It takes almost no time at all for you to be convinced that you’re watching real people and not actors in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s on-going production of Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. Her script, of course, makes that possible. But, just as significant, director Jesse Berger and his cast perform everything with convincing, abiding naturalness. This becomes all the more remarkable given that four actors in the cast have already become quite familiar in many roles locally. They are Bridget Connors, Daina Michelle Griffith, Daniel Krell and John Shepard.
It does take time to get used to the concept of the play and to grasp some of what’s happening. Moreover, because the scenes represent fragments of time in a six-week period, you may need to fill in some blanks about the premises. At first, it may seem as if not enough actually happens there on the stage. But I found the sum of the parts, the cumulative effect, makes the difference, something inventive, original, insightful and warm.
The circle is a group of five people in a small Vermont town, gathered around each other to practice acting exercises. Those exercises include seeing and hearing refractions of themselves in each other, learning how to be open to perception and transforming those perceptions in their own ways, perhaps becoming transformed themselves.
Don’t think that Baker has written something sending up amateur performers. She’s actually delving into people’s lives, so that, by the time the play ends, you know much about these people because they have let you in, just as they have let in their temporary companions. That makes this play far more than an exercise in novelty.
Baker also tells audiences about the art of being a good actor even though the characters never interpret actual scripts and dialogue but learn to improvise and to find truths. i.e To be such a meaningful artist you first have to know yourself and then thoroughly understand how other people relate to you. Not a bad lesson for life, is it? Given that most people in this play are new to each other, they are also much like actors in a new production, needing to learn how to become part of something bigger than themselves. Come to think of it, because most members of this cast do know each other already that may even add to the beauty of their ensemble, even though you may not be conscious of that.
Director Berger’s pacing adds to the a sense of reality. People pause to think, to ponder, to chose words, to react. They are not glib. Such pauses dovetail with the idea that we are getting only core samples from six weeks worth of experiences.
You may need to know that one big part of their exercises is to talk about and personify each other, taking on separate personalities. That starts almost immediately and you never get to see the first steps when class members talk about themselves. One such monologue would have established that premise clearer.
Director Berger and his fine cast do make clear other unspoken, unseen outside- the- walls-events with telling inflections and responses, making you almost a part of the group, having to listen and understand what’s not actually said but what’s beneath the surface.
I do question one element. The group’s leader Marty is married to group participant James. The other participants don’t express any reservations about that, which may make sense in a small, not urbane town. Yet an already existing relationship in such a group could undermine the dynamics, as they would in group therapy, given that husband and wife may have issues which get in the way. Plus it seems odd that either would allow the other to be there since one of them controls everything which happens in that microcosm.
This is no way interferes with appreciation for playwright Baker’s accomplishment. Add to that a wonderfully charming, multi-dimensional performance by Daina Michelle Griffith as the very outgoing, full –of- life Theresa. Interpreting Lauren, an awkward high school girl, visiting artist Lauren Blumenfeld makes her equally special and always genuinely amusing. And John Shepard’s take on James glows with appealing inner warmth.
This circle of talent, holding a mirror up to nature, doesn’t transform the script, rather, it makes it live.
Circle Mirror Transformation continues through April 3rd at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600 www.ppt.org