'Circle Mirror Transformation': Studio Theatre's revealing class act

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; C01

The games people play to open themselves up in acting class can sure look idiotic. Practicing greeting rituals, chanting nonsense words, embodying inanimate objects, the participants often seem engaged in delusional navel-gazing. I mean, really: Is there a nanosecond of self-discovery to be gleaned in the impersonation of a baseball glove?

Ah, but this is where the imaginative intervention of a cunning dramatist can work wonders, as with the eminently satisfying outcome in "Circle Mirror Transformation," Annie Baker's comically insightful merging of brittle epiphanies and adult education.

Presented in a wryly funny, crisply designed and confidently acted package, the production marks the beginning of the new age at Studio Theatre under David Muse, who succeeds company founder Joy Zinoman as artistic director. If the quality of his first show is any indication, the dawning of Muse will represent a seamless segue out of Zinoman's twilight.

It was Zinoman who put this piece on the schedule, but it's Muse who sits in the director's chair, and he stages "Circle Mirror" with the sensitive antennae for psychological authenticity he's shown on previous evenings at Studio, with such shows as "Blackbird," "Frozen" and "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow." Although the play adheres to a time-tested dramatic formula -- the unfolding, week by week, of a class filled with characters radiating need and insecurity -- Baker gives the familiar format a fresh varnish, with a blackout-sketch narrative style and personalities that defy facile definition.

The casting of Baker's gallery contributes to the vitality of the classroom, a mirrored all-purpose room in a gleaming Vermont community center, wittily realized by set designer Debra Booth down to the immaculate wood floors and slowly rotating ceiling fan. All five actors make you feel you're eavesdropping on people you might be standing behind in a supermarket checkout line.

While it's impossible to rank the performances, two characters come across as such nuanced beings, the actors must be specially noted: Jennifer Mendenhall as Marty, a touchy-feely, cloyingly controlling instructor, and MacKenzie Meehan, whose endearingly accurate portrayal of standoffish, 16-year-old Lauren is the evening's revelation.

Marty's summer course -- "Adult Creative Drama" -- is the sort you might expect would attract a group with varying goals and levels of commitment in a small New England town. (The moments when "Circle Mirror" threatens to take on sitcom mannerisms are fortunately few.) Lauren, who may or may not have the money to pay for the class, has shown up in hopes of heightening her skills at auditioning for the autumn high school musical; Theresa (Kathleen McElfresh) is an actress taking the class to indulge her exhibitionist tendencies; Schultz (Jeff Talbott), exiting a failed marriage, seems to have matriculated as an alternative to Match.com, and James (Harry A. Winter) is here mostly because Marty is his wife. (Perhaps the instructor needs a minimum of four students, in which case James is a saint.)

The play hinges on an inside joke, that the drama of "Adult Creative Drama" has nothing to do with Anton Chekhov or Arthur Miller. Marty, whose outlook is frozen circa 1970, is all about using acting exercises to free the body and spirit, and so the students rehearse nothing except games out of Marty's psychic script. A recurring one has them arranged on the floor like spokes of a wheel, attempting collectively to count aloud to 10, without any two people shouting a number at the same time.

It's left to Lauren to pose the obvious question: "Are we going to be doing any real acting?" she asks midway through the summer. The games -- many of which seem to be drawn from actual curricula -- can become a bit tedious to sit through; points are reached in the play when they are not revealing vital new dimensions of the characters' lives. But Baker does find her way back to incisiveness. Eventually, Marty introduces a game that compels the anonymous divulging of deeper forms of pain and doubt, and provides the evening with a more profound rationale for all the actory frivolousness. And as a bonus, Baker's moving epilogue fascinatingly blurs the line between what transpires in the classroom and what happens to these people later on.

Resonantly, too, the playwright has constructed a comedy about acting that gives actors terrific moments. Everybody gets at least one: The state of Marty and James's marriage, for instance, comes coursing to the surface in a sharply rendered scene in which Mendenhall and Winter reveal their characters' mutual resentment while role-playing another character's parents. The expertly played sexual tension between Talbott's Schultz and McElfresh's Theresa supplies another swell undercurrent for the evening.

And best of all, Meehan's reserved, refreshingly honest portrait allows us to see what's really happening in a class that, in the end, is not all about pretend.

Circle Mirror Transformation

by Annie Baker. Directed by David Muse. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Alex Jaeger; sound, Neil McFadden. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Oct. 17 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit http://www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

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