Circle Mirror Transformation
Custom Made Theatre Co.
Sometimes it takes the youngest among us to ask the most obvious question (e.g., the child in The Emperor’s Clothes). By the time sixteen-year-old Lauren asks in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, “Why are we doing this?” I personally wanted to stand up and applaud that finally someone was calling the right question about a play I personally was having difficulty continuing to watch.
Let me first acknowledge that when Annie Baker’s play detailing six sessions of a five-person drama class in Vermont premiered Off-Broadway in 2009 at Playwright’s Horizon, it went on to win the Obie Award for Best New American Play (sharing the award with Baker’s The Aliens). I must also say upfront that the cast assembled by Custom Made for its re-opening past a two-year, COVID hiatus performs to a person their assigned parts quite admirably. My impatience with the one-hour, fifty-minute (no intermission) outing has nothing to do with their performances, although the pace that Ciera Eis directs their action is often so slow with such long pauses (probably as suggested by the script itself) that whatever movement forward or energy that is generated by the cast’s efforts is often quickly dissipated. The fault I find is directly related to the script itself.
The play begins with the instructor and four participants lying on the floor, heads toward the center, trying to count to ten in random order among them without any two saying the same number simultaneously. When that overlap inevitably happens (after often long pauses between any two numbers being said aloud), the instructor Marty (Emily Keyishian) says, “Start again,” until several more failed attempts lead her to conclude, “You’re not getting it” before moving the class on to the next exercise. Unfortunately for us as audience, this non-compelling counting sequence occurs repeatedly throughout the play.
The bulk of the play is our watching exercise after exercise participation by the class members. The eclectic group includes a recently divorced, middle-aged and reserved carpenter (Schultz, Alfred Muller); a hyper but athletic, thirty-something former actress (Theresa, Lauren Dunagan); the fifty-five-year-old, somewhat unsure-of-himself husband of the instructor (James, David Boyll); and the aforementioned high-school junior, aspiring actress (Lauren, Brenda Cisneros) All participate willingly enough without questions, save some evident skepticism and hesitation by the teenager, Lauren.
These exercises include walking non-verbally around the room at increasing speeds, introducing another person as if being that person, creating scenes from earlier times in one’s life using others as either people (my mom, my dad) or as inanimate objects (my bed, my baseball glove), having a two-way conversation repeating the same phrase over and again, or writing down a secret never told to anyone and then reading aloud a selected secret to the entire group picked from a pile of them all. (And of course, the secrets are whoppers!)
We watch these class segments as if observers behind a one-way mirror. Unfortunately, we must also watch the in-between of the exercises. Picking one particularly boring sequence, we endure the class members’ hunt for pencils and then for paper before waiting in their silence while each person writes a secret. Such a sequence of events are minutes where nothing else happens, not even interesting non-verbals among the five.
One would expect that relationships begin to develop and/or dissolve; that some Pandora’s Box opens spilling lots of juicy, past issues and troubles onto the stage; or that we see characters learn, develop, and even transform in the course of their six weeks of classes and our near-two-hours of watching. While there is a budding romance that awkwardly develops with some promise of peaking our interest before it quickly fizzles and another, longer-term relationship that ends, not much stage time, discourse, or events are devoted to either. Mostly, we watch these five go through their numerous exercises with little-to-no discussion about any of them; we see them amble in and out of their classroom space; and we sometimes watch them individually interact with four moving, glass panels with variously colored, lit borders – the latter for no apparent reason that could be immediately discerned (at least by me).
But I must again make a confession: I find Annie Baker’s script with flaws that relate to my professional past; and those flaws so closely border on ethical issues that I found myself almost seething inside at times. Before becoming a theatre critic as a full-time avocation, my profession for thirty-five years involved design and facilitation of small groups in learning, planning, and team-building sessions. I quickly recognized almost all of the exercises I saw in Baker’s play – many that resembled a period in the mid-to-late ‘70s when I was leading scores of workshops labeled as “building self-awareness.” Some of the play’s exercises also would have been found in “encounter groups” and “sensitivity training,” popular especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Annie Baker’s script breaks some fundamental principles upon which experiential learning for adults (i.e., learning through doing something versus just listening to a lecture or reading an article) is based. One, it is important always to help participants know upfront the learning outcome/purpose of any given exercise (beyond perhaps just an ice-breaker, which some of the play’s exercises clearly are). Two, after any experience, participants should be given the opportunity to process what the experience meant to them, have time to compare through sharing their reactions/thoughts/emotions with those of other participants, think about how this experience compares to others in their lives, and finally (and most importantly) to decide/declare what has been learned and how it might be applied in their lives. This so-called “experiential cycle” is designed so that participants do not take part in a lot of so-called learning events that at best lead to no real learning and at worst, actually cause emotional harm due to lack of opportunity to process. (And thus, Lauren’s question of “Why are we doing this?” and her question later of “Are we going to be doing any real acting?” – a sure sign she has never heard what are the outcomes/purposes of the many exercises the group is doing.)
Perhaps, in my opinion, the greatest, ethical error that Baker’s script includes is an instructor who participates in all exercises herself, ignoring often her role as teacher/facilitator beyond just giving initial instructions and allowing herself to get caught up – in front of her clearly uncomfortable students – in her own, deep-seeded issues of self and relationship.
All of these abandonments of the principles that adult education classes should follow – especially those where emotional, often unspoken-to-others issues of one’s past and present are encouraged to surface – might be forgiven in a play if that becomes part of the plot and of the story itself with the motive (purposeful or accidental) for such carelessness revealed as part of the play. However, in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, there is never any acknowledgement that the design and leadership of Marty’s acting classes is anything but correct. And in the meantime, we as audience are thus the witnesses of a series of class exercises with not enough other plot and character development connected to them to make them very compelling or interesting.
At least that is my opinion, realizing I may be in the minority for a play that has been recognized in the past as an award-winner. But because of my reactions and of my past professional code of ethics, I cannot with good conscience recommend an outing to Custom Made Theater Co. to sit through an excruciatingly slow and overall uneventful Circle Mirror Transformation. Just a reminder: The faults I see are in the script primarily and the direction, secondarily. The faults are not at all in the efforts of the cast members themselves.
Rating: 1 E
Circle Mirror Transformation continues through April 16, 2022, at Custom Made Theatre Co., performed at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, Suite 601, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://www.custommade.org/ .
Photo Credits: Jay Yamada