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Objectively, group acting exercises can be pretty weird. They’re also incredibly effective at fostering teamwork and bringing people together. Playwright Annie Baker capitalizes on both these facts in her comedy Circle Mirror Transformation, so named for one such exercise. In the Performance Network production, director John Seibert and a skillful cast make good on years of experience as performers to recreate for an audience the singular trust and closeness of a handful of strangers taught to play together.

In small-town Shirley, Vermont, a member of the community institutes and teaches a six-week introductory acting course. In simplest terms, this is the entire play, whose single act concerns the class and its members: frequently reserved James (Mark Rademacher), experienced performer Theresa (Eva Rosenwald), branching-out divorcee Schultz (Taras Michael Los), and callously teenaged Lauren (Sarah Ann Leahy). James is husband to the hyper-nurturing instructor, Marty (Terry Heck); otherwise, the five are unknown to each other. At face value, the premise might sound tedious, but any viewer who has found true community within a classroom setting — especially in the study of performance — will be unsurprised by the wealth of discoveries and relationships blossoming over a fraction of one summer.

Set and lighting designer Daniel C. Walker must have logged considerable hours in community center multi-purpose rooms; the setting is so warmly evocative of a practice room/dance studio, it could well convince viewers to go home and sign up for something. The illusion is made complete by twin lights at the front of the stage that suggest full-length mirrors, providing opportunities for revealing choices that do not disappoint in their immediacy. Costumes by Suzane Young and properties by Charles Sutherland give more information about each character by thinking through their preparation for a class that probably instructed them to “wear something they could move in” and to bring water. Overhead projection passes the weeks with clarity, and between scenes — there are several for each class session — the characters move with purpose to designer Jeromy Hopgood’s plunky percussion sounds, passing the time with fluidity.

Every one of the five characters is well cast: Los’s newbie uncertainty plays off of Rosenwald’s slightly showy confidence to great effect, and Rademacher is generous in his deference to Marty, deliberately undercut in subtler moments. Heck’s kooky sensibility and buoyant enthusiasm ease the students — and, by extension, the audience — into silly activities that can seem at first like a lot of hooey; however, Marty’s patience and skill become increasingly evident throughout the course. Yet it’s Lauren who has the most inspiring and satisfying character arc, and Leahy’s work as a disaffected young woman stumbling through her first experience as a peer to adults is abundantly funny as well as phenomenally affecting. Individually, each of these people is interesting, but Seibert and cast rightly put the focus on the ensemble: scripted repetition of exercises over the course of the term allows for shifting tone that convincingly shows the characters’ convergence into a united, supportive entity. The success of this production is in the interconnectedness of the system; for all the changes in lives and allegiances (at least a few of which are far-reaching indeed), what is important for the purposes of the play is how these developments permeate through the class environment, drawing the viewer in to the emotional touchstones that lend realism and heart to the play’s many funny moments.

In essence, Baker has taken this special and personal experience of bonding as a class and bottled it, with humor and compassion to spare. Stage experience or training is not a prerequisite for appreciating the compelling relationships and story arcs of Circle Mirror Transformation; however, this former actor suspects that other viewers who practiced the craft (at any level) may not only connect, but pine for that extraordinary communion.


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