As often as not, the really big changes in the history of theater come as much from shifts in style as from new subjects. It remains to be seen whether years from now Circle Mirror Transformation will be remembered as a genuine stylistic breakthrough or dismissed as a trendy reworking of recognizable devices and situations. In the meantime, though, this intriguing new show is as fun to ponder as it is to see. E. Bonnie Lewis plays Marty, the teacher of a summer acting workshop in Shirley, Vermont. When only three students show up, she enlists her husband, James (Craig Scott), and off we all go on a six-week (or in the case of the audience, a two-hour, no-intermission) journey of risk-taking, trust, vulnerability, and self-discovery.
The other students vary widely in their goals and in their levels of experience. One of them, Theresa (Michelle A. Osborne), has been an actress in New York, while the other two, Schultz (Joe Andrieu), a recently divorced 48-year-old carpenter, and Lauren (Maria V. Oliveira), a 16-year-old high school student, have never done any real acting before. It’s thus up to Marty, through a series of exercises, to not only bring out their inner actors but also forge with them a group identity. The fact that this model both succeeds and backfires is part of what makes Circle Mirror interesting. Without spoiling any of the surprises, it can be said that Marty gets more than she bargained for.
The script is balanced neatly between scenes that take place strictly in the story — conversations before and after the classes, for example — and scenes that arise through the activities of the workshop. For those who have studied acting in the last 20 or so years, at least some of the exercises will be familiar. Several scenes begin or end with the counting game, in which the participants must count off one at a time to 10. If two people speak at once, the count starts again. Other easily recognizable theater workshop activities include repetitions, tableaux, and the classic movement exercise that gives the play its title.
Through each successive exercise, the characters reveal more about their gradually emerging backstories and about the increasingly dramatic subtexts swirling beneath the surface of the class itself. Simple props such as a Hula-Hoop and an exercise ball are all that is needed for this group of actors to pull you into the reality of their struggles.
Where the play gets most interesting is in a series of exercises that push at the boundaries of what is recognizable from a standard acting workshop. In these key sequences, characters are invited to give monologues as one another, with each in turn trying their luck at evoking the way another character would like to be seen at that moment. It’s a fascinating balancing act, to see an actor striving to please the small group audience onstage without going too far and revealing something that would make the person they are playing uncomfortable. A final ratcheting up of the stakes involving the somewhat anonymous revelation of secrets takes this game to another level of complexity and tension.
Like the characters they play, each of these actors was able to draw strength in one way or another from the group, and the result was something more than the sum of its parts. As Marty frequently tells her students — sometimes in the aftermath of rather harrowing moments — “Great job, you guys.”