Review: Circle Mirror Transformation (Victory Gardens)

 
 

Changing others for good, sometimes forever

  
  

Steve Key, Joseph D. Lauck, Rae Gray, Lori Myers, and Carmen Roman in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
Circle Mirror Transformation
  
Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Slow and steady wins the race, so they say. In less than two hours, Annie Baker’s justly praised drama marches to its own different drummer as it covers a fairly uneventful six weeks in the course of a community-theater adult class for “Creative Drama” in the small town of Shirley, Vermont. (Don’t worry—This gentle character drama has none of the cruelty of Waiting for Guffman.) Dexter Bullard’s local premiere explains why New York went a bit crazy over this minimalist masterwork, where less is so much more than more ever was.

Carmen Roman looks on as 2 of her students go through an acting exercise in Victory Garden's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'.“Creative” is the operative word, because the four students and one teacher aren’t ramping up to a real rehearsal of an actual play, let alone a finished production. Teacher Marty (Carmen Roman,as a mentor with miseries) leads the hopeful thespians in a series of touchy-feely theater games and emotive exercises. These build a lot more trust and self-esteem than they could ever nurture trained acting that could actually be used to earn a living. (They resemble the Viola Spolin-style Method-acting tricks spoofed in the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line.)

But the fact that Marty puts technique far above content perfectly suits this still-waters-run-deep comedy. The “transformation” in the title refers to the barely perceptible ways in which people change each other for good and sometimes forever. Baker doesn’t bother to explain how or why they do it. Much is left unspoken but not unfelt, even when the action seems one protracted non sequitur.

Besides Roman’s conflicted instructor, we meet Lauren (a concentrated Rae Gray), a seemingly surly, very complicated 16-year-old who really does want to act and craves a chance to be someone other than a complicated teenager who really does want to act. She bonds with her opposite, 55-year-old James (Joseph D. Lauck, hiding far more than he shows, especially about his relationship with Marty): James has his own domestic backstory which he wants to escape from, not draw upon as the games require. Lori Myers energizes Theresa, the new girl in town, who finds herself drawn to now-available Schultz (Steve Key), an estranged husband who’s shy and a tad too sensitive even for this situation.

Lori Myers and Carmen Roman in 'Circle Mirror Transformation' at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre in ChicagoThe games they “play” yield a series of “Truth or Consequences” moments of truth: In one devastating moment, they read each other’s darkest secrets: We can only guess whose they really are. What’s most amazing over the course of the play is the occasional “reenactments” in which one student plays another: From the depth and detail of the portrayals you realize just how much quality time they’ve spent together.

The fact that not much happens here is exactly the point – and for many theatergoers that, alas, may be exactly the problem. Nothing epic sparks the story. But Baker has created a theatrical complement to real life. Their assorted epiphanies, turning points and kinetic breakthroughs are few and far between, especially in a span as short as six weeks. Just because the life-changing stuff doesn’t happen often or as expected doesn’t mean that what’s left doesn’t deserve the respect of a dramatic depiction. Circle Mirror Transformation is very respect-full.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key, Joseph D. Lauck, Rae Gray, Lori Myers, and Carmen Roman in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'.

Circle Mirror Transformation continues thru April 17th at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performance Tues-Saturday: 8pm, Saturday matinee: 4pm, Sunday matinee: 2pm, and Wednesday matinee at 2pm.  Tickets are $35-$50 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-871-3000.

  
  

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Review: A Red Orchid Theatre’s “Mistakes Were Made”

It was all my fault

 Mistakes Were Made2

A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

Mistakes Were Made
by Craig Wright
directed by Dexter Bullard
extended through October 31st (but tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Craig Wright, Emmy-nominated writer of the hit HBO series Six Feet Under, has created in Mistakes Were Made an entertaining and intelligently witty play, even as Oscar Nominee Michael Shannon is alone on stage throughout most of the play; his time spent engaging in frantic phone conversations, as well as therapeutic talks with his close companion Denise, his fish.

Mistakes Were Made3 Felix Artiflex (Michael Shannon) is desperately trying to put together a new play starring only the best actors and directors. He is frantically making promises beyond his control; doing anything he can to make this project a reality. Felix is a desperate man after losing someone close to him (his daughter?). We do not actually know much about his personal life, but we can tell by the way he works that there is a void in his life and a happiness that he is searching for. Felix has made some grave mistakes in his life, but he believes this new world premiere play about the French Revolution is his chance at redemption and achievement. In his attempts to fulfill all of his desires, he loses everything once again, but finds a small sense of happiness when he faces his own humility.

The stage is Felix’s office, and looks like an old fashion producer’s office from back in the 1970’s. I was surprised when I noticed that this play was taking place in relatively the present day, but considering the lack of money that sometimes comes from working in theatre, some offices no doubt still look like that in 2009. Tom Burch has designed the office littered with drama books, scripts and paperwork. Pictures of actresses and actors, that one assumes Felix has worked with in the past, are hanging on the walls. Pushed away, almost hidden amongst the paperwork and business memorabilia, are a few scattered kid’s toys showing us that there is or was a child that would come around his office.

The make-up artist Nan Zabriskie does an extraordinary job. She makes Shannon looked aged, not as an old man aged by years but by pressure and stress. Shannon’s cheeks look sucked-in, making it appear as if his skin hangs just a bit against his bone structure and his eyes look stressed like a man who hasn’t been able to relax for years.

Mistakes Were Made5 This is a piece that the audience can relate to; the fight to get others to share in your vision and the struggle to escape hardships and find better, more respectable days in the future. Craig Wright’s writing is wonderfully done, including the emotional complexity involved when working while your personal life sits in the back of your mind. Wright has written a variety of characters that Felix interacts with over the telephone creating gripping twists in the plot line, as well as a nice interjection of intelligent humor. Having some knowledge of theatre and classic plays does increase the impact of some of his jokes: since Felix is a theatre producer, the jokes are industry friendly.

The performance by Shannon lives up to the hype, as he portrays the driven attitude of a man nearing the end of his career, reaching for something that he can achieve and hold on to. I felt as if I had an idea of what had happened to Felix and how his life had reached this point. Shannon gave Felix depth and a personal past through his display of tense emotions. We have a sense that he is missing the love and respect of someone in particular without it having to be specifically said. The constant busy-ness of jumping from conversation to conversation is made light and humorous with the pleasant interruptions by the secretary, Esther, played by Mierka Girten.

Even with this gripping performance, the play was too long for a basically one man act. While watching one of the best solo performances I have seen the man next to me feel asleep, and I began to get a serious leg cramp. I recommend this show because it is a rare opportunity to see an outstanding actor perform an intelligently written piece just ten feet away from you. It is an amazing experience to watch Michael Shannon capture the whole essence of Felix’s character, although an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission is just a little too long to watch even this man.

Rating: «««

Mistakes Were Made is playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells St., Chicago, Thursdays – Sundays and has now been extended through October 31.

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