Annie Baker is a youngish playwright whose work focuses on the byways and mores of rural New England. Probably her most well-known play is Circle Mirror Transformation, an ensemble piece about a small group of people who are taking a six-week theatre workshop at the community center in a Vermont town. When I first read about this play, I immediately thought that New Village Arts in Carlsbad was the perfect local company to stage it. My wish has come true: NVA has mounted a bang-up San Diego premiere that runs through March 2.
So, why did I think that the play and the company were a good match? Recall, I’d only read about the play. I never read it, nor did I see the production that was done up the road at South Coast Rep a while back. But, Circle Mirror Transformation focuses on how individual performers transcend their differences to come together as an ensemble, and “ensemble” has been Executive Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner’s watchword in her twelve seasons as head of NVA. Trained at New York’s Actors Studio, Ms. Kurner even tried having a resident company recently, whose members worked both on stage and behind the scenes for the entire season. It was a noble but only partially successful experiment, and now the company is hiring by the show. Ms. Kurner has a completely new administrative staff on board, and things seem to be changing, probably for the better.
In a way, Circle Mirror Transformation says goodbye to all that past. Ms. Kurner, who formerly would have surely directed, ceded the director role to Annie Hinton, making her company debut. Two of the five actors (Tom Stephenson and Sophia Richards) also made their debuts, along with company regulars Dana Case and Eddie Yaroch and Rhianna Basore, who has a couple of credits with NVA. The creative team was a similar mix, with scenic designer Brian Redfern and costume designer Valerie Henderson making company debuts along with veterans Justin Lang (Stage Manager) and Chris Renda (Lighting Designer).
The result felt like a breath of fresh air. Mr. Redfern’s set made NVA’s wide and not very deep stage into something of an advantage as the community center’s multi-purpose room. Mr. Renda’s lighting nicely highlighted areas of the stage as needed. Ms. Henderson’s costumes ranged from small-town business attire to Manhattanite who’s been transplanted but hasn’t completely left.
As for the cast, director Hinton had honed most of their performances to look both natural and telling simultaneously. Ms. Case was sometimes an insightful teacher, sometimes inept, and always somewhat nervous about making the class work, especially since her husband was a class member. As the husband, Mr. Stephenson was long-suffering without making himself seem so, most of the time. Ms. Basore let us see that she was suppressing the fact that she was too pretty and too polished for the level of the class in order to fit in. Ms. Richards struggled a bit with her portrayal of adolescent angst, but she shone in the final scene, which was set (or imagined) ten years in the future.
And Mr. Yaroch, who generally makes for a reliable supporting character, stepped out of that shadow and into the leading player’s light. His portrayal was so detailed and nuanced that the audience sensed the tiniest changes in his emotional state. And, those tiny changes made all the difference. Bravo! [php snippet=1]As for the play itself, Ms. Hinton rightly noted in the program that it could easily become trite. At 110 minutes running time with no intermission it could also become interminable unless the cast keeps the theater games that constitute the class interesting for the audience. The timing and length of pauses in the performance is actually written into the script, and by hewing to the author’s vision the cast took what could have been a slog and made it into something that was (in some cases eventually) quite moving. If you don’t see much point in theatre games, though, 110 minutes could seem like a long night.
For me, though, it was nice to be able to treasure a work and a production that proved to be a great fit, even if it wasn’t the fit I originally anticipated.