Reflecting Theater: Performance incorporates audience but fails to immerse

‘How very clever,’ I thought as I sat down in the Studio Theatre at Phi Beta Kappa Hall. ‘They’ve made the classroom into a stage.’ As time passed, those three words became something of a mantra.

‘How very clever, the audience is on the mats with the actors.’

‘How very clever, the games in the play are including bystanders.’

Now, there’s nothing wrong with cleverness. It’s a quality worth admiring, and certainly one worth praising when found in a piece of theater. Under ordinary circumstances, its presence in a production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” would be considered a boon to the performance. But this is no ordinary production, and it’s not trying to do ordinary things. Under director Larissa Kruesi ’12, this “Circle Mirror” is meant to be an articulation of environmental theater precepts, where a play set in a specific space actually takes place in that space. In this case, the scenes in question are part of a ‘creative drama’ class, in which community center patrons from ages 16 to 60 do abstract exercises meant to spark pure feeling and expel overthinking in performance.

“Are we going to be doing any real acting?” a character plaintively asks, frustrated with the endless sound games and physical activities. Unsuspecting audience members, unused to the rapid-fire vignette style of the play, may find themselves asking the same question.

But for this experiment in environmental theater to be effective, the experience should be one of complete immersion. “Circle Mirror,” with its fragmentary nature and long story span — the play gives us almost two months’s worth of classes in two hours — breaks up the action so often that it’s nearly impossible to get settled into the idea that we are really in the space and not in some representation of the space. Marty, the 55-year-old instructor played with delicate restraint by Hannah-Lee Grothaus ’14, welcomes me to the class, but once the lights go down for the tenth time, I’m clearly still watching a play. When her husband James, a one-note Nick Hampson ’13, brushes by me and says, “Excuse me,” it’s a nice touch, but I and the rest of the audience seated around the room are rarely noticed again. And when the scenes between good-natured, slightly obsessive Schultz, Ryan Warsing ’15, and flighty Theresa, Alison Bushey ’13, seem stagey and unpolished, the conceit of the whole thing rings false. Not even the expertly crafted recalcitrance of Mikaela Saccoccio ’12 as the troubled, confused teenager in the group can make up for the overwhelming theatricality of a production meant to de-emphasize the theatrical.

Because Kruesi’s “Circle Mirror” attempts to dodge the conventions of traditional theater, there are very few technical flourishes of which to speak. The lights come up, and the lights come down. The characters say their lines, play their games, and give something of themselves into it all. The play is marvelous, a piercing look into the lives of people looking to enrich their lives. But in this setting, it’s like watching a slideshow of a great vacation while someone describes it to you. You can’t see the whole thing; you weren’t there! It would be a lot better if the actor would just be quiet and let the pictures speak for themselves.


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