It is only by looking in a mirror that people can see themselves as they are.
In the final play of the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s 2011–12 season, Circle Mirror Transformation, five people’s lives intersect over the course of a six-week community centre creative drama workshop. The class is led by enthusiastic former hippie Marty (Mary Ellis) and attended by her comparably reserved husband James (John Koensgen), recently divorced furniture artisan Schultz (Andy Massingham), ex-New York failed actress and aspiring massage therapist Theresa (Sarah McVie), and introverted teenager Lauren (Catherine Rainville). Through various group exercises (that will be either peculiar at first, or all too familiar, to any given audience member) they get to know each other—perhaps too well, as they start to pry at the cracks in each others’ personal lives, for worse and for better.
Playwright Annie Baker has made use of a similar framework to the NBC sitcom Community: take a few people who have very little in common and wouldn’t interact under normal circumstances, and throw them in a room to learn something together. Circle Mirror Transformation certainly starts as a comedy; as time goes on the interactions get more and more serious, but it retains its fundamental humour right until the final moment.
Because of her astute choice of setting and situation, Baker is able to do a great many things that would be frowned upon in most plays, such as have the characters tell each others’ backstories while merely suggesting the events in the characters’ present lives. Each of the characters is in one way or another at a turning point in their lives. Normally it’s a bad idea to concentrate on more than one character’s journey—and some of the character development is consequently how-the-heck-did-that-happen abrupt—but it adds a certain feeling of realism. People do have lives, and sometimes they collide with others’ lives, and Circle Mirror Transformation refuses to simplify that.
The drama of Circle Mirror Transformation depends more on how the characters interact with each other than what is said. It follows that interest in the action depends on how real and sympathetic the characters appear. Thus, this talented, experienced cast makes this play what it is. Mary Ellis is a gem; she and Koensgen play off against each other well and when the veneer is scratched off, fight and make up exactly as a long-married couple would. Massingham definitely inspires sympathy in Schultz’s emotional vulnerability. McVie somehow incorporates Theresa’s dazzlingly naïve arrogance into a character you believe will be fallen for by someone, or everyone. The least experienced cast member, Catherine Rainville, is not merely a fresh face; she more than holds her own on stage. Lauren’s change in character is the most sweeping (yet least motivated), and Rainville portrays the spectrum easily. She has certainly not wasted the opportunity to debut on the GCTC stage alongside four local luminaries. The actors are all at their most natural (as anyone who has met them in a social setting could verify), and their acting styles match their roles perfectly.
The angle of the set and the mirrors along one wall—which have nothing, by the way, to do with the “circle mirror transformation” to which the title refers—solve some of the problems with blocking resulting from people moving naturally and sitting in a dreaded circle (a problem that plagued the similarly-themed I Do Not Like Thee, Dr. Fell produced earlier this season by SevenThirty Productions at the Gladstone Theatre). This, fortunately or unfortunately, means that one’s position in the audience has an immense effect on what exactly one sees; those rows closer to the stage (and to the right of the house) will see “more” than those seated higher up. I don’t think anybody loses out; there are no really bad angles. The set, by the way, is an absolutely accurate depiction of a community centre studio or school gym, complete with painted cinderblock wall, vinyl baseboard, and door jamb painted to match.
There are a lot of techniques in the text that would be classified as unadvisable in general, but they all work in this specific case. The frequent blackouts and episodic nature keep the comedic pace rolling. The direct exposition is entirely in keeping with the setting. Whether it’s by chance or minor genius doesn’t really matter, in the end. The overall effect is interesting, entertaining, and makes sense.
When this season was launched, I wasn’t too sure about Lise Ann Johnson’s choice of this piece—and of course none of us knew at the time that it would be the last she would direct as Artistic Director of the GCTC. I had feared this was going to be a very actor-y play; it appears these fears were unfounded. The opening night audience is always filled with actors and people close enough to the theatre to be able to think from an actor’s perspective. Many of them certainly were familiar with the exact exercises portrayed in the play, and some definitely took it as a play targeted toward the creative class. However, I believe it is unquestionably universal; the characters do not need any prior knowledge of drama and neither does an audience member.
Circle Mirror Transformation isn’t a play about actors, for starters; it’s a play about regular people. It is only by looking in a mirror that people can see themselves as they are, and it’s up to drama to provide that mirror.
Circle Mirror Transformation plays at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until June 10.