Whether art imitates life, or it's the other way around, the warp and woof of art and life make for fascinating patterns, experiences, even hopes and dreams. All surface during "Circle Mirror Transformation," which opened the 2011-12 Rep Studio Theatre season over the weekend in the little theater in the basement of the Loretto-Hilton Center.
Annie Baker's perceptive, sparkling little play, only three years from its premiere, peels back the protective covering from five people, the teacher and her four students in a summer acting class in a dance studio in Sidney, Vermont. Marty, the leader (Lynne Wintersteller) is giving some basic acting exercises to a class that includes James (John Ottavino), her husband in a collapsing marriage, with both seeking a variety of answers; Theresa (Kate Middleton, the actress, not the princess), an occasional actress who has just moved from New York; Lauren (Charlotte Mae Jusino), a high school student who thinks she'd like to be an actress; and Schultz (Danny McCarthy), trying to deal with a recent divorce.
All five actors are excellent under tight direction by Stuart Carden, as good as he was a year ago in his direction of "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play."
Marty's theater games include the telling of secrets, posing as others and revealing dreams, be they real or imaginary. The brief exchanges discuss intimacy (or become so), show how relationships arrive and depart, fraying and mending. There are poignant moments, and moments of glee. They play tag, twirl hula-hoops with their hips, trust one another and turn their backs. About half-way though, Lauren, often distant and withdrawn, looks up and asks, "When are we going to do some real acting?" Acting, she is in the process of learning, is more than just committing lines to memory and speaking them when told.
James and Marty spar over their marriage, their relationships with a daughter. It is the one bump I found in Baker's usually seamless construction. I could not understand why James is in the class, unless he is using the proximity to Marty in an effort to make contact, and even if that were the case, I still did not feel comfortable with his presence.
Jack Magaw's dance studio set was an empty room, save for a bench along one side used for storage and, occasionally, as a place to sit. Garth Dunbar's costumes showed a wide range of T-shirts, including one to celebrate Lake Berryessa, the largest lake in Napa County, California. Imaginative selection.
Baker has written an interesting play that allows for lots of speculation afterward, and much discussion over what is theater and what is not. Like the final scene, when Schultz meets Lauren 10 years after the preceding scene. Is it real? Is it another exercise?
Does it matter?
Circle Mirror Transformation opened Friday as a Studio Theatre production of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at the Loretto-Hilton Center, to run through Nov. 13