Circle Mirror Transformation at the Guthrie Theater

Tracey Maloney (Theresa) and Bill McCallum (Schultz) in Annie Baker’s CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. 2010 © Michal Daniel

Circle Mirror Transformation (at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, through June 13, 612.377.2224, guthrietheater.org) by Annie Baker sneaks up on you.  It all seems, initially, so sweet and innocuous.  Marty is conducting a class for beginning actors in a small Vermont town.  She sets up some goofy exercises and improvs.  But despite (or perhaps because of) Marty’s relentless cheerfulness these exercises prove to be deadly dangerous and the four amateur players begin revealing scary things about themselves.  The play becomes a portrait of five lost small town souls and their increasingly hopeless desire to find some kind of genuine human connection.  It’s simultaneously funny and disturbing.  No wonder the piece won an Obie and is taking the country by storm.  This is deft and masterful playwriting.

We meet: the ever-optimistic Marty (Angela Timberman, whose smile, despite everything, never fades); Schultz, the recently divorced carpenter (the disheveled and scary-intense Bill McCallum); Theresa the has-been actress (the marvelous Tracey Maloney, who does the best hula-hooping you will ever see); James, Marty’s occasionally violent husband, struggling to connect with his angry 20-something daughter (the lumbering and sly Chris Carlson).

And, finally, Lauren, the shy yet ambitious sixteen year old, searching for a refuge from her bickering parents.  Ali Rose Dachis gives, despite her youth, a riveting performance, the best thing in this gorgeously acted show.

Indeed, director/designer Benjamin McGovern has assembled an outstanding ensemble, a nifty combination of Guthrie regulars (McCallum, Maloney, Timberman) and newcomers (Carlson and Dachis).  They make this character driven and somewhat repetitive play work extremely well.

Also good is McGovern’s design team.  As is always the case in the Dowling, the set is simple but well-crafted.  Karin Olson‘s lighting, Scott W. Edwards‘s sound, McGovern’s sets and, especially, Kalere A. Payton‘s costumes are all first rate.

Absolute perfection?  Perhaps not quite.  At an intermissionless two hours the play is too long and Baker’s overfondess for blackouts (there are dozens) gives it a herky-jerky rhythm.  And, curmudgeon critic that I am, I have to complain about the awkward title.  But these are minor reservations.  All in all, Circle Mirror Transformation is one of the best-acted and most entertaining plays of the season.

Highly recommended.

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