I have enough actor friends to know that the classes they take and the training they embrace are chock full of touchy-feely principles that are meant to help them connect to their inner selves and who-knows-what-else. I mean, have you ever participated in a cast warm-up before a performance and been asked to toss around an invisible hot potato? I have. And I don't like it. Because I'm not five. Before I get up on stage, I pop an antihistamine and down a Diet Coke. (Different strokes, I guess.) (Dear Actor Friends, I'm just exaggerating to piss off the Romanians some more. You know I love you. Whatever you have to do to put on a good show—stretch, scream, suck on your own toes—I'm all for it.)
Annie Baker's new-ish play, Circle Mirror Transformation, makes use of what seems like every absurd acting exercise ever dreamed up—and probably invents some of its own—with brilliantly comic and unexpectedly moving results. Acting exercises are inherently dramatic (after all, they were designed to be), so the play's five amateur thespians—who are participating in a six-week "creative drama" class in Vermont—are consistently fascinating, revealing more and more layers of their lives, whether they know it or not.
Baker's genius lies in the way she's able to milk the conceit for everything it's worth, and, even though the gimmick is as plain as day, there's an air of authenticity to the comedy and the tragedy that are at the center of all these characters' lives.
Under the direction of Sam Gold—who helmed the hit off-Broadway production that garnered award after award, as well as a place on The New York Times and The New Yorker lists of top ten plays of the year—the current South Coast Repertory cast has remarkable chemistry, and the show builds to an initially funny, but then surprisingly emotional, climax. Baker employs another gimmick here—one that I didn't see coming and one that re-affirms her rising star.
Honestly, folks, this is the best new play I've seen in two-and-a-half years.
If you're in Southern California, go! Rush tickets and other discounts abound. If you don't live here, you can buy the play and read it (though I don't know how well it reads off the page).
Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker runs through January 30, 2011, at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California.