7 March 2018.
“One. Two. Three. Three. Start again.”
Vermont, New England. Five people. Lying on the floor of a community centre. Mid-exercise. Week one of a creative drama class. So begins Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. They start again.
It’s a six-week course. Led by the unconventional Marty, the class comprises former actress Teresa, recently divorced Schulz, Marty’s professor husband James and student Lauren (who has her heart set on the role of Maria in her high school’s production of West Side Story).
Baker’s script pulls you in close. “Slow down and start noticing everyone around you”, Marty tells her students and that may well be an instruction for the audience too. Characters aren’t revealed with a rush and a push, they need to be pieced together from reactions within the workshops, their choices of words, their posture and the various interactions. We learn about these five people obliquely. Stories are often uncoupled from their owners as characters animatedly share personal recollections from their classmates’ lives as part of a memorizing activity.
Glimpses of the six weeks are episodic and fleeting, events gently stop and start. The seemingly inconsequential can be heavy with meaning.
Humour is found within the drama exercises – as they flap and squawk, improvise or intensely repeat random words. But you also see unspoken flashes of anger, frustration and heartbreak. Something someone says will reverberate within the lives of others gazing on. Even an unwillingness to participate tells a story. The space the course provides enables the participants to confront issues and to find out more about themselves.
“What do you mean by real acting?”, Marty asks Lauren. Director Bijan Sheibani’s superb cast answer that. They offer up beautifully natural, emotionally direct performances – unshowy and perfectly suited to the understated nature of the piece.
Pause. Silence. Awkward Pause. Trails Away.
In Baker’s world the hush between talking is valued as much as the words spoken. Here, even the odd stumbled over sentence is scripted. Sheibani ensures nothing intrudes on Baker’s intricately constructed rhythms. The conversational tone and the calm measured instructions for the drama exercises are almost hypnotic. Rows of solid strip lights never flicker, they silently illuminate or go dark. A clear insistent marimba-like beat marks the passing of time in the brief breathing spaces between scenes.
The distinctive woody red walls and sky blue curtains that bring big blocks of colour to designer Samal Blak’s set are inspired by his memories of Vermont. It’s the pure functionality of the room which is striking – bare but for an EXIT sign, First Aid Kit, coat hooks and a clock. This is a neutral space – safe and free from distraction. The outside world is held back on the other side of the double doors with occasional glimpses of a BAKE SALE poster and class timetables.
At the beginning, the blue curtains lining the room are pulled back to reveal mirrored walls. At the start of the final scene they are symbolically drawn closed. The mirrors allow the characters no hiding place – even when their backs are turned to us we can see their faces. But the reflective surfaces capture the faces of the audience too. We’re there with them. It creates a sense of connectedness. A common humanity. A shared struggle with life.
Just as it requires a leap of faith to believe that something as insubstantial as the dreamcatcher Schultz gifts Marty can help with her ‘night terrors’, so Baker requires her audience to stay with her as she creates something deeply life-affirming from the unlikeliest of materials. Sheibani’s taut and seductively intimate production handsomely repays our close attention. Circle Mirror Transformation celebrates the human capacity for reinvention – we too, it reminds us, can start again.