DRAMA CLASS The Theater Project plays with stage presence.
Five people lie supine on the floor, feet outward, like a star. They're counting to ten: Slowly, one by one, they quietly call out numbers. But as soon as any two say the same number, they're knocked back to one. This is our first glimpse into world of Circle Mirror Transformation, a deceptively simple little play about five people in an acting class who are learning a little more than mere theater arts. Christopher Price directs an impeccably cast production of Annie Baker's comedy at the Theater Project, in Brunswick.
The class, led by frank, earth-mothery Marty (Michele Livermore Wigton), is as much encounter group as actor training. In addition to counting, the students also cast each other in memory reenactments, communicate whole conversations with the word "goulash," and tell each other's stories in the first person — familiar stuff to anyone who's done any acting or improv. Marty's four students are a range of recognizable types: Theresa (Molly Bryant Roberts), newly moved from New York, has actually done some acting, and is poised and eager. Less at ease with the exercises is earnest, awkward, recently-divorced Schultz (Craig Ela), who makes chairs out of wood. In a colorful woven beanie, gesturing expansively, James (Nat Warren-White) is the quintessential self-actualized 50-something male. He is also married to Marty. Finally, and most quietly, there's Lauren (Julia Brown), a shy high school student in a hoodie who wants to play Maria in her school's production of West Side Story. They meet for six weeks in a simple room with a mirror.
As in any such class where there's a lot of risk-taking, intimacies form and shift — romances, break-ups, difficult revelations. What makes the premise work dramatically is the subtlety of Baker's script, which gives us glimpses into the class's dynamics week by week without hammering us with a fully spelled-out arc. Baker reveals characters gracefully and gradually, for example by the words they choose as they tell a story in a circle word by word — Schultz's "loneliness" and "evil" to James's highly gestured "all" and "enormous" — rather than a lot of exposition. We learn characters as they learn each other — as James acts as Lauren's father, but taps into anxieties about his own daughter, as before class Schultz tells Marty about night terrors. We see everyone reflected in the mirror as they react to each other during exercises. We see characters see themselves in the mirror when they are alone in the room.
Price's cast is exquisite in its subtlety; its characters are at once recognizable types and deeply affecting. Ela's Schultz, with his confused, apologetic gaze and halting speech, is utterly endearing; as Theresa, the woman who woos and then rejects him, Roberts has candor, sensitivity, and an earnest brightness. Warren-White's James is pitch-perfect, from his intensely present, smiling gaze to how he rhythmically pats a hackysack when he gets anxious. Lauren is a particularly subtle role, for how little she says, and Brown makes her exceptionally watchful of the older people's dynamics; she perhaps learns more from this class than anyone. And as Marty, the one charged with facilitating everyone's learning and transformations, Wigton does a lovely job balancing the teacher's gentleness toward others with her own irritations and aches.