Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review: Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by Theatre Horizon, directed by Matthew Decker, written by Annie Baker, featuring Emilie Krause, Nancy Boykin, David Bardeen, Kim Carson, Bob Weick.

Review: Circle Mirror Transformation


By Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

A funny thing happens about halfway through Circle Mirror Transformation, playwright Annie Baker's meditation on communication and connection via acting classes. In Theatre Horizon's gentle production, Lauren (Emilie Krause), the sole teenage member of a six-week summer course, is getting fed up with all the creative visualizations and awareness exercises. "Are we gonna do any real acting?" she asks teacher Marty (Nancy Boykin). "Like acting out a play?"

Marty tells a disappointed Lauren no, they won't. And on goes Baker's crafty script, telling this story of the way five people in fictional Shirley, Vt. (Baker's own version of Yoknapatawpha, with three plays set there thus far) briefly join, unite and separate, the way we all do, over and over, throughout our lives.

As the class progresses, so do their relationships to one another, to themselves, for better and for worse. I'd wager one of the reasons this was the second-most produced play in the United States after its 2009 premiere is the novel way it tells its story by hardly telling a story at all. For Baker, language is more hindrance than help, and even when her characters communicate in nonsensical drama-game phrases, perhaps especially then (in one scene, it's "goulash" and "ak-mak") raw, genuine emotion triumphs. It's almost tragic for a playwright to consider how much we rely on words and conclude that they hardly matter when we're face to face.

Matthew Decker directs this fantastic cast with a conductor's touch, raising and lowering the profile of each according to their swells of emotion. Aside from wide-eyed Krause and down-to-earth Boykin, there are David Bardeen's earnest divorcé Schultz, Kim Carson's gorgeous, lonely Theresa, and Bob Weick's floundering graybeard James, all bringing a heartbreaking authenticity to their roles. And while that probably sounds like lots of icky, sticky jargon, here the moments that make you laugh or that make your eyes well up or that catch you entirely by surprise.

Some of the acting exercises and their repetition make for antsy viewing, but stick with it; Baker's an artisan, and everything is placed where it is for a good reason. Her dialogue and built-in extended pauses seem so natural I had to double-check the script to see if the actors were ad-libbing. They weren't. That's what a play without Real Acting feels like: it feels a lot like living.


Circle Mirror Transformation Through March 16 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown Tickets: $25- $35. 610-283-2230 or www.TheatreHorizon.org


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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