Learning How to Act: Onstage and in Life

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is a deceptively simple play — on the surface, it’s a comedy about five people enrolled in a community center class about learning how to act.

May 20, 2015 at 11:40 am
click to enlarge Circle Mirror Transformation
Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is a deceptively simple play — on the surface, it’s a comedy about five people enrolled in a community center class about learning how to act. They work their way through six weeks of exercises intended to reduce their inhibitions and open them to being more expressive and comfortable onstage. None seem bound for onstage careers, although one says she’s worked as an actress and another, a high school student, aspires to be one. But they do learn a lot — about themselves and each other. In fact, they learn how to act on the broader stage of life in this award-winning play that’s closing the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s current season.

Marty (Charlotte Booker) is the hippy-dippy instructor, a woman of boundless energy, warmth and good intentions who isn’t too far ahead of her students in terms of self-exploration. Perhaps to boost enrollment, she has coerced her awkward husband James (Andrew May), a college professor, to enroll in the class, although it’s apparent he’d prefer to be almost anywhere else. Schultz (Sam Gregory) is recently divorced and heartbreakingly eager for a new connection; he’s creative — a furniture maker — but has a hard time letting go of old attitudes and past behavior. Theresa (Mattie Hawkinson), the former actress, is clearly on the run from a past life and a bad relationship; she is physically at home in many of the exercises Marty proposes but has a hard time fully engaging with others. Sixteen-year-old Lauren (Ronete Levenson) is barely articulate at first, but she blossoms as the play’s story unfolds — an unlikely source of insight into the other characters.

The activity room in the community center in a small, fictional town in Vermont is as much a character as any of the actors. On the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage there’s just one door in and out, through which one of the class members occasionally walks in on tense conversations between others. Everything happens here (Kevin Depinet is the designer, delivering details of everyday life), but we have a sense of action beyond as we get to know the characters more profoundly.

Thanks to astutely specific work by guest director Wendy C. Goldberg, these fine, professional actors are convincing as amateurs, people who seemingly don’t understand the value of counting in sequence, making strange noises and gestures, posing as inanimate objects, telling one another’s stories and sharing revealing secrets. The paces Marty puts them through open them up to deeper understanding of themselves, and Baker’s script of short scenes draws the audience into the process with long, awkward pauses, inarticulate moments and flare-ups of emotion. Watching this play has a strangely satisfying therapeutic effect. As the characters evolve, so do we in our own “circle mirror transformation,” as we put ourselves into their places. We gain understanding, much as they do.

Elsewhere, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company continues its project of presenting Shakespeare’s eight history plays in historical order with its staging of Henry V. The young king, who we met as Prince Hal (Justin McCombs) in Henry IV, is a chastened, ambitious ruler who needs a cause to unify his nation and refill his royal treasury.

[Read a full review of Cincy Shake's production of Henry V here.]

The king decides that going to war with France will fill the bill. It’s a bit of a fool’s errand, since French forces outnumber the British. But Henry has become quite the motivational speaker, and he rallies support for his cause with several memorable exhortations.

McCombs is outstanding as the jingoistic king, knowing exactly which buttons to push — ever so earnestly — to get men to do amazing things. He navigates the balance between a benevolent ruler and a harsh, manipulative leader. Henry IV’s overstuffed comic character Falstaff is only a memory in Henry V, but his drunken supporters are back: Bardolph, Pistol and Nym (amusingly played by Billy Chace, Jeremy Dubin and Nicholas Rose). 

Paul Riopelle has several small roles, but most notably he is the “Chorus,” a role devised by Shakespeare to introduce each of the play’s five acts. (Fear not, Cincy Shakes performs Henry V in about two-and-a-half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.) These unusual poetic monologues set up action that follows, giving context and theme, and Riopelle delivers them with clarity and expression.

CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, is onstage through June 7. HENRY V, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through May 30.