Theatre review: Circle Mirror Transformation – beautiful in its simplicity

There is something oddly compelling about Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, currently on stage at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage, as its simplicity belies a deeper understanding of our human need for connections.

Gathered in the community centre of a fictional small town in Vermont, five residents are about to embark on a six-week acting class.  Through a few acting exercises and some rather mundane conversations we gradually learn about each of the characters on stage.  Fears, dark buried secrets, relationships, and a pervasive underlying need for human interaction are served up during the weekly class and just as quickly as we learn something new about the participants, they head off to their individual lives.

Much of it is pretty mundane stuff but playwright Baker has managed to flesh out her characters without providing us with huge conflict or the need to explain every bit of back story.  Providing just enough of a glimpse into each character to hook us, Baker prefers to entice us with the ordinary, allowing us to immediately see ourselves either individually or collectively in this unpretentious group participating in some pretty pretentious acting exercises.

The ensemble that director Nicola Cavendish has gathered – Alex Diakun, Emilee-Juliette Glyn-Jones, Brian Linds, Donna White, Anita Wittenberg – are equally terrific here.  I must admit that I found myself drawn to Brian Linds’ shy and awkward Schultz and suspect that each member of the audience will find their own personal connection with one of the characters.

At times I found myself so totally immersed in their individual worlds that I lost track of everything else around me. I suppose the ultimate praise here is in their ability to make the process of counting to ten both interesting and suspenseful.   There is also a wonderful improvisational feel to some of the proceedings that had me thinking of Christopher Guest and his own film about small-town theatre, Waiting for Guffman.

The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Circle Mirror Transformation.  Photo by David Cooper.
The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Circle Mirror Transformation.  Photo by David Cooper.

Cavendish helps to realize Baker’s script through the judicious use of silence and pauses, and while one could never accuse Circle Mirror Transformation as being “fast paced” there is an odd (there is that word again) momentum that rarely let’s the action lag.

My one beef though is with David Robert’s set and the under-utilization of the space in the hallway.  While he realistically captures the small-town feel of the community centre gymnasium, the use of the curtains and one-way mirrors to separate the real world (the hallway) from what is happening during class seemed arbitrary; coupled with the inconsistent whispering we hear when the characters step into the hallway, their impact is lessened.

Beautiful in its simplicity, Circle Mirror Transformation may not transform but it will certainly transfix.

4 Out of 5 Stars Circle Mirror Transformation

By Annie Baker.  Directed by Nicola Cavendish.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage through October 22, 2011.  Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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