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.

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