On Theater: Improv on lives and loves at SCR

January 20, 2011|By Tom Titus

"Are we ever going to do any real acting?"

That question, posed by the youngest student in a "creative drama" course tucked away in the hills of Vermont, pretty much sums up "Circle Mirror Transformation," South Coast Repertory's latest production.

There is, of course, real acting in playwright Annie Baker's dramatic comedy about a handful of locals enrolled in a theater class leaning heavily on improvisation. But, as interpreted by director Sam Gold (who helmed the original Obie Award-winning New York production), it comes sandwiched between layers of awkward improv and uncomfortable periods of silence.


There are only four students in upbeat instructor Marty's Vermont acting class, one being her husband, James. Also aboard are Theresa, an experienced New York actress on the rebound; Schultz, a middle-aged carpenter, recently divorced and vulnerable; and Lauren, a sullen teenager hoping to play Maria in her school's production of "West Side Story."

These characters intertwine both in classroom exercises and life encounters, forming new relationships and dissolving old ones. And, in the SCR production, they successfully convey the impression that all this is happening for the first time, segueing through the twists and turns of real life.

In between, the students engage in theater games. One, repeated to the point of frustration, involves all parties lying on their backs and attempting to alternately count to 10 without two people speaking at once.

Gold's cast comprises a splendid ensemble, but one performance stands out with clarity and conviction. Marin Hinkle's Theresa, the transplanted New York actress, is exciting to watch as part of a quintet that's intentionally painted as bland. Her zest for life amid a threadbare emotional existence is beautifully rendered.

Veteran SCR actress Linda Gehringer also excels as Marty, the class leader, about whom we really know quite little as she probes the inner workings of the others. She and Brian Kerwin's James share a marriage that may be crumbling, and Kerwin frets effectively over his lack of communication with his grown daughter.

The least comfortable class member is Shultz, divorced a year but still wearing his wedding ring. Ayre Gross presents this character as awkward and vulnerable, especially to Theresa's charms, and given to extended periods of silence.

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