SALT LAKE CITY — Jump up and down, pose like a tree, and breathe very deeply—playwright Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation has arrived at the Salt Lake Acting Company! I attending the show on Friday night; and, I tell you what, it was good times. I was surrounded by laughter, had a comfortable seat, and I left the theater reflecting.
It’s a Creative Theater class at the local community center where these five great characters come together: the instructor, Marty (Colleen Baum), her husband James (Morgan Lund), Shultz (Michael Todd Behrens), Theresa (Alexandra Harbold), and Lauren (Shelby Anderson). The class meets once a week for six weeks and consists of improvisational theater games that would take most of us way out of our comfort zones. Maybe that’s what made it so fun to watch. Some scenes had the actors shouting weird sound effects, some had them flailing arms and legs and running around, and some felt very emotional.
So much of the class feels like group therapy, really. Each character gets to see their own issues worked out through the other actors. Like when Marty (Baum) creates a live portrait of her family using the people in the class. Shultz (Behrens) is used to portray her disapproving father, Theresa (Harbold) is tearing her hair out as the mother, and Lauren (Anderson) sits defeated on the ground in front of them. Baum builds this “photo” and then looks back to see her finished product. It’s a great scene because it’s comedic, for sure, but the depth is obvious as well. That’s really what the whole play is like. These people get to watch their own emotions from a safe distance, using others as a mirror, and it helps them to heal and grow.
Although strangers at first, each character is quickly opened up to their fellow class members and to us. Annie Baker was so clever in developing these characters. We learn the characters’ names through a warm up exercise, as they all walk around the room shaking hands and stating their names, over and over and over. We hear their background information throughout the play, as each character introduces themselves as another person in the class. Shultz, for example, speaks to the class as if he is Theresa. He tells us where he (really she) is from and why he’s (really she’s) in the class. This aspect of the script is so effective, because we learn about Theresa’s character and also about how Shultz feels about Theresa.
There is so much I could identify with in the show. I’ve been in those long, once a week classes with fifteen-minute breaks, bringing snacks and water bottles. I’ve felt the awkwardness of meeting new people and the comfort of shared experiences. These characters are familiar, and likable; they dress (K.L. Alberts, costumes) like people we know. (James is dressed like my dad.) I enjoyed the environment of the classroom, as well, in all its simplicity; it has a real community college feel to it (Keven Myhre, set).
I was thrilled that Circle Mirror Transformation wasn’t a neat little packaged play that answered all my questions. It surprised me and made me think. The actors were great in the way that they communicated so much non-verbally. There was air in this show, too, I don’t know how else to describe it; there was space for the audience to breathe, observe, and think. Thanks to Adrienne Moore, the director, for a job well done. This show is an exercise for the audience. I loved the variety and the energy. Go for the cast, stay for the script—Circle Mirror Transformation is a comedy worth experiencing.