New Arts Club production is darker than it seems
Lindsay Flynn

The playful advertising for Circle Mirror Transformation, featuring a smiling, hula- hooping woman, is deceiving: the production is full of shocking revelations. Currently playing at the Arts Club on Granville Island, this play, directed by Nicola Cavendish, was penned by ballsy young American Annie Baker. E

arly in the first act, one character, Theresa, reveals herself by regurgitating a loose-ended theory acquired on a New York subway about the “Jewish conspiracy” and its relationship to 9/11. Later, we learn that another character, James, has an ongoing addiction to internet pornography, and the reasons for his difficulty communicating with his estranged daughter takes on new light. By the climax of the second act, the revelation that one of the players was the victim of sexual molestation at the hands of their own father is a stark reminder that this brave and quirky play is not the quaint piece of theatre the audience may have anticipated. T

he show revolves around a community theatre class for adults, set in a fictional New England town. The class is attended by aging hippies and young progressive types, rounded out by one solitary, cynical teenager. The middle-aged instructor Marty teaches her own husband James, former New Yorker and actress Theresa, recently divorced Schultz, and teenaged Lauren, all through the typical drama games played by both beginner and experienced actors. The use of these activities as a way of breaking through social formalities and personal inhibitions works well in the telling of the story. It's rare to see a play where the actors squirm, tumble, and jump around as much as this. It's extremely funny, and the cast handles the physical comedy well.

The drama games also give the participants free license to voice their emotional realities. Instructor Marty and her husband James' 30-year is marriage falling apart at the seams. Theresa is escaping an abusive relationship and toxic career as an actor in Manhattan and Schultz, raw with the pain of his recent divorce, is barely getting by emotionally. Over the course of the play, these two engage in a brief and disastrous romance. Teenaged Lauren stands on the sidelines asking when the class is going to do some “real acting.” She dreams of being an actor and a veterinarian. She is terrified, as well as disgusted by all of the dysfunctional adults around her – both in class and at home.

The show ends six years later, well after everyone has gone their separate ways. Lauren and Schultz have a chance encounter in a different state and reflect on how the class helped propel them into new chapters of their lives.

The Arts Club cast has amazing energy but sometimes it seemed as if they were in different productions. Donna White and Anita Wittenberg as Marty and Theresa, respectively, often played the scenes for laughs. Their big acting left the ensemble lopsided at times. However, in more serious moments, both women were more nuanced and fit nicely with their three other cast mates. Director Nicola Cavendish is an experienced and respected BC actor herself, which makes one wonder why she directed her actors this way and failed to bring the ensemble into more of a balance.

Of all the cast, Brian Linds as divorced Schultz was the most successful at landing his character, and brought true humility to his performance. Given the opportunity to embody an explosion, Schultz hangs his drooping arms, suspended in space, reminiscent of Christ on the cross. He then explodes: fizzling out with a long, dramatic whistle, only to be left writhing on the floor. After being rejected by Theresa in the first act, Schultz bares his scars for all to see; the effect is truly hilarious. It almost makes one feel guilty at laughing at him when he is clearly an emotional yo-yo. In contrast to this is James (Alex Diakun) and Marty’s 30-year-long relationship. While the two actors succeed in telling their individual stories, they failed to portray the familiarity that two characters in such a long relationship should have. There was no indication of physical familiarity or habits.

Emilee-Juliette Glyn-Jones, besides having one of the longest names I've ever seen on a playbill, shone as teenaged Lauren. We see her working at her role occasionally, but in the end is doesn’t matter; she's charming, clearly meticulous about her new craft, and holds her own with the veteran cast. This is her first show with the Arts Club, but we can only hope that they cast her again.

At the age of 29, playwright Annie Baker has now won two Obie awards, both this past year, for Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. The two productions tied for best drama, the latter billed as “a play with music and shrooms.” For those who don't know theatre world, the Tonys are the awards for Broadway productions, whereas the Obies are the awards for off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows. In indie theatre, many big stars get their start with the acknowledgment of one of these awards.

Baker is a sensitive and intelligent playwright, and whatever shortcomings the Arts Club production may have, the show is worth seeing for the script alone. It is an excellent example of what a young artist can dream up and create solely with the use of their own ideas. Circle Mirror Transformations has a small cast and minimal set, but beautiful and honest moments of storytelling. In other words: the best kind of theatre.

// Lindsay Flynn, Writer

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