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Do you cringe at the sight of actors taking themselves too seriously on stage? Do you reel at the sound of dialogue delivered so effortlessly it has all the soul of an assembly-line product? And does the thought of sitting through another four-act production laced with some playwright's tired sociopolitical agenda make you scream while running for the door?
If you answered "yes" to even one of these inquiries, "Circle Mirror Transformation" is your play. If you answered "yes" to all three, Annie Baker's 2010 Obie Award-winning drama as produced by Salt Lake Acting Company is the splash of cleansing acid on the face of live theater for which you've been waiting.
There's nothing altogether original that results from Baker's placing four acting students and one instructor inside a community center rec-room. Like Anton Chekhov long before her, Baker plants her seeds in the fecund fields of what's not said between characters then, if the actors play their roles truthfully, sits back to watches the humor sprout. It's the way Baker filters light out of her script's considerable dark spaces not to mention the literal "blackouts" that separate the play's 33 brief scenes that makes her such a refreshing renegade.
"Circle Mirror Transformation" is a play in which tempo is all, and the slightest misfire threatens its delicate rhythms. It's a work of elegant awkwardness built from body language, nuance and gesture so delicate it requires the finest directing eye and ear to pull it off. Skeptical? Read Baker's script by itself, then catch Salt Lake Acting Company's superb rendering for yourself.
Director Adrianne Moore has marshaled actors Colleen Baum, Michael Todd Behrens, Alexandra Harbold, Morgan Lund and Shelby Andersen into a symbiotic whole that makes virtually every moment of the play urgent and, above all, believable. Baum plays Marty, the instructor who leads them all through acting exercises more therapeutic than rigorous, even if designed to give that mysterious "grounding" student actors crave. Lund is James, her aging, counterculture husband along for the ride. Harbold plays Theresa, the lithe actor on the run from a toxic relationship. Behrens plays Schultz, a recently divorced carpenter. Lauren, played by Andersen in a remarkable SLAC debut, is the bewildered teen, and the only one with guts enough to question the madness of Marty's methods.
They grope, crouch and bound across the room in search for those elusive moments of "getting it." They count numbers lying on their backs, hands folded. In homage to the play's title, they reflect off one another, each one telling another's life story with only impressions to count on. They compose nebulous poems and plots from words chosen at random while sitting in a circle.
"Maybe next week we'll try to make it a little more like a real story," Marty tells them.
And real they do become, almost by default. In one of the play's most hilarious scenes, James and Theresa recite monosyllabic dialogue the rest of the class is left to decipher. "They were in love," Lauren says.
When "Circle Mirror Transformation" isn't reducing human interaction to its lowest, most laughable common denominator, it offers up scenes that would make even Ricky Gervais, creator of "The Office," proud. Someone launches a flirtation wearing his wedding ring, even as another reaches for a tampon out of her purse.
Even when Marty's "exercises" cut too sharp and close to real life, there are moments when you hold your breath in anticipation of which way the tone will fall. Few plays are every bit as serious as they are fun. This is one of them.
Salt Lake Acting Company's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'
P When » Through May 8. Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, SLC
Info • $15-$37; at 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org
Bottom line • Few plays are every bit as serious as they are fun. "Circle" is one of them. One hour and 45 minutes.