CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION An adult drama class provides the framework — and the trust falls — for five variously lost, cringingly funny, sincerely striving souls.
Over the river and through the woods from Grover's Corners lies Shirley, VT, Green Mountain stand-in for college-centric Amherst, MA, where playwright Annie Baker grew up — and not so long ago, the scribe being just 29. Here in Boston, a trio of local companies have joined forces to form a theatrical chamber of commerce for Shirley, simultaneously presenting three of Baker's elliptical works, all of which made their New York bows between 2008 and 2010, and two of which shared the 2010 Obie for Best New American Play. Their town hall is the Boston Center for the Arts' Calderwood Pavilion, where the Huntington Theatre Company explores Circle Mirror Transformation (through November 14), SpeakEasy Stage Company displays Body Awareness (through November 20), and Company One gets down with The Aliens (through November 20).
Taken together, the plays reveal a delicate hand working in small, oft-stunted brushstrokes and muted colors, Baker's palette being mostly devoid of the poetic whimsies, meta-theatrics, and snarkiness characteristic of her dramaturgical generation. Describing herself to TimeOut New York in 2008 as a sort of anti–Oscar Wilde, she explained that, to her, "the tragedy of bourgeois life is that we're never that funny. People write these plays where everybody on stage is saying what we all would say — days later, when we think up what would have been the funny thing to say. But I think we actually are incredibly earnest and serious and kind of pathetic. That's funnier to me." So it can be — and certainly more piquant.
Circle Mirror Transformation takes its title from one of the on-the-surface inane acting exercises that fuel the adult drama class being taught by Marty, the bubbly, new-aging co-director of Shirley's community center, in a nondescript studio there. On the slim roster of students: Theresa, an attractive thirtysomething fleeing New York and a toxic relationship; newly divorced woodworker with artistic aspirations Schultz; Marty's econ-professor husband, James; and sullen teen Lauren, who bluntly asks whether the group will ever do any "real acting." Audience members unfamiliar with the trust-building, transformative play that is a building block of the performer's craft may wonder the same. But the exercises, with their shades of group therapy, prove an ingenious means for Baker to convey not only her characters' backstories but also their vulnerabilities and desires — without having to put a single stagy utterance, and damn few fully articulated ones, into anyone's mouth.
As is often the case in life, there is little action, just the subtle shifting of psyches and relations over the six weeks of the class. But in small undercurrents, quite a lot washes by as things come together and apart for the play's five variously lost, cringingly funny, sincerely striving souls. And Melia Bensussen's production, like the play, is at its best between the lines, the actors conveying as much in facial expression and body language as in their awkward if sympathetic conversation and playing of theater games. Betsy Aidem and Michael Hammond make a warm, connected couple as Marty and James. Nadia Bowers's Theresa moves with an affectless if catalytic grace. Jeremiah Kissel, rage and pain willfully tamped down by a hammer of bonhomie, conveys the ridiculous bravery of Schultz. And as she moves from near-fetal containment to still-geeky confidence, Marie Polizzano's Lauren — who gets Baker's last, probingly interrogative word — blossoms like some gnarly, beautiful weed.