As much as anything, “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a play about what impact we have on the people we encounter, either by chance or design.
The play, which won an Obie Award for best new play for writer Annie Baker, is now at the Blue Barn Theatre, the first offering in its 30th anniversary season.
The story is told through the lens of community center acting classes, where five people go through several seemingly goofy exercises to learn the craft, some that appear to be more silly than others. (It was hard to figure out the point of the teacher asking one student to recreate his childhood bedroom, for example.)
And if this is a play about our impact on each other, it’s equally a piece about how ordinary people react when faced with common situations — sometimes awkward or painful — that force us to interact.
The characters have various backgrounds and ages — the random mix that happens when people sign up for a public class. Teacher Marty (Susan Baer Collins) is a little beyond middle age, a free spirit who’s convinced about the method behind the apparent madness of her teaching style. Her husband, James (Mike Markey), is also in the class. Theresa (Ashley Kobza) is a former actress who’s somewhat mysterious. Schultz (Nils Haaland) is a carpenter. And Lauren (Caroline Friend) is a reticent high school student who likes theater.
They learn about each other through those exercises and talks before and after class. One of the last activities could result in the ultimate bonding, though it’s boundary-breaking as well. In a play with a number of funny moments, this late event is a crashing descent into serious stuff.
Director Susan Clement-Toberer’s five cast members are exceptional. Two of them, Kobza and Friend, are new to the Blue Barn stage, though you wouldn’t know it. You forget these folks are actors as they settle into their “acting class.”
One exercise runs through the entire play, and it illustrates their skill: The point is to lay on the floor and vocally count to 10, with each person randomly taking numbers. If they speak at the same time, they have to start over, and that happens a lot. It requires impeccable timing and an innate sense of their fellow actors, and they manage pauses and difficult silence with ease.
It wasn’t lost on me that such fine actors were so successful in an activity meant to teach acting.
All the action takes place on a spare set that indicates the class is in a fitness room at the center. Marty Marchitto’s realistic design includes an impressive wall of mirrors and institutional doors like you’d see in a public building.
A couple of things were troubling for me and the friends who accompanied me. Playwright Baker has said she wanted the play to have “excruciating silences,” and this one did. The purpose of the silence wasn’t always clear.
“Too much for me,” one friend said.
The play also has lots of very short scenes that were usually separated by the same urgent-sounding musical clip, which started to feel repetitive after a while (and even a bit annoying). It didn’t seem to fit the quiet mood of the piece.
But while those things affected my overall take on the play, they were far from deal-breakers. I found “Circle Mirror Transformation” funny, touching at times and relatable, due mostly to extremely real performances. It’s a worthy start to an intriguing 30th season at the Blue Barn.