11 November 2009

Circle Mirror Transformation

This is doubly happy news here: a fantastic show got a well-deserved extension, and that means I'm able, despite my procrastination, to blog its praises before it closes.

Circle Mirror Transformation, Annie Baker's new play at Playwrights Horizons, works an almost Pavlovian tear-duct response on me. It's not a sad crying, but a sort of cathartic reaction at the ending's beautiful perfection. When I first read this script, sitting at my desk at my old job, I stone cold bawled for a few minutes, a heart-hurting sort of crying usually reserved for the ends of novels and the last half hour of Amelie. I saw a reading a few months later, and had to give my post-reading well-wishes all teary and slightly (more) incoherent (than usual). And sure enough, when I saw this production, that moment at the end came, and the waterworks switch was flipped.

This play, though, is much more than a tearjerker. (And it's not even a tearjerker - I am a weird crier.) Annie's writing shares some of the things that made "My So-Called Life" so amazing - there's a hyper-realistic awkwardness to the language, ums and stutterings and pauses that work like an aural poetry but also gives these sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-heartrending pauses and silences. And, also like "My So-Called Life," she's an expert at capturing the beautiful melancholy of people trying desperately to connect, and getting stuck and not quite making it - or sometimes, for a fleeting moment, succeeding. (That sentiment and the fractured language are, of course, intertwined.) Also, the incredible weight of meaning that can be contained in something a seemingly innocuous moment or exchange.

None of which is to say, at all, that this isn't a comedy - a hysterical, delightful, weird, lovely comedy. The play has a sneaky power - it seems, at first, like a trifle, but then grabs your heart once your guard is down - but that's coupled with, and dependent on, a lot of humor. Like I said, I'm a weirdo for crying at this play.

Circle Mirror Transformation takes place in an adult-ed creative drama class in a Vermont community center. Through theatre games and class-break scenes, we follow the five participants through the course, obliquely gleaning information in sort of the way theatre skills can be tangentially acquired through exercises focused on developing one's listening, honesty, and vulnerability. (Those strange theatre games have a sneaky way of fissuring your defenses.) Major life changes happen outside the classroom, but we don't see them - in case you haven't noticed, the m.o. of this play is obliqueness. We see the ripples and consequences, or see the fuse being lit but not the explosion. Another playwright trying this could end up just frustrating the audience, but in the hands of Annie Baker and did-I-mention-he-also-directed-Jollyship-the-Whiz-Bang director Sam Gold, it's engaging and damn effective, and affecting.

It doesn't hurt things that the cast is uniformly fantastic. Peter Friedman and Tracee Chimo work the pauses and silences like masters, but in totally different ways - he can break your heart with a middle-distance stare, and she turns a bite of an apple into the funniest thing you've seen in your life. Everyone nails the humor, the language, and the delicate calibration of inconsequentiality and weight.

I don't know if it's irony (Alanis-style or otherwise) or just coincidence that this play about a theatre class is, of all the plays I've seen in a long time, the one I'd most recommend to people who aren't theatre people. It's just fantastic, hilarious, and heartbreaking, and makes life a little more luminous when you leave the theatre.

Circle Mirror Transformation plays through November 21st. You can get tickets and more info here.

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