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There’s a mirror stretched across the stage at the Studio Theatre, and a handful of striving actors, one more experienced than the rest, arrayed in front of it. They’ll do theaterish things over the course of the show; they’ll talk theaterish talk, peppering it with self-discovery as they go.
Sound familiar? “It’s A Chorus Line without the songs,” said a seatmate, nailing it in one—and before the show had started, too.
Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation does in fact turn out to be pretty much that schematic: In a Vermont college town, five strangers (though two of them are a couple) come together for an acting workshop at the local community center, fumbling their way, week by week, through exercises that seem ridiculous until they become revealing. Alliances form; relationships flower or wither (or both). What’s uncovered over the course of their short semester is both banal and life-changing; what results is both wrenching and survivable.
There’s a drama here, but it’s a series of moments and miniatures, not a play for theatergoers with epic appetites; its tragedies (there are no triumphs, unless mere survival counts) are small-scale, and merely sketched, not unpacked for our examination. Baker’s collisions are painful and funny enough, by turns, to prove her perceptive about how people connect and communicate, and how we sometimes don’t—though in this play, at least, she doesn’t pretend to know how we might do it better. She does seem to promise, curiously, that most everything will end well—even in lives where chapters are coming to an end.
An ensemble cast does good service to those compact moments, those efficient little etchings; the linchpin, as the class’ teacher, is Jennifer Mendenhall, as adept with her character’s awkward moments as with the affecting ones. Around her: Harry A. Winter, Jeff Talbott, Kathleen McElfresh and MacKenzie Meehan, each diligent, specific, and just fine.