Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Circle Mirror Transformation:
Clever and Rewarding Theatre Exercise

Sandy Duncan, Amanda Sykes, Tom Riis Farrell, Sandie Rosa and Nick Wyman
When Circle Mirror Transformation was produced by Playwrights Horizons last season, it instantly established playwright Annie Baker as one of the most promising and unique young voices in the American theatre. Anders Cato's production at George Street clearly and divertingly demonstrates what all the fuss is about. However, and this is a good thing, Circle is deep and deceptively complex, requiring close attention and thoughtful engagement for it to yield its richest treasures.

The setting is a dance studio in a community center in the fictional Vermont college town of Shirley where five locals (including the class instructor) are participating in a five week, five session acting class. As the play begins, all of the participants are lying on their backs about the stage, and, at random intervals, one or another calls out a number (beginning with one) in sequential order. When two people call out a number at the same time, the count has to start over. At least to those who have no experience with acting class exercises, its purpose is mystifying. The exercises, which occupy a substantial portion of this one hour and forty minute, one-act play include games in which the participants perform a variety of physical movements, rotate in adding words to piece together lists and stories, enact confrontational scenes in which the participants each repeat a word which has no contextual meaning (i.e., goulash - akmak), enact a tree, a bed and toys to recreate a childhood bedroom, tell stories, relate their histories, relate and repeat each other's histories, and perform the roles of other participants and significant people in the latter's lives, and more. Near the end, each participant is told to write a dark secret which will not identify him/her on a sheet of paper. The papers are then drawn randomly with each participant reading the one that he has drawn. You may want to record the six secrets, and then choose whom you think wrote each one. There is no right answer, but it makes for a very interesting theatre game. Interspersed are scenes depicting the direct interaction of the participants, mostly in one-on one situations.

And gradually and inexorably, mysteries give way to insights and revelations as their lives and relationships are revealed and we are able to discern an in-depth understanding of the emotional life of each participant. Each is flawed and unhappy, but playwright Annie Baker makes each sympathetic and is never judgmental toward them. Baker performs an impressive theatrical feat by providing us with our deepest understanding of them within the depicted theatre exercises. Additionally, Circle allows us to viscerally feel the connections that develop between the participants as the group and the acting exercises help each one to better understand him/herself, and his/her's life and relationships.

Sandy Duncan is the instructor, Marty. One class member is her husband, James, played by Nick Wyman, who is the executive director of the community center. They no longer communicate with one another—that is, until, during an exercise in which they are ostensively playing another participant's parents, their own personas and issues break through as they excoriate one another. Duncan clearly, but subtly, conveys the pent-up emotions of Marty until the volcano within her comes out with organic force. Wyman convincingly captures the macho bluster of an angry and unhappy man putting on a game face for as long as he can.

Twenty-nine-year-old Theresa has returned to New England after breaking up with her boyfriend in New York City where she had been pursuing an acting career. Not sharp enough in all senses of the word to adjust to the Big Apple, she is studying acupressure therapy right where she belongs. Her neediness causes her to foolishly succumb to the clumsy advances of the needy, middle-aged carpenter Schultz. Schultz has been living in a nearby motel since being summarily dismissed from his marriage. Theresa is in for a brief fling with a man whom she doesn't realize only knows serious. Amanda Sykes accurately depicts the pretty and appealing, sometimes clueless Theresa. Tom Riis Farrell is only as likeable as his discombobulated Schultz should be.

This is an ensemble play, and all of the actors smoothly blend their performances to create an organic whole under the sure-handed direction of Anders Cato. Still, there can be little doubt but that 16-year-old, mousy Lauren and her forlorn hope to break away from her unhappy home life by finding fulfillment as an actress is the central story and the one closest to Annie Baker's heart. At first, Sandie Rosa appropriately does not allow Lauren's dim light to shine. However, as Lauren blossoms from the caring ministrations of the others, Rosa endows Laura with ever increasing luminosity.

To its advantage, Anders Cato appears to have directed the play at a somewhat faster pace than the Playwrights Horizons production. The set by R. Michael Miller is hyper realistic, yet has a couple of flourishes which, aided by the lighting design of Joe Saint, add distinctiveness. Jennifer Moeller's costumes are spot on.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a little whiz of a play. Please don't take it lightly, or think that the writer and her interpreters are the only ones who should be working after the curtain goes up. Like all the best theatre, this play insists that we, the viewers, work a little. Such work is well rewarded here.

Circle Mirror Transformation continues performances (Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 2 pm & 7 pm, extra performance Thursday 10/28 @ pm) through October 31 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online:

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker; directed by Anders Cato

Theresa...................Amanda Sykes
James.........................Nick Wyman
Lauren........................Sandie Rosa
Schultz...................Tom Riis Farrell
Marty.......................Sandy Duncan

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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