TAMPA — Theater people like Circle Mirror Transformation because virtually the entire play is set in an acting class at a community center in Vermont. It is, playwright Annie Baker says in a note to the script, "hopefully, a strange little naturalistic meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time."
Stageworks and director Karla Hartley assembled an excellent cast to play the teacher and her four students, and they give a performance clearly inspired by their own experience as actors. How nonactors in the audience will respond is another thing, as Baker's play can seem awfully slight and inconsequential.
Circle Mirror Transformation — a pair of mirrors and a rubber yoga ball mainly make up the set — opens with all five characters lying on their backs on the studio floor in a circle, counting in random fashion, one at a time: "One ... two ... three ... four ... five ... six," and then the teacher, Marty (Dawn Truax in a smart, warmhearted portrayal), tells them to start again when two people in the class count out "seven" at the same time. This is repeated throughout the play, which also includes a game of "explosion" tag, free association, improvisation and other actorly exercises.
"I don't get it," says Lauren (Lizzie Kehoe), a teenager, during one of the drills. "What's the point of counting to ten?"
Not a bad question, but Marty is ready with the answer, no doubt having been asked many times through the years: "The point is being able to be totally present. To not get in your head and second-guess yourself. Or the people around you."
Actors deserve much credit for what they do to be able to inhabit a role persuasively, and that's an important aspect of Baker's play. With the precise language and rhythms and silences of her script, she captures the touchy-feely, new age vibe of a lot of the theater world, but Circle Mirror Transformation (winner of the Obie Award for best new American play in 2010) founders on its hackneyed storyline.
Naturally, emotional complications crop up in the class, including an apparent fling between Schultz (Kibwe Dorsey) and Theresa (Diane Dehn), as well as some sort of murky conflict between James (Jim Wicker) and Marty, his wife, despite their being a "cool couple." It all gets too oblique. For example, when Marty convenes a game in which everyone writes down "a secret that you've never, ever told anyone," and then they're disclosed anonymously, at least one secret — someone's addiction to Internet porn — comes out of the blue. It left me wondering what I'd missed.
Hartley did it all with Circle Mirror Transformation, not only directing but also designing sets, lights and sound, everything but the costumes, designed by Melinda Kajando. Music between the scenes includes Patty Larkin, Regina Spektor, Vedera, He Is We and other indie pop.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.