Hell Is Other Actors: Sad to say, the Rep Studio's Circle Mirror Transformation has no exit

Nov 3, 2011 at 4:00 am

Hey, who wants to watch five stereotypical white people play amateur psychiatrist to each other under the guise of a creative dramatics class at a community center? Rest assured, they all actualize someone's personal/spiritual breakthrough, because they're actors, and actors are magical creatures, like E.T., or sit-com grandparents. If you raised your hand, chances are you're involved in the theater community (or you really love self-help books). If you didn't, well — boy, are you in for a slow night.

Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is as advertised. Four residents of Shirley, Vermont, take a creative drama class at the community center (nicely realized by set designer Jack Magaw) and fall in love with one another, fall out of love, share a dark secret and experience an epiphany through the mystical rituals of lying in a circle on the floor and counting to ten, role-playing as each other and, uh, performing a scene in which the only lines uttered are "ak-mak" and "goulash."

Our class includes Theresa (Kate Middleton), a New York actress who has fled the meanness of the city and a domineering boyfriend; Lauren (Charlotte Mae Jusino), a sullen sixteen-year-old with a fractious home life; Schultz (Danny McCarthy), your stock "regular guy" carpenter who's taking the class to assuage the loneliness of his recent divorce; James (John Ottavino), the aging hippie who runs the community center; and James' wife, Marty (Lynne Wintersteller), the organic yoga-and-granola acting instructor.

For the record, I do believe that theater is a transformative experience. A story well told by the actor/director matrix is an incantation that removes you from this world for the length of the play. Circle Mirror Transformation doesn't do this, because the structure of the play constantly bumps you in the face and reminds you you're watching a play. Scenes of actual characterization and storytelling, such as Theresa and Schultz's nascent romance, begin to draw you in, but then the lights go out and when they come back up, we're watching the group play improvisational tag for five long minutes.

McCarthy and Jusino get the most out of those too-brief moments of real acting in this Stuart Carden-directed production, which opens the Rep's Studio Theatre series. As Schultz, McCarthy delivers his observations with hammer-like bluntness, getting laughs from his awkward and understated flirting and the casual way he barrels through life. Lauren's stubborn refusal to accept that Marty's exercises in listening and "being present" have anything to do with acting is evinced through dragging feet, eye rolls and exasperated sighs — the standard teenage arsenal, each weapon skillfully deployed. Late in the class, she finally blurts out, "Will we do any real acting? Like, in a play?" Marty assures her that "we are acting."

No, you're practicing, and only true diehards want to watch anyone practice their craft. If you're a fan of batting practice, pianists running scales for 90 minutes or, heaven help you, any variation of the "When I go to California, I'm bringing BLANK" game, you're in for a real treat.