A few years ago I tried out for—and got—a role in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, as the character Sebastian. I was just starting to write and produce plays at the time, so I wanted to know firsthand what kind of horrors I was putting my actors through. What I learned? The acting world is even crazier than I suspected. Before rehearsals we ran through a series of warm-up exercises: tongue twisters, improvisational games and drills of movement and sound where we stood in a circle and acted like crazy people. I remember thinking that if someone walked in they'd take us for a bunch of kindergarteners at play. It was awkward, but at the same time, the unrestrained absurdity in the company of strangers pushed us all through to a sense of belonging. The games began to feel like a set of Masonic initiation rites that no one outside the temple was allowed to see.
Montana Rep's production of Circle Mirror Transformation, a play by New England writer Annie Baker, brings that behind-the-scenes experience to center stage, telling the story of an amateur acting class whose characters hold their inner lives close to the chest. Information is revealed oh-so-gradually. The production is held in the intimate space of the Downtown Dance Collective and the story is told in small, realistic moments with conversation both mundane and profound, all of which gives the audience an eerie sense of spying through cracks in the wall.
But this is more than a peep show. Circle Mirror Transformation celebrates awkwardness—an experience as obstructive to getting to know new people as it is to people who have known each other for years but can't articulate their emotions. Most of us encounter the awkward every day, and this play puts that space under a microscope.
For a show that zeros in on silence and confusion, that refuses to pander to short attention spans, Circle moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. All the scenes are short, and though some of them feel incomplete, when the production hits it right, it flies out of the park. Highlights include one of the cutest ask-you-out-on-a-date moments I've ever seen. And the breakthrough exercise scenes, where the characters' "real lives" and performances overlap, generate a resonating emotional presence.
Most of the credit for this show's success belongs to the cast, as Baker's script could easily have fallen flat in the wrong hands. The actors capture a tightrope tension between outward behavior and a chaotic inner life. Marty, (Leah Joki) the acting instructor, smolders with frustration while attempting to stay patient and in control. James (Mike Verdon), Marty's husband, balances passion, responsibility, selfishness and disappointment behind a veneer of dutiful grace that is almost heartbreaking when it cracks. Then there's Schultz (Jeremy Sher), a gawky, quirky, lost soul trying desperately to keep it together. Theresa (Salina Chatlain) wrestles flawlessly with the downsides of being an object of desire while struggling with her memories of a toxic relationship. Lauren (Elizabeth Bennett) is a 16-year-old aspiring actress who spends most of the story charming us with attitude as she reacts to the neurosis of the adults around her. If nothing else, you will get a glimpse into the weird world and rituals of actors at work.
Director Sam Williamson has skillfully wrangled an overwhelmingly minimalist script into a fully realized, confident production. There's no set to speak of, just a few props and the DDC's wood floor and mirrored wall. The sparseness speaks to the difficulty people often have expressing what they really feel, when everything hangs unsaid in the air. There's one long moment of emptiness during the show, where the actors leave the stage but the lights don't go out. It's a beautiful imposition of that sense of not knowing what to do, where your mind spins like mad trying to decide how to act, how to fill the space.
And then there's the ending. I could criticize Baker for creating a brilliant, transcendent moment and then over-explaining it, but I'm trying really hard to let it go, because I loved how it made me feel—chills from head to toe.
Circle Mirror Transformation continues at the Downtown Dance Collective Fri., Feb. 21, through Sun., Feb. 23, at 7:30 PM nightly with a 2 PM matinee on Sat. $15/$10 students.