August 29, 2011

Trading Secrets, Mirroring Lives

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They say art is a mirror into life, showing its joys and frustrations through a myriad of different media forms, from the expository to the entertaining. Certainly, Annie Baker’s Obie Award-winning play, Circle Mirror Transformation, produced and presented by Ithaca’s Kitchen Theater, sets out to express that adage. The play’s premise is simple, and conjures up expectations of hilarity — it takes five very different personalities, puts them in a creative acting class together, and watches them play off each other as they participate in the crazy exercises that you see take place in classes of this type. People pretend to be one another, narrate life stories from their alter ego’s point of view, try to communicate using only nonsense phrases, and reenact situations from their childhoods using classmates as props or characters. Beneath the nominal façade of light-hearted humor, though, the activities enable the actors — and by extension, the audience — to peer into their own inner lives. That is the central motif of this play — that the very act of acting, or the act of producing art, becomes a mirror into the artists’ own lives. Literally, art mirrors life. It’s a clever conceit, and one that works surprisingly well in the play.

As per the title, art doesn’t just mirror life, it can transform it. The five characters start out as strangers to each other and the audience. There’s ex-hippie retired actress Marty (Camilla Schade) who teaches the class, her charming husband James (Greg Bostwick), the balding, awkward and recently-divorced Schultz (Dean Robinson), the ditzy, enthusiastic Theresa (Jennifer Herzog) and emo teen Lauren (Allison Scaramella). At first they seem like stereotypes to their peers and the audience, but as the play goes on, the characters get to know each other and the dynamics of their extant relationships, as well as their personalities, undergo transformations. The seemingly loving relationship of Marty and James undergoes a dramatic emotional upheaval. Schultz and Theresa maintain a brief relationship that’s marred by Schultz’s neurotic need for attention and Theresa’s lingering attachment to her ex-boyfriend. Initially gloomy teen Lauren gradually opens up and ironically becomes the most well-adjusted and happy member of the class by the play’s end. Because art imitates and mirrors life, art can also transform life. In producing their acting craft, these budding creators of art, these actors on a stage transform their own lives through the interactions they carry out.

Last, art bleeds into life and vice versa. Throughout the play, scenes of the class exercises are interspersed with the characters’ out-of-class interactions. Some scenes are meant to bring out the absurdity of the material — characters play tag and hysterically pantomime one another. Other, more sobering, scenes feature exercises in which characters peer into themselves and bare their psychological lives before their peers. Similarly, the out-of-class segments feature hilariously awkward conversations between Theresa and Schultz, in which contorts her body over a large exercise ball, all the while smiling coyly at him while he, obviously discomfited, flusters a response. Other segments segue into a dramatic marital squabble between Marty and James in jarring juxtaposition to their outwardly healthy relationship. As the play progresses and the class weeks pass by, the class and out-of-class segments merge together as the characters’ outer and inner lives become enmeshed. Lauren reenacts a scene from her childhood in which her parents argue over her, using Marty and James as placeholders. The mock quarrel quickly escalates into one so intense and impassioned that it breaches the bounds of reality and becomes a real argument between Marty and James over their own daughter Erin. A class exercise in which the characters publicly but anonymously trade secrets quickly reveals shocking truths that irrevocably alter the relationships between characters. The irony is that they know each other so well that they can easily tell whose secret belongs to whom, in a scene that is funny and affecting at the same time. The final scene in the play features a class exercise in which Lauren and Schultz pretend to meet each other ten years in the future, but the exercise quickly and subtly transitions into a real chance encounter between the couple in ten years, detailing the future lives of the characters that the audience has already come to know. The growing ambiguity between what constitutes a class exercise and what constitutes real life within the context of the play is a great tool for structuring the narrative, and complements the play’s central tension between art and life.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a play that crams a lot into a short space of time. It’s a very finely crafted work of art that is an exegesis on the ways in which art can influence life. Directed expertly with nary an ounce of expository fat and featuring a great cast of very expressive and talented actors and actresses, the Kitchen Theater’s production of Circle Mirror Transformation is both a hilarious and deeply affecting debut and a great start to the theater’s fall lineup.

Original Author: Colin Chan