Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

The Shirley, VT Plays Festival
Circle Mirror Transformation, The Huntington Theatre Company
The Aliens, Company One
Body Awareness, SpeakEasy Stage Company

Marie Polizzano, Michael Hammond, Jeremiah Kissel, Betsy Aidem and Nadia Bowers
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
It is a mark of the nature of the Boston theatre arts community that three companies are collaborating to produce the works of emerging playwright Annie Baker under the umbrella of the Shirley, VT Plays Festival. The brainchild of Huntington Theatre Company Artistic Director Peter DuBois, the joint undertaking was enthusiastically joined by Company One and SpeakEasy Stage Company and their respective A.D.s, Shawn LaCount and Paul Daigneault. As much as it makes sense to pool talent and resources in difficult economic times, the festival is an arts event of major importance and not without some risks for all involved. Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and Body Awareness are all being staged in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, and opportunities exist to purchase discount packages and to see the three plays marathon-style on certain dates.

Each of the plays stands on its own and there are no shared characters or plotlines among the trio. What they do have in common, besides the location of fictional Shirley, Vermont, is a regional sensibility—as in John Cariani's Almost, Maine—and that at least one character is transformed in some way (large or small) as a result of coming into contact with a stranger. By seeing all of the plays, the audience can experience Baker's singular style across a continuum from her earliest to her most recent work, as well as appreciate her acumen in character-driven storytelling.

Circle Mirror Transformation: Set in a windowless dance studio in the Shirley Community Center, Circle Mirror Transformation features four students and their teacher in a summertime creative drama class. It unfolds over a period of six weeks during which they perform a variety of acting exercises and games to learn their craft, learning much about themselves and each other in the process. In a recurring exercise, one of the students stands in front of the room and tells the background story of another student in the first person. It serves as a vehicle to let the audience learn about the characters even as they are participating in the activity. Betsy Aidem plays the teacher with an unbridled enthusiasm for her subject and genuine warmth for her students who do not all have the same degree of readiness for the unknown. Aidem shifts gears nicely when Marty's cheerfulness is tested by something revealed in one of the games.

The class is made up of a recently divorced woodworker named Schultz (Jeremiah Kissel), Marty's husband James (Michael Hammond), a New York actress who relocated to start over (Nadia Bowers), and a sullen 16-year-old wrapped up in a hoodie (Marie Polizzano). Their personalities become known through the games they play and the group dynamics at work. Circle Mirror Transformation doesn't have a typical plot structure, but Baker's signature style establishes a rhythmic ebb and flow, with spot on dialogue punctuated by silences and awkward moments that her characters must endure, as we all do in real life situations. Director Melia Bensussen captures the rhythm and perfectly paces each scene with just the right amount of discomfort, until we can feel it abate as the students grow more comfortable with their circumstances.

The cast responds to Baker's naturalistic style and Bensussen's direction. Kissel takes Schultz from his initial uncertainty to a relaxed confidence as the weeks go by and he starts to get this acting thing. He cautiously lowers his guard when Schultz and Theresa, the actress, start to flirt, and he displays the elation and insecurity that come with a new romance. Bowers beautifully handles the challenges of her character who believes herself to be open and unfettered, yet carries her secrets and pain not far below the surface. Hammond brings out the good guy in James, and also shows his consternation over his estrangement from his (unseen) daughter. The most poignant performance comes from Polizzano who embodies the angst-ridden adolescent. Her sidelong glances from under her hooded eyes encapsulate Lauren's mistrust of the adult world, and her journey through the duration of the class is not easy, but certainly transforming.

Jacob Brandt, Alex Pollock and Nael Nacer
Photo: Company One
The Aliens: Cristina Todesco's evocative scenic design sets a stark background for the being and nothingness of the lives of Jasper and KJ, two 30-something dropouts who spend their days by the trash bins behind The Green Sheep coffee shop smoking, staring at the sun, and musing. The worn siding, the screen door with a slit in the mesh and the battered picnic table make the perfect frame for the bearded, scraggly duo in dirty t-shirts and torn jeans. Jasper (Nael Nacer) is dealing with a recent romantic breakup and writing a novel, heavily influenced by the poet Charles Bukowski, whom Time called a "laureate of American lowlife." KJ (Alex Pollock) is like the hookah-smoking caterpillar, spouting aphorisms in cryptic songs and obsessed with incorporating mushrooms into every food group. One day in early July, their stream of consciousness is rippled by the annoyingly awkward teenage employee Evan (Jacob Brandt) who tries to evict these immovable objects from the "staff only" area. He unwittingly falls under their influence and all are changed by the unlikely connection.

The play takes its title from one of the many names that Jasper and KJ considered for their former band, but also mirrors their place in society. Evan is an alien in his world, too, having few friends and spending a week of the summer at Jewish music camp. He gravitates to these outsiders and they accept him and take him under their collective wing. Baker provides a stage direction that a third of the play should be silent. It feels strange in the audience, waiting for the next line of dialogue, but the silences help to forge the bonds between the characters. Their ability to sit and just be with each other shows how deeply they are connected. It is no surprise when Jasper, with warmth and concern in his tone, asks KJ if he is freaking out and advises, "You have to tell me if you feel weird." They look out for each other, including Evan in their small circle, and he steps up when he gets the chance to reciprocate.

Artistic Director Shawn LaCount helms The Aliens and puts the Company One stamp on the production. All of the design elements come together to add to the realism of the play, and the small venue of Hall A in the Calderwood Pavilion is the ideal space in which to experience the nothingness of these guys' lives. Nacer and Pollock depict them so well that I'd rather not spend ninety minutes in the company of Jasper and KJ, but I hasten to add that the play shared the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play with Circle Mirror Transformation.

Paula Plum and Gregory Pember
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Body Awareness: The first of Baker's Shirley, VT plays, Body Awareness is also the most traditional in format with a multi-pronged, linear storyline and closer relationships between the characters. Most of its humor is situational and relationship-based, but there are some clever one-liners, unlike the more subtle or gentle humor of the other two plays. It is also my favorite of the trio, which I guess says something about me, finding pleasure in more conventional plays. However, I also give credit to the four actors (Adrianne Krstansky, Paula Plum, Gregory Pember and Richard Snee) who epitomize the term ensemble and get inside their characters to find their hearts and make us care about them.

Similar to the week to week format of Circle Mirror Transformation, this play is segmented into the five days of "Body Awareness Week" at Shirley State College where Phyllis (Krstansky) is a psychology professor and coordinator of the week's programming. She lives with Joyce (Plum), her partner of three years, and the latter's 21-year-old son Jared (Pember) who they believe has Asperger's Syndrome. Jared is very bright, mostly self-taught and adamantly denies that he has A.S., no matter how much his behavior points in that direction. Into this stressful situation comes Frank Bonitatibus (Snee), a visiting male artist whose nude photographs of females of all ages send Phyllis into an uproar. Pursuing parallel paths of awareness of their own bodies, Joyce begins to develop an interest in Frank's work, and Jared decides he needs to find a girlfriend to prove that he has empathy (to eliminate any further thoughts that he has A.S.). Conflict and comedy ensue.

Paul Daigneault directs and has the benefit of another wonderful Cristina Todesco set and character-defining costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II. Jeff Adelberg's lighting design warms the lived-in kitchen and allows us a peek into the bedroom of Joyce and Phyllis when they have their nightly tête-à-têtes. Daigneault makes the whole play feel intimate, especially in the scenes where the emotions are raw and relationships are threatened. Plum and Pember exhibit the parent–child dyad with an appropriate mix of love and frustration. Krstansky and Plum connect and embrace like a loving couple, but I question Baker's use of Frank as a wedge between them. It is almost a cliché to use the man coming between two lesbians as a matter of dramatic conflict, and one rarely sees the reverse scenario. However, Snee makes Frank manly and sensitive, sort of earthy-crunchy, as it were, and he has some fun moments with Pember when he is instructing him on how to be with a woman.

It remains to be seen whether or not Annie Baker will return to the fictional town she has created for future works. She has written three other plays based in Shirley, Vermont, that have never been produced and she avows that they shall stay that way. However, now that we have had the opportunity to get to know some of the denizens of this crunchy university town that Baker describes as "a combination of Amherst and Brattleboro and Putney and Bolinas, California," it would be a shame not to explore it just a little more. After all, the population was 14,023 in the 2002 census. How about the Second Annual Shirley, VT Plays Festival?

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Directed by Melia Bensussen, Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, Lighting Design by Dan Kotlowitz, Sound Design by David Remedios, Production Stage Manager Kathryn Most, Stage Manager Josiane M. Lemieux; Produced by the Huntington Theatre Company, Performances through November 14 at Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 617-266-0800 or

The Aliens by Annie Baker, Directed by Shawn LaCount, Sound Design by Aaron Mack, Properties Design by Bryan Prywes, Music Director Ivan Sifrim, Costume Designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II, Set Design by Cristina Todesco, Lighting Design by Benjamin Williams, Stage Manager Eliza Mulcahy, Production Manager Alyssa McKeon, Original Music and Lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann; Produced by Company One, Performances through November 20 at Hall A, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 617-933-8600 or

Body Awareness by Annie Baker, Directed by Paul Daigneault, Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Original Music/Sound Design by Nathan Leigh, Production Stage Manager Victoria S. Coady; Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Performances through November 20 at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 617-933-8600 or

- Nancy Grossman

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