Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Circle Mirror Transformation
Repertory Theater of St. Louis

Circle Mirror Transformation starts slowly, awkwardly, with five members of a drama class who don't know each other, lying supine on the floor of a community center dance studio trying to count to ten without speaking at the same time. It is a kind of empathy exercise, designed to make the participants sensitive to their environment and the others involved in the task. By the end of the evening, it becomes clear that this exercise is a good metaphor for Miss Baker's deceptively deep and involving play.

As the characters work through another exercise, in which they assume one another's identities and introduce their assumed selves to the group, we learn that they are remarkably ordinary people. The teacher, Marty, an earnest but not particularly expert woman, also teaches crafts courses; her husband, who has enrolled in the class to support her, is a college teacher who does what is asked of him with good humor. Schultz is a thirty-five-ish, newly divorced woodworker, trying to put his life back together by exploring new directions. Theresa is a thirty-something actress and dancer, back in the small town after a few years in New York, trying to establish herself as a massage therapist and hoping to hold on to something of the theater. Lauren, an unhappy teenager, expects the class to be about "real acting," to help her compete for the lead in the upcoming high school production of West Side Story.

It does matter that Miss Baker's characters are involved in what is specifically a "Creative Drama" class. This term, according to the very informative program note, is "used by the American Alliance for Theater Educators" to describe "an improvisational, non-exhibitional, process-centered form of drama in which participants ... imagine, enact, and reflect upon human experience." The exercises in which they engage can seem inane; perhaps the most striking example involves carrying on a dialogue using only nonsense words. The point, of course, is to become aware of the presence and value of non-verbal signals, but it is the kind of thing that outsiders—in this case the audience—may well find hilariously silly.

It is the particular gift of Miss Baker's dramaturgy that slowly, awkwardly the audience becomes aware that we are part of the class, and not outsiders at all. This effect is abetted by an ingenious set, designed by Jack Magaw, that wraps both players and spectators in the ambience of the community center, right down to the floors on the risers. As the characters come to understand that acting is not just about memorizing and regurgitating lines, but about understanding and mirroring another person's essential humanity, the audience slides into the understanding that, as weird as this class is, it is about something terribly, vitally important, and the exercises are, in a Zen-like way, avenues into our hearts.

It still seems to me that the hardest thing to do on a stage is to dance badly on purpose, as for example the cast of A Chorus Line has to be able to do, but after seeing Circle Mirror Transformation I believe that acting awkwardly on purpose is almost as hard to pull off. The pure skill of this cast is remarkable. From the opening scene to the final blackout, there is never a doubt that the characters are real people, ungainly and uncertain of themselves, impulsive, sincere with the kind of earnestness that masks desperation, resentful, recalcitrant—fully, that is to say, ourselves. Charlotte Mae Jusino as Lauren, Danny McCarthy as Schultz, Kate Middleton as Theresa, John Ottavino, as James, and Lynne Wintersteller as the teacher, Marty, comprise as good an ensemble cast as we have had on the Rep stage in the last forty years.

It is of course a compliment to director Stuart Carden that the ensemble functions so beautifully, as it is to casting director Rich Cole that the actors so perfectly embody those characters. No doubt Garth Dunbar's witty costumes help to define those characters for the audience. But I walked out of the Rep's studio theater full of admiration for five gifted actors and for the playwright who crafted a play that pulls the audience to a higher level of empathy. The characters finally get the "count to ten" exercise to work—and by the time they do, the audience is no longer laughing at them but cheering for them.

Circle Mirror Transformation will run through November 13th in the studio space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis; for ticket information, call 968-4925 or visit

-- Robert Boyd

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