floor and slowly counting, I heard the woman behind me mutter “I hope there is more than this.” And indeed, if you have never been in an acting class, you might not recognize the opening scene as a common theatre game. Much of Circle Mirror Transformation, which takes place over the course of a six-week creative drama class in Vermont, is made up of theatrical games like this one. The rest of the play shows us the brief periods before class and during the breaks. Essentially, Circle Mirror Transformation is a series of short vignettes; describing it this way makes it sound silly and inconsequential, as if this play is simply a series of acting exercises. Yet the genius of Baker’s play is that these “nonsensical” games allow us access to these characters in a way that everyday conversation cannot. Baker understands that much of what we do is not expressed in the words we say, but in the looks we give another, and in the ways we move our body.
Circle Mirror Transformation is that rare new play that is both extremely accessible and incredibly intelligent, both hilarious and moving. (And this play is funny, especially if you’ve ever been in a drama class). The design elements are great as well: the set is spot on, the lighting is simultaneously realistic and poetic, and the unassuming costumes help create the lives of these five desperate, yet hopeful characters. Finally, there is the brilliant ensemble cast: Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Friedman, Reed Birney, Heidi Schreck, and Tracee Chimo. I won’t describe their characters, because I could not begin to do justice to their wonderfully complex creations. But if you love subtle performances, and have found that a frozen smile can be as emotionally powerful as a screaming match, go see Circle Mirror Transformation.
(Circle Mirror Transformation plays at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, through January 31st. Show times are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2:00 & 7:30pm, and Sunday at 2:00 & 7:00pm. The play is about 1 hour 50 minutes, with no intermission, and is certainly appropriate for middle and high school students. Tickets are $50 and are available at tickets www.ticketcentral.com or 212.279.4200. For more information, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.)