Circle Mirror Transformation starts slowly. The set is a mirrored dance studio, and the five actors are lying on the floor. It's the first session of a community center acting class in Vermont. They count off, trying to get to 10 without interrupting each other.
"One." Pause. "Two." Long pause. "Three." Very long pause.
So begins the introspective Circle, leisurely revealing very human characters who want to be someone else onstage. The class will teach them to both share and shed their real identities. We watch them, without interruption, for 100 minutes, as their acting class reveals their true selves.
We learn about them as they learn about each other. Theresa (Holly Haverkorn) fled NYC to escape her boyfriend and the city. Shultz (Bob Morsch) is recently divorced and drifting. Lauren (Savannah Nusser) is 16, naïve and impetuous. Marty (Nan Rubley) is the drama teacher, and James (Steven Sladaritz) is both her husband and one of her students.
As the characters go through some goofy acting exercises, such as portraying a baseball glove, real life intrudes on the class. James is exasperated with his teenage daughter. Shultz strikes up a relationship with Theresa. Lauren demands to know whether they're ever going to practice "real acting." The class exposes dark secrets about each of them.
Annie Baker's Obie-winning script is like watching a flower blossom and then slowly wilt before our eyes. Her characters are exceedingly real people with real lives. They connect with each other in a summer class, and are forever changed because of it. Ten years later, none of them are actors. Nor have their lives turned out as they expected.
Baker makes liberal use of silence and pauses. Director Max Ferguson attacks them directly, making the actors and the audience wait ... for it. Sometimes it's a dramatic pause, other times it's an excruciating stillness. The challenge for Ferguson is to make the lulls add to the story rather than subtract from it. He gets it right; Baker's story is enhanced by the anticipation created with silence.
The performances are spot on here. Morsch displays his passive aggressive hostility to Theresa when he's rejected; Haverkorn responds with embarrassment and a delicate distance. Rubley and Sladaritz seem a simultaneously genuine but disconnected couple. Nusser needs no lines at all to register her disapproval of a bathroom tryst.
SET has gotten out of its comfort zone, bringing Circle to the Pikes Peak Community College campus gallery. On entering the PPCC space (normally a gallery and a dance studio separated by a folding wall), the audience passes by delicately painted gauze and transparent torsos hanging from the ceiling. The art complements the play, creating a sense of the transparency and fragility of both body and soul. The performance space is a mirrored box on three sides; the audience forms the fourth side of the box. The mirrors add greatly to the experience by giving the audience multiple views of the actors.
Per its name, Circle encourages reflection in its audience, furthered by the slow and deliberate pace set by Ferguson and cast. It may take you a few minutes to make the adjustment, but stay with it. The payoff is well worth it.