Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Circle Mirror Transformation
The action in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, which opened recently at the Phoenix Theater, the new home of The Custom Made Theatre Co., all takes place in a beginning acting class in a small town in Vermont. Five people–an instructor named Marty (Emily Keyishian) and her four students–assemble in a community center to practice a variety of acting exercises. Through their improvisations and storytelling, James (David Boyll), Lauren (Brenda Cisneros), Theresa (Lauren Dunagan), and Schultz (Alfred Muller) discover aspects of themselves–and each other–that they likely never expected when they signed up for the community "creative drama for adults" class.
Like Baker's The Flick, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, Circle Mirror Transformation moves at a somewhat languid pace (though not nearly as glacial as the three-hour-long The Flick), but director Ciera Eis doesn't let the action drag, choosing instead to allow the quieter, more internal moments to stand in contrast to the action in the text, when her characters are engaged in the theatre games through which their emotions and desires are revealed.
Eis has assembled a well-balanced cast; they manage to communicate both the connection they have as fellow students (and more, in some instances) and the disconnection that arises out of their being very different people. In fact, it's the dichotomy between connection and disconnection that gives this production its power. As the characters engage with each other–and at several points even portray each other by retelling stories from a classmate's life–it's fascinating to see how each character struggles (or succeeds) in being both genuinely themselves and genuinely someone else. Which, I suppose, is the very core of an actor's craft.
It's risky enough for an actor to bare their soul on stage, so I imagine it's even more intimidating to take on the task of portraying an actor learning their craft through exercises in the safe space of a studio or classroom with no audience as witnesses. Improvisation is challenging enough on its own, so making scripted improvisation feel spontaneous must ratchet up the tension even higher. Yet Eis's cast manages to pull it off. Even more impressive is that they do so while simultaneously inhabiting a character. How each cast member goes about the task of imagining how their character would be spontaneous (or hesitant and reserved) during the games that compose a great deal of the action on stage is the source of much of the pleasure of Circle Mirror Transformation.
The Phoenix is a very intimate space, seating only about 40-50 people, but Starr Liang's set design helps it feel far more expansive than that, thanks to the use of four large mirrors framed by strips of lighting and mounted on casters. The mirrors are smoked, so even though they are reflecting the audience as well as the performers, we are never distracted by seeing our own images in them. Yet the symbolism of mirroring is never far from our minds.
Every time we go to a theater, we are watching actors at work. Watching actors at work portraying actors attempting to become actors could easily devolve into an exercise in navel-gazing, but playwright Baker and director Eis (along with her cast) have instead invited us in to that inner circle where theatrical art is conceived in a way that is both thrilling and satisfying.
Circle Mirror Transformation runs through April 16, 2022, in the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, Suite 601, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. with matinees at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $30. For tickets and information, please visit www.custommade.org.