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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Ingenious Production of Annie Baker's
Circle Mirror Transformation

Also see Richard's review of War Horse

Circle Mirror Transformation
(front) Robert Parsons, Arwen Anderson and Julia Brothers; (back) Marissa Keltie and
L. Peter Callender

Here is chance to see an acting class in action with five very talented Bay Area actors providing an evening of fascinating drama. Annie Baker, who wrote Aliens and Body Awareness, is a bold, imaginative playwright who has taken a huge risk, and she partially succeeds thanks to a splendid cast of Bay Area veteran actors.

Circle Mirror Transformation can be said to encircle, mirror and transform an audience; as the New York Times said, "it's absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny." The play won the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play. However, it could be trimmed from its one hour and 50 minutes no intermission to a much quicker 90 minutes. Some of it is pretty mundane stuff; playwright Baker manages to flesh out the characters without providing us with huge conflict or the need to explain every bit of back story.

This is the story of a drama/improv class in the basement studio of a Vermont community center; you could say it is a variation on A Chorus Line, as the five participants gradually discover a lot about themselves and each other. The playwright is tempting us to immediately see ourselves either individually or collectively in this unassuming group participating in some pretty ostentatious acting exercises.

The members of the ensemble that director Kip Fagan has gathered—Arwin Anderson, L. Peter Calender, Marissa Keltie, Robert Parsons and Julia Brothers—are equally terrific. Fagan helps to realize the playwright's script through the judicious use of silence and pause. You would never accuse the production of being "fast paced."

The indispensable Julie Brothers is outstanding as Marty, who leads a class of four students, including her husband James played by J. Peter Callender—an extraordinary talent not fully exploited in the least developed character, although he does transmit the pressures of the couple's marriage. Brothers is wonderful with her phony smile while directing the class, and she is perfect just underacting while the other characters speak about their problems. Arwin Anderson, returning to the stage after a car accident last year, gives a resilient performance as the new girl in town, Theresa, a former New York actress escaping a bad relationship. She nails the character's na´ve narcissism and her lonesomeness. Marissa Keltie gives a first rate performance in the stimulating role of Lauren, a petulant, insecure teenager. She relaxes into her portrait of the character and she has the best line in the play: "Are we ever going to do any real acting?" It's a pitch-perfect performance. Robert Parsons gives a heartfelt performance and strikes fluent notes of candidness and loneliness as the recently divorced Schultz.

Set Designer Andrew Boyce has devised a realistic low ceiling, bare-walled gymnasium with bright florescent lights, thanks to Lighting Designer Gabe Maxson. Costumes by Christine Cook are modestly character-specific, everyday costumes. Cliff Caruthers adds busy between-scenes conservational soundscapes.

Circle Mirror Transformation has been extended through September 2 at the Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave. Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5203 or visit www.marintheatre.org. Coming up next is Topdog/Underdog, in previews September 27, opening on October 2nd, and running to September 30.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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