‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ at Fells Point Corner Theatre by Amanda Gunther

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Actors are crazy people. If you’ve ever met one, befriended one, dated one, you know this. But after you see the Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of Circle Mirror Transformation you’ll understand why. This exercise in acting, written by Annie Baker and directed by Patrick Martyn, is a learning lesson for everyone. It is an intense study into the life of five characters where everything that we learn about these people comes from their interactions in an acting class. The scenes are simply flashes; photographs reenacted from an acting class, strung loosely together over the course of several weeks. Director Patrick Martyn’s work at achieving a collective mind set for these five performers shows brilliantly throughout the production, each actor developing their character as well as their acting self.

We are set upon with a traditional rehearsal space multi-purpose classroom; checkered tile floor, a corkboard with community notices and activities, a chalkboard, and mirrors that line the back wall. Scenic Designer Roy Steinman creates this familiar setting with simple choices; the bench and coat rack against one wall, the drab faded paint of the walls — all of these simplistic designs encapsulate the blank space in which actors are meant to find their creativity and understanding of the craft and one another.

(l to r in a top to bottom order) Schultz (Larry Malkus) Theresa (Zarah Rautell) Marty (Lynda McClary) James (Thom Sinn) and Lauren (Kelly Fuller). Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

This particular play executes the concept that all actors struggle regardless of their age, gender, or personal situations. It presents a meticulous look at acting exercises in a class taught by Marty (Lynda McClary) who truly represents the epitome of an acting coach. Anyone who has ever taken an acting class will easily recognize McClary’s character as the woman with the really annoying ability to remain calm despite mounting frustrations among her students. She actively seeks the potential in all of her students, vocally encouraging them to further express themselves be it physically, vocally, or emotionally. McClary is constantly giving clearly vague instructions that mean nothing and everything all at once, doing so with conviction that serves to instruct and confuse her pupils; the iconic mark of any acting professor.

The play is also about developing relationships. We find many such connections through these characters as they proceed with the exercises of the class. The most frustrating scene for the players is a recurring one where they are all laying on the floor, trying to connect with one another to find the organic group energy. To feel the flow of natural connection coursing through them as they count in no particular order or timing from one to ten. The frustration builds among them as they get closer and closer to the exercise, having to stop and start over every time someone says a number the same time as someone else.

But the relationships are not always those of the group. We find individual relationships in Schultz (Larry Malkus) and Theresa (Zarah Rautell.) They start as awkward friends, then grow to burgeoning lovers, and fizzle out with a bang until acting together becomes difficult. Malkus plays a good introverted character making his emotions known by holding them in, a strange concept that needs to be seen to be believed. While Rautell plays the eager student, desperate to receive the praise and approval of the group and the teacher. She finds great physical expressions during the exercises, using her whole body to become something or someone else. The raw boiling point between these two characters comes from an opposites exercise; he tasked with saying ‘I want it’ and she with ‘You can’t have it’ and then again with she saying ‘I need to go’ and he saying ‘I want you to stay.’ This particular scene builds in intensity as they use only these words to express themselves, their desperation, frustration and other conflicting emotions until it becomes too much for Rautell’s character and she bolts from the room. It creates a raw moment of compassion as the other students debate as to whether they should go after her to see if she’s all right. These moments mimic actual moments from real acting classes and are so convincing and organic in nature that you almost wouldn’t assume you’re watching a play but rather observing a classroom.

The Cast of 'Circle Mirror Transformation.' Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

The actors take on challenge after challenge as this show progresses through time without necessarily being linear. James (Thom Sinn) is perhaps the character that shows the least surface progress with his acting but the most growth of his internal self. Sinn offers a comic approach to his lines, and approaches each of the exercises with a full bodied physicality that allows him to easily express his emotions. Lauren (Kelly Fuller) is the opposite – rather than having comic timing and humor she lets her frustration and insecurities do the talking. Fuller is the despondent student who thinks the exercises are hokey and asks the perpetual question that all beginning acting students ask “Are we going to do any real acting?” She too is comical in her own right without trying to be and shows a growth in her character from the beginning of the show to the end.

The show is always performed close to two hours without an intermission, but if it’s possible  – there are several places where an intermission could have easily been inserted as the piece is not a momentum builder – each scene building its own climax and completing before moving onto the next. It wouldn’t have disrupted the pace of the show and would have alleviated some of the strain on the audience had there been an intermission.

So if you’re an actor — come see this show to revisit those first few craft classes, and this time you can laugh because it’s them on stage experiencing the awkwardness. And if you have an actor in your life, be it friend, family, relationship bring them with you to see Circle Mirror Transformation to better understand them.

Running Time: 110 minutes, with no intermission.

Circle Mirror Transformation plays through April 8, 2012 at the Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 276-7837, or purchase them online.

Featured Picture: (l to r in a top to bottom order): Schultz (Larry Malkus), Theresa (Zarah Rautell), Marty (Lynda McClary), James (Thom Sinn), and Lauren (Kelly Fuller). Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.