Monday, October 05, 2015

Circle Mirror Transformation

L to R: Heidi Masem, Trent Beeby, Woody Fridae, and Linda Glick
I’ve never heard such a quiet audience in my life.

Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” was quite a change from Winters Theatre Company’s usual wacky comedies, and the new young director, Andrew Fridae, had warned the audience there would be silences in the show that might seem uncomfortable and not to worry that the actors had forgotten their lines. Throughout the play, the audience was in rapt attention so that during the silences you could hear a pin drop.

The director has ignored the Community Center stage and built instead a platform along the back wall of the room on which he has created the look of a studio where an “acting class” is taking place, led by Marty (Linda Glick) a 55-year-old acting instructor who teaches by communication exercises rather than by actual acting scenes. Glick, an instructor of such courses in real life, I was informed, is obviously perfect in the role of instructor, mentor and participant in the activities.

There are four in her class. James (Woody Fridae, father of the director and former mayor of Winters) is her husband and their relationship will come under some scrutiny throughout the evening.

Schultz (Trent Beeby) is a 48-year-old divorcee, full of insecurities, newly single, and hoping the class will help his self-esteem.

Theresa (Ana Kormos) is a 35-year-old gorgeous but lonely woman, harboring her own relationship problems and doing a lot of sublimating.

Lauren (Heidi Masem) is only 19 and hopes the class will prepare her to audition for an upcoming high school production of “West Side Story.” She is the typical sullen teenager, but still serious about doing well in this class.

The play is divided into two acts and each consists of three weeks of the six-week class. Each “week” is a series of acting exercises, some of which may seem silly, but which, over the course of the six weeks, shows how the group has come together, and has grown and been changed by their experiences.

Along one wall of the studio is a large mirror, donated by Sally Teaford, which allows the class to concentrate on the exercises, and not on always facing the audience, which can see them in the mirror when they are looking away.

Director Fridae explained to me that this is a “naturalistic play,” meaning that the action attempts to create the illusion of reality. Fridae (and playwright Baker) succeeds so brilliantly that the audience was totally into what was going on on stage.

This was the second-most-produced play in the United States after its 2009 premiere, perhaps because of the small cast and perhaps because of that “naturalistic” approach, but it’s not as simple as it may seem because it requires a team of top-notch actors who relate well to each other. Fortunately, just such a mix is featured in this show.

Throughout the evening, relationships among the participants form and dissolve. One particularly touching exercise involves one person getting up, introducing him or herself as another member of the group and then giving an introduction based on that person. Some of those introductions were quite touching, especially when the actor speaking addressed something within the person he or she was representing that that person had not realized.

“I am a real artist,” for example, was a real revelation to the person about whom the comment was spoken.

Another surprisingly effective exercise was a conversation between two people where they could each use only one nonsense word, “goulash” and “ak-mak,” for example. The exercise began awkwardly, but as the participants became comfortable with the exercise, an actual conversation began to be discerned.

Things work so organically that one wonders if the actors might be improvising, but it’s all scripted beautifully and directed so expertly that it ends up being a new theatrical experience for all. It’s not until the cast takes a rather unusual bow that you realize it has been a play and not a real-life experience all along.

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