Circle Mirror Transformation
David Muse, the new artistic director of Washington's Studio Theatre, makes a strong impression with his production of Circle Mirror Transformation, a funny and surprisingly deep study of the interrelationships between theater and life.
Playwright Annie Baker sets the action in a community center in the fictitious college town of Shirley, Vermont. Over six weeks, Marty (Jennifer Mendenhall), an aging hippie, and her cheerful husband James (Harry A. Winter) lead three townspeopleSchultz (Jeff Talbott), a carpenter dealing with depression and a failed relationship; Theresa (Kathleen McElfresh), a massage therapist recently arrived from New York City; and Lauren (MacKenzie Meehan), a disaffected high schoolerthrough role-playing that amounts to unregulated therapy sessions.
The members of the class are all looking for companionship and a sense of belonging in addition to their specific interest in acting. Uncertain of what to say or how to communicate directly, they reveal more than they intend to when, as class exercises, they present re-enactments of each other's home lives or reveal secrets. (Of course the students submit their secrets anonymously, but with only five people participating, no one can really keep his or her life private.)
Muse, an actors' director who has a record of fine work at Studio, has molded an ensemble whose members play off each other beautifully; they make their interactions look effortless, which takes amazing amounts of work. Mendenhall embodies the earth mother, an evangelist for the power of acting and just a little smug; Winter allows his character's melancholy and dissatisfaction to seep out gradually; McElfresh starts out with a hard shell, which dissolves as she becomes more comfortable with herself; Talbott is sometimes painful to watch in his vulnerability; and Meehan dazzles with her minutely observed characterization of an outsider who desperately wants to fit in somewhere.
Debra Booth's scenic design cleverly captures the ordinariness of a public room (down to details like the bulletin board in the hall outside the door), incorporating a wall mirror that on occasion reflects the audience. Alex Jaeger's costumes succeed in revealing character while appearing to be nothing more than the usual T-shirts and work pants.