Friday, November 25, 2016

Los Altos Stage Company: Circle Mirror Transformation

Ensemble. Photo courtesy Richard Mayer.

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation exemplifies the playwright’s slice-of-life style, an approach to theater that later won her a Pulitzer for The Flick. Baker dispenses with many of the conventions of drama in her work, creating a vividly compelling snapshot of the daily lives of downcast people in a community center acting class. Los Altos Stage’s ambitious performance brings out the best of this challenging work, capturing the pathos and quiet anguish of these characters as if they were real.

Despite not following the classic rules of theatre, the script of Circle Mirror still possesses a clear order: During the “six weeks” of classes, students participate in theatre games, delving deeper into their lives. Many of the games are repeated over and over, so although we won’t know the direction the story will take, we can at least know what future scenes will look like. Simpler games gauge the group’s unity, while more complex ones give us insight into the lives and pasts of individual characters.

Over the course of the play, the characters of Circle Mirror Transformation occupy the archetypes that one might expect from an acting class, yet simultaneously reveal unique traits. One of the most relatable is Lauren (Brittany Pisoni), a 16-year-old who joins the class hoping to gain sufficient performance skill to get the lead role in her school’s production of West Side Story. A combination of dashed expectations for the class and embarrassment at having to participate in goofy acting games causes her to sigh and complain constantly, but she’s not just a sullen teenager who’s forced to do stuff – her anger is borne out of restrained ambition.

Teaching the course is Marty (Judith Miller), who approaches the class with a freewheeling enthusiasm that is as infectious to some as it is off-putting to others. Miller understands precisely the points at which Marty’s issues start to overcome her naturally cheerful attitude, and handles the emotional shift with delicacy. The complexities of Marty’s identity, however, are more intricate than “sad person wearing a happy mask,” and Miller is as able to return to a place of peace as she is to leave it.

One of the more interesting subplots is a romance between Schultz (Gary Landis) and Theresa (Kristin Brownstone); though both of them half-stumble into it, it’s obvious that Theresa is able to handle the relationship with more maturity. Landis interprets Schultz as awkward and needy, still recovering from an emotional divorce, while Brownstone’s Theresa is ready to move past a difficult breakup with her manipulative boyfriend and an early exit from New York. Rounding out the cast is Damian Vega as Marty’s husband, James. His character is more stable than the others, not displaying any particular quirks or difficulties for most of the play but helping the others to stand out.

Circle Mirror Transformation is unlike most other plays and above the level of difficulty usually chosen for community theatre. Los Altos Stage takes on this challenging slice-of-life drama and succeeds, capturing many of the linguistic and nonverbal nuances required by Baker’s superb dialogue. Don’t expect a tidy conclusion when attending this show, but do expect to exit the theater thinking about your own life.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Palo Alto Players: The Diary of Anne Frank

Left to right: Vic Prosak and Roneet Aliza Rahamim. Photo courtesy Joyce Goldschmid and Palo Alto Players.

When the world of the Allies reeled from the discovery of the horrors committed by the Nazis, it was difficult for many people, especially those without personal connections, to process the meaning of what occurred during the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary, discovered after the war, allowed insight into the lives of the millions of victims of Hitler’s atrocities and remains a classic of historical literature to this day, with several stage and film adaptations. Palo Alto Players’ version, based on the 1997 script by Wendy Kesselman, brings to life the personalities and trials of the people in hiding in a small annex in Amsterdam.

Through her diary, Anne Frank put a face on the victims of the Holocaust as an ordinary girl surviving under extraordinary circumstances. In a theatrical adaptation, the actress portraying her must balance the innocence of a middle school girl with the desperation of someone forced into hiding. Roneet Aliza Rahamim’s rendition achieves this balance: She begins the play excited and adventurous, and although she becomes more distraught as her circumstances turn grim, she never loses the positivity and hope that lie at the core of her character.

Another standout performance in the play is Vic Prosak as Anne’s father, Otto. Prosak has a deep, powerful voice, which lends authority to his attempts to maintain peace among the members of the annex. Otto feels a profound sadness about the group’s situation as he watches his children grow up under Nazi persecution; he expresses his protectiveness through unfailing diplomacy yet rigorous adherence to the stringent rules dictated by extreme circumstances. It is Otto who gives the final monologue detailing the horrific fates of the rest of the annex group, and the sorrow and rage in his telling is palpable.

As their living situation becomes more desperate over the course of the play, the group wears down, each member reacting to the deteriorating situation according to their own idiosyncrasies. Most obvious is the dentist Mr. Dussel (Tom Bleecker), whose irritable personality is a source of humor in the play’s lighter moments, but, over time, becomes genuinely angry. The Van Daans (Shawn Bender and Rachel Michelberg) show perhaps the most dramatic transformation, as their refinement crumbles under the face of a dwindling supply of money. However, despite the increasing deprivation and tension, human decency and empathy survive, even during the terrifying moments when the Nazis arrive.

Kuo-Hao Lo’s set captures the confined space of the annex while providing a reasonable amount of room for the drama to unfold. Skylights at the top of the stage let in a sliver of cool light, hinting at the outbreak of the war in Nazi-occupied Holland, but not giving the audience – or the members of the annex – quite enough information. Rooms are set up so beds don’t occupy too much of the audience’s visual space; this gives the actors room to perform, while still conveying a cramped living area too small for its occupants.

Many people have read The Diary of Anne Frank at some point in their lives, but Palo Alto Players’ stage adaptation further captures the point of reading the book – understanding the story of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust. More than simply a documentary about genocide, the play allows us to sympathize directly with a handful of people whose lives were destroyed. For those who want to further know the life of people hiding desperately from a government intent on exterminating them, Anne Frank provides profound insight.