Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) Circle Mirror Transformation

(poster art)

The Drama of The Search
Lise Ann Johnson says farewell with a beauty
by Jim Murchison

Annie Baker's play Circle Mirror Transformation takes place entirely in one brick room in a Community Centre in Shirley, Vermont. Five people meet there for a 6 week summer Program of Drama for Adults. The purpose of the program is not to put on a play but is solely dedicated to theatre games.
One of the things about going to opening nights is you see the same people at the theatre repeatedly. That may be a good sign that the subscription campaign has gone well or it may be that we are performing for a very limited audience. Choosing to do plays about theatre experiences sometimes makes me worry that we know our audience too well and that we are playing to a kumbaya, sing around the campfire, aren't we wonderful scenario.
Those were my concerns but they were unfounded in this case. A lot of the growth exercises and theatre games that we do as adults are extensions of the same way we played as children and are 100% relatable. It's a play that doesn't have great epiphanies, but many small discoveries along the way. Baker writes a series of vignettes that when connected together tell us the tale of what has happened between classes. In the end the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole. It is as natural as breathing and truly lovely. It is completely honest and real. 
This is Lise Ann Johnson’s last production as director and as Artistic director. It would be very easy to mess this up by playing it in an exaggerated fashion, but she never once missteps. The intimate space allows that the audience never feels like the play is reaching outside of the classroom and the play has been so well cast that very subtle gestures and glances work very well.
Andy Massingham plays Schultz as an awkward carpenter freshly divorced, confused and looking for answers and he is truly masterful in his performance. He has an almost adolescent awkwardness when flirting with another student and plays the jilted lover with comic pathos genuinely.
Sarah Mcvie plays the aspiring actress Theresa transplanted to Vermont after an abusive relationship. She has the grace of a ballerina, but there is a certain coquettish naivety about her that could easily fall into caricature handled by a less capable actress. She is never less than believable.
John Koensgen is spot on as James, the teacher’s husband who is struggling through troubles communicating with his daughter and facing a midlife crisis of his own. His frustration and anger are brought out through the games and we understand his struggle.
Mary Ellis is the teacher Marty that doesn’t always understand the power that the exercises she is conducting have. Her life changes dramatically during the course of the play in a way that she never expects. 
Catherine Rainville plays the bratty teenager Lauren with that combination of lethargy and angst that parent’s know all too well. Her body language is very funny and you are always aware of what she is thinking.
Robin Fisher’s set and costumes and Jock Munro’s lighting is simple and thoroughly effective as well.
The play reminds me of And Slowly Beauty but with less theatricality. Both were done by wonderful casts brilliantly directed and I was surprised by how much I liked them. Circle Mirror Transformation is disarmingly charming and doesn’t try to teach you anything beyond, we all make mistakes and even if we don’t learn from them at least we should try to understand them. 
Theatre may be its most effective when it uses its simple organic strength of being live and up close. Perhaps the people that only go to see Cats, Les Mis, or Cirque de Soleil will one day take a chance on a more intimate piece like this, and that will make them true theatre lovers. I hope so. Good luck Lise Anne Johnson and thank you.

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