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Invisible Theatre

Talent shines in play about acting

“Circle Mirror Transformation” is billed as a comedy, but it's also a heady drama about the limits of self discovery

In “Circle Mirror Transformation,” four small town wanna-be actors, eager to expand their horizons, start in a local community class with their instructor. Over six weeks, covered in 90 minutes of vignettes, they go through a series of enlightening and humiliating psychological exercises, guided by their teacher, Marty.

Marty is a devotee of Method acting theory, more interested in uncovering and expressing emotions than training her charges in any classical acting skills. Her neophyte thespians never learn as much about acting as they do about themselves and each other. In the end, they all learn too much, but the emotional gauntlets they force themselves through create some very interesting theatre.

Written by Annie Baker, “Circle Mirror Transformation” won the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play and made a number of lists for top ten plays of 2009. It’s refreshingly unorthodox structure and setting - a rural classroom of actors playing non-actors who want to be actors - provides a meta-analysis on the nature of acting itself. It’s pure post-modern, but with a hint of quaint.

It must be said up front that portraying an amateur actor ironically requires considerable acting skill. Fortunately, this production has a balanced, talented cast that doesn’t overwhelm the intimate Invisible Theatre space. Director Betsy Kruse Craig keeps a subtle hand on the proceedings, letting the action simmer nervously until it explodes.

Molly McKasson plays the instructor, Marty. Although her credentials to teach the class are thin, her confidence in the boot camp she is putting her students through is supreme, even if no one seems to be learning much about acting itself. Instead, they learn much about each other’s personal lives and along the way, about themselves.

The play starts with Week One - all five characters as equals, on the floor in a counting exercise that requires each to attenuate to each other as they count to ten. They fail repeatedly and must start over. This vignette becomes a metaphor and repeats several times throughout the play, each iteration providing new insight and drama.

Another motif has members of the class sequentially portraying each other, repeating what they have learned and demonstrating their listening skills, without reference to the filtering that is also going on. This becomes a handy trick for providing both individual background and delineating each character’s reaction to their own information, as we watch the expressions and body language of the person being portrayed.

Over subsequent vignettes, we are introduced to the class. James Henricksen plays James, Marty’s husband, who also teaches economics at the center. He seems to be taking the class on a whim, or maybe just so there would be enough students for the class to happen. Based on his description from her perspective of their first meeting at a wedding, he and Marty have an idyllic marriage.

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Carrie Hill plays Theresa, a vivacious and energetic single 30-something who has made her way here after various failed relationships and a stint in New York City, including some actual acting gigs.

Schultz, played by Brian Wees, is a local craftsman, late 40s, recently divorced, lost and trying to reconnect to his life and passion again. Lucille Petty plays the painfully self-constrained Lauren, a 16 year old introvert who dreams of starring in her high school’s production of “West Side Story” and becoming a famous actress. Or a veterinarian.

More plot detail would be a spoiler. Part of the pleasure of this play is the unfolding of information as the actors dig deeper into their lives and their psyches, getting more in touch with their feelings and circumstances, peeling themselves until they are raw. One key scene when they each anonymously reveal something no one knows about them, is deliciously ambiguous because we can guess, but can’t be certain, who is revealing what.

Ironically, Marty seems blissfully unaware of her own mental baggage as she continues to lead their psychological excavations. Eventually, all that’s left for everyone to dredge up are the deepest toxic memories and emotions. Secrets are revealed, hearts are broken and lives destroyed. In the final exercise of Week Six, Shultz and Lauren improvise meeting each other on the street 10 years in the future, which becomes a true encounter, neatly detailing the final consequences of the class.

Carrie Hill as the perpetually perky Theresa, is the visual focus throughout, all Carrie Bradshaw optimism, trying to gloss over the poor choices and subsequent failures that have returned her home. Hill’s eye-candy gymnastics, stretching and bounding around the stage, gave a well-executed portrayal of a woman whose kinetic energy is a substitute for substantive emotional grounding.

Lucille Petty, not far removed from being 16 herself, joyfully inhabits her character’s grandiose imagination and claustrophobic existence. Petty has already starred in a number of local productions, including works by Live Theatre Workshop, Etcetera and Winding Road Theatre. She is blossoming into a mature artist with growing career potential.

Wees carefully balances Schultz between tragic, sad and needy, plus a dollop of creepy. McKasson’s Marty is vapid and New Age-y. What seems at first a lack of engagement is really proof of how ignorant her character is of the psychological demons she is unleashing. Henriksen’s husband character, James, is the least of the ensemble, since he seems to be the only one who successfully has his life together. Henrikson imbues his character’s descent, brought on by circumstances within the play, with both dignity and nascent regret at what he wishes weren’t true.

To call “Circle Mirror Transformation” a comedy, though probably better for marketing, is to miss more than half of its meaning. Watching five characters flay themselves to uncertain purpose is clearly tragedy. There are some laughs in particular moments, but overall, this is a cathartic work that says much about how we live our lives, questioning how truthful we are to ourselves and others.

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Tim Fuller

The cast of 'Circle Mirror Transformation' at Invisible Theatre. (Clockwise from upper right - Carrie Hill, James Henriksen, Lucille Petty, Brian Weez. Center - Molly McKasson

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If you go

  • “Circle Mirror Transformation,” presented by the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Avenue at Drachman, through Nov. 20.
  • Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm.
  • Tickets are $25, with half-price rush tickets available 30 minutes before performances, subject to availability. Tickets are available by phone at 882-9721 and online through Ovationtix.com.