Reviewed by Judy Richter
With their feet pointing toward the center, five people lie in a circle and try to count to 10, randomly by person and not overlapping. When they do, they start over -- and over -- and over.
This is the unpromising start of Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation," a Bay Area premiere presented by Marin Theatre Company in a co-production with Encore Theatre Company of San Francisco. This scene is repeated several times throughout the intermissionless work. Along with the frequent blackouts (punctuated by Cliff Caruthers' sound design and music) between scenes, this production,as directed by Kip Fagan, seems to drag on longer than its actual two hours.
Except for a mirror that covers one wall, the setting is a relatively bare room (set by Andrew Boyce with lighting by Gabe Maxson) in the community center in the small town of Shirley Vt. Four people and an instructor gather for a six-week summer acting class. The instructor, Marty (the excellent Julia Brothers), puts her four students through that counting exercise and others that begin to reveal hints about each person's character.
The students are a mixed group. The most poised is Theresa (Arwen Anderson), who had some acting experience in New York but who moved to Shirley after breaking up with her boyfriend. Her direct opposite is Lauren (Marissa Keltie), a 16-year-old who slumps in her hoodie (costumes by Christine Crook) and participates with great reluctance. However, she later reveals that she really does want to become an actor -- or maybe a veterinarian. Also somewhat reluctant is Schultz (Robert Parsons), a divorced carpenter who apparently is just looking to meet people, particularly women. Completing the class roster is the reserved but dignified James (L. Peter Callender), Marty's husband.
Some of what the audience learns about each character comes when each one gets up in front of the class and talks as if he or she were one of the others. More information is parceled out during two-person conversations before each class session or during breaks. However, just about when a conversation becomes more revealing, it's interrupted by the arrival of someone else. This device is often repeated, too.
A climactic scene comes toward the end when each person anonymously writes a secret and hands it in to be distributed randomly and read aloud. By then the audience can begin to make some educated guesses, but not in every case.
Even though "Circle Mirror Transformation" won the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play, it seems flawed, leaving the audience with more questions than answers -- a frustrating experience, at least in this production, which seems like a waste of a talented cast of seasoned Bay Area actors.
Baker also wrote the far superior "Body Awareness," produced earlier this year by Aurora Theatre Company.