Circle Mirror Transformation from Actors Theatre Is As Annoying (and Enlightening) As a Real Acting Class

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," the character Blanche Du Bois famously said, in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Given, she was being toted off by men in white coats, but that makes her observation no less trenchant, not to mention worthy of a big musical number on The Simpsons.

Strangers -- from members of support groups such as AA to quest companions like those in The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings -- are frequently the residents of our time-honored "safe places." Starting from scratch to offer and receive vulnerability, in a partnership created for that purpose, can be easier and more direct than improving an existing relationship.

That's the delight of Circle Mirror Transformation, a little play that happens during a six-week Adult Creative Drama class at a Vermont community center and currently on view at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix.

Like many good things that are best when not rushed -- fine meals, childhood, being a witness to beauty, and, yes, therapy -- studying acting is about the subconscious processing of things you don't understand about yourself and your world, truths that work inside you long before you can articulate or even accept them. Circle Mirror Transformation is best appreciated with a deep breath, an open mind, and an empty bladder, as your usher will obliquely suggest. ("About an hour and 50 minutes, and there's no intermission.")

You might get fidgety, might wonder why there's so much silence and breathing and pausing. This will put you on common ground with the students of Marty Kriesberg's class. Just own your crabbiness and impatience, and you'll be rewarded with the gradual opening of a flower of self-actualization in each participant. (You still might not like it. That's okay.)

The cast, some of whom have both acted and taught for most of their lives, spent some rehearsal time (as they've blogged) opening themselves up to the experiences of self-conscious newcomers, pursuing the light touch of hyperrealism that keeps these proceedings from being entirely ridiculous (though they're often funny). Each character, however relaxed they appear, turns out to be a well-defended fortress ripe for storming.

Rusty Ferracane, in particular, reminded me that every time I see him act, he's nothing like the previous time I saw him act. (This is a good thing.) Ferracane's kind of amazing as Schultz, a divorced woodworker who's a lonely shlub just short of either interesting or creepy. Somehow, that's what makes him admirable.

Award-winning playwright Annie Baker employs a couple of relatively obvious tricks that help create a formal but unobtrusive infrastructure for a work that honors the importance of ritual, in whatever form it takes place. Many scenes begin in the middle of one class exercise or another, with dialogue or action that's a little disorienting until the audience realizes what the ground rules are. The result, ideally, is increased focus from the spectators, ramping up their engagement to nearly equal that of the characters and performers.

In this Actors Theatre production, that doesn't always work. Subscribers to a theater season (sometimes even patrons who are returning to see the same company a second time) tend to establish a comfort zone for themselves, and when they find it violated, they're not always shy about making that clear, even if it means merely that they're muttering in their seats during blackouts.

It's a delicate dance, programming to attract and not alienate, and I'm not sure any of the parties involved could be doing a better job of it. Sometimes your audience grows away from you, or vice versa, or both, and another pan of fresh batter enters the Easy-Bake. Stagnation and innovation both entail risk.

The author quirk that really leaps out from Baker's text is the very normal tendency of people not to finish their sentences (for reasons as diverse as humanity). Oddly, director Paul Barnes has the actors kind of punch those final-but-not-final words until I began to wonder whether there's something in the water in this particular Vermont town that makes everyone talk the same choppy way. I was definitely baffled and distracted by this, but remained seduced by the dreamy voyage of Circle's five explorers of memory, fear, and desire.

Circle Mirror Transformation continues through Sunday, May 8, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $18.25 to $44.50, click here or call 602-252-8497.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson