Boulevard Theatre’s “Circle Mirror Transformation”
I studied theater in the 1970s. In some quarters in those days, acting meant getting in touch with your true feelings. Theater workshop as therapy was in full swing. If you burst into tears during sensitivity training for actors, you were ready for Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway. To see just how ridiculous it all was, catch Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which the Boulevard Ensemble opened this week.
The setting is an adult acting class held in the all-purpose room of a community center of a small New Hampshire town. The students are James, co-executive director of the center; Theresa, a failed actress who has retreated from New York; Lauren, about to be a high-school junior; and Schultz, a carpenter/furniture builder, just divorced.
The instructor, Marty, would never do anything so crass as run scenes from plays or learn lines. Her forte is new-agey therapy games aimed at freeing the “actors'” true spirits. They include such excruciating exercises as recreating your childhood room by arranging your classmates, who pretend to be the furniture. Or improvising little family dramas that inevitably cut painfully close to the bones of real life. The climactic event involves writing down a personal secret and distributing randomly. You read aloud the one you’ve drawn. No good can come of that, and we know it; thus, the suspense is gripping.
The exercises and break-time byplay pass in a great many brief blackout episodes over two hours.The play’s title is an exercise, in which each participant pretends to be another in the class and delivers an “autobiography.” In an acting class, it’s a stupid waste of time. But it’s a marvelous theatrical device here, as it allows us to learn the background of each character, see how the speaker regards that character, and by reactions see how the other four receive these stories.
You could reach out and touch the actors in the tiny Boulevard Theatre, and that’s perfect for a play that is all about awkward moments. At such close quarters, the awkwardness is palpable. That, almost as much as the absurdity of the exercises, makes us laugh. You really must release the tension, and laughter works. This is a painfully funny play. (The second such comedy I’ve seen this summer.)
That’s about the best possible outcome of a community theater class — or of group therapy.
Circle Mirror Transformation runs at the Boulevard Theatre, 2252 S.Kinnickinnic Ave., through Sept. 4, with Wednesday and Thursday shows at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m., and Sunday shows at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $18 to $23, and can be purchased at (414) 744-5757.