Circle Mirror Transformation: Theater’s Best Topic: Acting

Hero Marguerite, Joel Ripka, Tara Franklin, Corinna May and Alex Draper in Circle Mirror Transformation at CTC.
Hero Marguerite, Joel Ripka, Tara Franklin, Corinna May and Alex Draper in Circle Mirror Transformation at CTC.

Circle Mirror Transformation at Chester Theater: A Totally Different Kind of Theater

It’s 2008 in the mythical town of Shirley, VT. With 14,023 residents, it’s about the size of and based on Amherst Mass, a town where playwright Annie Baker lives. Baker has set three of her plays in this made-up town, that director Daniel Kramer calls the Shirley Trilogy.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a play about an acting class, with four students and one instructor in the same little town. Where we would go in the next 95 minutes would be measured in bursts…tiny scenes that pop up and sound off, then pop to blackness.  It kept the audience engaged, although it never got topical, Baker’s script lacks any references to the news events and trends of 2008.

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There is something fun about a play that’s essentially about acting. And during the talk back after the matinee, attended by about half the audience, Corinna May confirmed how much fun it is as an actor to do scenes about acting school games that look so funny to non-actors. And we got that in burst after burst, on the right of the stage the bulletin board announced which week it was, and we got up to class number six. So in there, all of those acting classes, the micro scenes showed how that was done.

Some of the games proved to be almost too revealing, others were just funny to watch…like when the story teller has to tell the life story of another actor…awkward.  Or when the group circles up tight and one person begins to shimmy and say wooop woop woop and then another person mimics that and does their own unique kind of move, soon copied by the rest, going on to hilarious lengths around the circle. These acting school tricks are fun!

The play’s set by Juliana Von Haubrich is a windowless dance studio in the Vermont town, and she puts the realism right in there, with a replica of the heating duct work and vents you see up high on the walls of a place like this. That verisimilitude really worked for me, bringing me with five cast members to their weekly acting class. And oh boy, would this turn out to be a quite a class!

At the plays beginning the five players are on the floor, trying again and again and stumbling, to master an old acting class drama game, counting to ten  one by one with the whole group but not interrupting anyone. It’s harder than it seems. Down there are acting class teacher Marty (Corinna May), her husband James (Alex Draper) recently divorced Schultz, (Joel Ripka) Theresa, (Tara Franklin) a single woman who moved up from NYC and one high school girl, Lauren, (Hero Marguerite).  All but Hero are professional equity actors, this show was unique at CTC for having so many cast members.

SHE'S A TREE: Lauren (Hero Marguerite), Marty (Corinna May), Theresa (Tara Franklin), James (Alex Draper) and Schultz (Joel Ripka) Circle Mirror Transformation
SHE’S A TREE: Lauren (Hero Marguerite), Marty (Corinna May), Theresa (Tara Franklin), James (Alex Draper) and Schultz (Joel Ripka)

Midway through the play, I wasn’t sure if I liked these characters, who were struggling through the weekly assortment of drama games and challenges thrown down by Marty. It was hard for high schooler Lauren to understand…”I just want to learn to act, I just want a script and a scene,” she complained. Marty assured her these wacky play acting games were how to hone her acting chops.

Over the course of the show, however, my mind changed and I was right in there with all of them. They unfolded like truly gifted actors do.  To a person, each one had their own charm, and quirks I got to enjoy. One of my favorite characters was Schulz, (Joel Ripka), whose look reminded me of CSI actor Christopher Meloni, who falls in love with Theresa (Alex Draper), but begins to get whiney when she doesn’t call. Lauren (Hero Marguerite) captured the awkwardness and innate enthusiasm of a high schooler well, it was quite the contrast when we met her on stage at the talkback seeming to have aged five years when she got off stage.

Later that exercise where one actor plays another spills out some of his guts, and there is interesting tension between Marty (Corinna May) and Frank her somewhat estranged husband, who for some reason has enrolled in this acting class with the other three of his neighbors.

Daniel Elihu Kramer commented on the rarity of show at Chester with five principal actors (“It’s like Ben Hur for us!). I was happy to see this play in the mix with five unique and memorable characters, because it brought so many different perspectives to this fascinating and complex play.

Circle Mirror Transformation, Chester Theatre Company  August 17, 18, 19, 2023