Circle Mirror Transformation (Seattle Repertory)

Posted on October 28, 2011

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From L to R Michael Patten, Anastasia Higham, Peter A. Jacobs, Elizabeth Raetz and Gretchen Krich in Circle Mirror Transformation. Photo by Chris Bennion

Seattle Repertory (www.seattlerep.org) opens its production of Circle Mirror Transformation written by the promising young playwright, Annie Baker.  Directed by Andrea Allen, CMT is set in the “artsy small” fictional town of Shirley, Vermont and candidly explores the complicated and frequently messy world of human relationships.  Through the backdrop of an improvisational adult drama workshop and the interactions of an eclectic group of participants, the lines are quickly blurred between real life and the theatrical.  Though whimsical at times, CMT does not shy from tackling serious issues like commitment and betrayal, stereotypes, the struggle for authenticity, confidence and ability to trust ourselves and others.  The show plays for four weeks, October 21 through November 20th, 2011 in Seattle Repertory’s intimate Leo K. Theatre.

CMT starts out like a relationship; like meeting someone for the first time.  It feels a little awkward, a bit tentative but given time like a promising new relationship, it grows stronger.  The characters, wonderfully represented in all their diversity and idiosyncrasies by a charming cast, feel like people that we know.  The lovable but socially awkward carpenter, Schultz (Michael Patten), the confident and flamboyant Theresa (Elizabeth Raetz), the quiet and anxious young Lauren (Anastasia Higham), the animated and touchy-feely Marty (Gretchen Krich) and her supportive and debonair husband James (Peter A. Jacobs).  In theater, as in life, all may not be as it seems.

Michael Patten and Elizabeth Raetz in Circle Mirror Transformation photo by Chris BennionAnastasia Higham in Circle Mirror Transformation photo by Chris Bennion

Initially, the characters seemed a bit foreign and detached.  The things said or not said, the long moments of uncomfortable silence and watching them engage in activities that to those of us not familiar with improvisational exercises, seem bizarre and unnatural.  It reminded me of Anthropology 101 and the unsettling feeling in my gut I had watching video of the Appalachian snake handlers.  They were dressed in shirts and ties, but they are acting in manners that were hard to identify with.

Intrigued, we watch as the characters begin the transformation from strangers to friends or at least to people whose opinions and feelings matter and the magic of theater occurs and somewhere along the way the audience, not immune to the effect, begins to care for them as well.  The characters at first, offish with their personality masks firmly in place, begin to open up and we see them in a new way.  They become familiar and we begin to care.  Somewhere in their conflicted manner, we see a reflection of our own insecurities.  So much so, that at one point an audience member could not stifle his own audible lament at the treatment of one of the characters.  Clearly, the experience was deeply personal to him, as it should be.

Michael Patten in Circle Mirror Transformation photo by Chris Bennion

Watching CMT you are left to wonder along with Lauren, when are they going to start acting; only to realize upon honest self-reflection that they have been acting all along. The more important question may be, when are they going to stop acting and be real with themselves?  It is revealing that the most significant moments of honest expression occur during the drama exercises themselves when the characters are safe.  The question then becomes, are we more authentic and real offstage or when we are on stage, safely entrenched behind someone else’s skin?

Circumventing the minefield of human relationships is treacherous at best and at worst, akin to asking a blind man to navigate his way across a busy highway.  It’s dangerous.  CMT accurately portrays this and the reality that more often than not, we end up choosing for safety; meaning that we opt hide our true self.  We learn that even people like Theresa, who are loud and expressive, may not be honestly expressing themselves.  They might simply have chosen to hide behind the thin veneer of a role that they act out each and every day of their lives; the role of a character that is more likely to be affirmed and respected and less likely to be hurt by others.  Over time, it becomes harder to distinguish the actor from the role.  Sadly, not only are they not being honest with others, but they are not even being honest with themselves.

Like Schulz, after a few experiences of being emotionally wounded for putting ourselves out there; we learn to clam up and stop saying the things that are really on our mind.  We let fear stop us from pursuing our happiness and from expressing ourselves openly and honestly with others.  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself how many story plots hinge upon an assumption made by one character about another character because the other character is not forthcoming about what they want, think or have done?  If they did, the plot would be resolved within minutes instead of hours or longer, but then you would not have much of a story now would you?

Anastasia Higham in Circle Mirror Transformation photo by Chris Bennion

Ironically, at one point, Lauren questions the value of counting to ten as a group while trying to not say the same number at the same time as someone else.  Marty tells her that it help to teach us to be present in the moment and not in our heads; to learn to trust ourselves and others.  What does it say, that they continue to struggle with accomplishing the task without stepping on each other?  It tells us that, like us, they have not yet learned to trust themselves and one another in the group.

As Marty’s “Adult Creative Drama” workshop progressive over the summer, we see layers being continually removed and the characters we thought we knew are exposed as something completely different.  In seeing them in their more flawed but real state, instead of rejecting them, we may find that we are able to identify with them and their struggles and even develop empathy for them.  Remember, all is not as it seems to be.  The controlling individual may be the one feeling the most threatened.  The quiet shy one may be the strongest.  The most confident might be the most insecure.  The most supportive may be the most unhappy and unfilled.  CMT reminds us that stereotyping does not tell us anything about the real person; the only way to even get close to knowing the real person is by spending time with them.

Take an evening to get better acquainted with the members of Marty’s “Adult Creative Drama” workshop.  You might just discover something new about yourself.  Circle Mirror Transformation continues at the Seattle Repertory’s Leo K. Theatre through November 20th, 2001.  For ticket reservations, call the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at 206-443-2222 or toll-free at 877-900-9285, or go online at www.seattlerep.org.

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