GENEVA — Annie Baker loves community theater, both for what it is and what it aspires to be. That doesn’t stop her from seeing its slightly silly side, which yields what The New York Times called an “absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny” play, “Circle Mirror Transformation.”
Presented by Geneva Theatre Guild in cooperation with the Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Theatre Department, the show begins its three-day run tonight at the brand-new Gearan Center for the Performing Arts.
The play premiered in 2009 with an off-Broadway run that garnered Baker an Obie Award for Best New Play (together with another of her works, “Aliens”), while its cast won both Obie and Drama Desk Awards as an ensemble, helping establish Baker as an important new playwright.
Like many of Baker’s plays, this one unfolds in the fictional but extensively described town of Shirley, Vt., pop. 14,023, and the home of Shirley State College. Marty (played by Joanne Saracino), a would-be acting teacher, holds an Adult Creative Drama class in a windowless dance studio with walls of mirrors in the basement of the local community center. Her students are her husband, James (John King); new-to-town former actress Theresa (Emily Fisher); recently divorced plumber Schultz (Jason Kinsey); and taciturn teenager Lauren (Tayah Payne, whom I have had the pleasure of teaching at Geneva High School). Saracino and King are familiar faces to Finger Lakes theater goers for decades now, while Fisher and Kinsey are talented, relative newcomers.
Marty runs her students through some improvisation and movement exercises, which Baker calls “pretty hilarious, whether they happen at Julliard or in a basement in Vermont.” But, in the course of these theatrical exercises, reality seeps in. The students awkwardly act as one another, telling their life stories, and exchange deep dark secrets anonymously on scraps of paper which are then read aloud.
This “strange little world,” the playwright adds, can be “a lot more theatrical — intentionally or not — than the plays I’ve seen (and written) in New York.”
Baker’s self-described style is “naturalistic.” Dialogues are realistic snippets, and pauses, according to the author, are of the “utmost importance.” In fact, unlike many traditional playwrights, she often finds more meaning in silence than in sound, distinguishing carefully in her comments between short and long pauses.
“Crazy stuff happens during silences at the theater,” she told an interviewer. “The audience suddenly becomes aware of itself, and a little weirded out and uncomfortable, and maybe someone coughs or whispers, but if the silence goes on long enough eventually people adjust to it and get kind of comfortable and zen and find their way back into the reality of the play. And that moment — when an entire audience is relaxed and breathless together in silence, when time slows down and then starts to speed up — is very magical to me.”
Thus, “Circle Mirror Transformation” sits squarely at the intersection of art and life. At the end of the day, Baker seems to say, there cannot possibly be one without the other. Art must be infused with reality to give it meaning. The effort to make art, however maladroit and at whatever level, enriches the participants’ lives — and our own — immeasurably.
And so it comes deliciously full circle (complete with mirrors), as Baker must have foreseen would happen at some point: Geneva Theater Guild, a community theater in a small college town, performs her play about a community theater class in a fictional small college town. Life imitates art imitating life imitating art ... and I’m not going to go on from there.
Baker credits her New York director, Sam Gold (he received an Obie too), with helping her make “Circle Mirror Transformation” a reality. She says she came to New York with “about 45 pages of a 95-page play done,” and Gold helped her shape the sounds, actions and silences that made the play work.
This edition is directed by Chris Woodworth, assistant professor of theater at HWS and a professional and community theater participant for 25-plus years. She has recently directed “Good Kids,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Radium Girls” and “The Exonerated,” among other works.
Woodworth has been a fan of Baker’s almost from the start. She was dramaturge for an early production of “Aliens” by the professional Paper Lantern Theatre Company in Greensboro, N.C., and later selected “Circle Mirror Transformation” from Baker’s “Vermont Plays” anthology as a way to “dive back into community theater.” Working with this cast, Woodworth says, has been a revelation.
“They’re magnificent. They have embraced the play wholeheartedly.”
And those critical silences? “They’re so alive.”
The latest in a long line of Geneva Theatre Guild/HWS collaborations, this is the first time the Gearan Center has been made available for a showing to the general public. It didn’t start out that way.
Originally slated to appear at the Pat Collins Black Box Theater in the Geneva Community Center, the play had to be moved because of a basketball tournament scheduled at the same time. With the gracious cooperation of HWS, the Gearan Center’s McDonald Theater, similar in size to the Collins venue, was offered. Faculty members Bill Burd and Kelly Walker are providing lights and sound, respectively. The result is an intimate experience, with the audience a part of the action and able to see and interact with other audience members.
“It helps,” Woodworth adds, “that so many of them will be a part of the Geneva theater community. They will ‘get it’ immediately.”
One prominent writer already has called Baker “Chekhov for the twenty-first century,” not exactly faint praise. Judging by the critical reception of this prolific young Brooklyn product, if you care anything about the future of American theater and are not familiar with her work, it’s high time you remedied the situation.
Throw in the consistent excellence of the Geneva Theatre Guild, the supervision of a veteran director, a beautiful new venue and way, way, way off-Broadway ticket prices, and you would be wise to take this rare opportunity to undergo a “Circle Mirror Transformation.”