Getting in the game
In Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” it’s one of incredibly personal high stakes.
By Naila Francis
Playwright Annie Baker is notoriously reluctant to discuss her work. The Obie Award winner, feted ever since 2008’s “Body Awareness” introduced her knack for capturing the cruelty and transcendence of our everyday interactions, believes her plays should speak for themselves.
But that doesn’t stop others from rushing to rhapsodize the many gifts she, and they, bestow.
“I’ve rarely encountered a playwright in my life that’s so fascinated by human behavior,” says Matthew Decker, resident director at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, where Baker’s Obie Award-winning “Circle Mirror Transformation” is making its Philadelphia area premiere. “A lot of plays are all about plot and this highly theatrical world that’s presented to the audience where they have to suspend belief.
“With (Baker’s) plays, it’s almost like you’re putting life under this microscope in a lot of ways and asking the actors to create this entire world where they’re all in a room together experiencing something and there are these beautiful moments where they discover what it is to be human. … I’m attracted to what she values as a playwright. She’s interested in the idiosyncrasies of human life. She’s putting everyday people in an environment and saying, ‘Here, watch them.’ ”
In “Circle Mirror Transformation,” Baker’s 2009 play, which was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award, that environment is a community center in Shirley, Vt., where five strangers — an acting instructor and her husband, a recently divorced carpenter, a high school junior and a former actress — meet for an Adult Creative Drama Class. Over the course of six weeks, and several improvisational theater games, the harmless turns quietly harrowing, as unexplored emotions surface and connections are forged, strained and sometimes severed.
“It’s about how when you allow yourself to open up through an acting class or therapy or whatever it is, there is change that occurs, and sometimes that transformation is wonderful and sometimes it’s scary and unknown,” says Bob Weick, a former longtime Kintnersville resident who has the role of James, husband to Marty, the class’ teacher.
Weick, who recently moved to New Hampshire but continues to work as a farrier in Bucks County, was approached by Decker for the role. Though unfamiliar with Baker’s plays, he was hooked as soon as he read the script.
“I have a lot I can relate to,” says the married father of two girls, whose character has a daughter, as well. James is a Marxist professor; Weick travels the country with his one-man show “Marx in Soho.”
“I know what it’s like to have strain in your relationship. It’s inevitable in these long-term relationships. I’ve been married for 35 years. (James) is trying to nurture his relationship with his wife. He’s not interested in becoming an actor. He wants to understand his wife better so they, as a couple, can develop – and that leads to all kinds of trouble.”
Lauren, the high school junior who is played by Ambler’s Emilie Krause, seems to be the only one looking for a true acting experience.
“Some personal parts of her life are really difficult and she’s stumbled upon theater as an escape,” says Krause, who recently appeared in the Arden Theatre Company’s production of “Sideways Stories from the Wayside School.” “She’s at this class and she knows what she wants out of it and she confronts the fact that it’s not what she thought it would be.
“She’s also two decades younger than the other people and she’s at a point in her life where she’s beginning to see grown-ups in a new way. They treat her as a peer from the very beginning.”
Krause is an unabashed Baker devotee, who admits to chasing down Decker for an audition once she learned he was directing “Circle Mirror Transformation.”
“The way she writes is a gift to performers. She’s so intensely specific with her text and the spaces in her text. There’s almost a Shakespeare-like quality to her work,” she says.
Indeed, Baker is known for her silences. In an art form often driven by pace and exposition, her moments of stillness, so awkward and piercing, can carry more weight than her words.
“We’re so filled with noise in today’s world. So much can be communicated in silence,” says Weick, noting such spaciousness invites a deeper audience participation. “The audience will fill the silences with their own experiences. That, in a way, will feed the humor and also feed those poig-nant emotional moments.”
The play seems even more elliptical and strange for the theater games through which the characters’ inner lives are revealed. They pose as trees and pretend to be each other, speak gibberish and create vocal sounds to accompany specific body movements.
It could all come across as wacky and even self-indulgent. But Baker has a way of mining the profound from the superficially minute.
“There’s an everyday kind of bigness,” says Krause. “There are all of these little, everyday moments that end up being momentous. … It’s not a neat plot line where character A is in love with character B and everything is building up to that moment where they get together. Here, the big thing each of the characters wants doesn’t fit with what the other characters want. Their big life struggles butt up against each other.”
Yet, according to Decker, it’s through the games, and Baker’s astute understanding of how interesting they can be to watch, that the audience comes to know these characters intimately.
“Everyone is in this play for a very good reason. It’s so economical. There is not a wasted moment,” he says. “It’s so specific and fragile — and perfect.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer