Review: ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ at Custom Made Theater Company (**1/2)

Brenda Cisneros, Alfred Muller, Emily Keyishian, Lauren Dunagan, and David Boyll are acting students and their teacher in Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” at Custom Made Theatre Company. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Annie Baker is undoubtedly a great playwright. When viewing her plays, it is very useful to keep her thoughts in mind. Of this play, she told an interviewer that she wanted to write “…a naturalistic play that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become defamiliarized and incredibly strange. Like standing really close to an Impressionist painting and just staring at the blobs of paint…. blobs of silence.”

Such a work represents an enormous challenge to any company that dares to produce “Circle Mirror Transformation.” It requires a set with “insane attention” to every detail, actors who must not appear to be acting, and a style of directing that is willing to accommodate long silence in which absolutely nothing happens.

Unfortunately, the current production fails to step up on all three counts. The set, while suggestive of an actual rehearsal studio, is lacking in detail and abstracted and, worst of all, involves unrealistic moving elements that suggest a metaphorical content that is precisely opposed to the playwright’s stated realistic intent. The actors are all quite competent, but they appear, at all times, to be “acting.” For example, in an opening sequence in which a group of acting students have been instructed to simply lie quietly on the floor they do everything but. Each of them seems to be crafting a performance, presenting various specific tics and idosyncracies (a tapping hand, smacking lips, a wandering glance). The play calls for the actors to simply lie there while the audience endures the silence.

And speaking of silence, this production has simply sailed past that requrement. The silences are shorter than Baker’s play seems to demand, and filled with little movements and bits of dramatic action as if the director were afraid to make too many demands on the audience’s tolerance.

But that sort of demand is the point of every one of Baker’s plays. When the challenge of Baker’s silence is successfuly met by a company, the plays blossom into miracles. When the challenge is ignored or met without success, they shrivel to mediocrities.

Baker is a difficult playwright. When her plays are most artistically successful in production, they often elicit complaints of boredom and pointlessness from critics and audience members who don’t “get it.” They are by no means a small minority. Baker will never have a mass appeal.

But that’s who she is and those are the kind of plays that she writes. Trying to remake such a play into something more conventional is likely to be a doomed effort.

For a passionate fan of Baker’s dramaturgy, such as myself, this production misses the mark. For others, it may well be an interesting entertainment that includes some enlightening information on the craft of acting and how it is mastered.

After the opening night performance, I briefly discussed the production with some of my fellow critics, several of whom enjoyed it very much and thought I was unduly critical.

So, this is one of those productions where I have to say: “Go and see for yourself.”

“Circle Mirror Transformation” continues at Custom Made Theatre Company through April 16, 2022. For further information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Rating: **1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
____________________________

“Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker Produced by Custom Made Theatre Company and Bruce Coleman. Director: Ciera Eis. Scenic Designer: Starr Liang. Costume Designer: Ashley Renee. Lighting Designer: Weill Shi. Sound Designer & Composer: Sara Witsch. Properties Designer: Ciera Eis. Intimacy Choreographer: Jeunée Simon.

Cast:

James: David Boyll. Lauren: Brenda Cisneros. Theresa: Lauren Dunagan. Marty: Emily Keyishian. Schultz: Alfred Muller. 

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